The Variations Between the Codices
Arthur Jeffery in his book points out several thousand variants taken from over thirty “main sources.” Of special note are those which he found between the codex of Ibn Mas’ud and that of Zaid ibn Thabit. He also found that Mas’ud’s codex agreed with the other codices which existed at the expense of Zaid’s text (while we don’t have the time to go into all the variations, it might be helpful if you could obtain a copy of Arthur Jeffrey’s book: Materials for the history of the Text of the Qur’an).
According to Jeffery, Abu Mas’ud’s Codex was different from the Uthmanic text in several different ways:
It did not contain the Fatiha (the opening sura, sura 1), nor the two charm suras (suras 113 and 114).
It contained different vowels within the same consonantal text (Jeffery 25-113).
It contained Shi’ite readings (i.e. suras 5:67; 24:35; 26:215; 33:25,33,56; 42:23; 47:29; 56:10; 59:7; 60:3; 75:17-19) (Jeffery 40,65,68).
Entire phrases were different, such as:
sura 3:19: Mas’ud has “The way of the Hanifs” instead of “Behold, the [true] religion (din) of God is Islam.”
sura 3:39: Mas’ud has “Then Gabriel called to him, ‘O Zachariah’”, instead of the Uthmanic reading: “Then the angels called to him as he stood praying in the sanctuary.”
Only his codice begins sura 9 with the Bismilah, while the Uthmanic text does not (“bismi ‘llahi ‘l-rahmani ‘l-rahim” meaning, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”).
Finally, the order of the suras in Ibn Mas’ud’s codex is different from the Uthmanic text in that Mas’ud’s list arranges the suras more closely in order of descending length.
G5ii: Ubayy Ka’b's Codex
Ubayy Ka’b's codex also had variations. Though there are those who disagree, it seems to have been less important than Ibn Mas’ud’s, as it was not the source of any secondary codices.
It included two suras not found in the Uthmanic or Ibn Mas’ud’s texts: the surat al-Khal’, with three verses, and surat al-Hafd, with six verses (Jeffery pg. 180ff). Al-Fadl b. Shadhan is said to have seen a copy of Ubayy’s 116 suras (rather than the 114 of Uthman’s) in a village near Basra in the middle of the 3rd century A.H. (10th century C.E.).
The order of suras in Ubayy’s codex is said to have differed from that of Uthman’s.
G6: Conclusions on the Collation of the Qur’anic Text
These variations in the codices show that the original text of the Qur’an cannot have been perfect. The fact that a little known secretary (Zaid ibn Thabit) was chosen as the final arbiter of the Qur’anic text points to possible political interference. The admission by this secretary that the task of collating the verses was unduly daunting and his consequent pronouncement that one verse was initially missing from his finished text (sura 33:23) while another verse, according to authoritative sources, is still missing (the stoning verse) puts even more suspicion on its authenticity.
On top of that, the many variations which exist between Zaid’s text and those of supposedly more authoritative collators (Mas’ud and Ka’b) can only add to the perception of many today that the Uthmanic Qur’an which we supposedly have today leaves us with more doubt than assurance for its authority as the perfect word of God.
Yet that is not all. We also know from Muslim tradition that the Uthmanic Qur’an had to be reviewed and amended to meet the Caliph’s standard for a single approved text even after Uthman’s death. This was carried out by al-Hajjaj, the governor of Kufa, who made eleven distinct amendments and corrections to the text, which were later reduced to seven readings.
If the other codices were in existence today, one could compare the one with the other to ascertain which could claim to be closest to the original. Even Hafsah’s copy, the original from which the final text was taken, was later destroyed by Mirwan, the governor of Medina. But for what reason???
Does this act not intimate that there were problems between the other copies, possibly glaring contradictions, which needed to be thrown out? Can we really believe that the rest were destroyed simply because Uthman wished to have only one manuscript which conformed to the Quraishi dialect (if indeed such a dialect existed)? Why then burn the other codices? If, as some contend today, the other codices were only personal reminisces of the writers, then why did the prophet give those codices so much authority during his lifetime? Furthermore, how could Uthman claim to judge one from the other now that Muhammad was no longer around?
There are certain scholars today who believe that Zaid ibn Thabit and his co-workers could have reworked the Arabic, so as to make the text literately sophisticated and thus seemingly superior to other Arabic works of its time; and thus create the claim that this was indeed the illiterate Muhammad’s one miracle.
There are others, such as John Wansbrough from SOAS, who go even further, contending that all of the accounts about companion codices and individual variants were fabricated by later Muslim jurists and philologers. He asserts that the collection stories and the accounts of the companion codices arose in order to give an ancient authority to a text that was not even compiled until the 9th century or later.
He feels that the text of the Qur’an was so fluid that the multiple accounts (i.e. of the punishment stories) represent “variant traditions” of different metropolitan centres (such as Kufa, Basra, Medina etc.), and that as late as the 9th century a consonantal textus receptus ne varietur still had not been achieved. Today, his work is taking on greater authority within scholarly circles.
Unfortunately we will never know the real story, because the originals (if indeed they ever existed) which could have told us so much were destroyed. All we have are the copies written years after the originals by those who were then ordered to destroy their originals. There are, therefore, no manuscripts to compare with to give the current Qur’an authenticity, as we have with the Bible.
For those who may wonder why this is so important, let me provide an example: If after I had read this paper out-loud, everyone was to then write down all I had said from memory when they returned home, there would certainly be a number of variations. But we could find out these variations by putting them all together and comparing the many copies one against the other, as the same errors would not be written at the same place by everyone. The final result would be a rendering which is pretty close to what I had said originally. But if we destroyed all of the copies except one, there would be no means of comparing, and all precision would be lost. Our only hope would be that the one which remained was as close to what I had said as possible. Yet we would have no other rendering or example to really know for sure.
Consequently, the greater number of copies preserved, the more certitude we would have of the original text. The Qur’an has only one doctored manuscript to go on, while the New Testament has over 24,000 manuscripts in existence, from a variety of backgrounds, from which to compare!!! Can you see the difference?!
It is therefore quite clear that that which is known as the Textus Receptus of the Qur’an (the text considered authoritative in the Muslim world today) cannot lay claim to be the Textus Originalis (the genuine original text).
The current Qur’anic text which is read throughout the Muslim world is merely Zaid’s version, duly corrected where necessary, and later amended by al-Hajjaj. Consequently, the ‘official’ text as it currently stands was only arrived at through an extended process of amendments, recensions, eliminations and an imposed standardization of a preferred text at the initiative of one caliph, and not by a prophetic direction of divine decree.
In conclusion one can safely say that there is relative authenticity of the text in the sense that it adequately retains the gist and content of what was originally there. There is, however, no evidence to support the cherished Muslim hypothesis that the Qur’an has been preserved absolutely intact to the last dot and letter, as so many Muslims claim (For further reading see Jam’ al-Qur’an, by Gilchrist).
Yet, even if we were to let the issue rest, concerning whether or not the Qur’an which we have now is the same as that which Muhammad related to his followers, we would still need to ask whether its authority might not be impinged upon due to the numerous errors and contradictions which can be found within its pages. It is to that question that we now proceed.