What does tawatur actually mean?
First of all we must know what tawatur actually means:
Mutawaatir is an Arabic word that is derived from the word tawaatur, which means succession, one after the other. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):
"Then We sent Our messengers in succession." (23:44)
What this means in sharee’ah terminology is a report which was narrated by a group who could not possibly have agreed upon a lie, from a similar group, and which is based on what they saw or heard.
(Source: islamqa #34651)
This definition is -I'd say- the only thing agreed upon among scholars of both the Salaf and Khalaf. And could be taken as the answer of your question.
See also: What is the minimum amount of narrations needed in order for a hadith to be classed as mutawatir according to the different scholars?
Was tawatur a condition for accepting a qira'ah?
We should know that tawatur, was not a condition agreed upon among the Salaf. As if check all the qira'at that are accepted today we may find them referring back to a handful of sahabah namely (Main source):
Please note: In the following I'll be translating from Arabic language -mainly from the above source-, as these translation are of my own take them with the necessary care!
From the tribe of Quraish قريش:
- 'Uthman عثمان
- and 'Ali علي.
From Hudhayl هذيل:
- 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud وعبد الله بن مسعود.
From al-Khazraj الخزرج:
- Ubay ibn Ka'ab أُبَيّ بن كعب
- and Zayd ibn Thabit زيد بن ثابت (both from the clan of banu an-Najar بني النجار)
- and Abu ad-Dardaa' أبو الدرداء
and from the tribe of al-Asha'irah الأشاعرة (form Yemen):
- Abu Musa أبو موسى
So these according to imam a-Dhahabi -in his Ma'rifat al-Quraa' al-Kibar معرفة القراء الكبار- are those who were quoted as sources of the ten qira'at that have reached us.
one could add from the tribe of Daws دوس (from Yemen too)
So the qur'an that reaches us is mainly including linguistic elements from the tribes Quraish, Hudhayl, al-Khazraj and the Ashaa'irah (maybe also Daws).
However there are many more sahabah that are known to have memorized the qur'an, but there qira'a didn't reach us among them:
- Mu'ad ibn Jabal معاذ بن جبل (al-Khazraj).
- Saalim Mawla abu Hudhayfah سالم مولى أبو حذيفة (Persian origin).
- Abu Zayd أبو زيد (according ibn Sa'ad from al-Khazraj) who died during the caliphate of 'Umar ibn al-Khattab.
- 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar عبد الله بن عمر (Quraish).
- 'Uqbah ibn 'Aamir عقبة بن عامر (From Juhaynah جهينة).
In the above list I would miss ibn 'Abbas ابن عباس, 'Umar عمر بن الخطاب 'Uthman عثمان بن عفان and Hakeem ibn Hizaam حكيم بن حزام too who are all from Quraish and maybe some more. Note that some Shabah were students of others. Therefore it could be that a-Dhahabi didn't mention some of those I'm missing or have added for the reason of higher level of "narrator chain". For example ibn 'Abbas was a student of Ubay and Zayd ibn Thabit.
The sunnah actually tells us about the leadership of some of the named Sahabah in this context see for example in Sahih Muslim.
For example one among those who refer back to a large amount of Sahabah is that of imam Nafi'i (see also in this article on alukah):
- Abu Hurariah via 'Abdurrahman ibn Hurmuz.
- Ubay ibn Ka'ab and Zayd ibn Thabit via his teachers Abu Ja'afar -one of the ten qura'a- (died 130 a.H. and was imam at the Masjid an-Nabawi from before 63 -130 a.H. and was successed by Nafi'i in this position), Shaybah ibn Nissaah, Muslim ibn Jundub, Yazid ibn Ruman.
- However some say some of his teachers were intermediates of 'Abudllah ibn 'Ayyash who studied the qira'a of Ubay and some studied that of abu Hurairah too and ibn 'Abbas ابن عباس. It was also mentioned that Muslim ibn Jundub studied the qira'a of Hakeem ibn Hizaam and ibn 'Umar, but this needs some more validation.
