I have written in my treatise Mizanthat the Qur'an is what is recorded in the mushaf, and which, except for some parts of Africa and a few other areas, is recited by a vast majority of the Muslim ummah without the slightest variation. A question may arise on this: even if for the sake of discussion it is accepted that the Qur'an is only what has just been specified and the common masses only read and study it, then why is the attitude of Muslim scholars different from this? How did it happen that the scholars of Tafsir, Hadith and Fiqh from the very beginning of these disciplines accorded equal status to the multiple readings of the Qur'an, and would give preference to one over the other on the basis of their own opinion and inclination? So much so, jurists and hadith scholars of the likes of Imam Malik (d. 179 AH) and Imam Shafi'i (d. 204 AH) gave preference to the reading of Nafi' ibn Abi Nu'aym (d. 169 AH) and 'Abdullah ibn Kathir (d. 120 AH) respectively.
The answer to this question is that long before all these scholars, the earliest Muslim authorities had formed the opinion that though it is not essential for the common man to acquire knowledge through the akhbar-i ahad, it is essential for the scholars and the select to accept them and after being satisfied about their isnad, there is no difference in acquiring and adducing the knowledge gained through them and the knowledge that pervades among the common Muslims and which is being transferred from their generations to generations. Imam Shafi'i writes in his celebrated treatise Al-Risalah:
وعلم الخاصة سنة من خبر الخاصة يعرفها العلماء ولم يكلفها غيرهم وهي موجودة فيهم أو في بعضهم بصدق الخاص المخبر عن رَسُوْلَ اللّٰہِ بها وهذا اللازم لأهل العلم أن يصيروا إليه
And the knowledge of the select is the sunnah which is acquired through their reports, which the scholars know and which is not essential for the common man to know. This sunnah is present with all the scholars or with some of them from God's Messenger (sws) through the information provided by a reliable informant and this is the knowledge which scholars must necessarily turn to.
Thus after the demise of the Prophet (sws), when trustworthy narrators started to state, for example, that while a companion had read the word مَالِك (owner) as مَلِك (king) in verse 2 of Surah Fatihah, and يَكْذِبُوْن in its intensive form as يُكَذِّبُوْن in verse 10 of Surah Baqarah and يُوْصي in its passive form in verse 12 of Surah Nisa', then this was accepted in scholarly circles in the same way that the reports of his other sayings and deeds were being accepted. The reason for this was evident: if they did not accept these reports regarding the Qur'an, they would also not have any basis to accept reports which depicted the Prophet's deductions, verdicts, explanations and exemplary character except if they were deemed to be against a Qur'anic verse. The proliferation of variant readings took place because of this opinion of the tabi'un (followers of the companions). Not much later, among the experts of readings which were being produced, some became prominent who were not merely adept in various modes of pronunciation of the Arabian dialect like izhar, ikhfa', idgham, imalah, tafkhim, ishmam and itmam etc but took a step ahead and by giving preference to one reading of the Qur'an over the other as found in various reports of the knowledge of the select ('ilm al-khasah) referred to above compiled their specific set of readings that became famous by the names of these experts. This was much like the jurisprudence of Imam Malik, Imam Shafi'i and other leading jurists becoming famous by their names. For this very reason, these experts of Qur'anic readings are called "Readers invested with Preference" (ashab al-ikhtiyar). The result of this was and should have been that the students turn to them to learn their preference and choice of readings just as they turned to the jurists and Hadith scholars to learn jurisprudence and Hadith respectively. Moreover, many a time, it happened that these readers having preference adopted an intellectual centre of those times like Makkah, Madinah, Kufah, Basrah and Syria besides others as their abode. The result was that such was the fame that a preferential reading acquired among the scholars and readers of an area that it came to be said that the people of that area followed his reading. The word "people" here referred to the scholars and readers only and not to the common masses. The masses never accept or reject such things in this way. It is precisely for this reason that the situation changed and men of learning of a particular area after some time adopted the preferential reading of some other reader. And it is for this reason that except for these learning centres, no other reading is found anywhere in the Muslim world nor is there any historical evidence of such acceptance or rejection of a reading. The only exception to this is Qirwan where Qadi 'Abdullah ibn Ṭalib who in the later part of the third century hijrah passed the order that people should only be taught the reading of Nafi'. Thus, after this, common Muslims as well were forced to read the Qur'an on the reading of Nafi' in Qirawan and in some other areas which were under its influence. The reason for this probably was that these people were the followers of Imam Malik's fiqh and about Imam Malik, it has been pointed out above that he would generally prefer the reading of Nafi'.
