Although Arabic was the common language throughout the Arabian peninsula, the different environments and histories of the various tribes produced a  wide variety of dialects. In some cases, each tribe used different words to describe the same object.

For example, some tribes called the lion an “ asad,” while other tribes called it a “ layth,” “ hamzah,” “ hafs,” or a “ ghadanfar.” In other cases, differences occurred in the way certain letters were pronounced due to vowelling differences. However, in time the dialect of the tribe of Quraysh emerged from among the various dialects as the most prominent dialect. The Qurayshee dialect became the most respected of all the dialects for the following basic reasons:

  1. Makkah and its surrounding area, including the shrine of the Ka‘bah, were  part of the tribal lands of the Quraysh. Each of the various tribes had idols representing their various tribal gods placed in and around the Ka‘bah.
  2. Thus the Ka‘bah was considered the spiritual center for all of the Arabian tribes,  and pilgrimage to the shrine was made throughout the year.
  3. During the month of hajj, pilgrims from all of the tribes used to come to Makkah in order to perform the rites of hajj. This practice was started by Prophet Ibraheem and his sons when they first built the Ka‘bah and it remained a practice among their Arabian descendants; however, many false rituals involving idolatry and superstition were added to the original rites.
  4. The Quraysh took personal responsibility for supplying drinking water (siqaayah) for all of the pilgrims and their animals. This was done free of charge as evidence of their generosity and nobility. Thus, the Quraysh were held in a highly praiseworthy position among the Arabs.
  5. Makkah stood at the junction of all the major trade routes between Syria and Persia to the north, and Yemen and Africa to the south. As a result, the Qurayshee trading class became the richest class among the families in Arabia, which in turn led to the great respect that was given to the Qurayshee tribe by the various tribes of Arabia.

Sab‘ah Ahruf (THE SEVEN FORMS)

In order to take into account the various differences which existed among the Arabian dialects, Allaah revealed the Qur’aan in seven different forms. The forms matched the dialects of the following seven tribes: Quraysh, Huthayl, Thaqeef, Hawaazin, Kinaanah, Tameem, and Yemen.

These various forms did not represent different Qur’aans, as Jibreel only conveyed verses from a single Qur’aan written on a protected tablet (al-Lawh al-Mahfooth) in the heavens.

However, Jibreel was instructed to recite the verses that he brought in seven forms corresponding to the dialects of the major tribes. The various forms represented the various ways in which the same word might be said according to the various dialects.  However,  the  meanings  were  all  stated  the  same.

  The  Prophet  () informed most of his companions (sahaabah) of the existence of various readings so that the variation in their readings would not create any discord or division among them. The sahaabee Ibn ‘Abbaas reported that he heard Allaah’s Messenger () say,

“ Jibreel recited (the Qur’aan) to me in one form, and after I had revised it I asked him to recite some more, which he did, until he completed seven forms.”

However, not all of the companions were aware of the various readings at the same time. Consequently, some minor disagreements did take place, which were resolved  by the Prophet () himself.

An example of such cases can be found in the following incident narrated by one of the Prophet’s closet companions. ‘Umar ibn  al-Khattaab  said,  “Once  during  the  lifetime  of  Allaah’s  Messenger  (),  I heard Hishaam ibn Hakeem reciting Soorah al-Furqaan in salaah, and I noticed that he recited it differently from the way in which the Prophet () had taught me.

I was on the verge of jumping on him during his salaah, but I managed to control my anger until he completed his prayer. Upon its completion, I grabbed him by the neck of his cloak and said, ‘Who taught you this soorah that I heard you reciting?’ He replied, ‘Allaah’s Messenger () taught it to me!’ I said, ‘You are a liar, for Allaah’s Messenger () has taught  it to me  in a different  way from the way you  recited  it!’ I  then  dragged  him to  Allaah’s  Messenger  ()  and  said  to him, ‘I heard this person reciting Soorah al-Furqaan in a different way from the way that you taught me.’ Allaah’s Messenger () then said, ‘Release him ‘Umar! Recite Hishaam!’ Hishaam recited in the same way that I heard him reciting previously.

Then the Messenger of Allaah () said, ‘It was revealed in this way!’ He then said, ‘Recite ‘Umar!’ When I completed reciting it the way he had taught me, he said,

‘It was also revealed in this way. This Qur’aan has been revealed in seven forms, so recite whichever is easiest for you.”

