Yes, there were, but Uthman destroyed six of the seven modes, going against Muhammad’s will
That the Qur’an has been revealed in seven modes (Ahruf) is well attested by Islamic sources (Link)
Uthman destroyed six of them, going against the will of Muhammad. These are different “versions” and not just different pronunciations or dialects, because there were different chapters and verses. Even today, nobody knows what these are: they were not different languages or dialects (take as example the dispute between the two Quraysh Umar and Hisham, see below). Did they use synonyms? Or did they have different revelations? Was the reading different (remember that there were no vowels in the scripture)? Did they add/remove some words? Was it spoken in different languages? Even Ubayy (the best “reciter”), was perplexed. We know for sure that there were major variations in words:
A Qur’an compiler, Abdullah Ibn Masud, was taken aback: Ibn Mas'ud said: I heard a man who recited, and as I had heard the Prophet reciting differently I took him to the Prophet and told him and noticed that he gave me a disapproving look. He then said, "Both of you are doing it well, so do not disagree, for your predecessors disagreed and perished." Bukhari transmitted. (Miskhat al-Masabih, English Translation with Explanatory Notes by Dr. James Robson [SH. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, Booksellers & Exporters, Lahore PK, reprinted 1990], Book VIII.-The Excellent Qualities of the Qur'an, Chapter III, pp. 466)
“He then said: Each mode is sufficiently health-giving, whether you utter "all-hearing and all-knowing" or instead "all-powerful and all-wise". This is valid until you finish the verse indicating punishment on mercy and finish the verse indicating mercy on punishment. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Prof. Ahmad Hasan [Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, Booksellers & Exporters; Lahore, Pakistan, 1984], Vol I, Nr 1472, p. 387).
Malik Ibn Anas reported: Abd al-Rahman Ibn Abd al-Qari narrated: “ Umar Ibn Khattab said before me: I heard Hisham Ibn Hakim Ibn Hizam reading Surah Furqan in a different way from the one I used to read it, and the Prophet (sws) himself had read out this Surah to me. Consequently, as soon as I heard him, I wanted to get hold of him. However, I gave him respite until he had finished the prayer. Then I got hold of his cloak and dragged him to the Prophet (sws). I said to him: “I have heard this person [Hisham Ibn Hakim Ibn Hizam] reading Surah Furqan in a different way from the one you had read it out to me.” The Prophet (sws) said: “Leave him alone [O ‘Umar].” Then he said to Hisham: “Read [it].” [Umar said:] “He read it out in the same way as he had done before me.” [At this,] the Prophet (sws) said: “It was revealed thus.” Then the Prophet (sws) asked me to read it out. So I read it out. [At this], he said: “It was revealed thus; this Qur’an has been revealed in Seven Ahruf. You can read it in any of them you find easy from among them. (Malik Ibn Anas, Muwatta, vol. 1 (Egypt: Dar Ahya al-Turath, n.d.), 201, (no. 473).
“…I heard Hisham bin Hakim reciting Suraht-al-Furqan during the lifetime of Allah's Apostle, I listened to his recitation and noticed that he was reciting in a way that Allah's Apostle had not taught me. I was about to jump over him while he was still in prayer, but I waited patiently and when he finished his prayer, I put my sheet round his neck (and pulled him) and said, "Who has taught you this Surah which I have heard you reciting?" Hisham said, "Allah's Apostle taught it to me." I said, "You are telling a lie, for he taught it to me in a way different from the way you have recited it!" Then I started leading (dragged) him to Allah's Apostle and said (to the Prophet), "I have heard this man reciting Suraht-al-Furqan in a way that you have not taught me." The Prophet said: "(O 'Umar) release him! Recite, O Hisham." Hisham recited in the way I heard him reciting. Allah's Apostle said, "It was REVEALED like this." Then Allah's Apostle said, "Recite, O 'Umar!" I recited in the way he had taught me, whereupon he said, "It was REVEALED like this," and added, "The Qur’an has been REVEALED to be recited in seven different ways, so recite of it whichever is easy for you." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 640”).
“He then said: Each mode is sufficiently health-giving, whether you utter "all-hearing and all-knowing" or instead "all-powerful and all-wise". This is valid until you finish the verse indicating punishment on mercy and finish the verse indicating mercy on punishment. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Prof. Ahmad Hasan [Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, Booksellers & Exporters; Lahore, Pakistan, 1984], Vol I, Nr 1472, p. 387)."
