Tahrif or Not? A Shi’i Perspective on the Seven Ahruf Reports (Pt. I)

Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.


Did the companions all recite the Qur’an in the same way?

If not, did this variation go back to the prophet (he taught it differently to different companions) and ultimately the Divine Author, or was it a result of the natural human condition (they tried their utmost to remain faithful to the original prophetic rendition but differences could not be escaped in an environment that was predominantly marked by oral transmission)?

These are questions of critical importance and any attempt to deal with them will unfailingly lead us to the so-called ‘Seven Aḥruf’ tradition-complex1.

This study will engage with the latter, providing a much needed Shīʿī corrective to what has historically been a discussion that has been dominated by the Sunni conception, a conception which, in my view, has been unfairly prioritized.

One Qur’an or Many?

The traditional Sunni narrative cannot deny that the companions differed in how they recited the Qur’an.

Authentic reports in their corpus depict the companions discovering a difference in how they recited and going back to the prophet for resolution.

Consider the report ascribed to Ibn Masʿūd below:

The Messenger of Allah taught me Sūrat Ḥā Mīm (i.e. al-Aḥqāf).

I went to the Masjid in the evening and a group sat around me. I said to a man from among the group: ‘Recite for me (i.e. while I listen to you)’ so he began reciting Ḥurūf which I do not recite.

I said to him: ‘Who taught it to you?’ He said: ‘The Messenger of Allah taught me’

We set out to the Messenger of Allah and found a man2 (seated) with him.

I said to him (i.e. the prophet): ‘We have differed in our recitations!’ so the face of the Messenger of Allah changed and he found something in himself (i.e. felt anger) when I mentioned to him Ikhtilāf (difference) and he (i.e. the prophet) said: ‘What destroyed those who were before you was Ikhtilāf!’ Then he secretly whispered to ʿAlī and ʿAlī said: ‘The Messenger of Allah orders each man of you to recite as he was taught!’

So we departed while each one of us was reciting Ḥurūf which the other one does not recite!3

This report concludes somewhat unexpectedly by portraying the prophet as approving the differences in recitation while at the same time warning against this causing Ikhtilāf in the community.

A Cause for Doubt

Wouldn’t the existence of differences in the divine revelation cause consternation among the companions?

It is hard to believe that the companions would remain unconcerned when coming across their peers reciting the same verse differently to them and not seek an explanation for this.

A companion of the caliber of Ubayy who was also an expert in the Qur’an is reported to have said the following:

Nothing arose in my chest (i.e. caused me doubt) since I accepted Islam except when I recited a verse and someone else recited it in a way that was different to my recitation.

I said: ‘The Messenger of Allah taught me to recite it (this way)!’ and the other one said: ‘The messenger of Allah taught me to recite it (this way)!’

So I came to the prophet and said: ‘O prophet of Allah, you taught me the verse like this and this (i.e. reciting it)?’ He said: ‘Yes’, the other one said: ‘Didn’t you teach me the verse like this and this?’ He said: ‘Yes’ …4

In fact, Ubayy’s doubt was so intense that it is said not to have gone away until the prophet had to strike him in the chest as in the variant below:

I heard a man5 reciting so I said: ‘Who taught you?’ He said: ‘The Messenger of Allah’ I said: ‘Let’s go to him’.

I came to the prophet and said: ‘Listen to this one recite!’ He (i.e. the prophet) said (i.e. to the man): ‘Recite’. So he (i.e. the man) recited. He (i.e. the prophet) said: ‘You did good’

I said to him (i.e. the prophet): ‘Didn’t you teach it to me like this and this (i.e. reciting it)?’ He said: ‘Yes, and you also did good’

So I gestured with both my hands ‘you did good!’ and (at the same time) ‘you did good!’ (i.e. how can both of us have done good?!)6 

He said: Thereupon the prophet struck my chest with his hand and said ‘O Allah – dispel from Ubayy all doubt …’7

In Muslim’s version of what must ultimately be considered the same incident, Ubayy observes the difference in recitation between two men:

I was in the Masjid when a man entered and began praying, so he recited a recitation which I rejected from him (i.e. considered him to be wrong in it), then another entered and recited a recitation which was different from his fellow (i.e. the first man), so when we had completed the prayer we all entered upon the Messenger of Allah.

I said: ‘This one recited a recitation which I rejected from him, then another entered and recited a recitation which was different from his fellow’

The Messenger of Allah instructed them (i.e. to recite), so they both recited and the prophet deemed both their affairs (i.e. recitations) to be correct.

There was cast into my heart of disbelief such that had no precedent even when I was in the Jāhiliyya (pre-Islamic age).

So when the prophet saw what had overwhelmed me (i.e. the state of doubt) he struck onto my chest so I began perspiring profusely as though I were gazing at Allah Mighty and Majestic in terror …8  

A common theme running through all the reports that have been brought up so far is the emotional reaction evinced by the persons involved, be it the anger of the prophet (in Ibn Masʿūd’s report), the overwhelming doubt of Ubayy or the exceeding anger of ʿUmar (as will come in the next section). All this puts a lie to the notion that these differences were trivial or limited to styles of recitation. 

But where did these differences come from and how could they be justified?

The Seven Aḥruf

It goes without saying that this phenomenon of companions reciting the Qur’an differently demanded an explanation. This is where the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex comes in.

All the reports in this tradition-complex9 seek to legitimize the presence of differences by having the prophet declare that:

            The Qur’an came down (i.e. was revealed) according to/as per Seven Aḥruf

A key report in this regard is the one by ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb who relates:

I heard Hishām b. Ḥakīm reciting Sūrat al-Furqān in the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah. I listened to his recitation and found him reciting following many Ḥurūf which the Messenger of Allah had not taught me. I was about to leap on him while he was in prayer but I waited until he had made the Salām (i.e. finished the prayer).

Then I grabbed him by his cloak and said: ‘Who taught you this Sūra which I heard you reciting?’ He said: ‘The Messenger of Allah taught it to me’ I said: ‘You have lied! For the Messenger of Allah taught it to me in a way that is different to how you recited!’

Then I set out with him dragging him to the Messenger of Allah and said: ‘I heard this one reciting Sūrat al-Furqān following Ḥurūf which you did not teach me’ so the Messenger of Allah said: ‘Release him – recite O Hishām’.

Hishām recited to him the recitation that I had heard him reciting, the Messenger of Allah said: ‘That is how it came down (i.e. was revealed)’ then he said: ‘Recite O ʿUmar’ so I recited the recitation that he had taught me, the Messenger of Allah said: ‘That is how it came down – verily this Qur’an came down according to Seven Aḥruf, so recite that which is easiest of it’[10]

Reports belonging to the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex such as the one above draw a clear connection between differences in recitation and the Qur’an being revealed according to Seven Aḥruf. The reports seem to be saying that there is no reason to prefer one recitation over another since the recitations are equally valid and the differences themselves are divine in nature as the Qur’an came down with these differences (= as per the Seven Aḥruf).

But what are these Seven Aḥruf?

The Meaning of Seven Aḥruf

It is not an exaggeration to say that this question would become one of the most vexing problems when dealing with the history of the Qur’an and indeed early Islam as a whole.

Sunni commentators throughout the centuries differed dramatically over the meaning of the term ‘Seven Aḥruf’ found in the reports. One can grasp the degree of controversy by noting that Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 354) lists not less than thirty five opinions put forward to explain it!10

These include the opinion that the Hadith is to be considered among the Mutashābih (ambiguous) whose meaning is beyond understanding11.

An anecdote that dates to contemporary times can serve to demonstrate this well. The Saudi author ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Qārīʾ writes in his monograph devoted to the topic Ḥadīth al-Aḥruf al-Sabʿa (published in the year 2002):

I worked on researching this question for a long period of time, more than ten years continuously, gathering in it the paths of this Hadith and its transmission strands, following up the words of the scholars about it, assiduous in giving it due prudence, diligent in making comparison and reflection, steadfast in bearing its difficulty and overcoming the faults on its path, until one day my chest grew weary because of it, so I sought recourse – after Allah the Exalted – to one of our teachers, and he is the author of the Aḍwāʾ al-Bayān, that is Shaykh Muḥammad al-Amīn al-Shinqīṭī, so I asked him what conclusion he had reached concerning the meaning of this Hadith, to which he said ‘the conclusion I have reached is that I do not know what it means!12

Let not this apparent confusion intimidate you, dear reader, for as we shall soon come to see, it’s not so much that the Hadith cannot be understood as much as our commentators (whose brilliance I do not deprecate in any way) were genuinely unable to accept the most straightforward interpretation, an interpretation which was unpalatable to them due to theological concerns, hence the resultant multiplication of possible interpretations through time which can almost begin to look like purposeful obfuscation. 

This multi-part series of articles follows the exegetical trail by surveying the earliest, historically most dominant interpretations, as well as the critiques raised against them, before proposing the Shīʿī perspective.

Note: I will not delve into a linguistic treatment of the word Ḥarf in this part, suffice it to say that Ḥarf is singular and the plural is Aḥruf (between 3 &10) and Ḥurūf (above 10).

Seven Categories of Meaning

An early interpretation understands the Qur’an coming down according to Seven Aḥruf to mean the Qur’an has come with seven kinds of content within it.

