We are in the second year of the Hijrah. Madinah the city of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam is buzzing with activity as the Muslims prepare for the long march southwards to Badr. Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam made a final inspection of the first army to be mobilized under his leadership to wage Jihad against those who had tormented the Muslims for many years and who were still bent on putting an end to his mission.
A youth, not yet thirteen, walked up to the ranks. He was confident and alert. He held a sword which was as long or possibly slightly longer than his own height. He went up to Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam and said: “I dedicate myself to you, O Messenger of Allah Ta’aala. Permit me to be with you and to fight the enemies of Allah Ta’aala under your banner.”
Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam looked at him with admiration and patted his shoulder with loving tenderness. He commended him for his courage but refused to enlist him because he was still too young. The youth, Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu, turned and walked away, dejected and sad. As he walked, in slow and measured paces, he stuck his sword in the ground as a sign of his disappointment. He was denied the honour of accompanying Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam on his first campaign. Behind him was his mother, An-Nawar bint Malik Radiyallahu Anha. She felt equally dejected and sad. She had dearly wished to see her young son go with the army of mujahidin and to be with Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam at this most critical time.
One year later, as preparations were underway for the second encounter with the Quraysh which took place at Uhud, a group of Muslim teenagers bearing arms of various kinds – swords, spears, bows and arrows and shields – approached Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam. They were seeking to be enlisted in any capacity in the Muslim ranks. Some of them, like Rafi ibn Khadij and Samurah ibn Jundub Radiyallahu Anhuma, who were strong and well-built for their age and who demonstrated their ability to wrestle and handle weapons, were granted permission by Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam to join the Muslim forces. Others like Abdullah the son of Umar and Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhum were still considered by Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam to be too young and immature to fight. He promised though to consider them for a later campaign. It was only at the Battle of the Trench when Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was about sixteen years old that he was at last allowed to bear arms in defence of the Muslim community.
Although Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was keen to participate in battles, it is not as a warrior that he is remembered. After his rejection for the Badr campaign, he accepted the fact then that he was too young to fight in major battles. His alert mind turned to other fields of service, which had no connection with age and which could bring him closer to Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam. He considered the field of knowledge and in particular of memorizing the Quran. He mentioned the idea to his mother. She was delighted and immediately made attempts to have his ambition realized. An-Nuwar Radiyallahu Anha spoke to some men of the Ansar about the youth’s desire and they in turn broached the matter with Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, saying: “O Messenger of Allah, our son Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu has memorized seventeen surahs of the Book of Allah and recites them as correctly as they were revealed to you. In addition to that he is good at reading and writing. It is in this field of service that he desires to be close to you. Listen to him if you will.”
Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, listened to Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu reciting some surahs he had memorized. His recitation was clear and beautiful and his stops and pauses indicated clearly that he understood well what he recited. Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam was pleased. Indeed he found that Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu’s ability exceeded the commendation he had been given by his relatives. Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam then set him a task which required intelligence, skill and persistence.
“Zayd, learn the writing of the Jews for me,” instructed Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam. “At your command, Messenger of Allah,” replied Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu who set about learning Hebrew with enthusiasm. He became quite proficient in the language and wrote it for Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam when he wanted to communicate with the Jews. Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu also read and translated from Hebrew when the Jews wrote to Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam. Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam instructed him to learn Syriac also and this he did. Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu thus came to perform the important function of an interpreter for Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam in his dealings with non-Arabic speaking peoples.
Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu’s enthusiasm and skill were obvious. When Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam felt confident of his faithfulness in the discharge of duties and the care, precision and understanding with which he carried out tasks, he entrusted Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu with the weighty responsibility of recording the Divine revelation. When any part of the Quran was revealed to Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, he often sent for Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu and instructed him to bring the writing materials, “the parchment, the ink-pot and the scapula”, and write the revelation.
Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was not the only one who acted as a scribe for Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam. One source has listed forty-eight persons who used to write for him. Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was very prominent among them. He did not only write but during Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam’s time he collected portions of the Quran that were written down by others and arranged these under the supervision of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam. He is reported to have said:
“We used to compile the Quran from small manuscripts in the presence of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam.” In this way, Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu experienced the Quran directly from Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam himself. It could be said that he grew up with the verses of the Quran, understanding well the circumstances surrounding each revelation. He thus became well-versed in the secrets of the Shariah and at an early age gained the well-deserved reputation as a leading scholar among the companions of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam.
After the death of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, the task fell on this fortunate young man who specialized in the Quran to authenticate the first and most important reference for the ummah of Muhammad. This became an urgent task after the wars of apostasy and the Battle of Yamamah in particular in which a large number of those who had committed the Quran to memory perished.
Umar Radiyallahu Anhu convinced the Khalifah Abu Bakr Radiyallahu Anhu that unless the Quran was collected in one manuscript, a large part of it was in danger of being lost. Abu Bakr Radiyallahu Anhu summoned Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu and said to him: “You are an intelligent young man and we do not suspect you (of telling lies or of forgetfulness) and you used to write the Divine revelation for Allah’s Messenger. Therefore look for (all parts of) the Quran and collect it in one manuscript.”
Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was immediately aware of the weighty responsibility. He later said: “By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr Radiyallahu Anhu) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains from its place, it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Quran.” Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu finally accepted the task and, according to him, “started locating the Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart)”.
It was a painstaking task and Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was careful that not a single error, however slight or unintentional, should creep into the work. When Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu had completed his task, he left the prepared suhuf or sheets with Abu Bakr Radiyallahu Anhu. Before he passed away, Abu Bakr Radiyallahu Anhu left the suhuf with Umar Radiyallahu Anhu who in turn left it with his daughter Hafsah Radiyallahu Anha. Hafsah, Umm Salamah and Aishah Radiyallahu Anhun were wives of the Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, who memorized the Quran.
During the time of Uthman Radiyallahu Anhu, by which time Islam had spread far and wide, differences in reading the Quran became obvious. A group of companions of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, headed by Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman Radiyallahu Anhu, who was then stationed in Iraq, came to Uthman Radiyallahu Anhu and urged him to “save the Muslim ummah before they differ about the Quran”.
Uthman Radiyallahu Anhu obtained the manuscript of the Quran from Hafsah Radiyallahu Anha and again summoned the leading authority, Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu, and some other competent companions to make accurate copies of it. Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu was put in charge of the operation. He completed the task with the same meticulousness with which he compiled the original Suhuf during the time of Abu Bakr Radiyallahu Anhu.
Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu and his assistants wrote many copies. One of these Uthman Radiyallahu Anhu sent to every Muslim province with the order that all other Quranic materials whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies be burnt. This was important in order to eliminate any variations or differences from the standard text of the Quran. Uthman Radiyallahu Anhu kept a copy for himself and returned the original manuscript to Hafsah Radiyallahu Anha.
Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu thus became one of the foremost authorities on the Quran. Umar ibn al-Khattab Radiyallahu Anhu once addressed the Muslims and said: “O people, whoever wants to ask about the Quran, let him go to Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu.” And so it was that seekers of knowledge from among the companions of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam and the generation who succeeded them, known as the “Tabi’een”, came from far and wide to benefit from his knowledge. When Zayd Radiyallahu Anhu passed away, Abu Hurayrah Radiyallahu Anhu said: “Today, the scholar of this ummah has passed away.”
When a Muslim holds the Quran and reads it or hears it being recited, Surah after Surah, Ayah after Ayah, he should know that he owes a tremendous debt of gratitude and recognition to a truly great companion of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, Zayd ibn Thabit Radiyallahu Anhu, for helping to preserve for all time to come the Book of Eternal Wisdom. Truly did Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, say: “Surely We have revealed the Book of Remembrance and We shall certainly preserve it.” (The Quran, Surah al-Hijr, 15:9)