Said Nachid

There is a pervasive error that needs to be corrected: when we speak of the Qur’ān we confuse three phenomena that differ in their form and content. Indeed it may be that the error is not a temporary matter but rather one that is very fundamental and which Qur’ān studies have inherited - rational treatments included - whereby the results every time have been to the advantage of Salafist, fundamentalist thinking.

Indeed, what is before us is an uncontested assumption that acts like a vicious circle that sends us back to a point of inertia following every effort at renewal. The assumption is inspired by a Qur’ānic verse that states literally or is understood literally as the following:

Say (unto them): All is from Allah. What is amiss with these people that they come not nigh to understand a happening? [Qur’ān IV,78]

Our purpose here is to question this uncontested assumption.

Yet, is the Qur’ān not the word of God completely and entirely (‘All is from Allah’)? Doesn't this mean that the mushaf which is in our hands, in the way it is organised, divided into chapters, the way it is written down, illustrated, calligraphed, vocalised and with all its grammatical declensions – is also ‘from Allah’?

We have to first ask this question: what is meant by the Qur’ān

Let us undertake a simple operation. If we were to take the uncontested assumption ‘All is from Allah’ to its ultimate extent, we will fall into a swamp of highly absurd opinions, opinions that hold that the mushaf in its script, pages and ink are ‘All from Allah’! We therefore have to take a step backwards and challenge this uncontested assumption, beginning with the question: is the Qur’ān really the word of God? Is the Qur’ān a text dictated by heaven? Yet, does not this question itself contain a hidden trick, paralysing our ability to be inventive and confining us to one of two extreme certain responses that admit of nothing outside of them, that is, absolute acceptance or absolute rejection?

A certain relativism is inescapable. But in any case there are no good answers to bad questions – which is why we have to first ask this question: what is meant by the Qur’ān? Leaving aside reductionist tendencies be they spiritual or mundane, the Qur’ān makes reference to three distinct phenomena which may not be confused with each other:

Ahmad al-Qubbanji: Revelation through the Prophet's experience and emotion

1)      The Divine Revelation – that is, forms of revelation which the Prophet sensed and represented either through the force of his imagination, as al-Fārābī, Ibn ʽArabī and Spinoza maintain concerning the experience of prophethood, or through the heart and emotion as the Iraqi religious reform Ahmad al-Qubbanji maintains.

2)      The Muhammadan Qur’ān – that is, the fruit of the Messenger’s efforts in interpreting the Revelation and translating the divine indications into human expression, starting from his consciousness, his culture, his character, his personality and his interpretative abilities. This effort lasted well nigh a quarter of a century and certainly this distinction between the Muhammadan Qur’ān and the divine revelation has been previously expressed by the Iranian religious reformer Abdolkarim Soroush.[1]

3)      The ‘Uthmānī Mushaf – the fruit of Muslims’ efforts to transform the Muhammadan Qur’ān by means of a primary phase from orally delivered verses dispersed among multiple mushafs and subsequently a secondary phase from multiple mushafs to one comprehensive mushaf, according to a specific form of composition, ordering into chapters and arrangement, and according to defined rules of language, writing and penmanship. This effort lasted about half a century. It should be remembered that this effort was first conceptualized by the Arab rationalist thinker George Tarabishi, through his fashioning of the concept of ‘the mushafization of the Qur’ān’.[2]

We can put this another way. When speaking of Qur’ānic discourse we are dealing with three levels of manifestation:

  1. Divine revelation – obscure forms of revelation sensed by the Messenger who attended to express them from the starting point of his culture, his language and his environment;
  2. The Muhammadan Qur’ān – mainly oral verses scattered amongst people's memories and various objects, including verses that are assumed or considered most likely to have been cancelled out or forgotten (Such of our revelation as We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we bring (in place) one better or the like thereof – [Qur’ān II,106]);
  3. The ‘Uthmānī mushaf – which took the form of an official text that was compiled, arranged, formed and grammatically declined by Muslims subsequent to the death of the Messenger over a period lasting decades.
We only possess copies that are late in date, altered and re-written

The problem is patently that the way we deal with the Qur’ān is no longer possible without this last manifestation, that is, the ‘Uthmānīc mushaf. Indeed, we are unable to ascertain even to this level without exceeding its bounds for as long as the original copies of the ‘Uthmānīc mushafs remain lost to us. In this regard we only possess copies that are late in date, copies that have been altered and re-written subsequent to the codification of the language, writing and penmanship, most probably during the time of the caliphate of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān (646-705 AD).

