Book Review: al-Ahruf al-Sab’a by Mahmud Shakir

al-Ahruf al-Sab'a
Format: HB
Published: 1443/2022
Page Count: 447

Al-Ahruf al-Sab‘a by Abu Fehr Mahmud Muhammad Shakir

Edited by Khalid Fatihi and reviewed by Fehr Mahmud Muhammad Shakir

Published by Shirkah al-Quds, Cairo (2022)

Book review by: Waqar Akbar Cheema


One of the most complex topics in the Qur’anic sciences is Sab’a Ahruf. Dedicated works on the subject have been written for centuries. Abu Laith al-Samarqandi (d. 373/983) was the first scholar whose work has come down to us. Al-Dani’s (d. 444/1053) work is relatively detailed and well-known. Authors of all the works on Qur’anic sciences and the vast majority of traditional Muslim exegetes (mufassirin) have discussed it. As all the major hadith collections (except Sunan Ibn Majah) have relevant reports, their commentaries also contain elaborate discussions on the subject. Still, the issue remains complex, and it’s hard to name a single work covering it all, especially its aspects related to phases of the Qur’an compilation. Perhaps it has been because studies on it typically begin with the hadith reports mentioning the revelation of the Qur’an in seven ahruf and then elaborating on how it relates to the corpus of canonical recitations tend to be exhausted. Though scholars have discussed the implications and questions on the relation of the ahruf scheme to Qur’an preservation efforts under both Abu Bakr and ‘Uthman, much of it has remained in want.

In the book under review, al-Ahruf al-Sab’a, the author Abu Fehr Mahmud Muhammad Shakir (d. 1997) begins with an inquiry into it with a report from Ibn ‘Abbas, which, on the face of it, suggests that he recited a verse of the Qur’an differently from how it was put in the mushaf and then as the mushaf version of it was mentioned to him he made a rather uncanny remark about it. Then, beginning with its explanation, Shakir bids to unravel the elements of the ahruf discussion not much focused upon by the scholars before him, at least not in a cogent manner.

The contents

The volume begins with a short introduction by Fehr Mahmud Muhammad Shakir wherein he describes how his father originally meant to write a footnote to an Ibn’ Abbas report (no. 20410) in the sixteenth volume of Tafsir al-Tabari that he edited, considered expanding it to a few pages in the introduction to the volume, and finally decided to make it into a separate work. Fehr notes that the book’s contents were written during the 1961-64 period and that Mahmud Shakir did not get to complete it after taking a break, despite requests to this effect (pp. 5-10). It took nearly sixty years for Shakir’s musings on the subject to see the light of day. A 2017 work, Abu Fehr Mahmud Muhammad Shakir wa Juhudu fi al-Dirasat al-Qur’aniyya by Dr. ‘Abdullah Mahmud Shalanfah (Amman: Dar al-Fath), however, included a study of the present work but it finds no mention in the introduction of the publication at hand.

The author starts by quoting the report that Ibn Abbas recited Qur’an 13:31 as “afalam yatabayyana alladhina amanu” [instead of “afalam ya’ysi alladhina amanu”] and remarked that it appeared to him as if a scribe wrote it as in the mushaf version while he was drowsy. Then, highlighting the trouble in the report in putting to doubt the veracity of the Qur’anic text and its preservation, he wonders how it could be accepted at face value.

Analyzing the report, he confirms the reliability of the chain of narrators mentioned by Tabari (pp. 21-28). He then quotes narrations of the report preserved by others besides Tabari that give some context and detail (pp. 28-38). Finally, in examining the report’s content, he highlights two parts; one that suggests Ibn’ Abbas “recited” (qara’) the verse differently from how it was in the mushaf and the final remark about the scribe drowsing. He takes into account other attributions of the “afalam yatabayyana …” rendering and, after thorough analysis, concludes that it is not known from the Prophet (ﷺ) or any of his companions except Ibn ‘Abbas. He asserts that among the Successors (tabi’in) too, it comes only from ‘Ikrima, who had only mentioned it on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas (pp. 39-58).

Having acknowledged the validity of the attribution of “afalam yatabayyana ..”, the author considers its nature with Ibn ‘Abbas, whether he meant it as a recital or an explanation to it? Noting that Ibn ‘Abbas is also reported to have recited the verse as in the mushaf, i.e., “afalam ya’ysi …” and no variant for the verse is mentioned for the mushaf attributed to him, Shakir concludes that Ibn ‘Abbas did not pronounce it as a recital valid for liturgical purposes (pp. 59-68).

