The Holy Qur'an was presented to the people of Arabia by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It was presented in parts over a period of 23 years of his prophetic life. The book presents itself as the word of God and the Holy Prophet also presented it as such.
The Muslims believe that the Holy Qur'an, being the revealed word of God, is the cornerstone of their faith. They get their philosophy, beliefs and laws from this book - it is the basic source of the Islamic faith. It is the Word of God revealed to his Messenger Muhammad peace be upon him, who read it out before the world loud and clear. Not only did he recite it to the people of Arabia, he also made elaborate arrangements to ensure that it's contents be preserved and his companions should learn it by heart and should also write it down. The Holy Prophet's stress on the supremacy of the Book of Allah, over all other sources of knowledge, was unequivocal and categorical. It is believed by the Muslims that the Holy Prophet actually heard or received the divine words. The Holy Qur'an was either communicated to him through wahy (revelation), or through an angel or spoken by God himself. All these forms of communication, the Muslims believe, are verbatim in nature, that is to say, that actual words, revealed by Allah, constitute the Holy Book. It is not like the writings of the New Testament, where God inspires a scribe to write down the scripture; the idea and words are those of the scribe while God only supervises the scribe or the scribe was inspired by God, Who revealed a certain idea to him. The scribe then wrote it down in his own words. In case of the Qur'an, the words and ideas are both divine.
The words and verses of the Holy Qur'an were preserved, through the oral as well as the written traditions, in the Prophet's lifetime. A large number of companions of the Prophet participated in this preservation process and the text was safely handed over to the next generation.
What do we mean when we say that the Holy Qur'an in our hands is exactly the one that was revealed to the Holy Prophet, and that this is an established fact of history?
The meaning and significance of this statement can be explained in the terms of history where we would like to know when a historical fact is established beyond any shadow of doubt.
Chains of Reports Consisting of Individuals
Usually information about the past has reached us through oral reports, written reports or archaeological artifacts. For instance, the plays of Shakespeare have reached us through documentary evidence (written words). The stories of Achilles originated as oral reports (words of mouth), which were later recorded by early Greek writers. The report that Buddhah used to meditate in a certain posture, has reached us through archaeological remains (pieces of art like statues and engravings). These reports are considered as matters of micro history, which are to be judged in the light of the authenticity of the narrators (in case of oral evidence), the scribes (in case of written evidence) or the artists that created the pieces of art (in case of archaeological evidence).
Discussions in micro history hinge on detailed and incisive discussions on individuals (scribes, narrators and artists). The lives of these individuals are examined to get an idea of the authenticity of the report they have conveyed us. Their character, capabilities, resources, environment, and location at a certain place and time are studied. Obviously, the individual being the king pin in such instances of micro history, must be shown to be reliable, truthful, intelligent (to confirm his ability to comprehend, retain and truly express the facts) and unprejudiced.
Once the individuals are investigated, the historians turn to the question of continuity. Continuity means that the individuals involved in collecting and then transmitting the report must be shown to be in a state of uninterrupted contact and communication. We are referring to the fact that there should be an immediate proximity in time and place between the two reporters who form one ring of the chain of transmission. There should be no time when the report remained with anonymous narrators because then we cannot investigate the individuals. It should also not suffer from oblivion because, in that case, any change or corruption in the report, during the time it remained hidden from us, cannot be ruled out. If the communication between two consecutive reporters is smooth, continuous and uninterrupted, the report gathers strength. This evidence for continuity is however to be produced in respect of each stage of the chain of reporters to say with a fair degree of confidence that the report is worth consideration. If the investigation of individuals and continuity of the report leads to positive conclusions, we hav established one chain of the report. Sometimes two or more such chains of reports, leading to the same event, can be established. For example, two courtiers of Akbar the Great may narrate the same incident. In such cases, the supporting narration should be identical or at least similar. If the individuals and their continuity have been investigated, these corroborating reports strengthen and reinforce each other and we are able to place more confidence in the substance brought out by them.
We can summarize our discussion by saying that in micro history, the following components are vital:
- Continuity of the report
- Corroboration (if any)
If an event or a substance is supported by this investigation it becomes worth considering for a historian. However, it can never establish a fact beyond any shadow of doubt. The primary reason is that in such examinations, the historicity of the report ultimately depends on one or two individuals. If our investigation about even one of the individuals in the chain of reporters is faulty, the entire chain is shaken. These individuals may be widely known as men of reasonably good character, fairly reliable memory, sound understanding and relatively free of prejudices. However, they cannot be assumed to be of infallibly good character, unfailing memory, perfect understanding and absolutely free of prejudices.
