Understanding Seven Ahruf –1 (the weaker explanations)

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الحمد لله وحده و الصلاة و السلام على من لا نبي بعده و على آله و أصحابه أجمعين

The missionaries and the orientalists have always been attacking the Muslim claim of perfect preservation of the Holy Qur’an. They try to make an issue of the Hadith narrations on Seven “Ahruf.” Also while many of their lies can be easily responded to in the light the best interpretation recognized by the scholars, they always run away from the truth alluding to huge differences among the scholars on the point. This series is intended to show the best interpretation, arguments for it, comparison with other interpretations, nature and significance of the difference in interpretations and finally to see if the whole thing puts to doubt the claim of Qur’an absolute and ultimate preservation? I hope people with scholarly taste will find it useful, in-sha’Allah!

Understanding Seven “Ahruf”

Translation of
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.

    1. Introduction

    According to an authentic Hadith, the Holy Prophet has said,

    Qur’an has been revealed on seven “ahruf”. So recite it in a way that is easy for you out of these.[1]

    What is meant by revelation of the Qur’an on seven “ahruf”? This is a very momentous and lengthy subject, indeed, one of the most complicated discussions on the sciences of the Qur’an. It is very difficult to discuss it in full details in this work but the important things about it are being presented below.

    The Hadith quoted above is uninterrupted as far as its meanings are concerned, so that the renowned Muhaddith Abu ‘Ubayd Qasim bin Salam has affirmed its continuity (tawatur). The well known scholar of hadith and recitals (qira’at) Ibn al-Jazari has stated that he has put together all the variation of this report in a separate monograph. According to him, this hadith has been narrated by ‘Umar bin Khattab, Hisham bin Hakim bin Hizam, ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Auf, Ubayy bin Ka’b, ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud, Mu’az Ibn Jabal, Abu Hurayrah, ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas, Abu Sa’id Khudri, Huzaifah bin Yaman, Abu Bakrah, ‘Amr bin al-‘Aas, Zayd bin Arqam, Anas bin Malik, Samurah bin Jundub, ‘Umar bin Abi Salmah, Abu Jaham, Abu Talha and Umm Ayyub Ansariyah- may Allah be pleased with them all.[2]

    In addition, several others have referred to the incident that while addressing a congregation, ‘Uthman the third Caliph, proclaimed that all those who had heard the tradition from the Holy Prophet that;

    The Qur’an was revealed on Seven “Ahruf” each of which was effectual, should stand up. In response to this the number of companions who stood up was so large that they could not be counted.[3]

    2. Meaning of Seven “Ahruf”

    The first problem we face with this Hadith is what is meant by the revelation of Qur’an on Seven “Ahruf”? We find a great deal of difference of opinion on this subject. Up to thirty five different views have been quoted by Ibn al-‘Arabi and others.[4] Some of the popular views are quoted below.

    2.1. First View: Seven “Ahruf” are the Seven well known Recitals (qira’ts)

    Some people think that Seven “Ahruf” refers to the recitals of the seven well-known reciters (qaris) of the Qur’an. But this view is unfounded and wrong, because the continuously reported recitals (mutawatir qir’ats) of the Qur’an are not limited to seven. Rather, many other recitals are confirmed though mutawatir narrations. The seven recitals (qir’ats) became popular because Ibn Mujahid had compiled a selection of seven of them in a book. He neither meant that recitation of the Qur’an was limited to those variations nor did he intend to elucidate the Seven “Ahruf” through the seven recitals.

    2.2. Second View: Seven “Ahruf” denote Multiple Recitals (qira’ts)

    On the same basis some scholars have opined that “ahruf” include all the different recitals, but the word ‘seven’ does not specify the number seven. It means ‘many’. In Arabic, the word ‘seven’ is very often used to denote excess of something. Here also the hadith does not intend that the “ahruf” on which the Qur’an is revealed are specifically seven, but it denotes that is Qur’an is revealed in ‘many’ readings. Of the earlier scholars, Qadi ‘Iyad held the same view[5], and in the latest period Shah Wali Ullah upheld the same opinion[6]. But this view does not seem to be correct because Bukhari and Muslim have quoted Ibn ‘Abbas saying that he heard the Prophet say;

    Jibril taught me the Qur’an in one “harf” but I turned to him and did not cease asking him to allow more until he ended up at seven “ahruf”[7]

    This tradition is reported in detail in Muslim on the authority of Ubayy bin Ka’b that the Prophet was sitting by the pond of Banu Ghifar.

