The first two parts of this series were devoted to setting out the nature of the ‘Seven Aḥruf’ problem and tracing the evolution of the different interpretations that were advanced to deal with it.
In this part I lay out what I believe to be the solution, beginning by unveiling the true meaning of Ḥarf, Aḥruf, and Ḥurūf in the context of the reports themselves, proposing a motive for the reports, setting out the relation between the Aḥruf and the presently available Qirāʾāt, documenting examples of surviving evidence, over-viewing the different approaches to explain the loss of Ḥurūf and summarizing the history of one Ḥarf in particular (that of Ibn Masʿūd in Kufa).
The Meaning of Ḥurūf
What does ʿUmar mean when he says that he heard Hishām:
Reciting per many Ḥurūf which the Messenger of Allah had not taught me
Or what does Ibn Masʿūd mean when he says that he heard his fellow:
Reciting Ḥurūf which I do not recite
And when he goes on to say:
So we departed and each one of us was reciting Ḥurūf that the other does not
Ḥurūf is the plural of Ḥarf if they are above 10.
The word Ḥarf can connote either:
(a) Edge, Side
(b) Any one letter in the Arabic alphabet
Clearly it is the latter linguistic connotation that is meant here. This is not to say, however, that ʿUmar and Ibn Masʿūd heard their counterparts reciting many strange disconnected ‘letters’, but as the leading Qur’anic expert Abū Amr al-Dānī (d. 444) explains, it was the custom of the Arabs by way of lenience in expression to:
Name something with the name of that which it belongs to, or what is near and adjacent to it, or is a cause for it, or is connected to it in some way, and their naming of a whole passage by the name of a part of it
In this way, a whole ‘word’ would be referred to as a Ḥarf or ‘letter’ because a ‘word’ consists at its most atomistic level of a ‘letter’, consequently many words would be referred to as Ḥurūf.
Thus what ʿUmar means is that he heard Hishām vocalize many ‘words’ which he had not heard the Messenger vocalize when reciting the same Sūra to him.
Similarly, what Ibn Masʿūd means is that he heard his fellow recite ‘words’ which he personally used not to recite, then when the prophet deemed the difference in recitation correct they left with each one reciting ‘words’ that the other does not.
The Meaning of Aḥruf
Now it is the Ḥurūf (words) which someone recites that make up his Qirāʾa (recitation) and therefore the same lenience in expression which allows for a whole word to be referred to as a Ḥarf (as alluded to above) also allows a whole Qirāʾa (recitation), which consists of many words, to be referred to as a Ḥarf, because that is what a Qirāʾa is made up of when broken down to its most atomistic level.
Aḥruf is the plural of Ḥarf if they are between 3 & 10.
So when the prophet, and after deeming both Umar’s and Hisham’s Qirāʾa to be correct, proclaims that key statement which appears in all the reports of the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex:
The Qur’an was sent down per Seven Aḥruf
He means that the Qur’an was revealed with seven distinct Qirāʾāt which differed in what was recited (the actual words making up the recitation).
Put another way, both ʿUmar and the prophet were using plurals of Ḥarf to refer to aggregated speech but were doing so at different resolutions, so while ʿUmar was using Ḥurūf to refer to many distinct elements (i.e. words) within a particular set (i.e. the Qirāʾa of Hishām), because he thought there could only be one correct set (i.e. his own), the prophet was using Aḥruf to state that there were seven such distinct sets (i.e. Qirāʾat), of which ʿUmar’s and Hishām’s are just two.
The fact that ʿUmar still recognized Hishām as reciting Sūrat al-Furqān demonstrates that the multiple sets (i.e. different Qirāʾat) do not have totally different elements within them, in fact, most of the elements in both sets are the same and correspond to one another. It is just in a few limited points where each reciter would be reciting something distinct.
Seven Aḥruf as Seven Qirāʾāt
This usage of Ḥarf to refer to companion Qirāʾa was known among early authorities in subsequent generations.
Consider three examples picked for demonstration purposes:
The companion Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 68) says about Q. 4:24:
عبد الرزاق، عَنِ ابْنِ جُرَيْجٍ، قَالَ: أَخْبَرَنِي عَطَاءٌ، أَنَّهُ سَمِعَ ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ يَرَاهَا الْآنَ حَلَالًا، وَأَخْبَرَنِي أَنَّهُ كَانَ يَقْرَأُ: فَمَا اسْتَمْتَعْتُمْ بِهِ مِنْهُنَّ إِلَى أَجَلٍ فَآتُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ، وَقَالَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ: فِي حَرْفِ أُبَيٍّ: إِلَى أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّ
In the Ḥarf of Ubayy it is fa-mā stamtaʿtum bihi minhunna ilā ajalin musamma fa ātūhunna ujūrahunna
The successor Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. c. 96) says about Q. 2:196:
أخبرنا عَبْدُ الرَّزَّاقِ، قَالَ: أَخْبَرَنَا الثَّوْرِيُّ، عَنْ مَنْصُورٍ وَالْأَعْمَشِ، عَنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ قَالَ: فِي حَرْفِ ابْنِ مَسْعُودٍ: أَقِيمُوا الْحَجَّ وَالْعُمْرَةَ (الى) لِلْبَيْتِ
In the Ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd it is aqīmū l-hajja wa l-ʿumrata ilā al-bayt
The successor Qatāda (d. 117) says about Q. 20:97:
حدثنا الحسن، قال: أخبرنا عبد الرزاق، قال: أخبرنا معمر، عن قتادة في حرف ابن مسعود وانْظُرْ إلى إلهِكَ الَّذي ظَلْتَ عَلَيْهِ عاكِفا لَنذْبَحَنَّهُ ثُمَّ لَنُحَرّقنَّهُ ثُمَّ لَنَنْسِفَنَّهُ في اليَمّ نَسْفا
In the Ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd it is wa-nẓur ilā ilāhika lladhī ẓalta ʿalayhi ʿākifan la-nadhbaḥannahu thumma la-nuḥarriqannahu thumma la-nansifannahu fī l-yammi nasfa
And there are other examples of this sort that can be brought.
Isn’t it clear that Ḥarf is being used for Qirāʾa ?
Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463) quotes the very early and important grammatical authority Khalīl b. Aḥmad (d. between 160 and 175) as saying:
The meaning of his (i.e. the prophet’s) words ‘Seven Aḥruf’ is Seven Qirāʾāt, and Ḥarf here is Qirāʾa
Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310) also understood the Seven Aḥruf to be Seven Qirāʾāt – with different companions reciting different words for a common point in the Qur’an.
Al-Ṭabarī was able to arrive at this interpretation by analyzing the earliest usage as found in the sources. For instance, he takes Ibn Masʿūd’s words below as a starting point:
Whoever recites per a Ḥarf should not shift from it to another
He (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd) – may Allah have mercy on him – means that whoever recites according to his Ḥarf, and his Ḥarf is his Qirāʾa, and that is what the Arabs say when referring to a Qirāʾa of a man ‘the Ḥarf of so-and-so’, just like they refer to a single isolated letter from the letters of the alphabet by saying ‘Ḥarf’, and they refer to a poem from the poems of a poet by saying ‘the word of so-and-so’
So the one who recites according to the Ḥarf of Ubayy, or the Ḥarf of Zayd, or the Ḥarf of one of those who recited from among the companions of the Messenger of Allah following one of the seven Aḥruf – should not shift from it to another – considering it (i.e. the alternative) to be superior …
He (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd) means by Ḥarf what we have defined, that is, the Qirāʾa of one of those who recited following one of the seven Aḥruf
And this interpretation also makes contextual sense, since all the reports in the complex depict the crux of the issue to be a difference in recitation between the companions.
He (i.e. Hishām) recited for him (i.e. the prophet) the Qirāʾa that I had heard him recite so the Messenger of Allah said: ‘that is how it was sent down’.
Then he (i.e. the prophet) said: ‘Recite O ʿUmar’ so I recited the Qirāʾa which he had taught me …
I recited a verse while another recited it with other than my Qirāʾa …
Ibn Masʿūd says:
We have differed in our Qirāʾa …
So if the whole controversy was about divergent Qirāʾāt then it makes no sense for the prophet’s answer, which resolved their confusion, not to be addressing the origins and legitimacy of their divergent Qirāʾāt.
This is what Abū Walīd al-Bājī (d. 474) realized:
His (i.e. the prophet’s) response to Hishām’s recitation ‘that is how it was sent down’ is an approval and permission for his Qirāʾa.
Then he instructed ʿUmar to recite to ensure that the mistake, error and change is not on his part. So when ʿUmar recited correctly he said ‘that is how it was sent down’, so he (i.e. the prophet) approved his (i.e. ʿUmar’s) recitation as well, and he declared that it (i.e. ʿUmar’s recitation) was a divinely revealed Qirāʾa.