So, again, Muslim scholars till this day do not know what were the exact differences between these seven modes. The 3 rd caliph Uthman ibn Affan helped, by destroying all copies that were around (Link). He left just one harf (singular of ahruf) around. Again, these modes couldn’t simply be dialectal in nature but included major variations in wording.
It is false to say that the seven ahruf are the seven present readings. This is why:
Actually, we have seven different Qira’at (readings) of the Qur’an (see Bukhari 6.61.513). These readings are related to the recitation and not to the text.
The seven are (following Ibn Kathir): Mecca 737, Nafi Medina 785, Abu Amr Basra 736, Asim Kufa 778, Hamzah Kufa 772, al-Kisai Kufa 804 and ibn Amir Damascus 770.
These seven Qira’at were not standardized by Uthman but by Islamic leaders around 150 years after Uthman’s death (656 AD.) Still now, we don’t have a single Qur’an , but a around a dozen of different versions (the main versions are called Warsh or Hafs). This process was due to the fact that the short vowels and the diacritical signs (utilized to distinguish the consonants) were inadequate for reading in the forth Islamic century (for example b can be read as n, t or th (check: Charles Adams: “Il testo e la sua storia”). Finally, ibn Muhjahid (d 935) canonized the consonants and the limits of the variations of the vowels. At the end, we got seven standard qira’at, given by authoritative leaders (called qurra’), and to assure the accuracy, two transmitters were assigned to each variant. These seven readings (al qira’at as-sab’) had minor variations in sentences and words (there are as well seven different styles of recitation (al ahruf al-saba), based on the ijtihad of ibn Mujaahid, and not on the Sunnah or the Qur’an.
For each reading (qira’at), two ruwah (written texts or transmissions) were allowed. So totally, now, we have 14 different texts of the Qur’an, with different sentences and recitations. Let’s take an example:
Es: “qul” (=say) is rendered as “qala” (he will say). In the 1st case we have Allah who speaks, in the 2nd, it is Muhammad
During the first 2-3 centuries (the period of the “original thinking”, ijtihad) companions preferred one or another reading. The Situation was so unsustainable that even the big scholar of Baghdad Ibn Shanabudh (245-328 AH) had to recant the use of readings
In fact, all Islamic Scholars agree that these variations have always been part of the story of the Qur’an. Nowadays, the predominant form is the Asim one (Morocco: Nafi).
Summa summarum: the process got like that: the Qur’an was revealed in seven modes (Ahruf) (with textual differences, o/w six destroyed by Uthman). The one that “survived” had seven approved readings (qira’ats), ways of reading (each with two ruwah as well)….
What would you thing if a Christian would say that the Bible has been transmitted in seven different modes (btw: nobody knows what to understand by that), that just one of this mode has been standardized and transmitted in several versions , and that after 200-300 years, seven have been taken out? Would you then still believe that the Bible is “untouched”?
More material on this subject can be found here
Comparing the Muslim situation with the disagreement between Jews and Chris regarding their Book is interesting since the main difference between them centres on the number of inspired Books and their interpretation. The Jews do not accept the NT Books which Christians believe are inspired and therefore part of the Biblical canon. This suggests that the competing and conflicting Qur’anic copies which different Muslim groups were using were not uniform in their number of chapters and verses, e.g. some Qur’an had more chapters and verses than others. No wonder Uthman decided to burn copies of the Qur’an which were written by Muhammad’s companions! He had to get rid of the evidence which proved that the memory of the Muslims failed to fully preserve the original wording of the Qur’an or that.
Now I have some questions:
1) What has to be said about the vast differences between these seven modes, differences that were so great that some Muslims were actually shocked and stunned? In fact, these differences almost led to a war among the Muslims according to one report
2) Which of these seven modes, if any, contain the exact words of the original Qur’an in the possession of Allah?
3) Doesn’t this imply that at least six of the seven modes did not contain the original words as found in the mother of the book but merely reported the gist of what is found in the heavenly exemplar?
4) Who gave Uthman the right to destroy six of the seven modes when Muhammad claimed that these were given directly by Allah and were therefore equally authoritative?
5) And who is to say that Uthman chose the right mode seeing that he received no instructions from Muhammad to do what he did?
When Muslims attack the Bible, they don’t apply the same standard to the Qur’an and the ahadith. By doing so, they give the impression that the Qur’an doesn’t have the same problems. In fact, if they would apply the same logic and the same text, differently to the Bible, the Qur’an would never pass this stress test.
More on that here. Please, check as well the works of “von Deffer, Ulum, p. 178 for the seven ahruf and qira’ats)