Understanding Seven “Ahruf”
a section from Shaykh Taqi Usmani’s book ‘Uloom al-Qur’an
DISCLAIMER! It must be noted, it is NOT the original work of the respected Shaykh, nor has the translation been reviewed by the him. His book is in Urdu and is available HERE. The translation titled “An Approach to Quranic Sciences” published by Darul Ishat has been used with some changes. Headings have been added. References have been revised using the latest available editions of the works cited, and notes in the footnotes are by the publisher here. Any mistake in the translation, references or notes may be attributed only to the publisher of this post.
3. Most Acceptable Explanation of Seven “Ahruf”
In our view the best explanation and interpretation of Seven “Ahruf” of the Qur’an is that it means “Variation on the Recital”. The seven “ahruf” refer to variations in the recitals of the Qur’an of seven kinds. Hence although the recitals are more than seven yet the variations found in them are of seven kinds (We will explain that later)
To the best of our knowledge this view was first propounded by Malik. The renowned commentator the Qur’an, Nizamuddin Qumi al-Nishapuri has written in his Tafsir Ghar’aib ul-Qur’an that Malik believed that the seven “ahruf” denoted the following seven variations in the recital of the Qur’an:
1) Variation in numbers, so that one word is read as singular in one recital and plural in another recital, for example وَتَمَّتْ كَلِمَةُ رَبِّكَ and كلمات ربك (6:116)
2) Variation in gender, that a masculine word in one recital becomes feminine in the other, for example لايُقْبَلُ becomes لاتقبل
3) Variations in placement of dialectical marks, the kasrah and fathah and changed e.g. هَلْ مِنْ خالِقٍ غَيْرُ اللَّهِ becomes غَيْرِ اللَّهِ
4) Variation in verb, for example يَعْرِشُونَ becomes يُعَرِّشُوْنَ
5) Variation in syntax, for example لكِنَّ الشَّياطِينَ becomes لكِنِ الشَّياطِينَ
6) Variations caused by transposition, for example, تَعْلَمُونَ becomes يَعْلَمُونَ and نُنْشِزُها becomes نَنْشُرُها
7) Variation of pronouncement or accent, variations in tafkhim, tarqiq, imalah, madd, qasr,izhar, idgham rendering sound heavy, soft, inclining it, prolonging, shortening, expressing clearly and assimilating.
Further, the same view has been adopted by Ibn Qatayba, Abul Fadl al-Razi, Qadi Abu Bakr bin al-Tayyib al-Baqillani and Ibn al-Jazari. Ibn al-Jazari, the renowned scholar of recitals of the Qur’an, has stated in connection with this Hadith,
I remained in doubt about this tradition and pondered over it for more than thirty years till Allah, the Almighty, unveiled to me its –if Allah so wills- correct explanation.
All these scholars are in agreement that by seven “ahruf” in this Hadith is meant the seven kinds of the variation in recital, but there is some difference in the formulation of those variations because each of them has arranged them independently. Of these the one whose enlistment is most concise, well arranged and firmly established is Abul Fadl al-Razi. According to him, variation in recitals of the Qur’an is of seven kinds:
1) Variation in nouns: This includes difference in number and gender e.g. وَتَمَّتْ كَلِمَةُ رَبِّكَ , in one recital (qira’t) has been read as وَتَمَّتْ كلمات رَبِّكَ (6:115)
2) Variation in verbs: The same verb is read in the past, present or future tense, or as an imperative, for example باعد بَين أسفارنا has also been read as بعد بَين أسفارنا (34:19)
3) Variations in the position of dialectical marks: There is variation in i’rab, kasrah, fatha, dhamma. Its example is وَلَا يُضَارَّ كَاتِبٌ and وَلَا يُضَارُّ كَاتِبٌ (2:282) and ذُو الْعَرْشِ الْمَجِيدُ and ذُو الْعَرْشِ الْمَجِيدِ (85:15)
4) Variations caused by Omissions and Additions: There is an extra word in a reading which is not found in another. For example وَمَا خَلَقَ الذَّكَرَ وَالْأُنْثَى (92:3) becomes وَالذَّكَرِ وَالْأُنْثَى  in another recital. In this the word وَمَا خَلَقَ is omitted. In the same way in one recital (qira’t) it is تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ and in another it is تَجْرِي تَحْتَهَا الْأَنْهَارُ (9:100)
5) Variation of placement of words” A word precedes in a reading while it follows in another e.g. وَجَاءَتْ سَكْرَةُ الْمَوْتِ بِالْحَقِّ becomes وَجَاءَتْ سَكْرَةُ الْحَقِّ بِالْمَوْتِ (50:19)
6) Variations caused by replacement of words: There is a word in one reading but quite another word in the other reading e.g. نُنْشِزُها (2:259) becomes نَنْشُرُها and فَتَبَيَّنُوا (4:94, 49:6) becomes فَتَثَبَّتُوْا and طَلْحٍ (56:29) becomes طَلْعٍ
