(kitāb, kutub, ṣuḥuf)

Gibril Fouad Haddad

This article comprises the following sections: i. Definitions, Morphology, Usage: kitāb, imām, zubur; asfār, ṣuḥuf, qirṭās, sijill; ; ii. The Twenty-Three Meanings of Kitāb; iii. The Book as Inimitable (Muʿjiz); iv. Bibliography.

Definitions, Morphology, Usage

Books are a major theme of the Qurʾān, which uses seven nouns to refer to them: kitāb (x232) and its plural kutub (x6); imām (x4, plural aʾimma); zubur (x7, singular zabūr); asfār (once, singular sifr); ṣuḥuf (x8, singular ṣaḥīfa); qirṭās and its plural qarāṭīs (once each); and sijill (once).


The root k-t-b denotes gathering up and collating, whence the infinitive nouns (i) katb for “sewing together two pieces of leather and, by convention, joining together letters by writing them” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub k-t-b; cf. al-Shahrastānī, Mafātīḥ 1:128)—the latter meaning specifically synonymous with “copying” (naskh) (al-ʿAskarī, Furūq p. 290, Bāb 28); (ii) katība, “batallion” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn, sub k-t-b); and (iii) kitāb(a), which refers to the act of writing (see Pen and Writing) and to any written record or literal scripture, whether of a few words or of book length. The latter is also used metonymically in the sense of a categorical religious obligation or farḍ (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs, sub k-t-b; Saraqusṭī, Afʿāl 2:151; e.g. Q 2:183) and the Divine Decree(Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 57:22; Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 9:36) among other meanings which are detailed below.


The noun imām stems—like umm, ummī, and umma—from the root ʾ-m-m of which the verb amma means (i) to be in a forward position and lead (taqaddama); (ii) to head somewhere (qaṣada); and (iii) to bring someone (amma-l-rajula: shajjahu maʾmūmatan) (Saraqusṭī, Afʿāl 1:82). In the Qurʾān, imām denotes a human leader (Q 2:124, 9:12[pl], 21:73[pl], 25:74, 28:5[pl], 28:41, 32:24[pl]), a book (Q 11:17, 17:71, 36:12, 46:12; see below, section on kitāb as the complete record of one’s deeds), or a road (Q 15:79), hence it is defined as “that by which one is led, whether a human being in speech and deed, or a book, or other than that, whether rightly or in falsehood” (Rāghib, Mufradāt; cf. Fayrūzābādī, Baṣāʾir). Thus, like a road, an imām is a book meant to lead down a path of guidance. The term was notably used in the literal sense of “guiding book” by the third Rightly-Guided Caliph, ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān (d. 35/656)—Allah be well-pleased with him—in the historic speech in which he urged the Companions (q.v.) to compile the Qurʾān as a standardized codex: “In my view you all differ and misspeak (takhtalifūn wa-talḥanūn). Those far from me in the various city centers differ the most and misspeak the worst. So, gather together, O Companions of Muḥammad, and write down an Imām for the people!” (Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Maṣāḥif 1:203-204 §74; supported by other similar reports, cf. Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, jamʿ al-Qurʾān). Indeed, that textual archetype and master muṣḥaf became universally known as al-Muṣḥaf al-Imām.


Zubur is the plural of the noun zabūr, book, from the root z-b-r of which the verb zabara denotes the act of writing (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs). As a proper noun Zabūr refers to the Book of the Prophet Dāwūd—upon him peace (Rāghib, Mufradāt). Zubur is variously glossed by al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/1074-1143) as (i) “the Leaves” (al-ṣuḥuf) in the verse indeed other Messengers before you were belied who came with clear proofs, and the Zubur, and the Illuminating Book (Q 3:184); (ii) “various Books” (kutuban mukhtalifa) in reference to the many religious sects in the verse but they split their affairs into pieces (zubur), each rejoicing in their own (Q 23:53); (iii) the entirety of heavenly Books before the Qurʾān in the verse Truly it is in the Scriptures of the ancients (Q 26:196, also 54:43), synonymously with the earlier ṣuḥuf (Q 20:133); and (iv) “the chronicles of the recorders” (dawāwīn al-ḥafaẓa) in the verse Everything they do is noted in their records (Q 54:52).


Asfār occurs in the sense of books only once in the Qurʾān (Q 62:5)—as the plural noun of sifr—and refers to “huge tomes” according to al-Farrāʾ (Maʿānī al-Qurʾān 3:155, sub Q 62:5), of which the writers are called the safara, another Qurʾānic term: In the hands of scribes (Q 80:15). The same word also serves as the plural of safar, “travel” (cf. Q 4:43 among others), both stemming from the verb safara which means to uncover and vacate, respectively because a book is meant to uncover the truth and a traveler has vacated the place from which he left (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub s-f-r). Al-ʿIrāqī (725-806/1325-1404) exploited this duality with “perfect paronomasia” (jinās tāmm) in the title of his work documenting the hadiths in Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-Dīn, al-Mughnī ʿan ḥaml al-asfār fīl-asfār (The Exempter from the Travails of Bearing Tomes while on Travels).


Ṣuḥuf is the plural of (i) ṣaḥīfa, which denotes (a) a piece of white hide (adam abyaḍ), vellum (raqq, a Qurʾānic term mentioned in Q 52:2-3: and by a Book inscribed in a parchment unrolled!), or papyrus (qirṭās) used to write on and, by extension, the text written therein, whence muṣḥaf (plural maṣāḥif), the collection of such pieces between two covers; also (b) skin complexion, particularly that of the human face; or (ii) ṣaḥīf, the face of the earth (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Durayd, Jamharat; Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; all sub ṣ-ḥ-f). Ṣuḥuf is mentioned in the Qurʾān in reference to

the Leaves of Ibrāhīm and the Torah (Q 53:36-37; 87:19), as well as all the other Books that preceded the Qurʾān (Q 20:133; 87:18).

a hypothetical heavenly book freshly written and miraculously brought down by the angels in the verse Nay, every man of them desires to be given scrolls unrolled (ṣuḥufan munashshara) (Q 74:52).

the Leaves of the Qurʾān being recited by the Messenger of Allah—upon him blessings and peace—in the verse a Messenger from Allah, reciting pages purified (ṣuhufan muṭahhara) (Q 98:2).

the Preserved Tablet(al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ) in the verses pages high-honored, uplifted, purified, by the hands of scribes noble, pious (Q 80:13-16).

the records of one’s deeds: when the Pages are opened up (Q 81:10).


Qirṭās (parchment)—also read qurṭās and, in a much rarer form, qarṭās (al-Khaṭīb, Muʿjam, sub Q 6:7)—occurs twice in the Qurʾān, once in the singular: Had We sent down on you a Book on parchment (qirṭās) and so they touched it with their hands (Q 6:7), and once in the plural: You put it into parchments (qarāṭīs), revealing them, and hiding much (Q 6:91). It has been claimed that it is an Arabized loanword (al-Jawāliqī, Muʿarrab 4:324).


The singular noun sijill is an Arabized lexeme according to the majority view, probably from Ethiopic, and occurs once (Q 21:104), stemming from sajala which means to pour in abundance or, metonymically, to grant a big gift, perhaps originally denoting a stone used for inscriptions after which it came to mean any written record (kitāb), paper (rijl), or writer (kātib) (Rāghib, Mufradāt; Khafājī, Shifāʾ; al-Suyūṭī, Mutawakkilī).

The Twenty-three Meanings and Contexts of Kitāb

The word kitāb is by far the most important in terms of frequency and polysemy, most notably as a self-referential name, both in absolute and qualified terms, for the Qurʾān itself. Twenty-three meanings for kitāb occur in the Qurʾān in the following contexts: (i) the Qurʾān; (ii) the Torah; (iii) the Injīl; (iv) both the Torah and the Injīl; (v) the Torah, the Injīl, and Zabūr; (vi) the entirety of Abrahamic dispensations; (vii) a hypothetical heavenly book; (viii) a pseudo-scripture; (ix) an identifying marker for the Jews and Christians (with ahl or in the phrase al-ladhīna ūtū-l-kitāb); (x) the genus of Scripture; (xi) obligatory rulings; (xii) a creature’s term of existence; (xiii) the foreordained terms of sustenance, reward and punishment; (xiv) a foreordained decree in the Preserved Tablet; (xv) the Preserved Tablet itself; (xvi) the record of one’s deeds—in which latter two senses the singular noun imām is also used; (xvii) a manumission contract; (xviii) a written message; (xix) schooling; (xx) textual contents; (xxi) the book copied from the Preserved Tablet for the angels; (xxii) the volumes of the Qurʾān; and (xxiii) the arts of writing.

