I have now ploughed through the complete article (94 pages of highly technical academic analysis). I have copied some of the significant points of the essay. It is a tightly packed and concise article, but I hope these extracts will convey something of the points made.
The fact that fidelity in transmission increased rapidly within a couple of decades shows that the biggest changes must have been introduced in the first stage of transmission. (This reminds one of other situations where the largest variations are the oldest, such as in the Ḥadīt̠ literature or the transmission of New Testament manuscripts.) 103
103 Spencer et al. lend credence to the “ideas that most variants arose early in the history of the Greek New Testament, . . . and that later copies introduced fewer variants” (Matthew Spencer, Klaus Wachtel, and Christopher Howe, “Representing Multiple Pathways of Textual Flow in the Greek Manuscripts of the Letter of James Using Reduced Median Networks”, Computers and the Humanities, 38 (2004), p. 1-14). This comparison, however, should not blind one to the profound differences between the New Testament and the Qurʾān, including the fact that the Qurʾān was already scripture at its inception and constantly identifies itself as such, and the fact that Islam became a state religion already as the Qurʾān was being revealed. These factors explain why the text of the Qurʾān was stabilized so much more rapidly than that of the New Testament.
To sum up, the evidence of the palimpsest inspires confidence that literary sources carry partly valid information about non-ʿUtm̠ ānic codices. In particular, I provisionally accept al-Aʿmaš’s description of the codex of Ibn Masʿūd (above, p. 391). With three codices available, it is natural to seek to determine genetic relationships. ʿUtm̠ ān occupies a central position between the other two. This indicates either that ʿUtm̠ ān is the more faithful copy of a common source, the prototype, or that it is a hybrid reflecting the majority reading of Companion codices. Chronological constraints help identify the prototype with the Prophet’s own recension, and the Prophet as the person who dictated it—an argument that will be spelled out in a later section below. (p. 399)
In conclusion, there are several significant cases of asymmetry between the codices. These disparities are precisely those one would expect to find if the textual differences were due to the aural dimension of taking dictation and if ʿUt̠mān’s text were earlier than C-1 in the sense of being closer to the original (or being the original). (p. 404)
Implications for the Role of the Prophet
Fidelity in transmission increased rapidly in the early years of Islam. This proposition is corroborated well when one contrasts the relatively minor differences in the ʿUtm̠ ānic branch, representing the limited caliber of the changes that could arise after about AD 650, with the relatively significant differences between ʿUtm̠ ān, C-1, and Ibn Masʿūd. Within the ʿUtm̠ ānic textual tradition, the changes are of the type one would associate with copying from manuscript or dictating and then correcting against a manuscript. By contrast, the relatively larger differences with C-1 are due to a measure of orality. The splitting of the branches took place before the internal developments in either branch. The branching point represents the prototype, the state of the text at one remove from the C-1 text type. I will argue that the prototype should be identified with the Prophet. (p. 406)
The study of the folios so far suggests that the text type of ʿUtm̠ ān preserves the Prophetic prototype better than C-1. (p. 406)
The conclusion, then, is that the Prophet probably did not fix the order of the sūras, except possibly in some cases. Such a conclusion is not new. Pre-modern scholars advanced a number of theories about whether the Prophet had fixed the order of the sūras. The majority believed he had not.122 Ibn ʿAtị yya (d. 542/1148), however, suggested that the Prophet arranged some of the sūras but not all. (p. 410)
Implications for the nature of ʿUt̠mān’s contribution
I make a key distinction between two types of evidence: (1) the collective, consistent, independent memory of the early communities on matters that we expect the communities to have known about, and (2) the anecdotes of individuals (especially on matters that the entire community could not be expected to have known about). The former is reliable, while the latter requires evaluation. As discussed above, based (among other things) on the collective memory of communities, we know that ʿUtm̠ ān provided the cities’ master codices. However, the exact details of how the ʿUtm̠ ānic text was put together was not something the entire community knew, and it was remembered in different ways. This is not surprising: the people of, say, Kūfa, as a whole could be expected to remember the name of the caliph who sent them their master codex, as the event would have been a very public affair, but relatively few would have had direct knowledge of the pre-history of that codex. As a result, there are conflicting trends in the traditions about the process that resulted in the standard text. (p. 411)
Implications for the Historicity of Companion Codices
Manuscript evidence now corroborates pre-modern reports about the existence of Companion codices, their having different sūra orderings, and, to an extent, the nature of their verbal differences. Conclusively refuted is John Burton’s theory that all such reports were post-ʿUtm̠ ānic fictions aimed at “countering, ellucidating, or even evading the ʿUtm̠ ān text.”128 But once one acknowledges the traditional notion of Companion codices, it remains to explain their differences. Such differences would have arisen as the Prophet recited the sūras and different scribes wrote them down. Given that believers were urged to recite the Qurʾān as much as feasible (Kor 73, 20), the question arises whether the Prophet knew of some of these differences, and, if he did, what his reaction was. Ibn Masʿūd may or may not have spoken the words ascribed to him in the following report, but there is no doubt that they embody one of the earliest theories explaining the differences among the Companion codices:
Abū Usāma—Zuhayr—al-Walīd b. Qays—ʿUtm̠ ān b. Ḥ assān al-ʿ mirī—Filfila l-Ǧuʿfī: he [i.e. this last] said: I was among those who went to ʿAbd Allāh [Ibn Masʿūd], fearful over [the issue of ] the codices. We came into his presence and a man in the group said, “We have not come to you as guests; we came here upon being frightened by this news [of the standardization].” He answered, “The Qurʾān was sent down to your prophet through seven [heavenly] gates according to seven modes (aḥruf, ḥurūf ). Previous to you [i.e. before your generation], the Book was sent down through a single gate according to a single mode (ḥarf ).129
The report presupposes that the Prophet approved of Ibn Masʿūd’s version of the Qurʾān alongside that promulgated by ʿUtm̠ ān. It is not inconceivable that different scribes read different versions back to the Prophet, and were met with his tacit approval when they did so.130 Yet, it must be stressed that at present there is no definitive evidence for or against this. In any case, if the Prophet did tacitly approve more than one version, that would not necessarily mean that all versions represented equally precisely the recitations as they left his mouth. (pp 412-413)
128 John Burton, The Collection of the Qur’an, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 228. Burton assumed that if one can imagine a theological motive for creating a report, the report cannot be historically true. The problem is that often with a little imagination one can concoct theological motives even for accurate reports.
129 Ibn Abī Dāwūd, al-Maṣāḥif, p. 18. Edward Lane, when defining ḥarf in his Lexicon, cites this expression: fulān yaqraʾu bi-ḥarf Ibn Masʿūd. From the report quoted by Ibn Abī Dāwūd and other evidence, it appears that the “modes” (aḥruf ) in which the Qurʾān is said to have been revealed originally encompassed the Companion codices. This also happens to have been the position of most premodern and early-modern scholars. See above, p. 346 and footnote 4.