Textual Variants in the Bible and Qur’anic Manuscripts

“The early manuscripts of the Bible have discrepancies and variants, whereas the early manuscripts of the Qur’ān are all identical”

This is a convenient idea, but it is imaginary and doesn’t fit the historical and textual record, as we will see below:

Minor Copyist Errors and Variants in the Tawrat, Zabur, Injīl and Qur’ān

All of us agree that God’s Word cannot be changed, for this is the clear testimony of both the Bible and the Qur’ān. So when we find a manuscript with a variant, does this disprove a scripture? Certainly not, for there are hundreds of such “typos” or copyist errors in both the Qur’ān and Bible. Just last month I was startled to read in my Islami Foundation Bengali Qur’ān that “the believers and righteous will earn themselves ” jahannam ” (“hell”—a typo for jannat, heaven)!1 Such a typo is normal for any printed book, as minor copying errors were in the days of careful hand-copying. Does this prove that God’s Word can be changed? No, for Allah was not referring to minor copying or printing mistakes, but significant content.

However, many people have an imaginary idea of scripture, knowing only the eulogies of ignorant semiliterate clerics. The truth is that there are many minor textual variants among early copies of the Qur’ān and Bible. While early Muslims and Christians accepted this as inevitable and wrote about it, later Muslims have attempted to deny this and cover it up.

There exists no “original copy” today of the Tawrat, Injīl, Zabur or Qur’ān , though we have thousands of reliable early copies of each of these. There is a mistaken idea perpetuated in some circles that the Topkapi and Samarqand manuscripts in Turkey and Uzbekistan are “original” copies. However, experts agree that these are not Uthmān’s copies, as they are written in the Kufic Arabic script which only appeared in the late eighth century. Furthermore, even the Uthmānic copies themselves were not originals, for they were compiled many years after Muhammad’s (pbuh) death to standardize the variety among Qur’ānic texts.2

Since printing presses were only invented five hundred years ago, all the early scriptures were written and copied by hand. This task was done by well-trained scribes who checked and rechecked their translations. The Hebrew term for these scribes is “ספרים sopherim ” which literally means “the counters.” The early scribes earned this title because they counted every letter of every book of Scripture to make sure they didn’t leave out anything. However, despite their best efforts, errors escaped their notice, especially in regard to numbers and names. It has been computed that, on the average they mistakenly copied one out of every 1,580 letters; and they usually corrected these errors when they made new copies. It is significant to note that almost all the copyist errors within the Bible are not in the Tawrat, Zabur and Injīl but in the other prophetic writings, These minor copying mistakes were inevitable, and can be found in both the Bible and Qur’ān.

These copyist mistakes do not invalidate the eternal preservation of God’s Word, for we can eliminate copyist errors and determine the correct manuscripts through a science of textual analysis. We have thousands of ancient manuscripts from many separate textual traditions, and where minor variants exist in one manuscript we can find the correct original in another manuscript tradition. So for example with Ahaziah’s age in 2 Chronicles 22:2, some manuscripts read “42” while other early manuscripts read “22”, but from the context we can determine that “42” was a copyist error and “22” the correct original.

Today there are two versions of the Qu’ran, the Warsh and the Hafsh which have a few minor diacritical variants. Yet before the standardization of the Qur’ān , there were many variants in circulation. Abdur Rahman Doi writes that the Qur’ān ‘s “new version must have gradually driven out the variants because of its official authority and the general desire for uniformity.”3

For example, in the first verse of Baqara one reads, ” Thilikal Kitaabu laa rayba fiih, ‘ This is the Scripture of which there is no doubt’. Yet Ibn Masood (who was the Prophet’s favorite reciter) along with several others recorded this as Tanziilul Kitabu laa rayba fiih, ‘ [This is] the Scripture sent down of which there is no doubt.”

History of the Qur'ān and Bible Manuscripts

Fig. 1: An example of variants in Sura al-Asr
(Source: Kitab al-Masahif, pp.192, 111, 55)

At the end of verse 198 of Baqara Ibn Masood included the extra phrase fi Mawasemel hajj (in the season of pilgrimage) after an tabteghu fadhlen merrabekum . Similarly, in the present Qur’ān , Surah Al-Imran 19 reads Innaddina inddallaahil islamm (the religion before God is Islam), but Ibn Masood’s text had the word al-Hanifiyya instead of the word Islam.

In Sura Al-Imran the last part of verse 43 reads, wasjudi warkai ma-arrke-ein, ‘prostrate thyself and bow with those who bow”, but Ibn Masood’s reading was, warkai wasjudi fes-sajedeen , (bow thyself and prostrate among those who prostrate.”4

Fig. 2: Textual Variants between the Earliest Qur’anic Manuscripts

Fig. 3: More Textual Variants between the Earliest Qur’anic Manuscripts

One could go on and on to state many more of these variants. If the variants that were extant before the present version of the Qur’ān do not destroy the integrity of the Qur’ānic text, then the same is true of the Tawrat, Injīl and Zabur. As one well-known commentator wrote, “Few books are not printed without mistakes; yet, authors do not disown them on account of this, nor are the errors by the press imputed to the author. The candid reader amends them by the context or by comparing them with some other part of the work.”

In addition, Bible translators do not attempt to keep secret the variants that exist, but any modern literal English translation will have footnotes showing all major variant readings. A cursory reading of such footnotes will show how few and insignificant these variants are.

  1. Al-Qur’anul Qarim Bangla Tarjama (Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, Dhaka, 2005), p.126.
  2. Tabari’s Commentary, 1, 20. See also Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’ān , Vol. 1, p.160; and al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.479.
  3. Abdur Rahman Doi, Qur’ān : An Introduction, p.27.
  4. Kitab al-Masahif

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *