Printed Islamic books are more reliable than manuscipts?
Is there any control over printed Islamic sources?

About The Islamic Sources :
The term “Islamic sources” refers in general to the written materials; books, treatises, articles etc. But these written materials are not all the same. At the beginning, materials of this kind were in form of manuscripts, such as single or multivolume books (al-kutub), treatises (al-rasail), booklets(al-ajzâ) and other types of manuscripts. Until the innovation of printing, manuscripts were unique written instruments for transferring Islamic knowledge.
In order to guarantee the authenticity of the manuscripts, Islamic scholars has developed many control mechanisms and techniques among which the following are the most outstanding:
First, they developed the Arabic caligraphy by creating vocalization and punctualization.
Secondly, a new job appeared: Professional calligraphers or copymakers.
Thirdly, Fixing the rules and techniques for a reliable recording of oral materials and in order to correct transferring of these recorded materials.

Fourthly, the method of comparison between the original copy and copied texts.
All these developments were necessary steps in order to obtain correct original texts and authentic /reliable copies of the manuscripts. However some mistakes and defaults were necessarly unescapeable for many reasons; especially when the original text was missed or destroyed.
In addition to this, the issue of fabricated texts or falsely attributed ones, created many serious problems.

After innovation of printing and printed books, scholars thought that these kinds of printed books are far from many mistakes and problems which the manuscripts were suffering before printed books.

However, the sources of knowledge about Islam can be classified simply as oral and written sources as it is the case with regard to all other religions, cultures and civilisations.The most typical example of oral and written transmission is the Qur’an itself. As the canonical or founding text of Islam, it has been transmitted by oral and written forms since more than fourteen centuries without any interruption. But there is also another way of transmitting Islamic knowledge beside these two mentioned ways. This is the practical transmission of daily Islamic practices such as salat, sawm, hajj, adhan and many other practises. This way of regular practicing Islamic rituals preserved their sources, because the knowledge about the details of most of the daily Islamic practises has been transmitted by both oral and practical forms of transmission, from the beginning of Islam to the present.

Of course these three ways of transmission, i.e., oral, practical and written are not equal in their effectiveness in shaping Islamic knowledge in general. Especially in modern times, the sources of Islamic knowledge seem to be restricted to the written sources. But even the written sources seem to depend heavily upon the printed ones. We should remind, on the other hand, that the written sources are not restricted to the printed books only, and that there is another type of written sources such as manuscripts, inscriptions and other archeological findings. Today even the printed books as a part of written Islamic sources need to be considered in two different forms: printed and electronic or digital.

Every scholar working in the field of Islamic studies has – to some degree – a common idea about the authenticity of Islamic manuscripts. The problem of authenticity which these manuscripts confront is mostly historical, mainly due to the lack of standardisation of the later secondary copies, or lack of standart original copies mainly also because of changes or redactions or corrections made by authors. So, – according to the most of scholars of Islam – probably the most important difference between the Islamic manuscripts and printed books is standardisation of the printed copies. In fact this is a real difference between the two kind of Islamic sources, but this is a difference that can cause to some misperceptions about the printed Islamic sources. Therefore, our main concern in this context is the problem of authenticity of classical Islamic sources, be they manuscripts, printed or electronic/digital books, concentrating on the printed or electronic/digital ones, reminding that printed works of the contemporary Islamic scholars are out of this paper’s concern.
About the need to a closer examination of the nature of the printed Islamic sources: – A glance into the printing of the Islamic sources –

When we acquire any classical Islamic source, we place it in our library without feeling any doubt or hesitation about its authenticity. This kind of perception may seem ordinary and usual for many of us. But is this kind of perception actually accurate enough? To answer this question we need to know about the process of printing classical Islamic sources:

