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The Collection of the Qur’ān
Book Review
Khurram Soomro

Book Name: The Collection of the Qur’ān
Author: John Burton
Year: 1977
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

In this book, John Burton’s thesis is that the Qur’ān was collected by the Prophet Muhammad (sws) and Hadīth relating to the collection of the Qur’ān by Abū Bakr (rta), ‘Umar (rta) and ‘Uthmān (rta) are not authentic. There was only one text of the Qur’ān ever existed. Basically, the function of the alleged later collections of the Qur’ān is to provide a basis for the doctrine of abrogation (naskh). This book tackles various controversies surrounding the collection and compilation of the Qur’ān.

1. Introduction

John Burton gives background knowledge on the Islamic legal system. He explains that the Islamic law is derived from two sources, the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. This law is given the name sharī‘ah and the science concerning its elaboration is called fiqh. He tells us that the Holy Book, Qur’ān, the written law of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (sws). God also communicated to mankind through the Prophet’s words and actions, the unwritten law of Islam, the Sunnah. Burton explains that scholars formulated the usūl al-fiqh, which are methodologies on which legal rules can be developed. Burton also explains the difference between the Qur’ān and the mushaf: the Qur’ān is the divinely revealed word of God, whereas the mushaf is basically the written text, collected and compiled by the companions of the prophet, such as the mushaf of ‘Uthmān.

2. The Islamic Legal Sciences

Burton then looks in more detail at the Islamic legal sciences. He starts with the schools of law in Makkah, Madīnah, Basra and Kūfa, which were created by the local scholars of the region. These scholars had inherited the knowledge of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah from their predecessors and used them to derive the fiqh for their local school or madhab, based on their usūl al-fiqh. Therefore, each school had different views on fiqh and never achieved a unified fiqh or usūl. The differences made the schools question the validity of each other’s evidence. If the argument was based on a Hadīth, then the question arises whether the Hadīth is mutawātir, mashhūr or khabar-i wahīd. They also question the isnād of the Hadīth.

Certain legal rulings that are not mentioned in the mushaf, but still valid are said to have been derived from the Sunnah. There are other instances where the rulings of law clash with the rulings of the mushaf. Some say these are all Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). For such cases, there arises the theory of abrogation (naskh) and many scholars have different opinions on it. Shāfi‘ī holds that the Qur’ān cannot supercede the Sunnah; neither can the Sunnah supercede the Qur’ān. Only the Qur’ān can supercede the Qur’ān, while the Sunnah can supercede itself.

Burton explains the existence of the variant readings attributed to individual companions, which were each companion’s personal copy and were collected at the time of the revelation of the Qur’ān to the Prophet (sws). These variant readings had differences of dialect, vowel choice, synonyms and interpolations as well.    

3. The Sub-Science of Naskh

John Burton introduces us with the sub-science of naskh. He divides naskh into two: naskh al-hukam wa al-tilāwah and naskh al-hukam dūna al-tilāwah. He explains the difference between the two. naskh al-hukam wa al-tilāwah means the suppression of both the ruling and the wording. naskh al-hukam dūna al-tilāwah means the replacement of the ruling of earlier statement by the ruling of a later statement.

An instance of the first naskh is when Ubayy Ibn Ka‘b (rta) reports that Sūrah Ahzāb used to equal Sūrah Baqarah in length and they used to recite the stoning verse in the former. Abū Mūsa al-Ash‘arī reported that Sūrah Ahzāb was once as long as Sūrah Tawbah. Such reports prove that words and rulings have been forgotten. Here when considering Muhammad’s forgetting and Muhammad’s being caused to forget, the difference lies between his human memory and his prophetic memory.

For the second type of naskh, Burton quotes change in qiblah by the Qur’ān – something which had been instituted through the Sunnah.1

4. The Background to the Emergence of the Third Mode of Naskh

Burton describes here the instance of the third mode of naskh. In one of the Hadīth, the Prophet (sws) says: “Take it from me! God has appointed a way for the women: the non-virgin with the non-virgin and the virgin with the virgin. The non-virgin, one hundred stripes and death by stoning; the virgin, one hundred strokes and banishment for a year.”2 This stoning penalty was established by God through the Prophet’s Sunnah. Hence, showing that the Sunnah had superceded the Qur’ān.

Sūrah Ahzāb originally contained the stoning verse as: “Āi’shah reports that Sūrah Ahzāb used to be recited in the lifetime of the Prophet as having 200 verses, but when ‘Uthmān wrote out the mushafs, all they could find was its present length.”3 Sūrah Ahzāb presently contains only 73 verses. This is the instance of the third mode of naskh when the wording has been withdrawn from the mushaf, but its ruling remains valid. This type of naskh is called naskh al-tilāwah dūna al-hukm.

A second instance of the third mode is when Gabriel instructed Muhammad on certain revelations. The Prophet (sws) would observe them, without recording them in the text of the Qur’ān. Such rulings are attested as coming from God, but their wording was not recorded.4 This shows that these kinds of verses were not recited, in the Qur’ān, but used for the rulings of fiqh.

5. The Mushaf: an Incomplete Record of the Qur’ān

John Burton having explained the types of naskh discusses the question whether the Sunnah can supercede the Qur’ān or not. One claim is that the Sunnah has not come down from the whole Muslim body, but merely reported by one or two; showing the transmission is not mutawātir. The Sunnah elucidates the Qur’ān and cannot abrogate it. Scholars have the view that the verses not present in the mushaf today were earlier a part of it. The conclusion is derived on the basis that, had Prophet (sws) assembled the mushaf himself, he would not have omitted the verses whose ruling remains valid for fiqh. Therefore, as these verses are not present in the mushaf, the mushaf is not complete.

