There is perhaps no single person in our history whose name is as integrally linked to the Quran as that of Imam ‘Asim of Kufah. His name was AbuBakr and he belonged to the generation of the Successors (the students of the Companions of the Prophet).
His Attachment with the Qur’an
His discovery of the Quran is linked to the story of some of the most important figures in the preservation of the Quran. It was a golden chain of teachers who were all inspired by the statement of the Prophet, “The best of you are those who learn the Quran and teach it to others.” The Companion Uthman b. Affan heard these words and was inspired to unite the Muslim nation behind a uniform Quranic script, such that every copy of the Quran that was and will ever be written in our entire history—from its beginning to its end—will necessarily follow the Uthmanic orthography. He in turn related these words to his student Abu Abd al-Rahmanal-Sulami (d 75H) who was then inspired to spend more than four decades teaching the Quran in the city of Kufah to generations of students.
His Illustrious Teachers
Among the students that flocked to al-Sulami was Imam ‘Asim of Kufah. He eventually distinguished himself as the foremost among al-Sulami’s students and inherited the mantle of Quranic leadership in Kufah after him. The student now became the teacher, and the golden chain of the Quran continued. If it is true that it is the students that truly distinguish the teachers, then Imam ‘Asim perhaps surpassed al-Sulami. For among the numerous students of Imam ‘Asim there was the famous Successor Ata b. AbiRabah (who was also the student of IbnAbbas, Ibn Umar and Aishah), the great Imam al-A mash, the hadith scholars, Shubah, Sufyan b. Uyaynah, and Sufyan al-Thawri and the great Imam of fiqh Abu Hanifah himself.
Imam ‘Asim was known for his adherence to the Sunnah, his mastery of the Quran and his grasp of the Arabic language. He was a trustworthy narrator of hadith, and his narrations are found among the six canonical works. He was also noted to have the best voice in reciting the Quran. For these qualities and others, he became one of the most sought after teachers of his time.
An Exemplary Family Man
His most distinguished student, however, points to another story, one of love and devotion to family. While many teachers and imams immersed themselves in their academic pursuits at the expense of their families, it was not the case with Imam ‘Asim. Among all of these illustrious personalities who claimed to be his disciples, the one who truly carried his mantle forward was his own stepson Hafs b. Sulayman. The son of his wife from another marriage, he was treated like his own son—perhaps even better than that. He received far more time than his other fellow students, living in the same house, and this careful cultivation bore fruit. Hafs in turn became the disseminator of this Quranic legacy, and when the Readings of the Quran became documented and canonized according to ten well-known Imams, or authorities of Quranic reading, Imam ‘Asim was one of these Imams, and Hafs became his most famous transmitter. This reading of the Quran, which happens to be the dominant one today, came to permanently bear this imprint—the Reading of Hafs on the Authority of Imam ‘Asim (RiwayatHafa ‘an Asim).
He died in 127AH in Kufah, and his last spoken words were the 62nd verse of Surah al-An‘am— “Then are men returned unto Allah, their protector, the reality.”
The Reading of Imam ‘Asim
The recitation of the Quran is conveyed through ten authentic Readings (Qiraat) named after ten prominent Imams from the second century of the Hijrah, with transmissions from two students of each Imam. The reading that is popular in the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world today is that of Hafs on the authority of Imam ‘Asim. There are pockets in the Muslim world where other Readings are also prevalent, such as the Reading of Warsh on the authority of Imam Nafi in North Africa, but by and large those are exceptions. For the past few centuries, and for the foreseeable future, it appears that the Muslim world will be reciting the Quran by the Reading of Imam Asim. Various reasons have been proposed for this, including the fact that the Reading is relatively easier on the tongue than others (although that is somewhat subjective), or its association with the Ottoman empire which ruled over the bulk of the Muslim world for almost a millennium (as the Ottomans were inclined to the Hanafi legal school and Abu Hanifah preferred this Reading). Perhaps the strongest reason is technology. All the printings of the Quran since the dawn of the printing press to our times today have corresponded to this Reading, and the first audio productions of the Quran likewise were done in this Reading.
In the final analysis, it is an unimaginable honor for this great Imam whose name is forever linked with the Quran.