Jan 262013

This is a summary of the third Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture which I will deliver. For more information about the lecture, visit my blog or the lecture page on the organizer’s website.

The term “Qur’an” stands for verses that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad over 22 years. These revelations were compiled and written down in what is known as the “mushaf.” So the mushaf is the written record of the Qur’an. Most people, including many Muslims, use the terms “Qur’an” and “mushaf” interchangeably.

However, there are a number of narratives in the books of Hadith that specify or refer to verses and even complete chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an that are said to have been “withdrawn” by God during the life of the Prophet. The total number of these alleged verses is in the hundreds! As a result, these Qur’anic verses and chapters were not included in the mushaf. Such narratives are found in all major compilations of Hadith, including Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, and others.

These hadiths suggest that the withdrawn verses fall in two categories. First, verses that the Prophet and the Muslims were made to forget by God. Second, verses that were still being remembered. Accepting such narratives as authentic, scholars have considered the process of withdrawing verses a form of a broader divine phenomenon that they called “naskh” or “abrogation”. Abrogation is mainly a legal principle, but it has been applied to the withdrawal of the texts of Qur’anic verses.

Abrogation refers to the mechanism used by God to withdraw the ruling of a verse, its text, or both its ruling and text. In the last two modes of abrogation, the verse does not exist in the mushaf. Most of the alleged verses that are not found in the mushaf are said to have been abrogated with their rulings, but there are a few that are said to have had their texts abrogated even though their rulings are still operative. An example of these is the so-called “stoning verse.”

Scholars have needed to resort to what they consider a divine mechanism to explain how the texts of some Qur’anic verses were withdrawn. Otherwise, it would have looked as if some verses of the Qur’an were wrongly not recorded in the mushaf. This would have questioned the process of compiling the mushaf and, ultimately, the integrity of the latter. This is why they resorted to abrogation, and which is why this doctrine is at the heart of the ongoing debate between Muslims and non-Muslims about the integrity of the process of compiling and writing down the revelation of the Qur’an. But is abrogation the real answer to this extremely important question? If no, what could be the real answer?

I will present the kind of Hadith narratives that suggest that he mushaf does not contain all of the Qur’anic verses and discuss serious issues concerning their credibility. I will also introduce abrogation, trace its historical development, discuss its various modes, and give examples of its role in forming Islamic law and its explanatory function with respects to the withdrawal of the supposed verses.

I will also introduce the controversies surrounding this doctrine and explain how different assumptions, interpretations, and approaches lead to completely different views of abrogation. While most scholars have given abrogation a major role in both the formation of Islamic law and the compilation of the mushaf, a growing minority has rejected the historicity of abrogation, considering it a confused doctrine under which different concepts and phenomena have been lumped together. Indeed, even scholars who accept abrogation have expressed very different understandings of what this doctrine is supposed to be!

Exposing the inauthenticity of those hadiths and the non-historicity of abrogation while quoting the Qur’an itself, I will show that the mushaf has preserved every verse and word of the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
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Mar 172010

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.

God talks in the Qur’an about the concept of “Kitab (Book)”. This term denotes a special kind of knowledge that is revealed to a prophet in the form of a book, i.e. the revelations form one unit as opposed to separate revelations that, even if collected together, do not have a hidden or visible theme linking them all together. The prophet receives such revelations in his language, which means that they can be written down to form a physical “Book.” The “Torah” and the “Injil” — which God revealed to prophets Moses and Jesus, respectively — are two examples of divine Books. The “Qur’an,” which was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, is another. So the term “Qur’an” refers to the verses that the Prophet received from God in the form of 114 distinct “suras (chapters)”. The longest chapter has 286 “ayas(verses)” whereas the shortest three chapters consist of 3 verses each.

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 “assirata” 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.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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Nov 062004
This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.
Fay Weldon has described the Qur’an as “food for no- thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police – and the thought-police are easily set marching, and they frighten… I see it as a limited and limiting text when it comes to the comprehension of what I define as God.”1 More recently, in a televised venomous attack on Islam, its Prophet, and its Book, televangelist Pat Robertson described the Qur’an as being “strictly a theft of Jewish theology.”2Our study of Qur’anic text in this section and following chapters will show just how misleading and misguided such negative views are.

The Qur’an is a continuation of the previous divine Messages that Allah sent to people via His Messengers throughout history. It is the grand finale of those divine Messages. To the polytheistic Arabs of Mecca, nevertheless, Islam was a new religion. We will look in more detail at the message of the Qur’an in the next section.

The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters, and each chapter consists of a number of verses.3 Chapter 2, which is the longest chapter, contains 286 verses, whereas chapters 103, 108, and 110 consist of only 3 verses each. The Qur’an contains 6236 verses in total.

Out of the 114 chapters, 86 were revealed in the twelve years that the Prophet lived in Mecca after the revelation. The other 28 chapters were revealed in al-Madina. These Madinite chapters include some of the longest chapters of the Qur’an. This is why although they represent about 25% of the Qur’anic chapters, the Madinite chapters make up about 40% of the Qur’an. A number of those latter chapters contain detailed information on legal issues and answer various questions that were continually rising as a distinct Muslim community was emerging.

The overwhelming majority of scholars consider the following verses the first that were revealed to the Prophet: 

Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created (96.1). He created man from a clot (96.2). Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3). Who taught with the pen (96.4). Taught man what he knew not (96.5).

Scholars are in far less agreement on which verses were revealed last. This is one verse that is considered likely to have been the last that was received by the Messenger: 

And guard yourselves against a day in which you shall be returned to Allah; then every soul shall be paid back in full what it has earned, and they [the souls] will not be wronged (2.281).

 Note that the verses that were revealed first belong to chapter number 96 rather than 1. Similarly, the last verse that the Prophet received is not from chapter number 114. The reason for this is that chapters are not compiled in the Qur’an in the chronological sequence of their revelation. Therefore, chapter 1 in the compiled Qur’an is not the chapter that was revealed first, and chapter 114 is not the one that was revealed last.

Additionally, it is not uncommon to find that the verses within a chapter are not all arranged in the chronological order of their revelation. For instance, several Meccan chapters contain a mixture of Madinite and Meccan verses.

These particular arrangements of the chapters and of the verses within each chapter in the compiled Qur’an are considered as a genuine part of the structure of the Qur’an. In other words, the verses and the chapters were arranged in this way by Prophet Muhammad as he was taught by Allah.

The verses of any one chapter, apart from shorter chapters, usually address a number of different issues. Accordingly, successive verses do not necessarily talk about the same subject.

Those who are familiar with the style of the Bible get surprised, and even baffled, when they read a translation of the Qur’an. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is not a book on history. Although it contains historical stories about good and evil individuals and nations that lived before the time of Prophet Muhammad, it has a unique style even in relating history. The Qur’an is not interested in pure history, but rather in the educational dimensions of historical events. Historical accounts are mentioned in order to highlight their didactic lessons. For instance, it is not uncommon for the Qur’an to talk about historical characters without naming them. One example is found in the story of Prophet Joseph, where Joseph’s brothers are referred to throughout, but never with their names.

The Qur’an’s unique style reflects the fact that it is the words of Allah to His Messenger Muhammad. Note for instance this verse: 

They [the believers] ask you [O Muhammad!] as to how they should spend [for charity]. Say: “Whatever wealth you spend, it is for the parents, the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer. And whatever good you do, Allah surely knows it” (2.215).

Rather than containing only instructions from Allah on how people should spend their money for charity, this verse is an exact copy of the words that Allah revealed to Muhammad in this respect. The words were not edited by the Prophet to include only the ultimate message that Allah wanted to reach people, but he delivered them in their entirety and exactly as he received them.

There are also verses which represent words that addressed personal matters of the Prophet, although of course they convey useful lessons to people in general. For example, this short chapter which was revealed to the Prophet at a difficult time reminded him of Allah’s favors to him and gave him support and patience: 

I swear by the early hours of the day (93.1). And the night when it covers with darkness (93.2). That your Lord has not forsaken you, nor has He become displeased [with you] (93.3). And surely the hereafter is better for you than the first life (93.4). And your Lord will give you so that you shall be well pleased (93.5). Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter? (93.6). And did He not find you wandering and guide you? (93.7). And did He not find you in need and make you independent? (93.8). Therefore, as for the orphan, do not oppress him (93.9). And as for the beggar, do not chide him (93.10). And as for the favor of your Lord, do speak about it (93.11).

 The Qur’an was revealed in an environment that produced poets who had impressive mastery of Arabic and authored magnificent poetry. The Arabs were fond of poetry and honored it to the extent that they hung seven particularly impressive poems on the walls of the sacred Ka’ba. They also used poetry to ridicule their enemies and glorify themselves. A war between two tribes that lasts a few hours or a day may be followed by a war of words that may last for years. Winning or losing this less bloody war was seen almost equally significant.

Even those Arabs were completely overwhelmed and intrigued by the majestic power and beauty of the Qur’anic text. The Qur’an was and is still considered an unparalleled piece of Arabic text. It can only be described as a linguistic miracle. In fact, the Qur’an itself challenged the Arabs who questioned its divine origin to produce any text of similar quality: 

And this Qur’an is not such that could be forged by those besides Allah [who revealed it], but it is a confirmation of the Book that was revealed before it and an exposition of It, there is no doubt about that, from the Lord of the people (10.37). Or do they [the disbelievers] say: “He [Muhammad] has forged it”? Say [O Muhammad!]: “Then come up with a chapter like it and call [for help] whom you can besides Allah, if you were truthful” (10.38).

And if you [O People!] are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant [Muhammad], then come up with a chapter like it and call [for help] your witnesses besides Allah, if you were truthful (2.23). But if you do not do it, and surely you shall never do it, then guard yourselves against the Fire whose fuel is people and stones; it is prepared for the disbelievers (2.24).

One aspect of the uniqueness of the Qur’anic text is that it did not change over time. This is the view of the overwhelming majority of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The Qur’an itself proclaims that it is protected by Allah against any attempt to tamper with it: 

Verily, it is We who revealed the Remembrance [the Qur’an], and verily, We are its Guardian (15.9).

Verse 41.42 stresses that the Qur’an will remain protected against any form of falsehood at all time: 

Surely those who disbelieved in the Remembrance [the Qur’an] when it came to them [were wrong]; surely it is an impregnable Book (41.41). Falsehood cannot come to it from anywhere; [it is] a revelation from One who is Wise and Praised (41.42).

Simply put, the Qur’an that we read today is the same Book that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad about 14 centuries ago. This is in contrast to the Old and New Testaments which, though slightly influenced by previous divine Books,[4] have been written and edited by humans.5

It is important to emphasize that this unique attribute of the Qur’an doesn’t apply to any other Islamic text. Even the highly regarded compilations of sayings of Prophet Muhammad contain many entries whose authenticity has always been the subject of disagreement among scholars. Although several different doctrines have evolved within Islam, the authenticity of the Qur’an is a universally accepted fact.


1 Fay Weldon, Sacred Cows: A Portrait of Britain, Post Rushdie, Pre-Utopia (London: Chatto CounterBlasts Chatto & Windus, 1989), pp. 6, 12.

2 Pat Robertson, Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, September 18 2002. Robertson described Prophet Muhammad as “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam, they’re carrying out Islam.” Robertson also described Islam as “a monumental scam” and said “to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent.” He called Prophet Muhammad “a killer.”

3 The Qur’anic terms that I have translated as “verse” and “chapter” are “aya” (plural: “ayat”) and “sura” (plural: “suwar”), respectively.

4 The Qur’an states that Allah revealed to Moses a Book called the “Tawrat” (Torah) and to Jesus a Book called the “Injil.” Other Prophets who were given Scripture include Abraham and David.

5 The Qur’an states in several verses that people tampered with divine Books that Allah revealed to previous Prophets: 

Woe, then, to those who write the book with their hands and then say “This is from Allah” to get a small price for it; therefore, woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they earn (2.79).

This 14-century old Qur’anic testimony is shared today by the overwhelming majority of scholars of the Old and New Testaments who accept that the versions of these books that we have today are the product of editorial processes that happened over centuries and involved many people. I have given elsewhere a more detailed discussion of the Qur’anic perspective and modern scholarship on this issue: Louay Fatoohi and Shetha Al-Dargazelli, History Testifies to the Infallibility of the Qur’an: Early History of the Children of Israel (Malaysia: A. S. Noordeen, 1999).


Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
Blog: http://www.louayfatoohi.com
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