The origins of the 5 daily Islamic prayers: Jonathan Brown on Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

In light of my recent posts and research interests, this could not come more timely: An article written by Jonathan Brown on Holland’s ideas on the origins of Islamic ritual practice of the Salaat, or the five daily prayers that Muslims.

Brown is a published scholar on the authenticity of Hadith and other related topics. I highly recommend that those interested in the Islamic historical critical tradition of authenticating and falsifying Hadith start with his book “Hadith: Muhammad’s legacy to the Medieval and Modern World”.

The article in question:

Tom Holland, the Five Daily Prayers and the Hypocrisy of Revisionism

On a radio show on BBC 4 a couple of weeks ago, Tom Holland raised his claim (made originally in his book In the Shadow of the Sword on the origins of Islam) that the famous five daily prayers in Islam were not originally part of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. They were actually imported into the religion from Zoroastrianism well after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and after the Muslims had conquered the greater Middle East. Holland sets his story in the environs of the city of Kufa in southern Iraq in the mid eighth century. The Muslim practice of praying five times a day, he argues, resulted from Islam, in effect, imitating Zoroastrian practice. More specifically, Zoroastrian converts to Islam in Kufa brought with them practices such as the five daily prayers from their own religion (Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword, 405).

Holland’s evidence for this is an observation supposedly made by Rav Yehudai Gaon, who was the senior Jewish scholar of the Suru rabbinic academy near Kufa from 757 CE until his death in 761. Rav Yehudai is quoted as remarking that Zoroastrian converts to Islam retained some aspect of their previous religion. Holland writes, quoting Rav Yehudai, “The hearts of those mowbeds [Zoroastrian priests] who had ‘converted to the religion of the Ishmaelites,’ so he reported, were still not entirely clear the trace of their former beliefs, even down to the third generation: ‘for part of their religion still remains within them.’”

Holland belongs to a school of historical thought known as revisionism, which criticizes mainstream Western scholarship on early Islamic history for relying too much on historical sources that 1) are written by Muslims, and therefore biased towards Islamic orthodoxy, and 2) postdate the events they describe by many decades or centuries, during which time the ‘true’ description of events must have been adjusted by the faithful to fit with the orthodox sacred Islamic history that had gelled during the intervening period. So we should not believe that the Muslim scholar Ibn Ishaq’s (died 767) famous biography of the Prophet is a historically reliable source for the events of the historical Muhammad’s life because 1) Ibn Ishaq was a Muslim writing a sacred history of a figure who had become a fixture in his religious tradition and was not being approached objectively, and 2) Ibn Ishaq was compiling his biography some 140 years after the death of the Prophet. To take Ibn Ishaq as reliable would be like historians a century from now writing the history of the American Civil War based on documents written in 2015 by Americans who all celebrate the victory of the North over the South.

To solve this problem of historical sources, revisionists have proposed relying on non-Muslim sources for the early Islamic period, some of which do date from early on (for example, the writings of the Armenian bishop Sebeos come from the 660’s CE) and are not colored by pro-Islam bias.

I could go into a long critique of the revisionist approach here, but that is totally unnecessary. Holland’s argument on the point of Muslim prayer is so feeble that one need only hold it to the standards of the revisionist school itself for it to collapse entirely.

1) Why is Holland putting words in Rav’s Mouth?:

The first problem with Holland’s argument is that Rav Yehudai does not actually mention the daily prayer as an example of Zoroastrian religious influence on Islam. Instead, Holland reaches this conclusion by open speculation. He asks, “What evidence might the rabbi have had for making such a claim?” Well, Zoroastrianism included a five-times-a-day prayer, he notes, so that was probably what Rav Yehudai meant. But speculation is unnecessary, since Rav Yehudai actually said exactly what he meant in the passage Holland cites. His comments about Zoroastrian converts to Islam involves how they tend not to give up drinking wine immediately, sometimes continuing to imbibe into the third generation.

2) How on Earth does Holland think this is a reliable historical source?

