The fact there is scholarly consensus, and many texts stating the order of aayahs in one soorah, that is very well known. The consensus was reported by many scholars, including Al-Zarkashi in al-Burhaan and Abu Ja’far, who said: “The order of the aayahs in their soorahs came about because this is how it was instituted by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and there is no dispute among the Muslims with regard to this matter.”
The texts regarding this matter include the following:
The report narrated by Ahmad, Abu Dawood, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nisaa’i, Ibn Hibbaan and al-Haakim from Ibn ‘Abbaas, who said: “I said to ‘Uthmaan, ‘What made you put al-Anfaal which is one of the Mathaani, next to Baraa’ah [al-Tawbah], which is one of the Mi’een? Why did you not put the line Bismillaah ir-Rahmaan ir-Raheem in between them when you put it at the beginning of the rest of al-Sab’ al-Tiwaal [the long seven soorahs]?” ‘Uthmaan said: “The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to receive revelation of soorahs with many aayahs. When they were revealed, he would call his scribes and tell them, ‘Put these aayahs in the soorah where such-and-such is mentioned.’ Al-Anfaal was one of the first soorahs to be revealed in Madeenah, and Baraa’ah (al-Tawbah) was one of the last parts of the Qur’aan to be revealed. Its stories were similar to the stories mentioned in al-Anfaal, so it was thought that it was part of it. The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) was taken [i.e., died] without explaining whether it was indeed part of it, so they were put next to one another, and the line Bismillaahi ir’Rahmaan ir’Raheem was not written between them, and it [al-Tawbah] was put among the Sab’ al-Tiwaal [seven long soorahs].” (Al-Haakim said: its isnaad is saheeh, and al-Dhahabi agreed with him. Al-Mustadrak, 2/330)
Ahmad narrated in al-Musnad (4/218) with a hasan isnaad from ‘Uthmaan ibn Abi’l-‘Aas that he said: “I was sitting with the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) when he fixed his gaze on something, then lowered his gaze until he was almost looking at the ground, then he gazed at something. He said, ‘Jibreel (peace be upon him) came to me and told me to put this aayah in this place in this soorah:
“Verily, Allâh enjoins Al-‘Adl (i.e. justice and worshipping none but Allâh Alone — Islâmic Monotheism) and Al-Ihsân [i.e. to be patient in performing your duties to Allâh, totally for Allâh’s sake and in accordance with the Sunnah (legal ways) of the Prophet in a perfect manner], and giving (help) to kith and kin (i.e. all that Allâh has ordered you to give them, e.g., wealth, visiting, looking after them, or any other kind of help), and forbids Al-Fahshâ’ (i.e. all evil deeds, e.g. illegal sexual acts, disobedience of parents, polytheism, to tell lies, to give false witness, to kill a life without right), and Al-Munkar (i.e. all that is prohibited by Islâmic law: polytheism of every kind, disbelief and every kind of evil deeds), and Al-Baghy (i.e. all kinds of oppression). He admonishes you, that you may take heed.” [al-Nahl 16:90 – interpretation of the meaning].’”
Al-Bukhaari narrated in al-Saheeh (no. 4536) that Ibn Abi Maleekah said: “Ibn al-Zubayr said: ‘I said to ‘Uthmaan, “This aayah that is in al-Baqarah (interpretation of the meaning), ‘And those of you who die and leave wives behind them … And those of you who die and leave behind wives should bequeath for their wives a year’s maintenance and residence without turning them out’ [al-Baqarah 2:234-240] has been abrogated by the other, so why are you writing it down it down?” He said, “Leave it as it is, my nephew, I will not change anything from its place.”’”
Muslim narrated (no. 1617) that ‘Umar said: “I did not ask the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) about anything more than I asked him about al-Kalaalah [those who die leaving neither ascendants nor descendents as heirs], until he poked me in the chest with his finger and said, “Is not aayat al-sayf [?] at the end of Soorat al-Nisa’ enough for you?”
There are also the ahaadeeth about the aayahs at the end of Soorat al-Baqarah.
Muslim narrated (no. 809) from Abu al-Darda’ that whoever memorizes the first ten aayahs of Soorat al-Kahf will be protected from the Dajjaal; according to another version, whoever recites the last ten verses will be protected.
The Prophet’s recitation of various soorahs in the presence of his companions indicates that the order of their aayahs is something that was instituted and commanded by him, and that the Sahaabah did not put the aayahs in a different order from that in which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to recite them. The reports to that effect reach the level of Mutawaatir.
Al-Qaadi Abu Bakr said in al-Intisaar: “The order of the aayahs is something that is obligatory and binding. Jibreel used to say (to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him)), ‘Put such and such an aayah in such and such a place.’”
He also said: “What we think is that all of the Qur’aan which Allaah revealed and commanded that it should be written down, and which was not abrogated after being revealed, is that which is contained between the covers of the Mus-haf of ‘Uthmaan, and that there is nothing lacking or added to it. Its order is the same as that commanded by Allaah, may He be exalted, and instituted by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him). Nobody has moved any aayah backwards or forwards. The Ummah learned from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) the order of the aayahs of each soorah properly, just as they learned from him the correct pronunciation and recitation.”
Al-Baghawi said in Sharh al-Sunnah: “The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to instruct his companions and teach them what was revealed to him of the Qur’aan in the order in which it appears in our Mus-hafs now, the order which Jibreel taught him. When each aayah was revealed, Jibreel would tell him, this aayah is to be written after such and such an aayah in Soorah such and such. Thus it is clear that the efforts of the Sahaabah were limited solely to gathering the Qur’aan in one place, not to arranging its order. The Qur’aan is written on al-Lawh al-Mahfooz in this order, then Allaah sent it down in its entirety to the first heaven, whence it was revealed in stages as it was needed, and the order in which it was revealed is not the order in which it is recited.”
With regard to the order of Soorahs, was this also instituted by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), or was this the ijtihaad of the Sahaabah? With regard to this question, there were differences among the scholars. The majority of scholars, including Maalik and al-Qaadi Abu Bakr, according to one of his two opinions, favoured the second opinion.
Ibn Faaris said: “There were two aspects to the compilation of the Qur’aan. One was putting the soorahs in a certain order, such as putting al-Sab’ al-Tiwaal (the seven long soorahs) first, and following them with the Mi’een, which is what the Sahaabah did. The second aspect is the compilation of the aayahs within the soorahs. This was instituted by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), who recited them as he was told to by Jibreel, on the command of his Lord. On this basis the salaf differed as to the order in which the soorahs should appear. Some of them put them in order of revelation, which was the mus-haf of ‘Ali, which started with Iqra’ (al-‘Alaq), then al-Muddaththir, then Noon (al-Qalam), then al-Muzzammil, and so on. The Mus-haf of Ibn Mas’ood started with al-Baqarah, then al-Nisa’, then Aal ‘Imraan, with other major differences. The Mus-haf of Ubayy was similar.”
Al-Karmaani said in al-Burhaan: the order of the soorahs as it is now is the same as that in al-Lawh al-Mahfooz which is with Allaah. This is the order in which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to review the soorahs of the Qur’aan he had received so far with Jibreel each year. In the year in which he died, he reviewed it with him twice, and the last aayahs to be revealed were (interpretation of the meaning): ‘And be afraid of the Day when you shall be brought back to Allaah…’ [al-Baqarah 2:281]. Jibreel commanded the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) to put this between the aayahs dealing with riba and those dealing with loans.”
Al-Zarkashi said in al-Burhaan: “The difference between the two views is one of wording. Those who support the second view say that it was taught to them so that they could learn the reasons of Revelation and the sequence of the words. Hence Maalik said that they compiled the Qur’aan according to what they had heard from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), as well as saying that the order of the soorahs was the product of their ijtihaad. He said that the dispute boils down to one question which is: was this a verbal instruction of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), or were they merely referring to what he used to do, which would give them room for ijtihaad.”
Al-Bayhaqi said in al-Madkhil: “At the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), the soorahs and aayahs of the Qur’aan were in this order, except for al-Anfaal and Baraa’ah (al-Tawbah), as we see from the hadeeth of ‘Uthmaan referred to above.”
Ibn ‘Atiyah said: “The order of many of the soorahs was known during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), such as the seven long soorahs, those that begin with Ha’-Meem, and al-Mufassal. With regard to the others, it may be the case that it was left for the Ummah to determine their order after he died.”
Abu Ja’far said: “The reports support most of what Ibn ‘Atiyah said, and a little is left which is open to debate, such as the hadeeth, ‘Recite the two shining ones, al-Baqarah and Aal ‘Imraan.’” (Reported by Muslim, no. 804).
Al-Bukhaari narrated (no. 4739) that ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: “Bani Israa’eel (al-Israa’), al-Kahf, Maryam, Ta-Ha and al-Anbiya’, these are among the earliest and most beautiful soorahs and they are my treasures,” (meaning, these are among the earliest I recited).
Abu Ja’far al-Nahhaas al-Mukhtaar said that the soorahs were compiled in this order from the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) because of the hadeeth of Waathilah, “In place of the Tawraat I was given the seven long soorahs.” He said: “This hadeeth indicates that the order of the Qur’aan was taken from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him).
Ibn Hajar said, “the fact that the soorahs , or most of them, are in a given order does not contradict the idea that this was instituted by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him). What proves that this was instituted by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) is the report narrated by Ahmad and Abu Dawood from Aws ibn Hudhayfah, who said: ‘We asked the companions of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) in the morning, “How did you write down the Qur’aan in chapters?” They said, “We wrote it down in chapters of six soorahs, five soorahs, seven soorahs, nine soorahs, eleven soorahs and thirteen soorahs, and the chapter of al-Mufassal, from Qaaf until the end. This indicates that the order of the soorahs – as it appears in the Mus-haf now – existed at the time of the Messenger of Allaah, or it is possible that what was known in order at that time was Hizb al-Mufassal specifically, which is not the case with the rest.”
See al-Itqaan fi ‘Uloom al-Qur’aan by al-Suyooti, 1/62-65).
And Allaah knows best.
As part of studying the revelation of the Quran, the Muslim scholars may Allaah have mercy upon them have categorised the Soorahs (chapters) of the Quran and their verses according to the time or era of their revelation. This is the subject that came to be known as the Makkan and Madeenan division, or revelation, of the Quran. This division is logical since the Prophet, Muhammad sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam ( may Allaah exalt his mention ) received revelation over twenty-three (23) years: thirteen (13) of them he sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam ( may Allaah exalt his mention ) spent in Makkah and ten (10) in Madeenah.
