Orality, Literacy and the ‘Seven Aḥruf’ Ḥadīth

Journal of Islamic Studies, Volume 23, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 1–49,
Published: 15 November 2011


The well known ḥadīth that the Qurʾān was revealed according to seven aḥruf (ʿalā sabʿati aḥruf) indicates that a certain amount of variation in the text of the Qurʾān was considered legitimate, indeed normal, in the earliest days of Islam. The dominant view among traditional scholars is that this initial allowance was then reduced by the decision of the Caliph ʿUthmān, with the agreement of the Companions, to unify the community on one textual skeleton (rasm), albeit allowing for various ‘readings’ (qirāʾāt), such as those of the Seven, the Ten, etc., within the confines of this rasm.


In this article, we consider the various traditional interpretations of the ‘seven aḥruf’ ḥadīth, alongside the numerous references to non-standard variant readings in the ḥadīthtafsīr and qirāʾāt literature, to gain a clearer idea of the nature of this textual variation both before and after ʿUthmān’s decision. At the same time, we aim to apply the insights gained from orality studies (particularly work done on the Homeric tradition) to show how the picture outlined in the traditional sources suggests an oral recitation (qurʾān) with an initial degree of multiformity (in this instance, ‘seven aḥruf’), such as is characteristic of oral texts, which is then presented in a written version (known as al-rasm al-ʿUthmānī, or al-maṣāḥif al-ʿUthmāniyya) which has a much greater degree of uniformity, such as is characteristic of written texts, although a degree of multiformity is nevertheless maintained (the Seven/Ten Readings, etc.). Finally, we consider the course of recent Euro-American scholarship on the Qurʾān in the light of these observations.

Link collected :  https://doi.org/10.1093/jis/etr092