The memorisation, abrogation, and preservation of the Qur'an

By Samuel Green


When Muslim leaders want to show that the Qur'an is superior to the Bible they give various reasons. One of the reasons is that God gave Muhammed not just the words to speak but also the ability to remember these words perfectly. It is said that Muhammad memorised the Qur'an, as did his companions, and so the Qur'an has been perfectly preserved by people remembering it. We see this idea in these quotes:

Still further, and perhaps most significantly, so long as the Prophet lived, the Community had in him an infallible guide as to the correct recitation of the Koran. The Prophet was granted special protection against forgetfulness. (Labib as-Said, The Recited Koran: A History of the First Recorded Version, trans. B. Weis, et al., Princeton, New Jersey: The Darwin Press, 1975, p. 20)

[The Qur'an] was memorised by Mohammed and then dictated to his companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters (suras) have ever been changed over the centuries. (Understanding Islam and the Muslims, The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils Inc. (pamphlet) Nov. 1991)

Not only has the Qur'an been preserved in written form, but also in the hearts of men, children and women. Today, millions of people have memorised the Qur'an from cover to cover. (The Qur'an, Learn the basics, islamicpamphlets.com)

Is this true? What do the Qur'an, Hadith, and qira'at show us?

The Qur'an

There is a verse which says the Qur'an is easy to remember.

And We have certainly made the Qur'an easy for remembrance, so is there any who will remember? (Quran 54:17)

However, there are two verses which speak about Muhammad forgetting verses of the Qur'an.

We will make you recite, [O Muhammad], and you will not forget, except what Allah should will. (Qur'an 87:6-7)

We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. (Qur'an 2:106)

Qur'an 87:6-7 says that Muhammad forgot only what Allah willed he would forget. Qur'an 2:106 says that Allah caused some verses to be forgotten. Therefore, the Qur'an is not saying it was perfectly remembered. It actually says that parts were forgotten. The explanation and justification for this is that it was Allah's will for these verses to be forgotten because they had been abrogated. Therefore, Qur'an does not say that all of it was remembered.

The Hadith

The Hadith speaks about Muhammad's memory.

Narrated Aisha: The Prophet heard a man reciting the Qur'an in the mosque and said, "May Allah bestow His Mercy on him, as he has reminded me of such-and-such verses of such a Surah." (Sahih al-Bukhari 5037; vol 6, bk 61, no 556)

'A'isha reported that the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) listened to the recitation of the Qur'an by a man in the mosque. Thereupon he said: May Allah have mercy upon him; be reminded me of the verse which I had been made to forget. (Sahih Muslim 788b; bk 4, 1721)

Narrated Abdullah ibn Mas'ud: ... [Muhammad said] I am only a human being and I forget just as you do; so when I forget, remind me ... (Sahih al-Bukhari 401; vol 1, bk 8, no 394)

These hadiths show that Muhammad forgot parts of the Qur'an and needed to be reminded. What does the Hadith say about his companions?

Narrated Abdullah: The Prophet said, "Why does anyone of the people say, 'I have forgotten such-and-such Verses (of the Qur'an)?' He, in fact, is caused (by Allah) to forget." (Sahih al-Bukhari 5039; vol 6, bk 61, no 559)

The following hadiths are about Muhammad's companions after Muhammad's death.

Abu Harb b. Abu al-Aswad reported on the authority of his father that Abu Musa al-Ash'ari sent for the reciters of Basra. They came to him and they were three hundred in number. They recited the Qur'an and he said: You are the best among the inhabitants of Basra, for you are the reciters among them. So continue to recite it. (But bear in mind) that your reciting for a long time may not harden your hearts as were hardened the hearts of those before you. We used to recite a surah which resembled in length and severity to (surah 9) Bara'at. I have, however, forgotten it with the exception of this which I remember out of it: "If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust." And we used to recite a surah which resembled one of the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it, but remember (this much) out of it: "Oh people who believe, why do you say that which you do not practise" (Q61:2) and "that is recorded in your necks as a witness (against you) and you would be asked about it on the Day of Resurrection." (Q17:13) (Sahih Muslim 1050; bk 5, no 2286)

Ibn Abbas reported ... [Umar said] Allah sent Muhammad (saw) with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the verse of the Rajam (stoning for adultery) and we did recite this verse and understood and memorized it. Allah's Apostle did carry out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him. I am afraid that after a long time has passed, somebody will say, "By Allah, we do not find the verse of the Rajam in Allah's Book", and thus they will go astray by leaving an obligation which Allah has revealed. ... And then we used to recite among the Verses in Allah's Book: "O people! Do not claim to be the offspring of other than your fathers, as it is disbelief (unthankfulness) on your part that you claim to be the offspring of other than your real father." (Sahih al-Bukhari 6830; vol 8, bk 82, no 817)

'Abdullah bin 'Umar reportedly said: "Let none of you say, 'I have got the whole of the Qur'an.' How does he know what all of it is? Much of the Qur'an is gone. Let him say instead, 'I have got what has survived.'" (Jalal ad-Deen as-Suyuti, al-Itiqan fee 'Uloom al-Qur'an, Cairo: al-Halabi, 1935, vol. 2, p. 25)

These hadiths agree with the Qur'an, that parts of the Qur'an were forgotten. Sahih Muslim 1050 shows that whole large suras were forgotten. Sahih al-Bukhari 6830 shows two verses which were memorised but are not memorised by Muslims today. Finally, as-Suyuti, records Umar saying that no one should say they have all the Qur'an. Therefore, the Hadith does not say that all of the Qur'an was remembered after Muhammad's death.

The ten qira'at

The qira'at also provide evidence about whether the Qur'an was remembered.

When Uthman made his text for the Qur'an it did not have the dots to distinguish between letters (i'jam), nor the vowel markings (tashkil); it was an ambiguous text that served only as a guide. This is not a problem as long as the Qur'an is memorised because the correct letters and vowels are known from memory. But if some words are forgotten, then the ambiguous text for these words needs to be interpreted and the dots and vowel markings added as the reader/interpreter thinks correct. This is precisely what we see in the ten qira'at. Consider these differences between the qira'at.

The differences between them are where the ambiguous Uthmanic text has been interpreted differently and the dots and vowels placed in different places. Therefore, the differences between the ten qira'at come from some words being forgotten and the readers having to interpret what the word may have been.

However, most Islamic scholars, will disagree with this conclusion and instead claim that these differences are not due to parts of the Qur'an being forgotten, but to the belief that Muhammad allowed the Qur'an to be recited in seven different ways.[1] There are four problems with this view: firstly, there are ten qira'at not seven, and Muhammad is supposed to have allowed seven not ten different ways. Secondly, if Muhammad did allow multiple recitations, then there is not one Qur'an because the word Qur'an means recitation. You cannot say there is one recitation when there are ten recitations. Thirdly, if Muhammad did allow the Qur'an to be recited in seven different ways, then his closest companions, like Uthman, would have continued Muhammad's sunna/practice. Instead, Uthman does the opposite. He standardises one text in the Qurayshi dialect and tries to remove the other ways.[2] Fourthly, the Qur'an never says it can be recited in seven or ten different ways. But, as we have seen, the Qur'an and Hadith do say that people forgot the Qur'an. Therefore, the differences between the qira'at are better explained by parts of the Qur'an being forgotten rather than the belief that Muhammad allowed the Qur'an to be recited in seven ways.


Muslim leaders say that Muhammad spoke the Qur'an, and it was memorised perfectly by him and his companians, and then passed on to the Muslim community. But as we have seen from the Qur'an and Hadith, Muhammad and his companions forgot parts of the Qur'an; and the differences between the ten qira'at also show that parts have been forgotten. Therefore, it is not true that the Qur'an has been fully and perfectly preserved by people remembering it.


[1] Sahih al-Bukhari 4992; vol 6, bk 61, no 514

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari 4987; vol 6, bk 61, no 510

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Copyright © Samuel Green 2004. Updated 12th March 2023.

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