Seven Ahruf Scheme and the Centrality of the Prophetic Precedent


Waqar Akbar Cheema


This paper shows how the Prophetic precedent comes out as pivotal to the sab‘a ahruf scheme. In highlighting aspects of hadith reports confirming this essential point, it is indicated how the grounding the validity of ahruf based recitations to the Prophet’s clear precedent goes with the reported rationale of ahruf. It also helps make sense of the differences in interpretation of the ahruf.

1. Introduction

We have earlier referred to the host of opinions of different merits on the meanings of Sab’a Ahruf. However, before we analyze the significant views, it is essential to highlight another critical element common to most, if not all, narrations from the Prophet (ﷺ) on the subject. Several reports on the subject highlight that laxity in terms of ahruf was nevertheless predicated on the Prophet’s (ﷺ) explicit sanction and precedent. Though it appears too evident, an appraisal of reports is due as it helps set the contours of discussion on the meaning of ahruf. Realizing the importance of Prophetic precedent reduces the severity of disputation on the interpretation of ahruf. Likewise, it gives a perspective to lack of precise spelling out of the meanings by the Prophet (ﷺ) or his immediate followers.

2. The Prophet was () commanded to teach his people

Narrations of the hadith from Ubayy b. Ka’b have that when archangel Jibril came to the Prophet (ﷺ) and gave the Seven Ahruf scheme, he mentioned;

إن الله عز وجل يأمرك أن تقرئ أمتك القرآن على سبعة أحرف

Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people (tuqri’a ummatak al-qur’an) in seven ahruf.[1]

The community, therefore, had to attend to the Prophet’s (ﷺ) instruction to benefit from the relaxation provided through the ahruf scheme.

3. Clarification through the disputations context

The contexts provided in different reports in which the Companions learnt the hadith and then related it also underscores this.

3.1 ‘Umar’s report

The most well-known report is that of the dispute between ‘Umar b. al-Khattab and Hisham b. Hakim b. Hizam. The accounts of their dispute have that it was all about the Prophetic sanction. ‘Umar said he was infuriated because he heard Hisham recite verses of Surah Furqan in a way, “which Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) had not taught me” (lam yuqri’niha rasul Allah). He, therefore, asked Hisham, “Who taught you this Surah” (man aqra’ka hadhihi al-surah)?” The only defence Hisham forwarded was, “Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) taught it to me” (aqra’niha rasul Allah). Not believing him ‘Umar took Hisham to the Prophet (ﷺ) and repeated his reservation, “I heard this person reciting Surat Al-Furqan in a way which you haven’t taught me (lam tuqri’niha)!” The Prophet (ﷺ) asked them to recite as they had learnt, and only after he had heard each of them, he confirmed them both that, “It was so revealed (kadhalika unzilat).”[2] The objection, the defence, and the decision were all based on the specific warrant for particular readings.

3.2 Abu Juhaim’s report

Abu Juhaim al-Ansari’s report also has that two persons differed with regards to a verse in the Qur’an, each claiming that he had learnt it from the Prophet (talaqqaha min rasul Allah). They then went to the Prophet (ﷺ) and submitted that they had heard it from him (sami‘aha minhu). The Prophet (ﷺ) then mentioned that the Qur’an had been revealed in seven ahruf and warned them against disputing about it.[3]

3.3 ‘Amr b. al-‘As’ report

A similar incident is reported from ‘Amr b. al-‘As as well. It says, ‘Amr heard a person recite a verse of the Qur’an and asked him as to who had taught it to him (man aqr’akaha)? He replied that he had learnt it from the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) only. Realizing that he had been taught differently by the Prophet (faqad aqra’niha rasul Allah sallalahu ‘alaihi wasallam ‘ala ghairi hadha), ‘Amr took the man along to the Prophet (ﷺ) and presented the matter before him. When that person recited, the Prophet (ﷺ) confirmed that it had been thus revealed (hakadha unzilat). ‘Amr recited it the way he had learnt and asked whether it had not been so? At this, the Prophet (ﷺ) assured him that it had been revealed thus (hakadha unzilat) too, and went on to state that the Qur’an had been sent down in seven ahruf and that on whichever of it he was to recite it was correct. Moreover, the Prophet (ﷺ) warned against disputation regarding the Qur’an, for it, he said, was tantamount to disbelief.[4]

