The Falsification of the Qur’an

Author: Mark Olson

If you ask a devoted Muslim why he/she believes Islam is true, it is almost inevitable that one of his/her arguments will center on the Qur’an. This argument will most assuredly venerate the Qur’an for its glory, inimitability, infallibility, and solidarity as God’s final revelation to mankind. Billions of Muslims today believe these truths about the Qur’an; however, has this stance toward the Qur’an been true throughout Islam’s history? This two-part series seeks to answer this question. What we reveal may differ from your Muslim friend’s expectations.

The first part of this series will argue that the early Muslim community, following Muhammad’s death in 632, was in a Qur’anic quandary without a universally accepted, official Qur’an to govern them. Part two is two-fold in that it will both reveal how one Muslim branch, the Shia, has progressively changed their view on the Qur’an over time, and also synthesize the research mentioned and discuss critical observations. To begin, it is necessary to outline the most common, widespread belief amongst Muslims regarding the compilation of the Qur’an.

 Qur’an Compilation: Sunni Tradition

According to Sunni tradition, the Qur’an was compiled after Muhammad’s death. Supporters of this account view this as logical because Muhammad received divine revelation.[1] Once Muhammad died, revelation was closed, which necessitated the compilation of past revelations. Tradition tells us that Muhammad did not transcribe revelations himself, but that his followers had sections written down and memorized following his death. Several years after Muhammad’s death, the Battle of Yamama made it necessary for these scattered revelations to be collected, since many of Muhammad’s adherents died in battle.[2] The first caliph, Abu Bakr, called for the compilation of the divine revelations, which he later entrusted to the second caliph ‘Umar, who then entrusted them to his daughter, Hafsa.[3] The final link in the chain of compilers is ‘Uthman, the third caliph. In a milieu of disagreements over pronunciations of the texts, ‘Uthman convened a council where they took Hafsa’s collection, along with other written and oral testimonies, and bound them in a text to be copied and sent out to major Muslim cities. This codex is referred to as the codex of ‘Uthman.[4] According to Modarressi, this account of the collection of the Qur’an is deemed trustworthy and reliable by Sunni scholars[5]; however, in the broad scope of Muslim tradition, the acceptance of this account is anything but unanimous.

Compilation of the Qur’an: Early Shia Thought

Early Shia accounts perceive the Qur’an compilation differently; historically, this disagreement is one of the largest points of contention between the Shia and Sunni. Whereas Sunnis place the composition of the Qur’an post-Muhammad, Shias believe it was compiled during Muhammad’s lifetime.[6] Modarressi, of the Shia perspective, states that Muhammad was involved in the production of the Qur’an.[7] Early Shia sources, dated to the pre-Buwayhid period, hold that Ali possessed the unique, complete version of the revelation accorded to Muhammad.[8] As Muhammad’s rightful successor, Ali was entrusted with this version, which, according to Amir-Moezzi, was “far larger” than the official ‘Uthmanic codex.[9] According to the Shia, the authorities (the first three caliphates) during the time following Muhammad’s death were not allies of Ali, and they dismissed Ali’s version because it “included explicit homage to the first Imam, his descendants and supporters, as well as open attacks against his adversaries.”[10] Due to his lack of power, Ali concealed his version of the Qur’an and passed it down to the imams in his line.[11] Modarressi suggests that Ali provided his documents to ‘Uthman when ordered to do so, but that they were rejected in favor of competing sources.[12]

The events which surrounded the promulgation of the ‘Uthmanic codex provoked anger and accusations from Shia Muslims. Therefore, it is unsurprising that severe criticism of the Qur’an surfaced during the first century of Islam.[13] Early Shia Muslims rejected the ‘Uthmanic codex.[14] The first three caliphs—labeled by Shias as the editors of the Qur’an—were accused of tahrif, or falsification, of the Qur’an by both omission and addition of select phrases. Early Shia commentators use this to explain why the Qur’an includes no clear mention of the Shia.[15] Imam Hasan al-‘Askari reportedly claimed, “Those whose ambitions overcame their wisdom falsified the true meaning of God’s book and altered it.”[16] Among the disgruntled Shia commentators, Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Sayyari’s Kitab al-Qira’at is the crux of early Shia thought regarding the Qur’an. Amir-Moezzi and Etan Kohlberg summarize his work in their book, Revelation and Falsification. The common theme throughout Kitab al-Qira’at is that the original Qur’an has been tampered with.[17] Ali and his followers are exalted and seen as the ideal figures of the world.[18] Sayyari challenges the integrity of the Qur’an by arguing three chapters were originally longer than they are today.[19] Two-thirds of the traditions in this book deal with variant Shia readings—variances as small as a change in vocalization, to larger issues including the addition of words.[20] Considering the discrepancies between Sunni and Shia tradition, it is clear that there is disunity in early Muslim thought regarding the Qur’an’s beginnings. Further, these Shia commentators who accuse the editors of the Qur’an demonstrate the reality of contention between Shia and Sunni tradition. In addition to this tension between early Shia and Sunni accounts, there were even earlier disagreements regarding the Qur’an.

Sunni Qur’an Alteration

Much of the discourse on altering the Qur’an focuses on Shia accusations and beliefs; however, there is evidence that the alteration disagreement predates the Sunni-Shia split, which Andrew Rippin suggests happened after the ‘Uthmanic codex was promulgated.[21] In The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an, Rippin writes on the reality of a pre-‘Uthmanic disagreement about the final version of the Qur’an. Many sources affirm that the compilation of the first Qur’an was not without quarrels. Rippin mentions a growing desire for a version of the Qur’an by Abdallah ibn Mas’ud, an early Muslim authority on the Qur’an.[22] This tradition is credited to the Kufan people, who believed that Ibn Mas’ud was present for Muhammad’s final revelations and confirmations of the Qur’an—which means he witnessed each abrogation and amendment Muhammad received.[23] This Kufan tradition, therefore, advocated for Ibn Mas’ud’s edition of the Qur’an, as opposed to the ‘Uthmanic codex. Rippin states that this rejection of the ‘Uthmanic codex and embracing of Ibn Mas’ud’s was not easily or quickly rejected—it was accepted by a number of Muslim sects and formed its own traditions. One such tradition cites Muhammad saying, “Whosoever wishes to read the Qur’an pure as when it was revealed, let him read the version of Ibn Umm ‘Abd (Ibn Mas’ud’s version).”[24] Later, it is stated that the Kufan tradition argued for an earlier version of the Qur’an, which came directly from Muhammad, in order to avoid the messy work of gathering scattered revelations after Muhammad’s death; however noble their efforts, this tradition was rejected, overtaken, and replaced by the ‘Uthmanic codex.[25] Interestingly, Rippin claims that early Muslims considered the Qur’an they possessed to be “an incomplete version to which additions were possible.”[26] The belief in an incomplete Qur’an appears to have existed before the Shia introduced it.

More perplexing yet, Modarressi suggests that Sunni sources influenced Shia thought by admitting that some revelations may have been lost. He uses three pages to detail examples from Sunni tradition: ‘Umar being unable to convince his colleagues to add certain verses, A’isha blaming a goat for eating a sheet of paper which contained revelations, as well as different Muslims remembering certain Surahs as longer or shorter.[27] Conversations about missing pieces and discrepancies occurred within the Sunni community while the ‘Uthmanic codex was being compiled. Regarding early Shia beliefs on the Qur’an, Modarressi argues that many of the narratives asserting the incompleteness of the Qur’an are actually copies of Sunni narratives that had circulated for nearly two centuries.[28] This is incredibly ironic, because the same traditions used by Sunnis to attack Shias existed in their own early traditions. Modarressi even declares that, when extreme Shias are blamed for believing that the original Qur’an contained more verses than the present Qur’an, these claims are “perfectly Sunnite.”[29]

When examining Islam’s early years, it becomes clear that disunity and quarreling characterized the process of compiling the collection of Muhammad’s revelations from God. Although tradition shows otherwise, it is most common for Shia tradition to be solely associated with advocating tahrif (falsification). However, early Shia beliefs on the Qur’an do not fully convey the history of the Shia perspective.

Compilation of the Qur’an: Progressive Shia Thought

By the second/eighth century, traditional Shia belief concerning the Qur’an began to shift.  According to Modarressi, the Imams and Shia scholars rejected the notion of falsification or alteration. Instead of accusing the caliphs of tampering with the text itself, they suggest a distorted interpretation of the unaltered Qur’an.[30] Aside from the order of some of the Surahs (chapters), these Shia leaders instructed their followers to view the Qur’an as the incomparable, flawless, trustworthy word of God.[31] Two centuries later, we continue to witness a shift from traditional Shia belief toward a more modern, or rational, belief in regards to the authenticity of the Qur’an. It was during this century that a leading Shia author, Ibn Babawayh (918–991), adopted a view identical to that of the Sunni: he says, “Our belief is that the Qur’an, which God revealed to His Prophet, Muhammad, is (the same as) the one between the two boards (the official ‘Uthmanic version)…and he who asserts that it is greater in extent than this (the present text) is a liar.”[32] Numerous other Shia Imami scholars began to affirm that, although the Qur’an is incomplete, it contains no falsification.[33] Modarressi suggests that the ideologies of the traditionalists began to wane in the midst of progressive Shia opposition during the fourth/tenth century, and were eradicated in the first decades following the end of this century.[34] However, Amir-Moezzi and Kohlberg push against this, stating that the attitudes of Imami scholars toward the ‘Uthmanic codex are extremely complex.[35] These authors provide insight into the various Shia views on the Qur’an by giving three different examples.[36]

Although the fourth/tenth century is marked by a progression away from traditional Shia thought, the traditional idea that the Qur’an had been falsified continued. Well-known scholars in Iran during the Safavid period (1501–1736) resuscitated the debate regarding falsification of the Qur’an. [37] A scholar of particular interest during this time is Shia scholar Husayn Taqi Nuri-Tabarsi (d. 1902); his book, Fasl al-khitab fi tahrif kitab rabb al-arbab, is considered one of the most controversial works concerning qur’anic falsification.[38] Nuri opens his book by saying that he wrote “in order to confirm the (occurrence of) distortion of the Qur’an and the disgrace of the oppressors and enemies.”[39] Rainer Brunner claims that, in this work, Nuri offers one primary argument: “Whatsoever has befallen the sons of Israel will inevitably also befall this community (of Muslims).”[40] It is common among Muslims to believe that the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity have been altered; therefore, since the Torah and the Gospels were forged, it follows that the Qur’an befell the same fate. However, this work was criticized by numerous Shia Muslims in Nuri’s day,[41] which suggests that the current, contemporary Shia ideologies differ from the early Shia ideologies.

The progressive shift in Shia view is also evident in Ayatullah Sayyid Abulqasim al-Khui’s work, The Prolegomena to the Qur’an. In his work, al-Khui details his beliefs about the nature of the Qur’an, saying that the Qur’an is “divinely protected from alteration…it is eternal and comprehensive.” This is a very Sunni-based idea, yet he later affirms the Shia belief that Muslims need the rightful “descendants” to guide in understanding the Qur’an.[42] He explains six different senses for falsification and argues that falsification has occurred in the fourth sense, which is that the Qur’an remains preserved despite the possibility that a Surah or handful of verses have been omitted or added.[43] He concedes that some Shia traditionalists believe alterations were made to the Qur’an, but he stands by the non-alteration view and states that it is accepted among Muslims; following, he cites various Shia scholars who share his conviction.[44] This work, written significantly later in 2007, supports the trend of Shias adopting more of a cooperative balance of affirming some degree of falsification in the Qur’an while simultaneously embracing Sunni orthodox belief in an unaltered Qur’an. Brunner cites Abulqasim al-Khui denying traditional Shia beliefs toward the Qur’an and saying that the majority of Shias always adhered to the same Qur’an as the Sunnis.[45]

As we examine the chronology of early and later Shia views toward the Qur’an, it is evident that, although the early scholars argued for falsification in the Qur’an, Shia beliefs and attitudes toward the Qur’an have since evolved. This is further argued in the next section.

