There are two questions that people ask regarding the reliability of the Quran. First, when our prophet (pbuh) said 1400 years ago that the Quran came to him as a divine inspiration, how do we know that his experience was really guided by God? And second, if we know that the prophet was guided by God to proclaim the Quran to the world, how do we know that the same Quran which he proclaimed is in our hands? I will deal with the first question in a separate article later.
As for the second question, we are assured that the Quran has been preserved in two ways. First, in memory and, second, in writing. As for memory, the early generations of Muslims received the Quran orally from previous generations and faithfully transmitted the same to later generations in a continuous process leading to our present generation. While the process of oral transmission would be expected to produce wildly varying results, studies of memorizers of the Quran worldwide reveal a remarkable uniformity. They are all reciting from memory a single text with minor variations that do not alter the message of the Quran or affect the main beliefs of Muslims. Nowadays it is common to find Muslims who have memorized the entire Quran, and in many mosques around the world, the entire Quran is publicly read from memory, a part each night, over the month of Ramadan. The process of memorization in traditional schools produces graduates who are aware of their line of teachers going all the way back to the prophet. While history cannot vouch for the actual transmission of the Quran from one person to another, especially for the earliest generations, the persons named in these pedigrees are famous historically as outstanding memorizers and reciters of the Quran in their respective generations. In short, we have every reason to be confident in the process of the transmission of the Quran via memory from one generation to another until our present times.
Let’s turn now to the second way in which the Quran was preserved: in writing. Here too we see minor variations, but a core uniform text that has come down to us intact. Many old manuscripts of the Quran have been recovered and are being proudly published one after another by the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture in Turkey (see www.ircica.org). Scholars studying these manuscripts find only minor variations in them, mostly due to the way in which words are spelt, and thus with little impact on meaning. As for the date when these manuscripts were copied, they go back to the first two centuries of Islam. A recently discovered manuscript at the University of Birmingham (see www.birmingham.ac.uk) has been carbon dated to a range of time that coincides with the lifetime of our prophet (pbuh). This manuscript too has been shown to vary from our present readings mainly in the matter of orthograpy, and thus to have little impact on the message of the Quran.
Another significant way in which the earliest manuscripts of the Quran differ from our present popular copies has to do with the nature of the Arabic language in particular, and Semitic languages in general. In these languages, the short vowels were not written, but trained readers knew how to read such texts by mentally filling in the vowels as they go. Naturally, untrained readers would need such vowels as reading aids. But scholars were slow in responding to such a public need. It took more than a millennium for some of the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible to get its vowels in writing, and apparently more than a century for the Quran’s copyists to commonly include all such short vowels. However, in the case of the Quran, since the text was memorized with all the short vowels already filled in mentally, the inclusion of the short vowels in writing did not entail a change in the meaning and message of the Quran.
In sum, Muslims can rest assured the Quran has been preserved in both memory and manuscript. Hence there is no question that the Quran that is recited in our mosques from memory, and the copies we read from at home, are essentially the same book that our prophet (pbuh) proclaimed 1400 years ago. The question that now remains pertains to whether God had anything to do with the prophet’s proclamation. I turn to that question in my next article: How do we know that God inspired the Quran?