One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Islam is the fact that the source book of this religion, the Holy Qur’an, has existed unaltered in its entirety for over 1400 years.  Many people find this fact hard to believe and several have tried to prove the contrary.  However, a close examination of the history of the Qur’an and the process through which it has been preserved clearly shows that the claim about the Qur’an’s authenticity is correct beyond doubt.

The Language of the Qur’an

One problem with languages that are fortunate enough to survive for an extended period of time is that they change over the years and often become difficult to understand within the span of a few hundred years due to these changes.  For example, the literary English of the middle ages is very difficult to understand for the masses today except for a few scholars and linguists.  Therefore, for a religious book to remain always understandable and relevant, it must be in a language that will not change.  The Qur’an was revealed in the purest form of the Arabic language, which was spoken by Bedouins in Hejaz. This language has remained unaltered for the past 1400 years and due to its powerful linguistic characteristics, eloquence, conciseness and lyricism, it is most suitable for an everlasting divine message like the Qur’an.

The Process of Preservation

The Qur’an was preserved very methodically and meticulously; this process is unique to the Qur’an as the text of no other religious book has been preserved with such care.  Whenever an ayah (or verse) of the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) he took the following measures:

Writing: The Prophet (SAW) asked the people who were literate to write down the ayahs (verses) that were revealed, in his presence, to make sure that it was written correctly.

Memorizing: All of the Sahaba (companions) were then asked to memorize what was revealed and then recite it in their daily prayers.  Therefore, the text of the Qur’an was constantly recited several times a day during prayers, which helped the companions in retaining it.

Reading from an authentic teacher: In the beginning, the Prophet (SAW) himself taught all of his companions how to recite the Qur’an, but when the numbers of Muslims started growing, it became practically impossible for him to personally teach every Muslim how to recite the Qur’an.  He then appointed some of his companions who were exemplary in the art of Qur’anic recitation and allowed them to teach and certify the Muslims.  This same process is followed till today in all of the madrasas (Muslim religious schools) where a certified teacher teaches the students and this chain of teachers can be traced back to the Prophet (SAW) himself. In fact, the chain goes further back to include Jibreel (AS), who taught it to the Prophet (SAW), and finally Allah (SWT), who taught it to Jibreel (AS).

Compilation of Qur’an

The compilation of the Qur’an was carried out in three stages:

First Stage

The first stage of compilation occurred during the life of the Prophet (SAW).  In this stage, the arrangement and order of the surahs (chapters) and ayahs (verses) were specified by the Prophet (SAW) and the text was written down.  However, at this stage, the Qur’an was not compiled into a single book, rather was available in separate parchments and was memorized in its entirety by several sahaba (companions).

In order to ensure the integrity of the text, the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to recite the whole Qur’an (to the extent that was revealed by that time) every year during Ramadan.  On this occasion, all of the companions who had the written text, would bring their copies and collate.  During the last year of his life, the Prophet recited the whole Qur’an twice to make sure that it was preserved in its entirety as it was revealed to him.

Second Stage- Compilation by Caliph Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him):

The second stage of compilation took place during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (RAA).  In the battle of Yamama a large number of sahaba, who had memorized Qur’an, were martyred.  This became a source of grave concern for many companions of the Prophet (SAW) and they feared about the preservation of Qur’an.  Therefore Umer (RAA) suggested to the Caliph that the Qur’an should be collected and compiled into a single book in order to ensure its preservation.  Abu Bakr liked the idea but was hesitant because the Prophet himself had never taken this step and he (Abu Bakr) feared that this action might be considered a deviation from the Sunnah. 

However, he was finally convinced and asked Zayd Bin Thabit (RAA) to chair the commission that was formed to compile the Qur’an.  All of the members of this commission were renowned Haffaz (memorizers) of the Qur’an, i.e. they had already memorized it in its entirety.

The sahaba who possessed the written text that was collated during the yearly Ramadan recitation of the Prophet were asked to bring their copies to the commission.  The commission used the copies of the text collected from the companions and only accepted the ayas that were present in at least two copies.  This was done to eliminate the human errors that could have been made by the scribes.  Once the whole text was collected and compiled, the commission carefully proofread it and certified that it was correct and present in its entirety.

Third Stage- Contribution of Caliph Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him)

A serious issue related to the recitation of the Qur’an surfaced during the era of the third Caliph Uthman bin Affan.  Although the text of the Qur’an was universally accepted, Arabs from different parts of the Islamic state recited it according to their dialect.  This presented two problems: firstly that everybody considered their dialect to be correct which gave rise to disputes; and secondly it was feared that if this went on, there will be no universally accepted version of Qur’an left.

Caliph Uthman (RAA) ordered a commission to prepare a written text according to the pronunciation of the natives of Hejaz (the Bedouins).  This commission was again chaired by Zaid ibn Thabit (RAA), the great companion who had chaired the earlier commission during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (RAA). The commission prepared the text accordingly and then several copies were made and sent to different parts of the Islamic state with the instructions that only this should be considered the official and authentic text of Qur’an.

It is important to mention here a misunderstanding regarding the contribution of Caliph Uthman.  In some parts of the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan and India, the imams often use the title ‘Jaami’-ul-Qur’an’ for Caliph Uthman in their Friday sermons.  This term is technically incorrect because the Qur’an was compiled in the form a complete written book during the caliphate of Abu Bakr not by Caliph Uthman.   The title ‘Jaami’-ul-Qur’an’ for Caliph Uthman has also given rise to the incorrect, yet very dangerous assertion that the Qur’an was collected and compiled 15-20 years after the passing of the Prophet (SAW). This in turn has unnecessarily given rise to doubts about the integrity of the text.

Valuable Efforts Made in Our Times

Some very valuable efforts have also been made in our time to further eliminate any chances of the misrepresentation of the Qur’anic text.  The government of Saudi Arabia has formed a foundation that prints thousands of copies of the Qur’an according to the version compiled during the caliphate of Hazrat Uthman and distributes it around the world.  In addition, several years ago, the government of Egypt had their best Qaris recite the Qur’an in different styles of recitation and distributed this recording all over the world to be used as an authentic reference.

Suggested reading: Al-Azami, Muhammad Mustafa, The History of The Qur’ānic Text from Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments