By Maurice Bucaille
Thanks to its undisputed authenticity, the text of the Quran holds a unique place among the books of Revelation, shared neither by the Old nor the New Testament. In the first two sections of this work, a review was made of the alterations undergone by the Old Testament and the Gospels before they were handed down to us in the form we know today. The same is not true for the Quran for the simple reason that it was written down at the time of the Prophet; we shall see how it came to be written, i.e. the process involved.
In this context, the differences separating the Quran from the Bible are in no way due to questions essentially concerned with date. Such questions are constantly put forward by certain people without regard to the circumstances prevailing at the time when the Judeo-Christian and the Quranic Revelations were written; they have an equal disregard for the circumstances surrounding the transmission of the Quran to the Prophet. It is suggested that a Seventh century text had more likelihood of coming down to us unaltered than other texts that are as many as fifteen centuries older. This comment, although correct, does not constitute a sufficient reason; it is made more to excuse the alterations made to the Judeo-Christian texts in the course of centuries than to underline the notion that the text of the Quran, which was more recent, had less to fear from being modified by man.
In the case of the Old Testament, the sheer number of authors who tell the same story, plus all the revisions carried out on the text of certain books from the pre-Christian era, constitute as many reasons for inaccuracy and contradiction. As for the Gospels, nobody can claim that they invariably contain faithful accounts of Jesus' words or a description of his actions strictly in keeping with reality. We have seen how successive versions of the texts showed a lack of definite authenticity and moreover that their authors were not eyewitnesses.
Also to be underlined is the distinction to be made between the Quran, a book of written Revelation, and the hadiths, collections of stories concerning the actions and sayings of Muhammad (peace be upon him). Some of the Prophet's companions started to write them down from the moment of his death. As an element of human error could have slipped in the collection had to be resumed later and subjected to rigorous criticism so that the greatest credit is in practice given to documents that came long after Muhammad (peace be upon him). Their authenticity varies, like that of the Gospels. Not a single Gospel was written down at the time of Jesus (they were all written long after his earthly mission had come to an end), and not a single collection of hadiths was drawn up at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
The situation is very different for the Quran. As the Revelation progressed, the Prophet and the believers following him recited the text by heart and it was also written down by the scribes in his following. It therefore starts off with two elements of authenticity that the Gospels do not possess. This continued up to the Prophet's death. At a time when not everybody could write, but everyone was able to recite, recitation afforded a considerable advantage because of the double-checking possible when the definitive text was compiled. The Quranic Revelation was made by Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad (peace be upon him). It took place over a period of more than twenty years of the Prophet's life, beginning with the first verses of Surah 96, then resuming after a three-year break for a long period of twenty years up to the death of the Prophet in 632 A.D., i.e. ten years before Hegira and ten years after Hegira.
The following was the first Revelation (Surah 96, verses 1 to 5):
Read: In the name of thy Lord who created,
Who created man from something which clings
Read! Thy Lord is the most Noble
Who taught by the pen
Who taught man what he did not know.
Professor Hamidullah notes in the Introduction to his French translation of the Quran that one of the themes of this first Revelation was the praise of the pen as a means of human knowledge" which would "explain the Prophet's concern for the preservation of the Quran in writing".
Texts formally prove that long before the Prophet left Mecca for Medina (i.e. long before Hegira), the Quranic text so far revealed had been written down. We shall see how the Quran is authentic. How it came to be written is this. We know that Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Believers who surrounded him were accustomed to reciting the revealed text from memory. It is therefore inconceivable for the Quran to refer to fact that did not square with reality because the latter could so easily be checked with people in the Prophet's following, by asking the authors of the transcription. Four Surahs dating from a period prior to Hegira refer to the writing down of the Quran before the Prophet left Mecca in 622 (Surah 80, verses 11 to 16):
By no means! Indeed it is a message of ins truction
Therefore whoever wills, should remember
On leaves held in honor
In the hands of scribes
Noble and pious.
Yusuf Ali in the commentary to his translation, 1934, wrote that when the Revelation of this Surah was made, forty-two or forty-five others had been written and were kept by Muslims in Mecca (out of a total of 114):
Surah 85, verses 21 and 22:
Nay, this is a glorious reading
On a preserved tablet.
Surah 56, verses 77 to 80:
This is a glorious reading
In a book well kept
Which none but the purified teach
This is a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.
Surah 25, verse 5:
They said: Tales of the ancients which he has caused to be written and they are dictated to him morning and evening.
Here we have a reference to the accusations made by the Prophets enemies who treated him as an imposter. They spread the rumor that stories of Antiquity were being dictated to him and he was writing them down or having them transcribed (the meaning of the word is debatable, but one must remember that Muhammad peace be upon him was illiterate). However this may be, the verse refers to this act of making a written record which is pointed out by Muhammad's enemies themselves.
A Surah that came after Hegira makes one last mention of the leaves on which these divine instructions were written:
Surah 98, verses 2 and 3:
An apostle from God recites leaves
Kept pure where are decrees right and straight.
The Quran itself therefore provides indications as to the fact that it was set down in writing at the time of the Prophet. It is a known fact that there were several scribes in his following, the most famous of whom, Zaid Ibn Thabit, has left his name to posterity.
In the preface to his French translation of the Quran (1971), Professor Hamidullah gives an excellent description of the conditions that prevailed when the text of the Quran was written, lasting up until the time of the Prophet's death:
"The sources all agree in stating that whenever a fragment of the Quran was revealed, the Prophet called one of his literate companions and dictated it to him, indicating at the same time the exact position of the new fragment in the fabric of what had already been received... Descriptions note that Muhammad (peace be upon him) asked the scribe to reread to him what had been dictated so that he could correct any deficiencies...
Another famous story tells how every year in the month of Ramadan, the Prophet would recite the whole of the Quran (so far revealed) to Gabriel..., that in the Ramadan preceding Muhammad's death, Gabriel had made him recite it twice... It is known how since the Prophet's time, Muslims acquired the habit of keeping vigil during Ramadan, and of reciting the whole of the Quran in addition to the usual prayers expected of them. Several sources add that Muhammad's scribe Zaid was present at this final bringing-together of the texts. Elsewhere, numerous other personalities are mentioned as well."
Extremely diverse materials were used for this first record; parchment leather, wooden tablet, camel's scapula, soft stone for inscriptions, etc.
At the same time however, Muhammad (peace be upon him) recommended the faithful to learn the Quran by heart. They did this for a part if not all of the text recited during prayers. Thus there were .Hafizun. who knew the whole of the Quran by heart and spread it abroad. The method of doubly preserving the text both in writing and by memorization proved to be extremely precious.
Not long after the Prophet's death (632), his successor Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam, asked Muhammad's former head scribe, Zaid Ibn Thabit, to make a copy; this he did. On Omar's initiative (the future second Caliph), Zaid consulted all the information he could assemble at Medina (the witness of the Hafizun, copies of the Book written on various materials belonging to private individuals), all with the object of avoiding possible errors in transcription. Thus an extremely faithful copy of the Book was obtained.
The sources tell us that Caliph Omar, Abu Bakr's successor in 634, subsequently made a single volume (mushaf) that he preserved and gave on his death to his daughter Hafsa, the Prophet's widow.
The third Caliph of Islam, Uthman, who held the caliphate from 644 to 655, entrusted a commission of experts with the preparation of the great recension that bears his name. It checked the authenticity of the document produced under Abu Bakr which had remained in Hafsa's possession until that time. The commission consulted Muslims who knew the text by heart. The critical analysis of the authenticity of the text was carried out very rigorously. The agreement of the witnesses was deemed necessary before the slightest verse containing debatable material was retained. It is indeed known how some verses of the Quran correct others in the case of prescriptions: this may be readily explained when one remembers that the Prophet's period of apostolic activity stretched over twenty years (in round figures). The result is a text containing an order of Surahs that reflects - so it is thought today - the order followed by the Prophet in his complete recital of the Quran during Ramadan, as mentioned above.
One might perhaps ponder the motives that led the first three Caliphs, especially Uthman, to commission collections and recensions of the text. The reasons are in fact very simple: Islam's expansion in the very first decades following Muhammad's death was very rapid indeed and it happened among peoples whose native language was not Arabic. Absolutely essential steps had to be taken to ensure the spread of a text that retained its original purity: Uthman's recension had this as its objective.
Uthman sent copies of the text of the recension to the centers of the Islamic Empire and that is why, according to Professor Hamidullah copies attributed to Uthman exist in Tashkent and Istanbul. Apart from one or two possible mistakes in copying, the oldest documents known to the present day, that are to be found throughout the Islamic world, are identical; the same is true for documents preserved in Europe (there are fragments in the Bibliotheque Nationale in parts which, according to the experts, date from the Eighth and Ninth centuries A.D., i.e. the Second and Third Hegirian centuries). The numerous ancient texts that are known to be in existence all agree except for very minor variations which do not change the general meaning of the text at all. If the context sometimes allows more than one interpretation, it may well have to do with the fact that ancient writing was simpler than that of the present day.
The 114 Surahs were arranged in decreasing order of length; there were nevertheless exceptions. The chronological sequence of the Revelation was not therefore respected. In the majority of cases however, this sequence is known. A large number of descriptions are mentioned at several points in the text, sometimes giving rise to repetitions. Very frequently a passage will add details to a description that appears elsewhere in an incomplete form. Everything connected with modern science is, like many subjects dealt with in the Quran, scattered throughout the book without any semblance of classification.