    So Jibril came to the Prophet and said, ‘Allah has commanded you that all your people should recite the Qur’an following one “harf”. On that he said, “I seek the forgiveness of Allah, my people do not have the ability to do so.” Then Jibril came to him again and said, “Allah has commanded that your people recite the Qur’an following two “ahruf.” He said, “I seek the forgiveness of Allah, my people do not have the ability to do that even.” Then he came a third time and said, “Allah has commanded you that your people should read the Qur’an following three “ahruf.” The Prophet again said, “I seek the forgiveness of Allah, my people do not have the ability to do that too.” Then Jibril came a fourth time and said, “Allah has commanded you to let your people recite the Qur’an following seven “ahruf.” Hence whichever “ahruf” they would follow will be correct.[8]

    The context of these narrations indicates clearly that the word ‘seven’ does not denote an unspecified large number but it denotes the specific numerical value ‘seven’. Hence, in the light of these narrations this view (that seven means more than that) does not hold good and the majority of scholars reject it.

    2.3. Third View: Seven “Ahruf” refer to Seven Dialects of Arabic

    Some other scholars, including Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) and some others have stated that, in this Tradition, the seven “ahruf” indicate the seven dialects of the tribes of Arabia. The Arabs belonged to different tribes and the language of each tribe, in spite of being Arabic, had a slightly different dialect. It was as usually occurs with a major language that several dialects naturally evolve on regional basis. Hence, for the convenience of different tribes, Allah revealed the Qur’an on seven dialects so that every tribe may read it according to its own dialect.[9] Abu Hatim Sajistani has even enumerated the names of these tries and has stated that the Qur’an was revealed in the dialects of these seven tribes. They are: Quraysh, Huzayl, Taymur Rabab, Azd, Rabi’ah, Hawazin and Sa’d bin Bakr. And Ibn ‘Abdul Barr has relied upon some authorities to name the tribes thus: Huzayl, Kinanah, Dabbah, Taym-ur-Rabab, Asad bin Khuzaima and Quraysh.[10]

    However, many researchers, such as Ibn ‘Abdul Barr, al-Suyuti and Ibn al-Jazari have refuted this view due to certain reasons;

    1) The number of Arabian tribes was quite large, why should the seven be selected?

    2) There was a disagreement between ‘Umar and Hisham bin Hakim on the correct recital of the Qur’an. This is reported in Sahih Bukhari in detail, although both of them were of Quraysh and the Prophet confirmed that both were correct and said that the Qur’an had been revealed on seven readings. If seven readings were meant to denote dialects of the seven different tribes there should have been no difference in the views of ‘Umar and Hisham as both were from the Quraysh.[11] al-Alusi has, however, stated that it was possible that the Prophet might have taught the Qur’an to one of them on a dialect different from the Quraysh dialect.[12] But this argument is weak because the purpose of revelation of the Qur’an in different dialects was to make its recital easy for every tribe, hence it does not conform to the prophetic wisdom to teach the Qur’an to a Qurayshite in a different dialect.

    3) al-Tahawi has raised another objection to it; if the seven “Ahruf” are understood to correspond to dialects of seven tribes, then it is in contradiction to the Qur’anic proclamation

    And We have sent no Messenger but with the language of his people.[13]

    There is no doubt that the Prophet’s people were the Quraysh, hence it is apparent that the Qur’an was revealed in the dialect of the Quraysh only.[14] This view of al-Tahawi is supported by the fact that when ‘Uthman intended to gather the Qur’an a second time and formed a committee comprising the Companions headed by Zayd bin Thabit for this purpose, he instructed them.

    When you and Zayd ibn Thabit disagree about any of the Qur'an, write it in the dialect of Quraysh. It was revealed in their language.[15]

    ‘Uthman made it clear that the Qur’an has been revealed only in the language of Quraysh. The question then arises why should there be a difference among them? This would be discussed in detail further on.

    4) Apart from this, the proponents of this view hold that “ahruf” and recitals (qira’at) are two separate things. The variations in its recital which exist even today belong to one dialect only, which is the language of the Quraysh. The other dialects were either abrogated or eliminated for some valid reason. On this question, among the several doubts one observes that in the entire collection of Ahadith, we do not find any proof that there were two kinds of differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, one pertaining to Seven “Ahruf” and other pertaining to recitals. In fact wherever a difference in the words of the Qur’an has been mentioned it is referred to as a difference of “ahruf”. Difference in recital is not mentioned separately. For these reasons this view also serves as a weak argument.

    2.4. Fourth View: Seven “Ahruf” refer to Maximum no. of specific synonyms allowed in early days

    The fourth popular view is that of al-Tahawi. According to him, the Qur’an was revealed only in the dialect of Quraysh but because the people of Arabia belonged to different regions and different tribes and it was very difficult for all of them to recite it in one dialect, hence in the beginning they were permitted to recite it in synonymous words of their language. Thus the Prophet had himself suggested synonyms for those people who could not recite Qur’an in the original words correctly. They synonyms were chosen from the dialects of both, the Quraysh and non-Quraysh. Such as, instead of تعال words like هلم or اقبل or ادن could be read because they had the same meaning. But this permission was given only in the early days of Islam when all Arabs were not fully acquainted with the language of the Qur’an. But gradually, this language gained more circulation and the people of Arabia got used to it. They found it easy to recite in the original diction of the Qur’an. In the month of Ramadan before his death, the Prophet sat with Jibril for the final revision of the Qur’an. This is known as Ardul Akhirah (the Final Revision). The use of synonyms was thereafter disallowed and only the original diction of the Qur’an remained.[16]

    According to this view the tradition relating to Seven “Ahruf” pertained only to the period when the use of synonyms was permissible in the recitation of the Qur’an, and it did not mean that the Qur’an was revealed on Seven “Ahruf”. But that it has been revealed with flexibility that for a certain period it could be recited on Seven “Ahruf” and even that did not mean that they were permitted to use seven synonyms with every word of the Qur’an, but that the maximum number of synonyms that could be used was seven. Further, this relaxation did not mean that everybody was free to choose the synonyms of his own choice, but the words were chosen by the Prophet himself, and he taught the Qur’an to everyone in the diction that was easy for him. Hence only those synonyms were permitted that were proved from the Prophet.[17]

    Besides al-Tahawi, Sufyan bin ‘Uyainah and Ibn Wahb also subscribed to this view. Hafiz Ibn ‘Abdul Barr goes on to attribute the view to most scholars.[18]

    The view appears to be more logical than all the other views and its advocates present as an argument the following narration of Abu Bakrah as quoted in Musnad Ahmad,

    Jibril said to the Prophet, “O Muhammad read the Qur’an in one “harf”. Mika’il said to the Prophet to get the number increased, till the matter reached seven. Jibril then said, “Each of these is sufficient unless you mix the verses of punishment with those of rewards and vice versa. It will be the same as you express the meaning of تَعَالَ (come) with أَقْبِلْ and هَلُمَّ and اذْهَبْ and أَسْرِعْ and أَعْجِلْ (end).[19]

    There may not be any other doubt on this view but certain confusion persists. It does not explain the position of different recitals of the Qur’an which continue to this day. This theory does not account for it. If these recitals are treated as something different from the Seven “Ahruf” solid arguments will be needed to prove it. In the vast collection of Hadiths, we do not find any mention of difference in the Qur’an other than that accounted for in “ahruf”. How then may we explain differences in reading and “ahruf”? I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer to this confusion with the advocates of this theory.


    NEXT (in the series) we shall look into the “Best Explanation of Seven Ahruf”, in-sha’Allah!

