The Qur’an was revealed in one style at the beginning, but the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) kept asking Jibril until he taught him seven styles, all of which were complete. The evidence for that is the hadith of Ibn ‘Abbas who narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Jibril taught me one style and I reviewed it until he taught me more, and I kept asking him for more and he gave me more until finally there were seven styles.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
What is meant by styles?
The best of the scholarly opinions concerning what is meant by styles is that there are seven ways of reciting the Qur’an, where the wording may differ but the meaning is the same; if there is a different meaning then it is by way of variations on a theme, not opposing and contradiction.
Some of the scholars said that what was meant by styles was the dialects of the Arabs, but this is far-fetched, because of the hadith of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab who said: “I heard Hisham ibn Hakim reciting Surat al-Furqan in a manner different from that in which I used to recite it and the way in which the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught me to recite it. I was about to argue with him whilst he was praying, but I waited until he finished his prayer, and then I tied his garment around his neck and seized him by it and brought him to the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I heard this man reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to the way you taught it to me.’ The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said to him, ‘Recite it,’ and he recited it as I had heard him recite it. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, ‘It was revealed like this.’ Then he said to me, ‘Recite it,’ so I recited it and he said, ‘It was revealed like this.’ This Qur’an has been revealed in seven different ways, so recite it in the way that is easiest for you.’” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
It is known that Hisham was Asadi Qurashi (i.e., from the clan of Bani Asad in Quraysh) and ‘Umar was ‘Adawi Qurashi (i.e., from the clan of Bani ‘Adiyy in Quraysh). Both of them were from Quraysh and Quraysh had only one dialect. If the difference in ahruf (styles) had been a difference in dialect
s, why would two men of Quraysh have been different?
The scholars mentioned nearly forty different opinions concerning this matter! Perhaps the most correct is that which we have mentioned above. And Allah knows best.
It seems that the seven styles were revealed with different wordings, as indicated by the hadith of ‘Umar, because ‘Umar’s objection was to the style, not the meaning. The differences between these styles are not the matter of contradiction and opposition, rather they are synonymous, as Ibn Mas’ud said: “It is like one of you saying halumma, aqbil or ta’al (all different ways of saying ‘Come here’).”
With regard to the seven recitations (al-qira’at al-saba’), this number is not based on the Qur’an and Sunnah, rather it is the ijtihad of Ibn Mujahid (may Allah have mercy on him). People thought that al-ahruf al-saba’ (the seven styles) were al-qira’at al-saba’ (the seven recitations) because they happened to be the same number. But this number may have come about coincidentally, or it may have been done deliberately by Ibn Mujahid to match what was narrated about the number of styles (ahruf) being seven. Some people thought that the styles (ahruf) were the recitations, but this is a mistake. No such comment is known among the scholars. The seven recitations are one of the seven styles, and this is the style that ‘Uthman chose for all the Muslims.
When ‘Uthman made copies of the Qur’an, he did so according to one style (harf), but he omitted the dots and vowel points so that some other styles could also be accommodated. So the Mus-haf that was copied in his time could be read according to other styles, and whatever styles were accommodated by the Mus-haf of ‘Uthman remained in use, and the styles that could not be accommodated fell into disuse. The people had started to criticize one another for reciting differently, so ‘Uthman united them by giving them one style of the Qur’an.
The seven readers or reciters were:
1- Nafi’ al-Madani
2- Ibn Kathir al-Makki
3- ‘Asim al-Kufi
4- Hamzah al-Zayat al-Kufi
5- Al-Kisa’i al-Kufi
6- Abu ‘Amr ibn al-‘ Ala ’ al-Basri
7- ‘Abd-Allah ibn ‘Amir al-Shami
The ones who have the strongest isnad in recitation are Nafi’ and ‘Asim.
And Allah knows best.
Excerpted with slight modifications from islamqa.com