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Quran Project - Appendix - Preservation and Literary Challenge of the Quran


‘In the ancient times, when writing was scarcely used, memory and oral transmission was exercised and strengthened to a degree now almost unknown.’ relates Michael Zwettler. It was in to this 'oral' society that Prophet Muhammad was born. During its revelation, which spanned twenty three years, not only did the Prophet teach the Qur’an, he memorised it entirely himself as did many of his Companions amongst them; Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Ibn Masud, Abu Hurairah, Abdullah bin Abbas, Abdullah bin Amr bin al-As, Aisha, Hafsa, and Umm Salama. The Angel Gabriel would spend every night in the month of Ramadhan with the Prophet, on a yearly basis, to refresh his Qur’anic memory.

The lives of Muslims revolved solely around the Qur’an; they would memorise it, teach it, recite portions from it every day for their obligatory Prayers – and many would stand a third of the night in prayer reciting from it. There existed so many memorisers of the Qur’an, that it was considered strange to find a family without someone amongst them who had not memorised the Qur’an entirely.

As time progressed, literally thousands of schools were opened devoted specifically to the teaching of the Qur’an to children for the purpose of memorization. The teachers in these schools would have unbroken Tazkiya’s [authoritative chains of learning] going back to the Prophet himself through his many Companions – and this system exists even today.

Indeed, we live in a world where there are millions of memorisers of the Qur’an, scattered in every city and country spanning the whole globe. These memorisers range from ages 6 and up; males, females, Arabs, non-Arabs, blacks, whites, Orientals, rich and poor.

There does not exist a single book, secular or religious, which has as many memorisers of it, as the Qur’an. In reality, if one considers the ‘greatest’ writings of the world; Old and New Testament, Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Orwell, Marx, Dickens, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu etc.– one may ask, how many people have memorised them? Seldom do we find a single individual.

Hypothetically, if we were to lose all the books of the world, by throwing them into the sea for instance, the only book we could resurrect entirely word-for-word would be the Qur’an – and, amazingly, it could be done simultaneously in every country of the world within twenty-four hours.

Kenneth Cragg writes, “This phenomenon of Qur’anic recital means that the text has traversed the centuries in an unbroken living sequence of devotion. It cannot, therefore, be handled as an antiquarian thing, nor as a historical document out of a distant past. The fact of Hifdh (Qur’anic Memorization) has made the Qur’an a present possession through all the lapse of Muslim time and given it a human currency in every generation never allowing its relegation to a bare authority for reference alone.”

Written Text

The entire Qur’an was in writing at the time of revelation from the Prophet’s dictation by some of his literate companions, the most prominent of them being Zayd ibn Thabit. Others among his noble scribes were Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Ibn Mas’ud, Mu’awiyah ibn Abu Sufyan, Khalid ibn Waleed and Zubayr ibn Awwam. The verses were recorded on leather, parchment, scapulae (shoulder bones of animals) and the stalks of date palms.

The codification of the Qur’an (i.e. into a ‘single book form’) was done soon after the Battle of Yamamah (11 A.H. /633 C.E.), after the Prophet’s death and during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. Many companions became martyrs in that battle, and it was feared that unless a written copy of the entire revelation was produced, large parts of the Qur’an might be lost with the death of those who had memorised it. Therefore, at the suggestion of Umar to collect the Qur’an in the form of writing, Zayd ibn Thabit was requested by Abu Bakr to head a committee which would gather together the scattered recordings of the Qur’an and prepare a mushaf loose sheets which bore the entire revelation on them. To safeguard the compilation from errors, the committee accepted only material which had been written down in the presence of the Prophet himself, and which could be verified by at least two reliable witnesses who had actually heard the Prophet recite the passage in question . Once completed and unanimously approved of by the Prophet’s Companions, these sheets were kept with the Caliph Abu Bakr (d. 13 A.H. /634 C.E.), then passed on to the Caliph Umar (13-23 A.H./634-644 C.E.), and then Umar’s daughter and the Prophet’s widow, Hafsa.

The third Caliph Uthman (23 A.H. -35 A.H./644-656 C.E.) requested Hafsa to send him the manuscript of the Qur’an which was in her safekeeping, and ordered the production of several bounded copies of it (masaahif, sing. mushaf). This task was entrusted to the Companions Zayd ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Az-Zubair, Sa’eed ibn As-’As, and Abdur-Rahman ibn Harith ibn Hisham. Upon completion (in 25 A.H. /646 C.E.), Uthman returned the original manuscript to Hafsa and sent the copies to the major Islamic provinces.

A number of non-Muslim scholars who have studied the issue of the compilation and preservation of the Qur’an have also stated its authenticity. John Burton, at the end of his substantial work on the Qur’an’s compilation, states that the Qur’an as we have it today is: “…the text which has come down to us in the form in which it was organised and approved by the Prophet…. What we have today in our hands is the mushaf of Muhammad.”

Kenneth Cragg describes the transmission of the Qur’an from the time of revelation to today as occurring in “an unbroken living sequence of devotion” Schwally concurs that:  “As far as the various pieces of revelation are concerned, we may be confident that their text has been generally transmitted exactly as it was found in the Prophet’s legacy.”

The historical credibility of the Qur’an is further established by the fact that one of the copies sent out by the Caliph Uthman is still in existence today. It lies in the Museum of the City of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. According to Memory of the World Program, UNESCO, an arm of the United Nations, ‘it is the definitive version, known as the Mushaf of Uthman.”

This manuscript, held by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, is the earliest existent written version of the Qur’ān. It is the definitive version, known as the Mushaf of Uthman.

A facsimile of the mushaf in Tashkent is available at the Columbia University Library in the United States of America and the Topkapi Museum, Turkey.

A copy of the mushaf sent to Syria (duplicated before a fire in 1310 A.H./1892 C.E. destroyed the Jaami’ Masjid where it was housed) also exists in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul,  and an early manuscript on gazelle parchment exists in Dar al-Kutub as-Sultaniyyah in Egypt.

This manuscript held at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul can be dated back to the late 1st century Hijri.

This Qur’ānic manuscript is housed at the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo and is amongst the oldest of all the manuscripts, and is either Uthmanic or an exact copy from the original.

More ancient manuscripts from all periods of Islamic history, found in the Library of Congress in Washington, the Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin (Ireland) and the London Museum, have been compared with those in Tashkent, Turkey and Egypt, with results confirming that there have not been any changes in the text from its original time of writing and is proof that the text of the Qur’an we have in circulation today is identical with that of the time of the Prophet and his companions.

The Institute for Koranforschung, for example, in the University of Munich (Germany), collected over 42,000 complete or incomplete ancient copies of the Qur’an. After around fifty years of research, they reported that there was no variance between the various copies, except the occasional mistakes of the copyist which could easily be ascertained. This Institute was unfortunately destroyed by bombs during WWII.

Thus, due to the efforts of the early companions, with God’s assistance, the Qur’an as we have it today is recited in the same manner as it was revealed. This makes it the only religious scripture that is still completely retained and understood in its original language. Indeed, as Sir William Muir states, “There is probably no other book in the world which has remained twelve centuries (now fourteen) with so pure a text.”

The evidence above confirms God’s promise in the Qur’an: “Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian” Qur’an 15:9

The Qur’an has been preserved in both oral and written form in a way no other book has, with each form providing a check and balance for the authenticity of the other.

Explanation of Qur’an’s Inimitability

State of the Prophet Muhammad:
  • He was an ordinary human being.
  • He was illiterate. He could neither read nor write.
  • He was more than forty years old when he received the first revelation. Until then he was not known to be an orator, poet, or a man of letters; he was just a merchant. He did not compose a single poem or deliver even one sermon before he was chosen to be a prophet.
  • He brought a book attributing it to God, and all Arabs of his time were in agreement it was inimitable.

How do we know it is from God?

William Shakespeare, who was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, is often used as an example of unique literature. The argument posed is that if Shakespeare expressed his poetry and prose in a unique manner and he is a human being then surely no matter how unique the Qur’an is, it must also be from a human being. However there are some problems with the above argument. It does not take into account the nature of the Qur’an’s uniqueness and it doesn’t understand the uniqueness of literary geniuses such as Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare composed poetry and prose that received an unparalleled aesthetic reception, the literary form he expressed his works in was not unique. In many instances Shakespeare used the common Iambic Pentameter (The Iambic pentameter is a meter in poetry. It refers to a line consisting of five iambic feet. The word "pentameter" simply means that there are five feet in the line.)

However in the case of the Qur’an, its language is in an entirely unknown and unmatched literary form. The structural features of the Qur’anic discourse render it unique and not the subjective appreciation of its literary and linguistic makeup.

With this in mind there are two approaches that can show that there are greater reasons to believe that the Qur’an is from the divine and a miraculous text. The first approach is rational deduction and the second is the philosophy of miracles.

Rational Deduction

Rational deduction is the thinking process where logical conclusions are drawn from a universally accepted statement or provable premises. This process is also called rational inference or logical deduction. In the context of the Qur’an’s uniqueness the universally accepted statement supported by eastern and western scholarship is: “The Qur’an was not successfully imitated by the Arabs at the time of revelation”

From this statement the following logical conclusions can be drawn:

  1. The Qur’an could not have come from an Arab as the Arabs, at the time of revelation, were linguists par excellence and they failed to challenge the Qur’an. They had even admitted that the Qur’an could have not come from a human being – the accusation being that the Prophet was a magician or was being taught by some Jinn.
  2. The Qur’an could not have come from a Non-Arab as the language in the Qur’an is Arabic, and the knowledge of the Arabic language is a pre-requisite to successfully challenge the Qur’an.
  3. The Qur’an could not have come from the Prophet Muhammad due to the following reasons: A.The Prophet Muhammad was an Arab himself and all the Arabs failed to challenge the Qur’an, B. The Arab linguists at the time of revelation never accused the Prophet of being the author of the Qur’an; C. The Prophet Muhammad experienced many trials and tribulations during the course of his Prophetic mission. For example his children died, his beloved wife Khadija passed away, he was boycotted, his close companions were tortured and killed, yet the Qur’an’s literary character remains that of the divine voice and character. Nothing in the Qur’an expresses the turmoil and emotions of the Prophet Muhammad. It is almost a psychological and physiological impossibility to go through what the Prophet went through and yet none of the emotions are expressed in the literary character of the Qur’an; D. The Qur’an is a known literary masterpiece yet its verses were at many times revealed for specific circumstances and events that occurred. However, without revision or deletion they are literary masterpieces. All literary masterpieces have undergone revision and deletion to ensure literary perfection, however the Qur’an was revealed instantaneously; E. All types of human expression can be imitated if the blueprint of that expression exists. For example artwork can be imitated even though some art is thought to be extraordinary or amazingly unique. But in the case of the Qur’an we have the blueprint the Qur’an itself yet no one has been able to imitate its unique literary form.
  4. The Qur’an could not have come from another being such as a Jinn or Spirit because the basis of their existence is the Qur’an and revelation itself. Their existence is based upon revelation and not empirical evidence. Therefore if someone claims that the source of the Qur’an to be another being then they would have to prove its existence and in this case proving revelation. In the case of using the Qur’an as the revelation to establish Jinns existence then that would mean the whole rational deduction exercise would not be required in the first place, as the Qur’an would already have been established as a divine text, because to believe in Jinns existence would mean belief in the Qur’an in the first place.
  5. The Qur’an can only have come from the Divine as it is the only logical explanation as all other explanations have been discarded because they do not explain the uniqueness of the Qur’an in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

Philosophy of Miracles

The word miracle is derived from the Latin word ‘miraculum’ meaning "something wonderful.” A miracle is commonly defined as a violation of a natural law (lex naturalis); however this is an incoherent definition. This incoherence is due our understanding of natural laws, as the Philosopher Bilynskyj observes “…so long as natural laws are conceived of as universal inductive generalisations the notion of violation of a nature law is incoherent.” Natural laws are inductive generalisations of patterns we observe in the universe. If the definition of a miracle is a violation of a natural law, in other words a violation of the patterns we observe in the universe, then an obvious conceptual problem occurs. The problem is: why can’t we take this perceived violation of the pattern as part of the pattern?

Therefore the more coherent description of a miracle is not a ‘violation’ but an ‘impossibility’. The Philosopher William Lane Craig rejects the definition of a miracle as a “violation of a natural law” and replaces it with the coherent definition of “events which lie outside the productive capacity of nature.” What this means is that miracles are acts of impossibilities concerning causal or logical connections.

What makes the Qur’an a miracle, is that it lies outside the productive capacity of the nature of the Arabic language. The productive capacity of nature, concerning the Arabic language, is that any grammatically sound expression of the Arabic language will always fall within the known Arabic literary forms of Prose and Poetry.

The Qur’an is a miracle as its literary form cannot be explained via the productive capacity of the Arabic language, because all the possible combinations of Arabic words, letters and grammatical rules have been exhausted and yet the Qur’an’s literary form has not been imitated. The Arabs who were known to have been Arab linguists par excellence failed to successfully challenge the Qur’an. Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot who was a notable British Orientalist and translator states: “…and that though several attempts have been made to produce a work equal to it as far as elegant writing is concerned, none has as yet succeeded.”

The implication of this is that there is no link between the Qur’an and the Arabic language; however this seems impossible because the Qur’an is made up of the Arabic language! On the other hand, all the combinations of Arabic words and letters have been used to try and imitate the Qur’an. Therefore, it can only be concluded that a supernatural explanation is the only coherent explanation for this impossible Arabic literary form – the Qur’an. When we look at the productive nature of the Arabic language to find an answer for the unique literary form of the Qur’an, we find no link between it and the divine text, thus making it an impossibility requiring supernatural explanation. So it logically follows that if the Qur’an is a literary event that lies outside the productive capacity of the Arabic language, then, by definition, it is a miracle.

The Qur’an is a literary and linguistic miracle. It has challenged those who doubt its divine authorship, and history has shown that it indeed is a miracle as there can be no natural explanation to comprehensively explain its unmatched unique expression. Professor Bruce Lawrence correctly asserts, “As tangible signs, Qur’anic verse are expressive of an inexhaustible truth, they signify meaning layered with meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.”

Revelation Related to Contemporary Events

The fact that specific passages of the Holy Qur’an were revealed at the same time as the events they describe is not particularly surprising. What is extraordinary to note, however, is the content.

Anybody who reads the Qur’an for the first time may be struck not only by what the revelation contains, but also by that which is absent. For example, the Prophet Muhammad outlived his first love and first wife, the woman with whom he spent twenty-five years of his youth, Khadijah. She died after two long, painful years during which the Makkan pagans ostracised, persecuted, and starved Prophet Muhammad and his followers. Twenty-five years of love, support, caring, and kindness gone. His first wife, so beloved that he remained faithful to her throughout their marriage and throughout his youth gone. The first person to believe in his prophethood, the wife who bore all but one of his eight children gone. So devoted was she that she exhausted her wealth and sacrificed her tribal relationships in support of him. After which, she was gone.

Musicians croon over their lost loves; artists immortalise their infatuations in marble and on canvas, photographers fill albums with glossy memorials and poets pour their hearts onto paper with the ink of liquid lamentation. Yet despite what a person might expect, nowhere does the Qur’an mention the name Khadijah. Not once. The wives of Pharaoh, Noah, and Lot are alluded to, but Khadijah is not even given passing mention. Compounding the peculiarity is the startling fact that the only woman the Qur’an mentions by name is Mary, an Israelite and the mother of Jesus. And she is mentioned in glowing terms. As a matter of fact, a whole surah bears her name [surah 19].

Many orientalists claim that the Qur’an is not revelation but was the product of the Prophet Muhammad’s mind. One could question if this could be the product of the mind of a man when he excluded the women who filled his life and memory from the revelation he claimed, in favour of an Israelite woman and the mother of an Israelite prophet, this drives recklessly against the flow of reasonable expectation.

During the Prophet Muhammad’s life, he saw every one of his four sons die. All but one of his four daughters pre-deceased him. His favoured uncle, Hamzah, was killed in battle and mutilated in a horrific manner. The Prophet Muhammad and his followers were regularly insulted, humiliated, beaten, and on occasion murdered. On one occasion the offal of a slaughtered camel was dumped on the Prophet’s back while he was prostrate in prayer. The sheer weight of this offal reportedly pinned him to the ground until his daughter uncovered him. Now, camels smell bad enough while they’re living. Try to imagine the smell of their decomposing guts in the tropical sun. Then try to imagine being buried in the tangled mass of their slimy offense, rivulets of rotting camel juice running down exposed arms, cheeks and, oh yes, behind the ears. A refreshing massage-head shower is a couple thousand calendar pages away, with soap not yet registered in the patent office. Such events must have tortured Prophet Muhammad’s memory. Yet they are described nowhere in the Qur’an.

So the Qur’an is remarkable in that its content does not reflect the mind of the messenger. In fact, in some cases the Qur’an does the exact opposite, and corrects Prophet Muhammad’s errors in judgment. For example, many passages defined issues with which Prophet Muhammad and his companions were immediately concerned, or delivered lessons regarding contemporaneous events. Such passages are legion. However, instead of affirming Prophet Muhammad’s judgment, the Qur’an not only admonishes certain of the believers, but even corrects Prophet Muhammad on occasion. Surah 80 admonishes Prophet Muhammad for having frowned and turned his back on a blind Muslim who, in seeking guidance, interrupted a conversation to which Prophet Muhammad mistakenly assigned priority. The error in judgment was understandable, but it was an error nonetheless. And according to the Holy Qur’an, it was an error deserving of correction.

On other occasions, revelation admonished Prophet Muhammad for forbidding himself the use of honey [after being deceived into believing it gave his breath a bad odour 66:1], for directing his adopted son to keep his marriage when divorce was preferable, and for praying for forgiveness of the Hypocrites [Muslims in name only who were denied the mercy of Allah due to their obstinate rebellion]. The admonishment for his error of judgment with regard to his adopted son, Zaid, and his unhappy marriage to Zainab, was of such extreme embarrassment that Prophet Muhammad’s wife, A’ishah, later commented to the effect that, “Were Prophet Muhammad to have concealed anything from the revelation, he would have concealed this verse.”

In one case Prophet Muhammad was corrected for being vengeful, in another for being lenient. Although such errors of judgment were rare, they highlight his humanity. Equally important, they reveal his sincerity, for Prophet Muhammad’s errors required correction by the One Whom Prophet Muhammad represented, lest they be misperceived as bearing God’s approval. However, unlike a false prophet, who would have concealed his shortcomings, Prophet Muhammad conveyed revelation that immortalised his mistakes, and Allah’s admonition thereof. So here is a man who claimed every letter of revelation was from God, including the passages that corrected his own errors and instructed him to repent. Weird. If, that is, we imagine the Qur’an to have been authored by a false prophet. False prophets are either liars or deluded, and both types attempt to build confidence in their followers by portraying themselves as perfect.

Initially, the Makkan disbelievers said Muhammad is the author of the Qur’an. God responded to them:

“Or do they say, "He has made it up?” Rather, they do not believe. Then let them produce a statement like it, if they should be truthful. Or were they created by nothing, or were they the creators [of themselves]?” Qur’an 52:33-35

First, God challenged them to produce ten chapters like the Qur’an:

“Or do they say, "He invented it?” Say, "Then bring ten surahs like it that have been invented and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides God, if you should be truthful. And if they do not respond to you then know that the Qur’an was revealed with the knowledge of God and that there is no deity except Him. Then, would you [not] be Muslims?” Qur’an 11:13-14

But, when they were unable to meet the challenge of ten chapters, God reduced it to a single chapter:

“And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down [i.e., the Qur’an] upon Our Servant [i.e. Prophet Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses [i.e. supporters] other than God, if you should be truthful. But if you do not and you will never be able to then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers” Qur’an 2:23-24

Finally, God foretold their eternal failure to meet the divine challenge:

Say, “If mankind and the jinn gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were to each other assistants"
Qur’an 17:88

The Prophet said, “Every Prophet was given ‘signs’ because of which people believed in him. Indeed, I have been given the Divine Revelation that God has revealed to me. So, I hope to have the most followers of all the prophets on the Day of Resurrection.”

The physical miracles performed by the prophets were time-specific, valid only for those who witnessed them, whereas the like of the continuing miracle of our Prophet, the Noble Qur’an, was not granted to any other prophet. Its linguistic superiority, style, clarity of message, strength of argument, quality of rhetoric, and the human inability to match even its shortest chapter till the end of time grant it an exquisite uniqueness. Those who witnessed the revelation and those who came after, all can drink from its fountain of wisdom. That is why the Prophet of Mercy hoped he would have the most followers out of all the prophets, and prophesied that he would at a time when Muslims were few, but then they began to embrace Islam in floods. Thus, this prophecy came true.


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