Meaning of Ibn ‘Umar’s statement, “Much of the Qur’an is Gone”


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Waqar Akbar Cheema & Gabriel Al Romaani


One subject of Islam that is constantly under attack from its critics is the preservation of the Qur’an. Muslims are proud to state that the Qur’an is completely intact, as Allah has promised to protect it from any changes. There have been many failed attempts by skeptics to prove that the Qur’an is not in its original form. They often jump at any opportunity to prove this point because it is essential to their argumentation to refute the most important aspect of Islam – its miraculous Noble Book. One such claim that has appeared has to do with a statement of Ibn ‘Umar, one of the Companions who was very knowledgeable about the Qur’an. It was misconstrued by some to mean that “much of the Qur’an is lost,” but this is not what it means at all. This article will explain this mistranslation of Ibn ‘Umar’s statement and provide a reason why this statement does mean what the critics of Islam want to make it appear to mean.

1.  Introduction

The critics of Islam take much of their inspiration from Orientalists of the past, some sincere (but mistaken) while others had destructive agendas. Some of these missionaries have lacked the desire and sincerity to look at Islam from a neutral point of view. In an attempt to delegitimize Islam, they have often dealt with translations (since they cannot understand the source language) which are often inaccurate and do not encompass the full meaning of the original text in Arabic. Despite their claim that the Qur’an has not been perfectly preserved, we will show beyond the shadow of a doubt Allah has protected the Qur’an as promised:

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُون

“Verily, We have revealed the Reminder (the Quran) and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).”[1]

A narration from ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar quoted by Hafidh as-Suyuti (d. 911 A.H.) in his al-Itiqan fee ‘Uloom al-Qur’an has become a source of joy for some of these skeptics.

One critic of Islam translates this narration as the following:

‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar reportedly said: “Let none of you say, ‘I have got the whole of the Qur’an.’ How does he know what all of it is? MUCH OF THE QUR’AN IS GONE. Let him say instead, ‘I have got what has survived.’”[2]

Not only are the meanings that these critics try to superimpose on this narration totally wrong, but this translation is also misleading. We shall first clarify the real meaning of this narration and then give its rightful translation supported with due reasoning.

2- The true meanings of the narration

To every ardent student of the Qur’anic sciences it is known that there were many verses first revealed as part of the Qur’an and later abrogated.

As-Suyuti brings this narration in the section of his work titled as, “Section forty-seven: About the Abrogating and the Abrogated.”[3]

Likewise it is in the section about abrogation in another work of as-Suyuti.[4]

In Abu ‘Ubayd’s (d. 228 A.H.) work, from which as-Suyuti quotes this, it is the first narration in the chapter titled, “[About] what all was abrogated from the Qur’an after revelation and is not put in the Masahif.”[5]

Most important is the narration quoted by Ibn Hajr (d. 852 A.H.) which compliments and fixes the meaning of the report we are discussing. Ibn Hajr writes:

وقد أخرج بن الضريس من حديث بن عمر أنه كان يكره أن يقول الرجل قرأت القرآن كله ويقول إن منه قرآنا قد رفع

“Ibn ad-Durays has narrated a report of Ibn ‘Umar that he used to dislike the person who said, ‘I have recited the whole of the Qur’an.’ He (Ibn ‘Umar) used to say, ‘But (the reality is) a part of the Qur’an has been abrogated.’”[6]

This report confirms that Ibn ‘Umar’s statement simply refers to what was abrogated from the Qur’an.

Abu Bakr bin Tayyib al-Baqilani (d. 403 A.H.) in his amazing work al-Intisar lil-Qur’an (In Defence of the Qur’an), quotes another narration on the similar lines and then explains the two together. He writes:

ونحوُ روايةِ عبدُ الله بنُ عباسِ عن أبي أنه سمعه وقد قال له رجل: “يا أبا المنذر إني قد جمعت القرآن، فقال له: ما يدريكَ لعله قد سقطَ قرآن كثير فما وُجد بعد”.

“And similar is the report ofAbdullah bin ‘Abbas from Ubayy, that he heard a man said to him: ‘O Abul-Munzar, verily I have gathered (i.e. memorized) the whole of the Qur’an.’ He (Ubayy) said to him, ‘He does not know (what the whole of it was) because so much of the Qur’an was abrogated and it was not found afterwards.’[7]

And then explaining it he writes:

لا ينبغي لأحدٍ أن يدَّعي أنه قد جمعَ ما أُنزلَ من ناسخِ القرآن ومنسوخِه، وقولُهم: “فيما وُجِدَ بعدُ” فما نجدُ اليومَ من يحفظُ جميعَ ما نُسِخَ وسقطت تلاوتُه، وهذا مما لا بدَّ منه

“And it is not possible for anyone to claim that he has learnt (all) what was revealed as Qur’an – the abrogating part of it and the abrogated. And their words ‘it was not found afterwards’ (underscore) that we do not find in our day one who has memorized all that was abrogated and whose recitation was given up. And this is something which was bound to happen.”[8]

3. Nothing has been lost of what the Prophet left of the Qur’an

عن عبد العزيز بن رفيع، قال: دخلت أنا وشداد بن معقل، على ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما، فقال له شداد بن معقل: أترك النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم من شيء؟ قال: «ما ترك إلا ما بين الدفتين» قال: ودخلنا على محمد ابن الحنفية، فسألناه، فقال: «ما ترك إلا ما بين الدفتين»

Narrated ‘Abdul-‘Azeez bin Rufai’: “Shaddad bin Ma’qil and I entered upon Ibn ‘Abbas. Shaddad bin Ma’qil asked him, ‘Did the Prophet leave anything (besides the Qur’an)?’ He replied, ‘He did not leave anything except what is between the two bindings (of the Qur’an).’ Then we visited Muhammad bin al-Hanafiyyah and asked him (the same question). He replied, ‘The Prophet did not leave except what is between the bindings (of the Qur’an).’”[9]

This hadith is categorical evidence that nothing was lost of the Qur’an because all that the blessed Prophet – peace and blessings of Allah be upon him – left for his people is what was put between the two bindings.

Ibn Hajr writes:

وهذه الترجمة للرد على من زعم أن كثيرا من القرآن ذهب لذهاب حملته

“And this chapter is made to refute those who assume that a lot from the Qur’an was lost with the death of those who knew it.”[10]

Al-‘Ayni (d. 855 A.H.) also makes exactly the same point.[11]

Shahab ud-Deen al-Alusi’s (d. 1270 A.H.) comment helps explain the issue:

أجمعوا على عدم وقوع النقص فيما تواتر قرآنا كما هو موجود بين الدفتين اليوم، نعم أسقط زمن الصديق ما لم يتواتر وما نسخت تلاوته … وعليه يحمل ما رواه أبو عبيد عن ابن عمر قال: لا يقولن أحدكم قد أخذت القرآن كله وما يدريه ما كله قد ذهب منه قرآن كثير ولكن ليقل قد أخذت منه ما ظهر

“Verily they (i.e. people of Sunnah) have agreed on there being no loss in the Qur’an as is continuously reported like we today find between the two bindings. Yes during the time of (Abu Bakr) as-Sidiq the part which was not reported continuously and was (rather) abrogated was dropped (out of the official mushaf)…and to this relates that which is reported by Abu ‘Ubayd from Ibn ‘Umar, who said: ‘None of you should say that he has taken the whole of the Qur’an; how could he know what all of it was! A lot of the Qur’an has passed him by! Let him say instead: I have taken of the Qur’an that which became apparent.’”[12]

The above mentioned narration of Sahih Bukhari is very significant. One of the two who said “The Prophet left nothing except what is between the two bindings” was Ibn ‘Abbas, and in the narration quoted by al-Baqilani we find him reporting and listening to the comment of his teacher Ubayy bin Ka‘b which is same as that of Ibn ‘Umar. Connecting the dots we make out that he understood Ubayy did not mean to say that some part of the Qur’an that the Prophet had left for the Ummah might have been missed and could not be found anymore by the person claiming to have memorized the whole of it. It rather shows that Ibn ‘Abbas fully knew that what Ubayy referred to was something exclusive to what the Prophet had left for the Ummah as eternal guidance (i.e. it was the abrogated part). And we have already seen that the narration of Ibn ‘Umar quoted by Ibn Hajr on the authority of Ibn ad-Durays makes the same point very plainly.