Similarly, our investigation (and finally our judgment) about them can be extremely cautious, scientific and objective, yet it cannot be infallible and indubitable. We were told that an individual was known to be honest, truthful and reliable, but we know that individual behavior is not predictable. One may be honest and truthful most of the times and yet stumble at a particular instance. One may have a sound memory yet he may forget something. Moreover, how are we going to collect evidence about reporters themselves? Obviously, we would establish more chains of reporters to learn about a certain historical character. These sources would suffer from the same limitations, thereby compounding our problem.
Before proceeding ahead let us summarize our discussion. The chains of reports consisting of individuals, may lead us to a fair degree of plausibility of an event, yet they cannot lead us to the knowledge of the event that is beyond any shadow of doubt because of the following reasons:
- The reliability of the report hinges on one or two individuals.
- These individuals are not infallible.
- Our investigation and judgment about these individuals can also be incorrect.
The scholars of hadith of early Muslim History were alive to the above weaknesses in the information [regarding historical facts] provided by individuals. It is because of this reason that they termed an "individual to individual" report as "khabr al-wahid" (or an individual's report). Almost the entire hadith literature consists of akhbar al-ahad (individual reports).
Chains of Reports Consisting of Generations
On the other hand in macro history we deal with facts, incidents and reports transmitted, not by one or two individuals to another individual, but by one generation that witnessed these facts and incidents to another generation. For example, the fact that the World War I did take place in the beginning of the twentieth century, is a fact transmitted by a generation to another. The generation that actually fought and witnessed the war conveyed this knowledge to the next generation and so on till it reached us. This communication to succeeding generations can be through any means - oral, written or through any mode of art.
Here we should note, that the unit of the chain of transmission of such information is not individuals, but generations. This singular difference changes the very character of such a report. An important aspect of "generation to generation" transfer is that it does not deal with opinions and ideas of individuals but the hard facts which were witnessed, seen and/or heard by the first generation. [i] This condition eliminates the possibility of including mythologies and opinions in the "generation to generation" transmission.
The essential differences between individual-to-individual transmission and generation-to-generation transmission are:
- The reliability of the report from generation-to-generation does not hinge upon one or two individuals. It rather depends on the hundreds and thousands of people that lived together in a known place and time.
- It is no more necessary to investigate the character, understanding, memory or impartiality of individuals. The entire generations can neither be investigated nor is it necessary. When such a large number of people convey a fact, it is impossible that all of them could have wrongly reported it, forgotten it or could have developed a consensus on telling lies.
- There is no need to establish the continuity of reporting system because one generation is so perfectly enmeshed into another and the contact and proximity with the next generation is so tremendous and obvious that conducting an inquiry to prove it is not required.
- When hundreds and thousands of people are conveying a fact to the next generation, we do not need any corroborating evidence. Agreement of the entire generation is so overwhelmingly strong that it renders further corroboration redundant.
Terminology of the Muslim Historiography
In the historiography ('ilm ul-hadith) developed by the Muslims, the "individual to individual" report is termed as khabr al-wahid (an individual's report) whereas the "generation to generation" report is called khabr al-mutawatir, and the process of generation to generation transmission is known as tawatur. We would now use the term tawatur for the process of generation to generation transmission of a fact.
The Holy Qur'an Has Reached Us Through Tawatur
The Holy Qur'an has reached us through the process of tawatur - historical continuity and perpetuation achieved through transfer from generation to generation. When we say that the Qur'an has reached us through tawatur, we imply that so many people in every generation conveyed it to the next and so on that there can be no doubt about its authenticity. It was not transmitted by a few persons in one generation to a few persons in the next. It was handed over by the entire generation to the next generation. The generation of the Companions witnessed the revelation and compilation of the Holy Qur'an during the life of the Holy Prophet and then handed it over to the next generation and so on.
Its certainty has far exceeded the need for any debate. In the presence of established history, we would not accept any individual reports and rumors to the contrary. For instances a report in one of the history books that claims that Akbar the Great never ruled in India, would not be considered by us. The fact that Akbar the Great ruled over India for half a century is so established, that any odd report to the contrary would be simply ignored. So is the case of the Holy Qur'an. Since it has achieved the status of tawatur, no odd report would affect its credibility. When generations and generations of people without interruption hold the Qur'an as the one and only version of the divine guidance received from the Holy Prophet, such reports would not infringe upon its authenticity. The evidence for the Qur'an is so overwhelming, involving millions of people, that it would simply override any odd reports that may be found anywhere.