7) Variation of Accent: It rests round changes in tafkhim, tarqiq, imalaha, qasr, madd, hamz, izhar and idgham (e.g. Musa read with imalah becomes Musay)
The scheme of Abu Fadl Razi appears more comprehensive as compared to that of Ibn al-Jazari, Ibn Qutaybah and Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-Tayyib [al-Baqilani] in that no variation has been left out in this. Contrary to this, the schemes of other three scholars do not contain the last mentioned variation (of accent). In Malik’s scheme we do find mention of variations of accent, but we do not find adequate clarification, for example, their addition or omission, prefixing or suffixing, and replacement of words. Abul Fadl’s description takes account of all these differences. Ibn al-Jazari who spent more than thirty years pondering over the seven “ahruf” understood them as seven forms of variation, has also quoted this scheme with great emphasis and no objection has been raised by him. Rather, taking his view as a whole it appears that he prefers Abul Fadl’s scheme to his own. Ibn Hajr has also preferred this scheme, because he has reproduced the views of Ibn Qutaybah and remarked, “This is a good interpretation.” Then he has described the seven kinds of variations of Abul Fadl and remarked;
I think that by adopting Ibn Qutaybah’s verdict Abul Fadl has further polished it.
In the recent times, Abdul ‘Azim Zurqani has also adopted the same view and has given arguments in its support.
Even though there is difference in details of the kinds, the scholars, Malik, Ibn Qutaybah, Abul Fadl Razi, Ibn al-Jazari and Qadi al-Baqillani agree that the seven “Ahruf” in the Hadith refer to seven kinds of variation in recital.
In my humble opinion this is the best explanation of the seven “ahruf.” The intention of the hadith also appears that the words of the Qur’an may be read in different ways, and these different ways are seven in number. Since there is no specification of these seven variations in any Hadith it cannot be said with certainty about any scheme that it confirms to the intention of the Hadith, but apparently the scheme of Abul Fadl Razi is more correct because it is applicable to the various forms of recitals current to-date.
3.1.Reasons for preference
Of the several explanations of the seven “ahruf” in Hadith, commentaries and books on the sciences of the Qur’an that we have come across, we prefer the opinion that the phrase refers to seven kinds of variation in the recital of the Qur’an. The reasons for our conviction are;
1) According to this view, we do not have to consider “Ahruf” and recitals (qir’aat) as two separate things. A common problem in the views of Ibn Jarir and al-Tahawi is that they ask us to accept that two kinds of differences existed in recital of the Qur’an; one pertaining to “ahruf” and the other to recital and that the former was abrogated but the later persists. But we do not find even a weak tradition in the vast collection of Hadiths to show that “ahruf” and “qira’at” are two separate things. The Hadiths mention only variation in “ahruf” and it is for this alone the word “qira’at” (recital) is extensively used. If the recital were something different from these there must have been some indication in the traditions.
2) Why is it that the narrations reaching the degree of tawatur may be found pertaining to variations in “ahruf”, but there is no mention of distinguishable variation in recital (qira’at) in even a single report? How can it be said, just on the basis of conjecture that apart from the variations of “ahruf” there was yet another type of variation in the words of the Qur’an?
3) In the foregoing proposition this difficulty is totally resolved because it uses the term “ahruf” and recitals (qira’at) in the same meaning.
4) If we accept the view of Ibn Jarir then we have to assume that six out of the seven rendering have been abrogated or have become obsolete and only the Quraysh version continues. The present recitals are variations of that. The difficulties in accepting this view shall be discussion in detail subsequently. In the preferred view, however, there are no such defects because, according to it, all the seven “ahruf” remain safe and existent even today.
5) According to the preferred view the meaning of the Seven “Ahruf” come out true without any stretching while we have to resort to conjectures in the meanings of “ahruf” or in that of “seven” in other propositions.
6) Of the views of all the scholars that have come before us, the person who is most renowned and in the closest proximity to the prophetic era is Malik, and he according to al-Nishapuri shares the same view.
7) Ibn Qutayba and Ibn al-Jazari are both well recognized authorities on the subject of recitals (qira’at), and both of them uphold the same view. It has already been mentioned that the later arrived at this conclusion after giving it due thought and consideration for thirty years.
3.2.Objections and replies
Let us now see what objections may be raised on this view or have been actually raised.
3.2.1 Grammatical classification was not existent in the Prophet’s time
The first objection raised against this view is that all the variations described in its name depend on grammatical classification, but at the time when Prophet (saaw) pronounced this Hadith, such grammatical classifications and phrases were not known, and most people did not even know reading and writing. Against this backdrop it is difficult to cite these variations as Seven “Ahruf.”
Ibn Hajr has replied to this objection in the following words;
This does not necessarily entail weakness in Ibn Qutaybah’s view, because it is possible that the said reliance may have occurred by chance and became known through reasoning for induction, and the prudence therein is not hidden.
In our humble comprehension, it is true that these grammatical terms were not in use during the Prophetic era, and perhaps this explains the reason why the Prophet did not expound the meaning of “Seven Ahruf.” But this is obvious that the basis did exist even at that time although they not have given the form of grammatical terms. One should not wonder if the Prophet himself had recognized the underlying ideas and divided the variations into seven points. If the details of the seven kinds of variations were described at that time it might have been beyond general comprehension. Therefore, instead of going into details the Prophet (saaw) explained that the types for variations were seven. Later on these terms came into use; the learned scholars described the causes of variations in relevant words and phrases. As we have already said, it is difficult to dogmatically term any one proposition as the one that confirms to the intentions of the Prophet. However, when different people conclude that kinds for variation are seven it becomes nearly certain that Prophet (saaw) also meant seven kinds of variation, though he himself did not give their details later established by the scholars, particularly when there is no other reasonable explanation.
3.2.2 What facility do the “Seven Ahruf” create?
The second objection to this view can be that that since the Qur’an was revealed on “Seven Ahruf” to make its recital easy for the people this would hold true with the view of Ibn Jarir. There were people belonging to different tribes in Arabia and it was difficult for one tribe to read according to the dialect of the other. But according to Malik, Razi and Ibn al-Jazari all Seven “Ahruf” belonged to the Quraysh dialect and it remains ambiguous as to why the variations of recitals were allowed to continue when the Qur’an was meant to be revealed in only one dialect?
This objection is based on the idea that the Prophet (saaw) asked for the facility of reciting the Qur’an on Seven “Ahruf” in view of the variations in the dialects of various tribes and it was for this reason that Ibn Jarir termed the Seven “Ahruf” as “Seven Dialects of Arabia.” But this assumption is not supported by any Hadith. On the other hand, in one of his narrations the Prophet has clearly elucidated as to what was in his mind while seeking the facility of Seven “Ahruf.” Al-Tirmidhi has quoted Ubayy bin K’ab through an authentic chain of narrators.
The Holy Prophet met Gabriel near the rocks of Marwah. He said to Gabriel, “I have been sent to an unlettered nation which comprises the aged nearing their graves, elderly women and also the children.” Gabriel said, “Ask them to recite the Qur’an on ‘Seven Ahruf’”.
In another narration reported by al-Tirmidhi again, the Prophet (saaw) is reported to have said to Gabriel;
I have been sent to an unlettered nation wherein there are elderly women, old men and also (young) boys and girls and the people who have never read a book.
The words of this Hadith explain very clearly that the Prophet (saaw) had in view that he was sent to an unlettered and illiterate people who included different age groups and types. If only one way of recital was fixed it could have created problems for them. On the contrary, if several alternatives were available it would become possible that a person not being able to recite with one method may utter the same words in a different style. This will enable them to perform their salah correctly. Often it happens that aged men or elderly women or illiterate person get used to a word in particular accent or phonation, and for them even a minor variation of a dialectical mark may be a difficulty. That is why the Prophet (saaw) sought this facility, for example, if a person cannot easily express in active voice he can recite (the same) in passive voice according to other recital, or if somebody is unable to recite the singular easily he may read it as plural, if somebody finds one accent difficult he may use the other accent available. In this way the reader will have seven options available to him.
You might have noted that in this Hadith the Prophet (saaw) while seeking the facility of Seven “Ahruf” did not request it to facilitate different tribes but he had age groups and illiteracy in mind, but contrary to this he expressed his concern on differences in their ages and their being illiterate. This clearly proves that the basic reason of giving the facility of Seven “Ahruf” was not the dialectical differences of the various tribes but it was illiteracy of the people in general, so that they could benefit from it.
