DUANE ASKS: Are there different versions of the Quran or just different interpretations of the one version?
THE GUY ANSWERS: Since early in the history of Islam, only one Quran text in the original Arabic language has been fully authorized. However, as with most religious matters, the story is complicated. The religion teaches that the Quran existed eternally in heaven before angels gradually revealed the words little by little to the Prophet Muhammad between the year 620 C.E. (“Common Era”) and his death in 632. A tradition that the Prophet was illiterate is said to show the Quran’s miraculous nature and that Muhammad was a passive transmitter who did not produce the words himself. (By contrast, Jews and Christians see their Bible as God’s Word but written by humans.)
The orthodox view of the Quran’s transmission is depicted in English by such scholars as Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, pioneer English translator N.J. Dawood, Majid Fakhry and Mahmud Zayid of the American University in Lebanon, and A.S. Abdul Haleem of the University of London. Muhammad dictated the revelations to his “Companions,” who preserved them by memorization in an ancient oral culture skilled in accurate preservation that way. (Christian conservatives say that’s also true for materials about Jesus collected in the New Testament Gospels. For instance, see the brand-new The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.) Quran passages were also said to be written down by the Prophet’s secretaries.
Orthodoxy holds that all the material of what became the Quran existed in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime, though oral recitation remained important. A non-Muslim expert, W. Montgomery Watt, judged it “probable” that “much of the Quran was written down in some form” while Muhammad was still living. Al-Azami even contends that the Prophet arranged the final order of the verses and chapters (“suras”), though western scholars disagree.
After Muhammad died, his successors pursued a full written compilation, partly because deaths of Companions in battle raised fears that their memorized material could be lost. Eventually the third caliph (religious and political ruler) in the Sunni line, Uthman (644-656 C.E.), ordered an authorized version, then assigned reciters to deliver copies to several major Muslim towns and sought to destroy all other Quran texts in order to enforce uniformity. Watt considered it “certain that the book still in our hands is essentially” Uthman’s authorized text. (A manuscript in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is thought to be one-third of a surviving Uthman manuscript; Columbia University’s library has a copy.) Shiites use the same text as Sunnis though the faith’s two main branches disagree on the role of early caliphs. Egypt’s official Quran from 1924 is the recognized Arabic edition.
Certain French writers are skeptical about the orthodox history.