He then makes a separate heading to stress that the word “qara’” used in reports from the Companions and their Successors does not always denote ritual recitation and that people have grossly erred in assuming it as such. Classical scholars, he argues, used it because they never harboured any doubt on the point, to begin with (pp. 69-70). Finally, however, he concludes the discussion on the report’s specifics without engaging with Ibn ‘Abbas’s remark about the scribe.

On p. 71, the book turns to the core of the sab‘a ahruf discussion, divided into two sections. The first section is about the hadith reports on sab‘a ahruf, and the second is about the written record of the Qur’an.

Shakir discusses three hadith reports about the subject. The first is the hadith of Umar b. Khattab and his disputation with Hisham b. Hakim regarding differences in recitation. Unlike Ibn Hajar, the author believes that this report is most important in determining the timeframe for the onset of the ahruf scheme. While it is known that Hisham accepted Islam with his father after the Conquest of Makkah, the author uses three sets of information to determine the timeline of the Umar-Hisham incident. First, the Prophet (ﷺ) returned to Madina in later 8/ early 630 and set out for Tabuk in Rajab 9/ October 630 before settling in Madina two months later, i.e., Ramadan 9 / December 630. Second, ‘Umar accompanied Abu Bakr during the Hajj of the year 9 AH, from where they returned in Dhu al-Hijjah 9/ March 631. Third, the Prophet (ﷺ) had sent Hisham’s father, Hakim, to Makkah after the Battle of Hunain to call them to Islam, and he had not arrived in Madina until after Tabuk.   Based on this, he contends the Umar-Hisham incident could not have happened before the end of the year 9 AH, i.e., March 631 (pp. 77-87). In Umar’s saying that it happened during the lifetime of the Prophet (ﷺ), he finds a subtle indication that it was towards the end of his life (pp. 88-92). He concludes that the seven ahruf concession came up between fourteen to seventeen months before the death of the Prophet (ﷺ) in the Rabi-I, 11/ April 632.

Based on his calculations above, he asserts that as most of the Qur’an came down before the ahruf system was ordained, it must have been revealed and written according to a single harf (pp. 92-93). He disagrees with the scholars who held that the first harf was limited to the language of Quraish as against that of the rest of the Arabs. He argues that the words “qawm” (lit. people) in Qur’an 14:4 does not refer to Quraish alone but refers to Arabs at large. The Qur’an, he highlights, self-identifies with the language of Arabs (12:2, 16:103, 20:113, 26:195, 39:8, 41:3, 41:44, 42:7, 43:3, 46:12), and there is no reason to limit it to Quraish. He qualifies his point by referring to a report in Sahih Bukhari (no. 3491) that the Prophet (ﷺ) belonged to Mudar, of which Quraish were only a part and another one (no. 3231) in which Jibril referred to a notable from the tribe of Thaqif as one of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) people (qawm). Then he adds a few examples in which prominent Quraishite companions, like Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and Ibn ‘Abbas, did not understand certain Qur’anic words that we know are from other tribal usages. He finds a confirmation for his view in Bukhari’s statement that “the Qur’an was revealed in the language of Quraish and the Arabs” (pp. 94-105)

 He discusses statements from ‘Umar and ‘Uthman that are used to press that the first harf was in the language of Quraish alone. As for ‘Umar’s direction to Ibn Mas’ud to teach the people the Qur’an on the idiom of Quraish, he refers to a fuller version which clarifies that ‘Umar meant to stress that the general Arabic pronunciation and not the odd tribal ones must be used in teaching. As for ‘Uthman’s statement that the Qur’an was revealed in the language of Quraish, it, the author insists, has to be viewed in its specific context of spelling conventions during transcription. He then quotes reports from ‘Umar (recorded by Ibn Abi Dawud) that bear on his contention against limiting it all to the Quraish; “when you differ regarding the diction, write it according to the diction of Mudar for verily the Qur’an was revealed upon a man from Mudar”, and no one should join in the transcription of mushafs “except the young from Quraish and Thaqif” (pp. 105-111).

Substantiating his point that it was not reasonable to believe that before the onset of the seven-ahruf system, the Qur’an was revealed only on the idiom of Quraish, he notes that many early converts to Islam were non-Quraishites. He names more than two dozen such men and women who had embraced Islam before the Prophet’s (ﷺ) emigration to Madina. He also mentions how the Qur’an had been presented to other non-Quraishites, including the people in Ta’if, the tribe of Daws, the Christians of Najran, and all the main tribes during the Hajj season in the tenth year of the Call. However, none of them found fault with the language of the Qur’an and acknowledged its greatness by failing to meet the Qur’anic challenge (pp. 112-115).

The Qur’an was revealed on the single harf on the best of the idioms of all Arabs, and the people were required to learn and stick to it alone until the delegations started to arrive in Madina from all the ends of Arabia. It happened after the campaign of Tabuk. In the year and a half that followed, delegates numbered 5000 to 10,000 arrived in Madina. All of them wanted to learn the Qur’an from the Prophet (ﷺ). Whereas there was no rush like this before, now the people were both large in number and in a hurry to return to their tribes with the message of the Qur’an. It was in these circumstances that Jibril visited the Prophet (ﷺ) and gave the system of ahruf concession, as mentioned in the well-known hadith of Ubayy, because many of them and their peers back in their respective tribes could not get used to the standard idiom set in which alone the Qur’an was previously revealed (pp. 117-125) The author follows it with some details of the categories of people for whom this concession was initially intended, to prove that it was not required for all of them and that the need was borne of the fact that the Arabs had no previous scripture studying which their language could become systemized as yet (pp. 126-148).

Next, the author dwells on the meanings of sab‘a ahruf and begins by stating that it was difficult to mark the boundaries of each harf or ascribe the elements of it to specific tribes; instead, he says, these were language conventions standard across tribes that had been taken into account for ease (pp. 155-159). Significantly, however, the entire ahruf system was based on prophetic precedent, and the ahruf are preserved today. In this wake, he mentions the weakness of the position held by Tabari and others, that we have only one harf now because it fails to explain the existence of differences among qira’at. Such differences, the author highlights, could not be explained otherwise, for there is no evidence that people were allowed to recite in their own words. Since Tabari also recognized that the qira’at were essentially predicated on precedent, his view on ahruf resulted in an inconsistency (pp. 159-163).

Then he enumerates the differences among qira’at to prove that ahruf are not about pronunciation alone. He elaborates that ahruf comprise two broad categories of variation. One is about pronunciation that bears no effect on meanings, and the other is about the changes in word forms (singular/plural, masculine/feminine etc.), changes of diacritics, changes in the sequence of words, changes due replacement of words, changes due to omission or addition of words, etc. Of the second category, he notes, some were in accordance with the standard mushaf, and others were not. The seven ahruf have been relayed and preserved to our day. When the delegates came, ahruf was taught to them by the Prophet (ﷺ) himself or the companions he had instructed to teach them. However, the ahruf were not required to be known separately or memorized as such. It was allowed to recite any of the ahruf as one found convenient. To our day, the ahruf remain scattered amongst the well-known qira’at (pp. 164-177).

At this point, leaving the details and opinions on meanings of the ahruf for a future endeavour, he explains how the transmission of the multiple ahruf led to an organized study of the Arabic language, leading to the development of Arabic grammar. He substantiates his thesis by observing that the prominent early grammarians were all expert reciters (qurra’). In this connection, he names luminaries like Abu al-Aswad al-Du’li (d. 69/688), Nasr b. ‘Asim al-Laithi (d. 89/708), Abu ‘Amr b. al-‘Ala’ (d. 154/771), Farahidi (d. 170/786), and Sibawayh (d. 180/796) and notes that they were able to achieve what they did because they studied Qur’an based on multiple ahruf. He states that had it not been for the ahruf-borne multiplicity of qira’at, the development of robust Arabic grammar would not have been possible, to begin with, or deferred for long. He observes that since the previous scriptures were not revealed in multiple ahruf, the study of Hebrew and Aramaic grammar could not develop as it happened in the case of Arabic (pp. 178-195).

In the next section, which continues to the end of the volume, he covers the stages of written preservation of the Qur’an. He argues that the Prophet (ﷺ) did not commission any of his companions to transcribe the Qur’an at Makkah. He critiques the reports that suggest ‘Abdullah b. Abi Sarh and Shurahbil b. Hasana wrote the Qur’an under instruction from the Prophet (ﷺ) at Makkah, showing that they are not tenable to this end. He, however, acknowledged that some companions could have written the Qur’an on their own (pp. 196-209).

Then he turns to the details of the writing of the Qur’an after emigration to Madina till the death of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). Whereas it is established that the Prophet (ﷺ) had dedicated scribes to record the Qur’an in writing at Madina, he explores when the Prophet (ﷺ) made this arrangement after arrival in Madina. He claims it was after the killing of seventy-odd teachers of the Qur’an at Bi’r Ma‘una in Safar 4/ July 625 (p. 217). Though he accepts that Ubayy was the first to be instructed by the Prophet to write the Qur’an in Madina, and it is known that Ubayy had converted very early, he insists that it, too, happened after the Bi’r Mauna incident. He bases this on reports that suggest that in Ubayy’s absence, Zaid was required to do it. On the other hand, Zaid learnt writing from the prisoners taken at Badr. As for Zaid’s regular engagement with the scribing of the Qur’an, he says it must have happened after the Battle of Ditch (Dhi al-Qa’da 5) when Zaid made his first active participation in a campaign and was praised by the Prophet (ﷺ) (pp. 210-231).

He then discusses some details of the writing of the Qur’an about the material used for the purpose and whether dots or diacritics were used. Citing reports bearing on these facts, he states that Zaid would use bones etc., for writing one or more verses and some sheets when longer passages were revealed and that Zaid and other scribes used to put dots to differentiate letters in their writing of the Qur’an until ‘Uthman decided otherwise (pp. 231-241)

Based on previously noted factors, he claims that some three-quarters of the Qur’an was not dictated by the Prophet (ﷺ), for it was revealed before the Prophet (ﷺ) had commissioned scribes following the Bir Mauna incident. The Prophet (ﷺ) had a quarter, or more of the Qur’an scribed only to set a precedent for the written preservation of the Qur’an. He goes on to suggest that since the last of the Surahs to be revealed, al-Tawba, came down towards the end of year 9 AH before the onset of the ahruf system, whatever had been written under the Prophet’s instruction was on a single harf (pp. 241-246)

Next, he dwells on the written preservation of the Qur’an after the Prophet (ﷺ). He cites the reports about Umar’s call to put the Qur’an together in writing for fear of death of reciters to highlight that the Qur’an was primarily preserved in collective and individual memories. When Zaid was instructed to collect the Qur’an in writing, his primary source was the community’s memory. As for the written material, only that which had either been written under the Prophet’s (ﷺ) instruction or read to him for confirmation and correction was accepted. However, the author insists it did not account for more than a quarter of the Qur’an. Memory was also the reference for the sequence of surahs and verses. He then offers a correction to the impression of ‘collection’ that it was not that Zaid put to writing whatever was brought to him through acceptable written or oral testimony but instead that Zaid wrote the Qur’an based on the dictation of one of those who had committed the entire Qur’an to his memory and then cross-checked and revised it multiple times against whatever others had memorized or the written pieces they brought to him (pp. 247-273).

Having stressed that the Qur’an was primarily preserved in the people’s memories and that only about a quarter of the Qur’an had been written under the direct supervision of the Prophet (ﷺ), he asks what essential purpose did the writing of the Qur’an after the Prophet (ﷺ) serve? He responds to this question by highlighting that the companions were committed to memorizing the Qur’an that they learnt directly from the Prophet (ﷺ), primarily as per the first harf. As for the remaining harfs, which had come very late, were not that profusely known to the companions. It was the loss of those ahruf that ‘Umar feared with the companions’ deaths, especially in campaigns such as Yamama. It was Qur’an, according to the seven ahruf, the loss of which was feared and the preservation of which was at stake (pp. 273-311). He follows this discussion by critically analyzing three reports that convey the impression that the companions placed the last verses of Surah Tawba there based on their guesswork and reasoning. He shows the weakness of all three of them (pp. 311-329).

He then explains that whereas the main text in Zaid’s writing at the time of Abu Bakr was as per the first harf only, the other ahruf were noted on the margins. He substantiates it with the example of Zaid adding the words “ghair uli al-darar” (except the disabled) to the middle of Qur’an 4:95 after he had written the verse a while before, and ‘Umar intending to add the mention of stoning to the margins/outlines of the mushaf and still fearing that people might say he added something to the Qur’an. However, the ahruf-borne variants on the margins were only those required to be written differently, like the variation by changing words, word forms, or word sequence. Most variations that were by way of change of diacritics and pronunciation did not require separate transcription. Therefore, to the author, the conversation between ‘Umar, Abu Bakr, and Zaid before taking up the initiative of ‘collecting’ the Qur’an only makes sense if we appreciate and realize that it was about preserving all the ahruf. He then mentions that ‘Uthman only followed Abu Bakr and took further steps of making multiple mushafs, each of which preserved some of the ahruf borne differences, sent them to various cities and bound the reciters to follow the masahif. Then reiterating a few points, he mentions that Abu Bakr had arranged for gathering the Qur’anic text to establish the precedent of writing the Qur’an in book form as there is no evidence for its use as a common reference point in case of differences.

Nevertheless, he says, it led to the proliferation of the practice of writing private masahif. By the time of ‘Uthman, it had become widespread, and after him, it reached the extent that the masahif were carried to the battlefield as it happened in the time of ‘Ali. Finally, he mentions how the Arabs who were passionate about language and articulation were stumped by the linguistic challenge of the Qur’an (pp. 330-435).

Some observations and highlights

The book ends rather abruptly because it was never completed. The author’s take on seven ahruf is not fully evident though a lot of it has become clear. His insistence that ahruf were about certain kinds of variations broadly conforms to the viewpoint of prominent scholars from the earliest centuries. He has categorically stated that ‘Uthman did not abolish all but one of the ahruf and that authorities like Tabari who opined thus were not only mistaken but also inconsistent. However, he mentioned that sab‘a ahruf included some variations not covered by ‘Uthmanic masahif (p. 167). Why those recitations were left out of the masahif, in view of the author, was not addressed as the author did not get to discuss ‘Uthman’s arrangements at length. This is especially relevant because he mentioned how ‘Uthman left out dots and diacritics to make the skeletal text more encompassing of recitations.

Shakir’s vociferous contention against the idea that the Qur’an was revealed only on the idiom of Quraish is also significant. He complements his position that the Qur’an was revealed in the language and idiom of all the Arabs very well. His take on the preservation of all the ahruf and their connection with the language and idiom of all Arabs fits well with his observation that the study of ahruf-borne recitations led to the systemization of Arabic grammar and its detailed studies. Shalanfah, in his study mentioned above, tried to engage with Shakir’s arguments against the idea of the Qur’an’s revelation on the idiom of Quraish, but it’s hardly impressive. Lately, a two-volume work by Dr. ‘Umar Ahmad al-Dailami (Nuzul al-Qur’an al-Karim bi-lughat al-Quraish bain al-Haqiqat wa al-Wahm, published by Dar al-Nur al-Mubin) appears to bolster the position taken by Shakir.

He does not accept that all that has come narrated with the word “qara’” was meant as a formal and ritual recital. An essential but significant point, it serves as a critical corrective to the study of the history of recitals in the early centuries of Islam. Some scholars, such as Dr Sami Muhammad Sa‘id ‘Abd al-Shakur, have qualified this understanding with several examples, corroborating Shakir’s position.

Another fundamental point he reiterates repeatedly is about the centrality of Prophetic precedent in the ahruf scheme (pp. 159, 163, 167, 169, 277-278, 417). As basic as it is, it is significant in its relevance against the recently popping-up revisionist suggestions otherwise.

His insistence that the Prophet (ﷺ) did not make any effort to make a written record of the Qur’an in both Makkah and during the first four years at Madina is not only odd but also lacks substantiation. The lack of explicit instruction from the Prophet (ﷺ) in reports mentioning written records of the Qur’an during the said period cannot be taken as positive evidence against it. Moreover, the claim that killing tens of reciters at Bi’r Ma‘una induced the written preservation is not based on direct testimony. Similarly, the assertion that the Qur’an was all revealed by the end of the ninth year of hijra is hardly tenable, as Anas is reported to have mentioned that revelation had become more frequent before the death of the Prophet (ﷺ)- Sahih Bukhari, no. 4982.

While some of his conclusions lack essential backing, others are ingenious and intriguing. These include his reasoning that following the death of many expert reciters in the Battle of Yamama ‘Umar’s consternation was about preserving all of the ahruf and not just the entire Qur’an on any of the ahruf. Second is his conclusion that the compilation under Abu Bakr was on the first, and single harf and other ahruf were all noted on the margins.

While the author did not discuss ‘Uthman’s contribution to the preservation of the Qur’an at length, he mentions some relevant issues, including Ibn Mas‘ud initial reservations about it. However, he notes that eventually, Ibn Mas‘ud appreciated ‘Uthman’s efforts and agreed to them (p. 356).

While indeed much delayed in publication and incomplete, the volume significantly contributes to studying a complex subject. Its publication coincides with an increased interest in the study of ahruf and recitations, and most of the book serves as a good defence of the broader traditional understanding and that too by adding fresh nuances.

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Waqar Akbar Cheema


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