Already Abū ʿUbayd al-Qāsim b. Sallām (d. 224), the earliest scholar who engages with this problem at some length and whose work has reached us, knows of this interpretation when he states that ‘some people’ interpret the Seven Aḥruf on the basis of a spurious report according to which the Qur’an came down with:

Ḥalāl (the permitted), Ḥarām (the forbidden), Muḥkam (the clear), Mutashābih (the ambiguous), the Khabar (news) of what was before you, the Khabar (news) of what is after you, and the striking of Amthāl (similitudes).13

Ibn Qutayba (d. 276) introduces this interpretation by saying ‘a group have erred in interpreting this report so they said the Seven Aḥruf are:

Waʿd (promise), Waʿīd (threat), ḤalālḤarāmMawāʿiẓ (exhortations), Amthāl, and Iḥtijāj (logical argumentations)

He then proceeds to give an alternate list which shows the exact identity of the seven categories was disputed:

Another group said: ḤalālḤarāmAmr (command), Nahy (prohibition), Khabar (news) of what came before, Khabar (news) of what will come to be, Amthāl14

Even before al-Tabari (d. 310) can propose his own interpretation he feels the need to defend it against this interpretation which he ascribes to ‘the Salaf (predecessors) of the Umma and the best of Imams’15

But the invalidity of this interpretation is evident at the slightest of engagement with the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex!

After all, the companions were not differing among each other with regard the meaning of the Qur’an but the recitation itself (i.e. what they were vocalizing), and this variation in recitation is what prompted the prophet to declare that the ‘Qur’an came down according to Seven Aḥruf’.

As al-Ṭabarī points out, if they were differing about the meaning of the contents, such that one companion thought the verse was Amr (command) and the other companion thought that it is Nahy (prohibition), then the prophet deeming both of them to be correct would be admitting a clear contradiction in the Qur’an which is impossible16

al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321) quotes his teacher Aḥmad b. Abī ʿImrān (d. 280) calling this interpretation ‘plain wrong’ and notes that in some reports within the complex the prophet is told ‘to recite as per one Ḥarf’ and he requests this to be increased so it is said ‘recite it as per two Ḥarfs’ and so on, now since the Qur’an could be recited with a single Ḥarf at first then this disproves the interpretation that a Ḥarf is a category like Ḥalāl or Ḥarām, since the whole Qur’an could not have come down with Ḥalāl alone or Ḥarām alone17.

Indeed this interpretation was abandoned and no one brings it up anymore except to take a shot at it.

Seven Dialects within the Qur’an

It is claimed that the different tribes at the time of the prophet spoke different ‘dialects’ of Arabic, thus the Qur’an coming down as per Seven Aḥruf means the Qur’an contains Seven dialects of the Arabs within it.

Abū ʿUbayd is the first to formally record this interpretation when he says:

It (i.e. the Qur’an) came down according to Seven dialects which are scattered throughout the totality of the Qur’an from among the dialects of the Arabs … and some tribes are represented more and have a greater share in it than others18

In another work he says:

His (i.e. the prophet’s) words ‘Seven Aḥruf’ mean ‘Seven dialects’ from among the dialects of the Arabs … these seven dialects are scattered within the Qur’an, so some of it (i.e. the Qur’an) was revealed in the dialect of the Quraysh, and some of it in the dialect of the Hudhayl, and some of it in the dialect of Hawāzin, and some of it in the dialect of the people of Yaman, and likewise the rest of the dialects …19

In other words, seven dialects are represented throughout the Qur’an, in one part of the Qur’an you may encounter a form that is taken from a certain dialect while in another part you encounter a form taken from another dialect and so on, but the spread is not equal, for some dialects are more common in the Book than others.

What did dialect mean to Abū ʿUbayd?

From the numerous reports he goes on to cite, it is clear that what he has in mind is vocabulary that was common to a certain dialect and foreign to others.

For example, Abū ʿUbayd cites Ḥasan al-Baṣrī’s claim that they did not know what Arāʾik (Q. 83:23 etc.) meant until they encountered a man from the people of Yaman who explained that they used it to mean ‘a raised canopy which has a seat’20. Similarly, Ibn ʿAbbās did not know what Fāṭiri l-Samawāt (Q. 6:14 etc.) meant until he encountered two Bedouins arguing over a well with one of them claiming ‘Anā Faṭartuhā’, that is ‘initiated it’21.

One problem with this interpretation is the confusion that exists in identifying the seven tribes to which these seven dialects belong. Abū ʿUbayd brings a number of weak reports which are quite contradictory in their purport.

Additionally, the commentators (including Abū ʿUbayd himself) have linked forms found in the Qur’an to more than seven dialects showing that they did not see the dialects found within it to be limited to seven22

But the real knock-out blow to this interpretation is given by al-Ṭabarī who is clearly referring to Abū ʿUbayd when he ascribes this interpretation to ‘one of those who was not granted insight in (understanding) that’ and declares the incorrectness of this position to be clear to ‘any possessor of intellect’23

al-Ṭabarī’s issue is that this interpretation does not explain why the companions were differing in the first place!

As he points out, if the Seven dialects are scattered throughout the Qur’an (i.e. found in different parts of the Qur’an) and not alternative renderings of the same verse or part of the Qur’an then there is no meaning to the reports about the companions differing, for these reports are explicit about the companions differing over the recitation of the same part of the Qur’an, but there would not be any reason for them to differ as per this interpretation since the common part they are differing over was revealed according to one dialect (though other parts may be revealed as per other dialects)24

Seven Categories of Variation

It seems likely that Ibn Qutayba was not satisfied with the two interpretations presented above for he goes on to introduce a novel idea that had a lasting influence on many who came after him. Ibn Qutayba began by studying the many Qirāʾāt which were circulating in his time (pre-Ibn Mujāhid’s selection of 7) and categorized the variation he found in them under seven headings which he called the Seven Aḥruf.