Similar was the case with some small settlements which came under the influence of scholars. These settlements were very few in number and even exist today at some places. All other areas except these were never influenced by these changes nor did the scholars tried to influence them. Both carried on with their own ways. Thus the tradition of benefitting from variant readings in the disciplines of tafsir, Hadith, fiqh and others has been going on without interruption, and is still going on to a greater extent. Scholars discuss these readings in their writings, gatherings and religious seminaries, and professional readers today recite the Qur'an on seven, ten and even more variant readings. However, everyone can see that among the common masses, there is only one Qur'an in currency everywhere. They took it from the common companions, and in the terminology of Imam Shafi'i transferred it from 'ammah to'ammah (common masses to common masses). No doubt, it is also called the riwayah of Hafs (d. 180 AH) but this should not be a cause of any misconception because mere reading or intonation is one thing and reading or intonation in the accent of the Arabs in a pleasing way by giving due regard to technical subtleties like imalah, tafkhim, ishba', ikhtilas-i silah, ishmam,rawm, tarqiq and taghliz that does not alter the meaning of the discourse in any way is another thing. It is this second aspect which is acquired from the riwayah of Hafs in this Qur'an, and ascribed to him on this basis. He was taught this reading from his teacher 'Āsim ibn Abi al-Najud (d. 127 AH) who in turn was a student of the celebrated follower Abu 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 74 AH). Al-Sulami taught its subtleties in Kufah to various students for almost forty years. About him, Abu Bakr ibn Mujahid (d. 324 AH), the first person to have selected the seven canonical readings, has specified that he did not teach his own preferential reading but the very one on which 'Uthman (rta) had striven to gather the ummah on. He writes:
أول من أقرأ بالكوفة القراءة التي جمع عثمان رضي اللّٰہ تعالي عنه الناس عليها أبو عبد الرحمن السلمي
The first person who taught the reading in Kufah on which 'Uthman had gathered the people was Abu 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami.
He is the same person who upon seeing the proliferation of various readings among people had said:
كانت قراءة أبي بكر وَعمر و عثمان و زيد بن ثابت و المهاجرين وَالأنصار وَاحدة كانوا بقرءون القراءة العامة وَهي القراءة التي قرأها رَسُوْلَ اللّٰہِ صَلَّي اللّٰہُ عَلَیۡہِ وَسَلَّمَ علي جبريل مرتين في العام الذى قبض فيه وكان زيد قد شهد العرْضَة الأخيرة وَكان يقرئ الناس بها حتیمات
The reading of Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman and Zayd ibn Thabit and that of all the Muhajirun and the Ansar was the same. They read the Qur'an according to the al-qira'at al-'ammah. This is the same reading which was read out twice by the Prophet (sws) to Gabriel in the year of his death. Zayd ibn Thabit was also present in this reading [called] the al-'ardah al-akhirah. It was this reading that he taught the Qur'an to people till his death.
It is this very reading that is written in our codices of the Qur'an. Not a single bit of evidence can be furnished from history except the endeavours of 'Uthman (rta) (d. 36 AH) and Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (d. 94 AH) to unite all Muslims on one Qur'an in which a scholar used his influence or a ruler or a qadi used political power to impose this Qur'an among the Muslims, the way it was done is some West African counties with regard to the reading of Nafi'. It was this Qur'an which the Prophet (sws) and his successors gave currency to among the Muslims and it has remained in currency ever since. Consequently, when the readers of the Muslims were compiling their preferences in readings and when their Hadith scholars were collecting the reports of 'ilm al-khassah and their jurists and exegetes were solving the difficulties of the Qur'an through them, Muslims were reading this very Qur'an in the whole world. At the end of the first century hijrah when they entered India, they entered while reading it and when they landed at the shores of Java, Sumatra, Malaya and other islands of the Far East at the end of the eighth century, it was this very Qur'an which was in their hands and God willing will remain in their hands till the Day of Judgement.
Here a person can pose the question: if despite all these facts, the academic tradition of the Muslims accepted all the reports related to 'ilm al-khassah, why has the Farahi School adopted a different stance in this regard? Our answer is that it is not easy for any person of learning to disregard reports narrated by reliable narrators; this needs an explicit Qur'anic directive. Thus if the true meaning of the relevant verses of Surah Qiyamah had become evident at the very beginning, Muslim scholars, jurists and exegetes would probably have adopted the same stance as the scholars of the Farahi School. Imam Hamid al-Din Farahi (d. 1930 AD) has explained the true meaning of these verses. Hence, that explicit Qur'anic directive has become available on the basis of which it can be said that even if all the narratives which depict the variant readings of the Qur'an are correct, they have been abrogated by the reading of the ardah akhirah for the universal addressees of the Qur'an; hence they cannot be accepted in any way whatsoever. It is a directive of the Qur'an that after its collection and arrangement, Muslims will be bound till the Day of Judgement to read it on the reading it was read by the Almighty after this collection. No Muslim can dare deviate from this directive of the Qur'an. It states:
لَا تُحَرِّکۡ بِہٖ لِسَانَکَ لِتَعۡجَلَ بِہٖ. اِنَّ عَلَیۡنَا جَمۡعَہٗ وَ قُرۡاٰنَہٗ . فَاِذَا قَرَاۡنٰہُ فَاتَّبِعۡ .(75: 16-18)
[To acquire] this [Qur'an] swiftly [O Prophet!] do not move your tongue hastily over it. [It will be revealed like this. Rest assured] its collection and recital is Our responsibility. So when We have recited it [at that time], follow this recital. (75:16-18)
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)
. English title: Islam: A Comprehensive Introduction.
.Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i, Al-Risalah, 1st ed. (Beirut: Dar al-fikr, n.d.), 478.
. Abu al-Fadl Qadi 'Iyad ibn Musa, Tartib al-madarik wa tartib al-masalik li ma'rifah a'lam madhhab Malik, 1st ed., vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-'ilmiyyah, 1998), 483.
.Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Musa ibn 'Abbas ibn Mujahid, Kitab al-sab'ah fi al-qira'at, 2nd ed. (Cairo: Dar al-ma'arif, 1400 AH), 67.
. Abu 'Abdullah Badr al-Din Muhammad ibn Bahadur ibn 'Abdullah al-Zarkashi, Al-Burhan fi 'ulum al-Qur'an, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-fikr, 1980), 237.
. Hamid al-Din al-Farahi, Tafsir nizam al-Qur'an wa ta'wil al-Furqan bi al-Furqan, 1st ed. (Azamgarh: Dai'rah hamidiyyah, 2008), 226-233.
. If a narrative recorded by al-Bukhari is correct, then 'Umar (rta) too on the basis of this reasoning rejected many readings of Ubayy ibn Ka'b (rta) which he would present by saying: لَا اَدَعُ شيئا سَمِعْتُهُ من رَسُوْلَ اللّٰہِ (I will not give up anything of the Qur'an I have heard from God's Messenger (sws). See: Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari, Al-Jami' al-sahih, 3rd ed., vol. 4 (Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1987), 1628, (no. 4211).