Criticism of Arthur Jeffery’s “Materials For The History Of The Text Of The Qur’an: The Old Codices”

An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan, pp. 384-388 (1999) , Al-Hidaayah Publishing and Distribution. Compiled by Usman Sheikh

Jeffery’s own work is an almost four hundred pages long compilation of the different recitations of certain Companions and Successors who were known to have written mus-hafs. He compiled information regarding fifteen codexes from the Companions, and thirteen from the Successors. By a ‘codex’ he meant mus-haf. He lists all the readings in these mus-hafs that do not conform to the present day mus-haf (although in reality many of them do conform with the mus-haf of `Uthmaan; they are merely different from the mus-haf written in the qiraa’a of Hafs).

Jeffery divides the work based on each codex, and under each codex, he lists, in order, all the verses where a different recitation occurs. The most important and longest of them are the codexes of Ibn Mas’ood and Ubay ibn Ka’ab.

Jeffery compiled this information from over thirty classical Islaamic texts, some authentic and some not. The sources range from classical lexicons, to the famous works of tafseer, to the works on the qira’aat. Unfortunately, for each variant recitation, he did not list the exact reference work that it was obtained from.

To give an example of what Jeffery compiled, we will quote from Ibn Mas’ood’s Soorah Faatihah. He read, according to Jeffery, with the following differences

1) ‘malik‘ as ‘maalik

2) ‘ihdina as-siraat al-mustaqeem‘ as ‘arshidna as-siraat al-mustaqeem

3) ‘siraat alladheena an’amta ‘alayhim‘ as ‘siraat man an’amta ‘alayhim

4) ‘ghayril maghdoobi‘ as ‘ghayral maghdoobi

Jeffery continues in a similar manner for the rest of the Qur’aan. Obviously, what Jeffery is trying to prove is that there are variant readings to the Qur’aan which were not preserved. He writes, “…it is quite clear that the text which Uthmaan canonised was only one out of many rival texts…”; therefore the purpose of Jeffery’s book is to, “..investigate what went before the canonical texts.” 813 His supposition is that the ‘original’ text was tampered with by the Companions, and only one chosen.

There are three points to be made concerning this.

1) On the supposition that Jeffery’s theory is absolutely correct — that the text of the Qur’aan as `Uthmaan preserved it was chosen by him from amongst many variant texts — what are the implications of this from Jeffery’s work? Even if we allow for all these readings that Jeffery compiled to be authentic, and representing legitimate variants from the text of Uthmaan, not a single reading actually contradicts another one in meaning. No verse is added, no ruling contradicted, no law repealed. There are literally thousands of differences mentioned in this book, each one of which merely rephrases a certain verse of the Qur’aan. 814 Therefore, the question must be asked, what is gained by substantiating these ‘variant’ texts? Agreed, if what Jeffery claims is true, this would imply that the actual text of the Qur’aan that is present is only one of a number of authentic texts, but what presumption or theory can be advanced based on this claim? Of course, this is supposing that Jeffery’s basic premise is true, and to this we do not agree.

2) More importantly – and this is the greatest flaw of the book – the authenticity of these recitations has to be established. In other words, how can the reader be assured that these recitations were actually recited? Jeffery himself admits, “The question arises, of course, as to the authenticity of the readings ascribed to these old Codices. In some cases it must be confessed that there is a suspicion of readings later invented by the grammarians and theologians being fathered on these early authorities in order to gain prestige of their name. The suspicion is perhaps strongest in the case of distinctly Shee’ite readings…” 815

From a Muslim standpoint, we have recourse to the isnaad. Jeffery, however, believes the isnaads to hold very little, if any, value. Due to this opinion, he does not quote isnaads for each variant reading. Therefore, in order to find out the authenticity of a certain reading, it is neccessary to go back to the thirty works from which Jeffery compiled his work, verify which one of them mentions this reading, and then check its isnaad for authenticity. (This is supposing that the original work even mentions an isnaad, for some of these recitations are merely referenced in later works without any isnaad).

