Ahmad ibn Moosa ibn Al-Abbas ibn Mujahid was a highly renowned figure in the branch of Islamic studies known as qiraat, or methods of recitation of the Qur’an. He was born in Baghdad in the year 245 of the Islamic calendar, which corresponds roughly to A.D. 865. He learned the Qur’an by heart at an early age. He also read extensively in other branches of Islamic scholarship, and in language studies. Perhaps he was without parallel in learning the recitation of the Qur’an, its interpretation, commentaries and style. He was gifted with superb intelligence as well as an exceptional memory. He lived in an age when scholarship was at its highest in the Islamic world, with numerous authorities in every branch of study. All this gave him the making of a great scholar. When we add to it the fact that he was a man of unwavering dedication to the dissemination of knowledge and the spread of learning, particularly when it is related to the Qur’an, we have in Ibn Mujahid a great scholar indeed.
Earlier, we talked about two great scholars of reciting the Qur’an, and we mentioned some of the reasons why there are many methods of recitation with differences in style of reading and in certain words. To recap, we say that the Prophet taught his companions the Qur’an in different ways to correspond to their dialects, which were all good Arabic of the highest order. Differences like those we know in our different languages today, such as a simple vowel being pronounced as a diphthong, which is roughly a combination of two segments of two different vowels, exist in most languages. To give an example, the sound “a” in a word like, “mat”, may in a certain dialect be pronounced as in “mate”. If we apply this to the whole language with every time this sound occurs being changed from the first form to the second, we get a great variation indeed.
We also mentioned the fact that the Prophet’s companions dispersed in different provinces and cities where they taught the Qur’an in the way they learned and pronounced it. The methods they taught were transmitted by other scholars and teachers. Many of these were very good and accurate while others were not as accurate.
These reasons have led to the existence of many forms of reading the Qur’an. The Prophet had mentioned this variety and allowed it. In a highly authentic Hadith, he says: “This Qur’an has been revealed in seven harfs; each is complete and adequate.” May I explain that the number seven does not indicate the specific figure it denotes, but, as it is customary in Arabic, it means, “many”. The word “harf” has several meanings in Arabic, but in this instance, it means “language or tongue”.
However, the spread of too many methods of reading, with some of them suffering from a degree of inaccuracy was a cause of worry to many scholars. Hence, it was necessary that this branch of Islamic scholarship should receive the type of meticulous attention Muslim scholars had attained, and which was clearly manifest in the study of Hadith and Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. Ibn Mujahid was the scholar who undertook this task with great enthusiasm.
Ibn Mujahid studied under the highest authorities of the qiraat, or methods of recitation, in his time, until he learned them all, with every variation in the same method and in all methods. As described by a modern scholar, “his memory was transformed into a great record of all these qiraat in all their numerous routes of transmission.” He read every one of them under several scholars, and read them many times under the same scholar. One of his teachers, Ibn Abdoos, was highly renowned for his accuracy. Ibn Mujahid read under him the whole Qur’an, from beginning to end, in the method of recitation known after Nafie nearly twenty times. But he also read the same method or qiraat under other teachers as well. He traveled to several seats of learning in the Muslim world to read the Qur’an under their scholars. What this shows is a meticulous approach to learning the method itself, but more importantly, it shows a keen desire to learn it all, with all its inherent variations, from the highest authorities. And he taught what he learned to a large number of people, among whom many became scholars in their own right, in this branch of learning.
Ibn Mujahid acquired great fame in his own time and in later generations for his accuracy and meticulous approach. Thaalab, a famous scholar of his contemporaries, said as early as 286, i.e., when Ibn Mujahid was 41 years of age: “No one is left in our own time who knows God’s book better than Ibn Mujahid.” Abu Amr Ad-Dani, the top scholar of qiraat in the Andalus, or Islamic Spain, said: “Ibn Mujahid excelled all his contemporaries in his branch of specialization, i.e. the qiraat, in addition to his broad knowledge, excellent understanding, accuracy and piety.” Students from all over the Muslim world traveled to read under him. He chose many of his students who acquired a high degree of accuracy to teach other students and gave them the proper qualification to do so. In his circle there were no less than 84 who were teaching the qiraat to others. We can imagine then the number of people who sought to study under him in over forty years of teaching the Qur’an. Students considered reading under him a great privilege, and it was so indeed.
Ibn Mujahid established three fundamental requirements for any method of recitation to be acceptable as correct. The first is that the reading must conform to the written text in the six copies of the Qur’an which were written down at the time of Othman ibn Affan, the third Caliph, who ordered their writing by a number of the Prophet’s companions who were known to have learned the Qur’an by heart with complete accuracy. He sent one of these to each main city in the Muslim state. The second requirement is that it should have a highly authentic chain of transmission reaching up to the Prophet himself, with a number of reporters and teachers in each generation. We find the same requirement in the study of Hadith, but it is required even more diligently in the case of the Qur’an. The third requirement is that it should be linguistically acceptable as correct Arabic. These three requirements have been accepted as the criteria for correct reading of the Qur’an. No one argues with the need to meet all three requirements.
Ibn Mujahid then took another step to preserve this branch of study and lay down its demarcation lines. He chose seven of the most famous and highly praised teachers of recitation in five centers of the Muslim world, Madinah, Makkah, Kufah, Basrah and Damascus. From each he selected the best known scholar, except for Kufah where he found three such scholars, each with a distinctive method which was widely reported by later scholars in most parts of the Muslim world. Therefore, he included all three. Making this choice required a great effort extending a long period of time. He then wrote a book giving in meticulous detail every difference that exists between these methods of recitation, and within each method as well.
In order to understand the extent of these variations, we mention that Aassim ibn Abi An-Najood was one of the seven readers chosen by Ibn Mujahid. His method is reported as taught by his two students, Shubah and Hafs (the latter we included in this series two weeks ago). These two reporters differ in no less than 520 instances. All are accurately attributed to Aassim and through him and his teachers to the Prophet himself. These are variations within the same method. Obviously, the differences between the seven methods are much more numerous, but they all conform to the three essential requirements of corresponding to the written text of the original copies of the Qur’an, being authentically reported by a chain of transmitters of the highest caliber to the Prophet himself and conforming to the rules of Arabic.
Subsequently, many scholars wrote books on the methods of recitation, either confining themselves to these seven chosen by Ibn Mujahid, or adding to them three more. It has come to be the standard practice to write about each method as reported by two of the students of its original teacher, as we mentioned in the case of Aassim and his two reporters, Shubah and Hafs. The seven scholars chosen by Ibn Mujahid were: Nafie of Madinah, Ibn Katheer of Makkah, Abu Amr ibn Al-Alaa of Basrah, Abdullah ibn Amir of Damascus and Aassim, Hamzah and Al-Kissaie of Kufah.
Today all these methods of reading are learned and taught by whoever wishes to specialize in this branch of study. In all Muslim countries there are teachers who excel in this field and teach the qiraat with keen enthusiasm. As for the general public, all Muslim countries from Egypt to the Far East read the Qur’an according to the method of Aassim as reported by Hafs. All copies of the Qur’an printed in these countries follow the same method. In North Africa, particularly Algeria and Morocco, it is Nafie’s method, as reported by his student Warsh, that is followed. In Tunisia, we find the other report of Nafie, known after his other student Qaloon, being followed. Copies of the Qur’an in these countries are printed according to Warsh’s report of Nafie’s method. In Sudan, Abu Amr’s method of recitation, as reported by Ad-Doori, is followed.
All of these methods are correct and acceptable to read in prayer and in any recitation of the Qur’an. The important thing is to learn each method correctly.
Ibn Mujahid was highly respected by rulers and governors. He used his standing with them only to ensure that correct readings are followed. There are two instances of Ibn Mujahid complaining to rulers about scholars who continued to read either in methods that differ with the written text or with all known qiraat. They took the necessary action to stop all this.
Ibn Mujahid died in the year 324, at the age of 79. He wrote many books other than his famous one known as As-Sabaah, or “The Seven”. His contribution to Islamic scholarship is highly valuable. Indeed it has benefited all Muslim generations, from his time till now. It is sure to benefit future generations as well.