Let’s just pretend that Rav Yehudai was actually talking about the daily prayer practices of Zoroastrians/Muslims (which, of course, he never mentions at all). And let’s just assume that Rav Yehudai was making an accurate, fair observation about the practices around him in southern Iraq in the 750’s CE. The writings of Rav Yehudai must be more historically reliable than Muslim ones like Ibn Ishaq, right? What book of Rav Yehudai is Holland citing? Actually, he doesn’t cite any work by Rav Yehudai. His endnote cites the Sefer Ha-Eshkol, a work attributed to Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac, a rabbi living in southern France in the twelfth century. Nor does the Sefer Ha-Eshkol cite Rav Yehudai directly. Instead, Rav Yehudai’s report about Muslim converts comes via a senior rabbi of the Pumbedita rabbinic academy in Babylon who lived some three hundred years after Rav Yehudai, Rav Hayya Gaon (died 1038 CE).

So, Holland is saying that, in order to overcome the problem of Muslim sources like the biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq, which was compiled in Baghdad a century and a half after Muhammad’s career, we should turn to a source written in France five centuries after Muhammad’s career? But, Holland might reply, Abraham ben Isaac was drawing on earlier reports and historical works, which we should trust. But this is exactly what Muslim historians like Ibn Ishaq claimed to be doing in their works, and the central criticism made by revisionists like Holland is that we can’t just trust that historians are reliably passing on earlier material.

But let us be charitable. Let’s assume that during the five centuries between the lives of Rav Yehudai Gaon and Abraham ben Isaac, five centuries of religious polemics and warfare between Christians, Jews and Muslims across the Mediterranean, that Rav Yehudai’s observation remained intact to be preserved for us in the Sefer Ha-Eshkol.

The problem is that the Sefer Ha-Eshkol itself is unreliable. As has been discussed for over a century by rabbinic scholars and scholars of Judaic studies, the 1868 Halberstadt edition of the Sefer that Holland relies on was a forgery produced by the famous nineteenth-century Rabbi and literary scholar Zvi Benjamin Auerbach (died 1878). This has led some leading scholars of rabbinic literature to conclude that the book “should not be used for historical purposes.”

3) So what sources should we rely on for the origins of the five daily prayers?

Let’s indulge revisionist skepticism about historical sources written by Muslims. Let’s forget that the story of how and when the Prophet Muhammad instituted the five daily prayers, which Muslim scholars concluded either happened in 617 CE or soon before the Prophet’s emigration to Medina 622 CE, was recorded in major Muslim historical collections from the late 700’s and early 800’s. The earliest attested book in which this story appears in the Muwatta’ of Malik bin Anas (died. 796), which was compiled in Medina in the mid to late 700’s. Malik includes a report transmitted via a chain of narrators from the Prophet, who said, “Five prayers God has ordained for His servants, and whoever does them without treating them lightly, God has given that person a promise to grant them entrance into the Garden….” (Muwatta’: kitab salat al-layl, bab al-amr bi’l-witr). If we indulge in revisionist skepticism and assume that Malik was making up the whole transmission that he claims came from the Prophet, we would still know that, at least during Malik’s own lifetime in Medina, there was the clear idea that a core part of Islam was five daily prayers.

And then we could indulge more revisionism and insist on relying on non-Muslim sources. Since Rav Yehudai never mentions the Muslim prayer, why not look at a non-Muslim source that does? We could look at the T’ung tien, a Chinese Tang court work of history and geography that was published in 801 CE. It contains a description of Kufa by a Chinese soldier who was taken prisoner at the Battle of Talas in 751, spent years amongst the Muslims in Iraq and Iran, and returned to China in 762. One of the few observations that this Chinese soldier recalls of Kufa, which was the Abbasid capital at the time (Baghdad not being built until the 760’s), was that the Muslims there would pray five times a day.

So between the Muwatta of Malik and the T’ung tien, we know that Muslim communal practice in Medina and Kufa in the mid 700’s included the five daily prayers. This despite the fact that the two regions of Medina and Kufa had dramatically different traditions of Islamic law. So both regions must have inherited the prayer practice from a common, earlier practice, and there thus must have been some common origin for the five prayers. This would push the historical attestation for the practice back at least one generation to at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet.