Then he informed them both that the Qur’an was sent down per seven Aḥruf to make it easy on the Umma in reciting it.
He (i.e. the prophet) intends (i.e. by saying seven Aḥruf) – and God knows best – seven Qirāʾāt …
And that is why they say ‘so-and-so recited following the Ḥarf of Abī ʿAmr’ and ‘so-and-so recited according to the Ḥarf of Nāfiʿ’ they intend by that (i.e. the word ‘Ḥarf’) his Qirāʾa …
This is evidenced by the fact that what ʿUmar had objected from Hishām was a Qirāʾa which he (i.e. ʿUmar) himself recited differently, so the prophet permitted them both (i.e. to keep reciting as they do) and said ‘the Qur’an was sent down per seven Aḥruf’ so if Ḥarf is not Qirāʾa then what the prophet had said to them would not be a valid response to them!
A Question of Motives
Whatever problems we may have in deciphering its meaning, those who originally circulated the seven Aḥruf reports must have meant something in doing that and their audience must have also understood something from it. In other words these reports must have served a purpose.
The underlying psychological impulse of the seven Aḥruf reports, in my view, is an attempt to avoid strife and factionalism in the Umma by legitimizing the different companion recitations out there as equally valid.
This is brought to the fore in some reports in the complex such as this one from the companion Abū Juhaym al-Anṣārī:
Two men differed over a verse from the Qur’an, so one of them said: ‘I received it from the Messenger of Allah!’ and the other said: ‘I received it from the Messenger of Allah!’ so they asked the prophet and he said: The Qur’an is recited per Seven Aḥruf so do not dispute over the Qur’an for dispute over the Qur’an is Kufr (disbelief)
In other words, the prophet taught each man a different Ḥarf or recitation of the verse (with different wordings being recited) and this is not a problem since the Qur’an was revealed per seven Aḥruf.
The basic message of the seven Aḥruf reports is a warning: when you encounter a Qirāʾa which differs even at word-level from the one that you are acquainted with, then this should not result in dispute because it is possible that this Qirāʾa which seems foreign to you is also correct, for there was no single correct recitation but multiple.
Nor is there are any grounds for preferring one Qirāʾa over another, for as other reports in the complex put it:
Per whichever Ḥarf they recite then they have hit the mark (i.e. are correct)
So whoever recites from among them by a Ḥarf then it is as he recited
This position can be summed up in the memorable phrase:
So each Ḥarf (out of the seven) is Shāf (satisfactory) and Kāf (sufficient)
It was not so much important to identify and define the multiple Aḥruf as much as open up the possibility that any variant could ultimately belong to one of ‘those’ equally valid, divinely-revealed Aḥruf thereby closing the door to dispute over what the ‘true’ recitation was. Thus I see the prophetic statement as a pithy slogan reflecting the inherently ‘multi-form’ nature of the Qur’an (to borrow a term).
This is why the number ‘seven’ is used, a number which was figurative for ‘plurality’ and has been used in this manner in other reports.
The present Qirāʾāt and the Seven Aḥruf
But if Ḥarf means Qirāʾa then what is the difference between the Seven Aḥruf and the Seven canonical Qirāʾāt recited today?
I say: There is no categorical difference except for the hard historical fact of ʿUthmānic standardization which marks the dividing line between the original Aḥruf and the presently known Qirāʾāt.
In other words, Ḥarf is simply a companion’s Qirāʾa pre-ʿUthmānic standardization.
To elaborate: The situation in ʿUthmān’s time was such that different companions were reciting different recitations (with different wordings) and each one of them was claiming to have heard his distinct recitation from the prophet.
This should not have been a problem in theory since the seven Aḥruf reports legitimized the different recitations as equally valid (as seen above), but this is not what happened.
Not only were the differences in recitation causing doubt in the minds of some, it was fracturing the community and things had reached such a head that they were even ready to Takfīr each other.
A variant of the critical report which explains ʿUthmān’s momentous decision has Ḥudhayfa b. al-Yamān reporting the following to the Caliph:
I participated in the conquest of Armenia which was also attended by the people of Iraq and the people of Syria.
So the people of Syria would recite by the Qirāʾa of Ubayy b. Ka’b and would come with what that the people of Iraq had not heard before thus the people of Iraq would deem them disbelievers!
Similarly, the people of Iraq would recite the Qirāʾa of Ibn Masʿūd and would come with what the people of Syria had not heard before thus the people of Syria would deem them disbelievers!
Note how the issue was the difference between the two Qirāʾa, or we could say, the difference between the Ḥarf of Ubayy and the Ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd, and this difference was not minor but at the level of different wordings.
It is after hearing this alarming news that ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān called Zayd and asked him to put in writing a Muṣḥaf that was to be used as a standard.
Now when Zayd set out to accomplish his task, he could not put all the different variant words as found in the different Aḥruf in the Muṣḥaf could he?
After all, ʿUthmān’s standardization required that one word be written in the master-copy against any and all alternatives and this necessarily meant that these alternatives found in the other Aḥruf were eliminated.
Put another way, when Zayd was fixing the text of the Qur’an in writing he was essentially selecting between the different Aḥruf circulating out there before ending up with what can be called the ʿUthmānic Ḥarf (a single Ḥarf out of many).
To illustrate with an example:
حدثنا ابن عبد الأعلى، قال: ثنا محمد بن ثور، عن معمر، عن قتادة (وَقَضَى رَبُّكَ أَلا تَعْبُدُوا إِلا إِيَّاهُ) قال: أمر ألا تعبدوا إلا إياه، وفي حرف ابن مسعود: (وَصَّى رَبُّكَ ألا تَعْبُدُوا إِلا إِيَّاهُ)
The verse wa qaḍā rabbuka allā taʿbudū illā iyyāhu in the Ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd was wa waṣṣā rabbuka allā taʿbudū illā iyyāhu
Now Zayd could not have written both synonyms qaḍā and waṣṣā in the Muṣḥaf could he?
By selecting to record qaḍā he automatically excludes waṣṣā which is cast away to oblivion since ʿUthmān ordered all Maṣāḥīf that differed from his standard be destroyed and all recitation follow his standard.
And that is why we find the overwhelming proportion of variation between the seven or ten canonical Qirāʾāt found today (wrongly held to be Mutawātir back to the prophet) to be limited to divergent pronunciation of vowels (e.g. malik / mālik in Q. 1:3) and marking of consonants (e.g. a-fa-lā taʿqilūna / a-fa-lā yaʿqilūna in Q. 36:36), with extremely limited instances of variation at the textual level, at most, the addition or omission of one or two consonants (e.g. taḥtahā / min taḥtihā in Q. 9:100), this is because the seven canonical Qirāʾāt available today are all bound by the ʿUthmānic text (required to follow it).
In other words, the canonical Qirāʾāt are controlled by the skeleton of the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf and any recitation that differed from it was put out of circulation, and this was the whole point of standardization.
But the situation pre-standardization was much wilder and the variations were of a different order and at a greater scale.
This is what an early authority of the stature of Sufyān b. ʿUyayna (d. 198) explicitly confirms when he was asked whether the differences, mostly in pronunciation, between the Iraqi and Medinan reciters of his time is what the seven Aḥruf refers to.
Abū Ṭāhir said: I asked Sufyān b. ʿUyayna about the differences in the recitation of the Medinans and the Iraqis – does that enter into the Seven Aḥruf?
He said: No. The Seven Aḥruf is like their saying Halumma, Aqbil, Taʿāl, whichever of them you say is sufficient for you.
Abū Ṭāhir said: This is the position of Ibn Wahb.
Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh al-Iṣbahānī al-Muqrīʾ said: The meaning of these words of Sufyān is that the differences between the Iraqis and Medinans go back to a single Ḥarf out of those seven Aḥruf.
This is the position of Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī
In other words, differences in pronunciation, which is what the overwhelming majority of the seven canonical Qirāʾāt amount to, is small fish, a development that mostly occurred after the single Ḥarf had already been standardized.
We need to go back to pre-standardization times to encounter the real thing which involved whole-scale substitution of one word for another (Halumma for Taʿāl is the paradigmatic example), as well as addition of words and deletion of others.
Al-Ṭabarī had foreseen the possibility that some would equate the variation between the Qirāʾāt available in his time and the original seven Aḥruf referred to the in the reports and goes on to rebuke this opinion strongly:
As for the differences between the reciters in case endings, and in vowelization, and in transforming a letter to another, without a change in the script, then this is far-removed from the statement of the prophet ‘I was ordered to recite the Qur’an per seven Aḥruf’ – because it is known that no word from the words of the Qur’an in which the reciters have differed in their recitation in the manner just described leads to the Kufr of the one who disputes it in the verdict of any of the scholars of the community, while he (i.e. the prophet) had necessitated Kufr for disputation over it …
al-Ṭabarī is alluding to the reports from the prophet (the one from Abū Juhaym was discussed above) which equate disputing about the Qur’an as a result of differences between the Aḥruf to Kufr, but as al-Tabari notes, no one does Takfīr over disputes related to the Qirāʾāt which were circulating in his time and we even find some objecting to a recitation from among these.
