Islamic Perspectives

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Chapter 5

THE SEVEN AHRUF

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(Revised)
(March 2005)


The word ahruf is the plural of harf that has the following meanings:

1)      an edge or border; this is the meaning in Qur`an 22:11;

2)      a variation, this is the meaning which gives rise to the word tahrif, used in the Qur`an (2:75, 4:46. 5:13, 41);

3)      a letter or a word.

In a number of ahadith the Prophet is quoted as saying that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf. Interpreting ahruf as variant readings, some Muslims suggest that all variants in the Qur`an alleged in the books of Hadith were from God, regardless of whether or not they are supported by textual evidence. But this suggestion is problematic for the following reasons:

1)      The reliability of the ahadith about seven ahruf is far from being above doubt.

2)      The identification of ahruf with variant readings is not supported by most of these ahadith.

3)      Not all scholars, probably not even a majority of them, are in agreement with this identification of ahruf with variant readings.

In what follows, I present evidence for the above three statements. I will also comment on the positive spirit of the ahadith about ahruf. Finally, I will comment on Christian missionaries’ attitude towards the ahadith about ahruf and their double standards.

Examining the reliability of the ahadith about ahruf

The ahadith about ahruf are narrated from at least ten companions including Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, Ibn Mas'ud, Ibn ‘Abbas, Ubayy bin Ka‘b, and Abu Hurayrah. But in this regard it should be noted that no one particular form of narration goes back to ten companions. Only the idea of there being seven ahruf is found in ahadith attributed to many companions. The ahadith themselves vary considerably in form. Some tell a story of disagreement between companions about the mode of recitation, some tell of an exchange between God and the Prophet through Gabriel while still others simply relate a saying of the Prophet. No single form of the hadith goes back to more than a few companions. We need therefore to examine the authenticity of each form separately.

‘Umar and Hisham

The best attested of the ahadith about seven ahruf is found in Muwatta, Bukhari, and Muslim. Here is the version in Muwatta:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Ibn Shihab from ‘Urwa ibn al-Zubayr that ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Abd al-Qari said that he had heard ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab say, "I heard Hisham ibn Hakim ibn Hizam reciting Surah al-Furqan (Surah 25) differently from me, and it was the Messenger of God who had recited it to me. I was about to rush up to him but I granted him a respite until he had finished his prayer. Then I grabbed him by his cloak and took him to the Messenger of God and said, 'Messenger of God, I heard this man reciting Surah al-Furqan differently from the way you recited it to me.' The Messenger of God said, 'Let him go.' Then he said, 'Recite, Hisham,' and Hisham recited as I had heard him recite. The Messenger of God said, 'It was sent down like that.' Then he said to me, 'Recite' and I recited the surah, and he said, 'It was sent down like that. This Qur`an was sent down in seven ahruf, so recite from it whatever is easy for you'. "

The authenticity of this tradition comes under considerable doubt because of the following reasons:

1)                  The tradition is not confirmed by independent isnads. It essentially has only one narrator at each of the first four crucial links. Bukhari has three versions with the following isnads going back to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab:

a.       Ibn Shihab- ‘Urwa bin al-Zubayr – ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Abd al-Qari

b.      Ibn Shihab- ‘Urwa bin al-Zubayr – ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Abd al-Qari and al-Miswarah bin al-Makhramah 

c.       Ibn Shihab- ‘Urwa bin al-Zubayr – ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Abd al-Qari and al-Miswarah bin al-Makhramah

In the first of these versions the isnads of Bukhari are the same as those of Malik. In the last two versions there is the addition of al-Miswarah bin al-Makhramah in the second stage along with ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abd al-Qari. Given the fact that isnads are subject to error and fabrication, we cannot be confident that the addition of Miswarah is genuine. In any case, in the third and fourth stages Ibn Shihab and ‘Urwa bin Zubayr remain the sole narrators.

2)                  That there are several revealed ways to read the Qur`an is a fundamental principle that the Qur`an itself is expected to state. Notice how in 3:7 the Qur`an explains that its verses are of two types: muhkamat and mutashabihat. We should expect the Qur`an to similarly inform its readers about the seven ahruf. But while the Qur`an states the general principle that the messengers are sent with revelations in the language (lisan) of their people (14:4) and that in case of the Prophet Muhammad this language was Arabic (16:103, 46:12), it makes no mention of any ahruf.

