Lecture 11 in the Ramadaan series:
EXPLORING THE SHIA APPROACH TO THE QURAN
Sunday 27 May 2018 (11 Ramadaan 1439)
at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town delivered by Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider.
In this discussion, we will delve deeper into understanding the Shia approach to the different Qira’ah. We have all heard about the 7 modes of Qira’ah and in this discussion we will learn what this really means.
First of all, as a prelude and as a preface of the discussion, let us once again deeply analyze the word Qira’ah, because this word has a different meaning in our contemporary understanding. When we think of Qira’ah, our mind naturally drifts to the beautiful, melodious rendition of the Holy Quran in different styles. This is not the Qira’ah we are referring to in our discussion by the way.
As we have mentioned numerous times in the earlier lectures, the word Qira’ah means reading/reciting. Then, the term Qira’ah refers to the style of reading ie. the way you read. We covered this quite extensively in the discussions leading up to this point. The style of reading has a great effect on our understanding as well as on our souls spiritually.
When we talk about the style of reading in this context, we are referring to how the translation will differ with different styles and how this will have a direct impact on our understanding, which naturally has far-reaching implications too.
Therefore, Qira’ah is more close to Tafseer than just the style of reading. Qira’ah means Tafseer, because you explain and interpret the message conveyed through the way in which you read. As a result, the term Tafseer came about much later. We will explore this discussion of the science of Tafseer further in the subsequent nights.
Originally, the word Qari was used for Tafseer as well.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud is a Qari, which means he is a commentator (Mufassir) of the Holy Quran. The same applies to Ubay ibn Ka’b. They do not necessarily have the Abdul Basit style of recitation but they recite properly, interpret and explain. Qira’ah is more close to Tafseer than simply a style of reading. Qurrah are more close to early commentators than reciters. This is an important point to establish upfront.
HISTORY OF DIFFERENCES IN QIRA’AH
As mentioned, these different reading styles have a great effect in the meaning and understanding of the Quran. Many people read the Quran differently, and this issue became very controversial. There is a whole history on how this scenario developed and played itself out, which we will discuss step by step.
1. First we will discuss differences in Qira’ah during the era of revelation ie. during the life of Rasulullah (SAWA);
2. Then we will discuss differences in Qira’ah during the first generations of companions (Sahabah);
3. From there, we will discuss differences in Qira’ah during the period after unification of the different versions of the Quran during the era of the third Caliph, Uthmaan, who produced a standardized Quran;
4. The fourth discussion will be about how differences in Qira’ah continued in the second century after the introduction of vowels, inflections, and dots, especially since this was meant to eliminate the confusion. The previous lecture is an important pre-read on this topic.
5. Then, later down the line we see that Qira’ah is confined to the 7 styles in the fourth century.
6. This will culminate in us unpacking a very interesting discussion about the Sunni versus Shia approach to the understanding of the 7 Qira’ah of Quran.
You can see that this 6 step journey of understanding Qira’ah is a very important one.
1. QIRA’AH DURING THE ERA OF REVELATION TO PROPHET MUHAMMAD (SAWA)
During this stage, we have repeatedly said that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) directly taught his Sahaba (companions) how to read the Holy Quran. He would read, and they would repeat. A big number of companions had memorized the full Quran (Hafiz) and were very good reciters.
The books of Quranic sciences include a long list of those Sahaba (companions) who were well-known Qurrah. The most prominent amongst them were:
a. Ali ibn Abi Talib
b. Uthman ibn Affaan
c. Ubay ibn Ka’ab
d. Abdullah ibn Masud
e. Zaid ibn Thabit
f. Abu Musa Asha’ari
g. Abu Darda’a
A question that arises on this point is whether there was any difference in Qira’ah during the time of Rasulullah (SAWA)? Did the disagreements on how to read the Holy Quran already start from this point, during the lifetime of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA)? This is a very serious question to keep in mind throughout this discussion as the answer will be revealed at the end.
It is apparently not possible for there to be differences in recitation styles if Rasulullah (SAWA) directly was the teacher, and making sure that they read the Quran properly, the way that it is supposed to be read.
2. QIRA’AH DURING THE ERA OF THE SAHABA (COMPANIONS)
This is the period after Rasulullah (SAWA) had departed from this world and different Sahaba are reading the Quran on their own. As we discussed in previous lectures, differences certainly started. Everybody agrees on this, which led to the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, trying to make one official version of the Holy Quran. However, even after he established this, there were still other versions floating around in the Islamic State, and his version was not universally followed.
Therefore we find the version of Ubay ibn Ka’ab and the version of Abdullah ibn Masud. A very interesting point to note here is that at this stage, we find that differences of Qira’ah were recognized by the compilers of that version. This means that the Qira’ah of Ubay ibn Ka’ab and the Qira’ah of Abdullah ibn Masud (based on their versions) were recognized, together with the other versions.
Another important point to note is that the different versions became popular only in their territories of influence. For example, ibn Masud was influential in Kufa, so that is where his version was common. Similarly, people in Basra followed the popular version in that part of the Islamic State.
Despite the best efforts of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, unfortunately there are still too many different styles of reading the Quran, which presented multiple problems since nobody knew which style was correct.
Until the time of the third Caliph, Uthmaan, we see how this problem reaching its peak due to the vast expansion of the Islamic empire. This prompted an intervention by the third Caliph to produce a standard, official version of the Quran, after Huzaifa ibn Yaman protested his concerns quite vociferously.
3. QIRA’AH DURING THE ERA OF THE THIRD CALIPH
Now, interesting and quite important to note that during the era of the third Caliph, Uthmaan, we see that he strived for the unification of the style of reading as well. This is why he dispatched a Qari to each of the major hubs in the Islamic state, together with the official Quran which he established in book form.
The following are the list of official Qaris who went to the different major hubs in the Islamic state with the official Uthmaani version of the Quran:
• Abdullah ibn Saib Makhzoumi was sent to Mecca
• Abu Abdurehman Sullami went to Kufah
• Amir ibn Abd Qais went to Basrah
• Mugairah ibn Shahab Makhzoumi went to Syria
• Zaid ibn Thabit stayed in Madinah
Their Qira’ah was the official Qira’ah, since they were the official Qaris. After this era of Uthmaan, we do not find other versions of the compilation being presented. However, Qira’ah was not standardized. It continued to develop diversions.
In this era of Uthmaan, we now find that copies of the standard Quran are all over the show, but Qira’ah is still different. People of Kufa are reading the Quran different to the people of Basrah, and similarly the people of Mecca read it different to the people of Syria, and so on…
Now, differences of Qira’ah were not recognized by Qari. Rather, it was recognized by city. Qira’ah of Kufa, Basrah, Syria, etc. all developed their own identity. So, the original problem of there being multiple versions of recitation did not go away. Instead, it now became worse with the vast expansion of the Islamic empire.
Why did this occur if the third Caliph did send a Qari with the copy of the Quran, in order to avoid this confusion? The reason is because the writing of the Quran itself was not sufficient to control the differences. There was vulnerability for the Quran to be read differently, in that same written version of the standard Quran, especially since there were no vowels, inflections or dots.
This was the start of the big problem!
4. BIG PROBLEMS IN QIRA’AH DURING THE SECOND CENTURY
We now reach the second half of the first century, and by this time, all the main Qurrah from the first generation of Islam had passed away. Now, the extent of differences in recitation became even wider. Everyone has their own style, and gradually the differences became greater, with far-reaching implications at the start of the second century. This is what transpired in the 50 year period leading into the start of the second century, where the situation was nearly out of control.
The background of the differences were also now not the same as explained earlier. Indeed, the fact that there were no vowels, inflections, and dots did create all the many different styles of recitation. But gradually this was resolved, the dots came…
The root cause of the major problem was personal Ijtihad!
As an example, many times there was an explanation in the versions of the Quran, and this became a point of argument. Some said that this is an explanation and therefore not part of the Quran, while others differed strongly, whereby they argued that based on their Ijtihad it is indeed part of the Quran.
Another example is that certain words were replaced with equivalent words (synonyms). This was typical of their personal Ijtihad, where it mushroomed into a very serious issue. It was without doubt a very challenging time.
To rescue this situation, we discussed in the previous lecture that Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali came and introduced vowels, inflections and dots, and then his 2 students and Khalil ibn Farahidi came to eliminate all this ambiguity.
Amazingly, the differences of reading and recitation (Qira’ah) continued even after solving the problem of vowels, inflections and dots in the second century after Hijra. What happened was that people read the Quran the way they heard from their predecessors. However, coupled with the expansion of the Islamic empire, academic seminaries were established and all of a sudden things are becoming structured and institutionalised.
The result of this was that there were big experts in Arabic grammar who through their own perspective into the pot! They were naturally pushing for a grammatically correct recitation, according to their understanding, while the Qaris would say that they have nothing to do with this academic debate, but defended their style of recitation based on how their ancestors use to read the Quran.
This was the big debate and differences increased.
Another very interesting development in this second century is that Qira’ah itself became a science. Books are being written and people started teaching Qira’ah. Again, we see Ijtihad come to the fore, with different opinions emanating from the academic research. This healthy debate was good in a sense, but produced a serious challenge.
Let us reflect on where this problem of no uniformity in recitation started. Firstly, there were multiple versions of the Holy Quran after the demise of Rasulullah (SAWA). Then came the issue of different Arab accents from different tribes, with each one claiming that they are reading the Quran correctly. Beyond this, we see big ideological discussions ensuing in the Islamic capital on various aspects of Islamic doctrine
These theological positions also influenced on the style of reading of the Quran, because it supports my view if you read in a certain way, and support my opponents view if you read in another way. So I will read in the manner which supports me! This is exactly what the Mu’tazilites did!
This problem of having our own opinion which we impose on Islam is an evergreen problem which persists right until today! We first make up our own minds and then try and force fit a verse of the Quran or Hadith to somehow justify ourselves! In fact, we should be humble before the Quran before developing an opinion, but most of the time it is the opposite where we first establish our opinion and then try to justify it with the Quran.
The same process was there which resulted in difference of Qira’ah.
People also use to look for something creative or uncommon to introduce as their “unique” style, in order to score praises from the listeners, and the inventor of this new style would win adulation!
There were Qurrah who travelled thousands of kilometres to find different ways of pronouncing Arabic terms and they would then introduce them in the Qira’ah of the Holy Quran. As a result, they use to read it differently.
5. 7 STYLES OF QIRA’AH ARE ESTABLISHED
Matters went out of control, to the extent where in the fourth century there were too many Qurrah ie. far too many different styles, to the point where the Quran was lost between all these different styles of Qira’ah and interpretations.
It is on this point where there was an extraordinary powerful Qari who also enjoyed the support from the Islamic state. His name was Sh Abubakr Ahmad ibn Musa ibn Mujahid and he took it upon itself to get rid of all these multiple variations.
This was the same like we saw take place in Fiqh where there was a scholar in every corner issuing Fatwa (Islamic decree). This problem in Fiqh also became out of control and then the Islamic state issued an official pronouncement that only 4 Madhhab are allowed.
This exact same issue occurred in Qira’ah in the late third century/early fourth century after Hijra. Ibn Mujahid very firmly wrote a book to counter these extremely strange types of Qira’ah and how it has now gone out of control. He then declared that only 7 styles of Qira’ah will be accepted, nothing more.
He was able to get his position endorsed, since he was a very strong scholar of Qira’ah and also importantly enjoyed the support from the Islamic state. This position of authority which he held forced everyone else to surrender to him.
He selected 7 of the best Qaris from different cities and he announced their Qira’ah as official. They were:
• Mecca – Abdullah ibn Kathir
• Medinah – Naf’e ibn Abdurahman
• Syria – Abdullah ibn Amir
• Basrah – Abu Amr ibn Ala’a
• Kufa – Hamza ibn Habib, Asim ibn Abi Najwad, Ali ibn Hamza Kasai
So he chose 3 people from Kufa. This again highlights the significant contribution of Iraq to Islamic civilization.
His criteria for selection of these 7 Qaris were that their Qira’ah is:
1. In conformity with the Uthmaani version of the Quran; and
2. Connected via an unbroken chain of Qira’ah to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA)
These were very fair criteria in a sense. Very interesting that we were speaking earlier about the Arabic language and the eloquence of Arabs, but amazingly there are only 2 Arabs from these 7 Qurrah! Another interesting insight is that most of these 7 are also followers of Ahlul Bait (a.s)!
Naturally, ibn Mujahid also faced stiff opposition but he was unwavering in his position, since he was indeed THEE authority on Qira’ah. This is a very crucial stage in the history of Qira’ah, and the role of ibn Mujahid was indeed a crucial, “life-saving” one, as this was unification in the process of Qira’ah by 7 Qaris.
All other styles of Qira’ah were gradually abandoned after he established these 7 official styles of Qira’ah as the only acceptable modes.
What was the opinion of Sunni scholars and authority to the position on Qira’ah established here by ibn Mujahid? Also, what was the Shia opinion to this? This is a very important and interesting discussion to look forward to in the next lecture!
To be continued………
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