Uthman’s Burning of Divergent Qur’anic Manuscripts is Deeply Troubling.
Imagine the uproar that would ensue today if someone decided to burn a pile of Qur’ans! Yet, this is exactly what the traditions tell us happened during the reign of Uthman. It is clear that the project undertook by Zaid, under Abu Bakr, to standardize the text of the Qur’an failed in the long term because there were still multiple versions around after it was completed. Uthman was deeply troubled by this, so he selected a text (the one held by Hafsa, one of the widows of Muhammad) and had all copies that disagreed with this destroyed in a large bonfire. Allow me to draw out some of the implications of this incident:
- Uthman was no scholar of the Qur’an, yet he seems to have made the final choice of the correct version of the Qur’an.
- The fact that Uthman had to do this means Zaid’s work did not settle the question on the text of the Qur’an, but that it lingered on for decades.
- The burning of the divergent Qur’ans also clearly demonstrates that the project to protect the integrity of the Qur’an via widespread memorization utterly failed. If there were ‘perfect Qur’ans’ in the memories of many of the faithful, a variety of different Qur’ans would not have arisen.