Twenty versions

If you are a Muslim you’ll probably be shocked, but really: even according to perfectly sound Islamic teachings there are twenty versions of the qur’an. This is -or should be- common knowledge among Muslims. Everything written below, can be found on reliable Muslim websites.

I blogged before on the Arabic writing system and about the first script in which the qur’ an was written: a defective script that noted no vowels and made no distinction between a lot of consonants. It used only 15 signs to write 28 consonants, whilst the vowels had to be guessed by the reader. I explained these texts were nothing more than a helpful reminder for the qurra’, people who already knew the qur’ an by heart. Written qur’ ans were not intended to be complete and reliable codifications of the exact text.

I also explained that eventually disagreements broke out and that these were partly solved by adding extra signs to the qur’ anic text. About a century after the first codification of the qur’an, so called ‘diacritical dots’ were added to distinguish different consonants and after another two centuries there was a generally accepted system for noting the vowels.

This was only a partial solution. Because in those three centuries that saw the perfection of the Arabic writing system, transmission of the qur’ an was mainly oral. The Islamic reign expanded over half the planet in about one century. The Muslim elite became massively diluted: not all conquered people became Muslim and not all those who did become Muslim immediately put themselves to the task of memorising the qur’ an. In a time when travelling from one place to another was slow and dangerous, it wasn’t easy for individual qurra’ to check their memory with colleagues, unless they lived in the same place. This resulted in slightly different schools of reciting the qur’an, located in various cities like Mecca, Basra, Kufa, Medina or Damascus.

One of the Islamic dogma’s on the qur’an maintains that there is only one qur’an and that it has been preserved unadulterated. So Islamic scholars devised a system where various versions were tracked down to various famous qurra’, ten in total, who could each claim a chain of teachers going back to the prophet. These ten “ways of reciting” -as Muslims prefer to call them- are called qira’at. They are all considered canonical. Besides these ten, other readings are known but these are not considered canonical: they are not to be recited, but it’s ok to use them to explain the meaning of a particular verse. The ten canonical qira’at each had exactly two students (riwa) whose so called riwayat are all different. (an extensive -albeit very apologetic- version can be found here)

Westerners would call this ’20 versions’, Muslims call it ’20 ways of reciting’. That sounds like a euphemism to cover up different transmissions of a text, but Muslims are not entirely wrong on this. The majority of differences deal with typically oral things like how long a pause or a vowel lasts, which letters assimilate and which don’t, which consonants need a nasal pronunciation, what glottal stops are omitted, things that aren’t typically written down in any language. A smaller percentage are actual differences in the vowels, that were added latest to the written texts of the qur’an. A slightly smaller part than that consists of differences in diacritical dots, that were added earlier than the vowels. Only a very small percentage are differences in the original Arabic lettering that was first used for the text.

Some of these differences result in different meanings. In the opening chapter of the qur’an God is called “the owner of judgement day”. The word for “owner” is in some riwayat, but in some other riwayat it is “king”, a difference of one added vowel. Things like this can be found on the Internet (like in question B). As this example makes clear: these differences in meaning are nothing to loose a night’s sleep over. They are also not very frequent, which can be expected in a text that only took three centuries to be written down in an apt -or rather: made apt- writing system. Differences in meaning are easily explained: there is only one qur’an, but in different recitations. All recitations together form the entire revelation and the differences that are there are not contradictory but supplementary to each other.

In 1923 the al-Azhar University in Cairo took riwayat Hafs, named after the man who transmitted it, as the standard text. Its use is actively promoted all over the Muslim world. There’s not even a difference between sunni and shi’a in this respect. As a result, most qur’ans that can be bought are in this standard text. Of all twenty canonical versions only four are still in print. I have three: Hafs (naturally), Warsh and Qalun. The first two I could buy in my own country, where only 3% of the population is Muslim. Fortunately, a lot of those are Moroccan and riwayat Warsh was mainly used in the Maghreb until the Egyptian standard-text took over. Qalun I had to order on the Internet. The only one remaining is riwayat ad-Duri. I am told it’s still in use in Sudan. Not much chance I’m going there soon…


5 Responses to “Twenty versions”

  1. I’m not a Muslim, but this is all news to me. And fascinating, too. Thank you so much for posting it!

  2. shirhashirim Says:

    Those who can read Arabic and want to know about recitations that are not in print anymore, can consult

  3. […] blogged before about the history of the qur’anic text. My blog on square kufic only touches the subject of the qur’an, but it’s actually the […]

  4. […] fourth Qur’an I’ve blogged before about the twenty canonical versions of the Qur’an and my quest to obtain the last of the four versions that are still in print: the riwayat ad-Duri. […]

  5. […] discussing the qur’an with a Tunisian guy who had read one of my posts on the subject: the one on various textual versions, termed ‘recitations’ by Muslims. The canonical text of the […]

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