Tuesday, January 18

Qur'an of Uthman

Tashkent is an oasis on the Chirchiq River at the foothills of the western Tian Shan. The Chirchiq flows down to the Syr Darya; the principality of Chach, whose main towns date back to the 5th century BC, is some five miles to the south of the Syr Darya. The Buddhist monk Hsüan-tsang (or Xuánzàng, 602 - 664 CE) mentions the name of the city as Zhěshí. The Arabs pronounced it al-Shash. The modern Turkic name of Tash-kent (Stone-City), derided by Curzon as an example of lucus a non lucendo (though, like Asmara-kent or Samarkand, another stone city, its proximity to large outcroppings of rock cannot preclude a more rational etymology), comes from the Kara-Khanid period around the 10th century.

We are wandering around the brand new Khast Imam, a wide, spacious mosque-and-museum complex for the nomenclatura to express their piety on Eid. The president and prime-minister pray here; the buildings (other than the mosque) house the official Islamic press, or the official training center for clergy, or other official organs of this 'secular Islamic state'; several fly the Uzbek flag. One squat building, guarded by body-scanners and militsia, houses the greatest relic of the city, a bloodstained manuscript of the Qur'an over which the third Caliph, Uthman, was beaten to death.

The Qur'an is the main miracle of Muhammad: regarded as the proof of his prophethood, as well as the culmination of a series of divine messages that started, according to Islamic belief, with the messages revealed to Adam the first of prophets; continued with the Scrolls of Abraham; the Torah or Pentateuch of Moses; the Book of Psalms of David; and the Gospel of Jesus. Apart from the Ahmadis, most Muslims believe Muhammad was the final prophet, and that there can be no more revelations.

The German Qur'anista Theodor Nöldeke controversially said that it was entirely commonsense that in the very early days, when Muhammad had next to no following, that he did not have the means to record the prodigious material revealed to him; in which case it is likely that at least some of the last revelation from God to man has not survived. Muslims, of course, have formed the opposite view that Muhammad the Prophet could never forget the Qur'an, even if Muhammad the man might forget to recall this or that verse in everyday life, such as in an incident recorded in the hadiths where in a mosque "The Messenger of God heard a man recite by night and said 'May God have mercy on that man! He has just reminded me of verse so-and-so from sura such-and-such.'"

The Qur'an, according to Muslim histories, was not, then, written down in Muhammad's time. In 631, Muhammad became fatally ill; after his death, his business-partner Abu Bakr became the first Muslim Caliph. Most of Muhammad's immediate companions, called the Sahaba, had had to learn the Qur’an by heart, to be repeatedly recited in front of Muhammad for his approval. Muslim tradition says that although the Qur’an was authentically memorized completely by many, after 300 of the memorizers of the Qur’an died in the Battle of Yomama (against Musaylimah, another prophet of the time, known for being able to perform miracles like putting eggs into bottles), Umar advised Abu Bakr to definitively combine the material into a single text. From The Collection of the Qur'an by John Burton:

'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 has gone. Let him say instead, “I have got what has survived.”'

The intimate connection between this utterance and the classical hadiths on the collection of the Qur'an texts is illustrated by a remark attributed to Zaid bin Thabit, 'The prophet died and the Qur'an had not been assembled into a single place.' For it is this Zaid who plays the central role in all the hadiths on the post-Muhammadan collection(s) of the revealed texts variously attributed to the Prophet's first, second and third successor.

In this report, two motives are insistent: the failure by Muhammad to collect and edit the texts; and the suggestion of the incompleteness, potential or actual, of what might have been expected to follow.

Zaid reports, 'Abu Bakr sent for me on the occasion of the deaths of those killed in the Yemama wars. I found Umar bin al Khattab with him. Abu Bakr said, “Umar has just come to me and said, 'In the Yemama fighting death has dealt most severely with the qurra, and I fear it will deal with equal severity with them in other theatres of war and as a result much of the Qur'an will perish. I am therefore of the opinion that you should command that the Quran be collected.'” Abu Bakr added, “I said to Umar, 'How can we do what the Prophet never did?' Umar replied that it was nonetheless a good act. He did not cease replying to my scruples till God had reconciled me to the undertaking.” Abu Bakr continued, “Zaid, you are young and intelligent and we know nothing to your discredit. You used to record the revelations for the prophet, so pursue the Qur'an and collect it all together.” By God! Had they asked me to remove a mountain it could not have been more weighty than what they would now have me do in ordering me to collect the Qur'an.'