The Qurʾān—whether as the definite al-Kitāb (Q 2:2, 121, 129, 151, 176-177, 231; 3:3, 7, 164; 4:105, 113, 127, 136, 140; 5:15 and 48; 6:114; 7:52 and 196; 10:1; 12:1; 13:1; 13:36 according to Baghawī, Tafsīr, cf. Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Tafsīr; 13:43 according to Abū Ḥayyān and al-Ālūsī; 16:64 and 89; 18:1 and 27; 19:16, 41 51, 54, 56; 21:10; 26:2; 28:2 and 86; 29:45, 47, 51; 31:2; 32:2; 35:31-32; 39:1-2 and 41; 40:2 and 70; 42:14 and 17; 43:2; 44:2; 45:16; 46:2), the construct kitāb Allāh (Q 35:29), or the indefinite kitāb (Q 2:89; 6:92 and 155; 7:2; 11:1; 14:1; 27:1 according to al-Ṭabarī, Baghawī, and Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; 38:29; 39:23; 41:3 and 41; 46:12 and 30; 52:2 according to al-Nasafī, al-Qurṭubī, Ibn ʿAjība, and al-Shinqīṭī)—as in the verse That is the Book (dhālika al-Kitāb), there is no doubt in it (Q 2:2), regarding which al-Bayḍāwī (d. 708?/1308?) wrote:

Dhālika is a demonstrative [pronoun] pointing to alif lām mīm (Q 2:1) if the latter is interpreted as the composites of these letters or explained as the sura or the Qurʾān... Or it points to al-kitāb as its demonstrative adjective, meaning the Book that was promised to be revealed—either with the like of His saying Behold, We shall cast upon you a word of weight (Q 73:5) or in the ancient Books—kitāb being an infinitive noun by which the object (mafʿūl) was named for intensiveness (mubālagha) [i.e., instead of the objective form maktūb; as in ʿadl, “justice,” instead of ʿādil, “just,” in the expression rajul ʿadl, “a just man”]. It has also been said that it is a fiʿāl form in the sense of the object as in libās (garment); then it was used for a literary composition before its writing, as it is the stuff of writing. Katb originally means a multitude, whence katība (batallion)... It is the work that is perfect in its composition, reaching the apex of pure style and top levels of eloquence... it is the perfect book—one that truly deserves to be called a book... there is no doubt in it is a third sentence [after alif lām mīm and dhālika al-Kitāb] that witnesses to its perfection, in that it is the Book that is characterized as the summit of perfection, since nothing possesses greater perfection than truth and certitude.

Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, and al-Qūnawī, Ḥāshiyat Anwār al-Tanzīl, sub Q 2:2

Thus the Qurʾān is perfection made Book and the Book par excellence, since it is characterized by perfection from every angle possible: Divine in both authorship and subject-matter; containing uncreated speech of unalloyed truth, clarity, and guidance; a style of miraculous inimitability; timeless relevance; and incorruptible text. These last three attributes are unique to the Qurʾān, to the exclusion of every preceding heavenly Book.

The Torah (Q 2:44, 53, 78, 85, 87, 101, 159, 174; 3:23 and 100; 4:44 and 47; 5:44; 6:91 and 154; 7:169; 10:94 per Baghawī, Tafsīr, and al-Samarqandī, Baḥr; 11:17 and 110; 17:2 and 4; 19:12; 23:49; 25:35; 28:43; 32:23; 37:117; 40:53; 41:45; 45:16; 46:12; 52:2 according to al-Naysābūrī, Gharāʾib; and al-Kalbī as cited in the commentaries). It is referred to as kitāb Allāh in some of those verses (Q 2:101; 3:23; 5:44).

The Injīl in the declaration of ʿĪsā—upon him peace: Truly I am the servant of Allah; He has given me the Book and made me a Prophet (Q 19:30).

Both the Torah and the Injīl (Q 2:113, 146; 3:48, 184, 187; 5:5, 15, 57; 6:20, 114, 156; 7:170; 13:36 according to al-Bayḍāwī and al-Nasafī; 13:43 according to al-Ṭabarī, Ibn Kathīr, and al-Shinqīṭī; 28:52; 45:16 according to al-Ṭabarī; 57:16).

