It is related from Abū ‘Abdu’l-Raḥmān al-Sulamī on the authority of ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The best of you are those who learn the Qur’ān and teach it to others.” Abū ‘Abdu’l-Raḥmān said, “This statement is what made me sit in this place of mine.”
[Bukhārī 4639, 4640, Abū Dāwūd 1240, al-Tirmidhī 2832, 2833, al-Dārimī 3204, Ibn Mājah 207, 208, Aḥmad 382, 389, 469]
To begin with, the proclamation comes from the mouth of the very man, the Messenger, whose primary mission it was to deliver this Book to the world and show them how to live it. His entire life was tirelessly devoted to this Qur’ānic mission and inspiring others to do the same.
Not on deaf ears nor on dead hearts did these words fall, but they thoroughly transformed its recipients. There were many students of the Qur’ān around the Prophet, but none showed his devotion and commitment more than the third Caliph ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān. His life work can fill volumes, but his greatest contribution to the ummah was to standardize the writing of the Qur’ān and compile official written copies for the first time in our history. These copies were widely distributed throughout the Muslim world along with teachers of the Qur’ān. Though controversial at the time, this pioneering effort united the entire Muslim nation behind a uniform script of their holy scripture. What that means is that every single copy of the Qur’ān ever written in our entire history, whether by hand or by the printing press, whether in the past or into the future until the end of time, goes back to the groundbreaking work of ‘Uthmān!
Now ‘Uthmān in turn had many students as well, all of whom inherited some aspect of his legacy of teaching, but among them was one great individual named Abū ‘Abdu’l-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 75H). This particular student demonstrated great devotion to the Qur’ān, and learned it well from ‘Uthmān as well as from ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭalib and other esteemed Companions. And so it was quite natural that when ‘Uthmān sent the authorized copy of the Qur’ān to the city of Kūfah in ‘Irāq, the teacher he selected was al-Sulamī. What happened thereafter is astonishing.
Al-Sulamī states that he went to the largest masjid of Kūfah and chose a spot next to a large pillar. There, he sat down and went to work, basically teaching Qur’ān for the rest of his life. From that same spot, he disseminated the legacy of the Qur’ānic mission to generations of people, during a period characterized as a formative and foundational era in early Islamic scholarship.
Historical accounts indicate that al-Sulamī lived until the reign of the Ummayad governor Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf al-Thaqafī. The ḥadīth scholar Ibn Ḥajar estimates that the length of this service of al-Sulamī must have been sometime between the beginning of the Caliphate of ‘Uthmān until the end of the era of Ḥajjāj which was a maximum period of seventy two years minus two months, or from the end of the Caliphate to the beginning of the reign of Ḥajjāj which was thirty eight years (the minimum). Therefore, al-Sulami had spent between four to seven decades disseminating the Qur’ān to others!
This great Qur’ānic teacher later admitted to his students that what inspired him to this remarkable lifetime of effort was this very statement of the Prophet that The best of you are those who learn the Qur’ān and teach it to others, which he heard from his teacher ‘Uthmān who heard it from the Prophet directly! When narrating this ḥadīth, al-Sulamī would always add this confession, “And this single statement of the Prophet is what made me sit down in this spot of mine for so long.”
The success and influence of this Qur’ānic mission was remarkable, for among al-Sulamī’s many students was one by the name of Imām ‘Āṣim al-Kūfī (d. 127H), who inherited from him the mantle of leadership in Qur’ānic teaching in Kūfah. Imām ‘Āṣim further consolidated this Qur’ānic mission and became renowned for being one of the ten Imāms of Qur’ānic reading who transmitted the Qur’ān to us today.
Imām ‘Āṣim in turn taught the Qur’ān to many eager students, which included the renowned Imām of fiqh Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 150H), and Ḥafṣ b. Sulaymān (d. 180H), who happened to be ‘Āṣim’s stepson. It was in fact Ḥafṣ who inherited the authority of Qur’ānic teaching upon his stepfather’s demise. Today, the Qur’ān is preserved through ten authentic readings each going back to the Prophet. However, the vast majority of the Muslim world recites the Qur’ān, whether they know it or not, by the reading of Ḥafṣ on the authority of Imām ‘Āṣim (known as Riwāyat Ḥafṣ ‘an ‘Āṣim). This means that the predominant mode of reciting the Qur’ān today, read by well over 90 percent of the 1.2 billion Muslims, all of whom recite the Qur’ān to some extent, comes from this Qur’ānic mission and legacy which extended from the Prophet through his Companion ‘Uthmān through his student al-Sulamī through his student Imām ‘Āṣim through his stepson Ḥafṣ and through them to us today. Those who recite Qur’ān by way of ijāzah and isnād (traditional chain of teaching) have documents that list each of their teachers going back to this original Qur’ānic mission.
It is quite remarkable that the knowledge of Qur’ān in the world today is a legacy of a mission that was inspired by this single statement of the Prophet. The best of you are those involved in learning and teaching Allah’s Book. The question is, will it continue to inspire us today?