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The Canonisation of the Quranic Reading Traditions


The perfect preservation of the Quran back to the time of Muhammad, Islam’s founder, is a contentious topic. In the popular imagination, each syllable printed in the Quran today is believed to be identical to the way Muhammad taught his followers. One easily gets this impression from modern printed Qurans, the vast majority of which are based on the reading tradition of Hafs in the transmission of Asim. A reading tradition instructs the reader how to pronounce each syllable in the Quranic text. But, this uniformity is a recent development. All sects of Islam recognize at least 7 canonical, equally valid, reading traditions. The reading traditions emerged to alleviate the ambiguities of the early Arabic script of the Quran in the middle of the 7th c. CE. At that time, the Arabic script could not express short vowels or distinguish between many consonants, leading to significant differences in pronunciation and in some cases even wording. Without a tradition of instruction, the Quranic text would be—in some cases—impossible to decipher. The canonisation of these reading traditions, however, does not go back to the time of Muhammad, rather it was the 10th c. scholar ibn Mujahid who established the canon. Up until recently, it was thought that his work functioned as our historical horizon—everything we can know about the pre-canonical situation is filtered through his choices and thinking. However, there are hundreds of Quranic manuscripts from the time preceding the canonisation stretching back at least to the beginning of the 8th c. that make use of diacritics to instruct the reader. These pre-canonical reading traditions provide a vista into the pre-history of Quranic recitation, yet they have so far gone almost entirely unstudied. QurCan aims to mine these rich historical sources to understand what Quran recitation was like before ibn Mujahid, how the reading traditions developed, and how this led to the crystallized canon that we know today.

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