4) When arrogant historians tell us that being critical means ignoring the data

So we have a choice. We can believe Holland’s claim, based on an unreliable nineteenth-century forgery of a supposedly twelfth-century work from France quoting an eleventh-century rabbi in Baghdad quoting an eighth century rabbi from near Kufa, that, because Zoroastrian converts to Islam still liked to drink wine, that therefore the Muslim practice of praying five times a day, which, like wine drinking, Zoroastrians also did, must also have been imported into Islam from Zoroastrianism by Zoroastrian converts.

That, or, we can believe, based on historically attested Muslim and non-Muslim sources, which paint a reliable overall picture of Muslim practice in Kufa and Medina decades before Rav Yehudai supposedly made his observation, that the five daily prayers were widely accepted as a core practice of Islam by at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Actually, Holland’s claim makes even less sense when we remember that the tradition of Islamic law in Kufa, where Holland has all these Zoroastrian practices and five-times-a-day-praying Zoroastrian sleeper converts supposedly influencing Muslims, actually argued for there being SIX required daily prayers (the sixth, the witr prayer, is still considered required in the Hanafi school that originated in Kufa). The Muwatta of Malik, on the other hand, written in Medina where Holland would have us assume that there were many fewer Zoroastrian converts wandering around, rejects the sixth prayer and insists on the supposedly Zoroastrian-based five times.

Brown and Holland were also featured in a recent episode of BBC’s “Beyond Belief” podcast, which is what prompted Brown’s refutation of Holland’s theories. The audio can be accessed here:


Abraha, the year of the elephant, and the location of Mecca in Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

So I’ve finished reading Holland’s book on the origins of Islam and I have to say I am not very impressed. I’ve revised my goals a bit and I will no longer be doing a point-by-point refutation of his book since much (as Holland himself admits) is speculatory, far too broad to refute directly and simply does not require much work to see why he is wrong in his main ideas. The origins of Islamic law and its development is also covered in the book (though rather amateurishly), but that will be discussed in a separate post as it is far too big and too important not to have a post on its own.

The location of Mecca

One of the main arguments in Holland’s book which I would like to refute is his ideas on the ‘original’ location of Mecca. Holland believes that the current Mecca, located near Yathrib, South arabia, is not the original place of its existence. It was actually in Palestine, and subsequently there was a great conspiracy by the Ummayyads to move the location and hide all the proof of its previous place of standing.

Most of his supporting points are not new and have been found in older (often times outdated) works such as those of the late Patricia Crone. There is currently a growing library of early Islamic inscriptions that help us place the early Muslim community within the vicinity of Mecca[1], unfortunately however they cannot be used to prove that Mecca was inhabited by the early Muslims as Holland does state that Muslims did somehow end up in Medina, thus the inscriptions would be the result of existence of a Medinan Muslim community and not necessarily a Meccan one. My positive argument for the original location of Mecca being correctly identified by the Islamic tradition will thus be a little less direct, consisting of two parts:

1. Pre-islamic inscriptions indirectly identifying the location of Mecca (this post)

2. The absurdities of Holland’s argument. (next post)

Part 1: Pre-islamic inscriptions indirectly identifying the location of Mecca

‘Am al-Fil: The year in which the Yemenite Christian king Abraha is said to have tried to attack Mecca to destroy the Ka’ba, in an attempt to divert pilgrimage from the Meccan shrine to his own great cathedral in Yemen[2]. The name, meaning “Year of the Elephant”, refers to Abraha’s usage of war elephants in his army which he led towards the Quraysh at Mecca.

The story is alluded to in the Qur’an in Surah al-Fil and its continuation, Surah Quraysh:

1 Do you not see how your Lord dealt with the army of the elephant? 2 Did He not utterly confound their plans? 3 He sent ranks of birds against them, 4 pelting them with pellets of hard-baked clay: 5 He made them [like] cropped stubble.

1 [He did this] to make the Quraysh feel secure, 2 secure in their winter and summer journeys. 3 So let them worship the Lord of this House: 4 who provides them with food to ward off hunger, safety to ward off fear.

The story alluded to here is undoubtedly the events in the Year of the Elephant. Commentators are absolutely unanimous in this regard[3]. One may still doubt whether these Qur’anic passages really do allude to ‘Abraha’s march towards Mecca. However, there is non-Qur’anic pre-islamic poetry that reports the same story that Muslim exegetes provide in their explanation of these verses. For example, in the kitaab al-hayawaan by al-Jahiz, a poem by Abu Qays Sayfi praises God for His help on “the day of the elephant of the Abyssinians”[3], recalling that the elephant simply stopped dead in his tracks and would not advance despite being tortured. Then “God sent a wind bringing a shower of pebbles (ḥāṣib) from above”[4]. Rubin notes that the vocabulary of the poem is distinctly unqur’anic[5]. Infact, the poem has different themes to that of the Qur’anic account: The Qur’an, as with recounting other pre-islamic occurrences, spins it into a cautionary tale and rhetorical prose to convince the audience of the magnificence of God.

To scholars, this indicates that Abu Qays’ poetry is independent from the Qur’an. It is very likely that the poem is pre-islamic.

It is important to note that the same poet also identifies this incident with “Abu Yaksum”[6] – none other than Abraha himself. This is significant- there is already enough similarity between the pre-islamic poem and Surah al-fil to realize that they are talking about the same event (due to an elephant being involved and an army being wiped out by stones from the sky). Thus, it obviously follows that both versions of the story (Qur’anic and pre-islamic) are speaking about an attack on the Quraysh by the Yemenite king Abraha.

What I would like to drive home at this point is that now we have Arabic poetry originating decades after the death of Abraha, authored by and for the Arabs which were contemporary with the incident, if not from the following generation. The Quranic account is independent from the poem, providing an added level of attestation to the historical account; again, written for Arabs that would have probably been children of those who lived even as Abraha led a campaign against Mecca. The story is both early and multiply attested. If we ignore the miracle story, there is little reason for a historian to deny that the expedition occurred*.

Other supporting evidence can be found in South Arabian inscriptions depicting war elephants[7]:

fig 2 and 3 abraha elephants

The inscriptions are significant because Abraha’s army would be the only one in the area to parade war elephants[8].

From this discussion, we can infer that:

1. The Qur’an is reporting a pre-Islamic event that must have actually happened some time during Abraha’s reign, meaning that the generation before the Prophet’s own[9].

2. Abraha campaigned with war elephants in the South Arabian region.

After establishing these two points, it is now possible to see how Holland’s assertions do not coincide with the historical facts presented here.

Mecca in Palestine?

Holland places the ‘original’ location of Mecca in Mamre, Palestine. Palestine in the 6th century was situated in Byzantine land. The corollary? That Abraha must have attacked the Byzantine empire some time in the 6th century.

One only needs to be slightly familiar with 6th century byzantine and arabian history to know how this is plain and simply false. We can understand why the expedition of the elephant is absent from pre-islamic jahili written tradition (plainly due to the fact that the writing was comparatively rare in the first place), however an attack on the Palestine would have been recorded at least by Roman sources. Procopius, a byzantine historian living in Palestine during the reign of Abraha records his ascent to power over the Himyarites, as well some of his wars and political exploits during his reign[11]. Abraha’s supposed attack on Palestine goes unmentioned, however, his promise to Justinian to attack the Persians does not.

I believe in this case we can make a good argument from silence. Had the attack happened, Procopius would have written about it, if not some other roman historian.

Besides Procopius’s account, Abraha campaigning against the Byzantines simply seems unlikely. The latter is was a regional superpower sharing the same religion as that of Abraha, so unlike Islam’s conquest of Roman lands, there is no theological motive to challenge a natural alliance. This explains why Abraha aligned himself with the Byzantines against the Persians at one point[12].

On the other hand, an attack on a south arabian Mecca simply seems much more plausible. Inscriptions indicating Abraha’s political and military might over this area are well known, some of which have been reproduced in this article. There is also the Murayghan inscription, reporting of an expedition sent by Abraha towards Taraban, 100km north of Ta’if[13], which is in the vicinity of the traditional location of Mecca.


Tom Holland’s proposal that Mecca was originally located at Mamre, Palestine cannot be correct because it contradicts known facts surrounding the expedition of the elephant. As there is good evidence for the expedition, it would entail that the Himyarite king marched against the Byzantines, which contradicts what we see in Roman historical records and also goes against common sense.

The next post in this series will insha’allah expose some of the dubious methods with which Holland draws his conclusions. I actually do believe that this next post will provide a stronger argument, as it draws from common objections (and not those of an amateur blogger, ie. me) against Crone’s (and therefore Holland’s) theories on early Islam. I did want to do something “different” though, and as far as I am aware the argument presented in this blog post is a novel one.


[1] A very useful web page collating these inscriptions is

[2] For an overview of the traditional story, see “The Message of the Qur’an”. Muhammad Asad. See intro to Surah al Fil. Other reasons are proposed for the motives of the campaign, one of which is that some Arabs went and defiled the cathedral in Yemen which incited ‘Abraha’s anger. 

[3] See entry for Abraha. Rubin, Uri. Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd ed. 

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid. “These and other verses that al-Jāḥiẓ considers genuinely pre-Islamic (al-Jāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, 7:197–9) are indeed free of Qurʾānic vocabulary and style—even the description of the divine punishment lacks Qurʾānic phrases”

[6] ibid. It must be noted that the name is not Qur’anic, meaning that the poet must have had non-Qur’anic sources. This adds to the likelyhood of the poem being of Jahili origin.

* Scholars such as Rubin, Conrad and Robin have all argued for or have assumed the historicity of the campaign.

[7] Les Compagnons de l’Éléphant (Aṣḥāb al-Fīl ). Christian Robin. Published in Les origines du Coran, le Coran des origines. 2015. p47. I have roughly translated from french and edited in the captions.

[8] ibid.

[9] That of Abd Al-Muttalib- indeed, he is present in the traditional story of the expedition.

[10] See Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam. Abraha marched against Persia

[11] Procopius, Histories of the Wars, Vol 1 and 2 accessable here:

[12] ibid

[13] F.E Peters. Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. p88

Mike Licona’s “Islamic Catch-22” – a refutation


Christian apologist and resurrection scholar Mike Licona has penned an argument against the Qur’an that seems, on the surface, quite solid. I was introduced to it during his debate with Ali Ataei on the resurrection of Jesus [1]. Ali did not attempt to counter it, and I think a response from the Muslim side is long overdue.

The premises of the argument go something like this [2]:

  1. The Qur’an states that Jesus was not crucified on the cross and did not die but it was only made to seem so [3].
  2. It is well attested in many historical sources that Jesus died.
  3. It is also well attested that Jesus predicted that he would die.

According to Mr. Licona, this leaves Muslims in a dilemma. Historical sources attest that Jesus died on the cross. This by itself is not problematic- after all, the Qur’an does say “it was made to appear to them that this was so”. This explains why there is eyewitness evidence for the death of Jesus (ع).

So where is the problem? It is in the [alleged] historical fact that Jesus (ع) predicted his death. The Qur’an states that Jesus (ع) is a Prophet- and Prophets can only predict truth (or else they won’t be prophets!). So, according to Mike Licona, the historical evidence leaves us with no favourable option (a “Catch-22”): Either we say that Jesus died, or Jesus was not a Prophet: both falsify the Qur’an, or as Licona calls it, leads to the “Defeat of Islam”.

I believe that the answer to this lies in a closer evaluation of point 3 above. There is a fundamental problem with using the New Testament to prove that Jesus (ع) predicted his own death.

Licona’s methodology

Licona’s proof for the death predictions of Jesus (ع) is primarily multiple attestation. Multiple attestation means that there are many sources that are independent to each other that say the same thing. This is a powerful historical proof and one that Muhaddithiin[4] focus on when validating hadith. An example of this is a tutor that teaches three students at different times of the day who do not know each other. Say for example you cannot contact the tutor, but you want to know his education. You call each of the three students seperately and ask what education he has- to which they all reply that he is an engineering student. This fact is now considered to be multiply attested and is considered reliable information.

Licona does something like this with the New Testament literature. What he does is take all the isolated traditions in the N.T. and points out that all the different sources of the bible tell us that Jesus(ع) predicted his own death. From his own website:


  • Related to Peter’s rebuke: Mark 8:31; Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:22
  • After Jesus’ Transfiguration: Mark 9:9; Matt. 17:9
  • Passing through Galilee: Mark 9:30-31; Matt. 17:22-23
  • Going up to Jerusalem: Mark 10:33-34; Matt. 20:18-19
  • Last Supper: Mark 14:18-28; Matt. 26:21-32; Luke 22:15-20


  • Sign of Jonah: Matt. 12:38-40 (cf. Luke 11:29-30); 16:2-4 (cf. Luke 12:54-56)[28]


  • Related to Destruction of Temple: John 2:18-22 (cf. Mark 14:58; 15:29; Matt. 26:61-62)

Jesus’ Predicting His Death Only: Mark, L, John


  • Ransom for Many: Mark 10:45
  • Vineyard and Wicked Tenants: Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19
  • Garden: Mark 14:32-40; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46


  • Prophet Cannot Die Outside of Jerusalem: Luke 13:32-33


  • Jesus Lifted Up: John 3:13-14; 8:28; 12:32-34

Even more importantly, the passion predictions appear in multiple literary forms, being found in logia involving parable (Mark 12:1-12) and simple didactic.

That’s all fine – nobody denies that these passages really do appear in the New Testament, and that those who penned them down really are drawing from oral tradition floating around during early Christianity.

If you look at the table above carefully though, you will note that not a single one of these predictions by itself is multiply attested. For us to concede that a historical event happened, that single historical event needs to be multiply attested. Yet here, we don’t see that- the only time something is repeated in more than one source is when Matthew or Luke are copying directly from Mark (therefore it’s only considered one source). Each purported historical event is not supported by any degree of corroboration.

The obvious retort is that, well, that might be true- but what we still have is multiple individual traditions each telling us that Jesus, some time or another, predicted his own death. If we take all the traditions together, we see a common trend: that Jesus prophesied his demise.

But this can also be easily explained without having to appeal to Licona’s conclusion. By simply looking at the historical context of the formation of the Gospels and the oral tradition that preceded them, we can easily understand why such traditions appear in the new testament in the first place. We see that there was a clear motive for early Christians to put these spurious traditions into circulation or write them down into gospels.

During the life of Jesus(ع) there was some expectation by his followers that he was the Messiah[5], and he was most definitely believed to be an apocalyptic Prophet[6]. What is certain is that during the first century, Christians were claiming that he was indeed the Messiah. This is indeed problematic for anyone familiar with the Jewish idea of the messianic figure. The Jewish Bible tells us that the Messiah will be a powerful king that will rule over the world[7]. More telling is the “Psalms of Solomon” written only decades before the life of Jesus (ع), that supports the idea of a wrathful and militant messiah that will purge Jerusalem of the Gentiles.

Jesus, on the other hand, appeared to have been crucified and died. He didn’t purge any gentiles and certainly didn’t rule the world. His followers had to deal with his apparent failure[8]. So how could early Christians vindicate his messiahship after his death? The answer is easy: “Well, yes, he died… but don’t you see? He knew it all along! He’s a Prophet and the proof is this Prophecy!” This is such an obvious source of all these traditions of prophesy that I am surprised that Licona has overlooked it. Now, I’m not saying that it’s completely certain that these are forged. I’m just saying it’s plausible if not likely that they were, to serve as early Christian apologetic by some of the more dubious characters of early Christianity. These oral traditions then got written down by the gospel writers to serve their own ends.

What does that leave us with? I think there is good reason to cast considerable doubt over Jesus having predicted anything about his death. In summary of my post:

  1. Not a single one of these traditions is multiply attested.
  2. There is a clear motive by early Christians to invent such traditions in order to convince their Jewish and pagan neighbours that Jesus was someone special even though he died- that he was the messiah.
  3. The conclusion is that not only is the attribution of the prophecies to Jesus spurious (1) but there is a clear motive behind forging such traditions (2).

Follow up

Mike Licona has several other points he uses to substantiate his argument but I think they are, in comparison to the criterion of multiple attestation, quite poor. I will probably do a follow up having a look at all of these later on, but for now, I’ll probably have to hit the books for a while.

Bibliography and citations

[1] The debate may be viewed here.

[2] This can be accessed on Mr. Licona’s website Risen Jesus.

[3] Qur’an 4:157 – “…they did not kill him, nor did the crucify him, but it was made to appear to them…”

[4] A Muhaddith is a critical scholar that criticises the historicity of Prophetic traditions. For more information see Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy to the Medieval and Modern World by Jonathan Brown.

[5] How Jesus Became God. Bart. D. Ehrman. P.44

[6] Ibid. P. 6

[7] Psalms 2:1-9

[8] For more information see Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection by Kris Komarnitsky. He explains why Jesus’s followers simply didn’t just abandon their belief in the messiahship of Jesus. As a Muslim however, I affirm that Jesus was a Prophet, and that he did not teach the old testament to be the word of God, since it is not. 

Are the variant readings of the Qur’an caused by the lack of dots in the Uthmanic Qur’an?

It is a well known phenomenon among scholarship, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that the Qur’an today contains several well recognized variants in the text itself. For example, in Surah Baqarah, Ayah 85, we see a difference in the last word between the “Qaloon” reading and the “Khalaf” reading [1].


There are many more examples to be found if we compare the well known readings of the Qur’an. These readings are known as the “Qira’at“. The Qira’at are divinely inspired differences in the possible readings of the Qur’an. The historical development of these readings is not the subject of this article, though perhaps a future article will be written to cover that topic, as more knowledge of this will help one get a better grasp over the contention being refuted here. For now, it is sufficient to know that the Prophet Muhammad (ص‎) had, through the command of God (س), read the Qur’an to different companions with minor word variations between them, in order to better facilitate the dispersion of the Holy Book between the arab tribes, to avoid any difficulties in recitation because of the fact that their dialect of arabic differed from that of the Quraysh [2].

For a Qira’at of the Qur’an to be accepted, in must fulfill the following criteria [3]:

  • The Qira’at must not be narrated from a single authority, but through a multitude (enough in fact to eliminate the danger of mistakes seeping through), going back to the Prophet and thereby advocating recreational authenticity and certainty.
  • The text of the recitation must conform to what is found in the ‘Uthmani Mushaf.
  • The pronunciation must agree with the proper Arabic grammar.

The ten “mutawaatir” readings of the Qur’an are the most well known of the Qira’at, and by consensus of the Muslim community, each are valid and each represent the Qur’anic text.

The differences between the Qira’at encompass from pronunciations of certain words to the usage of different words with different roots altogether in the verse. Sometimes, the differences are meaningful, and change the apparent meaning of the verse that contains such a variant. Now, as we’ve gotten the required information out of the way, let’s tackle a common contention against the Qur’an.

It is a well known fact that the early Qur’ans were not dotted nor were they voweled (see picture below). That means there was no way to differentiate between letters with the same skeleton (rasm), and even if dotted, there were different ways a word could be read to have a different meaning. To illustrate, the letters ت (ta) and ب (ba) have the same rasm but are different letters. Keeping this in mind, it becomes obvious that the early Qur’ans, including the Uthmani Mushaf, were extremely difficult to read- infact, impossible, unless someone knew the text beforehand.

