When Uthman turned the Qur'an into a written book, everything changed. Below is an excerpt from the thesis I defended this Spring at Duke University, summarizing Uthman's historic alteration of the very concept of the Qur'an.
The Uthmanic recension is often recognized as one of the greatest milestones in the history of the Qur’an. Even so, it is under-rated. The recension, even if conceived according to tradition, marks the true genesis of the Qur’an as it is known today. The moment Uthman authorized a written text of the Qur’an, there was a collision between the oral Qur’an of Muhammad’s time and a new, written modality. No longer was it just the “soft copy” that was conceived as the word of Allah, the text in recitation, but now also a “hard copy,” the text on paper. The contentions concerning the canon, the disputes about sections and verses, and the variant order of surahs were the resultant collateral damage.
Muhammad himself intended there to be areas of grey in the text of the Qur’an. This is not only indicated by the existence of the ahruf, but also at his indignation when Muslims would disagree over the text. The flexibility in the text is what made the abrogation possible, what allowed unity among Muslims with disparate lexica, and what made the text directly accessible to illiterates. When Uthman codified the text, it became rigid. Synonyms would no longer be usable when needed and illiterates would now only have indirect access to the Qur’an.
This was the moment when abrogation would have become implausible had Muhammad not already passed. All the same, prior abrogations had to be reduced to writing, and this yielded the disputes over which sections were truly abrogated and which were not. In addition, the early Muslims had to take a stand on revelation that had skirted the borders between Qur’an and non-Qur’an. Until the codification, simply avoiding the recitation of those revelations in liturgy would avoid conflict. After codification, opinions were forced to the fore, and disputes ensued from expert tradents. Non-substantive intra-verse variants, which were natural byproducts of the fluid oral text, would become curious anomalies recorded in Kitab al-Masahif and the like. Substantive intra-verse variants, made obsolete by codification but kept alive in tradition, became the stuff of hadith. The surahs, which had been cordoned individually or in groups, now had to be placed in a canonical order.
Thus it is that the canonical disputes concerning the bookends of the Qur’an, the disparities in sections and verses, and the variant surah orders are all a necessary result of the codification of the Qur’an text. Uthman’s revolutionary contribution to the Qur’an was not in the recension but in the codification.