3.2.3 The explanation is based on conjecture
The third objection could be that the seven variations of the recital of Qur’an, are in any case conjectural and hypothetical. This can be said of the opinions of all of them including Malik, Abul Fadl Razi, Ibn Qutaybah, Ibn al-Jazari or Qadi Ibn al-Tayyib. That is why each of them has described the details of the seven causes of variations differently. How then can we say about any of them that they conformed to the Prophet’s (saaw) saying?
The answer to this objection is that we do not find an explicit clarification of Seven “Ahruf” in any Hadith or narrations of the Companions. Hence, the inference has been drawn from a collective study of all narrations available. Thus, as an accepted thing this view seems to be nearer to reality than others because no basic objection arises out of this. Judging from this standard, we feel almost certain that the phrase Seven “Ahruf” in this tradition means the seven kinds of variation in recital of the Qur’an. As for specifying and determining these forms, we have already stated that there is no other way of doing it except reasoning through induction. The one induced by Abu Fadl al-Razi appears to us the most comprehensive but we cannot say with certainty that if this was what the Prophet meant to say, nevertheless this does not put to question the underlying fact that by Seven “Ahruf” Prophet (saaw) meant the seven kinds of variation in recital. We neither have the means to gain the cognizance of its details, nor is it necessary.
3.2.4 No consideration of the meaning
The fourth objection to this view may be raised that it takes into consideration only the words and differences in the variations in their expressions. Their meanings have not been dealt with, even though there is a narration according to which Seven “Ahruf” mean “Seven kinds of meanings.” Al-Tahawi has quoted ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud as saying that the Prophet (saaw) said;
Formerly the Book used to be revealed in one chapter on one “harf” and the Quran has been revealed in seven chapters on Seven “ahruf”. (The seven “ahruf” are) zajir (that which restricts), amir (that which commands), halal (permissible), haram (Prohibited), muhkam (Established), mutashabeh (exact meanings not known) and amthal (Examples).
It is on this evidence that certain scholars have attributed the Seven Ahruf to seven kinds of meanings.
But the above tradition is based on weak precedent. Al-Tahawi has stated about this tradition that it is reported by Abu Salamah as a narration from ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud, but Abu Salamah never met ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud.
Apart from this, explaining all such views attributed to earlier scholars, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari says that these expressions were not made as an interpretation of the Hadith on Seven “Ahruf” but they meant to say that the Quran consisted of this type of subjects.
As for those who have commented on the Hadith itself, their opinion is patently wrong. Anyone with a rudiment of understanding will know on casting a superficial glance on the other Hadiths that various words do not amount to change in meanings and subjects. They are only variations of words in the recital. That is why none of the scholars on this subject accept this interpretation, rather they have rebutted it.
 Al-Nishapuri, Gharaib al-Quran, 1/24
 Al-Suyuti, al-Ittiqan., 1/165
 Ibid., 1/166
 Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, 1/45
 Al-Suyuti, op. cit. 1/166
 Ibn al-Jazri, An-Nashr fil Qira’at al-‘Ashr., 1/26
 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari., 9/29
 In Uthman’s Masahif it is written as كلمت ربك. .See Muhammad ibn Nizam al-Din al-Naiti al-Arakani, Nathar al-Marjan fi Rasm Nazm al-Quran, Usman Press, Hyderabad (Deccan) n.d. vol. 2 p.226
 Uthmani Masahif put it as بعد i.e. without ‘alif’ (See Nathar al-Marjan vol.5 p.467) It is so because even without putting ‘alif’ it can be recited that way but with ‘alif’ the recital without it would not be considered. Therefore, writing it with ‘alif’ would have undermined the very purpose for which Uthman undertook the task.
 Such differences are easily considered within the skeleton of the words. The Masahif of Uthman had no dialectical marks so there was no question any such proven recital being left out.
 The recital وَالذَّكَرِ وَالْأُنْثَى was abrogated towards the end of Prophet’s life. Therefore it is not preserved in any of the Masahif. (See Fath al-Bari vol.8 p.707)
 These are both mutawatir qira’at (recitals) and present a unique and interesting case. Among the masahif of Uthman, it is Mushaf of Makkah that puts this ayah as تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَار while all the other masahif put it as تَجْرِي تَحْتَهَا الْأَنْهَارُ and the later one is actually the more famous recital, though both are equally valid. The meaning is exactly the same either way.
This strikes at the very roots of the orientalists’ and missionary propaganda that some of the recitals were left out. Nothing of that sort happened. We can see even when effort was being made to unite the whole community on standard mushaf arrangement was made to take care of the recitals that could not be accommodated in one dictation. Had the other so-called lost recitals been valid, they would have been preserved too.
 The recital وَجَاءَتْ سَكْرَةُ الْحَقِّ بِالْمَوْتِ is not valid (anymore) and is not preserved in any Mushaf. It is reported this way from Abu Bakr and Ibn Mas’ud, however some scholars contend it was so reported only by the way of commentary (See, I’rab al-Qur’an 4/150 of Ibn Nahaas) Some say it was actually abrogated (See Manahil al-‘Irfan 1/171) The above assertion is proven by the fact that Abu Bakr (RA) is himself reported to have recited the verse the way it is preserved in the Masahif to this day, (See Tafsir al-Tabari, vol.22 p.346) Similarly in the well known qira’at that have come down to us through Ibn Mas’ud not one keeps it as سَكْرَةُ الْحَقِّ بِالْمَوْتِ. All Masahif put this verse as سَكْرَةُ الْمَوْتِ بِالْحَقِّ.
This kind of variation i.e. variation in placement of words however still exists in the Masahif. It is in 9:111. According to the one recital it is فَيَقْتُلُونَ وَيُقْتَلُونَ (they kill and are killed), while in another recital it is فَيُقْتَلُونَ وَيَقْتُلُون (they get killed and they kill), See Manahil al-‘Irfan 1/170. As the skeleton of the words is same for both these recitals they were easily accommodated as the text had no dots or dialectical marks.
 As the text in Uthman’s masahif had no dots, both these recitals were preserved in it because it is all about placement of dots though it leads to change in words. The words nevertheless have more or less same meaning.
 Same as explained in n.33 above
 The recital with the word طَلْعٍ was abrogated. A report involving Ali (RA) proves this. See Tafsir al-Tabari vol.23 p.111 (Also see, Al-Qira’at fi Nazr al-Mustashriqin wal Mulhidin, pp.191-192) As it was abrogated the text in the Uthmani Masahif had no consideration of this (Nathar al-Marjan vol.7 p.171)
 Such variations are easily accommodated in one skeleton of the text
 Ibn al-Jazri, op. cit., 1/27-28
 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, op. cit., 9/29
 Al-Zurqani, Manahil al-‘Irfan fi ‘Uloom al-Qur’an, 1/155-156
 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, op. cit., 9/29
 Cf. Ibn al-Jazri, op. cit. 1/20.
The author, Shaykh Taqi Usmani, has quoted it with these words from al-Nashr fil Qira’ar al-‘Ashr, where it is narrated with reference to Jami’ Tirmidhi, however verbatim it is not found in Jami’ Tirmidhi, though all the words are proved through various versions of the same report. See Sahih Ibn Hibban, Hadith 739. Classified as Sahih by Albani and Hasan by Shu’aib Arna’ut.
 Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 2944. Classified as Hasan Sahih by al-Tirmidhi and Albani.
 As is the case for Qur’an 34:23
 This permission is, however, restricted for choice between the sanctioned multiple readings, not that one can recite any verse as he wishes according to these principles.
 Al-Tahawi, Sharah Mushkil al-Athar., 8/115 Hadith 3102
There is some detail on this narration. Most scholars have found a problem with it due to a break between Ibn Mas’ud and the narrator after him. Albani has, however, authenticated it considering other chains. See Silsala Sahiha Hadith 587
Besides its authenticity its meaning also needs a careful consideration. It appears the narration does not define “ahruf” with the “zajir”, “amir” etc. rather the chapters (abwab) are defined this way.
Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani quoted Abu Shama as saying, “It is possible that this explanation is for the chapters (abwaab) and not “ahruf”. These are the seven chapters and kinds of subjects on which it (the Qur’an) has been revealed and it is not restricted to one of these subjects like other (revealed) books.”
Moreover, he supported the above mentioned idea referring to some versions of the narration giving “zajir” and “amir” with “an-nasb” i.e. in the accusative case/subjunctive mood. See, Mustadrak al-Hakim (Hadith 2031).
Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani further says that; “From what makes it clear that “zajir”, “amir” etc. are not the explanation of “ahruf” is the statement of Ibn Shihab [al-Zuhri ] given in Sahih Muslim [Hadith 819]; ‘It has reached me that these seven “ahruf” are essentially one, not differing about what is permitted and what is forbidden .’” See Fath al-Bari, 9/29
 Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an., 1/70
 Ibn al-Jazri, op. cit., 1/25