    [1] Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 4992

    [2] Ibn al-Jazri, An-Nashr fil Qira’at al-‘Ashr 1/21, Dar al-Kutab al-Ilmiyya, Beirut

    [3] Ibid.
       The same is quoted by al-Suyuti in al-Ittiqan. Al-Suyuti then mentions, Abu Ya’la said, “I can give as many narrators of this Hadith as desired.” (al-Ittiqan fi ‘Uloom al-Qur’an 1/164)

    [4] Al-Zarkashi, al-Burhan fi ‘Uloom al-Quran 1/212, Dar al-Ma’rifa, Beirut 1957
         The figure thirty-five is given with reference to the statement of Abu Hatim Ibn Hibban al-Basti

    [5] Zakariyya Kandhalwi, Awjaz al-Masalik ilaa Muwatta al-Imam Malik, 4/240, Dar al-Qalam, Damascus, 2003

    [6] Shah Wali Ullah, al-Musaffa Sharah Muwatta, 1/187, Matba’ Faroqqi, Delhi, 1287 A.H.

    [7] Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 3219
         Sahih Muslim, Hadith 819

    [8] Sahih Muslim, Hadith 821,

    [9] Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an, 1/46-47, Al-Resalah Publishers, Beirut, 2001

    [10] Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 9/27 Dar al-Ma’rifa, Beirut, 1379 A.H.

    [11] Ibn al-Jazri, op. cit., 1/24

    [12] Al-Alusi, Ruh al-M’ani, 1/22, Dar al-Kutab al-Ilmiyya, Beirut, 1415 A.H. 

    [13] Qur’an 14:4

    [14] Al-Tahawi, Sharah Mushkil al-Athar, 8/117 Al-Resalah Publishers, Beirut, 1994

    [15] Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 4987
    Another narration puts it as, “When you and Zayd ibn Thabit disagree about the Arabic of the Qur'an, you should write it in the language of Quraysh. The Qur'an was revealed in their tongue.” (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 4984)

    [16] Al-Tahawi, op. cit., 8/117-121

    [17] Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, op. cit., 9/27

    [18] Al-Zarqani, Sharah al-Muwatta, 2/10, Maktaba Thaqafa al-Diniya, Cairo, 2003

    [19] Ahmad, al-Musnad, Hadith 20514. Al-Resalah Publishers, Beirut, 2001

    The respected author has quoted from Awjaz al-Masalik (4/242) that its isnaad are good (jayyad). Whereas Shu’aib Arna’ut and his team has mentioned that its chain is weak (da’if) due to the weakness of the narrator ‘Ali bin Zayd bin Jud’an. The report, however, is authentic (sahih) due to other isnad except the words, “it is same as … (to the end)”. These words are not reported from the Prophet through authentic chain of narrators though a statement of Ibn Mas’ud on the same lines is narrated by al-Tabari and al-Tabarani with a sahih chain.
    (Musnad Ahmad, al-Risalah ed. 34/147)

    Ibn masud said: “I have listened to the reciters (qura’). I found them reciting in almost the same way. So recite as you know. Beware of going to extremes and differing. For it is like one of you says هَلُمَّ or تَعَالَ (means the kinds of differences that exist are like these synonyms)”
    (Tafsir al-Tabari 1/50 & 16/30 No. 18998 and al-Tabarani’s Mu’jam al-Kabir Hadith 8680)

    Al-Baihaqi helps us understand the nature of this phenomenon and tells that it was permissible only before the Final Revision. Commenting on Zaid bin Thabit’s statement, "Recitation (qira't) is a sunnah that is strictly adhered to,” he said:
    “And what is intended -And Allah knows the best- is following established sunnah regarding "huruf" and about the recitals (qir'ats). It is not permissible to go against the mushaf which is the true guide (on the matter) and the recitals (qira'at) that are famous, even if it seems acceptable in language or even more. And with Allah is the success. And as to the reports about permissibility of reciting "Most Forgiving, Most Merciful" instead of "All-knowing, All-Wise: It is because all of it was revealed. And if he recites (the ending of the verses) this way changing them from their actual position, without mixing the verses about mercy with those about the torment or the other way around, it is as if reading one verse from one surah and one from another surah. It was not sinful reciting this way. And the real thing to which the recitation was confined in the year of the death of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, was (what was permitted) after he revised it twice with Gabriel on him be peace that year. Thereafter the Companions agreed on putting it between the two bindings"
    (Sunan al-Kubra 2/539 Hadith 3995)

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