Reading the Quran [Part 2] – “The story of Quran – II”
The revelation of the Guidance
Prophet Muhammad (S) the final Messenger from God received the Quran, in two stages. These perfect words of God were sent down to guide humankind out of the darkness and into the light; they are guidance and a mercy. The Quran – the words of God are perfect words, from a perfect God, to His Creation. On the night known as the ‘Night of Decree’, in the Islamic month of Ramadan, the Quran descended, from the Preserved Tablet to the Lowest Heaven. It then descended from the heavens to the earth in small stages.
The revelation was delivered to Prophet Muhammad (S) through the Angel Gabriel (Suyuthi: Al Itqan Fi Ulum Al Quran). When Prophet Muhammad was around forty years of age he started to spend time in deep reflection. According to his beloved wife Aisha (Sahih Bikhari) the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him via vivid good dreams. He would go to the cave known as Hira to worship the One God and contemplate life, the universe, and his place in the world.
One night during Ramadan an angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (S), who was unable to read or write, replied ‘I do not know how to read’. The angel then held him forcibly and pressed his chest so hard that he could not bear the pressure. The angel then released Muhammad (S) and asked him once more to read. Again he replied “but I do not know how to read”. The angel held him forcibly three times and Muhammad (S) responded each time that he did not know how to read (or asked what shall I read). The angel then related to him the first words of Quran (Not the first chapter Al Fathiha)
“Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists). He has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood). Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who has taught by the pen, He has taught man that which he knew not.” (Quran 96:1-5)
After this first revelation, which Muhammad (S) found frightening; he was not visited by the angel Gabriel again for an undetermined amount of time. The next time he encountered him (the angel) he was walking alone. Prophet Muhammad (S) heard a voice from the heavens. When he looked up he saw the angel sitting on a chair between the sky and the earth. Muhammad (S) was afraid and ran home seeking comfort and asking to be wrapped in blankets. The second revelation occurred at this time (Sahih Bukhari)
“O you covered in garments arise and warn the people of a severe punishment…” (Quran 74:1-5)
Over the next 23 years until shortly before Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Quran was revealed in stages. Several reasons have been suggested for this. Some say that it was revealed slowly to offer Prophet Muhammad (S) support and address issues as they arose.
Aisha, the wife of the Prophet (S), narrates that when asked about how the divine inspiration was revealed Prophet Muhammad (S) replied, “Sometimes it is like the ringing of a bell, this form of inspiration is the hardest of all and then this state passes after I have grasped what is inspired. Sometimes the Angel comes in the form of a man and talks to me and I grasp whatever he says” (Sahih Bukhari), Ibn Abbas (R) described Prophet Muhammad (S) as bearing the revelation “with great trouble and moving his lips quickly” (Sahih Bukhari). As the words of Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad he began to commit them to memory.
Memorization was considered important and was widely practiced even in the early years of Islam. Prophet Muhammad (S) requested that his companions memorize Quran and used various measures to assure that the revelation was preserved in their memories. According to Ibn Ishaq, compiler of one of the first biographies of Prophet Muhammad (S), Abdullah Ibn Masood (R) was the first man, after Muhammad (S) to recite the Quran publicly and on this occasion was severely beaten. Prophet Muhammad’s closest companion Abu Bakr (R) was also known to recite Quran outside his home in Mecca (Ibn Hisham).
Quran was memorized by the companions during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime and this tradition has continued through the following generations. Even today Muslims unable to read Arabic memorize the exact same words that were memorized by the Arabs of the 7th century CE. The majority of the Arabs were unlettered, including Prophet Muhammad (S); however the importance of the written word was well understood.
Preserving the divine revelation was paramount; therefore trustworthy and knowledgeable people memorized and wrote down the words of Quran. These included the four men destined to follow Muhammad (S) as leaders of the Muslim nation and a man named Zaid Ibn Thabit (R), who would be instrumental in the preservation of Quran for the many generations to follow.
Writing materials were difficult to obtain and in these very early days portions of Quran were written onto animal skins, thin light colored stones, bones, and even bark. The companions would write down the words of revelation and Prophet Muhammad (S) would listen to the men recite from the written word to make sure there were no mistakes. It could be said that the Quran was written down under the direct supervision of Prophet Muhammad (S). The Quran was not revealed in order, however the Angel Gabriel instructed Prophet Muhammad (S) on how to compile the Quran in the divinely inspired correct sequence.
“It is We Who have sent down the remembrance (i.e. the Quran) and surely, We will guard it from corruption.” (Quran 15:9)
Preservation of the Quran
When God revealed His words of guidance for the whole of humankind – the Quran, He guaranteed to preserve it. One of the ways in which it was preserved was that the men, women and children around the Prophet Muhammad (S) memorized Quran, paying careful attention to each word. In the very early days of Islam the emphasis was on memorization, however soon, those who had mastered the art of reading and writing began to write down the words of Quran on whatever writing material available. They wrote on flat stones, bark, bones, and even animal skins.
As the words of God were revealed, to Prophet Muhammad (S), by the Angel Gabriel, it is said that he would call for a scribe to write down the words as they began to flow from his lips. The principle scribe was Zaid Ibn Thabit (R). Many companions reported that Prophet Muhammad (S) would call for Zaid saying “let him bring the board, the ink pot and the scapula bone” (Sahih Bukhari). In the lifetime of the Prophet, the Quran existed on bits and pieces of writing material, rather than in book form.
Chapterization of the Quran
One of the reasons that Quran was not at that stage, in the form of a book was that it was not revealed in order. Rather the chapters and verses were revealed over a period of 23 years often in response to happenings in the life and times of the early Muslim community. However, the order of the chapters and verses of Quran was known to Prophet Muhammad (S). When the Angel Gabriel would reveal the divine words of God, he would also issue instructions as to what verses and chapters belonged where.
The Quran was written down under the direct supervision of Prophet Muhammad (S). Uthman (R), one of the Prophet’s closest companions recalled that, “when something was revealed to him, Prophet Muhammad would call someone from amongst those who used to write for him and say, ‘place these verses in the chapter in which such and such is mentioned’ and if only one verse was revealed he would say, ‘place this verse in this chapter’”(Abu Dawud)
Thus at the time of the Prophet’s death pieces of Quran were held in trust by many members of the Muslim community. Some had only a few pages from which they were learning to recite, others such as the scribes, had several chapters and still others had pieces of bark or animal skin containing only one verse.
Compilation of the Quran
During the time of Abu Bakr (R), the man chosen to lead the Muslim nation after the death of Prophet Muhammad (S), the wider Muslim community found itself in a time of civil strife. False Prophets arose and many bewildered people, unable to sustain their faith without Prophet Muhammad (S), left the fold of Islam. Battles and skirmishes took place and many of the men who had memorized the Quran lost their lives.
Abu Bakr (R) was afraid that the Quran would be lost, so he consulted some of the senior companions about compiling the Quran into a single book. He asked Zaid ibn Thabit (R), to oversee this task. At first, Zaid felt uneasy about doing something that Prophet Muhammad (S) did not specifically authorize. However, he did agree to collect pieces of Quran, both written and memorized and compile a book – the Mushaf. In the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (S), we find Zaid Ibn Thabit’s own recollection of how the compilation of Quran came about (Saheeh Bukhari)
“Abu Bakr (R) sent for me when the people of al-Yamaamah had been killed [i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against the false prophet Musaylimah]. I went to him and found Umar ibn al-Khattab (R) sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said to me, ‘Umar has come saying the casualties were heavy among those who knew the Quran by heart, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Quran may be lost. Therefore I suggest that you (Abu Bakr) order that the Quran be collected.”
I said to Umar (R), “How can you do something that the Messenger of God did not do?” Umar (R) said, “By God, this is something good”. Umar (R) kept on urging me to accept his proposal until God opened my heart to it and I began to realize the good in the idea. Then Abu Bakr (R) said (to me). “You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for the Messenger of God (S), so search for the fragmentary scripts of Quran and compile them into one book.”
“By Allah (God) if they had ordered me to move one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this (ordering me to compile the Quran). Then I said to Abu Bakr (R), “How can you do something that the Messenger of God (S) did not do?” Abu Bakr (R) replied, “By God, it is a good thing.” Abu Bakr (R) kept on urging me to accept his idea until God opened my heart to that to which He had opened the hearts of Abu Bakr (R) and Umar (R). Therefore, I started looking for the Quran and collecting it from what it was written on, palm stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, until I had collected it all.
Zaid (R) had memorized all of the Quran and had been Prophet Muhammad’s most trusted scribe; therefore, it would have been possible for him to have written the whole Quran from his own memory. However, he did not use this method alone. He was very careful and methodical in his compilation of the Quran and would not write down any verses unless they had been confirmed by at least two of Prophet Muhammad’s Companions.
Thus, the Quran came to be written and compiled in book form. It remained with Abu Bakr (R) until his death, at which time it came into the possession of Umar Ibn al Khattab (R). After Umar’s death, it was entrusted to his daughter Hafsah (R). This however is not the end of the story of Quran. In the time of Uthman (R), the third leader of the Muslim nation, the book in which the Quran (the words of God) is contained, the Mushaf, became standardized. The Quran was no longer written in the various dialects of Arabic.