The Quran’s development during Muhammad’s lifetime

A study of the compilation of the Quran text must begin with the character of the book itself as it was handed down by Muhammad to his companions during his lifetime. It was not delivered or, as Muslims believe, revealed all at once. It came piecemeal over a period of twenty-three years from the time when Muhammad began to preach in Mecca in 610 AD until his death at Medina in 632 AD.

The Quran itself declares that Allah said to Muhammad:

  • “We have rehearsed it to you in slow, well-arranged stages, gradually” (Al-Furqan  25.32).

Furthermore no chronological record of the sequence of passages was kept by Muhammad himself or his companions so that, as each of these began to be collected into an actual surah (a”chapter”), no thought was given as to theme, order of deliverance or chronological sequence. It is acknowledged by all Muslim writers that most of the suras, especially the longer ones, are composite texts containing various passages not necessarily linked to each other in the sequence in which they were given.

As time went on Muhammad used to say” Put this passage in the sura in which so-and-so is mentioned”, or” Put it in such-and-such a place” (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Quran, p.141). Thus passages were added to compilations of other passages already collected together until each of these became a distinct sura. There is evidence that a number of these suras already had their recognised titles during Muhammad’s lifetime, as from the following hadith:

The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) (in fact) said: Anyone who recites the two verses at the end of Surah al-Baqara at night, they would suffice for him ………….. Abu Darda reported that Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: If anyone learns by heart the first ten verses of the Surah al-Kahf, he will be protected from the Dajal. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.2, p.386).

At the same time, however, there is also reason to believe that there were other surahs to which titles were not necessarily given by Muhammad, for example Suratul-Ikhlas (Surah 112), for although Muhammad spoke at some length about it and said its four verses were the equal of one-third of the whole Quran, he did not mention it by name (Sahih Muslim, Vol.2, p.387).

As the Quran developed Muhammad’s immediate companions took portions of it down in writing and also committed its passages to memory. It appears that the memorisation of the text was the foremost method of recording its contents as the very word al-Quran means “the Recitation” and, from the very first word delivered to Muhammad when he is said to have had his initial vision of the angel Jibril on Mount Hira, namely Iqra – “Recite!” (Al-Qalam 96.1), we can see that the verbal recitation of its passages was very highly esteemed and consistently practised. Nevertheless it is to actual written records of its text that the Quran itself bears witness in the following verse:

  • “It is in honoured scripts, exalted, purified, by the hands of scribes noble and pious “ (‘Abasa  80. 13-16).

There is evidence, further, that even during Muhammad’s early days in Mecca portions of the Quran as then delivered were being reduced to writing. When Umar was still a pagan he one day struck his sister in her house in Mecca when he heard her reading a portion of the Quran. Upon seeing blood on her cheek, however, he relented and said “Give me this sheet which I heard you reading just now so that I may see just what it is which Muhammad has brought” (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.156) and, on reading the portion of Surah Ta-Ha 20 which she had been reading, he became a Muslim.

It nonetheless appears that right up to the end of Muhammad’s life the practice of memorisation predominated over the reduction of the Quran to writing and was regarded as more important. In the Hadith records we read that the angel Jibril is said to have checked the recitation of the Quran every Ramadan with Muhammad and, in his final year, checked it with him twice:

Fatima said: “The Prophet (saw) told me secretly, ‘ Gabriel used to recite the Quran to me and I to him once a year, but this year he recited the whole Quran with me twice. I don’t think but that my death is approaching'”. (Sahih al-Bukhari^ Vol. 6 p.485).

Some of Muhammad’s closest companions devoted themselves to learning the text of the Quran off by heart. These included the Ansari Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Muadh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, Abu Zaid and Abu ad-Darda (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, pp.488-489).

In addition to these Mujammi ibn Jariyah is said to have collected all but a few suras while Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, one of the muhajirun who had been with Muhammad from the beginning of his mission in Mecca, had secured more than ninety of the one hundred and fourteen surahs by himself, learning the remaining suras from Mujammi Ibn Sa’d. (Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.2, p.457).

Regarding the written materials there are no records as to exactly how much of the Quran was reduced to writing during the lifetime of Muhammad. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that anyone had actually compiled the whole text of the Quran into a single manuscript, whether directly under Muhammad’s express authority or otherwise, and from the information we have about the collection of the Quran after his death we must rather conclude that the Quran had never been codified or reduced to writing in a single text.

Muhammad died suddenly in 632 AD after a short illness and, with his death, the Quran automatically became complete. There could be no further revelations once its chosen recipient had departed. While he lived however, there was always the possibility that new passages could be added and it hardly seemed appropriate, therefore, to contemplate codifying the text into one harmonious whole. Thus it is not surprising to find that the book was widely scattered in the memories of men and on various different materials in writing at the time of Muhammad’s decease.

Furthermore the Quran itself makes allowance for the abrogation of its texts by Allah and, during Muhammad’s lifetime, the possibility of further abrogations (in addition to a number of verses which had already been withdrawn) would likewise preclude the contemplation of a single text.

Still further, there appear to have been only a few disputes among the sahaba (Muhammad’s “companions”, i.e., his immediate followers) about the text of the Quran while Muhammad lived, unlike those which arose soon after his demise. All these factors explain the absence of an official codified text at the time of his death. The possible abrogation of existing passages, and the probable addition of further ayat (the Quran nowhere declares its own completeness or that no further revelations could be expected) prevented any attempt to achieve the result desired very soon thereafter by his closest companions. It also appears that new Quranic passages were coming with increasing frequency to Muhammad just before that fateful day, making the collection of the Quran into a single text at any time all the more improbable.

Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah sent down his Divine Inspiration to His Apostle (saw) continuously and abundantly during the period preceding his death till He took him unto Him. That was the period of the greatest part of revelation, and Allah’s Apostle (saw) died after that. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.474).

At the end of the first phase of the Quran, therefore, we find that its contents were widely distributed in the memories of men and were written down piecemeal on various materials, but that no single text had been prescribed or codified for the Muslim community.

As-Suyuti states that the Quran, as sent down from Allah in separate stages, had been completely written down and carefully preserved, but that it had not been assembled into one single location during the lifetime of Muhammad (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Quran p.96).

All of it was said to have been available in principle. Muhammad’s companions had absorbed it to one extent or another in their memories and it had been written down on separate materials – while the final order of the various verses and chapters is also presumed to have been defined by Muhammad while he was still alive.

Leave a Reply