The Quran describes itself as fully detailed, coherent, and free of contradictions. It is humans, we could argue–fallible men–who introduce confusion and obscure its message. Indeed, this is what has happened over the last millennium: The Quran’s message of peace, justice, and respect has been all but lost to the ages.
The History of Misunderstanding
The Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad as a “recitation.” The written text only served as a visual aid. The Quran remains the most oft-memorized (but least understood) book in the world today.
The Quran itself indicates that it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in one form, one standardized recitation. However, over the centuries, variations in recitation of the Quran have persisted. The most commonly read version of the Quran is the Hafs manuscript, used throughout 95% of the Muslim world. A slightly different manuscript with multiple textual variations, Warsh, also exists. These variations in text and spelling do not affect the Quran’s overall message, but they do cause minor differences in meaning within individual verses.
The Quran’s original manuscripts contained no diacritical markings, and are nearly unintelligible to today’s native Arabic speakers. The following is an excerpt from the Sana’a palimpset, discovered in Yemen. The letters are formed in a skeletal consonantal outline:
In 1924, the Egyptian government standardized the Quran to a single recitation, attempting to destroy other versions. Egypt’s attempt to eliminate variation in Quranic recitation was not the first: Ibn Mujahid, who died in 936 CE, also tried to intervene. Those who refused to recite the Quran according to his standard were punished by flogging, which was enforced by Abbasid authorities. Even earlier than that, Uthman Ibn ‘Affan (d. 95 AH / 714 CE) allegedly burned variant copies of the Quran.
This information is unknown to the vast majority of Muslims. Despite variation throughout classical sources, the Quran’s recitation is fairly standardized today. Most Muslims are completely unaware that minor differences have ever existed.
Hadith and Tafsir
Hadith (plural: ahadith) are alleged reports of the Prophet’s words. They were transmitted orally, by word-of-mouth, until about 160 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. After this, hadith collectors (As-Sahih Sittah: Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i) began writing them down.
This contrasts with the Quran, which was transmitted en masse across generations both in memorized and written form. Interestingly, the Prophet was recorded in his own hadith multiple times to have forbidden people from writing hadith. Nevertheless, hadith now form the basis of most Islamic legislation, and even overrule the Quran on occasion (despite many jurists’ insistence to the contrary).
Classical Qur’anic tafsir (explanations, exegesis) were written by assigning “circumstances of revelation/fluid beginnings,” or asbab ul-nazul, to each verse of the holy text. This resulted in history-specific contexts being attributed to Qur’anic verses on the basis of questionable hadith reports. Modern understandings of the Quran have been obfuscated due to this.
Today’s commonly circulated translations of the Quran contain multiple grammatical and conceptual errors, and fail to capture the essence of the Divine Text. Muslims have also essentially abandoned the Quran, replacing it with oral reports and questionable cultural practices. Thus, modern applications of shari’ah vary widely throughout the Muslim world, each version steeped in differing beliefs.
Shariah, Aqidah, and Fiqh
Shari’ah literally means “a path or way leading to water.” It encompasses the day-to-day acts of Muslims, such as prayer and fasting, as well as dictating the laws of state governance. The objectives of the shariah (known as Maqaasid Al-Shariah) are understood to be justice, wisdom, and mercy–although they are often ignored in practice.
Fiqh is the human understanding of Shariah, primarily derived from the Quran, hadith, sunnah (actions of the Prophet), the ‘ijma (consensus) of Islamic scholars, and to a lesser extent ijtihad (critical thinking), ra’iyy (independent reasoning), and ‘urf (local/social custom). Fiqh itself is largely constructed through the reasoning of fallible individuals. Unfortunately, their word is generally conflated with God’s Word, leading to immense confusion and discrepancy.
Aqidah literally means “creed.” It denotes an understanding of Muslims’ fundamental belief in Prophets, Messengers, Scripture, and Angels.
Together, these elements (among others) form the foundation of Islamic scholarly jurisprudence. They vary a great deal according to location, era, and individual preference–resulting in a lack of formal criterion for judging whether certain beliefs and actions are “Islamic.”
This is an important question: How, in truth, do we judge whether something is Islamic? What does Islam mean anyway? Is it the beliefs of Muslims, which vary widely across time and place? Is it the actions of Muslims (God forbid)? Is it mainstream fiqh? How can it be, when so many contradictions exist between these sources?
In the absence of a unified standard, it is crucial for Muslims to return to the Quran. All secondary sources must be filtered through its lens. Hadith that contradict the Quran or restrict its narratives must be discarded. And most notably, the Quran must be interpreted against itself, without the imposition of external sources.
- The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, by Jane Dammen McAuliffe
- Ibn Saeed Al-Khudry reported that the messenger of God said, “Do not write anything from me except Quran. Anyone who wrote anything other than the Quran shall destroy it.” This is one of many such reports.