The Print Editions of the Qurʾan and the Reading Traditions

Posted by Marijn van Putten  |  

The most widely accepted qurʾanic text as we know it today, ultimately stems from the 1924 print published in Cairo, colloquially known as the Cairo Edition. Today’s widely distributed Medina Mushaf of the King Fahd Complex owes its orthography for a large part to the Cairo Edition. This print has become the de facto standard and it is this text that the Qurʾan Gateway uses, as well as popular websites such as mushafmuscat.om, tanzil.net, and quran.com.

The qurʾanic text of this print edition can be thought of as having three layers: (1) a bare consonantal skeleton, (2) a layer of dotting that differentiates ambiguous letter signs and (3) a layer of vowels, that writes short vowels and several other elements to aid proper pronunciation.

The consonantal skeleton (the rasm), differs quite markedly from the way Arabic is written today, because it is deliberately archaizing. Using medieval sources that have meticulously recorded the spellings of ancient manuscripts, the spelling and text of the modern standard is remarkably close to what we find in ancient manuscripts.

The Qurʾan has ten recognised reading traditions, each of which have two canonical transmissions. These traditions are named after the reader and their transmitter. One may speak of the reading of Ḥafṣ who transmits from the reader ʿĀṣim. The canonical readers and transmitters were mostly active in the early 8th century up until the middle of the 9th century.

The differences between the readings primarily affects the ‘vowel layer’ of the text, to a lesser extent the ‘dotting layer’ and very rarely the consonantal skeleton. Readings differ from each other in two ways: in general principles (ʾuṣūl) and specific variants (farš al-ḥurūf). The general principles stipulate rules for how certain vowels and consonants are to be pronounced in specific contexts. These give each of the different readings their distinct sound. The specific variants rather stipulate how specific words are to be pronounced. These differences can be purely phonetic variants of the same word, but not infrequently the word or its conjugation is changed so that the meaning of a verse is changed to a greater or lesser extent.

The reading tradition of ʿĀṣim (d. 745) in the transmission of Ḥafṣ (d. 796) is by far the most popular one today. This is the reading recited by most of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. This is the reading the Cairo Edition was printed in, and the first Medina Mushaf therefore follows suit. It is also the reading that the Qurʾan Gateway uses. In North Africa the reading of Nāfiʿ (d. 785) is particularly popular, especially in the transmission of Warsh (d. 812), but in Libya the other transmitter, Qālūn (d. 835), is dominant; In Sudan Abū ʿAmr’s (d. 770) reading in the transmission of al-Dūrī (d. 860) still enjoys popularity. Of all of these the King Fahd complex has now published print editions. They have also published editions of Shuʿbah’s (d. 809) transmission of ʿĀṣim and al-Sūsī’s (d. 874) transmission of Abū ʿAmr. As of yet, there are no widely available print editions of the other seven canonical readers although recordings of these traditions can be readily found, for example, on YouTube.

Marijn van Putten