The correct and well-established definition of Makkan and Madeenan Quran is the one in which the Chapters and verses that were revealed prior to the Hijrah or immigration of Prophet Muhammad sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam ( may Allaah exalt his mention ) from the city of Makkah to the city of Madeenah, are known as 'Makkan'. All other Chapters and verses that were revealed after this time are termed 'Madeenan'.
The location of their revelation is not necessarily relevant to this classification, such that there may be certain revelations that were revealed in Makkah, but are classified as Madeenan because of the period of their revelation. A good example of this is the Chapter of An-Nasr (Divine Support), number 110, which was revealed in Minaa (outskirts of Makkah) yet it is classified as a Madeenan Chapter because it was revealed while the Prophet sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam ( may Allaah exalt his mention ) was living in Madeenah just a few months before he sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam ( may Allaah exalt his mention ) passed away.
The Makkan part of the Noble Quran deals mainly with beliefs like the Creation as in the verse (which means): "And a great number of towns (their population) We destroyed (for their crimes). Our torment came upon them (suddenly) by night or while they were taking their midday nap." [Quran 7:4]
The Oneness and Uniqueness of Allaah, the Most Exalted, as in the verses (which mean): "Say (O Muhammad): 'He is Allaah, (the) One. Allaah the Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need. He begets not, nor was He begotten. And there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him." [Quran 112]
Prophethood, as in the verse (which means): "It is He (Allaah) who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger (Muhammad) from themselves, reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book [Quran] and wisdom [i.e. the Sunnah or Prophet's sayings] — although they were before in clear error —." [Quran 62:2]
The revelation, as in the verse (which means): "Verily, We have sent it (this Quran) down in the night of Al-Qadr (Decree)." [Quran 97:1]
Angels, as stated in the verse (which means): "Whoever is an enemy to Allaah, His Angels, His Messengers, Jibreel (Gabriel) and Meekaa’eel (Michael), then verily, Allaah is an enemy to the disbelievers." [Quran 2: 98]
And The Day of Judgement as in verses (which mean): "Then (on the Day of Judgement) as for him whose balance (of good deeds) will be heavy. He will live a pleasant life (in Paradise). But as for him whose balance (of good deeds) will be light. He will have his home in a pit (Hell). And what will make you know what it is? (It is) a fiercely blazing Fire!" [Quran 101: 6-11]
General disobedience of man, and his punishment and reward are frequent themes in the Makkan verses.
The creation and development of man in the mother's womb is taken to be a wondrous thing.
Madeenan parts, on the other hand, are filled with laws, both universal as well as worldly (marriage, divorce, heritage, blood-money, other transactions, etc). Special emphasis is laid on justice and fairness. Social interaction and ethical rules have been elaborated time and time again. Politics, worship and prayers are also frequently discussed.
Next, is a list of the Makkan and Madeenan Chapters is provided for easy reference. The list is based on the classification used by the Mus-haf (Quran text book) we read today. For the sake of brevity, only the Chapter numbers are provided:
Accordingly, the Makkan Chapters are 85 in number, and the Madeenan are 28, the total of which is 113, where it should be 114. The reason for missing a Chapter is the fact that we did not include the first Chapter in the Mus-haf, which is Al-Faatihah, or the Opening Chapter. This Chapter has been reported as having been revealed twice, one time in Makkah and another in Madeenah. Therefore, it was not included in either of them.
It should be pointed out that the only way for us to know whether a Chapter is Makkan or Madeenan is through narration, and not by Ijtihaad (the exertion of effort on the part of a qualified Islamic scholar to deduce an Islamic law for an issue about which there is no clear, specific text). Thus, the only way to distinguish them is through authentic narrations from the Companions may Allaah be pleased with them narrated from the Prophet sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam ( may Allaah exalt his mention ).
1. The Meaning of the Word ‘Ahruf’
The word ahruf is the plural of harf. Linguistically, ‘harf’ has a number of meanings, including:
1) ‘A letter or a word.’ Al-huruf al-abjadiyya, for example, means the letters of the alphabet.
2) ‘The border, the edge of something, the brink.’ For example, Allaah says,
“And among mankind is he who worships Allaah (as it were) upon a harf (i.e., upon the very edge, or in doubt)” [22:11]
3) ‘To swerve from the truth, to distort.’ Allaah says concerning the Jews,
“…they have displaced (lit., yaharifuna) words from their right places…” [4:46]
Its exact definition in Qur’aanic sciencs is the subject matter of this chapter, and therefore cannot be defined at this point. However, a temporary definition maybe given as follows: The ahruf are the various ways that the verses of the Qur’aan are read. Imaam al-Qurtubee (d. 671 A.H.) said, “Every variation of a word in the Qur’aan is said to be a harf. So, for example, when we say the harf of Ibn Mas’ood, it means the way that Ibn Mas’ood used to recite that verse or word."
Most English authors translate ahruf as ‘modes’ or ‘dialects.’ However, in this book the word will be left in Arabic since the meaning is broader than these translated words.