Abdolkarim Soroush: The Qur’ān as  Muhammad's interpretation

The question then is: where in all this is ‘the word of God’? Quite a thorny question! I therefore propose to approach answering this by posing a simple question in an attempt to establish a relationship ‘between bread and wheat.’ Of course, without wheat we would have no bread, but is it enough for us to say that the farmer is the creator of bread? There is no doubt that the creator of bread is the baker and not the farmer, and that the latter only provided the primary material – wheat.

The relationship of the Qur’ān to God is on the lines of the relationship of bread to the farmer. That is, were it not for God the Qur’ān would not exist. But the Qur’ān is not the word of God, just as bread is not the creation of the farmer. God is the producer of the raw material which is the Revelation, just as the farmer is the producer of the raw material which is the wheat. And just as the baker is the one who transforms the wheat or the flour into bread according to his special vision, technical expertise and powers of invention, the Messenger is the one responsible for interpreting the Revelation and transforming it into words and expressions according to his personal vision.

We may deduce from this that the Qur’ān is the word of the Messenger Muhammad, his words which express his culture, his language, his personality, his environment and his era. This is not to deny the role of God, but for whom there would be no raw material. More precisely, while we are mindful that we do not know anything about the Qur’ānic utterance other than the mushaf set down under specific rules of writing, requirements of dictation, conditions of its compilation and the background to its arrangement, we are still able to say that we have before us an indisputably human text, or one that must be assumed to be so.

Perhaps things seem clearer now, that when we speak of the Qur’ān we must not confuse these three levels:

  1. The Divine Revelation that inspired the Messenger and which represents a form of raw material, one that we cannot know other than via Muhammad's interpretation;
  2. The Muhammadan Qur’ān which is the product of the Messenger’s interpretation of the indications of the Divine Revelation and which again we cannot know other than via the interpretation of the mushaf text;
  3. The ‘Uthmānīc mushaf which represents the official textual form of the Muhammadan Qur’ān and which in its turn is merely an interpretation of the Revelation.
George Tarabishi: The phased 'mushafization' of the Qur’ān

Indeed we even know nothing of the ‘Uthmānīc mushaf other than late copies that have come down to us subsequent to the codification of the language, of writing and of penmanship. It has also come down to us with varying readings, vocalisations, grammatical declensions and at times with contemporary ‘typographical variations’ in the division and numbering of the verses in some chapters.[3]

All of this means that all we have of the Qur’ān is but copies of copies, and of which we know nothing other than interpretations of interpretations. This means that we can say that the copy of the ‘Uthmānīc mushaf which has come down to us – with all its variant readings – is a matter of human, historical, inherited, earthly texts in all the semantic sense of these words. It is clear that their primary source is divine inspiration, but rainwater cannot return to the clouds unchanged. It is more accurate for us to say that after the Messenger turned the divine inspiration into a Muhammadan Qur’ān, and Muslims subsequently turned that into an ‘Uthmānīc mushaf, it became in both form and content a human text.


[1] Abdolkarim Soroush,  بسط التجربة النبوية , tr. Ahmad al-Qubbanji, Jamal Publications, Beirut, Baghdad, 2009.

[2] George Tarabishi, إشكاليات العقل العربي , Saqi Books, Beirut, London, 4th Ed. 2011, p.63.

[3] Some of the modern printed editions of the mushaf consider some of the openings of the chapters (the obscure words), as separate verses, in contradistinction to the mushafs of earlier printed editions.