The Torah, the Injīl, and the Zabūr according to al-Zamakhsharī glossing the Illuminating Books (al-kitāb al-munīr) in the verse indeed other Messengers before you were belied who came with clear proofs, and the Records, and the Illuminating Book (Q 3:184), while he glosses the Records (zubur) as “the Leaves” (al-ṣuḥuf) although he glosses the same term as the historical chronicles in Q 54:52 as already mentioned. The three Books are also meant by “the Book” in the verse Indeed, We gave the Children of Israel the Book, the Judgment, and the Prophethood (Q 45:16) according to al-Samarqandī (Baḥr).

The Leaves of Ibrāhīm and Mūsā, the Zabūr, and the rest of the Books that Allah Most High gave the House of Ibrāhīm—upon him blessings and peace—in Q 4:54: For We bestowed upon the house of Ibrāhīm the Scripture and Wisdom as well as Q 6:89 and 29:27 (al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:54, 6:89, 29:27; 57:26). The Qurʾān also uses the expressions zubur al-awwalīn (“the Scriptures of the ancients” Q 26:196), the unmodified al-zubur (Q 54:43), and al-ṣuḥuf al-ūlā (“the earlier Scriptures” Q 20:133) in the same sense as already mentioned.

A hypothetical heavenly book (Q 6:7 and 157; 17:93; 28:49), as in the verses Had We sent down unto you writing upon parchment (kitāban fī qirṭās) (Q 6:7); we will not believe in your going up till you bring down on us a book that we may read (Q 17:93); We have not given them any Books to study (Q 34:44); Or have We given them a Scripture so that they act on clear proof therefrom? (Q 35:40); Bring your Scriptures, if you are telling the truth (Q 37:157); Or have We given them a Book before this to which they hold? (Q 43:21); and Bring me a Scripture before this one or some vestige of knowledge (in support of what you say), if you are truthful (Q 46:4).

A pseudo-scripture: Therefore woe be unto those who write the scripture with their hands and then say, “This is from Allah,” that they may purchase a small gain therewith (Q 2:79).

In construct with ahl, a reference to the Jews and Christians (Q 2:105 and 109; 3:64-65, 69-72, 75, 98-99, 110, 113, 199; 4:123, 153, 159, 171; 5:15, 19, 59, 65, 68, 77; 29:46; 33:26; 57:29; 59:2 and 11), and in the phrase al-ladhīna ūtū al-kitāb in the same sense (Q 2:101 and 144-146; 3:19-20, 100, 186-187; 4:47 and 131; 5:5 and 57; 9:29; 29:47; 74:31; 98:4).

Revelation and Divine Scripture in a generic sense, including “the Torah, the Injīl, and all other Divinely-revealed Scriptures” (Baghawī, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:131; cf. al-Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 5:48 and 110), as in the verses There is a party of them who distort the Scripture with their tongues, that you may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture (Q 3:78); and you believe in all the Scripture (Q 3:119); and others (Q 2:285; 3:79 and 81; 4:51, 131, 136; 5:48 and 110; 15:1; 22:8; 27:40; 29:48; 31:20; 42:15; 52:2 according to Abū Ḥayyān; 57:25; 66:12).

Belief in all the heavenly Books is a categorical obligation (farḍ) for every legally-responsible person. Such belief is both in general terms—covering all the Books, those we know of and those we do not—and specific, covering the five Books mentioned by name in the Qurʾān—the Ṣuḥuf or Leaves of Ibrāhīm (Q 87:19), the Zabūr or Psalms, the Torah, the Injīl, and the Qurʾān itself. The object of such belief, of course, is the Books in their pristine form, not what the first four have become through tampering, the actuality of which is revealed exclusively by the incorruptible Qurʾān as the Criterion (furqān)—one of the Names of the Qurʾān—and the trusted ward or guarantor (muhaymin, Q 5:48) of truth concerning all Divine revelation for all time.

The Qurʾān essentially defines itself as a continuation and culmination of the process of Divine Guidance initiated with the genesis of humankind, a process coterminous with the latter’s destiny on earth—hence the distinctness of this Book as a final manifestation of Divine Guidance encompassing all previous dispensations. This aspect is discussed as part of the final abrogation of previous Scriptures and dispensations by Islam.

