CHAIN OF CUSTODY
When presenting evidence in a courtroom during a case, it is important to be able to establish for the jury that the evidence was actually present at the crime scene. Carefully documenting and tracking each movement of the evidence from the actual crime scene to the courtroom accomplishes this and forms what is called the “chain of custody”. Done properly, the defense will be unable to make conspiracy claims that evidence was planted after the fact in order to frame their client, and the jury can trust the evidence at hand.
The Qur’an is allegedly Muhammad’s testimony or revelation given to him by God. The Qur’an we have today can be traced back basically intact to the version commissioned by Uthman, the third Muslim Caliph. If that is our courtroom evidence, and the crime scene is Muhammad receiving his revelation, can the chain of custody from the crime scene to the courtroom be established? Was it respected?
Setting aside for the moment that we have already discredited Muhammad as a reliable eyewitness, let us assume for the sake of argument that Muhammad actually received divine revelation.
According to Islamic tradition different fragments of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad verbatim by the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years.
He would recite his revelation to his followers who were with him, and they in turn would memorize short portions or write them on whatever was available – palm leaves, stones, bones, etc. Thus, what was written down and/or memorized was scattered widely.
As mentioned above, there must have been scribes, such as Abdollah, who wrote down what Muhammad recited. Abdollah renounced Islam because he claimed that Muhammad would approve of changes in wording that Abdollah suggested to him. Already, the chain of custody can be called into question.
About a year after Muhammad’s death, many of the devout that had memorized much of the Qur’an were killed in a battle. It was at this point that the devout that remained alive called for the collecting of the scattered writings of the Qur’an, whereupon Muhammad’s former secretary, Zayd ibn Thabit was given this task. He bemoans,
By Allah! If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’an….So I started looking for the Qur’an and collecting it from (what was written on) palm-leaf stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart.
Later, during the reign of the third Muslim Caliph, Uthman, it came to light that several different versions of the Qur’an were being used across the fast-growing Muslim empire and serious disputes over doctrine were a grave concern. Uthman attempted to recall all the versions of the Qur’an from across the Islamic Empire, and once again, appointed secretary Zayd to create an edited official version of the Qur’an. Once the Uthmanic version was complete and sent to each major Islamic area, and all the other versions were supposedly collected, Uthman burned the variant copies in his possession. European archeologist, Arthur Jeffery writes,
There were wide divergences between the collections that had been digested into Codicies in the great Metropolitan centres of Madina, Mecca, Basra, Kufa and Damascus…Uthman’s solution was to canonize the Madinan Codex and order all others to be destroyed…There can be little doubt that the text canonized by Uthman was only one among several types of text in existence at the time.
Another prolific author on Islam, W. Montgomery Watt, claims that the archeological discoveries prove that the items of Qur’anic variation between just two codices discovered from before the Uthmanic version ran into the thousands.
Though it is agreed upon that the version of the Qur’an in existence today has been carefully transcribed from the time of Uthman, there are several missing links in the chain of custody before the time of the third Muslim Caliph. Even if Muhammad accurately relayed the words of God given to him by Gabriel, he himself often changed the wording as attested to by Abdollah.
Not only that, but over that span of many years his sayings were written and scattered in bits and pieces across an empire. Even after those had been collected, there were variations that were causing doctrinal issues, and an attempt was made at creating and editing one version and destroying the rest.
There is no way, then, to know whether the words in the Qur’an today are actually the same ones that Muhammad said, or whether they are just the ones that Uthman and Zayd approved of.