This to him is clear proof that the Seven Aḥruf – disputation over which was considered Kufr – was something greater that is no longer in our hands. What is left is haggling over inconsequential detail with regard one Ḥarf.
We Don’t Have it All
Accepting the above means accepting that not all of what was revealed is found in the Muṣḥaf today.
Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr had no compunction in doing this.
As he iterates repeatedly:
Except that the Muṣḥaf of ʿUthmān which is in the hands of the people today is one Ḥarf out of them, and upon this (position) are the people of Knowledge – so take heed …
All this evidences that the seven Aḥruf which are referred to in the Hadith are not present in the hands of the people except the Ḥarf of Zayd b. Thabit which ʿUthmān united the Maṣāḥif upon …
This evidences the position of the scholars that there isn’t in the hands of the people from the seven Ḥurūf per which the Qur’an came down except a single Ḥarf, which is the skeleton of the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf and what can be accommodated by it of variation in vowelization and dotting from the rest of the Ḥurūf …
As for the Ḥarf of Zayd b. Thābit then that is what the people are upon in their Maṣāḥif and recitation today out of all the rest of the Ḥurūf because ʿUthmān united the people on its basis …
But the notion that we don’t have ‘all that was revealed’ or put another way ‘versions of what was revealed have been lost forever’ was indefensible to many.
I have already shown how Abū ʿUbayd (d. 224) and Ibn Qutayba (d. 276) were against Ṭabarī’s position precisely for this reason, and it did not take long for a counter-position to emerge.
How Can we Not Have it All?!
Some scholars, especially theologians, who were particularly sensitive to the implications of the notion of ‘lost revelation’ and its potential to be weaponized for polemics, were adamant that all these Seven Aḥruf are somehow still to be found in the Muṣḥaf as we have it today.
A prime example is Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 324) who is quoted as saying:
The Muslims are unanimous (have a consensus) that it is not permissible to forbid what Allah the Exalted has allowed of reciting per the Aḥruf which Allah the Exalted has revealed. Nor is it appropriate for the Umma to restrict what Allah the Exalted has given leeway in.
Rather they (all the Aḥruf) are present in our recitations, and they are scattered within the Qur’an, not known in specifics
This position was argued most persistently by a student of al-Ashʿarī (one intermediate generation removed), the famous Qāḍī al-Bāqilānī (d. 403), who states in his apologia for the Qur’an entitled al-Intiṣār:
The correct position is that these seven Aḥruf had manifested and become profusely transmitted from the Messenger, the Umma preserved them from him, and ʿUthmān and the group (of companions) fixed them in the Muṣḥaf, and notified us of their correctness, and left it to the people to choose from them as the Messenger had done, they only excised from that a recitation which was not established and which was relayed by solitary individuals which the Qur’an is not established by
We next encounter the state of the divide on this question in Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728) who was asked his opinion on it:
The vast majority of the scholars from the Salaf and the Imams uphold the position that they (i.e. the seven canonical Qirāʾāt) are a single Ḥarf from the seven Ḥurūf. In fact they say: The Muṣḥaf of ʿUthmān is one of the seven Ḥurūf …
Groups of jurists, reciters and theologians, however, uphold the position that this Muṣḥaf contains all the seven Aḥruf. This was reiterated by groups of theologians, such as the Qāḍī Abī Bakr al-Bāqilānī and others, on the basis that it is not permissible for the Umma to neglect transmitting any of the seven Aḥruf, and they (i.e. the Umma) agreed on copying this examplar ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf and to abandon the rest when ʿUthmān ordered the Qur’an to be copied from the sheets in which Abu Bakr and ʿUmar had written down the Quran, then ʿUthmān and in consultation with the companions sent to every town from the towns of the Muslims a Muṣḥaf (regional codice) and ordered all others apart from it to be abandoned.
These (theologians) say: It is not permissible to prohibit reciting per any of the seven Aḥruf
This is a typical theologian’s argument: It shouldn’t happen so it can’t have happened and the historical record can go into the bin.
I say: But this is exactly what happened and no emotional appeal will change that.
Furthermore, the only way one can credibly claim that the Muṣḥaf we have today accommodates all the different Aḥruf is by essentially equating the seven Aḥruf to the presently available canonical Qirāʾāt, something which does not stand up to scrutiny.
After all, as scholars who are true specialists in the Qur’an are intimately aware of: Many evidences of pre-standardization Ḥurūf that are not accommodated by the ʿUthmānic script have survived elsewhere.
Traces that Survive
For when we extend our net beyond the canonical Qirāʾāt to the Hadith, Shawādh and Tafsīr literature, we find hundreds of significant variants documented therein, some of which can be credibly identified as surviving remnants of the pre-standardization Aḥruf.
What we find in these companion recitations is substitution of one word for another, transposition of word order and even addition and omission of whole words and even phrases!
There is also no sign that any of this is dialectal in nature!
While many of the reports containing such variants can be deemed ‘weak’ from a traditional ʿIlm al-Ḥadīth perspective and conveniently ignored, there are a few that have impeccable credentials, being found in authoritative Sunni Hadith collections and beyond reproach in terms of their chains.
These instances of variation which survive provide only a small window into the state of affairs prior to ʿUthmānic standardization and some examples are given below:
(a) The substitution of ghayr for lā in Q. 1:7
ʿUmar used to recite: gahyra l-maghḍūbi ʿalayhim wa ghayra l-ḍālīn
غيرَ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وغيرَ الضالين
“Not those who are angered upon and not those who are astray”
(b) The addition of baʿḍ in Q. 3:159
Ibn ʿAbbās used to recite: wa shāwirhum fī baʿḍ al-amr
وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي بَعْضِ الْأَمْرِ
“And consult them in some affairs”
(c) The addition of kānat in Q. 4: 160
Ibn ʿAbbās used to recite ḥarramnā ʿalayhim ṭayyibātin kānat uḥillat lahum
حَرَّمْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ طَيِّبَاتٍ كَانَتْ أُحِلَّتْ لَهُمْ
“We forbade for them good things which had been permissible for them”
(d) The susbstitution of awthānā for inātha in Q. 4:117
ʿĀʾisha used to recite: in yadʿūna min dūnihi illā awthānā
إنْ يَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِهِ إلا أَوْثَانًا
“They worship apart from Him naught but idols”
(e) The addition of ṣāliḥatin and exchange of amāmahum for warāʾahum in Q. 18:79.
Ibn ʿAbbās used to recite: wa kāna amāmahum malikun yaʾkhudhu kulla safīnatin ṣāliḥatin ghaṣbā
وَكَانَ أَمَامَهُمْ مَلِكٌ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ صَالِحَةٍ غَصْبًا
“And there was in front of them a king taking over every good ship by usurpation”
(f) The transposition of tusallimū and substitution of tastaʾdhinū for tastanisū in Q. 24:27
Ibn Masʿūd used to recite: ḥattā tusallimū ʿalā ahlihā wa tastaʾdhinū
حتى تُسَلِّمُوا عَلى أهْلِها وتَسْتَأْذِنوا
“Until you greet their residents and seek permission”
Ibn ʿAbbās who used to recite in the same way comments that tastanisū is a ‘mistake from the scribes’
(g) The addition of qubuli in Q. 65:1
Ibn ʿUmar used to recite: idhā ṭallaqtumu l-nisāʾa fa-ṭalliqūhunna li-qubuli ʿiddatihinna
إِذَا طَلَّقْتُمُ النِّسَاءَ فَطَلِّقُوهُنَّ لِقُبُلِ عِدَّتِهِنَّ
“If you divorce the women then divorce them at the beginning of their waiting period”
(h) The deletion of mā khalaqa in Q. 92:3
Ibn Masʿūd used to recite: wa l-dhakari wa l-unthā
وَ […] الذَّكَرِ وَالأُنْثَى
“By the male and the female” instead of “By what created the male and the female”
Attitudes to the non-ʿUthmānic Ḥurūf
Even though ʿUthmān burnt the Maṣāḥif which did not accord with his standard, oral transmission of recitations that did not agree with it continued circulating to some degree as we have seen above.
What was the attitude of early scholars towards reciting these wordings which did not conform to the ʿUthmānic skeleton?
Consider the famous recitation of ʿUmar in Q. 62:9 which is authentically transmitted from him and which differs from the ʿUthmānic standard.
One of many reports which attests to this variant recitation is given below:
Ibn Wahb – Yūnus – Ibn Shihāb (i.e. al-Zuhrī) – Sālim b. ʿAbdallāh b. ʿUmar – ʿAbdallah (b. ʿUmar):
ʿUmar died whilst not reciting this verse in which Allah mentions Friday except (in this way):
yā ayyuhā l-ladhīna āmanū idhā nūdiya li l-ṣalāti min yawmi l-jumuʿa fāmḍū ilā dhikri-llāh
Now the same Ibn Wahb (d. 197) (in the chain above) transmits an important statement from his teacher, the famous Mālik b. Anas (d. 179), who was asked about the validity of reciting the verse in this way:
It was said to Mālik: Do you consider (it valid) that it (i.e. the verse) be recited the way ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb recited it “fāmḍū ilā dhikri-llāh”?
He (i.e. Mālik) said: That is permissible. The Messenger of Allah said: ‘The Qur’an was sent down per Seven Aḥruf – so recite of them whichever is easiest’
Likewise mā taʿlamūna and yaʿlamūna
Mālik said: I don’t see in their difference in the like of this any harm
He (i.e. Mālik) also said: And the people (i.e. companions) had their Maṣāḥif, and the six to whom ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb willed (i.e. appointed to the Shūra committee) each had a Muṣḥaf 
Note how Mālik legitimizes the difference between fāmḍū and fasʿaw by appealing to the Seven Aḥruf reports, this shows that he understood the Aḥruf to be word-level variation in how the Qur’an was recited. More importantly, he links this variation to differences found in the Maṣāḥif of the foremost companions who each had their own personal copy.
Mālik may have taken an accommodating stance on the question of these non-ʿUthmānic variants here, but the picture changes when we consider other pieces of evidence.
We know, for instance, that Mālik forbade praying behind an Imam who recites something from the recitations attributed to the companions that deviates from the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf.
Ṣaḥnūn (d. 240) records in his Mudawwana Mālik’s position that:
The one who prays behind a man reciting with the recitation of Ibn Masʿūd (in prayer) should exit and abandon him
ʿĪsā b. Dīnār (d. 212) has Ibn al-Qāsim (d. 194) relaying Mālik’s position concerning a Muṣḥaf that had been written following Ibn Masʿūd’s recitation:
I deem that the Imam should prohibit it (i.e. such a Muṣḥaf) from being sold, and punish the one who recites according to it.
He prohibits them from reciting with it and from displaying it
Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr reveals that the approach in his time involved reconciling Mālik’s seemingly contradictory statements by reading them together:
This (i.e. the allowance of Mālik) is interpreted by people of knowledge today to be (an allowance) of reciting it in other than the Ṣalāt (ritual prayer), as a means of imparting knowledge or acquainting oneself with what has been transmitted in that of specialist knowledge – Allah knows best
Elsewhere he explains the reason why it was not allowed to be recited in the ritual prayer:
Its meaning (i.e. Mālik’s positive statement) as far as I’m concerned is that it is allowed to be recited in other than Ṣalāt (ritual prayer) … the reason why it (i.e. a non-ʿUthmānic recitation) is not allowed to be recited in the Ṣalāt is that everything other than the Muṣḥaf of ʿUthmān is not certain (proven to be from the prophet), rather, it falls under the Sunan (i.e. transmitted material from the prophet) which were transmitted by solitary narrators …
I say: Agreed that the ʿUthmānic text is very, very well preserved, but whose fault is it that the other alternatives were not equally well-transmitted? Furthermore, the strength of how well the ʿUthmānic standard was transmitted tells us nothing of whether the Zayd-led committee got it right when fixing the text in the first place.
But the general scholarly attitude towards the non-ʿUthmānic recitations hardened considerably with time.
Just to cite one representative example from the Qur’an expert Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAmmār al-Mahdawī (d. 440):
The (variation between the) seven Ḥurūf which the prophet declared the Qur’an had come down per – are of two types.
The First Type: Addition of a word and deletion of another, substitution of one word in the place of another, and transposition of a word before another.
This is like what has been transmitted from some “laysa ʿalaykum junāḥ an tabtaghū faḍlan min rabbikum fī mawāsim al-hajj” (2:198), and it has been transmitted from some “Ḥā Mīm Sīn Qāf” (without ʿAyn) (42:1-2) and also “idhā jāʾa fatḥu-llāhi wa l-naṣr” (transposing fatḥ and naṣr) (110:1), then this type and what is similar to it is abandoned, it is not permitted to recite according to it.
The one who recites a single instance of it, if it is not in rebellion or in dispute, it is obligatory on the Imam to discipline him, either by beating or imprisonment, per what he sees fit according to his Ijtihād.
But if he disputes on it and calls people towards it then then killing him becomes obligatory, because of the statement of the prophet “dispute in the Qur’an is Kufr” and because of the Ijmāʿ (consensus) of the Umma in following the Muṣḥaf that has been fixed in writing
On What Grounds?
We see from the above that reciting anything which did not conform to the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf, even if it is reliably attributed to the companions of the prophet, gradually became anathema, even if it is outside the formal context of ritual prayer.
But on what basis can this be justified?
After all, the tradition-complex asserts that Qur’an came down per all these Aḥruf and allows a reciter to recite per any of them.
There are three main positions that have been usefully summarized by Khatib and Khan and which I will comment on below.
The phenomenon of abrogation, in which some of what was recited as Qur’an was ‘raised up’ and put ‘out of circulation’, is accepted by most Muslims, and has obvious relevance to the question of the missing Aḥruf.
Consider the following illustrative example:
ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb found a Muṣḥaf in the lap of a youth in the Masjid in which (was written):
النَّبِيُّ أَوْلَى بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَهُوَ أَبٌ لَهُمْ
“The prophet has a greater claim over the believers than their own selves and he is a father for them” (33:6)
So he (i.e. ʿUmar) said: ‘Efface it O lad!’ but he (i.e. the lad) said: ‘By Allah I will not efface it, for it is (like this) in the Muṣḥaf of Ubayy b. Kaʿb!’
He (i.e. ʿUmar) set out to Ubayy (i.e. to question him) so he (i.e. Ubayy) said to him: ‘I was busy with the Qur’an while you were busy bargaining in the markets, you would be displaying your cloaks on your neck (for sale) by the door of Ibn al-ʿAjmāʾ!’
Now there are statements attributed to later authorities which claim that this recitation was the ‘former’ one.
ʿIkrima (d. 105) is quoted as saying:
There was in the former Ḥarf “al-nabiyyu awlā bi l-mūʾminīna min anfusihim wa huwa abun lahum”
Similarly Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110) is quoted as saying:
This can be taken to imply that this was a Qirāʾa that became abrogated even though it is not clear from the statements themselves, for it could be that ʿIkrima and Ḥasan meant that this was what was also recited before compliance with the text produced by ʿUthmānic standardization became the norm.
But if abrogation really happened then it is certainly strange that Ubayy – who touts his superior knowledge in Qur’an compared to ʿUmar – does not know of it. Stranger still is how ʿUmar does not get back at Ubayy by exposing the fact of this supposed abrogation to him. We must also assume that this incident occurred after the prophet’s death since if the prophet was still alive then recourse could be taken to him (and ʿUmar would have dragged Ubayy to the prophet just as he had dragged Hishām).
It must be kept in mind that there is no single record of an explicit prophetic statement declaring abrogation of the seven Aḥruf in favour of a single Ḥarf, but if abrogation had to happen then the critical moment for it to have occurred was in the last year of the prophet’s life.
Such a notion finds support in a creative reading of the famous report which has Gabriel coming to review the Qur’an with the prophet once every year but twice in the last year of the prophet’s life.
Abū Hurayra reports:
The Qur’an would be presented for review to the prophet once every year, so it was presented for review twice in the year in which he died
If Gabriel felt the need to review it once again after having already reviewed it once that year, and if this was going to be the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra (last review) of the whole Qur’an that would happen in the prophet’s life then it is quite natural to infer that there must have been some special significance to it since the form of the Qur’an as the prophet would leave it to the community was being fixed and no abrogation would follow after that due to the prophet’s death.
It follows from this that the question of which companion attended/witnessed the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra became mightily important as the basis for legitimizing that Qirāʾa over others.
It is in this context that we encounter statements preserved by al-Baghawī (d. 516) in his Sharḥ al-Sunna and attributed without any chain to the early Qur’an reciter Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 74), significant for introducing the Qirāʾa of Zayd in Kufa for the first time, arguing for the superiority of Zayd’s Ḥarf on the basis of his learning the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra from the prophet and giving this as a reason for his Qirāʾa being chosen as the standard.
Zayd b. Thābit recited (the Qur’an) twice to the Messenger of Allah in the year in which Allah caused him (i.e. the prophet) to die.
This Qirāʾa is called the Qirāʾa of Zayd b. Thābit because he wrote it down for the Messenger of Allah, and read it back to him, and he witnessed the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra, and he used to teach it to the people until he died.