II. The Number of Ahruf of the Qur’aan
The Qur’aan was revealed in seven ahruf. The proof for this is found in many narrations from the Prophet (PBUH), so much so that it reaches the level of mutawaatir. Jalaal ad-Deen as-Suyootee lists twenty-one Companions who narrated that the Qur’aan was revealed in seven ahruf. Some of these narrations are as follows:
1) Ibn ‘Abbaas reported that the Prophet (PBUH) said, “Jibreel recited the Qur’aan to me in one harf, and I recited it back to him, but I requested him to increase (the number of harf) and he continued to increase it for me, until we stopped at seven ahruf.” Ibn Shihaab az-Zuhree (d. 124 A.H.), one of the narrators of the hadeeth, said, “It has reached me that these seven ahruf are essentially one (in meaning), they do not differ about what is permitted or forbidden." [Narrated by al-Bukhaaree and Muslim]
2) ‘Ubay ibn Ka’ab reported that the Prophet (PBUH) was once on the outskirts of Madeenah (near the tribe of Banoo Ghifaar) when Jibreel came to him and said, “Allaah has commanded that you recite the Qur’aan to your people in one harf.” The Prophet (PBUH) replied, “I ask Allaah’s pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” Jibreel then came again and said, “Allaah has commanded you to recite the Qur’aan to your people in two ahruf.” The Prophet (PBUH) again replied, “I ask Allaah’s pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” Jibreel then came a third time and said, “Allaah has commanded you to recite the Qur’aan to your people in three ahruf.” The Prophet (PBUH) replied for a third time, “I ask Allaah’s pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” At last, Jibreel came for the fourth time, and said, “Allaah has commanded you to recite the Qur’aan to your people in seven ahruf, and in whichever harf they recite, they would be right.[Narrated by Muslim.]
3) ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab narrated, “I was sitting in the masjid when I heard Hishaam ibn Hakeem recite Soorah al-Furqaan. I was almost about the jump on him in his prayer, but I waited until he finished, and then grabbed him by his garment and asked him, ‘Who taught you to recite in such a manner?’” He replied, ‘It was the Prophet (PBUH) himself!’ I responded, ‘You are mistaken, for indeed I learnt this soorah from the Prophet (PBUH) and it was different from your recitation!’ Therefore, I dragged him to the Prophet (PBUH) and complained to him that Hishaam had recited Soorah al-Furqaan in a manner different from what he (PBUH) had taught me. At this, the Prophet (PBUH) told me to let go of Hishaam, and asked him to recite Soorah al-Furqaan. Hishaam recited the Soorah in the same way I had heard him before. When he finished, the Prophet (PBUH) said, ‘It was revealed this way.’ He then asked me to recite the same soorah. When I had finished, he (PBUH) said, ‘It was (also) revealed this way. Indeed, the Qur’aan has been revealed in seven different ahruf, so recite whichever one is easy for you.’”[Narrated by al-Bukhaaree and Muslim.]
4) In a story similar to ‘Umar’s, ‘Ubay ibn Ka’ab also heard two people reciting the Qur’aan in a manner different from what he had learnt. After some discussion, both parties went to the Prophet (PBUH) and recited the same portion to him. He (PBUH) approved of both parties’ recitations. At this point, Ubay narrates, “…there occurred in my mind a sort of denial and doubt that did not exist even in the time of Jaahilliyah (before Islaam)! When the Messenger (PBUH) saw how I was affected, he struck my chest, whereupon I started sweating, and felt as though I were looking at Allaah in fear! Then the Prophet (PBUH) said, ‘O Ubay! A message was sent to me to recite the Qur’aan in one harf, but I requested (Allaah) to make things easy on my nation. A second message came that I should recite the Qur’aan in two ahruf, but I again made the same request. I was then ordered to recite the Qur’aan in seven ahruf.’”[Narrated by Muslim]
5) Ubay ibn Ka’ab narrates that once the Prophet (PBUH) met Jibreel, and sais, “O Jibreel! I have been sent to an illiterate nation. Among them are old and young men and women, and those who have never read any writing!” Jibreel answered him, “O Muhammad, the Qur’aan has been revealed in seven ahruf!”[Narrated by at-Tirmidhee]
There are many other hadeeth that confirm that the Qur’aan was revealed in seven ahruf, but these narrations will suffice for the present discussion.
III. What is Meant by the Ahruf of the Qur’aan?
Before discussing the answer to this question, it would be useful to mention some points that can be inferred from the above narrations:
1) The different ahruf are all directly from Allaah, and not from the Companions. In all the narrations where the Companions differed from each other, it was clear that each one had been taught directly from the Prophet (PBUH), who was inspired by Allaah. This is why the Prophet (PBUH) said to each one of the ahruf recited by ‘Umar and Hishaam, “It was revealed this way.”
2) The reason the Prophet (PBUH) requested the number of ahruf to be increased was to make the memorisation and recitation of the Qur’aan easier for his Ummah. The Prophet (PBUH) prayed to increase the ahruf because in his ummah were “…old and young men and women, and those who have never read any writing.” Therefore, the limitations of the Qur’aan being in only one harf have been removed by Allaah as a blessing for this Ummah.
