Muhammad, according to tradition, could neither read nor write, but would simply recite what was revealed to him for his companions to write down and memorize. Adherents to Islam hold that the wording of the Qur’anic text available today corresponds exactly to that revealed to Muhammad himself: words of God delivered to Muhammad through Jibreel (Gabriel).
According to some Muslim traditions, the companions of Muhammad began recording suras in writing before Muhammad died in 632; written copies of various suras during his lifetime are frequently alluded to in the traditions. For instance, in the story of the conversion of Umar ibn al-Khattab (when Muhammad was still at Mecca), his sister is said to have been reading a text of sura Ta-Ha. At Medina, about sixty-five companions are said to have acted as scribes for him at one time or another; the prophet would regularly call upon them to write down revelations immediately after they came.
One tradition has it that the first complete compilation of the Qur’an was made during the rule of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Zayd ibn Thabit, who had been one of Muhammad’s secretaries, “gathered the Qur’an from various parchments and pieces of bone, and from the chests (i.e. the memories) of men.” This compilation was kept by Hafsa bint Umar, one of Muhammad’s widows, as well as the daughter of Umar, the second caliph.
During the caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan, there were disputes about the recitation of the Qur’an. In response, Uthman decided to codify, standardize, and write down the text. Uthman is said to have commissioned a committee (including Zayd and several prominent members of Quraysh) to produce a standard copy of the text.
Some accounts say that this compilation was based on the text kept by Hafsa. Other stories say that Uthman made his compilation independently, Hafsa’s text was brought forward, and the two texts were found to coincide perfectly. Still other accounts omit any reference to Hafsa.
Some Muslim scholars say that if the Qur’an had been collected by the order of a caliph, it would never have been relegated to the status of a keepsake for one of the prophet’s widows. Possibly the story was invented to move the time of collection closer to Muhammad’s death.
When the compilation was finished, sometime between 650 and 656 CE, Uthman sent out copies of it to the various corners of the Islamic empire.** He ordered the destruction of all copies that differed from it.**
Several manuscripts, including the Samarkand manuscript, are claimed to the original copies sent out by Uthman ; however, many scholars, Western and Islamic, doubt that any of the Uthmanic originals remain.
What were the different copies that were destroyed? Islamic traditions say that Abdallah Ibn Masud, Ubay Ibn Ka’b, and Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, had preserved versions that differed in some ways from the Uthmanic text that is now accepted by all Muslims. Muslim scholars record certain of the differences between the versions; those recorded consist almost entirely of orthographical and lexical variants, or different verse counts. All three (Ibn Masud, Ubay Ibn Ka’b, and Ali) are recorded as having accepted the Uthmanic text as authoritative.
Uthman’s version was written in an older Arabic script that left out most vowel markings; thus the script could be interpreted and read in various ways. This basic Uthmanic script is called the rasm; it is the basis of several traditions of oral recitation, differing in minor points. In order to fix these oral recitations and prevent any mistakes, scribes and scholars began annotating the Uthmanic rasm with various diacritical marks – dots and the like – indicating how the word was to be pronounced. It is believed that this process of annotation began around 700 CE, soon after Uthman’s compilation, and finished by approximately 900 CE. The Quran text most widely used today is based on the Hafs tradition of recitation, as approved by the eminent Al-Azhar University in Cairo in 1922. (For more information regarding traditions of recitations, see Quranic recitation, below.)