Historical Background of the Othmanic Revision of the Quran

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Historical Background of the Othmanic Revision of the Quran

Since the current Quran is admitted on all sides to be the Othmanic edition (which is passed off by the Hadith as a perfectly faithful copy of the original, except for a few minor, purely orthographic, adjustments), the question arises, “Did Othman have any reason to foist on the world an illegitimate edition of the Quran?” The answer to this must be in the affirmative. The Arabian tribe to which Muhammad belonged was divided, at the time he had his spiritual experiences, into two major family divisions, the dominant Umayyads, and the less powerful Hashimites. Muhammad belonged to the latter clan, the Hashimites. As his ministry rose in popularity, the Hashimites acquired status, and this was resented by the Umayyads. The Umayyads lost, because of Muhammad’s Hashimite connections, their position as the politically dominant faction. The Umayyads at first, therefore, opposed Muhammad, but at last had to acquiesce, when they saw Muhammad’s Revelation widely accepted amongst their Arab neighbors and comrades. Friction between the two factions reignited after Muhammad’s death. The earliest successors of Muhammad were Hashimites, but finally Othman, of the rival Umayyad clan, became “successor” (Arabic “Caliph”). Since there was still friction between the factions, it is not surprising to find fighting broke out between them. This was not merely political, or secular factional, conflict, but religious too. It was claimed by Othman’s Hashimite opponents that the Umayyad party of Othman, now they were in possession of the Caliphate, had ALTERED THE INTERPRETATION OF THE QURAN, in the same way that, in the days of Muhammad, they had resisted the Revelation itself. At a battle fought between the two parties a man supporting the House to which Muhammad belonged cried (Masudi ii. 16) ‛Ye people, is there any among you that would find his way to God under the spears? By Him in whose hand is my soul, we shall fight you for its [the Quran’s] interpretation, as we fought you for its revelation.’ So he went forward to the fight, reciting:

‛We fought you for its revelation,
Now fight you for its explanation;
Our blows will cause decapitation,
And interrupt all conversation,
Till right return to its location.’”

Now it is obvious, in these circumstances, there being a difference in the interpretation of the Quran as between Muhammad’s own clan, the Hashimites, and the rival, and disgruntled, Umayyads, that the Hashimites would possess the authentic interpretation. If the first Umayyad to become head of the new religious movement, viz. Othman, imposed on that movement a particular edition of the Quran, as he did, there can be no certainty it was in accord with the authentic Hashimite interpretation. In fact, he would have an interest in promoting his rival interpretation (almost, we might say, any rival interpretation), in order to detract from the newly acquired religious and political status of the Hashimites. To counter the Hashimites’ claims, this edition would have to differ materially from the authentic Hashimite edition. Given the Umayyads’ this-wordly political status, which they originally opposed to Muhammad’s spiritual, or other-worldly (as their propaganda presented it, “unrealistic”, “anti-political”), claims, we might expect their altered edition to be a more down-to-earth, less supernatural, interpretation; a deliberate contrast to the spiritual, (and, according to Al Kindi, supernaturalist, Nestorian Christian,) Hashimite interpretation. To hand in Arabia at that time were alternative “this-wordly”, but still monotheistic, systems, like the Jewish or Rabbinic one. According to Al Kindi, one very early phase of the editing of the original Quran had been precisely a Jewish one, in which the supernatural, Virgin, birth of Jesus, for example, was edited out. This editing feature survived in the Othmanic edition.

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