That is why Abu Bakr and ʿUmar relied on him in gathering it and ʿUthmān put him in charge of writing the Maṣāḥif
The reason why ‘witnessing the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra’ should be seen as significant is stated explicitly in a statement which al-Baghawī attributes to anonymous authorities.
It is said: Zayd b. Thābit witnessed the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra which the Messenger of Allah reviewed with Gabriel, and it is the one which determined what was abrogated and what remained
Here we finds the seeds of an argument for ʿUthmānic supremacy which rested on the assumption that it is his Ḥarf (or Zayd’s to be more accurate) that represented the ‘final draft’ of the Qur’an as it were, over-riding all that came before.
This position finds full-fledged expression when Ibn Taymiyya says:
As for the Shādh Qirāʾāt which do not conform to the textual skeleton of the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf … so these if they are correctly attributed to some of the companions then is it allowed to recite by them in the Ṣalāt?
There are two positions among scholars …
One is that it is permissible to do so because the companions and successors would recite by these Ḥurūf in the Ṣalāt.
Second is that it is not permissible, and this is the position of the majority of the scholars.
(The reason is) because these Qirāʾāt are not established in a Mutawātir way from the prophet, and even if they are established (in such a way) then they have been abrogated by the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra … and the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra is the Qirāʾa of Zayd b. Thābit and others. It is the one that the well-guided Caliphs Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān and ʿAlī ordered be written in the Maṣāḥif …
So there we have it, there were many Aḥruf circulating, but what is currently available to us is the Ḥarf that Gabriel recited for the prophet in that final review while the former alternative recitations become abrogated.
This is a neat solution that can explain what happened to variant wordings that are found in non-ʿUthmānic Qirāʾāt, but there is only one problem, and it is a big one – if his Qirāʾa was abrogated then no one seems to have told Ibn Masʿūd, for he kept teaching it many years after the prophet’s death and it was kept alive by his students even after ʿUthmānic standardization (see below).
The final nail in the coffin for this solution, however, is that it is Ibn Masʿūd who is said to have learnt the Qur’an from the prophet after the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra (not Zayd), and indeed his claim is much stronger, being authentically reported from Ibn ʿAbbās.
Ibn ʿAbbās asked: Which of the two Qirāʾāt (i.e. Zayd’s or Ibn Masʿūd’s) do you deem to be earlier? They said: The Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh. He (i.e. Ibn ʿAbbās) said: No, rather it (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd’s) is the last.
The Qur’an would be presented for review to the Messenger of Allah once every year, so when it was the year in which he died it was presented for review to him twice, so ʿAbdallāh witnessed it and he knew what was abrogated of it and what was changed
In a variant of this report:
Which of the two Qirāʾāt was last – the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh or the Qirāʾa of Zayd? We said: The Qirāʾa of Zayd. He said: No.
The Messenger of Allah would present the Qur’an for review to Gabriel once every year, so when it was in the year that he died he presented it for review twice, and the last of the Qirāʾāt was the Qirāʾa of Abdallah
What these statements demonstrate, in my view, is that ‘attending the ʿArḍa al-Akhīra’ was a trump-card that began being used very early in the rivalry between the companion Qirāʾāt but it does not in any way establish that the ʿUthmānic Ḥarf was accepted as abrogating the others.
(b) Exegetical Glosses
Some scholars explain all the substitute and additional wordings found in the non-ʿUthmānic Qirāʾāt as personal commentary that the companions added in order to clarify the meaning of verses to their students.
While there are indeed cases where this is very likely there are many others where this can be categorically ruled out.
Consider the example provided below:
Abā Naḍra said: I recited for Ibn ʿAbbās
fa-mā stamtaʿtum bihi minhunna fa ātūhunna ujūrahunna farīḍatan
“For what you have enjoyed from them then give them their dowries mandatorily”
Ibn ʿAbbās said:
فَمَا اسْتَمْتَعْتُمْ بِهِ مِنْهُنَّ إِلَى أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّى فَآتُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ
fa-mā stamtaʿtum bihi minhunna ilā ajalin musamma fa ātūhunna ujūrahunna
“For what you have enjoyed from them to a specified term then give them their dowries”
Abū Naḍra said: I said to him: We do not recite it in this way!
Ibn ʿAbbās said: By Allah – Allah revealed it this way!
There is no doubt in this case that this is a Qirāʾa and not a Tafsīr since Ibn ʿAbbās is challenged about the wording being different from the standard ʿUthmānic Qirāʾa and insists that the additional wordings are revelation.
The only position that takes care of all the pieces of evidence, as Khatib and Khan admit, is that one Ḥarf was chosen by ʿUthmān and the others abandoned, without there being any special significance to the Ḥarf chosen.
This is what al-Ṭabarī had honestly concluded when he stated that the Ḥarf we have now merely goes back to a political decision by the third Caliph in keeping with his view of what was best for the welfare of the Muslims.
Any compliance on the part of the early generations rested solely on upholding the decision which the ruler had made, apparently with the agreement of the companions.
This is exactly how Ibn Kathīr’s (d. 774) anonymous source justifies the decision:
The one who united them upon a single Qirāʾa (i.e. Ḥarf) was the Commander of the Faithful ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, one of the guiding and well-guided Caliphs (Rāshidīn Mahdiyyīn) whom we were ordered to follow.
He united them upon it (i.e. a single Qirāʾa) when he saw in their differences in Qirāʾa what was leading to division in the Umma and accusations of disbelief against one another.
So he prepared the examplar Maṣāḥif (i.e. regional codices) based on the ‘last review’ which Gabriel reviewed with the Messenger of Allah in the last Ramaḍān of his life.
And he (i.e. the Caliph) imposed on them that they should not recite with other than it, nor take recourse in the allowance (i.e. to recite per any of them) which was supposed to be an accommodation for them but which was becoming a cause for division and disagreement.
The same way ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb had imposed on the people to abide by the triple Ṭalāq in one go (i.e. to consider it irrevocable even if pronounced in one seating) until they followed that and became prolific in it. He (i.e. ʿUmar) had said ‘if only we were to impose it on them’ and he did impose it on them.
In the same way he (i.e. ʿUmar) used to prohibit Mutʿa (i.e. conducting ʿUmra) in the months of Hajj so that visitation to the House does not cease in other than the months of Hajj (i.e. since people used to do their ʿUmra when they come for Hajj), and Abū Mūsā (i.e. al-Ashʿarī) use to rule allowing Tamattuʿ but he abandoned his Fatwa in compliance with the Commander of the Faithful and in obedience to the well-guided Imams (Mahdiyyīn)
This is all that it comes down to.
Some may be fine with this, but what about those of us who do not consider ʿUthmān to be a rightly-guided Caliph? What should our stance to his Ḥarf or Qirāʾa, this presently available Muṣḥaf, be?
After all the Shīʿī Madhhab does not abide by ʿUmar’s Ijtihād in imposing ‘triple Ṭalāq’ or banning Mutʿat al-Ḥajj!
Khatib and Khan resort to making a theological argument here:
One can say that here abrogation is seen as effectively taking place by God’s Divine Will (irādah kawniyyah) rather than an explicit revealed instruction (irādah sharʿ iyyah). Divine Will has effectively excluded those variant readings from the muṣḥaf of this ummah, and since history is intended by God, then the Qur’an we have in our hands today is exactly the Qur’an that God wanted us to have, and the loss of variations that did not make it into the muṣḥaf was also intended by God. What the Muslim ummah would collectively agree upon (ijmāʿ), recite, and practice was included in the foreknowledge of God prior to the creation of the universe.
With the passage of time, some variant readings were effectively ruled extinct by Allah’s Divine Decree concerning the consensus of the community, just as if such readings were abrogated by legislation
In simpler words, if it is this way then God must have wanted it this way!
Seeing God’s Will in history is particularly sensitive theological terrain since we might end up opening the determinism/free-will debate, but if the majority of Muslims see the hidden hand of God in the supposed infallible consensus of the companions then we as Shias see the hand of God in the infallible person of the Imam and not any supposed consensus (which excludes the Imam), otherwise one could make the same argument about the consensus of the companions regarding the Caliphate of Abū Bakr which we see as the primary act of usurpation which God did not in any way wish to happen.
But was there even a consensus of companions in the first place?
The Curious Afterlife of the Ibn Masʿūdian Ḥarf
Ibn Masʿūd’s reaction to the ʿUthmānic decision to restrict the community to a single text-type (the Muṣḥaf) was not positive as this comment demonstrates:
Per whose Qirāʾa do you instruct me to recite?!
I had learnt seventy-odd Sūra from the Messenger of Allah while Zayd was only a child with two forelocks playing with children!
It is in this context that we understand Ibn Masʿūd’s declaration when the directive to efface all other Maṣāḥif that did not agree with the ʿUthmānic standard was made:
O people of Iraq – hide the Maṣāḥif which are with you and conceal them, for Allah says “and the one who conceals will come with what he has concealed on the Day of Judgment” (3:161) – so meet Allah with the Maṣāḥif
This sensitive declaration was not welcome in other quarters as al-Zuhrī (d. 124) informs us
It was conveyed to me that this statement of Ibn Masʿūd was disliked by men from among the best of the companions of the prophet
Ibn Masʿūd’s position seems to be that the different recitations (despite their differences at word-level) should be allowed to co-exist and not restricted in favour of a single officially sanctioned recitation.
Indeed Ibn Masʿūd’s influence in Kufa especially was such that his Ḥarf continued to be transmitted there despite its deviation from the ʿUthmānic Ḥarf.
An authority of the stature of Ibn Mujāhid relates:
As for the people of Kufa then the pre-dominant (recitation) among its early residents was the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd – may Allah the Exalted be pleased with him – because it is he who was sent to them by ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb so that he can teach them and thus his Qirāʾa was adopted before ʿUthmān united the people upon a single Ḥarf.
Then it did not cease to be among his associates (i.e. students) after him and the people would take it from them, like ʿAlqama, al-Aswad b. Yazīd, Masrūq b. al-Ajdaʿ, Zirr b. Ḥubaysh, Abī Wāʾil, Abī ʿAmr al-Shaybānī, ʿUbayda al-Salmānī and others.
Ibn Mujāhid quotes al-Aʿmash (d. 148) as saying:
I encountered the residents of Kufa when the Qirāʾa of Zayd was not among them except how the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh is amongst you today, no one recites by it except a man or two
Ibn Mujāhid quotes Masrūq (d. 62) as saying:
ʿAbdallāh would teach us (the Qur’an) in the Masjid, then we would sit after him instructing the people, so the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh did not cease circulating in Kufa, the people wouldn’t know any other apart from it.
Ibn Mujāhid then comments:
The first to teach in Kufa the Qirāʾa that ʿUthmān united the people upon was Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī, and his name was ʿAbdallāh b. Ḥabīb, he sat in the grand Masjid and devoted himself to teaching the people the Qur’an.
He remained teaching it for a period of fourty years according to what Abū Isḥāq al-Sabīʿī stated, until he died in the governorship of Bishr b. Marwān.
I consider this whole section a smoking-gun, not only do all those quoted above (including Ibn Mujāhid himself) equate Ḥarf and Qirāʾa, Ibn Mujāhid considers the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf to be a single Ḥarf, and this is what I have been arguing throughout!
The Ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd did not die a natural death in Kufa, rather, it was the continual pressure of rulers, especially the tyrannical governor of Iraq al-Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf (d. 95), that forced it out of public circulation in favour of the ʿUthmānic standard.
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241) quotes Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161) as saying:
Their small ones and big ones, meaning the residents of Kufa, used to recite the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd, and al-Hajjaj used to penalize for it
Then Sufyān gives an example of Ḥajjāj’s criticism of Ibn Masʿūd’s Qirāʾa pertaining to Q. 38:23.
Ibn Mas’ud used to recite:
inna hādhā akhī lahu tisʿun wa-tisʿūna naʿjatan unthā
إِنَّ هَذَا أَخِي لَهُ تِسْعٌ وَتِسْعُونَ نَعْجَةً أُنْثَى
“This is my brother, he has ninety-nine female ewes”
Did Ibn Masʿūd think naʿja (ewe) could be male (i.e. such that he needs to specify its gender by adding the word)?!
A fragment of the speech of al-Ḥajjāj in which he enacts this policy has been preserved for us.
The famed reciter Abū Bakr (Shuʿba) b. ʿAyyāsh (d. 193) reports from his teacher, the more famous reciter ʿĀṣim b. Abī al-Najūd (d. 127), that the latter heard al-Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf say after quoting this verse “Fear Allah as much as you are able and hear and obey” (64:16):
This (verse) is for the Servant of Allah, the Trustee of Allah, and His Vicegerant (i.e. the Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān), there is not in it (i.e. obeying him) any reward.
I swear by Allah if I were to order a man to exit from a specific door of the Masjid and he takes another it would be Ḥalāl for me to shed his blood and take his property!
I swear by Allah if I were to punish a man from the tribe of Rabīʿa for a crime committed by a man from Muḍar it would be Ḥalāl for me!
How strange is the case of the slave of Hudhayl (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd) he claimed that he recites a Qur’an that is from Allah – I swear by Allah that it is not but a chant from the chantings of the desert Bedouins!
I swear by Allah if I had encountered (i.e. been contemporary with) the slave of Hudhayl I would have struck off his neck!
May Allah destroy al-Ḥajjāj! What made him so daring against Allah! How can he say this about the Righteous Servant ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd!
In a variant transmission of the same incident, ʿĀṣim says that he heard al-Ḥajjāj say ‘upon the pulpit’ in the context of the same verse Q. 64:16:
“Fear Allah as much as you are able” this is for Allah and there is in it reward (from Allah) “and hear and obey” it is good for your own selves and for the Commander of the Faithful ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān, there is not in it (i.e. obedience to the ruler) any reward (i.e. it is just good for you)!
I swear by Allah if I were to order you to exit from this door and you exit from that door then your blood would be permissible for me!
I will not find anyone reciting per the Qirāʾa of Ibn Umm ʿAbd (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd) except that I will strike off his neck!
I will scrape it (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd’s recitation) off from the Muṣḥaf even by using the rib-bone of a pig!
Abū Bakr says that he recounted this to his other teacher, the famed reciter and traditionist Aʿmash so the latter said:
I also heard him (i.e. Ḥajjāj) say that, so I said: ‘I swear by Allah that I will keep reciting it even if your nose be rubbed in the dust”
That was to myself (i.e. I said it in my heart)
I say: May Allah have mercy on you Abā Muḥammad, it goes without saying that you didn’t voice this aloud, for the tyrant would have killed you on the spot!
Abū Bakr concludes:
So two witnesses have been brought forth, that is, Aʿmash and ʿĀṣim
I say: You have done well, for two witnesses are enough to prove a case in the court of Law
Ibn Kathīr comments:
This is from the daring of al-Ḥajjāj – may Allah detest him – and his insolence in speaking evil words and shedding forbidden blood.
He attacked the Qirāʾa of Ibn Masʿūd – may Allah be pleased with him – because it differed from the Qirāʾa based on the exemplar Muṣḥaf upon which ʿUthmān had united the people.
It is evident that Ibn Masʿūd reverted back to the decision of ʿUthmān and agreed with it – Allah knows best
I say: How can it be claimed that Ibn Masʿūd recanted his Qirāʾa and agreed with what ʿUthmān had done when his Qirāʾa kept circulating and being transmitted in Kufa for generations to come as this section demonstrates!
A Lasting Legacy
To get a glimpse at the continued impact that the Ibn Masʿūdian Ḥarf had, especially in Kufa, consider the statements of al-Jaṣṣāṣ (d. 370) in his Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar al-Ṭaḥāwī when discussing the condition that the fasting for expiation of an oath should be done consecutively:
Allah the Exalted says:
فمن لم يجد فصيام ثلاثة أيام
fa man lam yajid fa-ṣiyām thalāthat ayyām (5:89)
“So whoever does not have the means then a fast of three days”
It does not suffice him except that he fast them consecutively
Aḥmad (i.e. al-Ṭaḥāwī) said: This (condition) is because it is authentically established among them to be from the Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd
فمن لم يجد فصيام ثلاثة أيام متتابعات
fa man lam yajid fa-ṣiyāmu thalāthati ayyāmin mutatābiʿāt
“So whoever does not have the means then a fast of three days consecutively”
And the Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh was Mustafiḍ (widespread) in Kufa
Ibrāhīm (i.e. al-Nakhaʿī) said: We would be taught while we were in the elementary schools and while we were just small children the Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh the way we were taught the Ḥarf of Zayd.
It is also transmitted from Ibrāhīm that he said: It is in our Qirāʾa – fa-ṣiyāmu thalāthati ayyāmin mutatābiʿāt
This demonstrates that its (i.e. Ibn Mas’ud’s recitation’s) Istifāḍa (widespreadness) was to be found among them
Saʿīd b. Jubayr used to lead the ritual prayer in Kufa in the nights of the month of Ramaḍān, so he would recite following the Ḥarf of Zayd one night, and following the Ḥarf of of ʿAbdallāh the next night.
The Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh was Mashhūr (famous) among them, Mustafiḍ (widespread), an addition can be made to the text of the Qur’an with the like of it
Note, at the outset, how Saʿīd b. Jubayr is said to have recited the Ḥarf of Zayd one night and the Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh the other, can this mean anything other than that he used to recite the Qirāʾa of Zayd one night and the Qirāʾa of ʿAbdallāh the other night?!
This also sheds light on an enigmatic statement preserved by al-Ṭabarī:
Saʿīd b. Jubayr used to recite the Qur’an per two Ḥarfs
These two Ḥarfs are evidently the ones of Zayd b. Thābit and ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd!
Now al-Jaṣṣāṣ takes the radical position that a word found in the Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh can be added to the text of the Qur’an since the Ḥarf of ʿAbdallāh was Mashhūr and Mustafiḍ among the Kufans and therefore of equal strength to the Mutawātir Ḥarf of ʿUthmān which it could modify.
In other words, in a move that pre-empts modern critical scholarship of the Qur’an by many centuries, he distinguishes between the ideal Qur’an as fixed by the prophet and the reception of the text in its different transmissions, going so far to assert that a strong enough transmission can allow emendations to the ʿUthmānic text.
If the prophet was the source of the differences in companion recitations and if he declared all the different companion recitations to be divine and equally valid (as the seven Aḥruf reports have it) then then there is no great problem in ʿUthmān selecting one out of the seven.
But did the prophet really do so?
If the answer is yes, the follow-up question becomes: Why would Allah reveal the Qur’an per seven alternative Qirāʾāt which differ in wordings and have additions and deletions between them?
After all, there is nothing dialectal about the alternative wordings found in what survives of these original companion Qirāʾāt to support a motive of ‘ease’.
What we predominantly find instead is ‘different ways of saying the same thing’, the kind of variation that you would typically expect from mistakes that occur in an environment that was predominantly oral in nature.
We now turn to the Shīʿī sources where we find a different narrative that may, just may, solve the whole puzzle.
 I must first acknowledge Professor Yasin Dutton’s brilliant article “Orality, Literacy and the ‘Seven Aḥruf’ Hadith”, Journal of Islamic Studies, 23:1 (2012), 1-49. I may not agree with all his conclusions but it is his work that shed new light on this old problem and moved the discussion forward. It inspired me to trace the evolution of solutions as advanced historically, concentrating especially on the early period. Another critical review of the problem in the English language is Shaykh Ammar Khatib and Dr. Nazir Khan’s “The Origins of the Variant Readings of the Qur’an” (https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/the-origins-of-the-variant-readings-of-the-quran). I must admit not to have consulted it while writing the first two parts of my series (beyond glancing through it when the paper first came out in 2019) but I have rectified this oversight and do engage with their beneficial research herein.
 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’.
 The difference in recitation could be limited to a single ‘letter’ within a ‘word’ but changing the letter necessarily means changing the word, either into a totally different word or into a new form of the word.
 A whole can be referred to by its constituent part, or a set can be referred to by an element within it.
 As al-Dānī puts it: “That is why the prophet named a Qirāʾa (recitation) a Ḥarf even though it (i.e. any Qirāʾa) consists of a lot of speech, because it (the Qirāʾa) consists (i.e. at its most atomistic level) of a Ḥarf whose arrangement has been transposed, abbreviated, transformed into something else, added to or subtracted from”. ibid. Note that al-Dānī gives this as one of two possibilities and not his chosen position.
 The wording is very precise, these are seven Aḥruf (i.e. Qirāʾāt) of the Qur’an, not seven Qur’an’s. The Qur’an is still one, but some points within it can be recited differently without changing it being the Qur’an.
 There could be vast swathes of the Qur’an where there is no variation in recitation. But it just takes one variant point to consider this distinct recitation a separate Ḥarf.
 Muṣannaf ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Vol. 5, Pg. 354, No. 9623 (https://shamela.ws/book/84/2543). Correcting the lil-bayt found in this report, which is likely a mistake, for what has been reliably attributed to Ibn Masʿūd and his students elsewhere i.e. ilā al-bayt, see for example, Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 3, Pg. 7, No. 3187 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/1732). The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ.
 At one point in his discussion al-Ṭabarī even parses Seven Qirāʾāt for Seven Aḥruf showing that he saw the two to be the same. See Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 65 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/77) where he says: ‘If this is so, then the community by abandoning transmitting all the seven Qirāʾāt were not abandoning that which they were obligated to transmit, rather, what was obligatory on them to do was what they did (i.e. abandon six of them)’
 Because the poem is made up, at its most atomistic level, by a word, so they refer to the whole poem as ‘word’
 Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 52 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/64). Of course, where al–Ṭabarī stumbles is when he gives these different Qirāʾāt a wholly dialectal framing and then claims that six of them have been lost indefinitely.
 The earliest writers who wrote on the problem a few centuries after the events were not ignorant of this interpretation but could not identify what the seven would be from among the plethora of Qirāʾat claiming to trace back to the prophet in their times. Further in time, anyone proposing it was mistakenly thought to be anachronistically conflating the seven Aḥruf with the seven Qirāʾāt that only became standardized by Ibn Mujāhid (d. 324) in the fourth century! Thus al-Zarkashī (d. 794) calls it the ‘weakest’ of all the different interpretations he goes on to list. See his al-Burhān fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, Vol. 1, Pg. 214 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/11436/232). But how can it even be countenanced that a figure of Khalīl b. Aḥmadʾs stature, who in any case died before Ibn Mujāhid’s selection of the seven, was confusing the seven Aḥruf to the seven canonical Qirāʾat that came to be – as an ignoramus among the laymen might do today?!
 This is the one that was developed by Ibn Qutayba and which took its cue from Q. 22:11, the only instance where the word Ḥarf occurs in the Qur’an. Ḥarf therein clearly connotes ‘edge’ or ‘side’ but a figurative usage was derived so as to interpret seven Aḥruf per which the Qur’an was revealed to be seven ‘ways’ – but seven ways of what? Ibn Qutayba proposed that they are seven ways (categories) of allowable transformation which he reconstructed from the Qirāʾāt available to him. See Taʾwīl Mushkil al-Qurʾān, Pg. 31 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/23596/30). We consequently end up with a highly abstract interpretation of the prophet’s statement, an interpretation which was picked up and developed by scholars who came after such as Abū al-Faḍl al-Rāzī (d. 454) before being popularized by Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833). I have already critiqued this interpretation in Part I but another criticism that can be added here is that it leads to an unjustified break in the key report of ʿUmar and Hishām since the Ḥurūf mentioned by ʿUmar in the first part of the report has to be interpreted differently from the seven Aḥruf in the prophetic statement that concludes the report while the two are clearly related. See al-Nashr fī al-Qirāʾāt al-ʿAshr, Vol. 1, Pg. 24 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/22642/33) where Ibn al-Jazarī says that ‘it is highly likely’ that the Ḥurūf mentioned by ʿUmar are different Qirāʾāt (words vocalized) while the seven Aḥruf mentioned by the prophet are seven ‘ways’. But why would the same word (i.e. Ḥarf) in two different forms of plurality be connoting two different meanings while found in the same report and part of the same dialogue?
 Thus I do not see them as complete systems with clearly-defined and well-delineated boundaries
 For example: “The disbeliever eats in seven intestines’ (https://sunnah.com/bukhari:5396) where the figurative usage is uncontroversial. This is no doubt a minority position as far as the Aḥruf reports are concerned, but al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (d. 544) already knows of scholars who interpreted the seven in the seven Aḥruf reports as alluding to plurality (not a discrete number), see Ikmāl al-Muʿallim bi Fawāʾid Muslim, Vol. 3, Pg. 187 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/32843/1514). This was also the position adopted by Mullā ʿAlī Qārī (d. 1014) and Shāh Waliyyullāh Dihlawī (d. 1176) among others. See Awjaz al-Masālik ilā Muwaṭṭaʾ Mālik, Vol. 4, Pg. 241.
 This supports the notion that the Seven Aḥruf reports are early. Very early. The reason they are early, apart from the impressive chain diagrams that can be marshaled in their support is that they were there to solve a very early problem that went on to be solved not much later in a different more decisive way i.e. ʿUthmānic standardization
 Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 60 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/72). A variant of the same report preserved by al-Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ presents Ḥudhayfa as fearful of ‘their differing in Qirāʾa’ and pleading with ʿUthmān to ‘intervene in this Umma before they differ over the Book!’ without specifying further details. See Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Book 66, Hadith 9 (https://sunnah.com/bukhari:4987)
 Footnotes had not been invented J
 A contemporary example of this is how one can draft two near-identical e-mails choosing to phrase the same inquiry in two different ways:
What are you up to?
What are you doing?
Now one must choose either to send the letter with the wording ‘up to’ or the wording ‘doing’ and cannot send both.
 Yasin Dutton points out that out of the 77,400+ words in the Qur’an, there are only 41 instances within the seven canonical Qirāʾat which involve a change in the skeleton of the text itself. This calculates to just 0.053% of all the words in the Qur’an.
 This is all but confirmed when we discover that one of the criteria for a ‘correct’ Qirāʾa as enforced by later reciters was its conformance to the ʿUthmānic text. Of course, the primitive nature of the Arabic script meant that there was still a bit of variation inherently supported in the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf, and this explains the continued survival of some pre-existing variants that have come down to us within the canonical Qirāʾat available today.
 It is known, for example, that a number of the early pillars of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth movement disliked Ḥamza’s recitation, which is one of the seven canonical recitations. Ibn al-Mahdī (d. 198) is quoted as saying ‘if authority belonged to me over the one who recites the Qirāʾa of Ḥamza I would have struck his back and belly!’. Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241) is said to have disliked praying behind one who recites the Qirāʾa of Ḥamza. See Tahdhīb al-Tahdhīb, Vol. 3, Pgs. 27-28 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/3310/1058). This is before we turn to the criticism of a linguistic nature by grammarians with regard some peculiarities in the seven canonical recitations. But as al-Ṭabarī points out, no one considers such criticism as falling under the prophetic statement.
 Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, Vol. 13, Pgs. 395-396 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/7289/7041). Note that Ibn al-Jazarī models his discussion on this question wholly on Ibn Taymiyya, making only slight changes in word choice, but without crediting him. See al-Nashr fī al-Qirāʾāt al-ʿAshr, Vol. 1, Pg. 31 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/22642/40)
 Khatib and Khan cite ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Tāsān’s study which found 540 variants that differ from the ʿUthmānic codex attributed to the companions and comment that this “likely overestimates the quantity” of differences that historically existed. But any such judgment can only be based on the assumption that the major share of the differences in recitation between the companions was transmitted and has survived in what is available to us today – an assumption which is yet to be proven. For it is possible that a companion’s recitation was totally lost or withheld from circulation (consider the case of the Muṣḥaf of ʿAlī as will be elaborated on in the next installment). For al-Tāsān’s study, a 750+ page monograph which unfortunately draws exclusively on Sunnī sources, see al-Maṣāḥif al-Mansūba lil-Ṣaḥāba wa-l-Radd ʿalā al-Shubuhāt al-Muthāra Ḥawlahā (al-Riyāḍ: Dār al-Tadmurīyah, 2012).
 ibid. The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ.
 The Samāʿ of ʿĪsā from Ibn al-Qāsim was preserved by al-ʿUtbī in his Mustakhraja and the latter work survives in Ibn Rushd the Grandfather’s al-Bayān wa l-Taḥṣīl, Vol. 9, Pg. 374 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/21751/4365).
 This is how Ibn ʿAbbās is known to have recited the verse. See Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Book 34, Hadith 51 (https://sunnah.com/bukhari:2098). See also Sunan Abī Dāwūd, Book 11, Hadith 14 (https://sunnah.com/abudawud:1734) where it is made explicit that these additional words were found in Ibn ʿAbbās’ Muṣḥaf. The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ.
 The pre-eminent Kufan grammarian and early Qur’an specialist al-Farrāʾ (d. 207) attributes this recitation to Ibn ʿ Abbās. al-Farrāʾ further says that he personally saw it like this (without ʿAyn) in one of the Maṣāḥif attributed to Ibn Masʿūd. This shows that codices based on the recitation of Ibn Masʿūd kept circulating in Kufa for quite some time! See Maʿānī al-Qurʾān, Vol. 3, Pg. 21 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/23634/964). See also Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 21, Pg. 500 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/12474)
 It is truly ironic that this prophetic statement ‘dispute in the Qur’an is Kufr’ whose original context was instructing tolerance in the face of a plurality of different recitations (see above) is now being used in a diametrically opposed manner i.e. to justify Takfīr of someone who argues in favour of a non-ʿUthmānic recitation. To get a glimpse at how the real Salaf understood the prophetic instruction to avoid ‘disputation in the Qur’an’ consider the following anecdote: Shuʿayb b. al-Ḥabḥāb reports that when someone would recite differently in front of the Basran Tābiʿī and famed Qurʾan expert Abū al-ʿĀliya al-Riyāhī (d. c. 93) the latter would not say to him ‘it is not as you recite’ rather he would say ‘as for me I recite (it) like this and this’. This was not humility from Abū al-ʿĀliya but as Shuʿayb tells us, when he mentioned this to the great Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. 96) the latter said ‘I see that your fellow (i.e. Abū al-ʿĀliya) has heard (the report) that the one who disbelieves/rejects a Ḥarf from it (i.e. the seven Aḥruf of the Qur’an) then he has disbelieved/rejected it all!ʾ. In other words, Abū al-ʿĀliya was worried that he would reject a recitation when it was one of the original divinely-revealed Aḥruf. See Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān of Abū ʿUbayd, Pg. 355 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/12524/707); Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 54, No. 56 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/66). The chain is Ṣaḥīḥ.
 This quote is from the author’s Sharḥ al-Hidāya fī Tawjīh al-Qirāʾāt but I have accessed it via Abū Shāma (d. 665) who quotes it in his Murshid al-Wajīz, Pgs. 140-141 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/22676/146).
 Under the section ‘How do we view the variants reported from Companions?’
 Note the synonymous usage of Ḥarf and Qirāʾa
 “The explanation which single-handedly appears to encompass all the evidence most easily is the second explanation: that non-ʿUthmānic readings were simply abandoned by the overwhelming consensus and practice of the community”
 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Book 16, Hadith 20 (https://sunnah.com/muslim:1405e); Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Book 15, Hadith 188 (https://sunnah.com/muslim:1226i); Umar’s speech prohibiting it is transmitted in Musnad Aḥmad, Vol. 1, Pg. 437, No. 369 (https://shamela.ws/book/25794/413) with a Ṣaḥīḥ chain but the sensitive words have been censored, for this we need to turn to al-Bayhaqī in his al-Sunan al-Kubrā, Vol. 7, Pg. 335, No. 14170 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/33024/28605) where ʿUmar is quoted as saying: ‘The Messenger of Allah is this same Messenger and this Qurʾan is the same Qurʾan – there used to be two Mutʿa in the time of the Messenger of Allah but I prohibit them both and will punish due to them (i.e. anyone who will perform them)! …ʾ
 Allah may allow something to happen but does not mean He wants it to. See the reports attributed to the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt such as this https://thaqalayn.net/hadith/1/3/26/3 and this https://thaqalayn.net/hadith/1/3/26/4 for a glimpse at this sophisticated theology.
 There is a humorous anecdote about this variant preserved in Ibn Wahb’s Jāmiʿ. A man comes up to Ibn Masʿūd and challenges him: Consider when Allah says in his Book “ninety-nine female ewes” did He not know when He said ‘ewes’ that they were female (i.e. such that He had to add this)? Ibn Masʿūd replies: Consider when Allah says “then a fast of three days while in the Hajj and seven when you return back, that is ten total” (2:196) did He not know that three and seven are ten (i.e. such that He had to add this)?! See Tafsīr al-Qurʾān min al-Jāmiʾ, Vol. 3, Pg. 46, No. 93 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/32237/818).
 One of the two transmitters of ʿĀṣim’s Qirāʾa. It is his counter-part Ḥafṣ’s transmission from ʿĀṣim that is overwhelmingly in use today.
 This claim is sometimes advanced on the tenuous grounds that Ibn Masʿūd also taught a Qirāʾa that adhered to the ʿUthmānic Muṣḥaf i.e. he occurs in the chain of the famous canonical Qirāʾa of ʿĀṣim, but the single strand nature of that transmission calls into question such an attribution as will be elaborated on in the future.
 See the important article by Ramon Harvey, “The Legal Epistemology of Qur’anic Variants”, Journal of Qur anic Studies, 19:1 (2017), 72-101, in which he discusses the impact that the Qur’anic variants attributed to Ibn Masʿūd had in shaping legal positions in the Kufa. Harvey utilizes al-Jaṣṣāṣ discussion on Q. 5:89 which I have chosen to translate in full.
 The successor Abū Isḥāq al-Sabīʿī (d. 127) says: The Ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd is fa-ṣiyāmu thalāthati ayyāmin mutatābiʿāt so that is how we recite it. See Muṣannaf ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Vol. 8, Pg. 330, No. 17274 (https://shamela.ws/book/84/4173).
 Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, Vol. 1, Pg. 53 (https://al-maktaba.org/book/43/65). The two statements quoted by al-Ṭabarī above and below this one have Mujāhid (d. 104) reciting the Qur’an per five Aḥruf and Yazīd b. al-Walīd (d. 126) reciting the Qur’an per three Aḥruf. It is clear from this that there were still men around who had studied the transmissions of the Qur’an which traced back to different companions and which involved different wordings at points.
 No surprise then to find, as Harvey notes, that al-Jaṣṣāṣ turned back on this radical position and argued in his later works for ‘abrogation of the recitation even if the ruling stands’ instead