Tahrif (Distortion) of Qur'an: A Shi'i Perspective

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

‎اللَّهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ

The discussion regarding alleged tahrif (distortion) of the Qur’an has been one that has existed since the early days of Muslim scholarship and continues to be contentious, particularly in Shi’a-Sunni polemical discourse. While almost all Muslims, regardless of their sect, deny that any alteration of the Qur’an occurred and affirm that the Qur’an we have today is the same that was revealed to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), there are still accusations made towards the Shi’a that we believe that the Qur’an has been edited or that we have a different Qur’an from the rest of the Muslim world. My aim with this article is to analyze this matter thoroughly to get to the truth or lack of truth of these allegations and to discuss in detail the issue of tahrif from a Shi’i perspective.

Before we can discuss tahrif, however, it is necessary to briefly cover the subject of the manner of the revelation of the Qur’an and the way in which it has reached us today. According to some hadith, the Qur’an was revealed in seven different modes of recitation, known as the ahruf, characterized by linguistic variation and different word choices.

وَحَدَّثَنِي حَرْمَلَةُ بْنُ يَحْيَى، أَخْبَرَنَا ابْنُ وَهْبٍ، أَخْبَرَنِي يُونُسُ، عَنِ ابْنِ شِهَابٍ، حَدَّثَنِي عُبَيْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عُتْبَةَ، أَنَّ ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ، حَدَّثَهُ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ ‏ "‏ أَقْرَأَنِي جِبْرِيلُ - عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ - عَلَى حَرْفٍ فَرَاجَعْتُهُ فَلَمْ أَزَلْ أَسْتَزِيدُهُ فَيَزِيدُنِي حَتَّى انْتَهَى إِلَى سَبْعَةِ أَحْرُفٍ

Ibn 'Abbas reported Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

Gabriel taught me to recite in one style. I replied to him and kept asking him to give more (styles), till he reached seven modes (of recitation).

Sahih Muslim 819a

Similar hadith also exist in Shi’a sources:

حدثنا محمد بن على ماجيلويه رضي الله عنه قال: حدثنا محمد بن يحيى العطار، عن محمد بن أحمد، عن أحمد بن هلال عن عيسى بن عبد الله الهاشمي، عن أبيه عن آبائه عليهم السلام قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله:أتاني آت من الله فقال: إن الله عز وجل يأمرك أن تقرأ القرآن على حرف واحد، فقلت: يارب وسع على إمتي فقال: إن الله عز وجل يأمرك أن تقرأ القرآن على حرف واحد، فقلت: يارب وسع على إمتي فقال: إن الله عز وجل يأمرك (أن تقرأ القرآن على حرف واحد، فقلت يارب وسع على امتي فقال: إن الله يأمرك) أن تقرأ القرآن على سبعة أحرف

‘Isa ibn Abdullah al-Hashemi narrated on the authority of his father, on the authority of his forefathers, peace be upon them, that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “Gabriel was sent to me by Allah, the Mighty, the Majestic, and told me, ‘Allah has ordained that you recite the Qur’an in one mode.’ I said, ‘O Allah! Please be more lenient with my nation.’ Then Gabriel said, ‘Allah, the Mighty, the Majestic, has ordained that you recite the Qur’an in seven modes.’”

al-Khisal, Part 7, Hadith #45

The Shi’a hadith affirming seven ahruf, however, are all weak in chain, and are also contradicted by authentic narrations such as the following:

عَلِيُّ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ عَنْ أَبِيهِ عَنِ ابْنِ أَبِي عُمَيْرٍ عَنْ عُمَرَ بْنِ أُذَيْنَةَ عَنِ الْفُضَيْلِ بْنِ يَسَارٍ قَالَ قُلْتُ لأبِي عَبْدِ الله (عَلَيهِ السَّلام) إِنَّ النَّاسَ يَقُولُونَ إِنَّ الْقُرْآنَ نَزَلَ عَلَى سَبْعَةِ أَحْرُفٍ فَقَالَ كَذَبُوا أَعْدَاءُ الله وَلَكِنَّهُ نَزَلَ عَلَى حَرْفٍ وَاحِدٍ مِنْ عِنْدِ الْوَاحِدِ.

al-Fudayl ibn Yasir narrated: “Once, I said to Abu ‘Abdallah (as-Sadiq), peace be upon him, ‘People say that the Holy Qur’an was revealed upon seven modes.’ He replied, They are lying, enemies of Allah! It was revealed upon one mode from One source.’”

al-Kafi, Volume 2, Book of the Excellence of the Holy Qur’an, Chapter 14, Hadith #1

As such, it is commonly believed by the Shi’a that the Qur’an was revealed in only one mode. If we assume the existence of the seven ahruf, however, this must be reconciled with the fact that the seven have not reached us in a pure form today. Rather, the Qur’an is recited in one of numerous recitation styles known as the qira’at, of which seven or ten are said to be canonical due to their mass transmission. There are many more variants than these, however, that have reached us through fewer chains of transmission, although some are authentic. The canonical qira’at adhere almost entirely to the Uthmanic rasm, or consonantal skeleton that was standardized under the reign of the third caliph Uthman ibn ‘Affan. However, although there are seven ahruf and seven major qira’at, no qira’at corresponds directly to a harf. Rather, each of the qira’at contains a selection of variations from the ahruf that match closely the Uthmanic rasm. Therefore, variations from the ahruf such as the addition or omission of words or differences in orthography are not represented within the canonical qira’at, though some reach us through hadith.

With that in mind, let us now take a look at a hadith that exemplifies the type of narration that is frequently quoted in support of the claim that the Shi’a hadith corpus affirms tahrif:

حمدويه بن نصير، عن محمد بن عيسى بن عبيد، عن يونس بن عبد الرحمن، عن عبد الله بن زرارة و محمد بن قولويه و الحسين بن الحسن، عن سعد بن عبد الله، عن هارون بن الحسن بن محبوب، عن محمد بن عبد الله بن زرارة و ابنيه الحسن و الحسين، عن عبد الله بن زرارة قال: قال لي أبو عبد الله عليه السلام: ... يقول الله جل وعز أَمَّا السَّفِينَةُ فَكَانَتْ لِمَسَاكِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ فِي الْبَحْرِ فَأَرَدْتُ أَنْ أَعِيبَهَا وَكَانَ وَرَاءَهُمْ مَلِكٌ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ صَالِحة غَصْبًا، هذا التنزيل من عند الله <صالحة> لا و الله ما عابها إلا لكي تسلم من الملك و لا تعطب على يديه و لقد كانت صالحة ليس للعيب منها مساغ و الحمد لله، فافهم المثل يرحمك الله

Hamduwayh from Muhammad b. Isa from Yunus from Abdallah b. Zurara and Muhammad b. Qulawayh and al-Husayn b. al-Hasan from Sa`d from Harun b. al-Hasan b. Mahbub from Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Zurara and his [Zurara’s] two sons al-Hasan and al-Husayn from Abdallah b. Zurara who said:

Abu ‘Abdullah (as-Sadiq), peace be upon him, said to me: ...Allah, the Majestic and Mighty, says: “As for the boat then it belonged to the poor working at sea so I wished to damage it because there was a king after them who seizes every good boat by force” (Quran 18:79) - this is a revelation from Allah [including the word] ‘good’. No by Allah! He did not damage it except so that it would be saved from the king and not ruined in his hands. It was a ‘good’ boat which had no question of being defective, Allah be praised, so comprehend the parable, may Allah have mercy on you!

Ikhtiyar Ma’rifat ar-Rijal (Rijal al-Kashi), p. 350

Grading: Shaykh Asif al-Mohseni: معتبر (reliable - Muʿjam al-Aḥādīth al-Muʿtabara

The portion I have quoted above is part of a longer hadith related to the reliability and righteousness of Zurara b. A’yyan, but it is particularly notable in this context for its rendition of Quran 18:79. After the word سَفِينَةٍ (boat), the Imam recites صَالِحة (good), a word which is not present in the Uthmanic rasm. Before we jump to any conclusions regarding this hadith and its implications for Shi’a, however, let us look at the following authentic Sunni narrations. Just as the Imam is reported as reading سَفِينَةٍ صَالِحة (good boat), Ibn Abbas is reported to have read the same:

حَدَّثَنِي قُتَيْبَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنِي سُفْيَانُ بْنُ عُيَيْنَةَ، عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ دِينَارٍ، عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرٍ… قَالَ وَكَانَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ يَقْرَأُ وَكَانَ أَمَامَهُمْ مَلِكٌ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ صَالِحَةٍ غَصْبًا، وَأَمَّا الْغُلاَمُ فَكَانَ كَافِرًا‏.‏

Narrated Sa`id bin Jubair:

...Ibn `Abbas used to recite:-- 'And in front (ahead) of them there was a king who used to seize every (serviceable) boat by force. (18.79)...and as for the boy he was a disbeliever. "

Sahih Bukhari 4727

حَدَّثَنَا ابْنُ أَبِي عُمَرَ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ دِينَارٍ، عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرٍ… قَالَ سَعِيدُ بْنُ جُبَيْرٍ وَكَانَ يَعْنِي ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ يَقْرَأُ وَكَانَ أَمَامَهُمْ مَلِكٌ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ صَالِحَةٍ غَصْبًا ‏

Narrated Sa'eed bin Jubair:

...and he would - meaning Ibn 'Abbas - recite: 'And there was before them a king who would take every useful boat by force (18:79).'

Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Vol. 5, Book 44, Hadith 3149.

Grading: Sahih (Darussalam)

In these narrations, both of which are accepted as sahih (authentic) by Sunnis, Ibn Abbas recites the verse in the exact same manner that the Imam does in the report in Rijal al-Kashi: سَفِينَةٍ صَالِحة (good/serviceable boat). The translation of the hadith in Bukhari adds parentheses around the word “serviceable,” a translation of صَالِحة. However, one can see from the Arabic itself that Ibn Abbas recites it in the verse, without distinguishing between the rest of the verse and this particular word. This is also evident in the sahih report in Tirmidhi, which translates صَالِحة as “useful” and makes no such distinction with parentheses or brackets. In fact, it is not only Ibn Abbas who is reported by the Sunnis to have recited the verse in this manner; Tafsir Tabari records that both Ubayy b. Ka’b and ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud are said to have recited the verse with the addition of the word “good.”

Let’s look at another example, again from the Shi’a corpus:

تفسير علي بن إبراهيم: " وأنذر عشيرتك الأقربين " قال: نزلت " ورهطك منهم المخلصين " وهم علي بن أبي طالب وحمزة وجعفر والحسن والحسين وآل محمد

Tafsir ‘Ali ibn Ibrahim (al-Qummi): “And warn your nearest kin” (Quran 26:214). [Imam as-Sadiq (؏)] said: “It was revealed: ‘[And warn your nearest kin] and your group of sincere ones from among them’ and this is [referring to] ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and Hamzah and Ja’far and al-Hasan and al-Husayn and the progeny of Muhammad (ﷺ).”

Tafsir al-Qummi 475 (as quoted in Biharul Anwar), on Quran 26:214

Here, the Imam adds the phrase: ورهطك منهم المخلصين (and your group of sincere ones) to the end of the verse and offers an explanation of its meaning. Now, see how Ibn Abbas recites the verse in Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari:

وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو كُرَيْبٍ، مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْعَلاَءِ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو أُسَامَةَ، عَنِ الأَعْمَشِ، عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ مُرَّةَ، عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرٍ، عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ، قَالَ لَمَّا نَزَلَتْ هَذِهِ الآيَةُ ‏{‏ وَأَنْذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الأَقْرَبِينَ‏}‏ وَرَهْطَكَ مِنْهُمُ الْمُخْلَصِينَ ‏.‏ خَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم حَتَّى صَعِدَ الصَّفَا فَهَتَفَ ‏"‏ يَا صَبَاحَاهْ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَقَالُوا مَنْ هَذَا الَّذِي يَهْتِفُ قَالُوا مُحَمَّدٌ ‏.‏ فَاجْتَمَعُوا إِلَيْهِ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ يَا بَنِي فُلاَنٍ يَا بَنِي فُلاَنٍ يَا بَنِي فُلاَنٍ يَا بَنِي عَبْدِ مَنَافٍ يَا بَنِي عَبْدِ الْمُطَّلِبِ ‏"‏ فَاجْتَمَعُوا إِلَيْهِ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ أَرَأَيْتَكُمْ لَوْ أَخْبَرْتُكُمْ أَنَّ خَيْلاً تَخْرُجُ بِسَفْحِ هَذَا الْجَبَلِ أَكُنْتُمْ مُصَدِّقِيَّ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالُوا مَا جَرَّبْنَا عَلَيْكَ كَذِبًا ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ فَإِنِّي نَذِيرٌ لَكُمْ بَيْنَ يَدَىْ عَذَابٍ شَدِيدٍ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَقَالَ أَبُو لَهَبٍ تَبًّا لَكَ أَمَا جَمَعْتَنَا إِلاَّ لِهَذَا ثُمَّ قَامَ فَنَزَلَتْ هَذِهِ السُّورَةُ تَبَّتْ يَدَا أَبِي لَهَبٍ وَقَدْ تَبَّ ‏.‏ كَذَا قَرَأَ الأَعْمَشُ إِلَى آخِرِ السُّورَةِ ‏.‏

It is reported on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas that when this verse was revealed:

"And warn thy nearest kindred" (and thy group of selected people among them) the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) set off till he climbed Safa' and called loudly: Be on your guard! They said: Who is it calling aloud? They said: Muhammad. They gathered round him, and he said: O sons of so and so, O sons of so and so, O sons of 'Abd Manaf, O sons of 'Abd al-Muttalib, and they gathered around him. He (the Apostle) said: If I were to inform you that there were horsemen emerging out of the foot of this mountain, would you believe me? They said: We have not experienced any lie from you. He said: Well, I am a warner to you before a severe torment. He (the narrator) said that Abu Lahab then said: Destruction to you! Is it for this you have gathered us? He (the Holy Prophet) then stood up, and this verse was revealed:" Perish the hands of Abu Lahab, and he indeed perished" (cxi. 1). A'mash recited this to the end of the Sura.

Sahih Muslim 208a

حَدَّثَنَا يُوسُفُ بْنُ مُوسَى، حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو أُسَامَةَ، حَدَّثَنَا الأَعْمَشُ، حَدَّثَنَا عَمْرُو بْنُ مُرَّةَ، عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرٍ، عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ قَالَ لَمَّا نَزَلَتْ ‏{‏وَأَنْذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الأَقْرَبِينَ‏}‏ وَرَهْطَكَ مِنْهُمُ الْمُخْلَصِينَ، خَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم حَتَّى صَعِدَ الصَّفَا فَهَتَفَ ‏"‏ يَا صَبَاحَاهْ ‏"‏‏.‏ فَقَالُوا مَنْ هَذَا، فَاجْتَمَعُوا إِلَيْهِ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ أَرَأَيْتُمْ إِنْ أَخْبَرْتُكُمْ أَنَّ خَيْلاً تَخْرُجُ مِنْ سَفْحِ هَذَا الْجَبَلِ أَكُنْتُمْ مُصَدِّقِيَّ ‏"‏‏.‏ قَالُوا مَا جَرَّبْنَا عَلَيْكَ كَذِبًا‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ فَإِنِّي نَذِيرٌ لَكُمْ بَيْنَ يَدَىْ عَذَابٍ شَدِيدٍ ‏"‏‏.‏ قَالَ أَبُو لَهَبٍ تَبًّا لَكَ مَا جَمَعْتَنَا إِلاَّ لِهَذَا ثُمَّ قَامَ فَنَزَلَتْ ‏{‏تَبَّتْ يَدَا أَبِي لَهَبٍ وَتَبَّ‏}‏ وَقَدْ تَبَّ هَكَذَا قَرَأَهَا الأَعْمَشُ يَوْمَئِذٍ‏.‏

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

When the Verse:-- 'And warn your tribe of near kindred.' (26.214) was revealed. Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) went out, and when he had ascended As-Safa mountain, he shouted, "O Sabahah!" The people said, "Who is that?" "Then they gathered around him, whereupon he said, "Do you see? If I inform you that cavalrymen are proceeding up the side of this mountain, will you believe me?" They said, "We have never heard you telling a lie." Then he said, "I am a plain warner to you of a coming severe punishment." Abu Lahab said, "May you perish! You gathered us only for this reason? " Then Abu Lahab went away. So the "Surat:--ul--LAHAB" 'Perish the hands of Abu Lahab!' (111.1) was revealed.

Sahih Bukhari 4971

Once again, Ibn Abbas is quoted as reciting the verse in the exact same manner that the Imam does in the report in Tafsir al-Qummi. Here, the translators’ attempts to obfuscate the reading of Ibn Abbas are even more apparent, with the Muslim translation putting “and thy group of selected people among them” into parentheses to make the reader think it is not part of the original text and the Bukhari translation omitting this phrase entirely despite it appearing in the Arabic of the hadith: وَرَهْطَكَ مِنْهُمُ الْمُخْلَصِينَ. Note how both hadith here are clear that the verse was “revealed” this way according to Ibn Abbas, just as the Imam is said to have said in the report from Tafsir al-Qummi.

These are only two of many such examples in which the Imam in Shi’a hadith or a companion in Sunni hadith is reported to have recited a verse of Qur’an differently, ranging from something as minor as the different pronunciation of a word to the addition of a word or phrase. So reports in which a verse of Qur’an is recited differently are not an exclusive feature of one sect’s hadith corpus or another’s. Why, then, is it the case historically that some Shi’a scholars believed in tahrif of Qur’an whereas Sunni scholars did not? And how can we explain the discrepancy between these hadith and the Uthmanic rasm? There are several different potential explanations which I will briefly mention before elaborating and discussing each one in detail:

1. These may be examples of extracanonical qira’at preserving aspects of a harf that did not align with the Uthmanic rasm.

2. These may be cases of tafsir or ta’wil, meaning extra-Quranic commentary, that were revealed and recited to explain the verse.

3. It could be that the verses were originally revealed in this manner but these additions were later abrogated.

4. These can be explained as tahrif of the Qur’an, meaning that either intentionally or unintentionally, the compilers of the Qur’an omitted these words and phrases that were originally part of the divine revelation. This explanation was taken by some Shi’a scholars historically and no Sunni scholars, for reasons I will elaborate in the coming section.

As for the first explanation, it may be that these words were revealed as part of one of the seven ahruf but were not accommodated in the Uthmanic rasm and therefore were not represented in the canonical qira’at. This argument does not work from the standard Shi’i perspective that affirms that the Qur’an was revealed in only one harf, but those quick to decry Shi’a holding this position as endorsing tahrif should realize that if one says that this means divinely revealed words are absent from today’s qira’at, and that this is tahrif, that’s the majority Sunni position as well because of the way words and variations of the ahruf that did not match the Uthmanic rasm were not preserved in the canonical qira’at. Are the Shi’a committing kufr by denying the canonical qira’at variations as equally valid and coming from the divinely revealed ahruf? In this case, Ibn Mujahid, the Sunni exegete who canonized the seven qira’at in the first place, would be guilty of the same, for he outright says in his Kitab al-Sab'a fi l-qira’at:

قرأ ابن كثير وحده بضئآء بهمزتين

كذا قرأت على قنبل وهو غلط وروى البزى عن ابن فليح عن أصحابهما عن ابن كثير بضيآء بهمزة واحدة وهو الصواب

وكذلك قرأ الباقون

Ibn Kathir was the only one to read "bi dhi'aa'" with two hamzahs, and I also read the same from Qunbul, and it's a mistake. And al-Bazzi narrated from Ibn Fulayh, from their companions, from Ibn Kathir "bi dhi'ya'" with one hamzah, and it's the correct one, and it's also how others read.

Ibn Mujahid, Kitab al-Sab'a fi l-qira’at (Vol. 1, p. 495). Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif.

It may otherwise be that Ibn Abbas and Imam as-Sadiq believed that these additions were revealed alongside the Qur’an as a commentary or tafsir (exegesis). One may argue, how can it be the case that the Imam would recite tafsir as if it were Quran although it is distinct from Qur'an? Could this not cause confusion?

On the contrary, it is well-established that companions would recite tafsir as part of their qira’at. See the following excerpt from the article “The Origins of the Variant Readings of the Qur’an” by Yaqeen Institute:

Abū Bakr ibn al-Anbārī (d. 328 AH) wrote, “As for what is transmitted from the companions or the successors that they recited in this or that manner, that is only from the angle of explanation and clarification (innamā dhālika ʿalā jihatil bayān wa at-tafsīr), not that it was Qur’an being recited.” Abū Jaʿfar al-Naḥḥās (d. 338 AH) wrote, “It is related from Ibn ʿAbbās, ‘And the middle prayer (is) the ʿaṣr prayer.’ And this recitation is a tafsīr since it is an addition to what is in the muṣḥaf.” Furthermore, it is related that ʿAmr ibn Dīnār (d. 126 AH) heard ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr recite 3:104 with an additional phrase “and they seek Allah’s help on that which befalls them”; ʿAmr ibn Dīnār said, “And I do not know whether it was his qirāʾah or he was doing tafsīr.” Thus, sometimes those who heard companions recite on rare occasions with a variant reading may have been unsure whether they were reading a non-ʿUthmānic ḥarf or whether it was tafsīr.

There are many more such examples from scholars such as al-Nawawi and Tirmidhi, but I have listed merely a few for brevity. If the companions could add tafsir to their recitations before the Qur'an was even officially codified, why can the Imams not do the same when the Qur'an was standardized and it was even more apparent to everyone what was and wasn't part of the Qur'an? In the specific cases I brought forward previously, the Imam and Ibn Abbas’s specification that the verse was revealed this way could mean that the addition was in fact an extra-Qur’anic revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) as an elucidation of the text, and this is in fact entirely possible given the existence of hadith qudsi (hadith with sayings attributed to Allah) and that the tafsir that the Prophet (ﷺ) taught his companions came from divine revelation and not from his own whims. This is not dissimilar to what many popular English translations of the Qur’an do when they insert words in brackets that are not originally in the Arabic but make the meaning clearer to the English reader, such as Sahih International.

A third possibility is that these additions were part of the verse as it was revealed, but were later abrogated in recitation. This is also a potential explanation of the hadith:

عَلِيُّ بْنُ الْحَكَمِ عَنْ هِشَامِ بْنِ سَالِمٍ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ الله (عَلَيهِ السَّلام) قَالَ إِنَّ الْقُرْآنَ الَّذِي جَاءَ بِهِ جَبْرَئِيلُ (عَلَيهِ السَّلام) إِلَى مُحَمَّدٍ (صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وآلِه) سَبْعَةَ عَشَرَ أَلْفَ آيَةٍ.

‘Ali b. al-Hakam has narrated from Hisham b. Salim that Abu ‘Abdullah (as-Sadiq), peace be upon him, said, “Indeed, the Qur’an that Jibra’il (Gabriel) brought to Muhammad (ﷺ) had seventeen thousand verses.”

al-Kafi, Volume 2, Book of the Excellence of the Holy Qur’an, Chapter 14, Hadith #28

The hadith, if we take it as an authentic attribution despite its disputed authenticity, only says that the Qur’an was revealed as seventeen thousand verses, it does not say it was supposed to remain as seventeen thousand verses. This also aligns with authentic Sunni hadith such as the following:

حَدَّثَنِي سُوَيْدُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ، حَدَّثَنَا عَلِيُّ بْنُ مُسْهِرٍ، عَنْ دَاوُدَ، عَنْ أَبِي حَرْبِ بْنِ أَبِي، الأَسْوَدِ عَنْ أَبِيهِ، قَالَ بَعَثَ أَبُو مُوسَى الأَشْعَرِيُّ إِلَى قُرَّاءِ أَهْلِ الْبَصْرَةِ فَدَخَلَ عَلَيْهِ ثَلاَثُمِائَةِ رَجُلٍ قَدْ قَرَءُوا الْقُرْآنَ فَقَالَ أَنْتُمْ خِيَارُ أَهْلِ الْبَصْرَةِ وَقُرَّاؤُهُمْ فَاتْلُوهُ وَلاَ يَطُولَنَّ عَلَيْكُمُ الأَمَدُ فَتَقْسُوَ قُلُوبُكُمْ كَمَا قَسَتْ قُلُوبُ مَنْ كَانَ قَبْلَكُمْ وَإِنَّا كُنَّا نَقْرَأُ سُورَةً كُنَّا نُشَبِّهُهَا فِي الطُّولِ وَالشِّدَّةِ بِبَرَاءَةَ فَأُنْسِيتُهَا غَيْرَ أَنِّي قَدْ حَفِظْتُ مِنْهَا لَوْ كَانَ لاِبْنِ آدَمَ وَادِيَانِ مِنْ مَالٍ لاَبْتَغَى وَادِيًا ثَالِثًا وَلاَ يَمْلأُ جَوْفَ ابْنِ آدَمَ إِلاَّ التُّرَابُ ‏.‏ وَكُنَّا نَقْرَأُ سُورَةً كُنَّا نُشَبِّهُهَا بِإِحْدَى الْمُسَبِّحَاتِ فَأُنْسِيتُهَا غَيْرَ أَنِّي حَفِظْتُ مِنْهَا ‏{‏ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لاَ تَفْعَلُونَ‏}‏ فَتُكْتَبُ شَهَادَةً فِي أَعْنَاقِكُمْ فَتُسْأَلُونَ عَنْهَا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ‏.‏

Abu Harb b. Abu al-Aswad reported on the authority of his father that Abu Musa al-Ash'ari sent for the reciters of Basra. They came to him and they were three hundred in number. They recited the Qur'an and he said:

You are the best among the inhabitants of Basra, for you are the reciters among them. So continue to recite it. (But bear in mind) that your reciting for a long time may not harden your hearts as were hardened the hearts of those before you. We used to recite a surah which resembled in length and severity to (Surah) Bara'at. I have, however, forgotten it with the exception of this which I remember out of it:" If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust." And we used so recite a surah which resembled one of the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it, but remember (this much) out of it:" Oh people who believe, why do you say that which you do not practise" (lxi 2.) and" that is recorded in your necks as a witness (against you) and you would be asked about it on the Day of Resurrection" (xvii. 13).

Sahih Muslim 1050

It is also said in authentic Sunni hadith that Surah al-Ahzab was once as long as Surah al-Baqarah before most of it was abrogated. If entire verses and chapters could be abrogated, it is entirely possible that a word or phrase in a verse could also be abrogated. It is of relevance to this interpretation that the hadith only say that the verse was “revealed” this way, not that it ought to remain that way.

A fourth possibility, taken historically by some Shi’a scholars but no Sunni scholars, is that either intentionally or unintentionally, the compilers of the Qur’an omitted these words and phrases that were originally part of the divine revelation. This is the only position that can truly be considered as a belief in tahrif. Note that scholars such as al-Majlisi understood it to be tahrif because that’s the paradigm they were looking at these kind of Hadith with. They do not have to be interpreted that way, and many other major Shi’a scholars including those long before him like al-Saduq did not interpret it this way. Why is it the case that only Shi’a scholars held this view? As I have demonstrated, it is not because of a dearth of material in the Sunni collections that can be interpreted in support of tahrif. Rather, it is because the Shi’a believe in an infallible Imam with whom the Qur’an is protected no matter what, such that it would eventually be restored even if any attempts were made to corrupt it. Sunnis do not believe in an infallible Imam preserving the Qur’an, so if any portion of the Qur’an was lost or distorted, it would remain that way until the Day of Judgement, and this would contradict Allah’s promise to preserve the Qur’an. This promise can still be maintained from a Shi’i position that allows for tahrif, because Allah would be protecting the Qur’an with the Imam.

Now, is it justified for someone to takfir (excommunicate) someone who holds the position of tahrif? For what reason should they be takfired, when they do not deny the preservation of the Qur’an but hold it to be preserved differently. If it is the case that believing any change has occurred to the Qur’an that we have presently since it was revealed is kufr, each of the Sunni madhabs (schools of jurisprudence) should takfir one another, for each holds a different position on the status of the basmala, the opening line of every chapter of the Qur’an except Surah 9. See the following chart from Najam Haider’s The Origins of the Shi’a:

From a Shafi’i perspective, the Hanafis and Malikis are denying a verse of Qur’an as belonging to it, while from a Hanafi and Maliki perspective, the Shafi’is have added a verse of Qur’an to it that was not revealed as part of it. Hence each side should accuse the other of believing in tahrif and therefore being a kafir.

In conclusion, hadith that can be interpreted as supporting the belief in tahrif are not an exclusive feature of the Shi’a hadith corpus; in fact, many of the same differences between the Imam’s recitation in some hadith and the Uthmanic mushaf are found in the recitations attributed to companions in authentic Sunni hadith. These could be cases of reciting a different harf that does not align with the Uthmanic rasm and so is not represented in one of the canonical qira’at, or it could be that the Imam and companions were reciting divinely revealed tafsir, or it could be that this was how the verse was revealed but part of it was later abrogated. It may even be the case that all of these are true depending on the specific narration. For those with a paradigm that allows for tahrif, it is also possible that these could be examples of it. This paradigm is only possible within Shi’ism because of its belief in an infallible Imam with whom the Qur’an is preserved, both in its form and its meanings, and it does not entail kufr because it does not deny the preservation of the Qur’an.


Further reading: