From Darkness To Bright Light – An Authoritative Exposition #3


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The Uncontested Evidence – The Qur’ân

The Qur’ân was recited by the Prophet Muhammad who, being illiterate himself, used scribes to write it down on bones, skin and palm leaves as an aid to memorisation. These written portions were sometimes given to visiting tribes to take away and learn from.

After the death of the Prophet many of the Huffâz (those who had memorised the whole Qur’ân) were killed in the Battle of Yamâma against the apostates.

Umar ibn al Khattâb suggested to Abu Bakr that they should gather together the whole Qur’ân into one written book in case some of it became lost. They chose one of the Huffâz and scribes of the Prophet, Zaid Ibn Thabit, for the task. He referred to all those who had written copies and found two corresponding witnesses besides himself for each verse, and put them in the order in which the Prophet had recited in front of him twice in the year he died.

This written Qur’ân, called a mushaf, was handed from the then Caliph Abu Bakr to Umar ibn al Khattâb who handed it on to his daughter Hafsa. In the time of Caliph Uthmân, Islâm had spread from Khurasân to Morocco. The Prophet Muhammad had allowed the people to recite the Qur’ân in seven different dialects (as it had been revealed in that way), but this had become a cause for dissension so Hudaifa went and pleaded with Uthmân to unite the Muslims under one reading. Uthmân decided on the Quraish dialect, which the Prophet himself had used. Zaid ibn Thabit was called in again and he repeated the task, assembling the Qur’ân in the Quraishi dialect, again with the confirmation of two authorities who had it in writing, with the exception of one verse which he found with only one in a written form ( but many in oral)

Copies of this Qur’ân were then sent to various parts of the empire to be used as the standard, and all other writings were ordered to be burnt. This was done with the agreement of all the living Companions and memorisers of the Qur’ân.

Now to establish the reliability of the Mutawâtir oral transmission of the Qur’ân let us use an example given by Jay Smith himself in his apologetic paper “The Qur’ân”,

Smith says: “If after I had read this paper out-loud, everyone was to then write down all I had said from memory when they returned home, there would certainly be a number of variations. But we could find out these variations by putting them all together and comparing the many copies one against the other, as the same errors would not be written at the same place by everyone. The final result would be a rendering which is pretty close to what I had said originally. But if we destroyed all of the copies except one, there would be no means of comparing, and all precision would be lost. Our only hope would be that the one which remained was as close to what I had said as possible. Yet we would have no other rendering or example to really know for sure. Consequently, the greater number of copies preserved, the more certitude we would have of the original.”

Now imagine that everyone who read this text memorised faithfully parts of it, and some faithfully memorised the whole of it, and some faithfully wrote it down on pieces of paper. Now also imagine that you are all devoted followers of J. Smith, and you believe every word he speaks. Furthermore, you believe that if you faithfully remember his words without mistake he will give you good marks. Now Joseph dies and his most promising student decides that we must publish the paper of Joseph as the definitive refutation of Islâm. So he asks one of Joseph’s other devoted students, who although young, had memorised the whole paper, but just to be sure he tells him to check with all those who had written copies of the whole paper in case he might have left something out. He does this and finds that there were a couple of lines he had written that were with no one else. So he keeps searching and eventually finds it with a couple of other students. So he includes it all in his final draft. Now after several years some American students of the students of Smith start arguing with some English students of the students about the use of “cookies” in stead of “biscuits” and “chips” instead of “fries” and they are ready to fight about it. So a top student of Smith hears about this, and although he knows that Smith allowed both usages in his students recitals and notes he decides for the sake of unity to use only the American usages as that was the language in which the paper was originally read. So he calls that same young student, who repeats the same process, and comes up with the same result. So the order is given for everyone to destroy every copy, and all the notes they have to prevent any future arguments, and the young students copy, of which every word has been agreed upon by at least two students who had complete written copies, was then published. This publication was agreed upon by every living student who had memorised the whole paper to be verbatim the same paper as taught by Smith and as memorised by them. Would you doubt that this was exactly what Smith’s paper said? Now further imagine that thousands of people all around the world had memorised this paper, and the original young student’s copy was destroyed, yet when you gathered together these memorisers and copies of the compilation from all over the world and found that they all agreed, would you doubt that this was exactly Smith’s original paper?

To give another example, let us imagine a gathering of Beatles fans who start singings their songs. Most of them would know the words to most of the songs, and even if someone made a mistake they would immediately recognize it. Now these people have probably never read the words of the songs, and even if the records and tapes from which they were taken were lost, etc., one would have little doubt that these were the words sung by the Beatles due to the unanimous agreement of all the fans upon a given wording.

It must be remembered that the Qur’ân is read and re-read by Muslims every day of their lives in their prayer, in the morning and sunset and night prayer it is read out loud. It is a habit of many Muslims to read the entire Qur’ân in three days, some in a week and many in a month. A greater number still read the whole Qur’ân at least once a year. Its ease of memorization is renowned (as the Qur’ân itself states) as we can find children as young as six that have memorised the whole of it. It is of course considered the very Words of God and so is given the utmost respect and attention, and cannot be compared to mere stories and such like.

One of the most enduring arguments for the Qur’ân’s authenticity is the total agreement throughout the vast Muslim empire upon one text, which proves that it must have been agreed upon from the very earliest times. This is given more weight by the fact that from the different sects, such as the Shia who trace their pretensions to Ali ibn Tâlib, the cousin of the Prophet, the Khâwarij, the Qadarîya and the Jahmiya and other sects that arose in the earliest period of Islâm, none of them were able to make a basis for their claims except through the same Qur’ân that we have in our possession today. The fact that these sects could never invent or add a single verse to the Qur’ân proves the Muslims were unanimously united upon a single text from the earliest times.

Reliability of Oral Transmission

Smith says:“The problem with oral transmission, however, is that by its very nature, it can be open to corruption as it has no written formula or documentation with which it can be corroborated and testedThus it can be manipulated depending on the agenda of the orator.” .

-Thus Smith assumes that only written accounts have any degree of accuracy. Is it the case that if something is put into writing that it is always recorded accurately? The fact is that written accounts are easily open to corruption, the Christian Bible being a prime example, which has led some authors to conclude that: “It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the manuscript tradition is wholly uniform.” [The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press:1962 in 4 volumes, under the heading ‘Text, NT’.]

– Again, for Smith the spoken word holds no value at all.

– Smith presumes that all narrators in an isnâd were incapable of passing on what they heard with any degree of accuracy, that they were all out to deceive and willingly corrupted the teachings of their religion. That’s not to say that there did exist innovators and heretics who might have sought to do so. This is where the biographies and evaluation of each individual narrator played an important role. Narrations were rejected from known liars and heretics to ensure purity of transmission. Narrators were individually evaluated for academic accuracy and memory retention.

Montgomery Watt writes:

  ” . . . it would have been easy to invent sayings of Muhammad. Because the cultural background of the Arabs had been oral the evidence that came to be expected was the chain of names of those who had passed on the anecdote containing the saying . . . It was soon realised that false Traditions were in circulation with sayings that Muhammad could not possibly have uttered. The chains of transmitters were therefore carefully scrutinised to make sure that the persons named could in fact have met one another, that they could be trusted to repeat the story accurately, and that they did not hold any heretical views. This implied extensive biographical studies; and many biographical dictionaries have been preserved giving the basic information about a man’s teachers and pupils, the views of later scholars (on his reliability as a transmitter) and the date of his death. This biography-based critique of Traditions helped considerably to form a more or less common mind among many men throughout the caliphate about what was to be accepted and what rejected.” [W. Montgomery Watt, What is Islâm?, pages 124-125, Longman Group Ltd:1979]

– Smith also ignores the mutâwattirnarration here (though he does mention it briefly elsewhere). By mutâwattiris meant that narration which is reported by such a large number of individuals in each generation and at every stage of transmission that it is impossible that they could have all gathered together upon reporting a lie/mistake. Perhaps Smith should look to familiarise himself with the books of mutâwattirhadîth. Indeed, the common feature of a good many traditions is the great number of transmitters who belong to different provinces and countries. It was hardly possible for all these individuals to consult each other so as to give a uniform sense in transmitting a particular tradition. If a particular tradition is transmitted by so many persons with a similar form and sense, then its genuineness cannot be questioned, as the trustworthiness of the individuals has been vouchsafed by their contemporaries.

