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Are the existing letter forms/shapes of the Arabic alphabet an essential part of the Qur'an, or are they an arbitary choice made by humans as a means to record the Qur'an?

In other words, if someone came up with a different writing system that could be transliterated back and forth from the Arabic alphabet with no loss of information, would a transliteration of the Qur'an into such writing actually be the Qur'an or only an interpretation of it?

Alternatively, one could phrase this question as asking whether there are minimal standards for writing the letters of the Qur'an, a violation of which invalidates that copy, is haram, or is otherwise problematic. For example, would it be valid for someone to claim to a Qur'an copyist that, "Your lams have unacceptably large flourishes, your mims have an extra small serif that has no precedent and just looks weird, and the loops on your qafs are 5% tighter than the benchmark standard as defined by the Standard Fatwa on Best Practices in Literacy. Your Qur'an is invalid.", or is the requirement only that the copy be understandable as a Qur'an?

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The answer for your letter form question is yes, but to some extent -if you ask from a popular science PoV- and no -if you mean the Qur'an as meant by scholars-!

But first we should make a clear distinction, which even many Muslims -due to lack of knowledge- don't correctly do.

Simply speaking the Qur'an القرآن is the orally transmitted word of God (Allah). It is not the book we hold in hands!

The book you hold in hands is a Moshaf (or Mushaf) المصحف (pronounced mos-haf) a written down copy of the Qur'an.

Now as we made this clear you will clearly conclude that the letters and their forms don't play any rule when it comes to the Qur'an, but could play an essential one in the Moshaf. Also anything but the orally transmitted word is not the Qur'an no matter if it is written in Arabic or Chinese ...

But as to the Moshaf there indeed are some rulings as the scholars are in consensus that the letters and words as written by the sahaba are canonical that's a main reason that still in a moshaf you may find for example:

الصلوة instead of الصلاة (prayer)

In best case a letter "alif" "ا" is only indicated in a moshaf as shown in this image: enter image description here

The science dealing with this is the science of rasm al-Moshaf (the letters of the Moshaf). It is regarded as essential to keep the letters of the al-Moshaf al-Imam which has been made a standard by the caliph 'Othman ibn 'Affan. Scholars such as imam Malik and the scholars of his time would consider any addition (even the indication from above) as a addition to the original text which is not allowed. As for the writing style there are no rulings as far as the essential letters in general and words are kept in their original standard form (not style). Nowadays you will find only a few different writing or calligraphy styles in use.

So your statement:

"Your lams have unacceptably large flourishes, your mims have an extra small serif that has no precedent and just looks weird, and the loops on your qafs are 5% tighter than the defined benchmark standard as defined by the Standard Fatwa in Best Practices in Literacy. Your Qur'an is invalid.",

could be commented, by saying it doesn't play any role how you write the letters as long as they are readable. In a Moshaf nobody would use a hardly readable calligraphy as it would be a big sin if anybody read a letter wrongly and nobody would like to carry this burden. That's why Moshafs are almost written in a rather simple and readable handwriting.

Here some relevant posts:

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No, and the main reason why not is because the Quran is not a written medium. It doesn't matter how it is written. What matters is if it is recited and understood correctly.

Rather, the Qur'an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. And none reject Our verses except the wrongdoers. (29:49)

There is more detail in this answer by III-AK-III: The Birmingham Quran versus the present-day Quran

So, how it is written is irrelevant because written manuscripts are not the 'Quran' because the Quran is a recited book which is remembered by the Huffaz. So, no one can say on a religious basis that your writing of the Quran is wrong.

But, there are other reasons to preserve the Arabic writing system some of which could be:-

  • Since the writing system was developed alongside the language itself it might be the best way to record the Arabic language.

  • Aesthetic reasons: It's beautiful as it is

  • Sentimentality: Although not completely the same, the writing system we have today is similar to what the Sahabah wrote like

  • Popularity: The current system is already universal so changing it would do nothing but be divisive

So, allowing too many small changes might result in a situation where a person can't read an Arabic Quran except for the one from his own country because everywhere else has too many differences for him to read fluidly. And that's not really a situation that we want because currently we are in a great position where any person can read an Arabic Quran wherever he goes.

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