 

3)                  Surah al-Furqan is dated in the middle of the Makkan period, say in the fifth or sixth year of the prophetic mission (see the commentaries, e.g. by Ibn Jarir al-Tabari and Imam Razi). By this time the Prophet had forty to fifty followers and many surahs had been revealed and taught to them. Even if for some reason a mention was not made of the seven ahruf in the Qur`an, at least the Prophet is expected to teach the Qur`an to the people in all the seven ways. All these ways are said to be part of the revelation and, as stated several times in the Qur`an, it was the Prophet’s duty to convey all that God had revealed to him (see, e.g., 5:67). Yet the above story and others like it (see below) suggest that the Prophet was teaching different ahruf to different individuals but not to all of them as a group. It is as if he was giving private lessons to individual followers and to each follower he was teaching a different harf.

 

4)                  It is known that Hakim the father of Hisham accepted Islam on the day of the conquest of Makkah and it is almost certain that Hisham himself became Muslim when his father did. Also, ‘Umar converted to Islam in the 6th year of the prophetic mission (Nu‘mani, ‘Umar the Great). This means that for about sixteen years even the closest companions of the Prophet like ‘Umar were unaware of the seven ahruf

 

5)                  Al-Tabari in his Tafsir relates a version of the above hadith, which differs significantly from the version in Muwatta, Bukhari, and Muslim. In al-Tabari’s version a man recites a part of the Qur`an in the presence of ‘Umar who corrected him. In anger the man claims that he recited the same way in the presence of the Holy Prophet and he did not correct him. They carry their dispute to the Prophet who endorses the man's claim of being personally instructed by him. Doubts arise in ‘Umar's mind. The Prophet, reading ‘Umar's mind, struck him on the chest, exclaiming, 'Depart, O devil!' The Prophet then explained, 'All the modes of reciting are correct so long as you don't turn a statement on mercy into one on wrath and vice-versa.' This version differs from the standard version in the following points: 1) the man with whom ‘Umar disagreed is not named as Hisham bin Hakim; 2) the doubts arising in ‘Umar’s mind and the Prophet exorcising him by striking him on the chest is not mentioned in the standard version; and 3) the acceptable modes of recitation are not fixed in number as seven; any mode is acceptable if the meaning is not completely changed. Although al-Tabari’s version cannot be given anything like the same weight as the one in Muwatta, Bukhari, and Muslim, these significant differences nevertheless provide a further reason to doubt the authenticity of that version, at least in its details.

 

6)                  If we assume that the seven ahruf are the various dialects that different tribes spoke, then the authenticity of the hadith is further called into question by the reported fact that ‘Umar and Hisham belonged to the same tribe, to which also the Prophet himself belonged (Ibn Hajar, Fat-h al Bari). They therefore spoke the same dialect.

 

7)                  There are traditions according to which the seven ahruf are seven themes and have nothing to do with different ways of reciting the Qur`an. Thus al-Tabari in his Tafsir records: ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud related: The Messenger of God said: "The first (earlier) book came down from one gate according to one harf, but the Qur`an came down from seven gates according to seven ahruf: prohibiting and commanding, lawful and unlawful, clear and ambiguous, and parables.”                    

Gabriel recites the Qur`an in seven ahruf

Another form of the ahadith in which seven ahruf are mentioned is found in Bukhari and Muslim. Here is the version in Bukhari:

Sa‘id bin ‘Ufayr from Layth from ‘Uqayl from Ibn Shihab from ‘Ubayd Allah bin ‘Abd Allah from ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abbas: God's Messenger said, "Gabriel recited the Qur`an to me in one way (harf). Then I requested an increase and kept on seeking increase until he ended up reciting in seven ways (ahruf)."

Muslim’s version has exactly the same isnad in the first three links (Ibn Shihab – ‘Ubayd Allah – Ibn ‘Abbas) and the same wording, so that the two Hadith scholars are probably quoting a written source. But Muslim adds the following comment from Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri:

 

 Ibn Shibab said: It has reached me that these seven ahruf are essentially one, not differing about what is permitted and what is forbidden (also found in al-Tabari, Tafsir).

