Textual corruption of Surat al-‘Asr?

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Muslims might be surprised to find that there are different versions of Surat al-‘Asr reported from some of the companions. Anti-Muslim writers cite these narrations as evidence of alleged ‘textual corruption’ in the Quran, but they do not understand the context of these variants or how scholars understood them.

Al-Tabari narrated that Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, recited Surat al-‘Asr with this text:

وَالْعَصْرِ وَنَوَائِبِ الدَّهْرِ إن الإنْسانَ لفي خُسْرٍ وإنه فيه إلى آخر الدهر

By the time and calamities of age! Verily, humanity is in loss and will be so until the end of the age.

Source: Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī 103:1

Muslims will notice immediately that this is different from the widely-known standard text we often recite in prayer. Could this mean the original text has been changed or suppressed?

As we know, Allah has promised to protect the textual integrity of the Quran for as long as he wills.

Allah said:

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ

Verily, We have revealed the remembrance and We will guard over it.

Surat al-Hijr 15:9

In reality, this is not an alternative version of the Quran being narrated by Ali. Rather, it includes his own personal comments as an explanation of the Quranic text, which some narrators may have confused with the actual Quran later on.

It is was not uncommon for senior companions of the Prophet (ṣ) to include the interpretations they understood in their copies of the Quran.

Al-Baqillani writes:

وكان منهم يعني الصحابة من يقرأ التأويل مع التنزيل

Among the companions are those who recited the interpretation alongside the revelation.

Source: al-Intiṣār lil-Qur’ān 1/351

The companions were able to do this because they were the most well-versed and knowledgeable of the Quran. They could easily distinguish the proper text from any of their notes or comments.

Ibn al-Jazari writes:

كَانُوا رُبَّمَا يُدْخِلُونَ التَّفْسِيرَ فِي الْقِرَاءَةِ إِيضَاحًا وَبَيَانًا لِأَنَّهُمْ مُحَقِّقُونَ لِمَا تَلَقَّوْهُ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قُرْآنًا فَهُمْ آمِنُونَ مِنَ الِالْتِبَاسِ وَرُبَّمَا كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ يَكْتُبُهُ مَعَهُ

It is possible they included explanations in their recitations, to clarify and elucidate, as they had verified what they received from the Prophet (ṣ) of the Quran. They were not in danger of confusing the text. It is also possible that some of them would write the explanation alongside the text.

Source: al-Nashr fī al-Qirā’āt al-‘Ashr 1/32

Hence, this is how the variants of Surat al-‘Asr reported by Al-Tabari and others should be understood. Makki ibn Abi Talib commented specifically on the narration attributed to Ali, saying:

وهذه قراءة مخالفة للمُصْحف المجمع عليه فلا يجوز لأحد أن يقرأ بها فيخالف الإجماع وإنّمَا هي على معنى التفسير

This recitation conflicts with the agreed upon written Quran (mushaf). It is not permissible for anyone to recite it in prayer, as it contradicts the consensus. Indeed, it was only meant as an explanation.

Source: al-Hidāyah ilá Bulūgh al-Nihāyah 12/8425

The same holds true for variant texts narrated from other companions. Abu Hayyan mentions some of these attributed to Ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, and then he says:

وَهَذِهِ الْقِرَاءَةُ مُخَالِفَةٌ لِسَوَادِ الْمُصْحَفِ الْمُجْمَعِ عَلَيْهِ فَيَنْبَغِي أَنْ يُجْعَلَ تَفْسِيرًا وَكَذَا مَا وَرَدَ عَنْهُ وَعَنْ غَيْرِهِ مِمَّا خَالَفَ سَوَادَ الْمُصْحَفِ

These recitations conflict with the agreed upon written Quran, so they should be understood as explanations. Such was narrated from him and others that conflict with the written copy.

Source: al-Baḥr al-Muḥīt 1/260

The general rule, then, is that these variant texts might be helpful in understanding and interpreting the Quranic text, but they are not considered divine revelation. They may not be recited in ritual prayer or as a voluntary act of worship.

Ibn al-Jazari writes:

مِنْهُ مَا يُخَالِفُ رَسْمَ الْمُصْحَفِ فَهَذَا لَا شَكَّ فِي أَنَّهُ لَا يَجُوزُ قِرَاءَتُهُ لَا فِي الصَّلَاةِ وَلَا فِي غَيْرِهَا

Among what differs from the written Quran, there is no doubt that it is not permissible to recite it, neither in prayer nor at any other time.

Source: al-Nashr fī al-Qirā’āt al-‘Ashr 1/32

And Al-Razi commented specifically on the narration attributed to Ali, saying:

رُوِيَ وَالْعَصْرِ وَنَوَائِبِ الدَّهْرِ إِلَّا أَنَّا نَقُولُ هَذَا مُفْسِدٌ لِلصَّلَاةِ فَلَا نَقُولُ إِنَّهُ قَرَأَهُ قُرْآنًا بَلْ تَفْسِيرًا

It is narrated as, ‘By the time and the calamities of the age,’ but we say this invalidates the prayer. We do not say it is part of the Quran, rather it is only an explanation.

Source: Tafsīr al-Rāzī 103:1

In sum, we may find variations of the Quranic text narrated by some of the companions, but these variants were not intended to be part of the Quran. They were explanations, interpretations, and clarifications they included in their personal copies. The written Quran we have today is agreed upon by all Muslims and there is no doubt about the veracity of the text.

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Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.