In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The general rule is that it is obligatory to have ablution when touching or reciting from the Quran. However, some scholars have made a concession if this would cause hardship and a person uses caution not to get any impurities or filth on the Quran.
The great majority of scholars maintain that it is an obligation to have ablution (wudu) before touching or reciting from the Quran. The basis of this ruling is the statement of Allah Amighty:
إِنَّهُ لَقُرْآنٌ كَرِيمٌ فِي كِتَابٍ مَّكْنُونٍ لَّا يَمَسُّهُ إِلَّا الْمُطَهَّرُونَ
Verily, it is a noble Quran in a protected Book. None touch it but the purified.
Surat al-Waqi’ah 56:77-79
Scholars derived from these verses that a Muslim should have ablution before touching the Quran. However, there is a disagreement of interpretation over whether this is referring to believers touching the Quran or to the angels touching the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfuzh) on which is written the destiny of all things.
Ibn Kathir reported:
عن ابن عباس لاَّ يَمَسُّهُ إِلاَّ ٱلْمُطَهَّرُونَ قال الكتاب الذي في السماء و عن ابن عباس لاَّ يَمَسُّهُ إِلاَّ ٱلْمُطَهَّرُونَ يعني الملائكة
Ibn Abbas said concerning the verse, “None touch it except the purified,” that this refers to the Book in the heavens and “the purified” refers to the angels.
Source: Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr 56:79
This is as Allah said in another verse:
فِي صُحُفٍ مُّكَرَّمَةٍ مَّرْفُوعَةٍ مُّطَهَّرَةٍ بِأَيْدِي سَفَرَةٍ
In noble records, exalted and purified, in the hands of angelic messengers.
Surat ‘Abasa 80:13-15
Nonetheless, it can be inferred from the verses that it is at least highly recommended to have ablution when touching the Quran.
The scholars also use a prophetic narration to support the obligation to have ablution before touching the Quran.
Abdullah ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَا يَمَسَّ الْقُرْآنَ إِلَّا طَاهِرٌ
None should touch the Quran unless they are pure.
Source: al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr 13217, Grade: Hasan (fair)
Although this tradition is not at the highest levels of authenticity in terms of its chain of authorities, it has still been acted upon by many scholars and it was the general practice of the people of Medina. They said not only should someone without ablution not touch the Quran, but also neither a menstruating woman or a person with greater impurtiy in need of a ritual bath (ghusl).
Ibn Abdul Barr reported:
وقال الشافعي والأوزاعي وأبو ثور وأحمد لا يمس المصحف الجنب ولا الحائض ولا غير المتوضئ
Ash-Shafi’ee, Al-Awza’i, Abu Thawr, and Ahmad said the scripture (mushaf) should not be touched by a person with greater impurity (junub), nor a menstruating woman, nor a person without ablution.
Source: al-Istidhkār 2/372
Imam Malik was particularly strict on this point, saying that the prohibition is based not only on protecting the Quran from impurities but that it exists in itself as a matter of respect for the Quran.
Imam Malik said:
وَلَا يَحْمِلُ أَحَدٌ الْمُصْحَفَ بِعِلَاقَتِهِ وَلَا عَلَى وِسَادَةٍ إِلَّا وَهُوَ طَاهِرٌ وَلَوْ جَازَ ذَلِكَ لَحُمِلَ فِي خَبِيئَتِهِ وَلَمْ يُكْرَهْ ذَلِكَ لِأَنْ يَكُونَ فِي يَدَيْ الَّذِي يَحْمِلُهُ شَيْءٌ يُدَنِّسُ بِهِ الْمُصْحَفَ وَلَكِنْ إِنَّمَا كُرِهَ ذَلِكَ لِمَنْ يَحْمِلُهُ وَهُوَ غَيْرُ طَاهِرٍ إِكْرَامًا لِلْقُرْآنِ وَتَعْظِيمًا لَهُ
No one should carry the Quran by its strap or on a cushion unless he is pure. If it were permissible to do so, it would also have been permissible to carry it in its cover. This is not because there is something on the hands of the one who carries it by which the Quran will be soiled, but rather it is disapproved for someone to carry it without being pure out of respect and honor for the Quran.
Source: al-Muwaṭṭa 236
Indeed, the majority of scholars have taken this view and this is the safest opinion and the best in terms of piety and respect for the Quran. However, some scholars allowed touching the Quran in a state of minor impurity (hadath), without ablution, for the statement of the Prophet (ṣ), “unless with purification,” can be interpreted as linguistically what is pure, that his hands are clean of impurity, rather than its technical legal meaning.
وَأَمَّا الْمُحْدِثُ حَدَثًا أَصْغَرَ فَذَهَبَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ وَالشَّعْبِيُّ وَالضَّحَّاكُ وَزَيْدُ بْنُ عَلِيٍّ وَالْمُؤَيَّدُ بِاَللَّهِ وَالْهَادَوِيَّةُ وَقَاضِي الْقُضَاةِ وَدَاوُد إلَى أَنَّهُ يَجُوزُ لَهُ مَسُّ الْمُصْحَفِ وَقَالَ الْقَاسِمُ وَأَكْثَرُ الْفُقَهَاءِ وَالْإِمَامُ يَحْيَى لَا يَجُوزُ
Regarding the one in a state of minor impurity, it has been narrated from Ibn Abbas, Ash-Sha’bi, Ad-Dahhak, Zaid ibn Ali, Dawud and others that it is permissible to touch the copy of the Quran. However, Al-Qasim, Imam Yahya, and the majority of jurists say it is not permissible.
Source: Nayl al-Awṭār 1/262
Therefore, if it will cause hardship for a Muslim to have complete ablution before touching the Quran, then there may be a concession to touch it in this specific case. Care should be taken not to get anything impure on the Quran. Yet the general rule is that a Muslim should have complete ablution before touching it.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.