First of all, it must be remembered that all printed classical Islamic sources are nothing more than converting of handwritten material to letterpress or typesetting. This being the case, how can we expect that the hard copies are far from errors, defects or inaccuracies of the manuscripts which relied upon them during printing process?
Let us cite as a way of example some of these errors, defects or inaccuracies of the Islamic manuscripts:
1. The most important point is that we have no original copy of any classical Islamic source relating to the first centuries of Islam according to our current knowledges.The manuscripts of the printed early Islamic sources are quite late copies of their originals. This is the case of even the most reliable and exalted texts; so the most popular Islamic sources such as famous Hadith compilations like al-Kutub al-Sitta (Six Canonical Hadith Compilations : Sahih al-Bukhari (d. 256/889), Sahih Muslim (d.261/874), Sunan Abi Davud (d.275/888), Sunan al-Tirmidhi (d.297/909), Sunan al-Nasai (d. 303/ ) and Sunan al-Darimi (d. 255/868) or Ibn Majah (d.275/808) beside earlier sources such as Musnad of al-Imam Zayd (d.122/739), al-Muwatta’s of al-Imam Malik (d.179/795) , Musnad of al-Tayalisi (d.204/819), al-Hujja of al-Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani(d.189/801), Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq (d.211/826) and of Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shayba (d.235/ 849) and Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal (d.241/855). These are the examples from Sunni tradition, but the same is true about the early Shiite, Ibadi or Zaydi sources without any exception.

As to the earlier Qur’anic commentaries and theological and juridical sources or treatises, the same determination is true. For example, the existing manuscripts of these kind of printed earlier works are quite entirely are later copies, not original ones, such as the works of al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110/728), Muqatil ibn Suleiman (d.150/767), Abu Hanifa (d.150/767), al-Shafii (d. 204/819) and others. On this occasion, it will be helpfull to notice that one of the earlier manuscripts of al-Risala of al-Shafii that we have is the manucript which was hand written by al-Rabi’ ibn Suleiman (d. ), one of al-Shafii’s outstanding students. So – as far as I know – this manuscript can be consider one of the oldest original copies of early Islamic sources.

The Canon of Medicine(al-Qânûn fi al-Tıbb) which considered by Sir William Osler (1849-1919)- father of modern medicine – as “The Bible of Medicine”, is also another good example for lack of original copies in the field of classical Islamic philosophy. The oldest existing copy of this very important work is in St. Petersburg Library and it has been rewritten after 138 years after Ibn Sina’s death according to information given by Ali Akbar Velayeti, former foreign minister of Iran and researcher of Iranian Islamic culture[1]
Even the famous Sahifat Hammam ibn Munabbih (d.101/719) which has been published as a critical edition by Muhammad Hamidullah, depending on some old manuscripts, but indeed none of these manuscripts are original copy written by Hammam himself , disciple of Abu Hurayra; on the contrary , all of them later copies, the oldest one is not before 6th century of Islam. Consequently we may safely conjecture that most of the printed copies of early Islamic sources are far from being exactly representing the original copies standing for their authors original works.

2. Even if we assume that we have some original copies of the early Islamic sources, we cannot claim that these original copies represent the works and ideas of their authors for many reasons:
First, the common practise between Islamic scholars – according to the informations obtained from relevant sources – was that they were reviewing their works continuously, so most of them were passing away without giving the final shape to their works as in the case of al-Muwatta of Malik [2] and al-Cami’ al-Sahih of al-Bukhari [3]and al-Mustadrak of al-Hâkim al-Naysabûrî [4]. So it is not an exagration to consider, many if not most of the existing copies of early Islamic sources as rough copies of the planned or skeletonized works.

3. The original copies can suffer from some external interventions as in the case of above mentioned semi-original copy of al-Risala of al-Shafii. The case of al-Rabi’ version of al-Risala is very special and instuctive because it is suffered from many external interventions by some outstanding Islamic scholars as reporters of this work. In spite of their profound knowledge in both Islamic sciences and Arabic language, interventions of such outstanding scholars made Ahmad Muhammad Shakir – publisher of critical edition of al-Risala – perplexed and angry because of such meaningless interventions. But the most important interventions are result of some critical mistakes supposing them corrections. On the contrary, most of these corrections are in fact nothing then falsifiying the correct text of al-Shafii [5].

4. The manucripts which considered representing the authors original works also can suffer from same kind of external interventions as in the case of al-Fiqh al-Akbar of Abu Hanifa and al-Jami’u’l-Bayan of al-Tabari (d.310/922).
As pointed out by Wensinck in his The Muslim Creed, the manuscripts of al-Fiqh al-Akbar incorporate some issues and discussions that were unknown to Abu Hanifa and his generation at that time. These issues were rather related to later developments of Islamic thought in the following period after him.
As to the Jami’u’l-Bayan of al-Tabari, it is claimed that some evidently antrophomorphic passages relating to the commentary of (17, al-Isrâ,79) can be inserted into the Jami’u’l-Bayan by some Hanbalite of antrophomorphic tendencies [6].

5. The case of al-Tarikh al-Kabir of al-Bukhari (and critics directed to al-Buhari by Ibn Abi Hatim in the book with the title) and Mizan al-I’tidal of al-Zahabi (d.748/1347) and al-Sîra of Ibn Ishaq (d.150/767).
The ninth volume of al-Tarikh al-Kabir of al-Bukhari has an additional book titled Bayanu Hatai Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari fi Târihih li’bni Abi Hâtim (d.327/ ). As it is clear from the title, this work is a critical evaluation of al-Tarikh al-Kabir. But it is also clear that many critique in this book are based upon information which doesn’t exist in this edition of al-Tarikh. It shows that the manuscript of al-Tarikh al-Kabir used by Ibn Abi Hâtim in his critics is not the same/identical with the manuscript of this printed edition. But the critical question is: Which of these two manuscripts represents the author’s real work? So, on what ground we must evaluate the performance of al-Bukhari in his multivolume work on rijal (hadith scholars and reporters/transmitters)?

Similar case is true about Mizanu’l-I’tidal of al-Zahabi, because there is important differences between some of its manuscripts.The manuscripts which are based upon them in printed edition of this work are not identical, especially relating to the biographies of an-Nu’man ibn Thabit (Abu Hanifa), al-Fahr al-Razi (Fahr al-Din al-Razi) and al-Sayf al-Âmidî (Sayf al-Din al-Âmidî). The problem is twofold: First, al-Zahabi himself says at the end of this book that he will not include famous Imam’s of Muslims who are well-known for their scholarship and piety, such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, al-Shafii and Ahmad ibn Hanbal in such a book relating the weak transmitters. But in spite of this decleration from al-Zahabi himself, some manuscripts of this book contains special paragraphs considering Abu Hanifa, Fahr al-Din al-Razi and Sayf al-Din al-Âmidî weak and untrustworthy. The critical question once again is: Which of these manuscripts represent the author’s real work? So, according to the original manuscript we must evaluate the real position of al-Zahabi regarding these three famous Islamic scholars? Did really al-Zahabi include them in such a multivolume work on al-duafâ (weak scholars, reporters/transmitters) or not? The answers of these questions are not possible until fixing the closest copy/copies to the author’s original copy/copies. The answers are possible only without underestimate some possibilities such as changing mind of al-Zahabi about including these outstanding Islamic scholars in his work. If so, it is easy to explain the differences between the manuscripts, some of them include these three famous Islamic scholars and some others include not.

6. Examples of some pseudo or apocryphal works of Ibn Qutayba(d.276/889) and al-Ghazzali(d.505/1111).
Many printed classical Islamic books for some famous and popular Islamic scholars are not indeed their real works.The best example for such a famous and popular scholar is al-Ghazzali. Many printed books attributed to al-Ghazzali in fact do not belong to him anyway. One may think of the responsability of the publishers for this situation, but this not the case in general, on the contrary the main responsable in such examples are the old manuscripts themselves. For many reasons, many Islamic works of classical period attibuted to some authors other than their real authors. But the publishers are also responsables to some degree in some cases, especially if the author is famous and popular in Islamic circles, most of the publishers doesnt pay attention to the authenticity of the work but they pay more attention to the benefit of such a book if it will be published with the brillant title of any of famous Islamic scholars.