Shia Qur’an: Additional Chapters

In 1842, Garcin de Tassy published a supposedly missing chapter of the Qur’an called surat al-Nurayn in the Journal Asiatique.[46] Over five decades later, William St. Clair Tisdall cited a discovery in Bankipur, India, of a manuscript including two additional qur’anic chapters, surat al-Nurayn and surat al-Walayah, in 1912; this manuscript is said to be 200 to 300 years old.[47] For the growing progressive Shia community, this creates troubling questions. Could the early Shia Muslims have had a Qur’anic codex other than the ‘Uthmanic codex? Is the Qur’an untrustworthy? Does this draw an even clearer line of division between Sunnis and Shias? According to Hassan Haftador and Fath Zadegan, scholars from the University of Tehran, the answer to these questions is a resounding no. In their work, they seek to trace the origins of the two additional chapters (Nurayn and Walayah). They trace Nurayn’s origins to a work entitled Dabistan Mazahib, and Walayah to either the manuscript found in India or an oral tradition; they conclude that these two chapters could be dated no earlier than the eleventh/sixteenth century, and state that Shia Muslims who accept these additional Surahs contradict “the spirit of scholarly integrity.”[48] Tisdall agrees with these sentiments when he writes that readers of the original Arabic language most likely were led to believe that these additions were forgeries.[49] Tisdall describes the author of these additions as possessing a very clear, repetitive determination to promote Shia doctrine, but these passages are not accepted amongst the majority of Shia Muslims.[50] Tisdall also admits the scarce occurrence of these Surahs (chapters) in literature when he says that the manuscript found in Bankipur is, to his knowledge, the only instance of these additions which exists.[51] Therefore, although it is a relatively well-known argument for the evidence of a different Qur’an between Shia and Sunnis, the scholarship above suggests that the authors want to distance themselves from the author of these Surahs—which would be very tempting to Shias pushing for an altered or falsified ‘Uthmanic codex.

 Critical Analysis

Looking from the outside into the scholarship on the falsification of the Qur’an, the multiple sources seem to flow together in harmony with overlap of traditions and key individuals. They each seem to affirm the argument for a broad stroke of the progressive trend in Shia thought, with minor points of disagreement. For example, as mentioned above, Modarressi states that the traditional, early Shia belief in the falsification of the Qur’an evaporated only decades after the fourth/tenth century; however, other sources, including Revelation and Falsification, correctly acknowledge these issues as complex and grant that diversity exists within Muslim communities, affirming both later and early traditions. However, these minor differences do not diminish the assertions by Modarressi and Amir-Moezzi regarding a gradual change in Shia belief toward the Qur’an.[52] Additionally, it is commendable that the vast majority of scholarship cited pulls information directly from Muslim sources, both early and late. On the whole, the scholarship interacts well together, despite occasional minor disagreements, pulling from primary Muslim sources the reality of a progressive change in Shia thought.

A weakness which should be acknowledged is the fact that very little research is available which investigates the thoughts and responses of communities on the fringe of Islam—such as later Muslims who concur with early Shia Muslims on the falsification of the Qur’an. Finding sources for the large-scale trajectory of Shia thought toward the Qur’an was a relatively painless task, but it was more difficult to locate research on the less popular Muslim opinions. If there were more research available on this topic, it would enable us to hear the voices of these smaller Muslim communities, and shed more light onto a complex topic.

 Conclusion

Gordon Nickel aptly stated, “The accusations of Muslim writers in the past do not prove the falsification of the Qur’an, but they do indicate uncertainty among Muslims themselves about the text of the Qur’an.”[53] The progression of belief for mainstream Shia Muslims from an early traditional stance to a later progressive stance affirms Nickel’s sentiments. Rippin and Modarressi demonstrate that uncertainty concerning the Qur’an existed before the Sunni-Shia split even began. The Islamic doctrine on the nature and integrity of the Qur’an is faced with a serious challenge when looking at the history of its development.  Muslims did not receive it neatly packaged, nor does history show that Muslims simply believed and recited the Holy Qur’an. Rather, history reveals communities of Muslims discussing, arguing, and choosing from a number of possibilities. Although the Qur’an in most Muslims’ hands today causes little uncertainty about its authority or completeness, it most assuredly would trouble most Muslims today to see the ideas and traditions of their fathers in the faith.

