The Quran was revealed in an environment which was known for its numerous tribes and ascents. The Prophet said: “Gabriel taught me to recite in one style (hurf). I replied to him and kept asking him to give more (styles), till he reached seven styles”. Muslim narrated that Jibrîl said to the Prophet (PBUH) "Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur'an to your people in seven ahruf, and in whichever harf they recite, they would be right”.
It is Allah’s mercy that the Quran was revealed in 7 ahruf to eliminate hardship and enable Muslims to recite or memorize it whichever is easier for them. Such release was typical to the revelation as descended through Jibrîl (PBUH) and typical to the recitation the Sahabas heard from the prophet (PBUH). The prophet used to comment on each Sahabi recitation by saying:
“Allah has commanded you recite the Qur'an to your people in one harf”. The Prophet (PBUH) replied: “I ask Allah's pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!” Jibrîl then came again and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur'an to your people in two ahruf.” The Prophet (PBUH) again replied” “I ask Allah's pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!" Jibrîl then came a third time and said: "Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur'an to your people in three ahruf." The Prophet (PBUH) replied for a third time: "I ask Allah's pardon and forgiveness! My people are not capable of doing this!" At last, Jibrîl came for the fourth time, and said:
Ibn Shihab said: It has reached me that these seven styles are essentially one, Sahabas spread in various regions that adhered to Islam where numerous languages prevailed and therefore a number of recitations emerged varied among seven styles of recitations; each reciter tended to recite and teach recitation in his own style.
Though the first hundred years after Hijrah (prophet’s immigration), people used to read the Quran as was taken from Sahabas and their followers. Later on, in the second and third centuries AD, due to the numerous number of styles of recitations adopted key imams of reciters, every group of people in various countries tended to follow the style of an imam who they thought to have been knowledgeable, pious, trusted and well known for his honesty in terms of Quran chain of transmission, and unanimously agreed to follow his style. Therefore people follow the reciter of their favorite style from various countries. Othman (may Allah’s blessing be upon him) sent one Imam with the above characteristics to Egypt .
By the third hundred years of Hijra, some Imams attempted to control the qira’at, among them was the famous Imam Abu Obeid Al Ghasim bin Salam Al-Harawi (d. 224 AH) who combined the all recitations in 25 styles of the most famous reciters based on the seven variants (ahruf). His book also included justification for the style of each reciter such as Abu Omer and al-Dani. Later on, Ibn Mujahid - Abu Bakr Ahmed ibn Musa al-Baghdadi (d. 324 A.H.)- authored a book known as “The Seven ahruf” and he listed the following seven commonly known reciters:
- Nafi' ibn 'Abdul-Rahman al-Laithi al-Madani (d. 169 A.H)
- Abd Allah ibn Kathir al-Dari al-Makki (d. 120 A.H.)
- Abu 'Amr Zabban ibn al-'Ala' al-Mazini al-Basri (d. 154 A.H.)
- Abd Allah ibn 'Amir al-Yahsobi al-Shami (d. 118 A.H.)
- Asim ibn Abi al-Najjud al-Asadi al-Kufi (d. 128 A.H.)
- Hamzah ibn Habib al-Zayyat al-Kufi (d. 156 A.H)
- Ali ibn Hamzah al-Nahwi-known as al-Kisai’ (d. 189 A.H.)
Obviously, the seven ahruf mentioned in the above Hadiths are not the recitations (qira’at) that are commonly known today.