Zayd ibn Thabit and the Glorious Qur’an

by Mohamad K. Yusuff

Introduction: In any systematic study of the history of Islam covering the past 1,420 years A.H., an objective reader of history will encounter varied classes of eminent Muslim men and women scattered across the vast geography of the then Islamic empire. The intellectual contributions of these scholars, jurists, and theologians toward the promotion of Islam as a faith and a way of life have been well documented over time.

However, within the narrower field of study, dealing exclusively with the textual history of the Sacred Qur’an, from revelation to compilation, no single individual—man or woman (in my view), has personally contributed more to, (or has played a more dominant role in), the compilation of the Qur’anic manuscript (gathered together under two covers) than Zayd ibn Thabit, the Prophet’s junior companion from Madina. The sacred Text we hold and touch today can be truly called “the Qur’an of Zayd ibn Thabit.”  Simply put, Zayd is to the Qur’an what Imam al Bukhari is to the Prophetic Sunnah.

Two men … two books! Excluding the Prophet himself, Zayd ibn Thabit and Imam al Bukhari undoubtedly can be considered the two most important men in all of Islam for their extraordinary and exclusive contribution in compiling Islam’s Sacred Scripture. In the January 2004 issue of the Voice of Islam, we presented in these pages a brief biography of Imam al Bukhari, the historian/compiler of the famous Hadith Text, commonly known as Sahih al Bukhari. We have also published (in five installments) the historic Development of Hadith Literature.

Purpose:  From a layman’s perspective, I will attempt to do the same with Zayd ibn Thabit, who, according to tradition, was commissioned to lead the project to bring the glorious Qur’an into book form for the first time in recorded history, under the auspices of the first three orthodox caliphs. My primary objective here is to briefly outline the historic record behind Zayd’s critical work in gathering the “written materials of Qur’anic verses” and assembling them under two covers, shortly after the death of the Prophet in 632 C.E. In short, this paper will attempt to show that the scholarly career of Zayd mirrors the development of the written Qur’an.

Ignored by Modern Historians: Before I begin, however, it is relevant to note that very little ink has been consumed on the biography of Zayd ibn Thabit in the English language, despite his dominant contribution to the existence of the written Qur’an we have today. Evidence of this can be seen from Zayd’s absence from the standard encyclopedias and other biographical works, prepared by modern Muslim and non-Muslim writers and historians. For example, no reference is made about Zayd in any of the books in this small sample:

Phases of Historic Development: Traditional sunni orthodoxy holds the view that the Revelation of the Noble Qur’an took place in two separate and distinct sequences.

First Sequence: In this account, the Qur’an was revealed in its entirety in the fasting month of Ramadan, on the night of layl al qadr (Night of Power); that is, in one of the odd-numbered nights in the last ten days of Ramadan. In this narration, Allah caused the primordial Qur’an to descend (all at once) from the “Guarded Tablet,” al lawh al mahfuz, to the lowest heaven, al bayt al `izzah, the House of Honor (or Power). The following verses are cited to support this construction:

Second Sequence: In this phase of the Revelation, passages from the pre-existing Tablet (in the lower heaven) was transmitted in parts and at intervals, from Jibril to Prophet Muhammad, in a process that spanned the Messenger’s entire 23-year ministry. The Qur’an confirms: “And (it is) a Qur’an which We have divided (into parts from time to time) in order that you (Muhammad) may recite it to the people at intervals; We have revealed it by stages.” [Al Israa’/17:106]

This article deals with the Second Sequence. In this context, historical records show that the compilation of the noble Qur’an can be divided into three distinct phases:

The Qur’an on the Qur’an: The Message of the Glorious Qur'an (Speech of Allah) was transmitted verbatim, from Allah via Archangel Gabriel to the Messenger. The Qur’an explains this divine procedure:

These verses clearly explain the transmission process of the Qur'anic messages, by messenger and by inspiration--a methodology by which the revelation would be protected and could not be forged! Allah imprinted the revealed messages (via angel Jibril) in the Prophet's memory; the Prophet then repeated the verses to his scribes/secretaries, who recorded them on a variety of written materials. The Prophet then taught the Verses to his Companions, many of whom memorized the on-going Revelation. Essentially, this was the standardized procedure in the 23-year transmission of the Qur'an. There was no deviation or modification to this standard.