The history of the compilation of the Holy Qur'an found in the books of history and exegesis confirms that the transmission of the Holy Qur'an from one generation to the other has been mutawatir.
During the Holy Prophet's Life
During the first thirteen years of his ministry at Makkah, the Prophet Muhammad used to read out the revealed passages to the small group of his followers and non-believers. His followers used to commit the revelation to their hearts. There is evidence that the revealed verses or chapters were also written down on whatever writing material was available.
[i] It is reported that when 'Umar, learnt that his sister and her husband had converted to Islam, he hurried to her sister's house in anger. When he arrived at her house, she hid the part of Qur'an she was reading. When 'Umar expressed his eagerness to see what they were reading, his sister told her to wash before touching the scripture.
[ii] This shows that as early as the sixth year of the Prophet's ministry, the Qur'an was being written down, in addition to being learnt by heart. When the Prophet migrated to Madinah and established a state, he made elaborate arrangements under the state machinery, for the preservation and large scale dissemination of the Qur'an. He constituted a committee of about forty of his literate companions who were assigned the task of recording the Holy Book.
[iii] Hadhrat Zayd was the full time Secretary of the Committee of the Scribes. On receiving a verse or verses from Allah, the Holy Prophet used to call one of the members of the committee and get it dictated. Then the written passage was read out to the Prophet and was corrected and approved by him. It was then issued for all. People used to copy it and memorize it. Given the swelling number of his followers after migration, the Qur'an was learnt and recorded by a large number of his followers.
[iv] The Qur'an was being revealed in accordance with the needs of the different stages of the prophetic mission. It was however not compiled in the chronological order of its revelation. While compiling and arranging it, the Qur'an was given a new order, which was to have a meaningful coherence for the readers in future. Whenever the Prophet dictated a newly revealed passage of the Qur'an to the Scribes, he used to direct them regarding the placement of that passage in the Qur'an as well. This means that not only was the Qur'an being recorded and memorized as it was being revealed piecemeal, it was also being compiled and given a new order under the personal supervision of the Prophet. The Prophet in turn was being instructed by Allah about the placement of passages in the desired order.
[v] Thus the entire Qur'an was systematically recorded and arranged on written material during the lifetime of the Prophet. However the Qur'an was recorded not in one volume but on tanned hides, stone tablets, wooden tablets, piecesof cloth etc. One complete set of the Qur'an was with the State authorities, i.e. with the Holy Prophet. It was placed in the Mosque of the Prophet (Masjid an-Nabawi) from where any one was free to make a copy for himself or to refer to it in case he wished to memorize it. It however appears that apart from this centrally placed copy, a number of other copies also existed. A few of them must have been complete copies whereas in case of others, portions of the Qur'an were in possession of a number of Companions of the Prophet.
[vi] It appears that the official copy, although complete, checked, and approved by the Prophet was available in the life of the Holy Prophet, yet it was not bound in one volume (bayn al-lawhayn). The entire Qur'an was memorized by the Prophet himself and numerous other companions. It is reported that when the revelation of the Holy Qur'an was completed, the Angel Gabriel heard the final recitation of the Holy Qur'an from the Holy Prophet.
The Holy Qur'an constituted the life blood of the early Muslim community during the life of Holy Prophet. It was recited five times a day, people used to commit it to their hearts and used to study it with utmost care and concentration. People were graded and appreciated on the basis of their knowledge and the extent of the Qur'an that they had memorized. All affairs of the state as well as the social life of Arabia were governed in the light of the provisions of the Qur'an. All civil servants, military commanders and judges used to seek guidance from the Qur'an. During the Prophet's life time, when he used to send governors and judges to far off places, he used to instruct them that they have to govern and decide in the light of the Qur'an. These facts show that Qur'an was alive in that society not because of written manuscripts but as a necessity of faith and an inevitable source of guidance for social, political and legal affairs.
It is therefore incorrect to suggest that the Holy Qur'an was compiled and written in the days of Caliphs Abu Bakr or 'Uthman. It was preserved under the personal supervision of the Holy Prophet in his lifetime. It is also natural to believe that he could not neglect the task of its preservation. One of the primary missions of the Holy Prophet was to deliver the divine message to mankind. This message consisted of the Holy Qur'an. He could not shift this responsibility to later generations.