Question 35: Canonization of the Qur’an

Question: It is clear that when the Prophet Muhammad dictated the verses of the Qur`an, his designated scribes would write down the verses. However, when exactly was the entire Qur`an compiled into the form we know today?

There are three prevailing views concerning the compilation of the Qur`an:

1. It was compiled during the lifetime of the Prophet (ص). The compilation took place under his supervision—which is tantamount to divine inspiration—although he himself neither wrote the text of the Qur`an nor collected the verses directly.

2. The Qur`an that we have today was compiled by Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (ع) after the Prophet’s death but before people finally accepted him as a caliph.

3. The Qur`an was compiled after the Prophet’s death by a handful of the Prophet’s companions (other than Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (ع)).

Most Shi’i scholars—especially contemporary scholars—accept the first view. Some Shi’i scholars have taken the second stance. However, many Sunni scholars have accepted the third view. Orientalists have also accepted this view and have added that the Qur`an written by Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (ع) was virtually ignored by the companions.

Obviously, on the basis of the first two opinions, the compilation of the Qur`an, its division into surahs (chapters), and the order within and among the surahs can be attributed to the divine will. In particular, based on the verse that reads,

“He does not speak of his own will; he only speaks what is revealed to him,”1

whatever the Prophet utters (especially that which relates directly to religious matters) is divinely inspired. Additionally, Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (ع), though he was not a prophet, served in his capacity as an Imam, as the continuation of the mission of prophethood, and possessed the prophetic gifts of infallibility and divine knowledge. Therefore, any compilation undertaken by either the Prophet (ص) or Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (ع) was necessarily divinely inspired.

Those who favour the third view cannot logically defend any claim that the division of the Qur`an into surahs or the order into which the surahs have been arranged is divinely inspired. In fact, the third view, in essence, rejects any Divine hand in these two matters. Rather, it attributes the division and arrangement of the surahs to the personal judgement of the Prophet’s companions.


  • 1. Surat al-Najm (53), Verses 3-4:
     وَ مَا يَنْطِقُ عَنِ الْهَوَى. إِنْ هُوَ إِلاَّ وَحْيٌ يُوحــى 