Another significant observation about Bukhari’s narration is that the two who testified for the Qur’anic preservation are Ibn ‘Abbas, the cousin of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, and Muhammad bin al-Hanafiyyah, the son of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib. Their testimony is quite sufficient to lay to rest any arguments by some extreme Shiites who say the Qur’an was tampered with to remove verses in favor of ‘Ali. Had this been the case these two close relatives of ‘Ali would have not failed to make a mention of it.

4- Two objections answered

Having explained the narration let us now turn to two possible questions.

4.1 Why did Ibn ‘Umar refer to the abrogated verses as the Qur’an?

Before finding the answer to this question let us have another look at the narration of Ibn ad-Durays:

“‘Ibn Umar used to dislike the person who said, ‘I have recited the whole of the Qur’an.’ He (Ibn Umar) used to say, ‘But (the reality is) a part of the Qur’an has been abrogated.’”

Very much like our explanation to the narration we are discussing, this report shows that Ibn ‘Umar referred to the abrogated verses as Qur’an. With the clarity in its last words this narration takes away all the rhetoric power of the question and reduces it to a mere query having no ability whatsoever to cast doubts on the validity of the explanation offered.

Dr. Sa‘d bin ‘Abdullah al-Humayyid comments on this narration in his research of Sunan Sa‘eed bin Mansoor:

و يفهم من كلام ابن عمر لضى الله عنه: أنه في رأيه أن الآيات المنسوخة بعد نسخها تسمى كذالك قرآناً أو باعتبار ما كان

“And it appears from the words of Ibn ‘Umar that in his opinion even the abrogated verses could also be called Qur’an after their being abrogated or (they could be so called) by the way what they once were.”[13]

This is understandable given the fact that Qur’an is nothing but the word of Allah and abrogated verses, although they are not required to be followed, were nevertheless revered due to their divine origin. In this regard, there is one important difference between Ibn ‘Umar and the people of later generations like us. As there is no authority of continuous (mutawatir) reports, we cannot be as certain as him about some abrogated words once being a part of the Qur’an. We may however refer to them as such for academic purposes on the basis of lesser proofs. However, for Ibn ‘Umar this was not the condition as he must have listened to some verses from the Prophet in person for which he later learned that they were abrogated. Therefore, he was particular about the words that emanated from the Almighty as part of the Qur’an though abrogated afterwards.

Furthermore, it also has an indication of an attitude of extreme care on such matters that involves goodness on one part because this can in a way lead to self-glorification. One might see it akin to the following hadith:

عن أبي بكرة قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: «لا يقولن أحدكم إني صمت رمضان كله، وقمته كله» ، فلا أدري أكره التزكية، أو قال: «لا بد من نومة أو رقدة»

Narrated Abu Bakrah: The Prophet said: “One of you should not say: ‘I fasted the whole of Ramadan, and I prayed during the night in the whole of Ramadan.’ I do not know whether he disliked the self-praise; or he (the narrator) said: ‘He must have slept a little and taken rest.’”[14]

We can see that even though it is natural that one who would fast as such for the whole month of Ramadan, will break the fasts at night and will also sleep besides standing in late-night prayers, yet an out of the way step is taken in instructing not to make such a claim. The fact that narration of Ibn ‘Umar is in essence similar to this and involves the idea of claim as well; it can help us appreciate the real message in the words of Ibn ‘Umar.

4.2 Was “much” of the Qur’an abrogated?

We know the actual text involves the words “qur’an katheer” therefore one may tend to translate it as “much of the Qur’an” with a stress on “much.” In fact one critic asks, What kind of revelation is this that MUCH (not some) of it consists of verses that have been abrogated?This may appear to be a very strong point but actually speaks of the lack of proper understanding of the Arabic language.

The Arabic word katheer does not mean ‘much’ in the comparative sense. In the comparative sense it can even be used to mean less than what it is compared to as shown below. The same is the case with abrogation that we are discussing. The abrogated part of the Qur’an was definitely less than what remains.

A simple proof for this assertion is the narration in which Sa‘d bin Waqqas asked the Prophet about the share of his wealth that he might give away in charity while he feared to die. Sa‘d bin Abi Waqqas himself narrated his dialogue with the blessed Prophet on the subject:

قُلْتُ: يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ، أُوصِي بِمَالِي كُلِّهِ؟ قَالَ: «لاَ» ، قُلْتُ: فَالشَّطْرُ، قَالَ: «لاَ» ، قُلْتُ: الثُّلُثُ، قَالَ: فَالثُّلُثُ، وَالثُّلُثُ كَثِيرٌ

“I said, ‘Should I give two-thirds of my property in charity?’ He said, ‘No.’ I asked, ‘Half?’ He said, ‘No.’ Then he added, ‘One-third, and even one-third is much (wal-thuluthu kathir).’”[15]

Certainly one-third is not “much” in the comparative sense of being more than the rest and no person of reason can ever claim that. Ibn ‘Umar only aimed to highlight the fact that verses of the Qur’an were abrogated and no one should say that they have memorized the whole of the Qur’an (including those verses) as it rests in the guarded tablets with Allah. The Qur’an that we have between the two covers today, the Qur’an given to us by the Messenger of Allah, collected by Abu Bakr and ‘Uthman, is the Qur’an that Allah revealed and decreed to remain as the guiding message for humanity till the Day of Judgment, without any addition, subtraction or alteration.

5. Summary and Conclusion

Ibn ‘Umar only referred to the abrogated part of the Qur’an and his comment in no way suggests of even a single letter of the Qur’an being lost.

Ibn ‘Umar’s other narration quoted by Ibn Hajr on the authority of Ibn ad-Durays plainly establishes this meaning.

Abu ‘Ubayd and as-Suyuti have both placed the narration in the sections about abrogated verses which shows they also understood it likewise. Comments of al-Baqilani and al-Alusi also support the same.

The word katheer does not mean ‘much’ in the comparative sense.

The rightful translation of the meanings of this narration is:

عن ابن عمر، قال: لا يقولن أحدكم قد أخذت القرآن كله وما يدريه ما كله؟ قد ذهب منه قرآن كثير، ولكن ليقل: قد أخذت منه ما ظهر منه

Ibn ‘Umar said: “None of you should say that he has taken the whole of the Qur’an; how could he know what all of it was (before some of it being abrogated)! Substantial parts of the Qur’an has passed him by (due to abrogation)! Let him say instead: ‘I have taken of the Qur’an that which (remained and) became apparent (after abrogation).”

References & Notes

[1] Qur’an 15:9

[2]  as-Suyuti, Jalal ad-Deen, al-Itiqan fee ‘Uloom al-Qur’an, (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1935) Vol.2, 25

[3] Ibid., Vol.3, 66, 82-83

[4] as-Suyuti, Jalal ad-Deen, Mu’tarik al-Aqran fee Aijaz al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1988) Vol.1, 95

[5] Abu ‘Ubayd, Fada’il al-Qur’an, (Damascus; Dar Ibn Katheer, 1995) Vol.1, 320

[6] al-Asqalani, Ibn Hajr , Fath al-Bari, Vol.9, 65

[7] al-Baqilani, al-Intisar lil-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2001) 406

[8] Ibid., 408

[9] al-Bukhari, as-Sahih, Hadith 5019

[10] al-Asqalani, Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1379 A.H.) Vol.9, 65

[11] al-‘Ayni, ‘Umdah al-Qari, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.) Vol.20, 36

[12] al-Alusi, Shahab ud-Deen, Tafseer Ruh al-M’ani, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1415 A.H.) Vol.1, 26

[13] al-Humayyid (editor), Sunan Sa’eed bin Mansoor, (Beirut: Dar as-Sami’i, 1993) Vol.2, 433

[14] as-Sajistani, Abu Dawood, as-Sunan, Translated by Ahmad Hasan (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Sons, 1984) Hadith 2409

[15] al-Bukhari, Muhammad bin Isma’il, as-Sahih, Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 1997) Hadith 2742

About the author

Waqar Akbar Cheema