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The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Quran

The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān: The Problem of Tawātur and the Emergence of Shawādhdh

  • Book Title:
 The Transmission Of The Variant Readings Of The Quran
  • Book Author:
Shady Hekmat Nasser
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In the late 1990s, a rumor spread in one of the small sunn¯ı neighborhoods in Beirut that the Sheikh of the mosque had become senile. The residents of that small neighborhood had to interrupt the Sheikh right before dawn’s prayers and force him to stop his recitation of the Qur”a¯n and leave the mosque.

 One of those residents told me that they could not tolerate the Sheikh’s mockery of God’s holy book; he was reading the Qur”a¯n in a bizarre manner as if he were imitating the dialect of the sh¯ı#¯ıs in south Lebanon. The resident decried: “can you imagine he was saying “ihdina¯ z-zira¯ ta l-mustaq¯ım”; zira¯ ta with a za¯ y! Even my three-year-old daughter can read al-fa¯ tihah corretly”.

At that time I was still not familiar with the discipline of Qira¯”a¯t; however, a couple of years later I realized that what the Sheikh had done was reciting the Qur”a¯n according to the canonical Reading of Hamzah b. Hab¯ıb al-Zayya¯t, which is just as valid and “Qur”a¯nic” as the Reading of

H afs (the version that most Arabs in the Middle East are familiar with). TheReading of Hafs, or more accurately Hafs #an #A¯ sim, was not common in the Arab and Muslim world until the O tto mans a dopted it as the offıcial Reading of the Empire.

Furthermore, the fırst complete audio recording of the Qur”a¯n was done by Mahmu¯ d Khal¯ıl al-Husar¯ı in 1961, and it followed the Reading of Hafs #an #A¯ sim, which became the dominant Read- ing in the Arab and Mu slim world, whereas all the other canonical Readings started to die out except among specialists and highly educated scholars.

The aforementioned canonical Reader Hamzah al-Zayya¯t used to sell oil for a living, hence his nickname “al-Zayya¯ t”. However, one tradition claims that when Hamzah started reading the Qur”a¯n before receiving a formal education in recitation, he read at the very beginning of the Qur”a¯n “dha¯ lika l-kita¯ bu la¯ zayta f¯ıhi” (This is the Scripture whereof there is no oil) instead of rayba (doubt). Realizing his grave mistake, Hamzah decided to learn the Qur”a¯n properly with the experts until he perfected his reading. Regardless of the authenticity of this account, the message is clear:

one cannot read the Qur”a¯n without proper and formal training even if he is one of the seven canonical Readers of the Qur”a¯n. The Qur”a¯n should be recited according to the teachings of the Prophet and his Companions; it must be read according to sunnah and never according to ijtiha¯ d.

Scholarship on Qira¯”a¯t has attracted many scholars over the years and several studies have been produced on this subject from historical, gram- matical, philological, phonetic, literary, and theological perspectives. My book studies the transmission of the variant readings of the Qur”a¯n and the mechanisms through which some system Readings were established as canonical whereas others were deemed to be non-canonical (shawa¯ dhdh, sing. sha¯ dhdh).

 I also study the theory of tawa¯ tur and how successful its application was toward the transmission of the Qur”a¯nic Readings. Finally, I run a comparative study between the variants of the Qur”a¯n and the vari- ants of early Arabic poetry in order to compare the nature of both sets of variants and how similar or different they are from each other. The book is divided into fıve chapters: chapter one provides a background on the study of Qira¯”a¯t and the important scholarship that has been done on the topic, in addition to a detailed study of the transmission of the Prophetic tradition of the sab#at ahruf (the seven modes of recitation), which is considered to be the only legitimization for the existence of the variant readings of the Qur”a¯n.

The objective is to approximate when this tradition was in circulation within the Muslim community and the implications of this tradition along with its different versions. Chapter two studies the process of the canonization of the seven Readings by Ibn Muja¯hid. I will examine the period prior to Ibn Muja¯hid and focus on al-Tabar¯ı and his criteria for accepting a valid reading of the Qur”a¯n. Then I w ill conduct a close reading of the introduction of Ibn Muja¯hid’s Qira¯”a¯t work in order to extract his criteria for establishing the seven-Reading canon. I will propose a differ- ent interpretation of Ibn Muja¯hid’s views and demonstrate that he viewed the variant readings of the Qur”a¯n as legal rulings (ahka¯ m), and that the usu¯ l¯ıs and qurra¯” community after him moved the discipline of Qira¯”a¯t from the realm of ftqh and ijtiha¯ d into the realm of Had¯ıth.

The last section of chapter two studies the theory of tawa¯ tur, its characteristics, and its theological and epistemological implications. The theory of tawa¯ tur will be studied from the perspectives of the usu¯ l¯ıs and Had¯ıth theoreticians. This study of tawa¯ tur will serve as a prefaceto chapter three, which studies the theories on the transmission of the Qur”a¯n. The fırst part of this chapter will examine how the usu¯ l¯ıs defıned the Qur”a¯n and to what extent tawa¯ tur is essential in its defınition.

The second part will examine the theories and opinions of scholars on the transmission of the Qur”a¯nic eponymous Readings and how tawa¯ tur fails to apply to the transmission of these Readings. This ulti- mately causes the following paradox: the Qur”a¯n was transmitted through tawa¯ tur, yet the system Readings were not transmitted through tawa¯ tur; however, one cannot read the Qur”a¯n except through these system Readings.

Consequently, what is it in the “Qur”a¯n” that was transmitted through tawa¯ tur? Chapter four will study in detail the transmission of the canonical Readings and how they were passed on from the eponymous Readers down to the Qira¯”a¯t collectors. I will demonstrate the importance of the immedi- ate transmitters of each eponymous Reader and how they play an essential role in determining the main Ra¯ w¯ıs (transmitters) of each system Reading.

The stemmata I created for the transmission of these Readings show that it is almost impossible for the canonical eponymous Readings to have met the conditions of tawa¯ tur. I will also demonstrate how the concept of the shawa¯ dhdh readings started to evolve through the dying single strands of transmission, and will suggest that the concept of shawa¯ dhdh is broader and more complex than the variant readings of the pre-#Uthma¯nic codices.

In chapter fıve I will compare two sets of variants, the fırst Qur”a¯nic and the second poetic. I will create a sample database of Qur”a¯nic and poetic variants and categorize them under twenty-three groups. My goal is to fınd similarities and differences among the variants in both literatures and deter- mine to what extent the restrictions of the consonantal outline (rasm) and poetry meters would have affected the transmission of the Qur”a¯nic Readings and early Arabic poems. In the conclusion I summarize my discoveries and propose plans for future research.

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