“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.” [Qur’an, chapter 15, verse 9]
God Almighty blessed His final revelation, the Qur’an, with something that was not bestowed on any of the prior Scriptures, by promising to protect and preserve it from any corruption. You might be wondering, how can such a bold claim be true in light of what we know about the consistent and unfailing corruption of previous religious Scriptures throughout history?
Muslims today have no doubt about the perfect preservation of the Qur’an. The primary means of preserving the Qur’an has, and always will be, through memorisation. We have an oral tradition of memorisation spanning nearly 1,500 years that has seen the Qur’an being passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken chain going all the way back to Prophet Muhammad himself, peace be upon him. You can read more about this here.
What about the physical manuscript evidence, what does it tell us about the Qur’an? Does it too support Islam’s claims about the perfect preservation of the Qur’an? As we will see, new manuscript discoveries add even further weight in support of the preservation of the Qur’an.
WHAT ISLAMIC SOURCES CLAIM
The Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad not all at once but rather in piecemeal fashion over a period of 23 years:
And those who disbelieve say, “Why was the Qur’an not revealed to him all at once?” Thus [it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly. [Chapter 25, verse 32]
Whenever new portions of the Qur’an were revealed, as well as being memorised they were also recorded in writing from the Prophet’s dictation by some of his literate companions, the most prominent of them being Zaid ibn Thabit . The verses were recorded on leather, parchment, scapulae (shoulder bones of animals) and the stalks of date palms .
So although the Qur’an was captured in written form during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, with the portions strewn across various materials such as parchment and leaves, it was not collected, compiled and transmitted as a single book across the Muslim world until after the death of Prophet Muhammad.
This happened during the Caliphate of Uthman (644 – 656 CE). The reason is that within a few decades of Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Muslim empire had rapidly expanded to the reaches of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the north. Hailing from various tribes and provinces, these Muslims were not companions, they had never met Prophet Muhammad, and therefore were not trained in the proper manner and etiquette of the recitation of the Qur’an and unfortunately started to differ over its recitation.
One of the companions who was present with them, a military commander called Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman, realised some action must be taken to prevent this occurrence on a larger scale. He therefore left Azerbaijan to report directly to Caliph Uthman:
“O Caliph”, he advised, “take this ummah [community] in hand before they differ about their Book like the Christians and Jews.” 
After receiving the report from Hudhaifa, that very year Uthman resolved to end these disputes. Assembling the people, he explained the problem and sought their opinions. When asked for his own opinion Uthman replied (as narrated by Ali bin Abi Talib):
“I see that we bring the people on a single Mushaf [bound volume] so that there is neither division nor discord.” And we said, “An excellent proposal”. 
Uthman next appointed a committee to oversee the task of compiling the Qur’an in book form. Among this group were personal scribes of the Prophet such as Zaid bin Thabit . Uthman commissioned them to manage this task by collecting and tabulating all the Qur’anic parchments that had been written in the presence of Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime. Once completed, the book was:
“… read to the Companions in Uthman’s presence” .
With the final review completed, Uthman dispatched duplicate copies for distribution throughout the many provinces of the Islamic nation.
Not only did Uthman send the actual copies to each province, he also sent Qur’anic reciters to teach the people the correct recitation of the Qur’an. Zaid bin Thabit remained in Medinah, to Makkah he sent Abdullah bin Saa’ib; to Syria was sent al-Mugheerah bin Shu’bah; Abu Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulamee and Aamir bin Abdul Qays to Iraq. All of these reciters were well-known for their recitation of Qur’an. 
In summary, we can note two important points from the claims of Islamic history:
1. The Qur’an was first collected, compiled and transmitted as a book across the Muslim world during the Caliphate of Uthman (644 – 656 CE).
2. Great care was taken to ensure that the Qur’an in written form was not only accurate in content compared to what had been memorised during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, but also that it was disseminated accurately throughout the Muslim world.
If the above claims are true, then we would expect them to be reflected in earliest physical manuscript evidence for the Qur’an.
WHAT SOME CRITICS OF THE QUR’AN CLAIM
Some critics of the Qur’an dispute the claims from Islamic sources. They assert that the Qur’an was a fluid and volatile oral tradition that underwent many changes and was not stable until it was written down much later in history, centuries after Prophet Muhammad. If this were the case, then we would not expect to find physical manuscript evidence for the Qur’an from the early period of Islam, and any evidence that does exist would be different to the Qur’an we have today.
NEW MANUSCRIPT DISCOVERY SUPPORTS AN EARLY DATE
Leiden University Libraries in Netherlands is home to some 60,000 Oriental and Western manuscripts. Among these manuscripts there are a small number of ancient Qur’an fragments. Of particular interest is the Qur’anic manuscript known as Or. 14.545b (please click on picture to enlarge):
The fragment, which is on papyrus and parchment, does not itself bear a date. On the basis of the elongated, slanted Arabic script, known as Hijazi, researchers did know that the fragment must be old. Initially it was cautiously dated to about 770 – 830 CE, over 100 years after Prophet Muhammad.
Some recently completed analysis on the manuscript, using radiocarbon dating, has revealed some incredible results . It turns out that the manuscript is in fact much older than previously estimated, it comes from the period between 650 and 715 CE. This makes it over a century older than previously thought .
I will leave it to Arnoud Vrolijk, curator of Oriental manuscripts in the Special Collections department of the Leiden University Libraries, to explain why these results are so significant :
“What’s interesting is that according to official Islamic teaching the Koran was first committed to writing during the caliphate of Uthman, who ruled from 655 to 656. The results of the analysis are in very close agreement with that, or at least don’t contradict it. Many Western Islamic scholars are sceptical about such an early date for when the Koran was set down in writing. They believe that the canonical text of the Koran was only written down much later, in the ninth century or even later.”
This is a monumental finding and an embarrassment for those Orientalists who have made careers out of peddling the lies that the Qur’an was only written down much later in history. So we can conclude that its date range originates from very early on in Islamic history, overlapping with the Caliphate of Uthman, just as Islamic history claims.
WHAT DOES THE MANUSCRIPT TELL US ABOUT THE PRESERVATION OF THE QUR’AN
But what about the content of the manuscript, how does it compare to the Qur’an that we have today? One thing you many notice about the manuscript is that it lacks any diacritical marks. These are the dots that differentiated the letters and vowel markings (please click on picture to enlarge):
You can see from the above picture that the skeletal text between the two is identical. The reason why these vowel markings are missing from the manuscript is that they were only introduced later in history. Even in modern Arabic newspapers, the vowel markings are missing from the words because the reader is able to fill them in mentally as they read the text. We must remember that the main way the Qur’an was preserved was orally, and for someone who had already memorised the Qur’an the written copies (known as a ‘mushaf’) were only meant to be a supplement to oral recitation. If someone already has a verse memorised, the skeletal letters in these early manuscripts served only as a visual aid when reciting.
Over time, diacritical marks began being added to the mushafs throughout the Muslim world. This was done as the Muslim world shifted from an oral to a written society, to further facilitate reading from a copy of the Qur’an, and to eliminate errors by people who did not already have the verses memorised. Today, almost all modern mushafs include vowel markings on the skeletal letters to make reading easier.
The manuscript covers Surah an-Nahl (“The Bee”), the 16th chapter of the Qur’an, verses 96 – 114. Here is the Arabic transliteration for the manuscript, you can compare it to the modern Qur’an. The square brackets represent sections of the manuscript that are missing because of damage or have been worn out over time (please click on picture to enlarge):
What we find is that the manuscript perfectly matches the modern Qur’an. So far from being the fluid and volatile oral tradition as critics claim, we have strong evidence to suggest that the Qur’an was a stable text very early on, from the time of the companions of Prophet Muhammad to the modern day.
HOW DOES THE BIBLE COMPARE
If we compare manuscript evidence for the Qur’an to the Bible, we find a stark contrast with regards to dates. The oldest physical evidence for the Old Testament, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, dates to approximately 150 BCE – 70 CE. When we consider that Moses lived around 1300 BCE this means that we don’t have any manuscript evidence until around 1000 years after Moses, an incredibly long gap. For the New Testament, the oldest physical evidence is the manuscript fragment Papyrus 52, a scrap about the size of a credit card representing portions of the Gospel of John. This is dated to around 120 CE, that’s nearly 100 years after Jesus.
When it comes to the accuracy of the transmission of the Bible, again we find a stark contrast. There are huge differences in the modern versions of the Bible compared to what we find in the oldest surviving physical manuscript evidence. You can read more about the corruption of the Old Testament here, and more about the corruption of the New Testament here.
Not only does the early manuscript evidence support the Qur’an’s claims of perfect preservation throughout history, but it also supports Islam’s historical claims about the date and manner of the compilation of the Qur’an into written form. We can be confident that the Qur’an was compiled into written form very early in its history, and also that the painstaking efforts of the early Muslims, the companions of Prophet Muhammad no less, were successful in ensuring that the Qur’an was transmitted across the Muslim world accurately.
Unlike the Bible, mankind can have full confidence in the preservation of the Qur’an. Anyone seeking God should rely on the Qur’an as their source of guidance:
“This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah.” [Chapter 2, verse 2]
You can find scholarly articles about the manuscripts of the Qur’an here:
1 – Jalal al-Din Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an, Beirut: Maktab al-Thaqaafiyya, 1973, Vol.1, p.41 & 99.
2 – al-Harith al-Muhasabi, Kitab Fahm al-Sunan, cited in Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an, Vol.1, p.58.
3 – Al-Bukhari, Sahih, hadith no. 4887.
4 – Ibn Abi Dawud, al-Masahif, p. 22.
5 – Ibn AbI Dawud, al-Masahif, p. 3; see also al-Bukhari, Sahih, Fada’il al-Qur’an:4.
6 – Ibn Kathir, Fadail, vii:450.
7 – az-Zarqaanee, v. 1, p. 262.
8 – Link to Leiden University Library website (valid URL as of August 2014):
9 – Link to Leiden University Library website (valid URL as of August 2014):