Many Muslims and non-Muslims do not know the difference between the terms “Qur’an” and “mushaf (pronounced mus haf).” They often even confuse them and use them interchangeably. This short article aims at clarifying the difference between the two terms.
The term Qur’an is derived from the same root of the Arabic word “qara’a (read).” Indeed, the first word of the Qur’an to be revealed was “iqra’” or “read.” The name of this particular divine Book, “Qur’an,” is derived from the fact that it was “read” to the Prophet by the archangel Gabriel.
“Mushaf” (plural is “masahif) is another Arabic term that is related to “Qur’an” but is slightly different from it. This term is derived from the Arabic term “sahifa.” This word is not found in the Qur’an, but its plural, “suhuf,” occurs 8 times. In all of its 8 occurrences “suhuf” means “written pages” of something. Note that “page” in modern Arabic is “safha,” which is clearly the same word as “sahifa.”
In two of these eight verses, the term is used in the expression “early pages” (20.133, 87.18), in reference to divine revelations to earlier prophets. This expression is further clarified in the following verse: “The pages of Abraham and Moses” (87.19). The “pages of Moses” is how the term occurs in the fourth verse (53.36). It is also used twice to refer to the Qur’an, once in the expression “honored pages” (80.13) and another in “purified pages” (98.2). In its seventh appearance, the term is used in a verse that ridicules the disbelievers for behaving as if each would like to have divine “open pages” sent to him in order to believe in the revelation that has come from God (74.52). In the eighth and last verse in which “suhuf” is found, it is used to mean the pages of the record of every human being that will be examined on the Day of Resurrection (81.10).
So, the literal meaning of “mushaf” is “collection of pages.” Its technical meaning is, therefore, the “compiled, written pages of the Qur’an.” In other words, the term “Qur’an” refers to the specific “revelation that was read to Prophet Muhammad” whereas the term “mushaf” denotes the “written form” of that revelation.
Each mushaf follows a particular “Qira’a (reading)” of the Qur’an. A “reading” is a way of writing or pronouncing the Qur’anic text. There are seven readings of the Qur’an that are considered authoritative, another 3 that are accepted by the majority of scholars, and another 4 that some accept and others reject as unconfirmed. As an example of the differences between two readings, in the third verse of the first chapter of the Qur’an, some readings have the word “maliki,” with a long “a,” while others have “maliki.” Both mean “owner” or “possessor.” Another example is found in verse 1.6 where the word “as-sirata” may be written and pronounced as “as-sirata” i.e. replacing the letter “sad” with “sin.” Again, both pronunciations have the same meaning of “path” or “way.”
A mushaf may be written using any of a number of different Arabic scripts. For instance, one mushaf may be written using the Kufi script and another using Thulth. Furthermore, Arabic scripts developed over time, which means older mushafs that were written using the same script look different from new ones. For instance, the use of diacritical marks (dots above or under letters), which is known as “i’jam,” and the use of voweling marks (signs representing vowels), which is known as “tashkil,” were both introduced later into Arabic scripts, so early mushafs did not have them.
The availability of a number of readings and scripts means that different mushafs may look differently.
Many scholars also believe that Prophet Muhammad received Qur’anic verses that were later “withdrawn” by God. Those verses are considered by the scholars who accept this concept as part of the Qur’an. But these verses are not found in the mushaf, so they are considered as another difference between the Qur’an and mushaf. I do not share this view. I think the concept of withdrawn verses is based mainly on highly contradictory and completely unreliable extra-Qur’anic reports that were made up for a number of different reasons. As a result of accepting such reports as authentic, a couple of Qur’anic verses are then misinterpreted to try and show that they support this concept. As I do not think any verse of the Qur’an was ever withdrawn by God, I do not consider this a difference between the Qur’an and mushaf.
All mushafs have the same organization of chapters and the verses within each chapter. For instance, every mushaf starts with the chapter of “al-Fatiha (Opening)” and ends with the chapter of “an-Nas (people).” However, chapters and verses are not listed in the mushaf in the chronological order of their revelation. For instance, the first verses of the Qur’an that were revealed to the Prophet are from chapter 96 in the mushaf.
This is why there is only one Qur’an but different mushafs. But the differences between those mushafs are minimal, as they are written, compiled records of the one and same Qur’an.