3.4 Ubayy’s report

It is likewise evident from the hadith of Ubayy in which he was involved in a similar disputation.[5] Some narrations add that Ubayy found two other persons recite certain verses at variance with his reading. He, therefore, took them both to the Prophet (ﷺ) after proclaiming that, “you both differed with what the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) taught me (idh khalaftuma ma aqra’ni rasul Allah).” Presenting the case before the Prophet (ﷺ), Ubayy noted that he had “asked the two of them, ‘Who taught you?’ (man aqra’huma) and the two replied, ‘the Messenger of Allah!”[6]  One of the two, Ubayy had the dispute with was ‘Abdullah b. Mas‘ud.[7] Some narrations add that both Ubayy and Ibn Mas‘ud asked the Prophet (ﷺ), “Did you not teach me this verse in such and such way,” (alam taqra’/taqra’ni ayah kadha wa kadha) and the Prophet (ﷺ) confirmed that he had, and went on to praise them both for their recitation.[8]

3.5 Ibn Mas’ud’s report

In another instance, Ibn Mas‘ud found a man reciting verses of Surah Ahqaf differently. When questioned as to who had taught him (man aqra’k), the man asserted that he learnt it from the Messenger of Allah. Ibn Mas‘ud asked another man and found that he recited the same verses in yet another way. When the matter reached the Prophet (ﷺ), he warned against disputation and instructed that each man recite as he was taught (an yaqra’ kullu rajulin minkum kama uqri’a).[9]

4. Formula to avoid disputation: Sticking to the received precedent

Abu Huraira reported, the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: The Qur’an was revealed in seven ahruf. Whereas disputation concerning the Qur’an is disbelief – he mentioned this thrice –, you should recite what you know of it and leave what you do not know of it to the one who does (fama ‘araftum minhu fa’malu wa ma jahiltum minhu farudduhu ila ‘alimihi).[10]

Then we have Hudhaifa’s report mentioning the Prophet’s (ﷺ) warning against turning away from a harf one has learnt for its dislike (fal’yaqra’ kama ‘alima fala yarji‘ ‘anhu/ fala yatahawwal minhu ila ghairihi raghbatan ‘anhu).[11] It also bears out the sanctity of each harf that could not be without its coming from the Prophet (ﷺ).

The same is reported on the authority of ‘Abdullah b. Mas‘ud as well.[12]

Accordingly, whenever the companions argued between themselves about a reading of the Qur’an, their first and only recourse and reference was the Prophetic precedent. Thus, not only during the life of the Prophet (ﷺ), even after him and before ‘Uthman’s successful bid to unite the Muslim community on a standard written Qur’anic text, the Prophetic precedent alone was considered the criteria for the validity of any recital.[13]

5. The rationale of the ahruf scheme presumes the precedent condition

Significantly, we have seen, in all the cases where the Prophet (ﷺ) mentioned the seven ahruf scheme, his clear precedent governed the variance in recitation. He did not burden the people to know any details of it. It was only when warranted variance caused some consternation that he mentioned the scheme had been in place. So it goes with the reported rationale of revelation in seven ahruf, i.e. the community included the unlettered men and women, boys and girls, the slaves, and the extremely old who never read a book.[14] Thus, whatever the ahruf scheme entailed was linked to the Prophet’s (ﷺ) instruction. The community members were required only to ensure that what they recited was based on the explicit Prophetic precedent without worrying about the meaning and implications of sab‘a ahruf or the question of limits to it.

6. Centrality of Prophetic precedent confirmed in the Prophet learning the ahruf

Jibril teaching ahruf to the Prophet (ﷺ) also confirms the centrality of the Prophetic precedent in the seven-ahruf scheme. The Prophet (ﷺ) was only to decide and teach specific ahruf to different persons based on their peculiar circumstances.

As reported by Ibn ‘Abbas, the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:

Jibril taught me to recite (aqra’ni) [the Qur’an] on a harf, whereupon I requested him (for more), and continued asking him to increase (the ahruf), and he kept increasing them for me till he ended up at seven (sab‘a) ahruf.[15]

Similarly, Ubayy’s report has that the Prophet (ﷺ) said:

O Ubayy! I was taught the recitation of the Qur’an (uqri’tu al-qur’an), and it was said to me: ‘In one harf or two?’ So the angel with me said: ‘Say: In two Harfs’ So I said: ‘in two harfs,’… until we reached seven Ahruf.[16]

Other reports from Ubayy have that the Prophet (ﷺ) said, “O Ubayy, I was told that I should recite the Qur’ân on one ahruf … (arsil ilayya an aqra’ al-qur’an ‘ala harf).” It continued thus till the mention of seven ahruf.[17] Certain narrations from him mention that Jibril specifically addressed the Prophet (ﷺ) by name, leaving no doubt that the ahruf scheme was for him foremost, “O Muhammad, recite the Qur’an …” (ya Muhammad, iqra’ al-Qur’an …).[18]

In another narration from Ubayy, the Prophet (ﷺ) said: “I have been commanded to recite the Qur’an in seven ahruf” (inni umirtu an aqra’ al-qur’an ‘ala sab‘a ahruf).[19]

‘Abdullah b. Mas‘ud has also reported the exact words from the Prophet (ﷺ).[20]

Likewise, narrations of the hadith of Abu Bakra also have that Jibril told the Prophet (ﷺ), “Recite [sing.] the Qur’an (iqra’ al-qur’an)” on multiple ahruf,[21] with some adding that he addressed the Prophet (ﷺ) by name.[22] Moreover, a narration adds that Jibril even repeated Basmala – the ritual formula to begin the recitation – each time he came with an increase in the number of ahruf.[23]

The Prophet (ﷺ) first learnt the specifics of seven-ahruf confirms that the laxity through the scheme was contingent upon his precedent for the community. Therefore, if sab‘a ahruf signified unspecified laxity without the condition of precedent, there was no need for the Prophet (ﷺ), an individual, to learn all the ahruf.

7. Conclusion

The contextual and rhetorical evidence in the sab‘a ahruf hadith reports bears out the fundamental and agreed-upon understanding in the Muslim scholarly tradition that each of multiple recitations of the Qur’an is based on the explicit Prophetic precedent to the letter. This conclusion in turn provides essential leads to the discussion on meanings of the ahruf, to which I shall turn in the forthcoming articles in the series.

References & Notes:

[1] Al-Nasa’i, Abu ‘Abdul Rahman, al-Sunan, (Aleppo: Maktab al-Matbu‘at al-Islamiyya, 1986) Hadith 939; al-Tiyalsi, Abu Dawud, al-Musnad, (Cairo: Dar Hijr, 1999) Hadith 559; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Ed. Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2001) Hadith 21172, 21176-21177; while the hadith is recorded  like this in most collections preserving it, in Sahih Muslim it appears with some different spelling for a critical word (تقرأ instead of تقرئ). See, Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2016) Hadith 821-274 [1906]. The difference though slight seems to change the hadith’s literal translation to, “Allah has commanded you that your ummah recite the Qur’an in seven ahruf,” i.e. without mention of the Prophet (ﷺ) reading to or teaching his people the ahruf. Besides being clumsy, even at face value, such a reading does not preclude the role of the Prophet (ﷺ), nor does it undermine the condition of Prophetic precedent. Moreover, other details render the said apparent reading of the Sahih Muslim diction for the hadith pointless. I will, in-sha’Allah, deal with it at length separately along with other suggestions against the centrality of the Prophetic model and precedent in recitation.

[2] Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma‘il, al-Sahih, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2018) Hadith 4992; also see al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 2419, 5041, 6936, 7550

[3] Al-Madani, Isma‘il b. Ja‘far, Ahadith Isma‘il b. Ja ‘far, (Riyadh: Maktaba al-Rushd, 1998) Hadith 325; Abu ‘Ubaid, al-Qasim b. Sallam, Fada’il al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Maktaba al-Asriyya, 2009) 123 No. 728; Ahmad. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 17542; Al-Tabari, Abu Ja‘far, Jami‘ al-Bayan, Ed. Ahmad Muhammad Shakir (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2000) Vol.1, 43-44 Hadith 41; Al-Tahawi, Abu Ja‘far, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Ed. Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 1994) Vol. 8, 111 Hadith 3099; al-Haithami, Nur al-Din, Bughyah al-Bahith ‘an Zawa’id Musnad al-Harith, (Madina: Markaz Khidmat al-Sunnah, 1992) Hadith 726;

[4] Ahmad. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 17821; Abu ‘Ubaid, Fada’il al-Qur’an, 124 ; al-Baqilani, Abu Bakr, al-Intisar li al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2001) Vol.1, 359; Al-Dani, Abu ‘Amr, al-Ahruf al-Sab‘a li al-Qur’an, Ed. ‘Abdul Muhaimin Tahhan (Makkah: Maktaba al-Manara, 1408 AH) Hadith 5; al-Dani, Abu ‘Amr, Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Qira’at al-Sab‘a, (Sharjah: Sharjah University, 2007) 97-98 Hadith 40; Al-Busiri, Ahmad b. Abi Bakr, Itḥāf al-Khayyirah al-Muhrah bi-Zawāʼid al-Masānīd al-ʻAsharah, (Riyadh: Dar al-Watan, 1999) Vol.6, 318 Hadith 5929. Al-Busiri quoted it from now extinct Musnad of Muhammad Ibn Abi ‘Umar (d. 243/857-858). Al-Albani also graded it as sahih. See, al-Albani, Nasir al-Din, Silsala al-Ahadith al-Sahiha, (Riyadh: Maktaba al-Ma‘arif, 1995) Hadith 1522;

[5] Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, Hadith 820-273 [1904]

[6] Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ay al-Qur’an, Vol.1, 41 Hadith 38; classified as sahih by Ibn Kathir.

[7] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 21151

[8] Al-Tahawi, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Vol. 8, 122 Hadith 3113; al-Baihaqi, Abu Bakr, al-Sunan al-Kubra, (Beirut: DKI, 2003) Hadith 3989

[9] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 3981; Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan, Vol.1, 23-24 Hadith 12-13; al-Mawsali, Abu Ya‘la, al-Musnad, Ed. Hussain Salim Asad (Damascus: Dar al-Ma’mun, 1984) Hadith 5057; Al-Busti, Ibn Hibban, al-Sahih, Ed. Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 1988) Hadith 747; al-Hakim, Abu ‘Abdullah, al-Mustadrak, (Beirut: DKI, 1990) Hadith 2885

[10] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 7989; Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan, Vol.1, 21-22 Hadith 7; al-Bazzar, Abu Bakr, al-Musnad, (Madina: Maktaba al-‘Ulum wa al-Hikam, 1997) Vol.15, 193 Hadith 8579; al-Mawsali, Abu Ya‘la, al-Musnad, Hadith 6016; Al-Busti, Ibn Hibban, al-Sahih, Hadith 74; Al-Albani also graded it as sahih. See, al-Albani, Silsala al-Ahadith al-Sahiha, Hadith 1522.  The hadith has the words “fa-ma ‘araftum minhu fa‘amaluhu [bihi] …” (lit. what you know of it practice it …). However, the context being sab‘a ahruf and for the nature of possible disputation as in reports mentioned above, I believe the action intended here includes, if not limited to, recitation; hence, this translation.

[11] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2001) Hadith 23273, 23410; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Edited by Ahmad Shakir and Hamza Ahmad al-Zain (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1995) Hadith 23166, 23303; classified as sahih by Hamza Ahmad al-Zain.

[12] Al-Tabarani, Abu al-Qasim, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, (Cairo: Maktaba Ibn Taimiyya, 1994) Vol.10, 148 Hadith 10273

[13] There are a number of reports from the Companions especially those involving ‘Umar b. al-Khattab and Ubayy b. Ka‘b confirming the Prophetic precedent as the touchstone for validity of recitations of Qur’an. Later in this series we will, in-sha’Allah, make an exclusive study of such received information.

[14] Abu ‘Ubaid, Fada’il al-Qur’an, 124 No. 730 ;al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, al-Jami‘ al-Kabir, Ed. Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2009) Vol.5, 202 Hadith 3172; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 23398, 23447; Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan Vol.1, 35 Hadith 29; Al-Tahawi, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Vol. 8, 110 Hadith 3098; Al-Busti, Ibn Hibban, al-Sahih, Hadith 739;

[15] Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 4991

[16] Al-Sijistani, Abu Dawud, al-Sunan, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2009) Hadith 1477; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 21149; Abu Bakr, al-Sunan al-Kubra, Hadith 3989

[17] Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, Hadith 820-273 [1904]

[18] ‘Abd b. Humaid, al-Muntakhab min Musnad, (Riyadh: Dar al-Bilnisia, 2002) Hadith 164; al-Shashi, Huthaim b. Kulaib, al-Musnad, (Madina: Maktaba ‘Ulum wa al-Hikam, 1410 AH) Hadith 1425; Al-Busti, Ibn Hibban, al-Sahih, Hadith 737; al-Maqdasi, Diya, al-Ahadith al-Mukhtara, (Beirut: Dar al-Khadir, 2000) Hadith 1129; Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Damishq, (Beirut: Dar al-Fekr, 1995) Vol.7, 329-330

[19] Al-Nasa’i, Abu ‘Abdul Rahman, al-Sunan al-Kubra, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2001) Hadith 10437; Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan Vol.1, 47; al-Baghawi, Abu al-Qasim, Mu‘jam al-Sahaba, (Kuwait: Dar al-Bayan, 2000) Vol.3, 157 Hadith 1063;

[20] Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan Vol.1, 45 Hadith 43;

[21] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 20425; Ibn Abi Shaiba, Abu Bakr, al-Musannaf, Ed. Muhammad ‘Awwama (Beirut: Dar Qurtuba, 2006) Hadith 30747; al-Bazzar, al-Musnad, Vol.9, 91 Hadith 3622; Al-Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan Vol.1, 50 Hadith 47; Al-Tahawi, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Vol. 8, 126-127 Hadith 3118;

[22] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 20514;

[23] Al-Dani, al-Ahruf al-Sab‘a li al-Qur’an, Hadith 7; al-Dani, Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Qira’at al-Sab‘a, 99-100 Hadith 42;

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