How the Qur’an was Collected

How the Qur’an was Collected

(Hamid Mahmood) 

‘We have sent down the Qur’an Ourself and We Ourself will guard it’ (Qur’an 15:9).

Linguistically in English the word Qur’an has been used for both the oral and written (manuscripts), on the contrary, Arabic distinguishes between the written as Mus-haf and oral as Qur’an.  Hence, the concept of the ‘Qur’an’ being collected could be examined in its oral and written forms.  Francois Deroche explains this as a “precise distinction, which demonstrates the simultaneous existence of two realities: transmission in written form and transmission in spoken form.  Islam strongly emphasises the oral nature of the Qur’an and the particular importance of this feature should not be overlooked.  The role of the written word cannot, however, be ignored” (p. 172).  The Qur’an, was collected, gathered and transmitted in aural and written format.  It is therefore important to examine both notions of the collection of the Qur’an experienced over time.  I will initiate with the analysis of the oral collection and the emphasis the Prophet made towards the memorisation of the Qur’an and thereafter examine its collection in written format, which took place over three overlapping periods. The collection of the Qur’an was initiated in the Prophet’s era followed by the Caliphate of Abu Bakr and fully collected as a complete manuscript and codex in the third period under the authority of Uthman, the Third Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet.

The primary and most effective collection of the Qur’an was its spoken form (jam’), which the Prophet himself instigated and also urged his companions to engage with.  At the time of Wahi (divine revelation) the Prophet rushed in its memorisation in-order to safely collect it letter by letter, thus he was commanded by Allah: “[Prophet] do not rush your tongue in an attempt to hasten [your memorization of] the Revelation: We shall make sure of its safe collection and recitation” (Q. 75:16-17).  Allah assured Muhammad of two critical elements within its oral transmission, its safe ‘collection’ and ‘recitation’.  Hence the pioneering institute for the fulfilment of this notion was the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina, where at times Muhammad had even rebuked his companions on the strident clamour they created whilst diligent on its memorisation.[1]  Many female companions of the Prophet were reluctant of materialistic dowry and instead wedded men, who in return would teach them the Qur’an, so they too could form a part of the oral collection of the Qur’an.  It is important to note how the collection through memorisation and recitation had become an integral part of the lives of the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet), which gives the observer an insight to the oral transmission of the Qur’an.

The other aspect of the oral collection, which has totally been ignored by contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, is the ‘recitation’.  To understand this notion, it is crucial to examine examples from the lives of the Sahabah, in this case I think it sufficient to observe one:  Sa’eed ibn Mansur in his Sunan relates:[2] A man was reciting the Qur’an to Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and he recited, “InnamasSadaqaatu lil-Fuqara-i wal-Masaakeen, Ibn Mas’ud said, “This is not how the messenger of Allah recited it to me!”, so the man inquired, “how did he recite it to you?” so he said, “lil-Fuqaraaaa-i wal-Masaakeen”, he prolonged the vowel, though not to do so constitutes a lahn al-Khafi.[3] It is evident from this incident that the collection and preservation of the Qur’an was not merely a written or spoken phenomenon, but rather transmitted phonetically and linguistically in accordance with the recitation of the Prophet and ultimately the Divine.

The oral transmission of the Qur’an has its significant and logical reasons.  Allah had promised Muhammad: “I am to reveal such a book upon you [Prophet], which water cannot obliterate”,[4] clearly evident from this, is the notion of the protection of the Qur’an in the hearts of men, which could not be obliterated or distorted.  In Arabia education was not widespread, only a minority could read, from among them only some could write and the majority were illiterate[5], but on the contrary they all had astonishing potential to memorise.  Muhammad’s youngest wife Aa’isha, had memorised 70,000 poems.  Montgomery Watt (1970) emphasised this phenomenon: “For one thing, knowledge of the Qur’an among the Muslims was based far more on memory than on writing” (p. 47).  The Prophet urged his companions to memorise the Qur’an as it was being revealed by promising them in return lofty palaces, streams of Rayyaan, high status in paradise and radiant crowns for their parents.  As this was a crucial task for the primary Muslim community.