Obligatory rulings, such as the prescribed post-widowhood waiting period of celibacy in the verse And do not resolve on the knot of marriage until the book has reached its term (Q 2:235); or prescribed beliefs and obligations as a whole, in the verses but it is a confirmation of that which was before it and an exposition of the Decree (kitāb) (Q 10:37) and you knew not what the Book was, nor belief (Q 42:52; cf. al-Ṭabarī and Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr sub Q 10:37, and Baghawī, sub 42:52) among other legal prescriptions (Q 4:24 and 103).

The foreordained terms (i) of existence (Q 3:145 and 6:38 according to al-Māwardī in al-Nukat wal-ʿuyūn; 13:38; 15:4; 35:11), as in the verse No soul can ever die except by Allah’s leave and at a term appointed (kitāban muʾajjalan) (Q 3:145) or (ii) of tarrying in the graves before Resurrection, called kitāb Allāh: But those who have been given knowledge and faith shall say, “You have tarried in the Book of Allah till the Day of the Upraising” (Q 30:56).

The foreordained terms of sustenance or reward and punishment, as in the verse Those—their portion of the Book shall reach them (Q 7:37, cf. Samarqandī, Baḥr; Māwardī, Nukat; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf).

Various foreordained decrees in the Preserved Tablet (Q 8:68 and 75; 9:36; cf. Baghawī, Tafsīr, sub Q 8:68 and 9:36), also called kitāb Allah in the verse Blood relations have a greater right upon one another in the Book of Allah than the Believers and the Emigrants (Q 33:6).

The usage of kitāb as a writ-like edict in this and the previous three sections stresses the same over-arching aspects of importance, priority, and inevitability as the concept of “prescribing” (kataba) in such verses as He has prescribed for Himself (kataba ʿalā nafsih) mercy (Q 6:12) and Fasting is prescribed for you (kutiba ʿalaykum), even as it was prescribed for those before you (Q 2:183). The North African linguist Yaḥyā b. Sallām al-Baṣrī (124-200/742-815) in his work on Qurʾānic polysemy entitled al-Taṣārīf counted four different meanings for the verb kataba: “He made obligatory” (faraḍa); “He decreed” (qaḍā); “He placed” (jaʿala); and “He commanded” (amara) (Taṣārīf pp. 237-239). Addressing the first of those four senses, al-Farrāʾ (d. 207/822) states that whenever the expression kutiba ʿalaykum occurs in the Qurʾān it always means furiḍa ʿalaykum (Maʿānī 1:110, sub Q 2:178). Hence kutiba ʿalaykum is among the thirty-five so-called “absolute expressions characterized as invariable in their meanings” (kulliyyāt al-alfāẓ al-wārida ʿalā maʿnā muṭṭarid) whenever they occur in the Qurʾān, such as “the tales of the ancients” (asāṭīr al-awwalīn), “the lie” (ifk), “or” (aw), “the stars” (al-nujūm), “goodness” (al-khayr), etc. (Qaranī, Kulliyyāt 2:513-525).

The Preserved Tablet itself (Q 6:38 according to Ibn ʿAjība; 6:59 according to Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī, al-Ṭabarī, and al-Māwardī; 10:61; 11:6 according to al-Qurṭubī and al-Jalālayn; 13:39; 13:43 according to al-Nasafī; 17:58; 20:52; 22:70; 23:62 according to Baghawī; 27:1 according to Bayḍāwī, al-Nasafī, and Abū Ḥayyān; 27:75; 33:6; 34:3; 50:4; 56:78; 57:22).

The term imām has also been understood in this sense in Sūrat Yāsīn (Q 36:12), as has the Qurʾānic phrase Umm al-Kitāb—literally, the Mother of the Book—which has been glossed both as the Origin of the Book (Aṣl al-Kitāb) and as the Preserved Tablet, since these two senses are one and the same (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Nasafī, Tafsīr; Ibn ʿAjība, Baḥr, all sub Q 3:7, 13:39, and 43:4; Qushayrī, Tafsīr, 3:234-236). Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) in his commentary on Sūrat al-Fātiḥa mentions that Umm al-Kitāb is one of the names of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa according to the vast majority of the scholars, as stated in the Prophetic hadith: “Al-ḥamdu lillāh is the Mother of the Qurʾān and the Mother of the Book and the Seven Oft-Repeated” (Tirmidhī, Tafsīr, Sūrat al-Ḥijr, ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ; Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, Fātiḥat al-Kitāb; cf. Bukhārī, Tafsīr, wa-laqad ātaynāka sabʿan min al-mathānī wal-Qurʾān al-ʿaẓīm). In this sense, the expression “Mother of the Book” suggests encompassment. Al-Bayḍāwī said:

It [the Fātiḥa] is also named the Mother of the Qurʾān because it is its inception and starting-point—as if it were its origin and birthplace—hence it is also named a foundation; or because it encompasses the Qurʾānic contents of the praise of Allah Most High and Exalted, His worship through His commands and prohibitions, and the exposition of His promise and threat; or because it contains the aggregate of its meanings of reflective wisdoms and practical rulings, which is to walk on the straight path and behold the stations of the elect and the homes of the wretched.