 

The hadith about Gabriel reciting the Qur`an in seven ahruf seems to be an abbreviation of another hadith, of which a version reads as follows:

Ubayy bin Ka‘b related that the Messenger of God was near the pond of Banu Ghifar when Gabriel came to him and said: God has commanded you to recite to your people the Qur`an in one harf. Upon this he said: I ask God for pardon and forgiveness; my people are not capable of that. He then came for the second time and said: God has commanded you that you should recite the Qur`an to your people in harfayn (two modes). Upon this he said: I ask pardon and forgiveness from God, my people are not capable of that. He (Gabriel) came for the third time and said: God has commanded you to recite the Qur`an to your people in three ahruf. Upon this he said: I ask pardon and forgiveness from God, my people are not capable of that. He then came to him for the fourth time and said: God has commanded you to recite the Qur`an to your people in seven ahruf, and in whichever harf they would recite, they would be right (Muslim).

The authenticity of the above hadith and others similar to it is called into question by another set of ahadith according to which the angel Gabriel apparently recited the Qur`an only in one harf:

It is related from Abu Hurayrah: Gabriel used to repeat the recitation of the Qur`an with the Prophet once a year, but he repeated it twice with him in the year he died. … (Bukhari; also found as part of a story about Fatimah on the authority of ‘Aishah in Muslim and Bukhari).

If the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf involving different ways of recitation, then we should expect Gabriel to recite the Qur`an in seven different ways each year. But this hadith provides no indication of that. Some have suggested that the written text of the Qur`an includes all seven ahruf so that reciting it once automatically implies reciting it in seven ahruf. But if this view is accepted, then there are really no acceptable variants in the Qur`an. It is also suggested that the last double reading abrogated the other six ahruf. There is also the view that the written Qur`an now includes only one of the seven ahruf while other six are transmitted orally. Such views have little explicit support from any of the ahadith.

Ubayy and some unnamed companion(s)

Ubayy bin Ka‘b related: I was in the mosque when a man entered and prayed and recited (the Qur`an) with a recitation (qira’ah) that I disapproved. Then another man entered and recited with a recitation other than that of his companion. When we had finished the prayer, we all went to God's Messenger and I said to him: This man recited with a recitation which I disapproved, and the other entered and recited with a recitation different from that of his companion. The Messenger of God asked them and they recited. The Messenger of God approved their state (i.e. their recitations). Upon this there occurred in my mind a denial the like of which did not occur even during the time of Ignorance. When the Messenger of God saw how I was affected, he struck my chest, whereupon I broke into sweating and felt as though I were looking at God with fear. He said to me: Ubayy, a message was sent to me to recite the Qur`an in one harf and I replied: Make (things) easy for my people (ummah). It was conveyed to me for the second time that it should be recited in two harfs. I again replied to him: Make affairs easy for my people. It was again conveyed to me for the third time to recite in seven ahruf. And (I was further told): You can ask Me one thing for each time that you sought for (the ease of your people). I said: O God! Forgive my people. O God! Forgive my people. I have deferred the third request for the day on which the entire creation will turn to me, including even Ibrahim (for intercession). (Muslim).

In al-Tabari’s Tafsir we find the following version of this hadith:

Ubayy entered the mosque and, hearing a man recite, asked him who had instructed him. The man replied that the Prophet taught him. Ubayy went in search of the Prophet. When the man recited, the Prophet said, 'That is correct.' Ubayy protested, 'But you taught me to recite so-and-so.'  The Prophet said that Ubayy was right too. 'Right? Right?' burst out Ubayy in perplexity. The Prophet struck him on the chest and prayed, 'Oh God! Cause doubt to depart.' Ubayy broke into a sweat as his heart filled with fear. The Prophet disclosed that two angels had come to him. One said, 'Recite the Qur`an in one form.' The other advised the Prophet to ask for more than this. That was repeated several times until finally the first angel said, 'Very well. Recite it in seven forms.' The Prophet said, 'Each of the forms is grace-giving, protecting, so long as you don't terminate a punishment verse with an expression of mercy, or vice-versa -- as you might for example say, Let's go; or let's be off.'

This version differs from the one in Muslim in the following points: 1) in the version in Muslim Ubayy hears two men reciting while in the version in al-Tabari only one man is mentioned; 2) in Muslim there is no mention of any angel but in al-Tabari two angels are involved. Such differences show at least that each version may be the result of considerable embellishments by storytellers.

This hadith seems to combine two, and in case of the version in Muslim, three originally separate traditions:

A)           a story about Ubayy hearing one or two companions recite the Qur`an in different ways, disputing about it, going to the Prophet together, and the Prophet endorsing the different ways

B)            a story about a revelation through one or two angels during which the Prophet gets permission to recite the Qur`an in seven different ahruf

C)           a saying concerning a request granted to the Prophet with a promise of fulfillment and reserved by him for the day of resurrection.

It is clear that behind part A) of the above story about Ubayy and the various versions of the story about ‘Umar and Hisham in Muwatta, Bukhari, Muslim, and al-Tabari there is one primitive story, which is taking different forms. Not only the general form of these stories is the same, but also some elements of one story could be transferred to the another. Notice how the motif of doubts arising in the mind of the companion and the Prophet striking the companion’s chest with his hand to remove those doubts has moved from the story about Ubayy to that of ‘Umar (in al-Tabari’s version) or vice versa.

That C) was originally separate is suggested by the fact that it is missing from the version in al-Tabari and that we find it as a separate hadith as follows:

Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger of God said: For every prophet there is a request to be fulfilled. I have reserved my request for intercession for my ummah on the day of resurrection (Sahifah Hammam bin Munabbih).

Here there is no indication that this hadith is derived from the story of Ubayy and his unnamed companion(s) in Muslim and al-Tabari.

Similarly, we can see that B) was originally a separate tradition. We have already quoted ahadith in which B) occurs by itself and the traditions about ‘Umar and Hisham show that part A) can also be transmitted without part B).

The story about Ubayy and the unnamed companion(s), which is not found in Muwatta or Bukhari, has even less claim to authenticity than the story about ‘Umar and Hisham and for some of the same reasons. Ubayy [d. 29 H] belonged to the Ansar tribe of Khazraj. He was one of the first persons of Yathrib to accept Islam. He pledged allegiance to the Prophet at Aqabah around the tenth year of the prophetic ministry or three years before the Hijrah. As noted above during our discussion of the hadith about ‘Umar and Hisham, by this time we expect the idea that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf to be firmly established in the recitation of the Qur`an and to be well known. Moreover, the story talks of “the mosque”, which probably refers to the mosque in Madinah. That means it took place at least about three years after Ubayy’s conversion. By this time Ubayy had enough time to know that there were as many as seven ways to recite the Qur`an. But in the story he is completely surprised by the idea and even feels a denial in his heart for it.

Whose reading to adopt?

Zayd bin Arqam reports that a man went to the Prophet and said, “‘Abd Allah bin Mas’ud taught me to recite a particular surah; Zayd bin Thabit taught me the same surah, and so did Ubayy. The readings of all three are different. Whose reading ought I to adopt?' The Prophet remained silent. ‘Ali, who was by his side, said, 'Every man ought to recite it as he was taught (by a companion?). Each of the modes is acceptable and equally valid.' (Al-Tabari, Tafsir)

This hadith, absent from earlier more careful compilations of the Hadith, seem to deal with a question that appear to have arisen after the Prophet. The question has been projected back to the time of the Prophet. Notice that the Prophet does not himself answer the question; it is ‘Ali who answers it. Perhaps an earlier version was only about ‘Ali. The man comes to ‘Ali, puts his question to him, and he answers the question. The Prophet was not in the picture at all. Later, the Prophet was brought in the story and ‘Ali was made to give his answer in his presence, thus giving it the Prophet’s authority. Notice also that this hadith does not talk about seven ahruf. Every reading is said to be acceptable, presumably if it is taught by a companion. This gives too much liberty with the word of God.

