It is al-Ṭabarī (d. 310) who comes closest to deciphering the meaning of ‘the Qur’an was sent down per Seven Aḥruf’ when he interprets this prophetic statement as referring to seven different wordings being revealed for a common point in the Qur’an without changing the basic meaning.
Al-Ṭabarī asserts that these alternative wordings were drawn from ‘the different dialects of the Arabs’ despite acknowledging his ignorance as to the identity of the dialects in question.
So if someone were to say to us: ‘Do you have any knowledge of the seven dialects which the Qur’an came down with? And which dialects are they from the dialects of the Arabs?’
We would say: As for the six dialects which the recitation came down with then there is no need for us to know them, because even if we were to know them we would not recite by them today, for the reasons which we have already given previously
Even though he doesn’t state it explicitly, the main reason why al-Ṭabarī gives this variation a dialectal framing is to provide a motive. The idea is that the Qur’an came down in this way to make it easier on the Arabs, who spoke different dialects and referred to the same thing with different words, to recite the Qur’an.
As Ibn Qutayba (d. 276) puts it (in the context of explaining variation in pronunciation between the Qirāʼāt):
If it were the case that every individual among these (i.e. different tribes) was ordered to abandon his dialect and what he has grown accustomed to throughout childhood, youth and middle-age then that would be very difficult for him, and the ordeal in it would be great, and it would not be possible for him except after a lengthy period of self-imposed practice and a constant subjugation of the tongue
Now one problem with this dialectal framing is that the sources contain an even stronger counter-narrative maintaining that the Qur’an came down purely in the dialect of the Quraysh!
This is certainly how many understood the verse:
We have not sent a messenger except with the language of his Qawm (i.e. the Quraysh) (Q. 14:4)
Thus when ʿUmar heard a man reciting ‘ʿAttā Ḥīn’ instead of ‘Ḥattā Ḥīn’ in Q. 12: 35 and came to discover that this is how Ibn Masʿūd teaches it he wrote to the latter:
To proceed – verily Allah sent down this Qur’an in the tongue of the Quraysh, and he made it in a clear Arabic language, so teach the people in the dialect of the Quraysh and do not teach them in the dialect of the Hudhayl. Peace
Similarly, when ʿUthmān was giving instructions to the three Qurashī men in the Zayd-led committee which was compiling the Muṣḥaf he told them:
If you differ with Zayd b. Thābit in anything of the Qur’an then write it down in the dialect of the Quraysh for it came down in their dialect
One way to reconcile this apparent contradiction is to argue that it originally came down purely in the dialect of the Quraysh before subsequently coming down with the other dialects and thus what ʿUmar and ʿUthmān were doing was merely Ikhtiyār (i.e. preference) of what are equally valid recitations. This reconciliation is forced i.e. reading into the sources what is not evident in them.
But an even greater challenge that fully sinks the dialectal framing is something that al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321) realized very early on:
The proof for what we have described is that ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb and Hishām b. Ḥakīm b. Ḥizām, and they were both from Quraysh, their dialect was the dialect of the Messenger of Allah, (the dialect) in which the Qur’an was revealed to him, yet they differed in their recitation of Sūrat al-Furqān until they went back and recited it for the prophet … so we understand from this that the difference between ʿUmar and Hishām … was in the words which each one of them recited and which differed from the words which the other one recited …
Put another way, while al-Ṭaḥāwī maintains the ‘alternative words’ thesis that al-Ṭabarī had arrived at, he gets rid of the dialectal framing. The alternative words were not drawn from different dialects because the most important report in the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex (i.e. that of ʿUmar and Hishām) presents a difference between two companions who belonged to the same tribe and must be speaking the same dialect!
Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463) picks up on the same solid point:
Because ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb is a Qurashī ʿAdawī and Hishām b. Ḥakīm b. Ḥizām is a Qurashī Asadī, and it is impossible for ʿUmar to reject from him (i.e. Hishām) his dialect (i.e. because it is identical to his own), as is similarly impossible for the Messenger of Allah to have taught any one of them other than what he knows of his dialect (i.e. the prophet teaching a man from Quraysh a foreign dialect)
But if the motive provided by a dialectal framing is out then why would Allah reveal the same thing using different words?
Making it Easy
Some reports in the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex portray the Qur’an being revealed in this way to be a matter of Takhfīf (ease) on the Umma which the prophet himself had requested.
Consider a representative example below:
The prophet was at the Aḍāt (i.e. pond) of the Banī Ghifār when Gabriel came to him and said: ‘Allah instructs you teach your Umma the Qur’an per a single Ḥarf’. He (i.e. the prophet) said: ‘I ask Allah for His concession and His forgiveness for my Umma cannot bear that’.
Then he (i.e. Gabriel) came to him a second time and said: ‘Allah instructs you to teach your Umma the Qur’an per two Ḥarfs’. He (i.e. the prophet) said: ‘I ask Allah for His concession and His forgiveness for my Umma cannot bear that’.
Then he (i.e. Gabriel) came to him a third time and said: ‘Allah instructs you to teach your Umma the Qur’an per three Aḥruf’. He (i.e. the prophet) said: ‘I ask Allah for His concession and His forgiveness for my Umma cannot bear that’.
Then he (i.e. Gabriel) came to him and fourth time and said: ‘Allah instructs you to teach your Umma the Qur’an per seven Aḥruf, so whichever Ḥarf they recite upon then they have hit the mark
In light of this, any true interpretation of the Seven Aḥruf must explain what difficulty the Umma was facing at first and how reciting per Seven Aḥruf would alleviate it. Most interpretations fail at this preliminary hurdle! Seeing the Aḥruf as dialectal was our best bet but even this has become untenable in face of what we have seen in the previous section.
Use your Own Words
It is at this juncture that we turn to an oft-overlooked proposal that attempts to explain why the Qur’an being recited with alternative wordings belonging to the same dialect would be a source of ease for the Umma.
Al-Ṭaḥāwī begins by declaring that the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet following his own dialect (i.e. the Quraysh) and this is how the prophet recited it not only to his fellow tribesmen, but to the remainder of the Arabs who spoke various dialects, and even ‘those who were not Arabs and who had entered into his religion like Salman the Persian and others, who had become his companions, believed in him and affirmed his truth’
The problem was not one of dialects primarily but something else.
And the people who spoke his dialect were illiterate, they did not know how to write except a few of them who wrote a weak hand, and it was difficult for them to memorize what he recites for them with the exact Ḥarf (wording) which he recites for them, nor was it possible for them to write it down and memorize it based on that (i.e. what they had written) because of the great difficulty which that posed for them.
And if this is how (difficult) it was for people who spoke his dialect then for the others who did not speak his dialect to take that from him with his exact Ḥurūf (wordings) was even more so and their excuse in that was more far-reaching
In other words, while the companions needed to memorize what the prophet was reciting for them ‘so that they can recite it in their ritual prayer and know through it the laws of their religion’ they couldn’t be expected to maintain his exact wording, especially because they were mostly illiterate and could not resort to writing down what he dictates to them.
It is when faced with this situation that:
He made an allowance for them in it that they recite it with its meanings even if the wordings they vocalize differ from the wordings of their prophet which he had recited for them …
In other words, it was permitted for them to do with the Qur’an what they were already doing with that second component of revelation (i.e. the Hadith which the prophet relayed to them), and which is not seen as controversial at all, that is, to relay it paraphrastically, also known as, Qirāʼa bi-l-Maʿnā.
If this is the case then there was no point to the same verse ‘coming down’ with different wordings since the issue was not the wording itself but the restriction to get the wording right whilst reciting from memory.
al-Ṭaḥāwī admits as much when he states that this was:
An allowance from Allah Mighty and Majestic for them because of their exigency and need for that, even if what had come down (i.e. was revealed) unto the prophet had come down with a single wording …
So there we have it: There was only one divinely revealed wording and any multiplicity that arose was due to the companions rendering this differently as a result of fallible human recall!
Now al-Ṭaḥāwī claims that this situation was only temporary:
And they remained upon that until those who could write from among them increased, and until their dialects became attuned to the tongue of the Messenger of Allah, so they got the capacity through this to memorize the Qur’an with the wordings that it came down with, after which it was no longer excusable for them to recite in a way that differs from it.
So it becomes clear by what we have just said that those seven Aḥruf were in a specific time because of an exigency that called for that, then that exigency elapsed so the ruling of these seven Aḥruf was raised and the Ḥarf per which the Qur’an is recited reverted back to being one
And he goes on to claim that the single Ḥarf they reverted back to was the original wording that was revealed to the prophet, which was first collected by Abū Bakr before being promulgated by ʿUthmān, as is found in the Muṣḥaf today.
Setting aside these two last claims (for now), al-Ṭaḥāwī’s proposal of motive does find support in some reports such as this one attributed to Ubayy b. Kaʿb:
The Messenger of Allah encountered Gabriel so he (i.e. the Messenger) said to him: ‘O Gabriel – I have been sent to an Umma of illiterates, among them is the old woman and the elderly man, the young lad and the young girl, and the man who has never read any writing ever!
He (i.e. Gabriel) said: ‘O Muhammad – the Qur’an has come down per Seven Aḥruf’
In other words, the Qur’an ‘coming down’ in seven Aḥruf is presented as the direct solution to problem of the illiteracy of the Umma as lamented by the prophet.
But accepting al-Ṭaḥāwī’s idea means that the Qur’an was not a fixed-text, at least for a period, since the companions could render a verse using their own wordings without affecting the divine nature of the Qur’an. This is something that was and remains unpalatable to many.
Is there any trace of this notion of an allowance or license for reciting the Qur’an ‘by meaning’ that survives in our earliest sources?
- Verse Endings
Consider this report attributed to Abū Hurayra:
The Qur’an came down per Seven Aḥruf – ʿAlīman Ḥakīmā, Ghafūran Raḥīmā
We are, by now, very familiar with the first part of this report but what does the second part mean?
It merely appears to be a stringing together of two phrases (each containing a duo of divine names) that typically feature at the end of many Qur’anic verses.
The answer to this enigmatic code is contained in another report belonging to the Seven Aḥruf tradition-complex (attributed to Ubayy) which concludes:
If you say Ghafūran Raḥīmā or you say Samīʿan ʿAlīmā or ʿAlīmān Samīʿā – then Allah is like that, provided you do not end a verse of punishment with mercy or a verse of mercy with punishment
Another report puts it as follows:
This Qur’an came down per Seven Aḥruf, so recite (whichever) and there is no harm, but do not conclude a mention of mercy with punishment nor a mention of punishment with mercy
What these reports seem to be saying is that the way to conclude verses was not fixed, and this interchangeability falls under the permission of reciting as per one of the Seven Aḥruf.
In other words, a reciter (note the word ‘you’) could end a verse by using any combination of divine names he chooses provided one condition is met: Don’t end a verse talking about the punishment of Allah with divine epithets that be-speak His mercy or end a verse talking about the mercy of Allah with divine epithets that be-speak His wrath.
In fact, it is this same phenomenon that is said to have created a scandal when it caused a ‘companion’ to apostate from Islam.
No less an authority than al-Zuhrī (d. 124) reports that the great Tābiʿī Saʿīd b. al-Musayyib (d. 94) informed him the following:
The one whom Allah – Exalted is His mention – quoted as saying “he (i.e. Muhammad) is taught by a mere mortal” (16:103) was led astray (i.e. turned away from Islam) for the reason that he was a scribe who would write down the revelation, so the Messenger of Allah would dictate to him ‘Samīʿun ʿAlīm’ or ‘ʿAzīzun Ḥakīm’ or other than that from the concluding phrases of verses, then the Messenger of Allah would become occupied in receiving (further) revelation, so he (i.e. that scribe) would ask the Messenger of Allah saying: ‘Is it ʿAzīzun Ḥakīm or Samīʿun ʿAlīm or ʿAzīzun ʿAlīm?’ so the Messenger of Allah would say to him: ‘Whichever of them you write down (it is the same) for He (i.e. Allah) is like that’, so this led him astray and he said: ‘Muhammad has left that to me, so I write whatever I want’
al-Zuhrī concludes by revealing something that is extremely significant for our purposes:
And this is what Saʿīd b. al-Musayyib mentioned to me (as being) from the seven Ḥurūf
Other reports corroborate the incident.
Anas b. Mālik reports:
A man used to write for the prophet, and he (i.e. this man) had memorized al-Baqara and Āl ʿImrān – and a man if he had memorized al-Baqara and Āl ʿImrān would be deemed great in our estimation – so the prophet would dictate to him Ghafūran Raḥīmā but he would write ʿAlīman Ḥakīmā, the prophet would say to him: ‘Write it like this and this (or) write it the way you want’. He (i.e. the prophet) would dictate for him ʿAlīman Ḥakīmā but he (i.e. the man) would say: ‘Should I write Samīʿan Baṣīrā?’ and the prophet would say: ‘Write it the way you want’.
That man apostatized from Islam, joined up with the polytheists and said: ‘I am more knowledgeable about Muhammad than you, I would write any way I want’
Then the man died so the prophet said: ‘The earth will not accept him’ …
The report goes on to record how the body of this man was spitted out by the earth whenever they tried to bury him.
- Ibn Masʿūd and ‘The Food of the Wicked’
Ibn Masʿūd is also known to have affirmed this interchangeability of verse-endings when he says:
The mistake is not that a part of one Sūra is entered into another (i.e. something is recited in the ‘wrong’ place), nor that a verse is concluded by (either) Ḥakīmin ʿAlīm or ʿAlīmin Ḥakīm or Ghafūrin Raḥīm, rather, the mistake is to place inside it that which is not from it, or that a verse of mercy is concluded by a verse of punishment or a verse of punishment is concluded by a verse of mercy
I would read the last statement as ‘a verse of mercy is concluded by (the conclusion of) a verse of punishment or a verse of punishment is concluded by (the conclusion of) a verse of mercy’ in line with the reports given previously.
Already Abū ʿUbayd (d. 224) attempts to explain away Ibn Masʿūd’s sensitive statement by boiling it down to semantics, arguing that Ibn Masʿūd only took issue with calling this a ‘mistake’ otherwise it is not allowed to deliberately inter-change the endings. Bayhaqī (d. 458) copes similarly when he interprets it to mean that the one who recites this is ‘not sinful’ even if it is not allowed.
However, the context in which Ibn Masʿūd is said to have said this will hopefully clarify matters.
Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī relates:
There was a man whom Ibn Masʿūd was teaching (i.e. the Qur’an) and he (i.e. the man) was non-Arab, so he (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd) said:
inna shajarata z-zaqqūm ṭaʿāmu l-athīm (Q. 44:43-44)
But the man said (instead):
So he (i.e. Ibn Masʿūd) repeated for him but each time he (i.e. the man) would say: ṭaʿāmu l-yatīm, then Ibn Masʿūd said:
Thereafter Ibn Masʿūd said: The mistake in Qur’an is not that you say al-Ghafūru l-Raḥīm (instead of) al-ʿAzīzu l-Ḥakīm, rather, the mistake is to recite a verse of mercy (with) a verse of punishment and a verse of punishment (with) a verse of mercy, or that it be added into the Book of Allah what is not in it
When Ibn Masʿūd saw that the non-Arab could not pronounce ṭaʿāmu l-athīm which means ‘food of the sinner’ and was changing the intended meaning of the Qur’an by pronouncing ṭaʿāmu l-yatīm which means ‘food of the orphan’ he instructed him to substitute fājir ‘wicked’ for athīm ‘sinner’ since both words are closely related in meaning.
Questions of the report’s reliability become redundant when we come to know that the great Mālik b. Anas (d. 179) accepted it at face-value and even validated the practice.
The Egyptian scholar Ibn Wahb (d. 197), a famous student of the former, says:
Mālik b. Anas narrated to me saying: ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd taught a man inna shajarata z-zaqqūm ṭaʿāmu l-athīm but he (i.e. the man) pronounced it ṭaʿāmu l-yatīm so ʿAbdallāh said to him (say) ṭaʿāmu l-fājir
Now Ibn Wahb says that he asked Mālik:
Do you consider that it can be recited like that?
Yes. I consider that to be expansive
It seems unlikely that Mālik was admitting to the companions engaging in Qirāʼa bi-l-Maʿnā, perhaps he believed that this was a recitation that had prophetic precedent (Ibn Masʿūd had heard the prophet reciting in such a way) even if this far-fetched going from the contents of the report itself, or more likely, he held it permissible to substitute personally chosen synonymous words only in cases where one can’t pronounce the correct word.
However, looking at Ibn Masʿūd’s definition of what counts as a mistake in the Qur’an in relation to the evidence presented before where this phenomenon of interchangeability in verse-endings is explicitly connected to the allowance or license to recite per Seven Aḥruf leads me to believe that the latter’s substitution here is in line with his understanding of the more ‘fluid’ nature of the Qur’an which became obscured with time as the doctrine of the ‘static’ nature of the Qur’an quickly hardened.
- Companions’ Substitutions
(a) Ubayy b. Kaʿb
Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr narrates the following report which is likely taken from the famous Tafsīr of the early commentator Mujāhid b. Jabr (d. ca. 104):
Ibn ʿAbbās (said): He (i.e. Ubayy b. Kaʿb) used to recite li-lladhīna āmanū n-ẓurūnā as:
li-lladhīna āmanū amhilūnā
li-lladhīna āmanū akhkhirūnā
li-lladhīna āmanū r-qubūnā
He (i.e. Ubayy b. Ka’b) used to recite kullamā aḍāʾa lahum mashaw fīhi as:
kullamā aḍāʾa lahum marrū fīhi
kullamā aḍāʾa lahum saʿaw fīhi
It is very clear from this that Ubayy was personally substituting synonyms for the same word in Q. 57:13 and Q. 2:20 without changing the meaning.
(b) Anas b. Mālik
Al-Ṭabarī reports the following:
Anas (b. Mālik) recited the verse as: inna nāshiʾata l-llayli hiya ashaddu waṭʾan wa-aṣwabu qīlā
One of the group (i.e. who were listening to him) said: ‘O Abā Ḥamza – rather it is aqwamu qīlā!’
So he (i.e. Anas) said: aqwam, aṣwab and ahyaʾ are one
Similar to the previous example from Ubayy, Anas b. Mālik saw no issue in substituting synonyms for the same word in Q. 73:6 without changing the meaning.
It is important to note that both companions do not anchor their recitation in something that they heard from the prophet.
- If in Qur’an then why not in Hadith?
There are some interesting statements attributed to early authorities when trying to justify the practise of narrating Hadith ‘by meaning’.
(a) A cousin of Mālik b. Anas called Abū Uways (d. 167) is said to have asked al-Zuhrī about not following the exact order when narrating Hadith from memory and the latter had this surprising statement to make:
This is allowed in the Qur’an so what about in the Hadith!?
If the meaning of the Hadith is captured, and a Halal is not made Haram and a Haram is not made Halal then there is no harm, and that is only if the meaning is captured
(b) Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd al-Qaṭṭān (d. 198) is another early authority who made the same connection between the permissibility of narrating Hadith ‘by meaning’ and the allowance of reciting the Qur’an ‘per different Aḥruf’ which reveals that he saw the two as connected:
I fear that following the exact wordings (while narrating Hadith) will become burdensome on the people, for the Qur’an is greater in sanctity (than Hadith) but it was allowed to be recited per different forms if the meaning remains one and the same
- A Tacit Approval
It is well known that there is Ikhtilāf over the exact wording of the Tashahhud in prayer, with different companions narrating different formulas, even though one would have expected something as essential and recurrent as this component of daily ritual to have been above dispute.
This predictably led to some consternation and it is in the context of justifying this that the original thinker that was al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204) says something extremely revealing which he attributes to an unnamed scholar(s):
It has been proposed that they (i.e. the different Tashahhud formulas) could all be established, and that the Messenger of Allah would be teaching the Tashahhud to groups and individuals, so one of them would memorize it with a certain wording while another would memorize it with a wording that differs from the first, but they do not differ in meaning, which is that each of them seeks by it (i.e. the Tashahhud) a magnification of Allah majestic is His praise, a remembrance of Him, testifying (to the two articles of faith), and sending benedictions upon the prophet, so the prophet would approve for each the way he has memorized, even if one of them has an additional word compared to another, or words it in a way that differs from the other, because it (i.e. the Tashahhud) is a Dhikr.
And some companions of the prophet had differed in some wordings of the Qur’an in the presence of the Messenger of Allah, but they did not differ in its meaning, so he approved them all (i.e. to continue as they were) and said: ‘this is how it was sent down, verily this Qur’an was sent down per seven Aḥruf, so recite that which is easy out of it’ – now that which is other than the Qur’an of Dhikr is more fitting for such an allowance to be made for it, if the meaning does not differ
Note that al-Shāfiʿī (or his anonymous source) does not say that the prophet was teaching the Tashahhud differently to different companions, rather, the companions who differed in their renditions did so because of ‘memorizing it with different wordings’, an allusion to their faulty recall of the prophet’s exact wordings.
He draws on the jurisprudential concept of Taqrīr to argue that the legitimacy of the different ‘versions’ derived from the approval of the prophet who allowed the different versions to co-exist because they all had the same ‘meaning’.
He then goes on to tantalizingly link the same exact model to the Qur’an.
While he does not state this explicitly, he uses the same loaded word Aqarra for the prophet’s acceptance of the divergent companion renditions of the Qur’an, and taking his analogy to its logical culmination would mean that the different Aḥruf did not originate from the prophet in terms of the prophet reciting the same Qur’anic verse in different ways, rather, the different companion renditions had the approval of the prophet as couched in the slogan ‘the Qur’an was sent down per seven Aḥruf’.
Close, but No Cigar
Al-Ṭaḥāwī’s argument that this allowance to recite ‘by meaning’ was only temporary, with the community reverting back to the single Ḥarf, presumably in the life-time of the prophet, is not supported by the facts.
For one, while the allowance, as contained in the reports belonging to seven Aḥruf tradition-complex, are aplenty, there isn’t any report ‘abrogating’ this allowance as it were.
Additionally, Ṭabarī is surely right when he maintains that the companions kept on reciting per divergent Aḥruf well after the prophet’s death, and in fact, the historical evidence is clear that it is the growing division in the community because of reciting differently that convinced the authorities that ‘something had to be done’ i.e. ʿUthmānic standardization.
Having gotten this out of the way, it is my opinion that al-Ṭaḥāwī’s motive is the only one that has any leg to stand on as far as our accumulated knowledge of the historical period and the findings of modern critical studies of the Qur’an is concerned. No other motive even comes close!
The only problem as I see it is this: If there was only one divinely-revealed Ḥarf recited by the prophet and if the seven Aḥruf reports were intended to make an allowance for differences that arose due to imperfect human recall (when trying to say the same thing as the prophet) then why is the language of most of these reports not entirely compatible with this.
Indeed, many reports in the complex explicitly state that all seven ‘were sent down’ i.e. were revealed and maintain that it is the prophet himself who was teaching it differently to different companions!
Where do we go from here?
To be continued …