Dr Jonathan Brown comments on some issues that have caused much debate on YouTube and social media recently

Dr Brown writes: 

Folks, studies by scholars in the West on the transmission of the Quran all rely *solely* 1) on books of Quranic recitations written by major Muslim scholars like al-Dani (d. 444 AH), Ibn Abi Dawud (d. 316 AH) and Ibn al-Jazari (d. 833 AH) as well as other works like books on Quranic language and grammar by al-Farra’ (d. 207) and al-Zajjaj (d. 311 AH); and 2) on manuscripts of the Quran produced and preserved by Muslims.

One talk I just listened to “blew the whole lid off” conclusions made by late medieval Muslim scholars on Quranic readings… by literally regurgitating word for word one of those scholars, the famous Hadith scholar al-Sakhawi (d. 906), pointing out the errors made by his peers. How is this “shocking”? It’s like unearthing the shocking fact that lots of economists were wrong as pointed out by… some major economists… in leading journals of … economics!

A recent “landmark” book on Quranic readings revealed the shocking, shocking conclusion that not all the canonical readings of the Quran are mutawatir across time etc… which the book clearly admitted was the opinion of Ibn al-Jazari, the pillar of the science of Quranic readings, among others. In fact, this is also the opinion of al-Shawkani (d. 1834 CE) (just in case someone wants to throw soomee loong voowelled insults at me). The reason for this is simple: If you take the usuli definition of tawatur… there is no “usuli definitions of tawatur” because there are several contenders none of which is agreed on even by usulis and 2) almost all these contending usuli definitions are insanely demanding to the point that, as Ibn al-Salah (d. 643 AH) and many others have pointed out, no Hadith actually fulfills them! Ibn al-Jazari and others were just making the same point for the Quranic readings. As Ibn Hanbal, Muslim al-Wa’ili, Abu Ya’la etc. all pointed out: tawatara really means “its transmission was widespread (ishtahara turuquhu).” Saying not all the canonical readings of the Quran are mutawatir at all stages says more about the problem of usuli definitions of tawatur (problems usulis themselves pointed out!) than it does about the Quranic readings, which have always been very well known (one indication of this is how they’re written down in so many books). In fact, I feel bad pointing out the flaws of usuli definitions of tawatur since it’s what mid-tier Muslim scholars do to sound smart and it’s kind of bush league.

Folks, Muslim students of knowledge being “shocked” by white people regurgitating the contents of their own books to them is… embarrassing. And I’m not talking about books by some marginal weirdo who died falling into a well after drinking too much wine and trying to write an epistle on how Jahannam is actually the name of a duck. I’m talking about books by the dons of those respective sciences, whose works have been studied, copied, printed, reprinted etc. for centuries! This is just straight up mental colonization. Do better. Earn the right to be heirs to the people whose books you’re hearing about. Get some grit.

PS: As David Drennan points out, ditto for other fields.

PPS: To be real, my whole career is basically based on translating ideas from Muhammad Zahit Kawthari, the Ghumari family, and a few other modern Muslim scholars. I’m not qualified to shine their shoes. I’ve succeeded by the bounty of God, Who made me a decent writer and white.

Taken from Dr Jonathan Brown’s Facebook post. Read the discussion there. 

Categories: Dr Jonathan Brown, Qur'an

5 replies

  1. 1-‘Umar ibn al-Khattáb said: “I heard Hisham ibn Hakim reciting Surat Al-Furqan during the lifetime of the Allah’s Messenger, and I listened to his recitation and noticed that he recited in several different ways which Allah’s Messenger had not taught me. I was about to jump over him during his prayer, but I controlled my temper, and when he had completed his prayer, I put his upper garment around his neck and seized him by it and said: “Who taught you this Surat which I heard you reciting?” He replied: “Allah’s Messenger taught it to me”. I said: “You have told a lie; for Allah’s Messenger taught it to me in a different way from yours”. So I dragged him to the Messenger of Allah and said: “I heard this person reciting Surat al-Furqan in a way which you haven’t taught me!” Then the Messenger of Allah said: “Release him! Recite, O Hisham”. Then he recited in the same way as I heard him reciting. Then Allah’s Messenger said: “It was revealed in this way”. Then he said: Recite O ‘Umar. I then recited it as he had taught me. Allah’s Messenger said: “It was revealed in this way. This Qur’an has been revealed to be recited in seven different ways (ahruf), so recite of it whichever is easier for you.” Sahih al-Bukhari 6936


    • Ubayy ibn Ka‘ab narrates that once the Prophet (PBUH) met Jibrîl, and said: “O Jibrîl! I have been sent to an illiterate nation. Among them are old and young men and women, and those who have never read any writing!” Jibrîl answered him, “O Muhammad, the Qur’an has been revealed in seven ahruf!”

      Ubayy ibn Ka‘ab also heard two people reciting the Qur’an in a manner different from what he had learnt. After some discussion, both parties went to the Prophet (PBUH) and recited the same portion to him. He (PBUH) approved of both parties’ recitations. At this point, Ubayy narrates: “…there occurred in my mind a sort of denial and doubt that did not exist even in the time of Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic era)! When the Messenger (PBUH) saw how I was affected, he struck my chest, whereupon I started sweating, and felt as though I were looking at Allah in fear! Then the Prophet (PBUH) said: O Ubayy! A message was sent to me to recite the Qur’an in one harf, but I requested (Allah) to make things easy on my nation. A second message came that I should recite the Qur’an in two ahruf, but I again made the same request. I was then ordered to recite the Qur’an in seven ahruf.

      Ibn ‘Abbas reported that the Prophet (PBUH) said: “Jibrîl recited the Qur’an to me in one harf, and I recited it back to him, but I requested him to increase (the number of ahruf) and he continued to increase it for me, until we stopped at seven ahruf.” ibn Shihab al-Zuhri , one of the narrators of the hadith, said: “It has reached me that these seven ahruf are essentially one (in meaning), they do not differ about what is permitted or forbidden.”

      Ubayy ibn Ka’ab reported that the Prophet (PBUH) was once on the outskirts of Madinah (near the tribe of Banu Ghifar) when Jibrîl came to him and said: “Allah has commanded you recite the Qur’an to your people in one harf”. The Prophet (PBUH) replied: “I ask Allah’s pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” Jibrîl then came again and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people in two ahruf.” The Prophet (PBUH) again replied” “I ask Allah’s pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” Jibrîl then came a third time and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people in three ahruf.” The Prophet (PBUH) replied for a third time: “I ask Allah’s pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” At last, Jibrîl came for the fourth time, and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people in seven ahruf, and in whichever harf they recite, they would be right.

      Abu Baqarah narrated that Jibrîl said to the Prophet (PBUH) “O Muhammad, recite the Qur’an in one harf”. Mika’îl said to the Prophet ask him to increase number, then till the number reached seven, then he said: each of these ahruf is sufficient unless you mix a verse of punishment with a verse of rewards and vice versa. Such as: ta‘ál, aqbil, halumma, asri‘ and ‘ajjil. All these words mean the same meaning (come)


  2. Sorry, I’m a little too distant from social media and youtube, what exactly was the debate and from whom did it originate?


  3. The fact is that there are or holes in the traditional narrative, as Qadhi correctly points out. One such hole is the silence on the Uthmanic codex and its fate. Supposedly, 5 copies or more were sent out. There seems to be conflicting reborts about that. Yet nobody reported about these codices or their destruction in history. Whether by men, fire, earthquakes etc. Rumors only start to circulate much later. Fact is, no Uthmanic manuscript has reached us. Account might not be historical.

    Another problem is that the readings are not consistently borne out in the manuscripts. You don’t find a manuscript that consistently conforms to one reading. Rather, various readings are mixed. The Qiraat were documented in works by Ibn Mujahid and Danni. Not consistently in the manuscripts.
    Still, a third problem is the orthography of manuscripts and printed editions that differ wildly from each other. If you believe the text is fixed down to the letter, this is contradicted by the manuscripts that have many variant spellings.

    Fixing the supposed text of one reading, such as Hafs and its spelling is a modern undertaking, which was done in Egypt as in the 1924 Hafs Quran and subsequent editions. It was done by reviewing the Muslims sources such as Mujahid and Danni. Not by looking at actual manuscripts.


  4. “Folks, studies by scholars in the West on the transmission of the Quran all rely *solely* 1) on books of Quranic recitations written by major Muslim scholars… and 2) on manuscripts of the Quran produced and preserved by Muslims.”

    I’m not sure what Brown’s point is. Isn’t this the approach to be expected?

    It’s very similar to the approach to the Hebrew Bible, relying on manuscripts and masoretic works.

    Obviously the transmission history of the Hebrew Bible is more complicated and so there are additional types of evidence to be considered.

    But isn’t the fundamental approach the same?


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