The hadith has some similarity to the stories about ‘Umar and Hisham and about Ubayy and his companion(s): a person goes to the Prophet and complains about the differences in the recitations of some companions and the Prophet endorses the different readings. It is thus possible that behind the above hadith and those about ‘Umar and Hisham and about Ubayy there lies essentially a single story.

 Simple sayings about seven ahruf

Al-Tabari in his Jami‘ al-bayan ‘an ta`wil ayat al-Qur`an records the following ahadith:

Abu Hurayrah related: The Messenger of God said: "An all-knowing, wise, forgiving, and merciful one sent down the Qur`an in seven ahruf."

‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud related: The Messenger of God said: "The Qur`an was sent down in seven ahruf. Each of these ahruf has an outward aspect (zahr) and an inward aspect (batn); each of the ahruf has a border, and each border has a lookout."                

Al-Tabari in his Tafsir also gives the following ahadith about the seven ahruf:

Abu Hurayrah related: The Messenger of God said: "The Qur`an was sent down in seven ahruf. Disputation concerning the Qur`an is unbelief" – he said this three times – "and you should put into practice what you know of it, and leave what you do not know of it to someone who does."

‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud related: The Messenger of God said: "The earlier book (i.e., the Bible) came down from one gate according to one harf, but the Qur`an came down from seven gates according to seven ahruf: prohibiting and commanding, lawful and unlawful, clear and ambiguous, and parables. So, allow what it makes lawful, proscribe what it makes unlawful, do what it commands you to do, forbid what it prohibits, be warned by its parables, act on its clear passages, trust in its ambiguous passages." And they said: "We believe in it; it is all from our Lord."

Abu Qilabah narrated: It has reached me that the Prophet said: "The Qur`an was sent down according to seven ahruf: command and prohibition, encouragement of good and discouragement of evil, dialectic, narrative, and parable."

The part that is common to these five ahadith is that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf. This part is also found in most of the other ahadith we have discussed above and may well be authentic. The other statements in the above ahadith are either later additions or elaborations. Thus the statement “disputation about the Qur`an is unbelief” in the hadith of Abu Hurayrah is probably a later addition, as also the statement “Each of these ahruf has an outward aspect (zahr) …has a border, and each border has a lookout” in the hadith of Ibn Mas‘ud. The two additions reflect conflicting understandings of the seven ahruf.  The first addition connects ahruf with the variant readings of some type about which people argued. The second does not at all assume that ahruf are variant readings; this becomes clear in the second version of Ibn Mas‘ud’s hadith in which the seven ahruf are explicitly identified as seven types of teachings within the Qur`an.

We conclude from the above discussion that in the ahadith about seven ahruf no words or actions attributed to the Prophet are authentic except probably the bare statement that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf.

Difficulty in interpreting the seven ahruf

This leads us to the question of the interpretation of ahruf. This question should be raised at two levels: what did the Holy Prophet mean when he said that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf, assuming the saying to be authentic? And what do the ahadith mean by seven ahruf? At both levels the question is difficult to answer.

The question is difficult to answer at the first level because we cannot be sure in what context the Prophet made his statement. In my opinion the best interpretation is to take the word harf in the Qur`anic sense of border or edge and understand the saying to mean that the meanings contained in the Qur`an are enclosed within seven borders, some of which enclose the others like seven heavens. The lowest border represents the purely literal meaning and the highest border represents the understanding that the Prophet himself had. In-between we have different other levels of understanding.

The question is also difficult to answer at the second level because the ahadith about the seven ahruf point in different directions.

As we noted earlier, in some ahadith the various ahruf are various types of teachings in the Qur`an. Other ahadith involve different ways of reciting the Qur`an, but they do not tell us what those different ways were. Did they involve only punctuation and/or pronunciation or did they also involve differences in words and phrases. If the latter, did they involve only equivalent words and phrases or did they involve different words with different meanings? Only in the comment by Ibn Shihab in Muslim and al-Tabari there seems to be an understanding that the differences were such that they could affect the meaning, for he says: “…these seven ahruf are essentially one, not differing about what is permitted and what is forbidden” – only if the various ahruf involved differences in meaning can there arise the question of any differences in what is permitted and what is forbidden. In traditions other than this comment by Ibn Shihab the variants can be understood not to affect the meaning. This is so despite the fact that the variants are said to cause disputes, since anyone familiar with the history of religious disputes in Islam or Christianity or Judaism or any other religion knows that people can have very heated and divisive arguments about very minor matters. Therefore, some petty-minded Muslims could well have argued about very minor differences about the recitation of the Qur`an even if they did not in the least affect the meaning of its verses.

