By Avnar Sidiche
Related article: Superfluous variants in the readings of the Qurʼān
The Qurʼān contains narratives in which various prophets, angels and other characters are quoted as saying certain things on specific historical occasions. As elsewhere in the Quran, variant readings in these passages are common.
A unique feature of dialogue variants is that when they differ substantially in meaning, they cannot be reconciled by the usual (and often strained) reasoning that both readings are valid. As presented in the story, either one thing could have been said on that occasion by the character or another, not both. It seems likely that such variation would be unintentional in the most glaring cases, or even more likely, they were changes that arose during transmission.
In this article I present 14 examples of conflicting dialogue variants found in the canonical readings (Qiraʼat, Qirāʾāt). In each case I provide a link to the Bridges translation of the ten canonical qira’at where the verse and variant can be seen in its dialogue context, and a link to the variants listed by the Corpus Coranicum project (including a screenshot for the first example). In most cases they are also discussed in Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, to which links are also provided.
Stories of Moses (5 examples)
17:102 — In al-Kisāʾī’s reading, Moses said to Pharaoh, “I have known”, but in the other readings he says “You have known”. Even supposing Moses said it both ways (though it is embedded within a dialogue between them), there were easy ways for the author to paraphrase that in a single version and get the story straight.
As is obvious in this and the other examples below, the fact that ancient language dialogue is presented in Arabic should not distract us. All the relevant ancient languages had pronouns.
Corpus Coranicum: https://corpuscoranicum.de/lesarten/index/sure/17/vers/102
Bridges translation: https://quran.com/17/101-102?translations=149
Al-Farrāʼ records that the “I have known” variant is attributed to ʿAlī, who is narrated as saying, “By God, what the enemy of God knows, Musa knows!” (see p. 11 of this paper). This is not the only case in the Quran where ʿAlī reportedly disagreed with a majority reading.
18:71 In the related Kufan readings of Ḥamza, al-Kisāʾī, and Khalaf, Moses says to al-Khidhr li-yaġraqa ʾahlahā (so that its people might drown), whereas the others read li-tuġriqa ʾahlahā (for you to drown its people).
20:96 Ḥamza, al-Kisāʾī and Khalaf read that Samiri said after being challenged by Moses, lam tabṣurū (you did not see) whereas the others read that he said lam yabṣurū (they did not see).
This kind of 2nd / 3rd person plural variation (a consonantal dotting difference in the text) is common in the Qurʼān, though here it occurs in a story where someone is portrayed as saying something on a specific occasion.
20:97 Ibn Kaṯīr, Abū ʿAmr and Yaʿqūb read that Moses replied to Samiri lan tuḫlifahū (never will you break it) whereas the others read him saying lan tuḫlafahū (never will you be broken it) i.e. active vs passive.
40.26 The canonical readers give a total of four permutations of what Pharaoh said here. They differ both on whether he said or ʾau ʾan (or that) or wa-ʾan (and that) and on whether he said yuẓhira fi l-ʾarḍi l-fasāda (he will cause corruption in the land) or yaẓhara fi l-ʾarḍi l-fasādu (corruption may appear in the land).
Surah Yusuf (7 examples)
This surah contains a lot of dialogue in its story of Joseph. The first few examples are perhaps slightly debatable as definitely conflicting accounts.
12:4 According to the reading of Ibn ʿĀmir, Joseph said yā-ʾabata (O father), whereas the others read yā-ʾabati (O my father).
(Bridges doesn’t mention this variant) Corpus Coranicum Tafsīr al-Jalālayn (they hypothesise that both could mean O my father, though grammarians like Sibawayh suggest otherwise — see pp.180–181 here).
12:10 According to the Medinan readers, Nāfiʿ and Abū Jaʿfar, Joseph’s brother said ġayābāti l-ǧubbi (bottoms of the well) whereas the others have the slightly different reading ġayābati l-ǧubbi (bottom of the well). The ġayābati is the darkest recess.
12:12 Here we have two variants of what Joseph’s brothers said to their father. Ibn Kaṯīr, Abū ʿAmr and Ibn ʿĀmir read nartaʿ wa-nalʿab (we way eat well and play), while the others read yartaʿ wa-yalʿab (he may eat well and play).
12:19 Kufan readers ʿĀṣim (from whom Ḥafṣ is one transmitter), Ḥamza, and al-Kisāʾī read here that the man said yā-bušrā (Good news!), whereas the others read yā-bušrāya (My good news!).
12:49 Here Joseph tells the King his dream interpretation. The related Kufan readings of Ḥamza, al-Kisāʾī and Khalaf read that he said taʿṣirūna (you will press), whereas the others read that he said yaʿṣirūna (they will press).
12:63 Ḥamza, al-Kisāʾī, and Khalaf read that Joseph’s brothers said to their father yaktal (he will be given measure), whereas the others read naktal (we will be given measure).
12:64 In the next verse, the Kufans (except Šuʿba’s transmission of ʿĀṣim) read that Joseph’s father said to his brothers that Allah is ḫairun ḥāfiẓan (best guardian), while the others read that he said ḫairun ḥifẓan (best at guarding).
Stories of Mary and Lot (2 examples)
19:19 This is a well known variant. The Angel Gabriel says to Mary li-ʾahaba (that I may give) according to most readers, whereas Abū ʿAmr, the transmission of Warš (Warsh) from Nāfiʿ, and Yaʿqūb read that he said li-yahaba (that he may give).
Interestingly, this variant is one of the few dozen that transgress the Uthmanic rasm standard (even its reported regional variants) and was discussed at the end of my previous article where we see the ya written in red ink on a manuscript. In the Ṣanʽā’ 1 palimpsest lower text we see a 3rd variant, li-nahaba (that we may give) on line 15 of Folio 22 B (see p.64 here).
11:81 Lot is told two conflicting instructions by the angels depending on the reading (see the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn link below). Ibn Kaṯīr and Abū ʿAmr read ʾilla mraʾatuka (except your wife) in the nominative case, meaning that Lot must set out with his whole family but not let anyone except his wife look back. The others read ʾilla mraʾataka in the accusative case, meaning that Lot must set out with his family except his wife, leaving her behind. This understanding is found in early scholars. Later, some unlikely interpretations held that the readings agree on the meaning one way or another.
What can we learn from this?
These variations in quoted dialogue betray their unintended origin. Each variant was intended by someone, but clearly they were not intended to vary in these ways from each other. While sometimes the Qurʼān retells a story afresh in another passage with different dialogue, it makes no sense for anyone to change an already existing passage in these ways. One could not even sensibly accept non-verbatim translations if they varied like many of these examples, where just one word or the subject pronoun for a verb in a quoted sentence is fundamentally changed, giving conflicting accounts of the dialogue. In any case, each example begins with “X person said …” and they conflict at the level of a consistent story.
The next question that arises is whether these unintended variations were introduced unwittingly by the Prophet or in later transmission. An analogy from evolution in nature might hint at the most likely answer. Variations in species tend to thrive when they are separated into different habitats, such as islands, and more likely snuffed out within the original environment.