The Quran, which is believed by Muslims to be the last testament in a long series of divine revelations, was revealed to the Prophet, who was unlettered, incrementally over a period of 23 years. Since the Quran was destined to be the last and final message of God, its preservation in its original form and language was of utmost importance. The Prophet adopted, under divine instruction, two methods for the preservation of the text of the Quran: memorization and writing. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet would memorise them and recite them in his prayers and in the course of his conversations with his companions. He also encouraged his companions to memorise the verses of the Quran as often as possible. During his lifetime, scores of his companions, including some women, had memorised the entire text of the Quran. These included Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu ad-Darda, Abu Zayd, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thabit, Hudhayfa, Ubada ibn as-Samit, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-‘As and Muadh ibn Jabal. The ladies who had memorized the whole text of the Quran included Aishah and Hafsah, the wives of the Prophet, and Umm Warqa.
During the Prophet’s lifetime, the written fragments of the Quran existed in a scattered state. They were not compiled or bound together in one volume. During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, seventy companions of the Prophet, who had memorized the Quran, were killed in the battle of Yamama in the twelfth year of the Hijra (633 AD.) This unfortunate event caused great anxiety and apprehension among the Prophet’s senior companions, particularly Umar, who suggested to Abu Bakr to have the scattered fragments of the Quran collected in one volume. After some hesitation, Abu Bakr agreed to the suggestion and commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, who had served as the Prophet’s scribe and secretary, to carry out this task. Zayd transferred on parchment, which was made from calf hide or goat skin, the verses of the Quran that were written on stone slabs, palm branches and shoulder blades of camels. Though a hafiz himself, Zayd cross-checked each verse on the testimony of at least two companions who had memorized them. This shows the extreme care and meticulousness with which he went about his assignment. The work of compilation and arrangement was completed in a year. The completed manuscript of the Quran was kept in the custody of Abu Bakr, who passed it on to Umar before he breathed his last. After Caliph Umar’s assassination the manuscript came in possession of his daughter and the Prophet’s wife Hafsah, who had also memorised the Quran. Aishah, Hafsah and Umm Salma had their personal copies of the Quran.
During the caliphate of Uthman, the frontiers of the Islamic state extended up to Azerbaijan and Armenia in Central Asia. Hudhaifah ibn al-Yaman, a companion of the Prophet who had taken part in the battles of Armenia and Azerbaijan and had thereafter travelled far and wide in the course of his other military campaigns, was astounded and distressed to find that many Muslims in the farther regions of the Islamic state pronounced certain words of the Quran differently from those of mainland Arabia. On his return to Madinah in 25 Hijra, he approached Caliph Uthman, informed him about the disturbing situation he had encountered and requested him to commission the preparation of an orthographically and phoenetically standardized copy of the Quran.
Realising the gravity of the problem, Caliph Uthman requested Hafsah to hand over the manuscript of the Quran which was prepared at the instance of Abu Bakr, so that it could be used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex. He then appointed a four-member committee, which included the veteran Zayd ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Zubayr, Sa’id ibn al-‘As and Abdur-Rahman ibn al-Harith, to oversee and execute the preparation of a standardized text of the Quran according to the diction of the tribe of Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged. The committee adopted a meticulous methodology for the purpose. It began its work by collecting fragments of the Quran, under oath, which were written by the companions during the Prophet’s lifetime. The scribes took care to eliminate ambiguities in pronunciation and spellings in the verses, and standardized the spellings. The master copy prepared by the committee was compared and collated with Aishah’s personal copy of the Quran. The committee found no discrepancies and inconsistencies between the copy that was prepared at the instance of Caliph Abu Bakr, which was used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex, and the personal copy of Aishah. The whole project was personally supervised by Caliph Uthman, and the final copy was read out before a gathering of the companions for approval and endorsement. The committee thereafter prepared five or seven copies of the standardized text in the Hijazi scirpt, and the original copy was returned to Hafsah. These copies were dispatched to the main cities of the Islamic state, including Makkah, Madinah, Kufah, Basra, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, along with an accredited “reciter” (qari) who would recite the verses of the Quran according to the standard Arabic diction. One copy was kept in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah and another was kept by Caliph Uthman as his personal copy.