He introduces his findings with the words:

I reflected over the types of variation found in the Qirāʾāt and found them to be of seven categories25

His results are tabulated below:

Type of Variation

Example from the Qira’at

1. Variation in the inflection of a word or how it is vowelized which neither changes its appearance in script nor its meaning

هؤُلاءِ بَناتِي هُنَّ أَطْهَرُ لَكُمْ

هؤُلاءِ بَناتِي هُنَّ أَطْهَرَ لَكُمْ

2. Variation in the inflection of a word and how it is vowelized which changes it meaning but does not change its appearance in script

رَبَّنَا بَاعِدْ بَيْنَ أَسْفَارِنَا

‘Our Lord – make the distances of our journeys longer’

رَبُّنَا بَاعَدَ بَيْنَ أَسْفَارِنَا

‘Our Lord made the distances of our journeys longer’

3. Variation in the letters of a word which changes its meaning but does not change its appearance in script (i.e. pre dotting)

وَانْظُرْ إِلَى الْعِظامِ كَيْفَ نُنْشِزُها 

‘Look at the bones – how We reassemble them’

وَانْظُرْ إِلَى الْعِظامِ كَيْفَ نُنْشِرُها 

‘Look at the bones – how We revivify them’

4. Replacement of a word with another (changes appearance in script) without changing its meaning

 إِن كَانَتْ إِلَّا صَيْحَةً وَٰحِدَةً

 إِن كَانَتْ إِلَّا زَقْيَةً وَٰحِدَةً

5. Replacement of a word with another (changes appearance in script) which changes its meaning

 طَلْحٍ مَنْضُودٍ

‘Clustered banana-trees’

طَلْعٍ مَنْضُودٍ

‘Clustered spathe’

6. Transposition in word order

وَجاءَتْ سَكْرَةُ الْمَوْتِ بِالْحَقِّ 

وَجاءَتْ سَكْرَةُ الْحَقِّ بِالْمَوْتِ  

7. Addition and Omission

اللَّهَ هُوَ الْغَنِيُّ الْحَمِيدُ  إِنَّ

إِنَّ الْغَنِيُّ الْحَمِيدُ

إِنَّ هذا أَخِي لَهُ تِسْعٌ وَتِسْعُونَ نَعْجَةً

إِنَّ هذا أَخِي لَهُ تِسْعٌ وَتِسْعُونَ   نَعْجَةً اُنْثَى

The idea is that the Qur’an is not limited to the written word (as found in the Muṣḥaf) but also the numerous Qirāʾāt (oral recitation traditions) which are seen as legitimately going back to the prophet (i.e. the prophet recited with all these differences), thus the Seven Aḥruf must be referring to some difference contained within the latter. Individual instances of differences between the Qirāʾāt are too many to count but they can all be grouped together under these seven headings which is what Seven Aḥruf refers to.

Now the main problem with this interpretation is that limiting the types of differences found in the Qirāʾāt to seven categories is purely artificial (to make it fit the Seven Aḥruf reports) and one could end up having more than seven depending on how you choose to count. Consider, for instance, how Abū ʿAmr al-Dānī (d. 444), one of the greatest Qur’anic experts of all time, gives 19 categories26.

Even the exact identity of the seven categories cannot be judged objectively since other scholars such as Makkī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 437), Abū al-Faḍl al-Rāzī (d. 454) and famously Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833) came up with their own Seven categories which differ from Ibn Qutayba’s even if they modelled their solution upon his. 

In fact, Ibn al-Jazarī (the students of ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān know his status) openly admits that his solution is only tentative when he states:

I did not cease finding this Hadith problematic (to understand) and kept reflecting over it and studying it for some thirty-odd years until Allah gave me an opening which may end up being correct if Allah wills, and that is – I studied the Qirāʾāt, the authentic ones and the irregular ones, the weak ones and the rejected ones and found that the differences in them devolve back to seven types of variation and they (the variation) do not exceed beyond that (i.e. seven types) …27

The opening he speaks of was already given to Ibn Qutayba centuries ago!

In short, it is hard to imagine that the early audience who were overwhelmingly illiterate would understand from the statement ‘the Qur’an came down as per Seven Aḥruf’ this highly technical definition with its purely abstract categories, requiring them to appreciate, for example, how words are ‘written in script’.

Seven Alternative Dialects

According to al-Ṭabarī, the prophetic statement means that the Qur’an28 came down in seven alternative dialects such that two companions would be vocalizing different words while reciting the same point in a verse depending on the dialect they were following and both would still be correct29

To his credit, and in contrast to some of the other scholars mentioned above, al-Ṭabarī adheres to the first principle of historical inquiry by searching for clues to illuminate the meaning from the earliest sources themselves.