In best case Nafi'i merged or gathered the readings of at most 6 Sahabah while he studied qur'an of 70 tabi'iy teacher. Only abu 'Amr whom's qira'a was leading in the Islamic world for many centuries until the 'Othman empire somehow imposed the qira'a of Hafs had more teachers and he has also 7 source Sahabah.
While 'Asim عاصم بن أبي النجود the teacher of Hafs gathered the qira'a of 'Ali and ibn Mas'ud and it is said that he taught Hafs the first and Sho'bah the second. (The scheme in this article on alukah shows 5 Sahabah among the 'Uthman, Zayd and Ubay which I've never heard of before).
While the qira'a of ibn Kathir (born 120 a.H.) is sourced back to that of ibn 'Abbas (only).
Note that some scholars like al-Kissa'i actually studied from earlier quraa' among the 7 or 10 so basically their qira'a may include elements of the qira'a of their source Sahabah.
So when speaking about tawatur in reference to the qur'an the Salaf (there are exceptions) didn't mean the total concordance of the qira'at rather than of the concordance to the Moshaf al-Imaam.
This might become clearer if you read the next part:
Different views on qira'at in context of tawatur
- The Mutazillah hold the opinion that al-Qira'at are Aahaad آحاد
- A-Shawkani الشوكاني in his Irshaad al-Fuhool إرشاد الفحول (and this was adopted by ibn al-Jazari ابن الجزري in his an-Nashr النشر said: the qira'at are partly ahaad and partly mutawaatir.
- They are mutawatir in all except that which is related to recitation/tajweed (performance). This is the view of ibn al-Hajib ابن الحاجب and an amount of scholars of osol al-Fiqh. Ibn Khaldun ابن خلدون considerd this view as the soundest in his al-Muqadimah المقدمة.
- A-Zirkashy الزركشي in his al-Burhan البرهان, abu Shamah أبو شامة in his al-Murshid المرشد and as reported by some at-Tofy الطوفي, hold the opinion that the qira'at are mutawatir from the 7 qura'a onwards, but not from the prophet () himself!
- Most later scholars say: the qira'at are mutawatir from the Prophet () onwards.
The second view seems the strongest, as it covers both the qira'a and rasm.
Therefore we don't find tawatur in the criteria of an accepted qira'a mentioned by ibn al-Jazari (see What were the criteria for validating a qira'a?).
Makky ibn abi Talib for described the following conditions on a qira'a to be accepted in his al-Ibanah 'an Ma'any al-Quran الإبانة عن معاني القراءات:
أن ينقل عن الثقات إلى النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، ويكون وجهه في العربية التي نزل بها القرآن شائعاً، ويكون موافقاً لخط المصحف.
...That it is transmitted from trustworthy persons to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and his source in the Arabic language in which the Qur’an was revealed is common, and it is in line with the line of the Qur’an
he further says:
وإنما الأصل الذي يعتمد عليه في هذا: أن ما صح سنده، واستقام وجهه في العربية، ووافق خط المصحف، فهو من السبعة المنصوص عليها، ولو رواه سبعون ألفاً متفرقين أو مجتمعين. فهذا هو الأصل الذي بنى عليه في قبول القراءات.
Rather, the basic principle on which this is based: that its chain of narrators is reliable and sound, and it speech is straightforward in Arabic, and agrees with the script of the Qur’an, then it is among the seven stipulated, even if it was narrated by seventy thousand separated or combined. This is the basis on which it was built to accept readings
Imam ibn al-Jazari explains the meaning of Sahih (sound) as follows in his an-Nashr (please check the former quote from the linked answer above about the criteria of a valid qira'a):
وقولنا "صح سندها": إِنما نعني به أن يروي العدل الضابط عن مثله كذا حتى تنتهي. وتكون مع ذلك مشهورة –عند أئمة هذا الشأن الضابطين له– غير معدودة عندهم من الغلط أو مما شذ بها بعضهم.
And when we say, "Its chain of narration is correct": We only mean by it that a trustworthy narrates from a trustworthy person such-and-such until it ends. It is, however, well-known among the imams of this matter -who have deep knowledge about it- that these are not counted from the error or the oddities of some of them.
وقد شرط بعض المتأخرين التواتر في هذا الركن، ولم يكتف فيه بصحة السند. وزعم أن القران لا يثبت إِلا بالتواتر، وأن مجيء الآحاد لا يثبت به قرآن. وهذا لا يخفى ما فيه. وإذا اشترطنا التواتر في كل حرف من حروف الخلاف، انتفى كثير من أحرف الخلاف الثابت عن هؤلاء الأئمة السبعة وغيرهم. ولقد كنت أجنح إلى هذا القول، ثم ظهر فساده
Some of the later scholars have stipulated that tawatur is a pillar in this matter, and that it is not sufficient that the chain of narrators is valid. He claimed that the Qur’an is not proven except by frequency, and that the coming of the Aahaad does not prove the Qur’an. This does not hide what is in it. If we stipulate the frequency of every letter of the disagreement, many of the letters of the fixed disagreement are excluded from these seven imams and others. And I was more inclined to this saying, then its corruption appeared.
Imam as-Suyuti in his al-Itqaan الإتقان -see here full text- displayed an analyzed the statements of imam ibn al-Jazari about the different categories of qira'at as follows (only extracts of text quotes):
- الأول: المتواتر، وهو ما نقله جمع لا يمكن تواطؤهم على الكذب، عن مثلهم إلى منتهاه، وغالب القراءات كذلك.
The mutawatir, which is what was reported by a group that cannot be complicit in lying, from their ideals to their end, and most of the readings are likewise.
- الثاني: المشهور، وهو ما صح سنده، ولم يبلغ درجة التواتر، ووافق العربية والرسم واشتهر عند القراء.
The well-known (mashhur), which is the chain of narration that is authentic, and does not reach the degree of frequency and was in accordance to both Arabic language and the rasm (codex of the Moshaf) and was popular with readers.
- الثالث: الآحاد، وهو ما صح سنده، وخالف الرسم أو العربية، أو لم يشتهر بالاشتهار المذكور، ولا يقرأ به.
The "single" (ahaad), which is its chain of transmission is correct, and contrary to drawing or Arabic, or was not famous for the aforementioned infamy, and it is not read by it.
- الرابع: الشاذ، وهو ما لم يصح سنده.
The anomalous (shadh), which is what the chain of narrators is not valid.
- الخامس: الموضوع.
- السادس: ما زيد في القراءات على وجه التفسير
What was added in the readings in terms of explanation
والصواب عندي: أن الثالث والرابع والخامس نوع واحد (شاذ). وأحياناً يكون تفسيراً، وغالباً لا يكون صحيحاً.
The correct thing for me: that the third, fourth and fifth are one type (anomalous). Sometimes it is an explanation, and often it is not correct.
One example of a reading that might have reached a level of mashhur or even ahaad is the version or narration (riway'a) of Hafs, which at the time of imam at-Tabari seemed to have been rather unknown, so if ibn Mujahid didn't chose the reading of 'Asim with both riwayyat of 'Asim as one of the 7 qira'at this version would rather have disappeared because it was not mutawatir at all. Imam at-Tabari in his tafsir -and he was a scholar of al-Kufa- only regarded the version of Sho'abah as that following the reading of 'Asim and never quoted any of the 500+ differences or deviations of the riwaya of Hafs compared to that of Sho'abah.
While today except with the riwayat of Hafs, Warsh and Qaloon only that of as-Susi from abi 'Amr easily reach an observable tawatur (others may be mutawatir but only upon cricle of specialists and interested people).
For further information on ahaad see also my answer on: How many ahad hadith are there in Sahih Bukhari?