Why Did the Caliph Uthman Burn Different Versions of the Quran?
Prophet Muhammad PBUH received the text of the Holy Quran from Angel Gabriel, who, in turn, received it directly from God. The Holy Quran was not revealed to Prophet Muhammad PBUH at one time, nor were they revealed to him in order. Instead, the Verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad PBUH over the course of 23 years and often would be delivered in the wake of a current event happening in the time of Prophet Muhammad PBUH and his early Muslim companions.
Angel Gabriel instructed Prophet Muhammad PBUH where Verses and Chapters belonged so that he could sequence the Holy Quran correctly. Prophet Muhammad PBUH instructed scribes to write verbatim as he dictated them orally. The scribes of the Prophet PBUH would write the Verses of the Holy Quran as dictated on whatever surface they had available, whether it took the form of leather, white stones, bones, animal skin, pieces of bark, etc. His main scribe was named Zaid bin Thabit R.A.
Whereas Quranic Verses were composed in fragments, the Holy Quran was compiled into a Book — one developed within two years after the passing of the Prophet PBUH when his major companions were still alive. During a battle, many Quranic memorizers were killed, so the scribe of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, Zaid bin Thabit, was asked to compile the Holy Quran into a published Book.
Whereas Zaid bin Thabit memorized the whole Quran by heart, he did not submit any Verses to the formed Book unless he had acquired two witnesses for each Verse — their testimonies were in written form and memorization — to confirm the Verses were exactly like how they were revealed ensuring no words or letters were added or subtracted from the text.
It’s important to stress that the Prophet’s main scribe, Zayd bin Thabit, did not rely on himself, or for that matter, a single companion, to compile the Holy Quran. Instead, he called upon the services of the many memorizers of the Holy Quran to ensure and confirm that they possessed the exact Verses of the Holy Quran, as sent down and Revealed to Prophet Muhammad PBUH with no additions or subtractions.
Many companions of the Prophet PHUH memorized the Holy Quran during the life of the Prophet, word for word. The companions knew that past Scriptures, such as the Torah sent with Prophet Moses and the Gospel sent with Jesus Christ, were rendered lost, so they took the necessary steps to protect the Holy Quran from any additions, enhancements, or subtractions; doing so through the devices of word for word memorization.
No parts of the Holy Quran were lost when Zaid bin Thabit compiled the Quran into book form; this owing to the fact that the companions had written copies of the Holy Quran, and the Holy Quran as a whole was memorized by many of the companions. The oral tradition has always been the primary means of preserving the Holy Quran; even today, millions of people worldwide have memorized the Quran by heart. This more than 600-page document is memorized word for word, letter for letter, even by children that do not speak Arabic. Even if every single copy of the Quran were to be burnt today, it would not matter — because many people worldwide have the Holy Quran memorized by heart.
This complete Book of the Holy Quran remained with the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, until his death, then was passed down to the second Caliph, Umar ibn Al Khattab. After his death, it was entrusted to his daughter, Hafsa, also a wife of the Prophet PBUH.
During the 3rd Caliph of Islam of Uthman ibn Affan, he realized that many non-Arabs were converting to Islam and that the Holy Quran was being recited and written in various dialects and scripts. In addition, some of the companions would compose the Holy Quran from memory or copy its text from someone else with their own hands. This activity often results in human copyist errors.
Since the Arabic language scripture had yet to develop at this point entirely, one letter or symbol can represent multiple letters, increasing the likelihood of a copyist’s error. The companions also would sometimes jot down their notes in the margins of their text copies for their own benefit, whether the notes formed the definitions of a word, the pronunciation of a word, a supplication dua, etc. Many of the companions had not learned how to read or write proficiently. The Arabian Peninsula had a high illiteracy rate then, and many of the notes in their codices contained spelling errors.
Uthman ibn Affan deemed it critical that everyone, including future generations, receives the unaltered Message of God in its exact words, verbatim, sans the enhancement or addition of anyone’s notes or the presence of copyist errors. It would confuse and confound future generations to receive personalized copies of the Holy Quran, each bearing notes from a companion. To prevent this from happening, the Caliph at the time, Uthman ibn Affan, requested that all of the personal copies of the Holy Quran that contained the individual notes of the companions — be burned, save the single original Quran compiled by the Prophet’s main scribe Zaid bin Thabit and the appointed committee. Finally, only one version remained, including the exact Words of Allah verbatim, as the Holy Quran was intended. Uthman ibn Affan standardized all copies of the Holy Quran.
In the West, the ritual of burning something has a negative connotation that represents a show of disrespect or the concealment of evidence. However, this was not the case when the fragments of the Holy Quran containing the companion’s notes were burned. In Islam, Muslims cannot simply discard any text that includes the Words of God into the garbage, as such a gesture would be deemed disrespectful. Instead, they must be burnt or buried. It was necessary to burn those copies to ensure they did not circulate to the rest of humanity. Because this same act was not done with the Gospel, the Bible today contains verses that originated as notes in the margin of pages — written by scribes never meant to make them into verses, as they never contained the words of God nor Jesus Christ.
With the original master copy of the Holy Quran in possession of the Caliph Uthman ibn Affan and all personal copies burnt, master copies were made from the original and distributed to each city’s grand Mosque in the Islamic province. Recipients included Mecca, Medina, Basra, Kufa, and Damascus, along with the dispatchment of Quran reciters to teach the people in those cities the correct recitation and pronunciation of the text. In addition, the Book’s master copies were present in the city’s grand Mosque so that people could make copies. From that time until today, every Quran copy in the world has existed in the same version, letter for letter. It is believed that original documents exist today in Turkey and Uzbekistan.
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an, and indeed, We will be its Guardian.” (Quran 15:9)
God has promised to preserve the Holy Quran, protecting His Book from anyone who attempts to modify or change its Text or Message. This means God will guard His Book against human-made modifications, distortions, additions, subtractions, or tampering.
“This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah” (Quran 2:2)
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