Umar was stabbed by an angry Persian slave named Feroz in 644. On his deathbed, Umar could still vividly recall the bad-blood at the time of deciding the successor to Muhammad, when the followers of the young Ali had clashed against the old-guard under Abu Bakr. Umar then nominated an electoral college of six, who were required to elect one of themselves as the next Caliph. The college consisted of Saad, Abdul Rahman, Zubayr, Talha, Ali and Uthman ibn Affan (aka Usman or Othman.) To ensure that no single person could stall the proceedings, Umar stipulated that should the college fail to reach unanimity, his son Abdullah bin Umar could kill any one person whose opinion differed from the rest of the group! Zubayr immediately withdrew in favor of Ali; Talha was not able to reach Medina in time and assigned his vote to Uthman; Saad withdrew in favor of Abdul Rahman. Next, Abdul Rahman decided to withdraw, leaving Uthman and Ali remaining in the ring. Abdul Rahman was appointed as the arbitrator to choose between them. Interviewing the two candidates separately, he put to them the question whether they would follow in the footsteps of the previous Caliphs. Ali said that he would only be guided by the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Muhammad. Uthman replied to the question in the affirmative without any reservation. Thereupon, Abdul Rahman gave his verdict in favor of the election of Uthman.

While Abu Bakr had ordered the Qur'an to be written down, the written version was not given immediate primacy. Zaid's work in compiling a manuscript was somewhere between perfunctory and perfect. Some passages were acknowledged as having been lost, and the compiler himself had overlooked at least two verses until he'd been reminded of them by Abu Khuzaima. If Abu Bakr or Umar had been persuaded that Zaid's text was unquestionably sound and non-controversial, it would almost certainly have been given immediate public prominence; instead, as it turned out, the manuscript was given to the private keeping of Hafsa, Muhammad's widow and Umar's daughter, perhaps to bide time till the qurra (memorizers) among Muhammad's companions had finally passed away, and there was no one left to challenge a text that was different here from one person's memory, at odds there with the dogged belief of another. Zaid's manuscript was prized as unique, but nevertheless not regarded as having any greater authority than the others' beliefs about what had been revealed to Muhammad.

Upon Uthman's ascension, version-mismatch problems resurfaced. Again, from John Burton:

Hudaifa figures in a second hadith series that reports textual differences, not only between Iraq and Syria, but also between rival groups of Iraqis.

"We were sitting in the mosque and Abdullah was reciting the Qur'an when Hudaifa came in and said 'The reading of ibn Umm Abd (i.e. Abdullah)! The reading of Abu Musa! By God! If I am spared to reach the Commander of the Faithful, I will recommend that he impose a single Qur'an reading!' Abdullah became very angry and spoke sharply to Hudaifa who fell silent."

"Yazid bin Muawiya was in the mosque in the time of al Walid bin Uqba, sitting in a group among whom was Hudaifa. An official called out, 'Those who follow the reading of Abu Musa, go the corner nearest the Kinda door. Those who follow Abdullah's reading, go to the corner nearest Abdullah's house. Their reading of Q 2.196 did not agree. One group read it, 'Perform the pilgrimage to God.' The others read it, 'Perform the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba.' Hudaifa became very angry, his eyes reddened and he rose, parting his qamis at the waist, although in the mosque. This was during the reign of Uthman. Hudaifa exclaimed, 'Will someone go to the Commander of the Faithful, or shall I go myself? This is what happened in the previous dispensations.' " …

The conclusion which such reports invite us to draw is that there was genuine fear that Islam, like the religions before it, would be fragmented into warring sects as a result of differences arising in the reading of sacred texts. Uthman's purpose and his achievement was to unite the Muslims on the basis of a single agreed Qur'an reading.

… [Uthman] addressed the people, 'You who are around me are disputing as to the Qur'an, and pronouncing it differently. It follows that those who are distant in the various regional centres of Islam are even more widely divided. Companions of Muhammad! Act in unison; come together and write out an
imam for the Muslims.'

Uthman then requested Hafsa to allow him to use Zaid's Qur'an text, in her possession and forgotten for a decade, to be set in the Quraysh dialect which, through Fus'ha, was to become Modern Standard Arabic. Uthman again summoned Zaid, got made several copies of the old compilation, and ordered any other texts to be rounded up and burned. The formalization of the orally transmitted text to one copy of Qur'anic text resulted in the Uthmanic codex. Five of these "original" Qur'ans were sent to the major Muslim cities of the era, with Uthman keeping one for his own use in Medina. Of the five copies that were sent out, the only surviving copy is said to be held in Topkapi Palace, in Turkey. Some sects of the Shi'a dispute the Uthmanic codex; they add two additional suras known as al-Nurayn and al-Wilaya, on the premise of Ali's copy being different from that of Uthman. It is still a matter of debate and speculation what part of the revelation Muhammad the man might have overlooked, what part did not survive Zaid, and what has been forgotten due to Uthmanic recension.

Unlike the disciplinarian Umar, Uthman focused more on prosperity. Under Uthman, the Muslims became richer and on the political plane they came to enjoy a larger degree of freedom. No institutions had been, however, devised to channel political activity, and, in their absence, pre-Islamic tribal rivalries suppressed under earlier Caliphs re-erupted. People took advantage of Uthman's liberties; this culminated in his assassination.

In 655, Uthman invited anyone with a grievance against the administration to assemble at Mecca for the Hajj. In response, his opposition came in large delegations from various cities to present their grievances before the ummah. Uthman addressed the gathering and gave long explanations of his policies, and then said: "I have had my say. Now I am prepared to listen to you. If any one of you has any legitimate grievance against me or my Government you are free to give expression to such grievance, and I assure you that, I will do my best to redress such grievance."

The reasonableness of the offer took the wind out of the rebels' sails; it was a great psychological victory for Uthman. Before returning to Syria, the governor Muawiyah, Uthman’s cousin, suggested Uthman should come with him to Syria as the atmosphere there was safer. Uthman rejected this offer, saying that he didn't want to leave the city of Muhammad. Muawiyah then suggested that he be allowed to send a force to guard Uthman against any possible attempt by rebels to harm him. Uthman rejected that, too, saying sadly that the Syrian forces in Medina would be an incitement to civil war within Islam, and that he could not be party to such a move.

Things were quiet for a year. In 656, a contingent of about 1,000 people were sent to Medina from Egypt, with instructions to assassinate Uthman and overthrow the government. Similar contingents marched from Kufa and Basra to Medina. The Egyptians waited on Ali, and offered him the Caliphate in succession to Uthman, which Ali turned down. The representatives of Kufa waited on Zubayr, while the contingent from Basra tried to get as their proxy Talha. In proposing alternatives to Uthman as Caliph, the rebels neutralized the bulk of public opinion in Medina and Uthman's faction could no longer offer a united front. Uthman had the active support of the Umayyads, and a few other people in Medina, but the rest of the people of Medina chose to be neutral. This proved fatal, the rebels mounted a siege on Uthman's compound, and, one night, entered his room while he sat reading. Naila, his wife, threw herself on him; raising her hand to protect him, she had her fingers chopped off and was pushed aside; Caliph Uthman was bludgeoned till his blood flowed out on the Qur'an and he was dead.

Uthman was succeeded by Ali, who took the bloodstained copy of the Qur'an to Kufa. When Timur destroyed the area c. 1401, he took the Qur'an of Uthman to his capital, Samarkand, as a trophy; it was also well known that such relics attracted pilgrims, and pilgrims could be taxed. The Qur'an remained there for four centuries until, in 1868, when the Russians invaded, they captured the manuscript to take it back to the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. After the October Revolution, Lenin, in an act of goodwill to the Muslims of Russia, gave the Qur'an to the people of Ufa, Bashkirtistan. After appeals by the people of Turkestan, the Qur'an was returned to Central Asia, to Tashkent, in 1924, where it has since remained.

At the Khast Imam, we are greeted affably by the Mufti in charge of the Qur'an of Uthman. He is dressed in suit-and-tie, scholarly and engaging. 'Made In India?' he asks with a laugh, many of the Uzbek clergy have visited India to study. He adds to our knowledge of the manuscript; it is written on gazelle-skin parchment; the ink is made out of lamp-black and iron-gall. I say the script looks Kufic, he gently corrects me. "No, it was written in Hejaz province, in which is located both Mecca and Medina. This script is Hejazi." The text is devoid of the Arab harakat diacritic marks, showing its antiquity. The manuscript is also incomplete, only a third of the Qur'an surviving -- it begins in the 2nd sura and ends abruptly at surah 43 (of 114). He seems at pain to impress upon visitors that this is the real thing; he shows off a certificate from UNESCO framed on the wall, guaranteeing the authenticity of the relic (one is left wondering why such certification is needed.) "Not as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls," he says, "but very, very, old."

Pictures or video of the Qur'an of Uthman are not allowed. I ask for an exception, he wavers, but no waiver; this man-made object, he says, should not become an item of veneration or deification, like the Granth of the Sikhs. "Islam would not permit that." We are left with footage of the complex, below (Mr. M once again mobbed by the ladies.) As we take leave, a German diplomat and his painted frau appear, complete with entourage; the Germans pay for housing the Qur'an of Uthman in climate-controlled repose, the Mufti strides off anxiously to greet them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We, the muslims , we believe in ALLAH . we do believe that the QURAN is unique. And we believe that ALLAH HIMSELF took the duty to protect it . But those who don't believe in ALLAH , EITHER the Quran is unique or not , it is none of their business.

6:22 PM  

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