Tafsīr, sub 1:1

Jalāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Abī Bakr al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-1505) comments: “To elaborate [on al-Bayḍāwī’s sentence], it [the Fātiḥa] encompasses four categories of sciences which are the pivot of the Religion: the principles (ʿilm al-uṣūl), the branches (ʿilm al-furūʿ), Sufism (ʿilm al-taṣawwuf), and history (ʿilm al-qaṣaṣ wal-akhbār)” (Nawāhid, 1:39-40, sub Q 1, preamble).

Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb al-Māwardī (364-450/974-1058) had cited six possible meanings for Umm al-Kitāb (Nukat, sub 13:39; cf. Tafsīr Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām): (i) the licit and the prohibited; (ii) the entirety of the Book; (iii) the Divine knowledge of all creation past and future; (iv) the Remembrance; (v) the unabrogable [parts of the] Book; (vi) the Origin of the Book, which is the Preserved Tablet.

Other meanings yet: it presupposes two Books: one Book from which Allah Most High erases what He wishes and in which He reaffirms what He wishes, and the Original Book which is with Him (al-Ṭabarī from Ibn ʿAbbās, Tafsīr, sub 13:39); it refers to the unambiguous verses (see Ambiguous and Unambiguous Verses), which form most of the Qurʾān (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 3:7).

The record of one’s deeds: Umm al-Kitāb may also signify the complete record of one’s deeds (Q 17:13-14 and 71; 18:49; 23:62 according to Ibn Kathīr and Ibn ʿAjība; 39:69; 45:28-29; 52:2 according to al-Farrāʾ, al-Wāḥidī, and al-Alūsī), as in the verses On the day when We shall summon all men with their record (imām), and whoever is given his book (kitāb) in his right hand—those shall read their book, and they shall not be wronged a single filament (Q 17:71) and the Book was laid open (Q 39:69). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, glossed the terms imām and kitāb identically in the latter verse:

Each of them shall be summoned and be given his book in his right hand; his body shall be expanded to sixty cubits, and his face shall shine, and a glimmering diadem of pearl shall be placed on his head...

al-Tirmidhī, Tafsīr, wa-min Sūrat Banī Isrāʾīl; ḥasan gharīb

The Qurʾān also refers to the Judgment-Day records of one’s deeds as a bird—ṭāʾir, a word the Arabs also used for auguries and omens (cf. Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 17:13 and 50:17; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 6:38 and 17:13-14)—collaring him: And for every man We have fastened to him his portent upon his neck; and We shall bring forth unto him on the Day of Judgment a book he shall find spread wide open. Read your book! (Q 17:13-14). That book will actually take flight in the Hereafter before landing in its owner’s right or left hand, as alluded to in the verses Then as for him who is given his book in his right hand, he shall say, “Here, take and read my book! I counted on meeting my reckoning.” …But as for him who is given his book in his left hand, he shall say, “Would that I had not been given my book and not known my reckoning!” (Q 69:19-26); when the Pages (ṣuḥuf) are opened up (Q 81:10); and As for him who is given his Book in his right hand… (Q 84:7-12), in addition to the verses of Sūrat al-Isrāʾ already cited (al-Qurṭubī, Tadhkira 2:36-45; al-Suyūṭī, Budūr p. 262-264). Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī (d. 44/665), Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/652), ʿĀʾisha (d. 58/678), and ʿAbd Allah b. ʿAbd Qays—Allah be well-pleased with them—all reportedly described this scene as the “flight of the leaves” (taṭāyur al-ṣuḥuf), when the records shall scatter in all directions and then back into their respective owners’ right or left hand:

People shall be reviewed three times on the Day of Resurrection. The first two reviews will consist in dispute and pretexts; at the third review the record-leaves will fly off and into their hands. There will be those that grasp theirs with the right hand and those that do so with the left.

Tafsīrs of al-Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, and Baghawī, sub Q 69:18; Ibn al-Mubārak, Zuhd p. 117 §395; Abū Nuʿaym, Ḥilya 2:94; a sound Companion-report from Abū Mūsā according to al-Dāraquṭnī, ʿIlal 7:251 §1331, unlike its marfūʿ form as a Prophetic report, cf. Aḥmad, 32:486 §19715. Note, however, that such utterances by the Companions and Successors, if sound, have the status of Prophetic hadiths, since they are not inferable other than by way of revelation.

A freedom and emancipation contract, as in the verse Those of your slaves who seek emancipation (kitāb), contract with them (kātibūhum) accordingly, if you know some good in them (Q 24:33). This revelation gave all slaves the inalienable right to buy their freedom, either on payment of an agreed sum or on completion of service for an agreed period. The legal term for this is mukātaba and the slave party to such a written contract was called a mukātab. Furthermore, Allah Most High instituted two additional ways to help the aspiring mukātab to meet his financial goal: by making him a legitimate recipient of zakāt , as referred to as “captives and debtors” in the verse enumerating the eight categories of zakāt recipients (Q 9:60), and by making it an act of worship and a righteous deed to help them voluntarily: Righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and gives his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free (Q 2:177).

A written message, as in the reference to the Prophet Sulaymān’s letter to the queen of Sabaʾ in the verses Take this letter of mine, and cast it unto them, then turn back from them and see what they shall return. She said, “O Council, see, a letter honorable has been cast unto me” (Q 27:28-29).

Schooling and book learning, as in the verse And you did not recite (tatlū) before it any book, nor did you transcribe (takhuṭṭ) one with your right hand (Q 29:48).

Textual contents, as in the precious texts mentioned in the verses On the day when We shall roll up heaven as a scroll is rolled for writings (ka-ṭayy al-sijill lil-kutub) (Q 21:104) and a Messenger from Allah, reciting pages purified containing precious writings (kutubun qayyima) (Q 98:2-3). The term kutubun in both instances shows use of the word for books to refer to their contents, i.e. kutub for maktūbāt, according to al-Zamakhsharī and al-Shinqīṭī (Kashshāf, sub 98:3; Aḍwāʾ al-Bayān, sub Q 21:104).

“The book copied from the Preserved Tablet for the angels so that they can know by reading it what they must do and their disposal of the universe” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 52:2-3: and by a Book inscribed in a parchment unrolled!).

Copies of the Qurʾān, according to some interpretations of Truly it is a Glorious Qurʾān in a well-protected Book (Q 56:77-78) (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar and Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 56:77-78; cf. Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 52:2).

The writing arts (al-khaṭṭ bil-qalam) according to Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī’s gloss of al-kitāb in the verse how I taught you scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Injīl (Q 5:110); cf. also al-Māwardī, sub Q 62:2: to recite His signs to them and to purify them, and to teach them scripture and wisdom.

The Book as Inimitable (Muʿjiz)

Al-Bayḍāwī at the beginning of his commentary on Alif Lām Mīm (Q 2:1) points out that the Qurʾān’s “unjoined letters” (al-ḥurūf al-muqaṭṭaʿa) (see Opening Letters), because they are the most basic elements of the Arabic language, stand for the entire Qurʾān’s proof of incapacitation of any would-be challenger or imitator of its style—all the more so when the Book was conveyed by someone unlettered:

Since they [the Opening Letters] form the constituents of speech and the basic elements from which it is constructed, the sura was opened with a group of them as a stimulus to those who defy the Qurʾān and a notification that the substance of what is being recited to them is speech composed of the same substance of which they compose their own speech. Hence, if it were not from Allah, they would not have remained, to the last one of them, unable—despite their mutual abetment and the power of their pure style—to produce anything approaching it. The very first thing heard was meant to stand out on its own with a kind of incapacitation (iʿjāz): the uttering of the nouns of letters is the province of one who has written and studied much; but from an illiterate who never sat at the feet of preceptors it is completely unexpected, strange to behold, against all norms—as are writing and recitation—particularly since he has complied, in that, with rules beyond the power of even the most accomplished man of letters who surpasses all others in his art!


Tafsīr, sub Q 2:1


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Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf.

See also

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