The Unlettered (Unscriptured) Prophet:  The noble Qur’an refers to the Messenger on occasions as the ‘unlettered (ummi) prophet’; that is, one who can neither ‘read’ nor ‘write’, and one who had no knowledge of previous Scriptures, according to traditional interpretation. Referring to the prophecy of Muhammad in the Torah and the Gospel, Surah Al-A`raf/7:157 states: “Those who follow the apostle, the unlettered (ummi) prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (Scriptures)—in the Law (Torah) and the Gospel (Injil) …it is they who will prosper.”  And again: “… so believe in Allah and his Messenger, the unlettered (ummi) Prophet who believe in Allah ….” (al A’raf/7:158).

The Muslim community was also described as “unlettered”: “It is He who was sent amongst the “unlettered” people (ummiyiin) an apostle from among themselves…” (al-Jumu`ah/62:2). Most authorities are in agreement that the Allah’s Messenger did not himself write down the Revelation. The noble Qur’an explicitly confirms this fact: “And thou (O Muhammad) was not a reader of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then might those have doubted who follow falsehood.” (al-Ankabut/29:48). For these reasons and more, the Prophet appointed scribes to write the divine messages as they were received during his entire prophetic mission. According to various authorities, the Prophet had many scribes, ranging from 20 to 60, who wrote down the “revealed messages” during his prophetic mission.

The Prophet Meets the Young Ansar: Zayd ibn Thabit is Zayd ibn Thabit ibn al-Dahhak (Abu Kharija). He was born in Madina eleven years before the Hijra (in 611 C.E.) but was raised in Mecca. His father was killed when he was six years old, and he emigrated at age eleven to Madina, approximately the same time the Prophet migrated to that city in 622 C.E. Zayd and his family were among the first ansars (helpers) to accept Islam, when members of his clan embraced the faith and swore allegiance to the Prophet in Year 1 of the Hijra. In one report Zayd himself reported that the Prophet had just arrived in Madina and: “I was brought to the Prophet and the people said: O Messenger of Allah! This is one of the boys of (the tribe of) Bani al-Najjar, and he has memorized seventeen surahs. So I recited to the Prophet, and he was well pleased with that.”

Not yet 13, Zayd personally appealed to the Prophet to join the Muslim army, which was preparing for the Battle of Badr (2 A.H) against the Makkan pagans. On account of his youth, the Prophet denied his request and sent him home, much to the distress of his mother al Nawar bint Malik. A couple of years later, he again attempted to re-enlist in the Muslim army preparing for the Battle of `Uhud (3 A.H.) with a group of other teenagers, some of whom were admitted to the ranks, but the Messenger again rejected Zayd due to his youth and inexperience. Maybe the Messenger foresaw the heavy burden history would later place on the shoulders of this young man!

Chief Scribe to the Prophet:  Twice rejected for military service, Zayd continued his effort to work for the cause of Islam. Though young in age, he was academically inclined and was also gifted in languages. He could read and write (a rare commodity at that time). He excelled in Arabic and distinguished himself in the recitation of Qur’anic surahs. For these reasons, the Prophet selected him as his Chief Scribe of the Qur’an (kaatib al nabiyy), despite his youth. This was a characteristic trait of the Prophet—appointing bright and energetic young people to high office—much to the chagrin of older companions!

In a hadith in his Sahih, Al Bukhari reported: Al-Bara’ said: “There was revealed ‘not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah” (al-Nisaa’/4:95). The Prophet said: ‘Call Zayd for me and let him bring the board, the ink pot and the scapula bone, (or the scapula bone and the ink pot.)’ Then he said: ‘Write: Not equal are those believers …Several types of materials were used to write down the “revealed verses,” including palm stalks, white stones, wood, shoulder bones, and leather, among others.

It has also been reported that the Prophet requested Zayd to study Hebrew and Syriac to assist him with diplomatic letters and correspondences, later sent to neighboring heads of state, inviting them to Islam. Then in his early twenties, Zayd became an exponent of the Qur’an and one of those who had memorized the existing Revelation as taught by the Prophet himself. Hadith records also state that Zayd had the unique distinction to witness the Prophet’s recitation before Jibril during the last Ramadan. According to Ibn Abi Dawud, once, after the Prophet’s death, some people went to Zayd and asked him: “Narrate to us something from the Prophet.” He responded: “And what should I narrate to you?” I used to be a neighbor of the Prophet, so whenever any inspiration came to him, he would call me to write it…”

Written Qur’an Existed at the Time of the Prophet’s Death: Tradition holds that, at the time of the Prophet’s death (in 632 C.E./10 A.H.), the revealed Qur’an existed in written form, with ayat and surahs (verses and chapters) arranged in order, at the Prophet’s direction under divine Guidance. For example, Ahmad and others reported: `Uthman ibn Abi Al-`Aas said: “Once while I was sitting with Allah’s Messenger, he rolled his eyes upwards in a stare, then after a while he lowered them and said: ‘Jibril came to me and ordered me to place this ayah in this place in this surah’: => ‘innallaha ya’-muru bil `adli wal-‘ihsaani wa iitaa’i dhil qurba.’ => Verily Allah commands justice, kindness, and charity to close relatives.” [16:90] However, the written verses were not assembled under two covers in ‘book form.’ That is, the Qur’anic text was completely written down but was not assembled in one master volume. Ibn Hajar reported: Zayd ibn Thabit said: ‘The Prophet was taken [from this life] whilst the Qur’an had not yet been gathered into a book.’

Many reasons have been advanced as to why the “written Qur’an” was not compiled during the Prophet’s lifetime, including: the revelation was still continuing, abrogated (naskh) verses could not be distinguished until the revelation was complete, etc. However, the most valid reason we can provide is that this massive undertaking was left to the Prophet’s close Companions, since Allah’s promise had to be fulfilled: “We have without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption.)” [15:9] Allah also reiterated this notion: “It is for us to collect it and to promulgate it. But when we have promulgated it, follow thou its recital (as promulgated). Nay, more, it is for us to explain it (and make it clear).” [75:17-19]

According to Von Denffer, most scholars agree that the Prophet died nine days after receiving the last revelation: “And fear the day when ye shall be brought back to God. Then shall every soul be paid what is earned and none shall be dealth with unjustly. [2:181] Other scholars hold that the last verse revealed was: “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” [5:3] It is thus clear that nine days is not adequate (by any competent standard) to collect and compile in book form the written Qur’anic manuscript. That work had to be done by others.

`Umar Prevailed on Abu Bakr to Collect the Written Verses:  After the Prophet died (632 CE), Abu Bakr succeeded him as the first rightly-guided Caliph for the entire Muslim commonwealth. Imam al Bukhari in his Sahih explained that, at the Battle of Yamama (12 A.H.), many huffaz (memorizers of the oral Qur’an), 70 according to some reports, were killed in battle against the false prophet Musaylimah (in the wars of apostasy—ridda). `Umar ibn al Khattab, the wise and visionary Companion of the Prophet, persuaded Abu Bakr to authorize the “collection of the written Qur’an” due to the deaths of the numerous Qur’an readers. This was a tall order for Abu Bakr since the Prophet himself had never suggested such a thing during his lifetime.

Zayd Appointed to Collect Manuscript: After some initial hesitation over Umar’s request, Abu Bakr finally agreed to sanction this extraordinary project. He then sent for the Prophet’s Chief Scribe, Zayd ibn Thabit, and commissioned him to do as Umar had requested, in the following words: Zayd, you are young and intelligent, you used to record the revelations for the Prophet, and we know nothing to your discredit. So pursue the Qur’an and collect it together …”

Zayd’s Impeccable credentials:  Zayd had excellent credentials being the chief scribe of the Prophet; this fact alone gave Abu Bakr comfort and assurance that Zayd was duly qualified to undertake the formidable task “to gather” the sacred Qur’an together. Zayd’s qualifications included the following:

·         He was the well-known Madinite Scribe to the Prophet for the Revelation (kaatib al wahy al mashur).

·         He was a renowned hafiz of the Qur’an during the lifetime of the Prophet.

·         He was a witness to the Prophet’s recitation in the presence of Jibril during the last Ramadan.

·         He had irreproachable morals (Abu Bakr said: “we do not accuse you of any wrongdoing.”)

·         He was young, knowledgeable, wise, and reliable (with sound and powerful memory).

·         He had excellent skills in languages (written and spoken), especially in Arabic.

At first, Zayd himself was hesitant to accept the Caliph’s order to spearhead this novel task. However, like Abu Bakr, he was soon reconciled to the wisdom of the undertaking and accepted the mission to head the committee, which included `Umar al Khattab and other companions.

“Law of Witness” Methodology:  It is vital to understand the methodology employed by Zayd and his committee in this project, which required ‘public disclosure and openness’ in the “collection process” to assure acceptance that the written verses collected were “the divine verses” revealed to the Prophet. This idea of “authoritativeness” is central to issues of reliability and authenticity of the “collected manuscript.” The caliph Abu Bakr understood the implication and gravity of this question. Hence, to assist Zayd in the project, he issued a general decree requesting that all Muslims, who had copies of written verses (recited to them by the Prophet himself), to bring such verses to the Prophet’s masjid (in Madina), along with two reliable witnesses.

Ibn Abi Dawud stated: Abu Bakr told `Umar and Zayd: ‘Sit at the entrance to the [Prophet’s] masjid. If anyone brings you a verse from the Book of Allah along with two witnesses, then record it.’ The written materials, attested by two witnesses, were also compared with oral recitation of the noted qurrafor correctness, coherence and consistency. Zayd’s extraordinary efforts ended with all surahs and verses duly arranged, probably in the Madinite script and spelling conventions.

This “law of witness” methodology was a critical procedure applied to authenticate the written Qur’an, a standard later adopted by hadith scholars: that is, validating the “written verses”, as confirmed by witnesses to establish reliability and authoritativeness of the compiled Text. This approach constituted the core of Abu Bakr’s instruction to Zayd on his appointment as head of the Qur’an project.

Suhuf of Abu Bakr: The compiled manuscript became known as the Abu Bakr’s Suhuf {parchment (pages) of sacred writings}, bringing the written Qur’an in book form under two covers, for the first time ever. The Suhuf was placed in the state archives in the custody of the Caliph. On his deathbed, Abu Bakr appointed `Umar to succeed him and entrusted the Suhuf in the latter’s custody. `Umar’s regime lasted next ten years, during which time he stabilized the Islamic nation and expanded the borders beyond the Arabian Peninsula: into Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Sadly, `Umar died at the hands of an assassin, Abu Lu’Lu. The Suhuf then found its way in the custody of Hafsa (a hafizah), Umar’s daughter and wife of the late Prophet. According to al-Bukhari in his Sahih, Hafsa kept the Qur’an in her house in Madina, but she made it available to anyone who wanted to make copies from it or check the accuracy of what they had memorized.

Mushaf of `Uthman:  During the reign of the third rashidun Caliph `Uthman ibn `Affan, the Islamic commonwealth expanded further: into Persia, India, Russia, China, Turkey, and across North Africa. This rapid expansion of Islam and its teachings resulted in many problems and disputes, involving the correct reading and pronunciation of the Suhuf, emanating from certain regions and from new converts of the growing Islamic empire. Similar concerns were also raised by `Uthman’s military field commanders over variant readings of the Suhuf. For these reasons, the third Caliph (with the consensus of the learned) sought to standardize the Suhuf and ordered the preparation of several copies to be transcribed from the Suhuf in the custody of Hafsa.

Two accounts have been advanced concerning the development of what came to be called the “`Uthman’s Mushaf” (`Uthmani Codex). In both accounts, Caliph `Uthman re-commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit to head a committee to prepare copies of the Qur’an. In the first narration, Zayd headed a committee together with three other Companions to prepare copies from the Suhuf kept by Hafsa. According to this account, several copies of the Qur’an were made and sent to various regions of the Islamic empire, together with a Qur’anic reciter. One copy was made specifically for `Uthman for private use.

In the second account, Zayd was asked to head a committee of twelve Companions to collect written Qur’anic materials, as was done in the first compilation of the Abu Bakr’s Suhuf. Ibn Sirin stated: “When `Uthman decided to collect the Qur’an, he assembled a committee of twelve from both the Quraysh and the Ansar. Among them were Ubayy bin Ka`b and Zayd ibn Thabit.” In this narration, the entire Qur’an was collected and collated, using the “law of witness” procedure described above. The compiled manuscript was then compared with the Abu Bakr’s Suhuf, and this Text became known as the `Uthmani Qur’an. In this version also, several copies (including a personal copy for the Caliph) were made and distributed to various centers of the far-flung Muslim empire.

Extant `Uthmani Codex: After the `Uthmani Mushaf was collected, verified and distributed, the Caliph `Uthman ordered all other existing copies of the Qur’an, held by many, to be destroyed on the grounds that they were incomplete and included personal written notes in the manuscripts that could cause confusion.

Questions have arisen as to the existence of the original mushaf.”  According to several authorities (including Von Denffer and Ghulam Sarwar), two original copies of the Mushaf from the time of Caliph `Uthman still exist today—one in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, and the other in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The National Library of Karachi, Pakistan, has a photocopy of the Tashkent original. These sources also claim that a copy of the Tashkent Mushaf is now in the Columbia University Library, USA.

Historic Note on Shi`ism: History has documented the major split of the embryonic Muslim community early in the first century of Islam—shortly after the death of the Prophet. The schism that ensued thereafter divided Islam into two primary branches: the majoritarian Sunni community (ahl al sunnah wal jama`ah) and the minority Shi`a (ahl al bay—household of the Prophet), each branch subsequently evolved its own interpretation of the sacred scripture, theology, rituals and liturgical practices, exegesis, and Islamic Weltanschauung. However, despite such differences in interpretation and rituals, the `Uthmani Mushaf has now been accepted by both branches of Islam (sunni and shi`a) as the authorized canon.

Historically, there has been questions from Shi`ism over the validity of the `Uthmani Qur’an. And there is consensus in Shi`a Islam that `Ali ibn Abu Talib produced a copy of the Qur’an that differed in arrangement from the `Uthmani Codex. But both the Shi`a Seveners and Twelvers hold that this, the variance in arrangement, was the only difference between the Text of `Uthman and that of `Ali. Moreover, it is generally known that `Ali, when he became the fourth Caliph, made no changes to the `Uthmani Mushaf, giving credence to the latter’s authenticity.

Over time, many fatawa have been issued by eminent Shi`a scholars confirming the authenticity of the `Uthmani Qur’an, including this one by the renowned Ayatullahil-Ozma Haj Akha Syed Mohsin Hakeem Tabatabayi (Najaf-e-Ashroff-Iraq):

Conclusion: In addition to his critical role in making the written Qur’an a reality, Zayd ibn Thabit was a highly respected jurist who was well recognized for his scholarship by fellow Companions during the first century Hijra. Hadith records relate that Zayd had the unique distinction of witnessing the Prophet’s recitation before Jibril during the last Ramadan. According to the classical scholars, Zayd was one of an elite group of seven Companions with requisite qualifications to render legal opinions and to practice ijtihad (giving independent legal judgment); the other Companions were deemed not to be in the same category, due to varying levels of religious scholarship.

As a learned scholar in Islam, Zayd was an authoritative source for other Companions in deciding cases and giving formal legal opinions in various matters, including Qur’anic recitation and issues of inheritance. Thomas William Beale, in his An Oriental Biographical Dictionary, described Zayd as: “… the earliest authority on ilm al-fara’ez and maybe called the father of the law of inheritance. Muhammad is reported to have said to his followers: ‘The most learned amongst you in the laws of heritage is Zayd;  and the caliphs `Umar and `Uthman considered him without an equal as a judge, a jurisconsult, a calculator in division of inheritance, and a reader of the Qur’an.” Orientalist Helmut Gatje concluded in his The Qur’an and Its Exegesis: “… Zayd ibn Thabit played an essential part concerning the production of the Qur’an in the form in which it appears today.”

It is also said that when the Caliph `Umar used to travel away from Madina on business, he would leave Zayd in his place until he returned. Ibn `Abbas, noted for his immense erudition, used to visit Zayd at home to extract knowledge from him. According to hadith historians, Zayd related 92 ahadith. When he died in 45 AH (665 C.E.), Abu Hurayra said: “the scholar of this nation has died today; haply Allah make Ibn `Abbas his successor.”


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Mohamad K. Yusuff, CPA, MBA, CGFM, is a professional auditor/accountant. He is currently Director of Internal Audit in the District of Columbia Government, Washington, DC. He is the Editor of ISWA’s Voice of Islam Newsletter and also the academic quarterly, Aalim. He likes to dabble in comparative religion and international politics and diplomacy.

Posted September 15, 2004