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I've noticed that in many masaahif ("mushafs"), certain words like "salah" and "riba" have an extra, unpronounced letter waw in them, such as Surah Baqarah, verse 3:

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The fifth word here is pronounced "salah," although the waw with the small alif above it is pronounced as an alif, not a waw.

What's up with that? I recall one of my Arabic teachers mentioning that it's not permissible to rewrite words in the Qur'an (for cases like this -- removing silent letters), because the sahaba all agreed to write it this way during the time of Uthman. (That's tangential, it doesn't need to be discussed here.)

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This is called رسم عثماني Rasm Uthmani (Uthmanic orthography), which is the way the Quran was written down during the reign of Uthman bin Affan. Back then, the orthography (the way words are spelled) was different than the modern Arabic orthography in use today. Which leads to some words being spelled differently, most notably the words salaht and hayaht. Back during the time of Uthman there were many orthographic systems in use, so in order to standardize the written form of the Quran a single system was used which lead to the development of the Uthmani Mushaf which is the canonized edition in use today.

As a side note, the orthographic system we use today was a standardization of the different systems of the time into a single system and was adopted in 786 AD, a hundred years and so after the Uthmani Mushaf was compiled.

Further reading:

  • Not exactly a correct answer because the Uthmani mushaf was standardized because of ahruf, not because of writing. – ashes999 Oct 3 '13 at 18:31
  • @ashes999 - I'm not sure I understand what you mean. Ahruf in Arabic means letters, which in essence means the orthography of the Quran. Unless you mean something else? – System Down Oct 3 '13 at 18:38
  • The hadith of rasulullah says "Allah revealed it in seven ahruf," with much discussion among scholars about what this means. It doesn't mean writing, though, because they differ in words and meanings of words. This is the foundation of the ten qira'aat. Anyway, it's not just writing, but something more. – ashes999 Oct 3 '13 at 19:33
  • Ah I see what you mean. No, those are the Qira'at. Different ways of reciting the Quran. Those were standardized along with the way they were written (the orthography). You can read the attached article for further and more detailed history. – System Down Oct 3 '13 at 21:45
  • @SystemDown Nope, qiraat and ahruf are two different matters. And honestly neither your statement nor ashes's are 100% correct as scholars are not in consensus if the rasm al Othmany is projecting only one harf. But the qiraat are only an effect of the ahruf matter. Because the accepted qiraat came only after standardization of the rasm of the mushaf. So they are only applied to what some people call harf quraish as it is the most dominant in the rasm al 'Othmany. – Medi1Saif Jul 8 '16 at 11:38
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This is a very good question. As we read the quran many times and find that the scripture is in some cases in total contradiction to the "school" Arabic we learned.

First you should know that this is how the sahaba (peace be upon them) who wrote it down when the quran was collected fixed it in the so called rasm al 'othmany (the scripture which have been fixed as amushaf at the time of the caliph 'Othman ibn 'Affan -3rd caliph). To be more exact, the sahaba have written the word الصلاة this way الصلوة so the pending alif ألف is a later addition (for الضبط which means and is used for correction or apprehension).
Note that the actually known Arabic spelling which we may call modern Arabic has been developed during the Omayyad Dynasty.

Later scholars have been in consensus that the quran should only be copied in the way the sahaba (May Allah be pleased with them) wrote it. For example Imam Malik who lived during the last days of the Omayyad dynasty and the the first days of the 'Abbasid dynasty has been asked whether it is allowed to write a mushaf according the "approved spelling" rather then the spelling the sahaba (May Allah be pleased with them) and answered: I don't agree to this, and my opinion is that he should write in the original scripture. This fatwa was quoted in al-Muqni' of Imam a Dani (a major source for rasm and qiraat and quran sciences) and he added and nobody among the scholars said otherwise.


Please note that the quran has in first place been transmitted through the time by oral memorization and recitation on a hand of Scholars beginning with the Sahaba (May Allah be pleased with them) and not through a book (even today)!


According to this fatwa scholars say that these differences between quran scripture and "modern Arabic" are a mystery or a part of the inimitability of the quran. So a clear and definite answer for your question can't be given.

But possible answers could be given (most from a-Dani' muqni'):

  1. one for our example is that some qiraat (readings) may read the word (the) prayer الصلاة in singular while others may read it in plural الصلوات so the spelling of the sahaba الصلوة may indicate both possibilities in one word!
  2. An other possible explanation is that the origin of the alif of الصلاة was a waw واو،
  3. A 3rd possible explanation is that the alif has been emphasized and when the Arabs emphasize an alif the pronunciation tends to a waw so it is not pronounced as-salaata but as-sala(w)ta (well it's difficult to transliterate, but I hope you can get the meaning if you listened to a recitation, I'd recommend a recitation of qiraat warsh 'an Nafi').
  4. A 4th explanation is the importance or meaningfulness of these words, so they should have been emphasized in that way.
  5. And in المنهاج شرح مسلم بن الحجاج للنووى the commentary of Imam an-Nawawi on Sahih Muslim we find fifth explanation: they have been written in the language of al-hyraلغة الحيرة whom have thaught the Arabs the scriptur (handwriting).

Other examples for differences between rasm and modern Arabic where a waw replaces an alif: الزكوة ـ الزكاة (zakat)
الحيوة ـ الحياة (hayat:life)
الربو ـ الربا (riba)
بالغدوة ـ بالغداة
كمشكوة ـ كمشكاة
النجوةِ ـ النجاة
ومنوةَ ـ ومناة

Other differences: Words that have been written with a ta' or ha' or ha' instead of a ta' at t'anyt:
رحمت ـ رحمة ـ رحمه
(see also نعمة ـ لعنة ـ امرأة ـ شجرة ـ سنة ـ قرة ـ جنة ـ فطرت ـ بقيت ـ ابنة ـ كلمة)
Words that have been written with two ya's instead of one like:
بأييكم ـ بأييام ـ فبأيى ـ بأييد ـ نبأىْ ...

My reference in Arabic.

And Allah knows best!

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The word "salah" (صلاة) is from the root Saad (ص), Lam (ل), Waw (و) and has the following meanings, taken from classical Arabic lexicons (e.g. E. W. Lane): prayer, supplication, petition, oration, eulogy, benediction, commendation, blessing, honour, magnify, bring forth, follow closely, walk/follow behind closely, to remain attached, to contact or to be in contact.

based on this etymology of the word it would seem that the "waw" adds a special meaning to the root word of salat, by taking this letter away it would take away much of the meaning of prayer. The sahaba probably decided to keep the silent letter even though it dosent have a sound to keep the original meanings of the root word.

sources:wikipedia

  • My question is not about the word salah specifically. This also occurs in other words. – ashes999 Jul 31 '12 at 15:13
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The letter waw here, as explained to me by our Islamic school's Arabic teacher, makes the word "salat" mean only the prayer that Muslims pray five times a day, as opposed to the other types of "prayer" that we make at any moment (dhikr, du'a, etc.).

So this special waw makes "salah" mean something specific, i.e. the prayer of the Muslim, as opposed to the prayer of the birds or other animals that Allah, Glorious is He, mentions in other parts of the Qur'an.

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