In the 20th century, a fundamentalist doctrine, known as Quranism, began to emerge which called for the sole reliance upon the Quran as a source of Islamic law and guidance. Proponents of this new doctrine thus rejected the authority of traditions ascribed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, known as hadiths. The basis upon which these calls were made varied in nature: some stemmed from skepticism in the authenticity of hadith collections, while others stemmed from a more fundamentalist outlook that dismissed the Prophet’s role as a source of legislation. Regardless of their leanings, Quranists are all united under the proposition that the Quran is the only viable source of Islamic legislation and guidance.
In this article, I am not interested in delving into traditional Muslim-Quranist polemics. Rather, I am primarily interested in exploring the Quranist paradigm and taking it to its logical conclusion.Though the Quranist doctrine fundamentally revolves around the utilization of the Quran as the sole source of Islamic legislation/guidance, it ironically ends up undermining the entire basis and authenticity of the Quran for two (related) reasons:
- Its inability to demonstrate the authenticity of the Quran itself.
- Its inability to explain the presence of textual variations in the Quran today.
The Quran’s Authenticity
Since the Quranist polemic is mostly directed at other Muslims who already take the Quran’s authenticity for granted, its logical conclusions are often overlooked. The rejection of primary historical sources that have documented the history of the Quran results in absolute ignorance in the history of the Quran’s compilation and its authenticity.
- When was the Quran compiled?
- Who compiled it into its current arrangement/form?
- Who outlined its script?
- Who outlined the diacritical marks in its script?
- How can one ensure the authenticity of our current recension of the Quran?
All of these questions are questions one simply cannot answer if he/she were to entirely dismiss the hadith canon, which provides necessary historical context behind the compilation of the Quran.
Some may claim that the Quran is mutawātir (mass-transmitted), and, thus, definitively authentic. Asides from blindly following later authorities on the Quran who had claimed that the Quran was mutawātir, the Quranist polemicist simply cannot substantiate this claim. Blindly following those authorities is self-defeating, since they all considered hadith collections to be viable sources of Islamic legislation.
Some may cite 15:9 (and similar verses) to argue for the Quran’s authenticity; however, such appeals are circular, since they already presume the authenticity of the Quran. The Quranist narrative simply cannot demonstrate the authenticity of the Quran independently of the Quran. It is merely grounded in several assumptions upon which the entire doctrine is based.
The Ten Qirā’āt: Errors or Recitations?
As known, various parts of the Muslim world recite the Quran in different modes/recitations, known as qirā’āt. The textual variation in these different recitations varies in nature and spans differences in pronunciation, spelling and meaning. The geographical distribution of the qirā’āt has constantly changed throughout history, and the most prominent recitation in the Muslim world today is the recitation of Ḥafṣ b. Sulaymān al-Kūfī (d. 180), which he reportedly inherited from his stepfather, ‘Āsim b. Abī al-Nujūd (d. 127). The recitation is commonly referred to as Ḥafṣ ‘an Āsim.
The predominant recitation in North and West Africa is the recitation of ‘Uthmān b. Sa’īd al-Miṣrī (d. 197), who was known as Warsh. Warsh partially inherited his recitation from his teacher, Nāfi’ b. ‘Abdurrahmān al-Madanī (d. 169). The recitation of another student of Nāfi, ‘Isā b. Mīna al-Madanī (d. 160), who was known as Qālūn, is prominent in Libya and Tunisia today.
The geographic distribution of the recitations across the Muslim world, however, has varied throughout history due to many factors. Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 855), for example, noted that the predominant recitation in Al-Shām, Hejaz, Egypt and Yemen during his time was that of Abū ‘Amr al-Baṣrī (d. 154) (Ibn al-Jazarī 292). This would quickly change, however, as the Ottomans institutionalized and enforced the recitation of Ḥafṣ, which, as a result, became the predominant recitation in the Muslim world till this day.
Nevertheless, the presence of textual variants in the different qirā’āt of the Quran does not necessarily pose a problem to traditional Muslim scholarship, since it is authentically established, as reported by al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dawūd, al-Tirmiḍī, al-Nasā’ī and many others, that the Prophet recited the Quran in different modes of recitation (aḥruf). These variants in recitation can thus be contextualized and explained by the Prophet’s recitation of the Quran in different modes. Even traditional scholars who held the position that some errors may exist in some of the qirā’āt were able to navigate their way through these different recitations, since they believed that the Prophet himself was a source of textual variations in the Quran.
Since Quranists reject the authenticity and authority of Prophetic traditions, they have no basis for the concept of qirā’āt and Quranic modes of recitation. Rather, the implication of the Quranist polemic is that all of the discrepancies in the qirā’āt simply are errors and accretions that have gradually accumulated in the Quran as it was disseminated across the centuris. They have no way to differentiate the “erroneous” from the “correct” in the Quran today.
Most Quranists simply opt to recite the Quran according to the recitation of Ḥafṣ, for no reason other than the fact that it is recited by the majority of Muslims today.
The purpose of this article is not to appeal to the necessity of the hadith canon out of desperation, for we have, on several occasions, outlined the objective reasons behind our belief in the integrity of the hadith canon. Rather, the purpose of this article is to demonstrate how the Quranist paradigm, which calls for the sole reliance upon the Quran for guidance and legislation, ultimately undermines the authenticity of the Quran itself. This ironic reality is often overlooked due to the fact that the Quranist polemic is mostly directed at Muslims who already believe in the authenticity of the Quran. By taking the Quranist doctrine to its logical conclusion, we can observe its flaws, defects and contradictions. Similarly, we are able observe the double standard of this paradigm, which prides itself in its intense historical skepticism with Prophetic traditions yet laxly presumes the historical authenticity of the entire Quran for no objective reason(s).
Ibn al-Jazarī, Muḥammad. Ghāyat al-Nihāyah fī ṭabaqāt al-Qurrā’. Edited by Gotthelf Bergsträßer vol. 1, DKI, 2006.