The Qurʾān is the only revealed scripture that has been guaranteed protection by Allāh ﷻ. Allāh ﷻ Himself took the responsibility of preserving the Qurʾān. He says, “Indeed, it is We who sent down the Remembrance and indeed, We will be its guardian.” Allāh ﷻ has promised to protect the Qurʾān from any distortions, discrepancies, and additions or deletions. Through this divine protection, the words of the Qurʾān today are the exact same words that were revealed to the Prophet ﷺ. The care and attention to minute detail given in the preservation and compilation of the Qurʾān is unparalleled.
The preservation and compilation of the Qurʾān passed through three unique stages: the first was during the life of the Prophet ﷺ, the second was during the time of Abu Bakr (ra), and the third was during the caliphate of ‘Uthmān (ra).
During the life of the Prophet ﷺ the Qurʾān was primarily preserved in two ways:
- Orally through memorization
The primary method of preservation was memorization. The Arabs of the pre-Islamic era were mostly an illiterate nation. However it is important to understand that illiteracy does not mean non-intelligent. It simply refers to the fact that reading and writing were not common. Despite their inability to read and write, they were extremely eloquent and creative when it came to speech and poetry. What they lacked in terms of reading and writing was made up through their eloquence. They would have competitions in composing the most eloquent poems. Since the art of reading and writing was scarce and books were uncommon they were dependent on their memories for the preservation of these poems. As a matter of fact, because their access to writing and written materials was limited, their ability to memorize was enhanced. An average person would have thousands of lines of poetry memorized. Most people would have their own lineages memorized along with the lineages of their horses.
The Arabs had a very strong oral tradition of poetry and story-telling that enhanced their ability to memorize. It is no surprise that when revelation started coming to the Prophet ﷺ, his companions would commit those verses to their memories.
The Prophet ﷺ was the first to memorize the verses of the Qurʾān. Initially when he received revelation he would hastily repeat after Jibrīl (as) to ensure that he would memorize the verses. Allāh ﷻ reassured him, “do not move your tongue with haste to recite it. It is for Us to collect it and give you the ability to recite it.” Allāh ﷻ assured the Prophet ﷺ that the words of the Qurʾān would be preserved in his heart as soon as they were revealed.
The Prophet ﷺ was constantly engaged in memorizing, teaching, recording, and explaining the Qurʾān. Not only did the Prophet ﷺ memorize the Qurʾān, but he also encouraged his companions to memorize and teach it as well. Through his words, he would offer incentives and encouragement for teaching and memorizing. For example, the Prophet ﷺ said, “The best amongst you are those who learn the Qurʾān and teach it.” In another statement the Prophet ﷺ said, “Whoever reads a letter from the book of Allāh, then for them is a good deed. A good deed is multiplied by ten. I am not saying that Alif Lām Mīm is one letter; but Alif is a letter, Lām is a letter and Mīm is a letter.” As a result of this encouragement, there were hundreds of companions who committed the entire Qurʾān to memory. We can get a sense of that from the fact that approximately seventy huffādh alone were martyred during the battle of bīr ma‘ūnah. These companions in turn were engaged in teaching and spreading the Qurʾān. Through their efforts, the Qurʾān spread throughout the Muslim lands and has been preserved in the chests of Muslims from generation to generation until today.
There is a common misconception that the Qurʾān was not written during the life of the Prophet ﷺ. Despite the scarcity of people who could read and write, as well as writing materials, the entire Qurʾān was recorded before the Prophet ﷺ left this world. It was not compiled in a single book as we know it today, but it was written on various parchments. There were numerous companions (ra) who were appointed as scribes by the Prophet ﷺ. Anas (ra) narrated that four people from amongst the Ansār gathered the Qurʾān during the time of the Prophet ﷺ: Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Mu’ādh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, and Abu Zaid (ra). From other reports we learn that, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān, and ‘Ali (ra) were also scribes for the Prophet ﷺ. Every time he received revelation, he would command one of them to write it down.
The Prophet ﷺ would tell his scribes where to place the verses. ‘Uthmān (ra) reports that it was the blessed practice of the Prophet ﷺ that soon after the revelation of a certain portion of the Qurʾān, he would pointedly instruct the scribe to write it in a specific surah after a specific verse.
Zaid ibn Thabit (ra) relates, “I used to write down the words of revelation for the Prophet. When revelation came to him, he would feel intense heat and drops of perspiration would start rolling down his body like pearls. When this state would cease, I would present him with a shoulder-bone or a piece of cloth and begin to write what he would dictate to me… When I was finished, he would say: ‘Read’. I would read it back to him. If there was a shortcoming, he would rectify it.”
Since paper was scarce during this time, the scribes would write down the verses on whatever they could find. They would write on date palm branches, stone slabs, leather scraps, pieces of bamboo, leaves, and animal bones. Basically they would use whatever they could find that was suitable for writing.
Through this method, the entire Qurʾān was written down during the life of the Prophet ﷺ. It was written on various parchments but it was not compiled into one single book as it is today. Similarly, many companions (ra) had their own personal copies of the Qurʾān that they had written themselves. They would record whatever they heard or memorized from the Prophet ﷺ.
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