Wide disagreement among scholars

In view of the fact that the ahadith about seven ahruf do not point to any clear interpretation of ahruf it is hardly surprising that scholars also differ widely in their interpretations. Suyuti in his al-Ittiqan fi `ulum al-Qur`an says: 'the degree of difference of opinion (ikhtilaf) among the scholars is to the extent of 35 sayings'. We consider below several of the most widely held opinions among scholars.

I) Ahruf means dialects. According to this view, seven ahruf are seven dialects current among the Arabs at the time of revelation that had different pronunciations and sometimes different spellings. This view has even been attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas who reportedly said 'The Qur`an was revealed in seven dialects' (Suyuti, al-Ittiqan). The seven dialects are reportedly identified by Ibn ‘Abbas as Hawasin-type dialects, Quraysh and Khuza`a. (Al-Tabari, Tafsir). According to another tradition the seven dialects are the seven dialects of Mudar, one of the main branches of the Arab nation from which the Prophet came. (Suyuti, al- Ittiqan; Ibn abi Da'ud, Kitab al-Masahif). These dialects were listed as: Hudayl, Kinana, Qays, Dabba, Taym al-Rabbab, Asad bin Khuzaymah and Quraysh.

This view, though most plausible, is not consistent with all the ahadith about ahruf. Thus in the hadith about ‘Umar and Hisham, the differences cannot be limited to only dialects, since ‘Umar and Hisham belonged to the same tribe.

The view also does not seem to be consistent with the Qur`an. The Qur`an has many references to the language of revelation (14:4, 12:2, 16:103, 20:113, 39:28, 41:44 etc) but nowhere it suggests that differences among the dialects was any problem. It assumes that there is one Arabic language that would be understood by all the Arab tribes. It describes its language as without crookedness (39:28) and mubin (manifest) (16:103) which suggests that its first audience had no special problems in comprehending it.

It seems that there had evolved a common language through which various tribes used to communicate with each other and which poets generally used to compose their famous poems. This common language might have been most heavily influenced by the dialect of the Quraysh, being spoken at the main center of trade and pilgrimage in Arabia but it might also have included words from other dialects and even foreign languages. It is possible that many people needed education to understand poetry and the Qur`an fully. They also might have had problems reciting them correctly. But this does not mean that there was no standard way of reciting these compositions or that various departures from the standard were acceptable.

II) Ahruf means languages in the Qur`an. This view differs from the first in that it stipulates only one way to recite the Qur`an and that one way includes seven different types of dialects, whereas the first view assumes seven different ways of reciting the Qur`an in accordance with the seven dialects.

III) Ahruf means synonyms, i.e. that a variety of expressions describing one and the same concept are used in recitation. This view is accepted by many scholars. It is close to the idea of seven dialects.

IV) Ahruf means different types of teachings in the Qur`an, listed as wa‘d, wa‘id, muhkam, mutashabih, halal, haram, qasas (or imthal). As we have seen, this view is found in some ahadith also.

V) Ahruf means different ways of pronunciation as they have been explained in great detail by the scholars of qira'ah listed as variations in tafkhim (velarization, making sound heavy), tarqiq (making a letter sound soft), imalah (inclination, bending the sound of a short vowel), madd (prolongation), qasr (shortening), hamz (providing a letter with hamzah), izhar (clear pronunciation) and idgham or tashdid (assimilation). These variations do not change the actual word but only the mode of its pronunciation.

VI) Ahruf means variant readings arising from different ways of providing punctuations or vowels or dots or even adding, omitting or changing some words or phrases.

VII) Ahruf means seven Qur`an codices compiled by seven companions listed as Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, ‘Abd Allah, Ubayy and Ibn ‘Abbas.

VIII) The meaning of ahruf cannot be understood. In his commentary on the Muwatta Tanwir al-Hawalik Suyuti comments on the hadith about seven ahruf and says that none of these explanations is completely acceptable and concludes: “To me the best opinion in this regard is that of the people who say that this hadith is from among matters of mutashabihat, the meaning of which cannot be understood.”

From the above it is clear that the Hadith or the Muslim scholars are far from being in agreement that ahruf involve variant readings involving changes of wording much less changes of meaning. Only the interpretations I), III), VI) and VII) involve changes of wording. Of these the last two can also involve changes of meaning. But there is no evidence that these interpretations are held by a majority of scholars.

The positive message behind the ahadith about ahruf

Even though the ahadith about seven ahruf are largely unauthentic from a historical point of view, yet at another level they have positive and constructive spirit which was certainly a part of the teachings of the Holy Prophet. What these traditions are teaching is that petty differences should not distract us from the essential message of the revelation. This finds its best expression in the beautiful story concerning Ubayy and his two companions, which can be explained as follows:

The two disputing companions represent members of the Muslim community who argued about what pronunciation or punctuation etc. is the correct one. Ubayy represents those Muslims who are concerned about these differences and arguments. He goes to the Prophet, which means that the storyteller wants to tell us what the Prophet would have said about the differences. The answer attributed to the Prophet is that these differences are not important as long as they do not fundamentally change the meaning. In providing this answer an independent and probably authentic saying of the Prophet is used, that is, the saying that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf. Originally the meaning of the saying was different but the story under consideration interprets ahruf as the different ways of reciting the Qur`an without specifying those different ways. The doubts that Ubayy feels at the Prophet’s answer are the doubts that some Muslims had concerning the view that several different ways of reciting the Qur`an could be equally correct. The Prophet’s use of his spiritual power to remove doubts from Ubayy is meant to encourage all believers to remove similar doubts from their hearts and believe that differences in recitation are not important. The story then uses a separate tradition to say that this message is a manifestation of the love that God and the Prophet have for the people. The Prophet, the mercy to all humankind, out of this love requests God to make things easy for the people. God, out of his mercy not only accepts the request but also grants his Prophet three further requests with a guarantee of fulfillment. The Prophet, once again showing his love for the people, asks God twice to forgive them, reserving one request for the hereafter when he will again ask for forgiveness on behalf of the people.

The message to focus, on tolerance, on divine grace and forgiveness, and on what is significant given in this story and in other ahadith about the seven ahruf is the message that won in the Muslim world. In practice, Muslims almost unanimously rejected the petty-minded tribal exploitation of some minor differences in recitation found here and there. They resolved many of these differences and those that remained were accepted in a spirit of tolerance. Petty-mindedness only remained in traditions that it created and in some theoretical opinions that those traditions inspired among scholars who could not see that these were fabrications. I think that the Muslim world will be soon ready to make the theory and practice correspond. This means that those variants that are not accepted in recitation or in written text, such as the stoning verse, would be declared as the fabrications that they are. Even those differences that are accepted in writing or recitation might be resolved by the more developed application of the scientific method that Muslims have traditionally used in the study of traditions.

Christian missionaries’ rejection of the ahadith about seven ahruf: an example of their double standards

The Christian missionaries reject the authenticity of the ahadith about seven ahruf and dismiss them as an attempt to authenticate the variants. This view could be given some respect if the missionaries showed some integrity in their selection of what they consider as authentic. But that is alas not the case. They seem to have no consistent criteria to decide what is authentic and what is not. They seem to make their choices at will to develop a picture that suits their agenda and then present that picture as rationally as they can. This is illustrated by their dismissal of the ahadith about the seven ahruf. They are willing to accept traditions found in such late books as Ibn abi Da`ud’s Kitab al-Masahif (late third century or early fourth century) often without sound isnad but reject the ahadith about ahruf, documented almost century and half earlier and found in several different books and in several different forms, and having at least ten chains of transmission reaching about ten companions. What is particularly ironic is that some of these ahadith go back to Ubayy bin Ka‘b, one of the companions most often quoted in the traditions insinuating some alteration of the Qur`an by ‘Uthman. Without giving sound reasons the missionaries accept traditions about him when they suggest alterations in the Qur`an but reject the traditions attributed to him and other companions when they talk about seven ahruf.


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