6. The First Collection

John Burton starts to discuss the history of the collection of the Qur’ānic texts through the Muslim point of view on three basic assumptions. Firstly, the present mushaf is incomplete. Secondly, the Qur’ānic texts had been privately assembled by the Muhammad’s contemporaries. Thirdly, there remains a conflict between the Qur’ān and the Sunnah.

Burton then gives an account of all the reports on the collection of the Qur’ān. After the Prophet’s death there had been an outbreak of civil wars and it is reported by al-Zuhrī, that many people who had memorized the Qur’ānic passages had fell in these fighting. These passages were neither recorded nor collected by any of the companions. The fear of the passages being lost compelled the Muslims to the collection of the Qur’ān, in the reign of Abū Bakr (rta). On this occasion, Abū Bakr (rta) requested Zayd Ibn Thābit (rta) to collect the Qur’ānic text. So, Zayd (rta) collected the written texts as well as from people’s memories. While collecting the texts, Zayd (rta) found the final verse of Sūrah Tawbah with Abū Khuzayma, which he could not find with anyone else. Zayd (rta) also collected the Qur’ān texts from Ubayy (rta), who dictated to them, as they wrote. Regarding the Sūrah Tawbah’s verse, ‘Umar (rta) is said to have asked the Prophet (sws) to record the stoning verse, but was denied.

Burton tells us that ‘Alī (rta) had sworn not to appear in public following the Prophet’s death until he had first collected the Qur’ān. It is also reported in the book that Zayd (rta) was assigned the task of producing a complete codex of the Qur’ān, by the third caliph ‘Uthmān (rta). Copies of this codex were sent to the chief centers of the Muslim empire, while all other codices were ordered to be destroyed.

7. The ‘Uthmān Collection

The author explains, at the time of the third caliph, ‘Uthmān (rta), there had been differences among the readings of people, which led to difference of opinion. On this incident, ‘Uthmān (rta)proposed to unite the people on the basis of a single text. So he ordered Zayd (rta) to compile one single codex of the Qur’ān. As the mushaf of ‘Uthmān (rta) was completed, the rest of the codices were ordered to be destroyed. ‘Uthmān’s initiative was hostile to the Companions as each of them had their own compilation of the Qur’ānic text and was followed by the people of their local regions; they now had to follow a single text, which was imposed on them. One event reported by Burton was when a quarrel broke between ‘Umar (rta) and a fellow Makkan, the Prophet (sws) said: “each of your readings is correct. The Qur’ān was revealed in seven forms, so recite whatever is easiest. The differences between the readings were caused by their different local dialects.”

8. The Qur’ānic Collections: a Review

This chapter gives us a review on the events of the collection of the Qur’ān. On one occasion, Prophet’s daughter is reported as saying that her father told her that Gabriel, who checked upon the revelations with the Prophet once a year, had checked him twice that year, from this the Prophet (sws) understood that his death was near.

There exists two set of Hadīths concerning ‘Abdullāh Ibn Mas‘ūd’s and Zayd’s isnād of the text. One refers to ‘Abdullāh’s early acceptance of Islam and his mushaf is predated to that of Zayd (rta). The second Hadīth says that Abdullah’s text is the later one. It is also said that Zayd (rta) had attended the final review and had edited his text accordingly. Burton explains here that the tradition of the collection of the Qur’ān by ‘Uthmān (rta) was against the variant readings and not against the tradition of the collection of the text by Abū Bakr (rta) and ‘Umar (rta).

9. The Isnād of the Qur’ān

Burton mentions the incident when ‘Uthmān (rta) dispatched the copies of his codex. As it reached Basra, Abū Mūsa (rta) said that anything lacking in his codex and present in ‘Uthmān’s codex should be added and anything in his codex but not in ‘Uthmān’s codex should not be omitted. Such acts declined the initiative of ‘Uthmān (rta) to unite the Muslims on a single text. The readings associated with the Companions are of two types: attempted interpolations or having consonantal variations. On this, Burton’s view is that the script, having no diacritical marks, is a deliberate device to accommodate the seven readings, which the Prophet (sws) is said to have originally revealed. Burton’ says that incompatible doctrines were attributed to past “authorities” to support the idea of the local schools. A solution to this problem proposed by Shāfi‘ī was to examine the list of transmitters, applying the principle of abrogation and in a conflict choose the younger companion instead of the older one. As Abū Bakr (rta) declared Zayd (rta): “you are young, intelligent and we know nothing to your discredit; you served the Prophet (sws) by recording his revelations in writing, so now search for the Qur’ān and bring it all together.”5 Another instance is that the stoning verse is never attributed to a Companion-mushaf, showing that it is an attempted interpolation in the actual text. Burton gives the review of the whole collection procedure led by different Caliphs. He explains that Abū Bakr’s aim was to collect the Qur’ān between two covers; ‘Uthmān’s goal was to collect the readings coming from the Prophet (sws) and reject the non-canonical readings in order to unite the Muslims on a single text, which had no interpolations, as the other codices were having.

10. General Conclusions

Burton here derives the conclusion that the mushafs reported from the Companions failed to complete the transition, as no mushaf has ever been attributed to the Prophet (sws). To provide a basis to the theory of abrogation, the collection of the Qur’ān was deliberately placed after the death of the Prophet. Burton views the collection of the Qur’ān to be the work of the Prophet himself and the tradition regarding the collection of the Qur’ān by later Companions to be fictitious and their function was only to provide a basis for the theory of naskh.








1. John Burton, The Collection of the Qur’ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 59.

2. Ibid., 74.

3. Ibid., 84.

4. Ibid., 102.

5. Ibid., 118.

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