The Shifting Sands of Canonicity: al-Shāṭibī’s De-Canonization of the Qurʾān

The Qurʾān’s revelation on seven aḥruf has been a subject of intrigue and scholarly debate, signifying divine sanction for the existence of its various qirāʾāt. Despite the ʿUthmānic recension’s efforts to standardize the Qurʾānic text, variant readings continued to proliferate, finding their use in diverse scholarly disciplines such as exegesis, grammar, Hadith, and fiqh. The canonization of only seven reading traditions by Ibn Mujāhid (d. 324/936) marked a significant milestone in the development of the Qurʾānic text. Yet, lesser-known is the subsequent phase of de-canonization led by al-Shāṭibī (d. 590/1193), who scrutinized these seven traditions further, narrowing down the array of canonical variants. This action by al-Shāṭibī, veiled in scholarly discretion, opens a realm of complex debate on the fluidity of the Qurʾānic canon and the power dynamics at play in the historical shaping of what is deemed divinely sanctioned.

The core aim of this paper is to challenge prevailing narratives surrounding the Qurʾānic text’s supposed immutability post-ʿUthmānic recension and following Ibn Mujāhid’s canonization efforts. By meticulously examining the process of de-canonization of Ibn Mujāhid’s canonical qirāʾāt initiated by al-Shāṭibī, I intend to demonstrate that the Qurʾānic text underwent significant editorial evolution and refinement well into the 12th century CE. This provocative stance asserts that what has often been considered a closed canon was, in reality, subject to scholarly debate, selective pruning, and incremental revision. In doing so, we not only question the traditional understanding of the Qurʾān’s textual sanctity and finality but also provoke a broader discourse on the nature of the Qurʾān, its development, and the divine versus human interplay in its preservation and interpretation. This paper seeks to ignite a reevaluation of historical assumptions and encourage a more nuanced appreciation of the dynamic processes that have shaped the Qurʾān, challenging the conventional wisdom that frames the text as a static monolith, untouched by human hands since its compilation.