13.1.3. Was there only one version of the Qur’an?
The promotional claim that there has been only one version of the Qur’an also has no footing in historical evidence. On the contrary, what we know from Islamic sources for sure is that we didn’t have “only” one version but rather we used to have seven. These versions are known as “ahruf” ‒ or letters of the alphabet. The exact meaning of “ahruf” in this context is unclear and it is translated in several different ways (modes, styles, variations and so on), but it is generally agreed that they refer to different versions with different content or at least different phrasing. Those seven were so different that some of Mohammed's companions didn’t even recognise them as being from the Qur’an. Bukhari writes about an altercation between Umar ibn al-Khattab and Hisham bin Hakim during Mohammed’s lifetime. Hisham was reading a chapter of the Qur’an; Umar said:
Those ways were so different that Umar was about to attack Hisham because what he was reading was unrecognisable compared to the Qur’an he had learned.
Bukhari relates that Mohammed further confirmed the seven varieties as he described how the angel Gabriel taught him each one in turn.
So at one time, there were indeed more than one version of the Qur’an approved by Mohammed. However, during the rule of the Caliph Uthman (third successor to Mohammed), the difference in readings caused such trouble among the people that he ordered that every written version of the Qur’an or part thereof be collected; he approved the version closest to the dialect of Mohammed’s tribe, the Quraysh, and ordered that all the others be burned. Copies were made of this single version and distributed throughout the Muslim communities. Thus at best only one of the seven original varieties remained.
But then today ‒ despite there having been only one version surviving at the time of Uthman ‒ we once more have different editions. Muslims are told these differences are merely in the style of reading, yet in many cases the variant adds or omits words or changes the words to mean exactly the opposite of each other.
For example, there are two different readings of Qur’an 19:19. In some places, this verse says:
قَالَ إِنَّمَا أَنَا رَسُولُ رَبِّكِ لِأَهَب لَكِ غُلَامًا زَكِيًّا
Other versions have changed one letter and the verse reads:
قَالَ إِنَّمَا أَنَا رَسُولُ رَبِّكِ لِيَهَب لَكِ غُلَامًا زَكِيًّا
This change of only one letter changes the giver from the angel to Allah.
Or in Qur’an 30:2 we have the word غُلِبَت “ghulibati,” meaning “have been defeated;” in other readings it is written غَلَبَتِ “ghalabati” which means “have been victorious.” Just changing a vowel changes the meaning completely.
Another example is Qur’an 40:20. Some readings have “AW An” (meaning: OR that), whereas other readings have “WA An” (meaning: AND that).
There are many more such examples. For a fuller discussion see Keith Small’s Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts.