The Cairo Edition (1924)
The Cairo edition was published in 1924 by the printing press of Bulaq, a district of the Egyptian capital. This edition is also called the “Royal edition” (al-malikiyya or al-amīriyya) as it was prepared at the initiative of King Fuad I. It represents the last stage in a long process of canonization of the Quranic corpus.
A printed version among many others
Many printings or attempted printings had been undertaken before this version. in the West (in Venice in 1537-1538 and 1698, Hamburg in 1694, and Saint Petersburg in 1787), in the Middle East (Iran 1831-1833 and Turkey in 1872) and even beyond in India (1852). In Egypt, the Qur’ān was first printed in 1833 during the reign of Muḥammad ʿAlī Bāšā. However, the scholars of the al-Azhar institution ordered the confiscation of the book, claiming that it contained some mistakes and that the ink used was “impure”. Consequently, the 1924 version is the first edition to be published in the Arab world. The edition complied with the written form used in the ʿUṯmānī vulgate: the name given to the Quranic text that was assembled and put in writing by the appointed committee of the third caliph of Islam, ʿUṯmān b. ʿAffān (d. 35/656). This text was made into several copies and sent to different Muslim provinces; the goal was to avoid the circulation of different versions of the Qur’ān. It is worth noting that the writing system of the manuscripts (or codices, plural form of codex) that circulated in these days differ from the script used in modern Arabic.
The commission appointed by King Fuad was composed of eminent scholars: Muḥammad ʿAlī al-Ḥusaynī, president of the Committee of Egyptian Reciters of the Qur’ān, who personally wrote the text down. Ḥanafī Nāṣif, academic inspector of the department of Arabic language at the Ministry of Education. Muṣtafā ʿAnānī and Aḥmad al-Askandarānī, professors at the Madrasat al-Muʿallimīn al-Nāṣiriyya. The edition, which is composed of approximately eight hundred and fifty pages, is in compliance with the simplest variant reading of the Qur’ān, and more specifically with the one established by Ḥafṣ b. Sulaymān (d. 180/769) who supposedly learned it from his master ʿĀṣim b. Abī al-Naǧūd (d. 127/745).
Ten readings (qirā’āt) have come down to us, all corresponding to a set of readers called qurrā’ and selected by two Muslim scholars: the first one being Ibn Muǧāhid in the 10th century and the second, Ibn al-Ǧazarī in the 15th century of the Christian era. These ten readings are defined as ten different ways to recite the Quranic text, all resulting to eighty reading systems, which can be explained by the fact that the qurrā’ were selected at four levels corresponding to four generations. The first level is the one of the masters, called imām-s. Ten readers have been selected under this category. In the second level, as there were many disciples of these imām-s, Muslim scholars have selected two narrators for each one of the imām-s, called rāwī-s. Each of these twenty narrators (10x2) should get from their respective masters a different system from the other disciple of the same imām. At the third level, Muslim scholars have chosen two disciples called ṭarīq-s (literally meaning "paths", understood here as "transmission lines") for each rāwī, resulting in forty ṭarīq-s (20x2). And again, each ṭarīq has to differ from the other ṭarīq of the same master. And finally, in the fourth level, two disciples have been selected for each of these forty readers, which explains the final sum of eighty systems (40x2). The criteria leading to the selection of these qurrā’ is however quite obscure and subjective, as it was mostly based on the “well-known” (al-šuhra) and “widespread” (muntašara) character of the different reading systems.
The Cairo edition contains the one hundred and fourteen sūrahs of the Quranic text with their titles mentioned, as well as the period of their revelation (Medinan or Meccan). In addition, the text is divided into thirty distinctive parts called aǧzā’ (plural form of ǧuz’), which are intended to facilitate the recitation. Largely spread throughout the 20th century, it remains to this day one of the most widely known edition in the Muslim world. Yet, other editions have been published since then in several countries such as Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia, etc. But only the Saudi version of Medina really challenges the Cairo edition.
The multiform nature of the primitive Qur’ān
The study of the Quranic text, of its qirā’āt and its transmission during the first generations, is very important in order to better understand the process and context of its canonization. Moreover, it provides a better view on Quranic hermeneutics.
Al-Zarkašī (d. 774/1373) mentioned a long debate held among the Muslim scholarly community to decide if the Qur’ān and its variants formed a single reality or two completely distinctive realities. The repercussions of this debate were important and focused particularly on the ontological status of the Qur’ān: how can one explain the existence of the variants when God’s words are supposed to be unaltered? The answer generally given by traditional Muslim scholars is the following: the transmission of these words was supposedly done both in oral and written form, but orality was prioritized over writing, and therein lies the beginning of the variants. However, recent philological and codicological studies add important nuances to that assertion. Those studies insist on the multiform nature of the primitive Qur’ān because of a transmission by meaning (bi-l-maʿnā) authorized by the Prophet himself when he was alive, and even during the first two centuries of Islam. This would thus explain the proliferation of these variants, which can either (in most cases) concern phonetics and/or the script, or be related to the order of words (anteposition, al-taqdīm, and postposition, al-ta’ḫīr). In the first case, the consonantal ductus is modified. The consonantal ductus corresponds to consonnantal skeleton of Arabic words. It is a way to write down Arabic characters with only the consonants. Two modifications of this nature can be found in Q 40:21, where we read “minkum” (“among you”) or “minhum” (“among them”), and in Q 7:57, where we can read “bušran” (“[who blows the wind] portentous of his mercy”) or “nušran” (“propagation [of the winds]”): the variants have consequences on a semantic point of view. As for the variation of words, an example of it can be given by quoting the verse “wa ǧā’at sakratu-l-mawti bi-l-ḥaqq” (Q 60:19). An extra-canonic reading dating back to Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 13/634), first caliph of Islam and the Prophet’s confident, suggests reading the verse as “wa ǧā’at sakratul-ḥaqqi bi-l-mawt”. This modification does not entirely alter the meaning, but still nuances it a bit more on the semantic as well as stylistic level. In one case, the advent of his torments (sakrat al-mawti) goes hand in hand with the manifestation of truth (al-ḥaqq); and in the other, it is the truth (al-ḥaqq) that leads to these torments and manifests itself with death.
The committee for the Cairo edition based its work on the variant reading of Ḥafṣ b. Sulaymān, or more precisely on the Quranic manuscript entirely written by the Egyptian scholar Raḍwān b. Muḥammad al-Muḫallilātī (d. 1311/1893), who chose to comply with the ʿUṯmānī written form based on the Ḥafṣ’s variant. Furthermore, the same Egyptian scholar defined the number of verses for each sūrah, depending on Medina 1, Medina 2, The Mecca, Baṣra, Kūfa, Šām and Ḥimṣ; being the names given to the schools that developed different methods of counting and separating Quranic verses. Some of those schools claim to stick into traditions dating back to the Prophet, while others also take rhyming into account.
However, it is worth noting that the variations observed in this case do not have any real impact on the meaning of the text. As for the Quranic script (rasm), the variant readings (qirā’āt) and the counting of the verses (fawāṣil), the commission consulted Quranic science treatises. In particular, they used the works of Abū ʿAmr al-Dānī (d. 444/1053) and his disciple Abū Dāwūd Ibn Naǧāḥ (d. 496/1103). In contrast, the more ancient codices of the Qur’ān, called maṣāḥif in Arabic, and which are preserved in Muslim countries such as Egypt, Syria and Turkey were ignored. Neglecting those maṣāḥif is somehow unfortunate because recent studies show interesting disparities between what these Quranic treatises of science say about the manuscripts, and what the codices at our disposal actually contain. One can notably find in the latter extra-canonic reading variants that preceded the period when the Quranic corpus was standardized.
The importance of variant Readings
To accept a variant reading, Muslim scholars call upon three essential conditions. First of all, it has to comply with the rules of Arabic syntax and grammar, which is rather paradoxical per se as the Qur’ān appeared before the codification phase of the language. Methodologically speaking, one cannot analyse a text according to grammatical rules which were elaborated at a later stage. The second condition is that the variant must respect the consonantal ductus of the ʿUṯmānī vulgate whose various maṣāḥif must be, according to the Muslim tradition, the exact copy of the one realized under the caliphate of Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 13/634). Nevertheless, other lesser known traditions suggest that the different copies would differ from one another, at least a certain degree. For instance, some words happened to be missing or added to certain verses; whereas in other passages, terms could be different. The last condition stipulates that the concerned variant reading must have come to us through a chain of transmission (isnād) composed of reliable narrators known to be of irreproachable integrity. Of these three prerequisites, the result is that written transmission is one of the fundamental conditions to fix the Quranic text: yet the Cairo edition does not take that into account in its sources, probably because the historical-critical approach was not taken into consideration by al-Azhar scholars, but also because of the graphic heterogeneity of the material in question.
The way in which al-Dānī and Ibn Naǧāḥ are referred to is a good illustration of the problems this issue can raise. These two Andalusian scholars composed their treatises in light of the variant reading attributed to Nāfiʿ (d. 169/785). But the latter’s work, rather common in North Africa and Andalusia, contained significant differences from ʿĀṣim’s who was living in Kūfa, present day Iraq. Besides, even if al-Dānī and Ibn Naǧāḥ had studied numerous Quranic manuscripts, it is hard to believe that they were able to consult all of the ancient manuscripts still circulating at the time. Furthermore, in case of a divergence on a graphic level between the master and his disciple, the committee inexplicably opted for the disciple’s position. Ibn Naǧāḥ was probably less conservative than al-Dānī regarding rasm, but this is only a hypothesis.
In any case, there are numerous examples that show how putting the Quranic text in writing, along with the selection of variant readings and readers, has for unspecified reasons excluded the versions that differed from the ʿUṯmānī vulgate. For instance, the one attributed to Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/652), a companion of the Prophet from whom he directly learned approximately seventy sūrahs, was thus not included in the collection of the Qur’ān. Yet, if we consider the Muslim tradition, these different versions were discussed in the famous ḥadīth reported by al-Buḫārī and Muslim: “The Qur’ān was revealed in seven aḥruf”, i.e. in seven forms or ways. These phonetic and/or graphic differences do suggest that the Quranic text was multiform and that it partly resulted from a transmission based on meaning. Now denied by the Muslim “orthodoxy”, this transmission based on meaning was even taken into account by the first generations of Muslims and defended by well-known scholars such as al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742), Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767), Mālik (d. 179/795), al-Šāf‘ī (d. 204/819), and many others.
It should also be pointed out that all the variant readings mentioned, particularly those resulting from graphic variations, have a real impact on the exegesis of the Quranic text. In fact, one of the conditions imposed by Muslim scholars to interpret the Qur’ān is to be aware of such variants, because they add interesting nuances to the meaning of the concerned verses. To cite just one example, Q 49:7, “The Apartments” (al-ḥuǧurāt), recommends believers to ask for evidence about information given by a perverted person (fāsiq). In the common reading, this command is defined by the term tabayyanū, but the term is recited as tathabbatū by a minority of readers like Ḥamza (d. 156/772) and al-Kisā’ī (d. 179/804): they actually arranged the diacritical marks in a different way. If the consonantal ductus remains the same, the first reading encourages believers to ask for evidence of the information they get, while the second one encourages them to verify the given evidence. There is here a difference in the meaning which involves the interpretation of the Qur’ān, as well as its translation.
The point here is not to state that the whole Quranic text, let alone that each word, is subject to a multitude of readings. The Quranic corpus is very homogeneous, despite the few graphic differences that can be observed in some manuscripts. In addition, contemporary academic studies based on the Quranic codices have yet to show the existence of missing or added verses. And as for the Shia tradition, which mentions the missing verses regarding the successor of the Prophet, it did not present, to this day, any manuscripts that supports that assertion. The translation differences, ancient and contemporary alike, seem to rely on the polysemy of the terms used in the text, on the influence of Quranic exegetic schools of thought, as well as on the different traditions attributed to the Prophet, his family and companions.
Some contemporary studies, such as the ones by Christoph Luxenberg, attempted to bring to light the Syro-Aramaic origin of the Qur’ān by trying to show that the most faithful interpretation of the primitive text results from this origin. Even if this theory is not entirely admitted in the academic field and that it cannot be applied to the whole Quranic text, it does lead, however, to some very interesting examples of interpretation.
To sum up, the interpretation of the Qur’ān and the observed differences in its translations implies a study of the nature of the Quranic corpus and the variants on which it was based. The major problem with the Cairo edition lies in the absence of references to manuscripts: consulting them would have probably allowed us to obtain a text elaborated in a specific period of time, and thus to assess to what extent it is faithful or not to a certain reality of the corpus we have at our disposal. On the contrary, the choice of a variant reading dating back to Ḥafṣ b. Sulaymān narrows the specter of possible translations. Consequently, very few versions of the Qur’ān mention the different variants they use. And for that same reason, all editions of the Qur’ān that follow Ḥafṣ b. Sulaymān’s system are almost identical except for the ornaments and decorations, which can differ.
Finally, it is worth noting that the first step towards a critical edition of the Quranic text has been undertaken by Theodor Nöldeke in the 19th century in his book Geschichte des Qorans. Many other projects have come into existence since this seminal publication: Corpus Coranicum (2007-2024) in particular, from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, as well as the Coranica (ANR 2011-2014) and Paléocoran (ANR 2015-2018) projects. The objective of these initiatives is to reconstitute the history of the text and to replace it in its context, as well as to contribute to the elaboration of an edition exclusively based on the manuscripts preserved in the most prestigious libraries and museums around the world.
For more information
The Arabic text has been verified in 2019 by Ghazi Eljorf and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé. For initial bibliographical references, please see:
Muṣḥaf al-misāḥa wal amīriyya, Cairo, Bulaq Press, 1924. Online.
al-Ḏahabī, Ṯabaqāt al-qurrā’, Riyadh, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, ed. by Aḥmad H̱ān, 2006.
Ibn ʿĀbidīn (Muḥammad Amīn), Raddu al-Muḥtār ʿalā al-durri al-muẖtār šarḥ tanwīr al-abṣār, Riyadh, Dār ʿālam al-kutub, ed. by ʿA. al-Mawǧūd and ʿAlī Muʿawwaḍ, 2003, 13 vol.
al-Maġrāwī (Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān), Fatḥ al-Barr fī al-tartīb al-fiqhī li-l-tamhīd li-Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Riyadh, Maǧmū‘at al-tuḥaf al-nafā’is al-dawliya, 1996, 12 vol.
al-Šāfiʿī (Muḥammad b. Idrīs), al-Risāla, Beirut, Dār al-kutub al-ʿilmiyya, ed. by Aḥmad Šākir, 1309H.
al-Zarkašī (Muḥammad b. Bahādir), al-Burhān fī ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān, Beirut, Maktaba al-‘aṣriyya, ed. by Muḥammad Abū al-Faḍl Ibrāhim, 4 vol.
Albin (Michael W.), “Printing of the Qur’ān”, dans Encyclopædia of the Qur’ān, ed. by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Leyde, Brill, 2008, vol. 4, p. 264-276.
Chahdi (Hassan), Le muṣḥaf dans les débuts de l’islam. Recherches sur sa constitution et étude comparative de manuscrits anciens et de traités de qirā’āt, rasm et fawāṣil, PhD dissertation in History and Philology, Paris, EPHE, 2016.
Déroche (François), La transmission écrite du Coran dans les débuts de l’islam. Le codex parisino-petropolitanus, Leyde / Boston, Brill, 2009.
Déroche (François), Le Coran, une histoire plurielle, Paris, Seuil, 2019.
Micheau (Françoise), Les débuts de l’islam, Jalons pour une nouvelle histoire, Paris, Téraèdre, 2012.
Nöldeke (Theodor), with Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser eandt Otto Pretzl, Geschichte des Qorans, Leipzig, Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1938, Reprint, Hildesheim / New York, Georg Olms, 1970, 3 vol. trans. in English by Wolfgang H. Behn, The history of the Qur’ān, Leyde / Boston, Brill, 2013.
Prémare (Alfred-Louis de), Aux origines du Coran. Questions d’hier, approches d’aujourd’hui, Paris, IISMM, 2005.
al-Qāḍī (ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ), Tārīḫ al-muṣḥaf al-šarīf, ed. by Ṣafwat Ǧawda Aḥmad, Cairo, Maktabat al-Qāhira, 2010.
Raḍwān (Abū al-Futūḥ), Tārīḫ maṭbaʿat al-Bulāq wa lumḥatun fī buldān al-šarq al-awṣaṭ, Cairo, al-Maṭbaʿa al-amīriyya, 1953.
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The text in English is the result of a collaborative translation by Claire Gallien, Olivier Justet, and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.