Some of the key evidences he provides are given below:

1. Insight from other Seven-Aḥruf Reports

The companion Abī Bakra is quoted as saying:

Gabriel said: ‘O Muhammad – recite the Qur’an upon a single Ḥarf’, Michael said: ‘Increase for him’ so he increased for him and said: ‘Recite it upon two Ḥarfs’, Michael said: ‘Increase for him’ so he increased for him until he reached Seven Aḥruf. All of them are Shāf (satisfactory) and Kāf (sufficient). As long as you do not conclude a verse of punishment with mercy and a verse of mercy with punishment30

Like your saying ‘TaʿālAqbilHalummaIdhhabAsriʿAʿjil31

The last statement of this report potentially holds the key to solving the enigma since it offers an illustrative example: Someone may use six different Arabic words to say the same thing i.e. ‘come’. Obviously one doesn’t say all these words but chooses one over the alternatives.

Extending the parallel, one companion would recite a verse pronouncing Taʿāl in it, another one would recite the same verse pronouncing Aqbil instead, and so on, and this should not be a cause of dispute since the Qur’an came down according to all these Aḥruf, moreover, and as the report is at pains to stress, even though alternative words were pronounced, all of these had the ‘same meaning’.

2. The Speech of Ibn Masʿūd

Consider the report below:

When ʿAbdallāh (b. Masʿūd) wanted to depart for Medina he gathered his companions (i.e. students) together and said:

… Verily this Qur’an came down according to Ḥurūf, I swear by Allah that two men used to argue with each other more intensely (i.e. over the recitation of the Qur’an) than they have ever argued over anything. So if one of them would say (i.e. to the prophet): ‘You taught it to me!’ he (i.e. the prophet) would say: ‘You have done well’ and if the other would say (the same) he (i.e. the prophet) would say: ‘You have both done well!’ …

So whoever recites it (i.e. the Qur’an) according to a Ḥarf then he should not abandon it preferring another (i.e. Ḥarf) over it, and whoever recites it according to one of those Ḥurūf which the Messenger of Allah taught then he should not abandon it preferring something else (over it), for the one who opposes a verse from it (i.e. the Qur’an) then he has opposed it all!

Verily it (i.e. the Ḥurūf) is like the saying of one of you to his fellow ‘Aʿjil’ and ‘Hayya-hallā’32

A much more abbreviated version of Ibn Masʿūd’s speech is given by al-Ṭabarānī:

I have listened to the reciters and found them to be close to each other (i.e. in recitation) – so recite as you have been taught, and beware of artifice (i.e. in recitation) and dispute (i.e. over it), for it (i.e. the differences between the Aḥruf) is like the saying of one of you: ‘Halumma’ and ‘Taʿāl33

This is the same example we just encountered in the report of Abū Bakra above and the same emphasis regarding the nature of the different Aḥruf, that they were essentially synonymous wherein totally different words were vocalized while the basic meaning remained unchanged, is repeated. 

3. The Statements of Early Authorities

An important testimony is provided by the Tābiʿī Ibn Sīrīn (d. 110):

It (i.e. the Seven Aḥruf) is like the saying of one of you ‘Halumma’, ‘Taʿāl’ and ‘Aqbil

Ibn Sīrīn continues:

It is in the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh “In Kānat illā Zaqyatan Wāḥidatan” while in our Qira’a “In Kānat illā Ṣayḥatan Wāḥidatan34

Thus Ibn Masʿūd recited Zaqya while we recite it as Ṣayḥa but these alternatives are equally valid since the Qur’an came down as per Seven Aḥruf.

It is only based on this understanding that we arrive at a correct interpretation of the much misunderstood words of al-Zuhrī (d. 124) who comments the following after transmitting the report of ʿUmar and Hishām given before:

It has been conveyed to me that these Seven Aḥruf are in a matter that is one, it does not differ in Ḥalāl and Ḥarām35

What this means is that all Seven Aḥruf converge on one and the same meaning, even if alternative are pronounced, and the alternatives do not cause a difference especially in matters of the Ḥalāl and Ḥarām, an area that is particularly sensitive, since unchecked language in legalistic matters can potentially cause contradictions in the Law.

This is supported in a statement attributed to Ibn Masʿūd with an admittedly very weak chain:

The Sharīʿa of Islam and its bounds and obligations is one in it (i.e. the Aḥruf). If it were the case that one of the two Ḥarfs prohibits something while the other commands it then that would be Ikhtilāf, but it (i.e. the Aḥruf) unites all of that, the bounds and the obligations do not differ in it, nor anything of the laws of Islam36

Both Abū ʿUbayd and Ibn Qutayba were aware of this interpretation37 

and go on to summarily dismiss it by pointing to the fact that there isn’t a word in the Qur’an that is recited in seven alternative ways!

Put another way, both scholars begin with the shared assumption that everything that was revealed or ‘sent down’ has been preserved and can be found in the Muṣḥaf of ʿUthmān and the associated Qirāʾāt, and when they look at the latter they do not find seven alternative wordings in the same verse, thus this interpretation can’t be true, unless someone can prove otherwise and bring an example of this from the Qur’an.  

al-Ṭabarī is well-aware of the challenge directed at him38

and his response is simple: Who tells you that all the Seven Aḥruf are available today?

The Mystery of the Lost Aḥruf

In fact, al-Ṭabarī boldly goes on to state that what we have in our possession is just one Ḥarf out of the original seven, even though all seven were revealed from Allah, the Messenger of Allah taught all seven to his companions and declared all seven to be equally valid39.

Where did the other six Aḥruf go?

al-Ṭabarī states that the other six Aḥruf were not abrogated or ‘raised up’ in the time of the prophet but have become lost because of what happened many years later when ʿUthmān standardized the Qur’an by producing a single written-text, for in doing so he necessarily had to choose one Ḥarf out the Aḥruf that were circulating out there since the written script cannot support them all.

How can this step be justified?

al-Ṭabarī argues that the Seven Aḥruf were all divine and equally valid recitations of the Qur’an, and the Muslims were given a Rukhsa (dispensation) to recite according to any of them. So if they came to an agreement to choose one and perpetuate its transmission instead of all seven then they are not in the wrong (have not committed a sin) as long as they do not make it forbidden to recite according to the other six for the one who wants to recite according to them.

Here al-Ṭabarī draws an analogy with the Takhyīr (option) that exists in the Law with regard the Kaffāra (penalty) of the one who breaks a vow and is financially well-to do. The guilty-party can choose either to manumit a slave, feed the poor or cloth them as per Q. 5:89. Now if the whole Umma unites by Ijmāʿ (consensus) to always resort to only one among the three options, without prohibiting the giving of Kaffāra by any of the three options, then ‘it (i.e. the Umma) has abided by the ruling of Allah and discharged in it the obligation upon it from Allah’.

Why did ʿUthmān choose one Ḥarf?

al-Ṭabarī brings many reports to demonstrate how differences between Muslims (because of reciting different Aḥruf) were getting out of hand and even leading them to make Takfīr of one another (i.e. accusing each other of disbelief).

It is when confronted with this situation that:

The Imam of the Muslims and the Commander of the Faithful, ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, out of his care, concern, and compassion for them, and as a precaution against some of them apostatizing after Islam and entering into Kufr after Īmān, since some of them, and in his presence and in his own time, began denying some of the Seven Aḥruf according to which the Qur’an was revealed … united them upon a single Muṣḥaf and a single Ḥarf, and he destroyed everything apart from the Muṣḥaf that he had united them upon. And he directed all those who had a Muṣḥaf that disagreed with the Muṣḥaf which he united them upon to destroy it

What was the response to this decision?

The Umma made that possible for him through their obedience and saw what he had decided to do to be the rightful course and true guidance. So they abandoned reciting as per the six Aḥruf which their righteous Imam had directed be abandoned … until knowledge of these (i.e. Aḥruf) disappeared from the Umma and their traces became wiped out, so there is no way for someone to recite according to them today, because of their falling into oblivion and the effacement of any traces of them, and because successive Muslim generations abandoned reciting according to them, without opposing its correctness (i.e. the Qur’an was revealed as per Seven Aḥruf) or the correctness of a particular instance of it … so there is no recitation for Muslims today except according to the single Ḥarf which was chosen for them by their compassionate and well-wishing Imam preferring it over the remaining six Aḥruf40

In short, al-Ṭabarī says that when they did what they did, they were not abandoning what they were obligated to preserve, but were giving priority to the welfare of the Muslims which is what was obligatory on them. In fact, maintaining the status quo would be closer to being a crime against Islam as opposed to doing what they did!

A Can of Worms

It is evident that al-Ṭabarī’s interpretation is superior to the three other interpretations documented here. Not only are the challenges he raises against rival interpretations persuasive, it is his interpretation which accounts more convincingly for the different reports found in the tradition-complex which record the prophetic statement being issued within the context of a significant difference between companions’ recitations.  

The other interpretations are ham-strung by trying to find the Seven Aḥruf in the present text of the Qur’an and the available Qirāʾāt. al-Ṭabarī’s insight that we need to go back in time to a period before ʿUthmānic standardization is a genuine step forward in advancing our understanding.

However, al-Ṭabarī’s interpretation also means that the Qur’an was much more diverse in the earliest period than what we find now, since it could be recited in a number of ways at the level of distinct words being used. This is not palatable to all.

Additionally, one needs to provide a good motive for why there were, dare I say it, seven alternative ‘versions’ of the Qur’an in the first place, and why all that was divinely revealed (i.e. the six Aḥruf) is no longer preserved or available to us. This is not to speak of the repercussions of this on the theological concept of Iʿjāz (the inimitability of the Qur’an).

From a Shīʿī perspective, and even bypassing the question of whether the Seven Aḥruf were actually divine or not (for the time being), the ʿUthmānic innovation of uniting the Muslims around a single Muṣḥaf which contains one Ḥarf is just that, an innovation, since as is freely admitted by al-Ṭabarī, it was not based on a prophetic directive but merely a political decision by a temporal ruler for the supposed welfare of the community. Furthermore, the claimed Ijmāʿ around this decision is just that, a claim, since there was significant dissent from some companions who voiced opposition to this as we shall come to see. Even without this, any Ijmāʿ has no value if the Imam of the Ahl al-Bayt is not part of it.

But this decision is problematic on another level, for it calls into question the fore-sightedness of the prophet seeing that the Rukhsa that was in place (which some reports call a mercy from Allah) turns out to not be a mercy at all and a source of dispute among Muslims instead such that it needed to be reversed only a few decades after the prophet’s death (analogous to the prohibition of temporary marriage).

Finally, even if ʿUthmān did not formally prohibit the other Aḥruf (important for Ṭabarī to side-step the accusation of making Ḥarām that which was Ḥalāl) then the political pressure to conform to a single standard ended up causing a loss of these other Aḥruf by default such that one cannot recite according to them today even if theoretically not prohibited (thus the analogy with Kaffāra is deficient).

To be continued …


  1. The tradition-complex consists of all reports which contain the central statement ‘the Qur’an came down according to Seven Aḥruf’. Such reports have been attributed to tens of companions and this meaning has been considered Mutawātir by some.
  2. al-Ḥākim follows up this report by giving another chain for the same report which contains an additional statement by the sub-narrator Zirr b. Ḥubaysh identifying the unnamed man: ‘They are referring to him, meaning ʿAlī’. This phenomenon of avoiding to name ʿAlī because of the antipathy that existed towards him has many examples in the literature.
  3. Mustadrak al-Ḥākim: Vol. 2, Pg. 243, No. 2885 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/2266/2997). al-Ḥākim comments ‘this report is Ṣaḥīḥ by chain and both of them (i.e. Bukhārī and Muslim) did not include it (in their respective compilations) with this phrasing’.
  4. Sunan al-Nasāʾī, Book 11, No. 66 (https://sunnah.com/nasai:941). The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ.
  5. In other variants this man is identified as Ibn Masʿūd
  6. This indicates the mental block there was in accepting such plurality. Indeed other variants have Ubayy crossing the boundaries of propriety in his response to the prophet, when the prophet states that both he and his fellow are محسن مجمل Ubayy responds back ما كلانا محسن مجمل. See Muṣannaf ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Vol. 10, Pg. 262, No. 21443 (https://shamela.ws/book/84/5180). There is a disconnection in the chain since Qatāda does not narrate directly from Ubayy, however this is remedied in other sources which give the intermediaries between Qatāda and Ubayy (i.e. Yaḥyā b. Yaʿmar > Sulaymān b. Ṣurad). See Musnad Aḥmad, Vol. 35, Pgs. 84-85, No. 21149 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/25794/17422). The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ. The present editions of Musnad Aḥmad do not contain the sensitive words of Ubayy and there is clearly missing words between Ubayy saying فقلت له and the prophet’s action فضرب صدري but fortunately for us al-Bayhaqī preserved them with the same upper chain as Aḥmad’s. See al-Sunan al-Kubrā, Vol. 2, Pg. 537, No. 3989 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/33024/4542). The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ.
  7. Musnad Aḥmad, Vol. 35, Pgs. 86-87, No. 21152 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/25794/17424). All the narrators in the chain are Thiqa except Suqayr al-ʿAbdī who is Majhūl, but this does not harm the overall episode and its details (e.g. the prophet striking Ubayy’s chest) since this has already come in other reports graded Ṣaḥīḥ. See for e.g. Musnad Aḥmad, Vol. 35, Pgs. 16-17, No. 21092 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/25794/17354).
  8. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Book 5, Hadith 332 (https://sunnah.com//muslim:820a). Some variants of this report have useful additions such as identifying the Sūra they differed in to be al-Naḥl, see Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 41, No. 38 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/53), as well as revealing that Ubayy’s own recitation differed from the two other men, see Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pgs. 37-38, No. 32 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/50)
  9. All the reports which indicate Ubayy’s doubts cited in the previous section end with the prophet legitimizing the differences by declaring that the Qur’an ‘was revealed according to Seven Aḥruf’.
  10. As quoted by al-Suyūṭī in his al-Itqān fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, Vol. 1, beginning Pg. 164 up to Pg. 176 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/11728/157). Of course most of these are inter-connected and genuinely distinct solutions boil down to merely a handful.
  11. Attributed to Ibn Saʿdān al-Naḥwī (d. 231) who points out the diverse connotations of the word Ḥarf as quoted by Abū Shāma in his āl-Murshid al-Wajīz ilā ʿUlūm Tataʿalaq bi l-Kitāb al-ʿAzīz: Pg. 93 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/22676/99). I say: Perhaps the meaning has become obscure to us but the original audience to whom these words were directed must have understood a clear meaning from it!
  12. Ḥadīth al-Aḥruf al-Sabʿa, Pg. 5. The anecdote is demonstrative because al-Shinqīṭī is an acknowledged master of the exegesis of the Qur’an in these times, so if he is puzzled by the Hadith then what to speak of others!
  13. Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 346 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/12524/685)
  14. Taʾwīl Mushkil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 29 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/23596/28)
  15. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 47 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/59)
  16. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pgs. 48-49 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/60)
  17. Sharḥ Mushkil al-Āthār, Vol. 8, Pg. 113 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/22547/3134)
  18. Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 339 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/12524/669)
  19. Gharīb al-Ḥadīth, Vol. 3, Pg. 159 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/1309/839)
  20. Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 341 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/12524/676)
  21. Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 345 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/12524/682)
  22. As noted by Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463) who rejects Abū ʿUbayd’s interpretation because the Qur’an contains: ‘Many dialects scattered throughout it, such that if they were counted then its number would far exceed (seven), and the scholars have many works in the genre of Lughāt al-Qurʾān which evidence what we have said’. See al-Tamhīd li-mā fī al-Muwaṭṭaʾ min al-Maʿānī wa l-Asānīd, Vol. 8, Pg. 282 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/1719/2830)
  23. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 55 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/67)
  24. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pgs. 56-57 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/68)
  25. Taʾwīl Mushkil al-Qurʾān, Pgs. 31-32 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/23596/30)
  26. al-Aḥruf al-Sabʿa li l-Qurʾān, Pgs. 33-43 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/5526/23)
  27. al-Nashr fī al-Qirāʾāt al-ʿAshr, Vol. 1, Pg. 26 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/22642/35)
  28. Note that this does not necessarily mean the Qur’an ‘in whole’, rather, just as how a few drops of rainfall are called ‘rain’ the same way the Arabs would say Qur’an and mean a part of it. In other words, if some verses came down like this then one can say the Qur’an came down like this.
  29. al-Ṭabarī refers to his interpretation by the words:

    أنها لغاتٌ مختلفة في كلمة واحدة باتفاق المعاني

    And in another instance:

    لغات سبع في حرف واحد وكلمة واحدة باختلاف الألفاظ واتفاق المعاني


    تختلف فيه الألفاظ بضروب من المنطق وتتفق فيه المعاني وإن اختلفت بالبيان به الألسن

  30. More about what this means later
  31. Musnad Aḥmad, Vol. 34, Pgs. 146-147, No. 20514 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/25794/16928). All the narrators in the chain are Thiqa except ʿAlī b. Zayd b. Jadʿān who has been weakened. The contents of the Hadith are established in other reports apart from the illustrative example so perhaps this might lead one to reject it, but the same illustrative example will come with a Ṣaḥīḥ chain in an Athar from Ibn Masʿūd so there is no reason to dispute it.
  32. Musnad Aḥmad, Vol. 6, Pgs. 395-396, No. 3845 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/25794/2881). All the narrators in the chain are Thiqa except the primary narrator i.e. a man from Hamdān from the companions of Ibn Masʿūd who was not named.
  33. Muʿjam al-Kabīr, Vol. 9, Pg. 138, No. 8680 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/1733/10724). The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ
  34. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pgs. 53-54, No. 55 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/65); Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 347 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/12524/687). The chain to Ibn Sīrīn is Ṣaḥīḥ
  35. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Book 6, Hadith 330 (https://sunnah.com/muslim:819a). Note how al-Zuhrī feels the need to explain what the Aḥruf are, this indicates that knowledge of them is no longer common nor do they survive in popular circulation, furthermore, al-Zuhrī himself is not the source of this statement but attributes it to what has come down to him.
  36. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 28 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/41)
  37. Abu Ubayd refers to it when saying

    وَلَيْسَ مَعْنَى تِلْكَ السَّبْعَةِ أَنْ يَكُونَ الْحَرْفُ الْوَاحِدُ يُقْرَأُ عَلَى سَبْعَةِ أَوْجُهٍ، هَذَا شَيْءٌ غَيْرُ مَوْجُودٍ

    While Ibn Qutayba says:

    وقال آخرون: هي سبع لغات في الكلمة

    And then:

    وليس يوجد في كتاب الله حرف قرىء على سبعة أوجه- يصح، فيما أعلم

  38. He states it as follows:

    فإن قال لنا قائل: فإذْ كان تأويلُ قول النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم: “أنزل القرآن على سبعة أحرف” عندك ما وصفت، بما عليه استشهدتَ، فأوْجِدنا حرفًا في كتاب الله مقروءًا بسبع لغات، فنحقق بذلك قولك

    And at another place:

    فإن قال: ففي أيّ كتاب الله نجدُ حرفًا واحدًا مقروءًا بلغات سبع مختلفات الألفاظ، متفقات المعنى، فنسلم لك صحةَ ما ادّعيت من التأويل في ذلك؟

  39. I summarize a lengthy discussion over several pages. See Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, beginning Pg. 58 up to Pg. 65 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/70)
  40. Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pgs. 63-64 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/76)