Smith himself accepts this methodology later in his paper when he asks: “Can We Use These Non- Muslim Sources?”He argues that because the non-Muslim sources he produces are spread over a “wide geographical and social distribution” they could not all have gathered together and agreed to vent “their anti-Muslim feeling with such uniform results”.

· To repeat, Smith says: “The problem with oral transmission, however, is that by its very nature, it can open to corruption . . . ”

It will be noted that Smith consistently bends over backwards to deny the credibility of oral transmission. What he fails to admit (or realise) is that the very same ‘oral transmission’ is replete in the history of his own book – the Bible:

Oral Transmission of the Biblical Text

“Most of the material in our Gospels existed for a considerable time in an oral stage before it was given the written form with which we are familiar.” [New Bible Dictionary – Second Edition, p.436. Inter-Varsity Press: 1982]

“The Old Testament includes many ‘memories’ older than script, and many stories stamped by the storytellers’ oral style. In fact, behind every type of LITERATURE represented there, lies a longer or shorter time of oral tradition.” [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol.4, p.683. Abingdon Press: 1962]

“Many of the characteristics of the style forms point clearly back to the oral origin of the species . . . the artistic mastership of the old tales of Genesis, Judges, Samuel, is just due to the fact that they were given their form by the storytellers, not by the rhetoric ‘literates’ of that time, the scribes.” [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol.4, p.683. Abingdon Press: 1962]

“Even long after the more occasional use of script the oral transmission of ‘spiritual’ knowledge was considered normal. In the East learning by heart is unto this day the normal way of transmitting even the longest written texts, as the Koran and its commentaries. With the Jews both the Mishna and Talmud were orally transmitted for centuries; in the synagogue it was long forbidden to say the Torah from a written scroll; also the Aramaic and Greek translations were originally given orally, but in a traditional fixed form.” [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol.4, p.684. Abingdon Press: 1962]

Commenting on the transmission of the Old Testament, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, writes: “The common memory of the circle and the ‘chain of traditionists’ were for long considered to be securer than the script. (It must be remembered that here we have to do with generations whose memory was not spoiled by magazines and dictionaries)” [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol.4, p.684. Abingdon Press: 1962]

Similarly, in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, commenting on the New Testament, we read: “The soil of this plant was oral tradition. The retentiveness of the Oriental memory enables the disciples of Jesus, like the disciples of the Jewish rabbis, to preserve not inaccurately the main sayings and deeds of their Master in the original Aramaic. The sacred book of the new religion was the Old Testament. No need was as yet felt for committing the tradition to writing, partly on account of the superiority attached in the Greek as well as in the Jewish world to the spoken word over the written as a means of training and informing the mind . . . ” [Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, p.604. Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd: 1919]

Metzger writes that Papias towards 130 C.E. still preferred oral tradition to books! [Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p.78. Oxford University Press; 1987]

Where does this leave Smith’s views on oral transmission? If it is ‘open to corruption’ then we would have to assume that he has to accept that distortion has occurred to the text of the Bible? Smith, however, chooses to employ his theories as and when they suit his agenda! Sadly, though for Christianity, the oral transmission of the Bible no where near meets the strict criteria demanded by Muslim traditionists.

The Value of Oral Tradition
(Its relevance to both Qur’ân and Hadîth )

What was the form in which knowledge was preserved and passed on before the advent of the written word? For in ancient times, when writing was not used at all or scarcely used, memory and oral transmission was exercised and strengthened to a degree now almost unknown. [Michael Zwettler, The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Poetry, p.14. Ohio State Press: 1978 – all references slightly adapted and abridged for continuity.]

