Q: 1. A Christian said that there are many versions of the Quran, that there may be one literal version of the Quran, but many de facto versions? Put another way, how does a good Muslim know which verses are more important?
2. The Christian also posed this objection: The first Caliphs were both spiritual and temporal leaders of Islam, but as intrigue and assassination hewed through the ranks of believers and Islam shattered into warring factions each intent on putting their man into the Caliphate, it subsequently became a purely political office. By the 1600's, it was just an empty figurehead office, by the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no one to fill it at all. The Caliphate has been empty for over a century and it will remain so — it would be impossible for the various Islamic sects to agree on a successor.
The Christian claims that there are now as many versions of the Quran as there are imams to interpret it. If one imam or group of imams says this Sura is more important than that one, and another group says something else, what are we to do? There is no one to adjudicate between the two groups, no one who can exert authority and say with authority that one group is wrong while the other is right. Thus, when modern commentators claim to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, it simply isn't clear what they mean. Are the fundamentalists the ones who insist on the primacy of the Meccan verses or are they the ones who insist on the primacy of the Medinian verses?
A: 1. There are no literal or de facto versions of the Qur'aan. There is only one version, and that was the version revealed to The Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and that is still read and studied around the Muslim world today. In fact it is logically and linguistically incorrect to make a division such as literal and de facto with regards to the Qur'aan. It must be understood that The Holy Qur'aan in its literal and original form was compiled in the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and his Disciples after him. The Holy Qur'aan does not need legal, official, or sovereign recognition or endorsement in order to maintain its authenticity. The purity of Qur'anic words and its authenticity has been and still is accepted among all strata of the Muslim world and, unlike the Bible, is not ratified or approved by a particular group of clergy or religious panel. The veracity and originality of the Holy Qur'aan is axiomatic and natural in Islam. The reason for this is that the Holy Qur'aan in its originality is preserved in the hearts of millions of Muslims, called Huffaaz, so it has become a household fixture. No one dare tamper with the text, for such an endeavour is easily exposed through the thousands of people who can recite The Qur'aan from memory without s single mistake! In light of this it is easy to understand why the authenticity of the Qur'aan is embedded in the Islamic Nation and needs no official or state approval.
The questioner, being a Christian will be forgiven for asking a question of this nature, as well as the question of how a good Muslim will know which verses are more important, because this is how Christians approach their Bible. The Bible had to be sanctioned by the Church, which had to officially declare which books are authentic and which are not, and which are “more important” and which are not; consequently they had to expunge some books and even verses from the Bible on the basis that these books were of doubtful origin and source, thus giving rise to the Apocrypha.
As for the Qu'aan, every chapter and section are equally important and enjoy the same sanctity among the whole Muslim nation. The entire Qur'aan was revealed in the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and after him all revelation ceased, meaning that there was to be no addition to or deletion from the Holy Qur'aan. Therefore, its compilation was finalized and printed in proper book form soon thereafter. At no stage did new chapters of the Qur'aan come to light after the Messenger of God, nor were any scrolls containing chapters of the Qur'aan discovered afterwards in hidden caves or under rocks. No part of the Holy Qur'aan became extinct or obsolete at any stage, nor did any chapter go missing or disappear; how could it, when thousands knew the entire Qur'aan from memory. The question of different versions, therefore, is totally inappropriate. One part of the Qur'aan is neither less doubtful nor more authentic than the other. Every single aspect of Qur'anic text enjoys equal authenticity.
We fully agree that after the early establishment of Caliphate, the Islamic nation became politically fragmented and the Caliphate thereafter remained a cherished goal. It still is such today. We also acknowledge that, given the current disjointed state of the Muslim nation, it will be almost impossible to have one supreme Caliph as was the case in the former times. This is never in dispute. However, to deduce from the disrupted political situation of Muslims today that there are several versions of the Qur'aan is a clear sign of ignorance with regards to the history of the Holy Qur'aan. To assume that divisions among Muslim leadership automatically resulted in diversification of The Qur'aan is baseless and false. Part of this was answered in question one above. The Qur'aan was never subject to interpolation by Muslim leaders. In fact, in spite of their differences, Muslim Kings prided themselves on the idea that they were the custodians of the Holy Qur'aan and would fight tooth and nail for its preservation.
Moreover, as alluded to earlier, since its inception the Holy Qur'aan was assimilated into the broader Muslim public through its recitation, teaching, and memorisation. Scholars in all eras were actually supported and handsomely remunerated by Kings and Rulers to ensure the preservation of The Words and Teachings of the Qur'aan. In short, the Qur'aan was public property so prized that every Muslim who learnt or memorized it felt honoured to be part of the Grand Divine Plan to protect this Sacred Text. Yes, specialized sciences of the Qur'aan were left to the experts in their field, such as the Jurists, Exponents of Qur'anic Exegesis, and so forth.
It must also borne in mind that whilst Muslim rulers waged their own internecine wars, the Scholars in every country and era were left to pursue their goal of teaching and expounding on the teachings of the Qur'aan unhindered and unencumbered. This is easily known by reading up on Islamic history, especially the post Caliphate period. Exceptions may exist by these are few and far between. Generally the Scholars of the day were given a free reign to expound, promote, and propagate the Holy Qur'aan far and wide. It was almost as if the Scholars enjoyed religious autonomy. This created the ideal environment to preserve the Qur'aan with its teachings.
With regards to the Qur'aan, as elucidated answer number one, all Surahs have equal rank and status among the whole Muslim nation. So the question of rulers declaring some Surahs as more important than others just does not arise. It is understood by all Muslims, both Governors and the governed, that every verse of the Holy Qur'aan is as authentic as the next. In this there is no dispute. Dispute among Scholars may arise in interpreting some of its intricate meanings (not the clear and explicit meanings) In fact these disputes have occurred and resulted in the formation of different Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence. But the core text of the Holy Qur'aan and its original version remains the same, unadulterated and immutable.
Even in their theological disputes, Islamic Scholars never differed among each other on the core and fundamental beliefs of the Holy Qur'aan, such as the common themes that run throughout the Holy Qur'aan such as belief in One God, His Messengers, The Finality of Muhammad’s Prophethood, His Books, the Day of Judgment, Life after death, pre-destination, five times prayers a day, fasting in Ramadhaan, paying annual Zakaat, Hajj, and many, many, more basic Islamic tenets and practices of worship.
We have to understand the difference between the Text of The Qur'aan, its meanings, and interpretation. We Muslims preserve the original Arabic of the Qur'aan and this is what we mean by Qur'anic Text. Text of Qur'aan is not the English translations that are abound in the world today. This again is another major difference between the Bible and The Qur'aan, for the former is not circulated with the original text, whilst the latter must be published with the original Arabic text. Qur'anic text means the original Arabic which every single Muslims learns to read. This text is the unadulterated Word of Allah, which remained unchanged since its revelation and will remain like that till Doomsday.
As regards the translations, this will vary slightly depending on the usage of the translator, but in essence remains the same.
We Muslims do not regard reading the translation in whatever language as a means of reward or an act of devotion. Yes, reading a translated Qur'aan will broaden your understanding of the Holy Book but is nowhere near devotional as reading the original Arabic text.
Mainstream Muslims follow the translations and interpretation of the majority of renowned Scholars world-wide. This is itself a tribute to the power of Islam and its followers. Even without one supreme leader at its helm, and even lacking the authority of a Caliph, the Muslim Nation is still able to function with full coherence and adherence to its religion, thanks mainly to the vast array of erudite and competent Scholars that exist in our midst. Due to the high regard Muslims have for their Scholars they don’t need any authority to force them into acceptance and compliance. We do acknowledge, though, that there will be dissenting groups who will interpret the meanings of The Qur'aan, without altering or interfering with its original text, in a manner that suits their pursuits and objectives. The issue of so-called fundamentalism is a case in point. Here we have to concede that it is only a supreme authoritarian ruler who can enforce one form of ideology or thinking upon the masses. But this divergence of opinion is merely scholastic, academic, and theological in its nature and does not affect the original text of the Holy Qur'aan nor is it the result of different versions.
We provide a simple but tedious challenge to those who believe there are different versions of the Qur'aan. Since this is a Book in pure and classical Arabic, we advise you to learn the Arabic language. Once you’ve done that then we invite you to obtain copies of the Qur'aan from different countries of the world. We will even assist in this endeavour. Then we request that you read through all these copies thoroughly and see if there is even the difference of one stroke or diacritical mark in two different copies. The colour and size may differ, one script may be fancier than the other, and the style of writing may be diverse, but never shall there be any change to The Word of God.
Mufti Siraj Desai