Disclaimer. The reader is strongly advised to independently verify all information given as per 17:36.
All Muslims are taught from a very early age that the Quran is a perfectly preserved book and that God has taken it upon himself to guard each verse, word, and letter of the Quran from any errors or changes:
“Indeed it is We who have sent down the Reminder, and indeed it is We who will preserve it.” (Quran 15:9)
However, one of the least discussed or debated subjects amongst Muslims and even amongst students of the Scripture are the variant texts of the Quran, namely: Hafs & Warsh.
Hafs Version Warsh Version
Although there are other versions in print, such as in Qalun in Libya, or Al-Duri in Sudan, this paper will primarily deal with the examination of Hafs and Warsh.
To know whether the Quran you are reading is Hafs or Warsh, there is a simple test:
- Look at the first Chapter/Sura of the Quran. If you see that the ‘Basmallah’ (the opening of the chapter which reads: ‘In the name of God, the Almighty, the Most Merciful’) has a number ascribed after it (the number 1), then you have the ‘Hafs’ version…If there is no number and it is treated like the other 112 Basmallahs, then you have the Warsh version.
How Did These Versions Exist?
As far as we can be aware, the revelation of the Quran began at around the 7th century A.D. by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed. The revelations were in Arabic verse form, which were then recorded by the prophet to script (29:48). The revelation of verses continued over a period of time (17:106), until at the end of the revelation the prophet rearranged the Quran into a ‘specific’ arrangement of Chapters and verses according to divine instructions (16:101-102).
While it is not known what happened to the original Quran that was recorded and arranged by the prophet, it is known that many copies of the finalized Quran were made and distributed to the prophet’s followers, who in turn carried these copies with them to the various geographic regions they migrated to (Kufa, Basra, Mekka, Damascus, North Africa, etc.)
Some time later, when the groups met or converged, it was noticed that the recitals they carried were in a slightly different manner from each other since they were based on the textual copy each had taken with them as well as the small but significant dialectal differences. The differences ranged from slight textual changes (a “Waw” or “Alif” was added), to different reading of letters (reading a “Ya” as a “Ta”), to vocalization differences (“Maalik” vs. “Melik), and finally to differences in the location of the verse stops (which were used to indicate the original verse revealed by God to the prophet).
It is not known which of these groups had with them an accurate copy, or which group had a copy with scribal errors, or which group had a deliberately altered copy…
This problem of the variations continued to go unabated until the 5th century after the Hijra (around the 11th century A.D.) when the varying number of Quran recitations were studied and classified in the first known work on the subject by Abu Ma’shar Al-Tabari.
Rather than dealing with this most serious of issues head on and searching for the evidence to support the correct Quran (only one was revealed); the scholars of Al-Tabari’s time decided to side-step the problem completely by finding a convenient of Hadith whereby the prophet had “allegedly said” that Gabriel revealed the Quran to him in 7 different dialects/readings (also known as the ‘7 letters’), and therefore all the groups were correct in their recitations since these variations were sanctioned by the Hadith.
Even though the Hadith spoke of 7 versions, Al-Tabari concluded that 8 of the existing versions of the Quran were ‘authentic’ (later scholars increased this to 10) and that they could all be traced back to the prophet through well respected scholars from the 2nd century after the Hijra whom he identified as follows:
- Nafi Bin Abdulrahman (Died 169 A.H.)
- Abdulla Bin Kathir (Died 120 A.H.)
- Abdulla Bin Amer (Died 118 A.H.)
- Asim Abi Al-Nujood (Died 127 A.H.)
- Hamza Al-Zayaat (Died 156 A.H.)
- Al-Kisai, Ali Bin Hamza (Died 189 A.H.)
- Abu Amru Al-Basari (Died 154 A.H.)
- Yaqoub Al-Hadrami (Died 205 A.H.)
So as not to cause more confusion to an already confused public, the Islamic scholars decided that each reading should go by a unique name to identify which versions/recitation it is from. Hence, the version that survived from North Africa came to be known as “Warsh” while the version that was prevalent in the Middle East became “Hafs”.
- Hafs - Based on the link to Hafs Al-Asadi, and Asim Abi Al-Nujood.
- Warsh - Based on the link to Uthman Al-Qutbi Al-Masri, and Nafi Bin Abdulrahman.
The recognition and acceptance of these two versions of the Quran goes far enough for the Government of Saudi Arabia (King Fahad Quran Complex) to print both versions as being authentically accepted narration of the Quran.
In-fact, if you listen to recitations of the Arabic Quran on-line, then you should notice the next time that amongst the list of selections for recitals there is always a few of the ‘Warsh’ version (Listen to the Warsh recital by Mahmoud Al-Hosary).
Is There Really a Difference?
There is a widely prevalent belief that there are no ‘real’ differences between the two versions of Hafs & Warsh and that they are simply slight vocal variations (a letter here, a letter there) which do not have any impact on the meaning of the Quran.
An example of an argument against the existence of ‘significant’ differences can be read in the following post by brother Mirghani on the subject:
The truth of the matter however is that there are significant differences which cannot simply be waived away or ignored…
- 2:125 in Hafs is وَاتَّخِذوْا “WatakhIzu” (You shall take) / In Warsh it is وَاتَّخَذوْا “WatakhAzu” (They have taken/made).
In 2:125 the subject being addressed is that of “Maqam Ibrahim”. One version gives a command/order, while the other states a historical fact/observation.
- 3:146 in Hafs is قاتل “Qatal” (Fought) / In Warsh it is ُقتل “Qutil” (Were Killed).
In 3:146 the difference is between a prophet and those with him being killed, while in the other the difference only means that they fought by his side.
- Verse counts for Hafs are 6236, while Warsh records 6214 (other versions record 6616, 6217, 6204, and 6262).
Muslims claim to know the time, place, and occasion that each verse was revealed in…Yet between Hafs and Warsh they seems not to know even how many verses were originally revealed!
The question that presents itself is: “Which did Gabriel reveal?”
Due to formatting issues, the remainder of this paper is best viewed in PDF (click: Which Quran).
By Layth Al-Shaiban (firstname.lastname@example.org)