Ibn ‘Abdul Barr argued on the basis of this incident that the interpretation of the seven forms as meaning seven tribal dialects is flawed, since ‘Umar and Hishaam were both from the Qurayshee tribe.

He interpreted it as meaning seven facets of harmonious meaning conveyed by varying words; for example, words like halumma, t‘aala, and aqbil, which all mean ‘come.’ Ibn Hajr, after quoting him, offered the opinion that the two interpretations are not mutually contradictory. It may be that the variation consists of differing words for the same meanings and that the variations are from the dialects of seven Arabic tribes.

Ibn Qutaybah proposed a different interpretation of the seven forms:

  1. variations in vowel markings, while the letters and meaning are unchanged; for example laa yudaarra and laa yudaarru in verse 282 of Soorah al-Baqarah:

“Neither the scribe nor the witness should be harmed.”

2. variations in the form of a verb; for example: ba‘‘ada and baa‘id in verse 19 Soorah Saba’:

“They said, ‘Our Lord, make the stages between our journeys longer.’ ”

The variation in this example is in two aspects: between the past tense and the imperative and between the second form and the third form of the root, i.e. fa‘‘ala and faa‘ala.

3. variations in dots of letters that have the same basic shape; for example, raa’ and zaa’ in the words nunshiruhaa and nunshizuhaa, two variant wordings of verse 259 of Soorah al-Baqarah:

“And look at the bones (of your donkey), how We raise them up.”

The variant wording, nunshiruhaa, means ‘We restore them to life.’

6. variations due to substitution of one letter for another that is pronounced from  a nearby location in the mouth or throat; for example ‘ayn and haa’ both originate from the middle of the throat. In verse 29 of Soorah al-Waaqi‘ah, the word, talhin (banana trees or a kind of acacia tree) is also recited tal‘in (spadix of a palm tree).

5. variations due to the transposition of words in a phrase; for example, in verse 19 of Soorah Qaaf,

“And the stupor of death will come in truth,”

a variant recitation attributed to Aboo Bakr is:

“And the stupor (ordained by) al-Haqq (Allaah) will come, accompanied by death.”

6. variations due to the addition or subtraction of letters or words; for example, in verses 1-3 of Soorah al-Layl:

“By the night when it veils, and the day when it shines in brightness, and Him Who created the male and female…”

The recitation of Ibn Mas‘ood and Aboo ad-Dardaa’ omitted the first three words of verse 3, wa maa khalaqa, (and [by] Him Who created). Some recitations added words to what is recorded in the Mus-haf ‘Uthmaan. Al-Bukhaaree collected the statement of Ibn ‘Abbaas, “When the verse was revealed,

“Warn your clan of nearest relations, and (especially) the sincere among them,”

the Messenger of Allaah () went  out, climbed  atop the  hill of as-Safaa and shouted…” The verse referred to by Ibn ‘Abbaas is verse 214 of Soorah ash- Shu‘araa’. However, only the first half of it, “Warn your clan of nearest relations,” appears in the Mus-haf ‘Uthmaan. Some scholars say this is really an example of naskh (abrogated recitation).

7. variations due to the use of one synonym in place of another. This is what Ibn ‘Abdul Barr was referring to. An example of this is Ibn Mas‘ood’s recitation of verse 5 of Soorah al-Qaari‘ah. Instead of اﻟْﻤَﻨْﻔُﻮشِ ﻛَﺎﻟْﻌِﮭْﻦِ, he recited ﻛَﺎﻟﺼﱡﻮفِ. اﻟْﻤَﻨْﻔُﻮشِBoth phrases mean ‘like carded wool.’26

Other scholars, such as Ibn al-Jazaree and Abul-Fadl ar-Raazee, proposed their own variations on the same principle. Ar-Raazee wrote, “The variations of language do not go outside seven aspects:

  1. variations of nouns between singular, dual and plural and between masculine and feminine;
  2. variations in verb tenses between perfect (past), imperfect (present and future) and imperative (command);
  3. variations in i‘raab (vowel endings that indicate the role of the word in the sentence);
  4. addition and deletion of letters;
  5. flipped word order;
  6. substitution of one word for another;
  7. variations in pronunciation such al-imaalah, al-fat-h, at-tarqeeq, at-tafkheem, al-idghaam and al-ith-haar. Ibn Hajr pointed out that there is considerable overlap between all these various explanations.