3) The Prophet (PBUH) used to teach the different ahruf to different Companions, depending on the condition and situation of that Companion. It can be assumed that the Prophet (PBUH) chose the particular harf to recite to a Companion depending on which one would be the easiest for that particular Companion to memorise, since the purpose of the ahruf was to simplify recitation and memorisation. The Prophet (PBUH) did not teach all the ahruf to all the Companions, for ‘Umar and Hishaam did not know about the existence of the different ahruf. Also, the cause for Ubay’s doubt was the fact that he was unaware of these ahruf, and the Prophet (PBUH) had to pray to Allaah to remove his doubts.
4) The differences between these ahruf were not so great as to prevent recognition of what was being recited. In other words, even though Hishaam was reciting the Qur’aan in a different harf than ‘Umar, ‘Umar could still recognise that Hishaam was reciting Soorah al-Furqaan, thus showing that the ahruf were not radically different from each other. Also, the narration of Ibn Shihaab shows that the basic meaning of all these ahruf was the same.
5) Each one of these ahruf is complete in and of itself. The proof for this is the statement of the Prophet (PBUH) “…so whichever one of them they recite, they are correct.” This is not to say that the ahruf do not complement one another in meaning, but rather that the recitation of the Qur’aan in one harf is sufficient.
6) The number of ahruf is exactly seven – not more, not less. The Prophet (PBUH) asked Jibreel to increase the number of ahruf until Jibreel reached seven ahruf; therefore interpretations to the effect that ’seven’ indicates an unspecified plurality (this is the opinion of Qaadee ‘Iyaad (d. 504 A.H.)) are false.
However, one narration in the Musnad of Imaam Ahmad states that the Qur’aan was revealed in three ahruf, and yet another narration states that it was revealed in ten ahruf. Some scholars have tried to explain the first narration as meaning that, in the Makkan stage, the Qur’aan was revealed in three ahruf, whereas in the Madeenan stage, Allaah increased this to seven ahruf. Other scholars have given different interpretations to reconcile these hadeeth. 388 However, there is no need to resort to such explanations, since both of these narrations are weak. 389 Therefore, the Qur’aan was revealed in exactly seven ahruf.
7) The revelation of the Qur’aan in seven ahruf started in Madeenah, after the hijrah. In one of the narrations, the phrase, “…while the Prophet (PBUH) was on the outskirts of Madeenah,” indicates that this occurred after the hijrah.
8) A last benefit that can be inferred from these hadeeth (although this is not relevant to the ahruf) is the concern shown by the Companions in the preservation of the correct recitation of the Qur’aan. In all the cases quoted above, the Companions were not content with listening to recitations that were different from theirs – despite the fact that these recitations were said to have been learnt from the Prophet (PBUH) – until they had taken the matter to the Prophet (PBUH) himself.
As for what is meant by these seven ahruf, there is a great deal of difference on this issue. Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 A.H.) recorded thirty-five opinions on this issue, and as-Suyootee listed over forty. Ibn Sa’adan (d. 231 A.H.), a famous grammarian and reciter of the Qur’aan, even declared that the true meaning of the ahruf was known only to Allaah, and thus to attempt to investigate into this issue was futile! On the other hand, Imaam Muhammad ibn al-Jazaree (d. 832 A.H.), perhaps the greatest scholar of the qira’aat after the era of the salaf, said, “I have sought to discover the meaning of these hadeeth (about the ahruf), and have pondered over them, and contemplated this topic for over thirty years, until Allaah opened my mind to that which is the correct answer in this matter, Inshaa Allaah!”
The reason that such a great difference of opinion exists concerning the exact meaning of the ahruf is due to the fact that there does not exist any explicit narration from the Prophet (PBUH), or the salaf, concerning the exact nature of the ahruf; these various opinions are merely the conclusions of later scholars, based upon their examination of the evidences and their personal reasoning (ijtihaad).
Therefore, it should be understood from the outset that to arrive at one specific conclusion, and claim with certainty that it alone is correct and all else is wrong, is pure folly. What is desired, however, is to narrow down the various opinions and eliminate as many as possible based upon evidences.
All of these opinions can be divided into three broad categories, which are discussed in the following sections.
A. THOSE OPINIONS WHICH HAVE NO BASIS WHATSOEVER:
In this category fall those opinions which do not have any hadeeth to support them, nor do they make logical sense. Some of these are:
1) Seven different categories of text. For example: constrained and unconstrained, general and specific, literal and metaphoric, naasikh and mansookh. Other categories include those given by grammarians and linguists, specifying different verb forms.
2) An esoteric interpretation by certain Soofi groups, claiming that there are seven levels of knowledge, or seven degrees of meanings to each verse.
3) Seven different branches of knowledge, such as tawheed, sharee’ah, etc.
All these opinions contradict the purpose of the ahruf, namely to make the recitation of the Qur’aan easier for the Ummah. Also, there is no proof for these opinions, and they contradict common sense.
B. THOSE OPINIONS WHICH HAVE SOME APPARENT BASIS, BUT ARE WEAK OPINIONS:
Included in this category are the following opinions:
1) These ahruf are seven different ways to pronounce the words, without actually changing the letters. However, this opinion contradicts the variations in words that occur in the qira’aat.
2) The ahruf are seven types of verses in the Qur’aan: apparent, command, recommendation, specific, particular, general and parable. There is a weak hadeeth to support this.
3) Similar to the above, and also based on a weak hadeeth, the different types are: commands, prohibitions, promises, occurrences, halaal and haraam, clear and ambiguous
4) The seven ahruf are the same as the seven qira’aat. This is contradicted historically, as there are more than seven qira’aat, and the collection and codification of the qira’aat occurred four centuries after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death. None of the major scholars of Islaam held this view, as Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.) said, “There is no difference of opinion among the scholars that the seven ahruf are not the same as the seven famous qira’aat.
Unforunately, most of the Muslim masses understand hadeeth of the ahruf to refer to the qira’aat.
C. THOSE OPINIONS WHICH HAVE STRONG EVIDENCE:
These opinions are the ones that are worthy of serious inspection, as they have strong evidence historically and from the meanings of the ahaadeeth. There are three opinions in this category.
1) The seven ahruf refer to the seven dialects (lughaat لغات) of the Arabs prevalent at the time of the Prophet (PBUH). Each of these dialects belongs to a tribe among the Arabs, namely, the Quraysh قريش, Hudhayl هذيل, Tameem تميم, Hawaazin هوازن, Thaqeef ثقيف, Kinaanah كنانة and Yemen اليمن. (other scholars gave the names of other tribes). Thus, under this opinion, various verses would be pronounced according to the pronunciation of that particular tribe, and words from one dialect would be replaced by other words used by that particular tribe.
Some scholars say that these seven dialects are spread throughout the Qur’aan, meaning that part of the Qur’aan is in the dialect of the Quraysh, other parts are in the dialect of Hudhayl, and so forth. Others say that the entire Qur’aan is recited in each of these dialects, thus forming the seven ahruf.
This was the opinion of Aboo ‘Ubayd al-Qaasim ibn Sallaam (d. 224 A.H.), al-Bayhaqee (d. 458 A.H.), Ibn ‘Attiyah (d. 541 A.H.) and others.
2) The seven ahruf denote seven ways of recitation (lahajaat لهجات) such that words are replaced by their synonyms. In other words, the seven ahruf have the exact same meanings but different wordings.
This was the opinion of Imaam at-Tabaree (d. 311 A.H.), at-Tahaawee (d. 321 A.H.), Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 463 A.H.) and others.
3) The seven ahruf refer to seven different ways that the verse can be changed. In other words, whenever a difference is found between these ahruf, this type of difference will fall into one of the following seven categories:
1. Change in wording. For example, in 101:5, ka al-’ihni il-manfoosh كالعهن المنفوش is changed to ka as-soof il-manfoosh كالصوف المنفوش, both of which mean the same thing.
2. Differences in wordings or letters such that they conform to the vowelless, dotless script of ‘Uthmaan . For example, fatabayanoo فتبينوا is changed to fatathabatoo فتثبتوا in 49:6, just by changing the dots. Also, in Sooral al-Faatihah, maaliki is changed to maliki without any change in the script of ‘Uthmaan.
3. Change in word order. For example, in 2:159, wa qaatalu wa qutilu is changed to wa qutilu wa qaatalu.
4. Addition or subtraction of a letter or word. For example, in 57:24, fa inna Allaahu hoowa al-ghaniyul hameed is recited without the pronoun, fa ina Allaah al-ghaniyul hameed.
5. The form of the word structure is changed. This change could be from plural to singular or dual (or other variations), or from feminine to masculine. For example, in 23:8, the plural li amanaatihim لأماناتهم is changed to the singular li amanatihim لأمانتهم.
6. Differences in inflection points. For example, 2:125, wa attakhadhoo mim maqaami Ibraaheema musallaa و اتخَذوا من مقام إبراهيم مصلى is read in the command wattakhidhoo و اتخِذوا.
7. Differences in pronunciation. For example, lessening the effect of certain hamzahs (called tas-heel) or pronouncing certain alifs and yaas differently (called imaalah).
This was the opinion of Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 A.H.), al-Baaqillaani (d. 403 A.H.), Makkee ibn Abee Taalib (d. 437 A.H.), ar-Raazee (d. 606 A.H.), Ibn al-Jazaree (d. 832 A.H.), and others. Some of them give different categories, but their general thesis is the same.
Among these three opinion, the third one seems to have the least weight. Despite the fact that it classifies the differences in the ahruf into ingenious categories, it does not explain the essence of what the ahruf are. In other words, when Hishaam was reciting a different harf from ‘Umar, he was probably differing with ‘Umar in more than one of these seven categories. Therefore, the third definition does not really answer the question as to the meaning of the ahruf.
The first two opinions, on the other hand, have very strong evidences to support them. It seems — and Allaah knows best — that both of these opinions have an element of truth in them, and there does not exist any grounds for rejecting either of them.
Therefore, it is concluded that the seven ahruf represent variations based upon, but not limited to, the most fluent Arab tribes of that time. These variations occurred in words, letters, and pronunciations, such that all these variations made it easier for the Companions to memorise the Qur’aan. These variations did not always reach seven different ways of recitation for each verse, but whenever such variations existed, the different ways of recitation never exceeded seven.
IV. Are the Ahruf in Existence Today?
A very crucial question thata rises is whether these seven ahruf are still present today.
Of course, this question in essence depends upon how one defines the ahruf. For example, az-Zarqaanee strongly argues that all the ahruf have been preserved, but this goes back to his definition that the ahruf represent seven ways that the verse can be changed (opinion (3) above). Thus, since these variations are still present in today’s qira’aat, he argues that all seven ahruf have been preserved. The present discussion will, of course, utilise the definition that was concluded upon in the previous section.
The scholars of Islaam are divided into three opinions with regards to this issue.
The first group of scholars, composed of at-Tabaree (d. 310 A.H.), at-Tahaawee (d. 321 A.H.), Ibn Hibbaan (d. 354 A.H.) and those who follow them, argue that only one harf is in existence today. At-Tabaree holds that the recitation of the Qur’aan in seven ahruf was a concession given to the Companions at the time of the Prophet (PBUH), but when ‘Uthmaan oficially compiled the Qur’aan, he specifically ordered the committee assigned to write the mus-haf to preserve only one harf. He writes, “The only recitation that the Muslims have today is the one harf that their pious Imaam (‘Uthmaan) chose for them, leaving the remaining six.” He is alluding to the statement of ‘Uthmaan to the committee that wrote the mus-haf, “… if you differ in (the spelling) of a word, then write it in the script of the Quraysh.” Thus, according to at-Tabaree and those who follow his opinion, shows that ‘Uthmaan preserved only one harf.
In response to the question, “How could ‘Uthmaan and the Companions purposely have left out the other six ahruf?” at-Tabaree answers
“The seven ahruf were revealed by Allaah during the time of the Prophet (PBUH) to facilitate the memorisation of the Qur’aan, since the dialects of the Arabs were many. This facilitation (i.e., the ahruf) was not necessary to preserve, and eventually there was no need of it. In fact, it became the cause of dissension amongst the Muslims, as those people new to Islaam began arguing over the differences in the recitation of the Qur’aan. Therefore, Allaah inspired 4] ‘Uthmaan to discard the other six ahruf and collect the Qur’aan in one harf, so that the ummah would be united in its recitation. The Companions agreed to this action of his, and the agreement of the Companions is binding on the ummah.”
The second group of scholars holds that all of the ahruf are in existence today, and the mus-haf of ‘Uthmaan was written to preserve all seven ahruf. This was the opinion of Aboo Bakr al-Baaqillaani (d. 403 A.H.), and a small group of scholars. They claim that the Companions would never abandon a recitation that they used to recite during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH), and that they would not discard any knowledge that the Prophet (PBUH) had given them.
The third group of scholars is composed of Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 724 A.H.), ash-Shaatibee (d. 790 A.H.), ar-Raazee (d. 606 A.H.), Ibn Katheer (d. 774 A.H.), Ibn al-Jazaree (d. 832 A.H.) and others. They argue that ‘Uthmaan preserved the ahruf to the extent that the script of his mus-haf allowed him to do so. Thus, these scholars hold that a portion of the seven ahruf are preserved.
The question then arises: On what basis did ‘Uthmaan decide which portion of the ahruf to preserve? The answer to this is twofold: First, Zayd ibn Thaabit was in charge of the collection of the mus-haf. Zayd had been present when the Prophet (PBUH) recited the whole Qur’aan for the last time, only months before his death. It can be assumed, then, that Zayd was aware of the portions of the ahruf that the Prophet (PBUH) recited, and he must have chosen those to the exclusion of the others. Secondly, the Companions unanimously agreed to discard all readings that conflicted with the mus-haf of ‘Uthmaan. Obviously, they would eliminate only that which they knew was not a part of the Qur’aan, and their consensus is binding on the ummah.
Ibn al-Jazaree (d. 832 A.H.) writes,
“The majority of the scholars of the salaf and the later generations are of the opinion that the ‘Uthmaanic mus-hafs contains of the seven ahruf only that which its script allows. (What is preserved) are the recitations that the Prophet (PBUH) recited to Jibreel (during the last year of his life). The present mus-haf contains all this reading, and not a single letter from it is missing.”
The third opinion (i.e., that a portion of the seven ahruf have been preserved) seems to be the strongest one, for the following reasons:
1) The Companions were meticulous in preserving the knowledge that they recieved from the Prophet (PBUH). They understood their responsibility in transferring this vast knowledge to the ummah. It is because of this concern of theirs that detailed information exists about every topic of Islaam, so much so that the Muslims even know how many while hairs the Prophet’s (PBUH) beard contained!  Therefore, it cannot be said that the Companions purposely left out six ahruf and preserved only one of them in the mus-haf of ‘Uthmaan without bringing forth some strong, unequivocal proof. Al-Qaaree writes,
“This opinion (that the Companions left out six ahruf) is strange, and extremely weak, for it claims that a part of the Qur’aan was removed by consensus of the Companions, since each of the ahruf is part of the Qur’aan. Therefore, how could ‘Uthmaan, or any of the Companions for that matter, or rather all of the Companions, discard something from the Qur’aan without a clear proof from the Creator? Even if we say that the Companions were given the concession of choosing one harf to recite in, as at-Tabaree (d. 310 A.H.) claims, and they were not accountable for all seven ahruf since it was a concession from Allaah, we say: This concession was given so that they could chose to recite the Qur’aan in any one of these seven ahruf, whichever was the easiest for them. There was no concession, however, in preserving these ahruf, rather they were responsible for preserving all of them… that were not abrogated…
2) The ‘Uthmaanic mus-hafs, as was mentioned earlier, were devoid of dots and vowel points. Since this knowledge was available to the Arabs at that time,  it seems likely that the mus-haf was purposely written without these dots or inflection points so that it would encompass different readings, and hence the different ahruf. Also, as was mentioned in the relevant chapter, the script of the ‘Uthmaanic mus-haf was written with specific rules in mind, apparently in order to accommodate the various recitations, and this shows that the mus-haf was written with the intent to preserve more than one harf.