[1] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 8.

[2] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 8.

[3] Reynolds, Emergence of Islam, 100.

[4] Reynolds, Emergence of Islam, 101.

[5] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 10.

[6] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 6.

[7] It says, “He [Muhammad] reportedly continued until the end of his life to personally instruct the scribes where to insert new passages of the revelation of scripture.” In Modaressi, “Early Debates,” 6-7.

[8] Amir-Moezzi, The Silent and Speaking Qur’an, 62.

[9] Amir Moezzi, The Silent and Speaking Qur’an, 62.

[10] Amir Moezzi, The Silent and Speaking Qur’an, p. 62.

[11] Amir Moezzi, The Silent and Speaking Qur’an, p. 62.

[12] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 14.

[13] Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:593.

[14] Brunner, “The Dispute,” 437.

[15] Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:593.

[16] Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:593.

[17] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 46.

[18] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 39.

[19] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 41.

[20] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 41.

[21]. Rippin argues that the fact that because the Shia have never possessed their own, unique version of the Qur’an, both the later formulation of a distinct Shia and Sunni community and the promulgation of a fully fixed version of the Qur’an prior to the formulation of the split are historically possible. Found in Rippin, Muslims, 123.

[22]Rippin, Blackwell Companion, 166.

[23] Rippin, Blackwell Companion, 166.

[24] Rippin, Blackwell Companion, 167.

[25] Rippin, Blackwell Companion, 168.

[26] Rippin, Blackwell Companion, 169.

[27] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 10-13.

[28] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 31.

[29] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 39.

[30] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 29.

[31] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 30.

[32] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 27.

[33] The scholars mentioned are al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d.413/1022), al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 436/1044), Abu Ja’far al-Tusi (d.460/1067), and Abu ‘Ali l-Fadl b. Hasan al-Tabarsi (d. 548/1153), in Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:594.

[34] Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 34.

[35] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 28.

[36] Each of the views is summarized briefly here: 1. The doubts involving the integrity of the ‘Uthmanic codex have no historical basis and are only motivated by political-theological ideas. 2. The ‘Uthmanic text as a whole is not unreliable, but certain words were omitted and the order of some verses and Surahs have been changed. 3.  Very simple: the ‘Uthmanic codex was falsified by non-Shias based on the oral traditions of the first Imams and the early Shia Hadith. The second view has grown to be acceptable more and more in the fourth/tenth century, but there still remains fringes of Shia who firmly hold to non-Shia falsification to the ‘Uthmanic codex. Found in Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 24-25.

[37]A list of the scholars influencing the Safavid period: Muhsin al-Fayd (d. 1091/1680), Hashim b. Sulayman al-Bahrani (d. 1107/1693 or 1109/1697), and Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi (d. 1110/1699 or 1111/1700), in Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:595.

[38] Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:595.

[39] Brunner, “The Dispute,” 438, quoting Fasl al-khitab, 1.

[40] Brunner, “The Dispute,” 439, quoting Fasl al-khitab, 35.

[41] Bar-Asher, “Shi’ism and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, 4:595.

[42] al-Khui, The Prolegomena to the Qur’an, 25.

[43] al-Khui, The Prolegomena to the Qur’an, 136.

[44] al-Khui, The Prolegomena to the Qur’an, 137.

[45] Brunner, “The Dispute,” 443.

[46] Rezaee and Zadegan, “An Investigation,” 230.

[47] Tisdall, “Shi’ah Additions,” 228.

[48] Rezaee and Zadegan, “An Investigation,” 233.

[49] Tisdall, “Shi’ah Additions,” 229.

[50] Tisdall, “Shi’ah Additions,” 229.

[51] Tisdall, “Shi’ah Additions,” 229.

[52] Kohlberg and Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification, 26; and Modarressi, “Early Debates,” 34.

[53] Nickel, The Gentle Answer, 251.


Mark Olson is the Student Associate for Missions and Finance at the Jenkins Center. He is also pursuing an M.A. in Islamic Studies in preparation for ministry in Muslim contexts. 

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