An example of an early Qur'anic manuscript without dots (some vowelling was added later - in red)
An example of an early Qur’anic manuscript[4] without consistent dots (some vowelling was added later – in red)
A contention that has been raised by some Orientalist scholars such as Jeffery and Goldziher, as well as some recent polemicists such as Keith Small (though his opinions are not exactly the same), is that the variant Qira’at were generated by defects in the Uthmani script, as the reader simply sat down and read the script any way he liked provided he had some foreknowledge of the topic of the text. I believe this simply stems from an ignorance of the history and nature of the Qira’at. All the 10 mutawaatir readings are well based in historical fact. As ‘Azami had pointed out earlier, a reading is only accepted if it traces back to the Prophet through multiple channels. Zayd b. Thabit, the head of the committee compiling the Uthmani Mushaf, said “The Qira’at is a sunna that is strictly adhered to”[6]. For someone to reject this fact, they need to show that these channels are somehow defective. Nevertheless, there are more arguments that force us to concede the feebleness of this contention[7].

1. There are extremely few differences between the extant Qira’at.

The skeletal text of the Qur’an contains hundreds of thousands of possible readings, many of which fit the context well. Yet all the reciters are unanimous in reciting most ayahs exactly the same way, even though other words could be used that fit the skeleton of the text just as well. An example of this phenomenon can be found in the following table[5]:Screenshot - 301114 - 17:56:26Note how in all of these cases, it could have been recited either “Rashada” or “Rushda” and both words would make sense. Yet all these reciters either recite “Rashada” for one verse, and “Rushda” for another, with only two exceptions. This is true for the majority of the Qur’an.

Why do the readings unanimously corroborate each other almost all the time? How is it possible that the number of variants are so little (the famous Qira’at scholar Ibn Mujahid counted roughly a thousand) yet so many different readings are possible? Should we not expect the variants to run into the reaching even the millions?

2. There is absolutely zero historical evidence of such a phenomenon.

If the variants of the Qur’an were simply created at the whim of the reader, why aren’t there any schools or orders or even a single book written during the literary period that tells us that the early Muslims were deciphering the Uthmani Mushaf? All Muslims have held all the mutaawatir Qira’at as valid since the time of the Prophet and the companions.

On the contrary, we have historical data (hadith and qira’at literature) that tells us exactly the opposite. Why is this being ignored?

3. The readings sometimes differ from the Mushaf of Uthman unanimously.

An example of this is that the text spells words such as As-Salaat and Az-Zakaat with a waw (و ), but all the readings do not pronounce the waw (otherwise As-Salaat and Az-Zakaat would be As-Salawt and Al-Zakawt respectively). This is a hint that people are not simply sitting down and deciphering the Mushaf as it is- they are relying on an oral tradition that already exists to shape their pronunciation of the word.

4. It is not even possible to read an undotted, unvowelled script.

Anyone with any knowledge of arabic would know this. If the contention we are refuting is true, then the reader must have memorized the ayah atleast down to the roots. But then the question arises again: why aren’t there more variants? We are back to point 1.


The evidence provided here is by no means exhaustive. However, I think it is sufficient enough to dispel the notion that the Qira’at could somehow be generated by a defective arabic script, rather than inherited by the oral tradition we already know to exist.

Further Reading

History of the Qur’anic Text by M.M. ‘Azami

Hunting for the Word of God by Sami Ameri

Variant Readings of the Qur’an by Ahmad Ali Al-Imam


[1] Image adapted from

[2] Sahih Muslim 820a. Can be read here:

[3] History of the Qur’anic Text. M.M. ‘Azami. UK Islamic Academy. Pg. 203. 

[4] This is a part of a manuscript held by Tuebingen university. It can be accessed here. ‘

[5] History of the Qur’anic Text. M.M. ‘Azami. UK Islamic Academy. Pg. 157

[6] Al-Itqan. As-Suyuti. i:211

[7] Credit for these arguments primarily goes to both ‘Azami and Ameri whose books I have included in the relevant readings below.