3) If, as at-Tabaree holds, only one harf has been preserved, from where then do the differences in the ten qira’aat originate from? All scholars are unanimous that these ten qira’aat originated from the Prophet (PBUH) himself; therefore it seems apparent that the qira’aat have some integral relationship with the ahruf (as shall be discussed in the section of Qira'at). Concerning this issue, Imaam at-Tabaree is forced to contradict his stance, as Makkee ibn Abee Taalib (d. 437 A.H.) pointed out:
“At-Tabaree concedes to the fact that the various qira’aat that conform to the mus-haf of ‘Uthmaan are a part of the seven ahruf, and this is what we also believe. However, he also claims… that the mus-haf (of ‘Uthmaan) has only preserved one harf, to the exclusion of the other six. These two positions are contradictory…”
4) The different mus-haf that ‘Uthmaan ordered to be written were not identicle to each other, for in a number of places, the addition or deletion of a word or letter occurred in some of the mus-hafs. This change is reflected in the various qira’aat in existence today, for within the ten qira’aat, there exist word changes and word additions that could not have originated from the same mus-haf. It seems apparent this was done with a goal in mind, and the strongest conclusion seems to be that, by these differences in the mus-hafs, ‘Uthmaan had intended to preserve the differences in the ahruf.
These same four arguments, however, cannot be used for the second opinion (that all the ahruf were actually preserved), because of that fact that certain variations that the Companions used to recite as part of the Qur’aan are now no longer a part of the Qur’aan (as will be explained in the chapters of naskh and qira’aat). These variant readings can be explained as having been a part of the seven ahruf before the final reading of the Qur’aan by the Prophet (PBUH) to Jibreel. This reading, which took place before Zayd ibn Thaabit, cancelled the ahruf that ‘Uthmaan did not preserve. Imaam al-Qistillaanee (d. 923 A.H.) said, “In this (last) recitation of the Prophet (PBUH) to Jibreel, there were two benefits: First, to strengthen and preserve the Prophet’s (PBUH) memorisation of the Qur’aan, and, second, to affirm those verses that were not abrogated and to indicate which verses were.”
V. The Wisdom in the Various Ahruf
Obviously, it cannot be said for certain that exact wisdom behind any Divine act, for the Creator’s knowledge is infinite. However, the scholars of Islaam have said that the revelation of the Qur’aan in seven ahruf had the following benefits:
1) To facilitate the memorisation of the Qur’aan. This is the only benefit that is explicitly narrated in the hadeeth. The Arabs did not all speak Arabic in the same way; each tribe and locations had slight variations and peculiarities unique to it. If the Qur’aan had only been revealed in one harf, it would have been difficult for the many different Arab tribes to memorise the Qur’aan properly. However, since the Qur’aan was revealed in seven ahruf, this greatly eased its memorisation. This was of primary importance in its preservation and propagation.
2) To prove the miraculous nature of the Qur’aan. For despite all of these differences, the meanings of the ahruf did not contradict one another, but rather were complementary.
3) To prove the truthfulness of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), for despite the fact that he was illiterate, the revelation of the Qur’aan occurred in different tribal dialects and different words, all of which consisted of the most fluent and eloquent speech of his time.
4) To honour the ummah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and show its superiority over all other nations. No other nations had been given its book in such a manner, in varying ahruf, to ease the process of preservation. Thus, the revelation of the Qur’aan showed the unique status that the Prophet (PBUH), and his ummah, occupied over other nations. In one hadeeth, the Prophet (PBUH) remarked, “The earlier books would be revealed from one door (of heaven), in one harf, but the Qur’aan was revealed from seven doors (of Heaven), in seven ahruf.” 
Footnotes and References
1] A mutawaatir hadeeth is one that is reported by a large number of narrators in every stage of the chain, so much so that they could not all be mistaken or agree upon a lie.
2] cf., al-Albaanee, Da’eed al-Jaami’, # 1335 and 1339.
3] The manuscript of ‘Uthmaan did not have dots or diacritical marks to distinguish between certain letters and vowels. See Chapter 8, on “The Collection of the Qur’aan.”
4]The Arabic is ilhaam, which is the type of inspiration that is given to pious people, and is not the wahy that is given to the prophets. The mother of Moosaa recieved this type of inspiration when she was commanded by Allaah to let Moosaa adrift in the river
5] Ibn al-Jazaree, an-Nashr, v. 1, p. 31, with changes.
6] Anas ibn Maalik stated, “I could not count more that fourteen white hairs in the Prophet’s (PBUH) beard and hair.” Reported by at-Tirmidhee in his Shamaa’il, # 31.
7] Although there is a strong difference of opinion over this. See al-Hamad, p.151, where he tries to prove that this knowledge did not exist until the Muslims invented it.
8] Reported By Al-Haakim
Taken from "Introduction To Sciences Of The Quran" By Yasir Qadhi with slight modifications.