However, from Jeffery’s own position on the concept and reliability of isnaad, he contradicts himself. If he does not believe in the authenticity of the isnaad system, then from where are all these readings obtained? After all, it is through isnaads that all of the readings of the Companions and Successors has been handed down to us. If Jeffery were to apply his standards and implement his belief of the isnaad system, all of these readings should be doubted, just like their hadeeth counterparts! But, not surprisingly, Jeffery concludes, “On the whole, however, one may feel confident that the majority of readings quoted from any reader really go back to the early authority.” 816 This clear double standard on Jeffery’s part is not surprising; whenever an orientalist finds some information that he feels can be used to discredit Islaam and cast doubts on it, then he will use it, no matter what the context, authenticity or actual implications of the texts may be. As Jeffery so clearly and unabashedly states, “Much of the material given by Ibn Abee Daawood regarding the history of the text of the Qur’aan, though extremely unorthodox, yet agrees so closely with conclusions one had reached from quite other directions that one feels confident in making use of it, however weak orthodoxy may consider its isnaad to be.” 817 Therefore the reason that these narrations are authentic, according to Jeffery, is because they agree with preconceived conclusions that were arrived at from ‘quite other directions’; unnamed and unknown directions, it should be pointed out!

3) The question obviously arises as to the valid interpretation of these variant readings. After all, Jeffery compiled these readings from various books of tafseer and qira’aat. How, then, are they to be explained?

The explanation of these variant readings is very simple, and relies upon the understanding of the ahruf and qira’aat of the Qur’aan, as was explained previously. It is noticed that many of these variant readings are found in the qira’aat of today – the saheeh, da’eef and shaadh ones. If anything, this actually further strenghtens the belief of the Muslims regarding the qira’aat, since these differences have come down to this generation from the Companions, who all learnt from the Prophet(P). The existence of the saheeh qir’aat at the time of the Companions is something that does not need to be proven, but in doing so, Jeffery has ‘confirmed’ that the ten qira’aat originated from the Companions (and hence the Prophet(P)) and not from the latter authorities. An example of this is Ibn Mas’ood’s recitation of ‘maliki’ as ‘maaliki’. As was quoted earlier, this difference is still existent in the authentic qira’aat, thus merely proving their origin. As for those variants which are considered da’eef qira’aat, they cannot be accepted as the Qur’aan, and as such there is no use in quoting such material as ‘variant’ to the text of the Qur’aan, since the authenticity of these da’eef qira’aat is not established. As for the shaadh qira’aat, they used to be recited by the Companions before their recitation had been abrogated. These cannot be considered as part of the Qur’aan anymore, as was mentioned earlier, and thus to quote them as having been left out of the Qur’aan is true, but they were left out at the command of the Prophet(P). Likewise, those recitations that are shown to be authentic but are not a part of the qira’aat, such as Ibn Mas’ood’s reading of ‘ihdina’ as ‘arshidna’, are only examples of the ahruf of the Qur’aan that were not preserved by the command of the Prophet(P).

In conclusion, from a Muslim’s prespective, Jeffery’s collection is only useful insofar as it lists many of the variant readings – the authentic and the inauthentic ones. A critical analysis of the authenticity of each and every variant reading must be established before the book can be of any great value. Also, the variant readings quoted in Jeffery’s book (at least the authentic ones) are all part of the ahruf of the Qur’aan, some of which still exist in the qira’aat, and some of which have been abrogated by the Prophet(P)). Obviously, Jeffery absolutely ignores the concept of the ahruf and qira’aat, for if he were to take this into account, then these readings would be explained without recourse to the theory that the Qur’aan is incomplete. In other words, Jeffery’s work is an example of an Orientalist taking a concept (the concept of ahruf and qira’aat), distorting it, and then presenting it in a sinister light in order to cast doubts upon Islaam. Had he only understood the correct interpretation of this concept – an interpretation that is claimed by him to be “largely ficticious” 818 without any explanation why – it would have saved him the trouble of compiling his work.

The second book in Jeffery’s collection is his editing of ‘Abdullaah Ibn Abee Daawood’s (d. 316 A.H.) Kitaab al-Masaahif. The author is none other that the son of the famous collector of the Sunan, Aboo Daawood as-Sijistaani (d. 275 A.H.). However, he did not enjoy the same prestige as his father, and he has mixed reviews from the scholars of hadeeth. Nonetheless, the book is an excellent reference, and it contains the neccessary isnaads for each narration, so the authenticity of each narration may be ascertained. It deals, as its title indicates, with the mus-haf; it discusses the writing of the wahy, the various mus-hafs of the Companions and their differences; the writing of the mus-haf, and certain aspects of fiqh related to the mus-haf.

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