To get a clear idea about the dimensions of the problem , one must consider that Dr. Abd al-rahman al-Badavi forced to write an independent volume under the title Muellefât al-Ghazzalî(Works of al-Ghazzalî)[7] in order to solve problems of authenticity and chronology regarding to the works attributed to al-Ghazzalî.
But the problem is not new and contemporary. On the contrary many works attibuted to some authors other than the real ones in classical Islamic period itself. One of the best examples of such cases is the works which attibuted to Ibn Qutayba al-Dinawary, the famous encyclopedist, polemist and defender of Ahl al- Hadith and Sunna in the 3rd century of Islam. As Gerard Lecomte claimed in his Ibn Qutayba l’homme,son oeuvre, ses ideés [8] some of his works doesnt belong to him or at least it is suspicious to be his works, such as Kitab al-Alfâzi’l-Mughraba bi’l-Alqâbi’l-Mu’raba, Kitab al-Jarâsîm, Kitab al-Imama wa’s-Siyasa, Kitab Talkînu’l-Muteallim fi’n-Nahv, el-Wasiyya, Kitab al-Wuzarâ .

7. Lack of full version of authors’ original works or their copies as in the case of Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
Not only the general readers but also many scholars do not have any suspicion about the completeness of the Islamic sources which they used in their researches. It is not absolutly wrong perception, but also it is not absolutly true, because even some of very important Islamic sources that we have printed version of them, in fact have some shortcomings.

It is true that incompleteness of some Islamic sources such as Tafsir Ibn Abi Hatim, Sahih Ibn Huzayma, Tahzibu’l-Asar of al-Tabari is something well known by contemporary Islamic scholars and orientalists as incomplete works due to the publishers explanation on this point.
But there are some very important Islamic sources which accepted as a complete book, but in fact it is not so, as in the case of Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. As far as I know the majority of Islamic scholars in the past and present and most of the orientalists are supposing in their using and analyzing the Musnad that existing printed copies of it are complete and identical with the famous book compiled by Ahmed b. Hanbal in his life. However, some recent researches on this Musnad showed that such kind of perceptions needs some closer examination and deeper insight into the information about Islamic sources. According to a PhD thesis on this Musnad it has become clear that:
a) Until the twelfth century, no complete copy of it existed; neither in the possesion of the scholars nor in the libraries, but everybody has some part of this huge multivolume compilation.
b) According to al-Kattanî, Abdullah ibn Sâlim al-Basrî (d.1050-1134/1640-1721) who is the only scholar brought incomplete copies and fragmants of al-Musnad together and so prevented its total lost as a complete copy.
c) But not only the later copies but also the original book is incomplete itself. That is why Ahmad ibn Hanbal related it to the members of his family before giving final shape to it, and in a hurry before his death in order to give it state of a properly related hadith compilation. But this claim is also not true because of lack of fundemental conditions in its narration before his death.
d) The existing printed copies are not identical even with that incomplete copy of Ahmad ibn Hanbal; on the contrary all printed copies depend upon manuscripts of product of three persons: Ahmad ibn Hanbal, his son Abdullah and Ibn Hanbal’s disciple Ahmad ibn Ja’far al-Katîî. The main body of the book is of course belongs to Ahmad ibn Hanbal, but the other two have been made some changes and additions on the main corpus of al-Musnad.
e) This is not the whole story, because the existing printed copies suffer also from some missing parts of some old al-Musnad manuscripts. According to the Ibn Asakir and Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani who prepared an index of the companions whose reports were existing in the Musnad copies in their times, our printed copies of the Musnad (especially Egypt,1313 edition) lack of ten companion’s reports such as Budeyl ibn Varkâ, Tâlib ibn Sa’lebe, Jabala ibn Hârisa, Hârija ibn Huzâfe, Rukâne ibn Abdiyezîd, Zârî, Alqama ibn abî Ramse, Umâra ibn Hazm al-Ansârî, Amr ibn Hazm, Abu Umame ibn Sa’lebe. This clearly shows that current editions of al-Musnad are not complete and so they doesnt represent even the rough and incomplete work of Ahmad ibn Hanbal exactly.
f) And finally there are many reports in many classical Islamic sources which cited from Musnad of their times, but they are not existing in today’s printed Musnad copies. [9]

8. Examples of the books for many authors not one: Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Fiqh al-Akbar of Abu Hanifa
As a continuation of the case of al-Musnad, it goes without saying that the book which attributed to Ahmad ibn Hanbal is in fact product of three persons not of one. But we have not any edition until now, describing the Musnad as a collected work of these three persons and so attributing it to Ahmad ibn Hanbal, his son Abdullah and his disciple Ahmad b. Ja’far al-Katîî.
The case of al-Fiqh al-Akbar of Abu Hanifa also similar to al-Musnad, because as it is mentioned above, the manuscripts of it contains many passages about some later discussions relating to theological problems which appeared in subsequent centuries after Abu Hanifa. So it means that the existing manuscripts with the title of al-Fiqh al-Akbar are product of Abu Hanifa and of some other authors after him. But we also doesnt know any modern edition of this work, attributing it to Abu Hanifa and other –unknown- author(s) at the same time.
This being the case, it is not surprising for any scholar in Islamic studies to confront many contradictions and problems because of the above mentioned issues relating the old manuscripts.But one must not think that these are the problems which inherited from the past.Yes this is true in a large scale, but does it mean that the printed editions of modern times are far from such problems or at least are they very limited?
The answer is of course not! Because the printed editions of modern times also suffer from many problems in addition to what inherited from the past through the manuscripts. In order to get an idea about these problems of printed editions of modern times, the best way is to get information about the critical steps of printing the classical Islamic works.

Critical steps in printing the manuscripts:

1. Reading the manuscripts correctly?
It goes without saying that printed editions of the classical Islamic sources are nothing than converting of handwritings to letterpress or typesettings. Before widespread use of computers, the scholars or publishers were copying the manuscripts with their handwritings or typwriters in order to prepare a rough copy for typsetters or typographers of printing houses. After effective use of computers, the printed editions must be based directly on the electronic files prepared by scholars or publishers themselves. However, in two cases the most crucial issue is to what extent the manuscripts are understood or read by scholars or publishers? I think it is very difficult to claim that every scholar or publisher has capacity of reading the manuscripts correctly being far from any misreading of them.

2. The first question that must come in mind, is very clear: As far as the success rate of reading the manuscripts correctly depends upon the skills and mastership of editors in Arabic language, if it is possible to claim that all scholars and publishers are at satisfactory level in Arabic language? I think such a claim will be a bit far from reality. On the other hand, even the satisfactory level in Arabic cannot be enough because the correct reading of the manuscripts requires expertise in different types of handwritings and calligraphies.

3. Problem of intended distortations as in the case of al-Kamil fi’d-Duafâ by Ibn Adiyy(d.365/976).
Even if it looks scarce and exceptional, some kind of problems are more serious than it appears because of their shaking confidence results.What we mean here is some intended distortations of Islamic manuscripts by so-called Islamic scholars. The most important and illustrative example of this kind of intended distortations is the case of printed copies of al-Kamil of Ibn Adiyy. The story of implied example is about the mutual accusation of two companions of the Prophet (i.e. Umar and Ubayy ibn Ka’b) about the correct reading of a Koranic verse (5,al-Mâida,107). This important work has two different printed editions by two different scholars or publishers. But it is very interesting that this story is not same in these two editions even though we have only one unique manuscript of this multivolume work and both editions based on the same manuscript. The reason for this distortation in one of two editions is very clear: Fanaticism or dogmatism. Because of accusation of two compaions each other as being liar, the publisher of one of these two edition has removed this mutual accusations saying at the footnote that this part of the manuscript deleted because of moisture.This is a big lie and a very dangerous distortations because the unique manuscript of this work is in our hands, so everybody can see that there is neither a missing page nor a moisture causing such a defect.This shows us also the ethical dimension of publishing Islamic manuscripts. This fact shows us also the importance of principle of methodical scientific doubt as stated in a famous motto “Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle is besser” (Lenin)

4. Importance of critical editions:
Another problem is insufficient amount of critical editions and weakness of efforts in this direction both at the institituonal and private/individual level, in addition to presentation of many ordinary and casual editions as critical edition (tahqîq) without feeling any ethical responsability.

5. Printed books depending upon unknown or unmentioned manuscript(s):
One of the most frightening issues is circulation of some printed editions on the market, without mentioning their manuscripts which depend upon them for printing. One of the best examples of this kind of editions, of course, is the edition of Sunan Abî Daud by Muhy al-Din Abd al-Hamid, because it is impossible to find any explanation or information about the original manuscript(s) of this edition.

6. Printed books prepared for printing by unknown or unnamed scholar(s):
Similar to the previous one, but something very comical, circulation of some editions prepared by unknown or unnamed scholar(s)(!) as it is the case of some publications of “Daru’l-Kutub al-Ilmiyye” with the description of “Haqqaqahu jamaatun min al-ulama (critical edition by a group of scholars).” It is very difficult to understand why the names of these scholars are omitted if they are really Islamic scholars? The high probability is being those claimed scholars consist of some graduated students from some Islamic faculties. If they were really scholars, why are they not credited by citing their names on the books which critically edited by them?

7. Printed books depending upon other printed copies:
One of the best example of such kind of publications, some editions of Muhammad Fuad Abd al-Baqi, one of the most famous and wellknown publisher of many classical hadith books. For example, he depends in his al-Muwatta and Sahih Muslim editions, on previous printed editions only, without feeling any need to use any manuscript(s) of such very important Islamic sources.


1. All kinds of classical written Islamic sources – manuscripts, printed books and – electronical books – are not same as today’s publications of modern works, printed editions or electronical books for above mentioned comments, considerations and critiques, but especially because of lack of original copies for the past Muslim authors contrary to the authors of modern times. So, the written classical Islamic sources need more care than modern editions. On this ground, it is not reasonable to evaluate any scholar of the classical Islam or to make hard and fast decisions about their scholarship depending on the existing classical Islamic written sources, assuming them like modern printed books depending on the original copies of their authors.

2. Most of the classical Islamic sources need to be republished as critical editions, depending on the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, not depending on any available manuscripts by chance.

3. To make sure about the actual amount of original manuscripts came from the pen of the author’s own , it will be useful to prepare a book similar to the work of Brockelmann and Sezgin provided it is restricted to the original copies of their authors which existing in the libraries all over the world.

4. Praise and exaltation or even blessing and sanctification of the classical Islamic sources are a very strong and widespread attitudes and tendencies in both modern and traditional Islamic educational institituons. On the other hand, most of the useless and unnnecessary or even hard and heart-breaking discussions, mutual accusations among Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims in the past and present, have close relationships with such scholastic tendencies and attititudes about classical Islamic sources. In this regard, Islamic world – as a part of world family – in an urgent need to revise and reform Islamic educational system – whether modern or traditional – to minimize such scholastic tendencies and blindly sanctifying the Islamic tradition. As Fazlurrahman said in his Islam and Modernity “Islamic Umma/Muslim world needs an enlightened conservatism” based on critical approach to the Islamic tradition. One of the necessary steps of such a change and reform in Islamic thought and education is to establish a critical approach to the issue of classical Islamic sources.

[2] Mehmet Hayri Kırbaşoğlu,İslam Düşüncesinde Hadis Metodolojisi(Hadith Methodology in Islamic Thouht)(Ank.,1999),p.250-252.
[3] İbid.,p.252-255
[4] İbid.,p.261.
[5] İbid.,p.255-260.
[6] Abu Hâmid ibn Marzûq, Barâatu’l-Aş’ariyyîn min Aqâidi’l-Mukhalifîn(Damascus,1967),I.64.
[7] 2 th edition.Kuwait:Wakalat al-Matbu’at,1977.
[8] Damas,1965.
[9] Look for all these informations about the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal in detail: M. Hayri Kırbaşoğlu, İslam Düşüncesinde Hadis Metodolojisi (Hadith Methodology in Islamic Thought)(Ankara,1999), pp.305-310; depending mainly upon unpublished PhD thesis of Arif Alkan (Ankara University, Faculty of İlahiyat,1997) with the title of Ahmed b. Hanbel’in Hadis Anlayışı ve Müsned (Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s Approach to Hadith Reports and His al-Musnad ).