Besides the oral collection, the Qur’an was written at the time of the Prophet.  At the death of the Prophet, it is traditionally recognised by al-Suyuti (Itkan, i. 71), ‘that there was not in existence any collection of revelations in ‘final’ form, because, so long as he was alive, new revelations were continually being added to the earlier ones’.[6]  However, there is substantial evidence to prove that the Qur’an was written during the life of the Prophet in its entirety, according to a statement made by Zaid ibn Thabit: “The Prophet was taken [from his life] whilst the Qur’an had not yet been ‘gathered’ into a book”.  The Arabic word used is jumi’a, which refers to the Qur’an not being ‘gathered’ rather than it being written.  Al-Khattabi commentates, “This quote refers to [the lack of] a specific book with specific traits”.[7]  Hence the Qur’an had been ‘written’ in its entirety during the life of the Prophet, but not collected together, nor the surahs arranged systematically between two covers.

The Qur’an was revealed over an approximate period of twenty three years, in which Muhammad ordered scribes to write the aayaat and surahs as they were being revealed.  A typical example of this:  ‘There was revealed, “Not equal are those who sit [at home] and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah” (Q. 4:95).  The Prophet said, “Call Zaid and let him bring the board, the ink pot and the scapula bone.” Then he said: “Write: ‘Not equal are those believers’… (‘Asqalani, n.d., 9:22).[8]  The scribes according to Azami (cited in Esack. F.) were up to forty eight in number, the most prominent among them were Zaid ibn Thabit and Ubayy ibn Ka’b, and the four caliphs have also been counted among the many scribes.  It is also evident from Fathul-Bari (cited in Uthmani, T. 1996), that the Prophet also ordered the scribes to place a specific verse in so and so surah, before or after so and so verse (p. 179).  It therefore becomes evident that the written collection of the Qur’an had already been instigated during the life time of the Prophet, though not in the form of a complete systemised codex.  But on fragments of writing material such as paper, skin, papyrus and bone, which were termed as suhuf, and later the collected suhuf were termed mus-haf.


Under the reign of Abu Bakr, the Muslim empire had experienced a flood of ridda wars, in which many qurraa’[9] were martyred and there was a dire need for a further systemized and authoritative collection of the Qur’an.  In the Yamamah battles many qurraa’ had been martyred. Umar ibn al-Khattab, fearful of the Qur’an being lost if further more qurraa’ were to be matyred, urged Abu Bakr, the caliph, to initiated this task. After acceptance, together they approached Zaid ibn Thaabit, the most prominent of the scribes and ordered him to collect the Qur’an from the scattered suhuf and from the hearts of men.  Zaid ibn Thabit himself describes this difficult task:  “By Allah, had they asked me to move a mountain it could not have been weightier than what they requested of me now”[10].  Zaid ibn Thabit along with many other scribes, including Umar ibn al-Khattab himself were instructed to embark on the task under rigorous conditions.

Abu Bakr had instructed Umar and Zaid, “Sit at the entrance of the [Prophet’s] Mosque.  If anyone brings you a verse from the book of Allah along with two witnesses, then record it”[11].  Ibn Hajar commentates on the meaning of two witnesses, were memory backed by written word, or two witnesses to prove that the verse had been written in the presence of the Prophet. The analogy of the two witnesses must have been from verse dealing with writing a contract, “…Call in two men as witnesses (Q. 2:282).  According to Professor Shauqi Daif (cited in Al-Azami, 2006),  Bilal ibn Rabah paced the streets of Madinah requesting the attendance of any companion who possessed verses recorded by the Prophets own dictation” (p. 80).  After receiving such suhuf in the presence of the aforementioned witnesses, Zaid and Umar would confirm from memory such verses and thereafter have it written.

In this new collection, the verses of the Qur’an were written on paper, but every surah had been written on a separate sahifa[12].  Therefore this collection was scattered between many suhuf and termed ‘Umm’.  The specifications of this collection were; that, the ‘verses’ were systemised according to the Prophet’s dictation, but every surah had been written on a separate sahifa yet to be systemised.  The seven ahruf were all collected in this collection, and the abrogated verses were taken out.  The purpose of this collection was, that, under the collective witnessing of the ummah a systematic collection could be made, which could later be used to refer to as a primary source.[13] During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, he kept this collection under his possession and after his death it was passed down to Umar, the second caliph. Upon Umar’s death in 644 C.E the collection came into the possession of his daughter and widow of the Prophet, Hafsa.

The third and final of the overlapping periods of the collection of the Qur’an was the caliphate of Uthman.  During his reign, Islam had spread far and wide, and many qurraa’ had spread throughout the Islamic empire to teach the Qur’an.  Until knowledge of the sab’ah huruf[14] prevailed among the Muslims there were no problems. However, the problematic circumstances erupted as the teachers of  the Qur’an had spread far and wide teaching their students the different modes they had acquired from the Prophet, that when they heard the differences, they began accusing each other of heresy.   The situation worsened as witnessed by Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman, who had led the Muslim forces against the Armenians in Azerbaijan, he experienced arguments break out between the Muslims from different areas.  Upon his return to Medina, he urged Uthman to solve this bewildering dilemma.  After hearing such news and delivering orations, Uthman consulted the high ranking Sahabah and they consented on collecting the suhuf of Abu Bakr as a single manuscript and codex.[15]

Once again, Zaid ibn Thabit was instructed to collect the suhuf under a single mus-haf (manuscript) alongside twelve other companions.  The suhuf of Abu Bakr were taken from Hafsa and the following tasks were undertaken in its final written collection as a complete codex:  The surahs, which were gathered on separate suhuf, were now systematically ordered and written under a single manuscript.  The text was written in such a way that it included all seven modes of recitation, which meant the absence of all diacritical signs, including the dots.  Up until now there was only one consented collection that had been made, but Uthman had prepared according to Abu Hatim Sijistani seven such manuscripts, which were distributed in the Muslim world, and one copy was kept in Medina.  Finally, Uthman burnt all other individual manuscripts that belonged to other companions, so to diminish the differences.  This was done after consulting the companions.  There are various views among the Shi’i scholars regarding a manuscript, which Ali had in his possession, but there is consensus among the Sunni and Shi’i schools that the difference between the Uthmanic codex and that produced by Ali was the arrangement of the surahs.[16]

I examined the collection of the Qur’an firstly from the notion of its two realities: Oral (jam’) and secondly transcript (tadween).  I mentioned it’s oral collection from its memorisation perspective followed by its recitation.  Thereafter, how the Qur’an was collected into written format from the time of the Prophet, followed by the collection of the surahs on suhuf and its final world wide accepted collection under the caliphate of Uthman and the difference between the second and third collections.



The Qur’an. A new translation by M.A.S Abdel Haleem, (2005). (O.U.P)

Al-Azami, M. Mustafa, The History of the Quranic Text: from Revelation to        Compilation, U.K., Islamic Academy 2003.

Deroche, F., 2006. ‘Written Transmission’.  In: Rippin, A.  The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an, Blackwell, 2006

Esack, F., the Quran: A Short Introduction, pp. 78-99.

Rashed, M.,  Reach the Goal Via Tajweed Rules


Uthmani, T., (1996).  U’lum al-Qur’an.  Karachi: Maktaba Darul U’lum. [Urdu]

article Koran , Encyclopaedia of Islam (p. 1063-1076)

Watt, W. Montgomery, (1970). Introduction to the Qur’an. EdinburghUniversity Press (2005)

[1] Manaahil al-I’rfan (Vol. 1 – p. 234) cited in: Uthmani, T., (1996).  U’lum al-Qur’an.  Karachi: Maktaba Darul U’lum. (p. 175) [Urdu]

[2] Cited from:  Rashed, M.,  Reach the Goal Via Tajweed Rules. (p. 2)

[3] In the science of Tajweed (Correct recitation of the Qur’an), the Qari (the one reciting) must abstain from Lahn Jali (clear/obvious/major mistakes) and Lahn Khafi (not so obvious- minor mistakes).  Ibn Mas’ud rebuked his student even on the minor mistakes.

[4] Sahih al-Muslim cited in: Uthmani, T., (1996).  U’lum al-Qur’an. (pp. 173-174) [Urdu]

[5] article Koran , Encyclopaedia of Islam (p. 1067)

[6] Cited in: article Koran , Encyclopaedia of Islam (p. 1067)

[7] All cited in: Al-Azami, M. Mustafa, The History of the Quranic Text: from Revelation to        Compilation, U.K., Islamic Academy 2003 (p. 77)

[8] Cited in: Esack, F., the Quran: A Short Introduction, (pp. 78-97).

[9] Qurraa’ (sing. qari) [literally ‘reciters], thoses who had memorised the entire Qur’an.  Due to their piety, they fought on the front lines of the battles, hence suffered great losses.

[10] Sahih al-Bukhari (hadith no. 4986), cited in Al-Azami (2006) (p. 78)

[11] Ibn Abi Dawud cited in Al-Azami (2006) (p. 80)

[12] Sahifa (sing. of suhuf)

[13] See Uthmani, T., (1996).  U’lum al-Qur’an (pp. 185-187)

[14] There were seven modes in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet.  See Uthmani, T., (1996).  U’lum al-Qur’an (pp. 97-156)

[15] Esack, F., the Quran: A Short Introduction, (pp. 78-97).

[16] Uthmani, T., (1996).  U’lum al-Qur’an (pp. 187-192)

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