For whether sacred or secular, the works that have given rise to a textual tradition seem invariably to have existed in some sort of oral form prior to being set down. This oral form of the work was, to a certain extent, preserved by memory and passed on by word of mouth. Such a process has long been accepted by scholars who spoke of a period of ‘oral transmission’ or ‘oral tradition’ , scholars could call in to their help the ‘fantastic memories’ so ‘well attested’ of illiterate people. They felt that a text could remain from one generation to another unaltered. [ibid, p.4]

Indeed, ‘orality’ has been demonstrated, in works such as Greek poetry – Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, Delphic oracular utterances – as well as in areas as diverse as medieval French and German epics, Babylonian and Hittite epics and Old Testament verse, and more. [ibid, p.5]

The very educational systems that brought about relatively high rates of literacy amongst segments of some pre-modern societies and fostered a proliferation of the written word – Arab, Islâmic civilisation for instance, the Greco-Roman world, and India – all relied heavily upon memorisation and recitation as a chief means of ensuring the acquisition and retention of knowledge. [ibid, p.19]

The poetry of the Arabs, in the ages which preceded the rise of Islâm, was perpetuated by oral tradition, being a remarkably reliable method for the retention of information.

Long after the more occasional use of script the oral transmission of ‘spiritual’ knowledge was considered normal. In the East learning by heart is unto this day the standard way of transmitting even the longest written texts. With the Jews, both the Mishna and the Talmud were orally transmitted for centuries; in the synagogue it was long forbidden to say the Torah from a written scroll; the Aramaic and Greek translations were also originally given orally. [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol.4, p.684. Abingdon Press: 1962]

Today, we live in a world increasingly dominated by the printed word. For most if not all of us, the fixed, visible page of print is the fundamental medium of both information and proof. If anything is truly important, we have to‘get it in writing’. We want tangible evidence of‘documentation’, we need things of importance‘signed and sealed’. To a degree unknown in any other culture of history, knowledge for us is ‘book-learning’; and no orally communicated word carries the kind of authority for us that a written or printed document does. Ours is not only a literate, but a book and print culture; the written word has become the basic form of language. There is no doubt that today, religious scriptures of the past, are viewed in exactly the same light and with the same expectations. Scripture is widely understood today as a tangible document that fixes the fluid sacred word and gives it substance and permanence. We have focused all but exclusively on religious texts as solely written documents or artefacts: that is, as physical objects, as ‘sacred books’ in the most trivial sense of the term.

Yet such a restricted use of the term ‘scripture’ to refer only or principally to a physical book contains unnecessarily the scope of the idea of scripture. The idea hardly even occurs that a sacred text could exist for long without being written. Our current Western notions too easily take for granted the written text as the focus of piety and faith in religious communities. Too often lost to us is the central place of scriptural words being recited, memorised, transmitted orally, preserved in the minds of the people, taught to both the young and the old by word of mouth. [William Graham, Beyond the Written Word, pp. ix, x, 9. Cambridge University Press: 1993]

In Islâm, the written word of the Qur’ân has always been secondary to a strong tradition of oral transmission that far surpasses that of Judaic or Christian usage. In Islâm, the functions of the Holy Book as an oral text have predominated over its functions as a written or even a printed one. For countless millions of Muslims over more than fourteen centuries of Islâmic history, ‘scripture’, al-kitab has been a book learned, read and passed on by vocal repetition and memorisation. The written Qur’ân may ‘fix’ visibly the authoritative text of the Divine Word in a way unknown in history, but the authoritativeness of the Qur’ânic book is only realised in its fullness and perfection when it is correctly recited. The Book of Islâm is ultimately not a written or printed document, but a ‘reciting’ or ‘recitation’. [ibid, pp.79-80]

John Burton writes: “The method of transmitting the Qur’ân from one generation to the next by having the young memorise the oral recitation of their elders had mitigated somewhat from the beginning the worst perils of relying solely on written records . . . ” [John Burton, An Introduction to the Hadîth, p.27. Edinburgh University Press: 1994]

Kenneth Cragg further elaborates: “This phenomenon of Qur’ânic recital means that the text has traversed the centuries in an unbroken living sequence of devotion. It cannot, therefore, be handled as an antiquarian thing, nor as a historical document out of a distant past. The fact of hifz has made the Qur’ân a present possession through all the lapse of Muslim time and given it a human currency in every generation never allowing its relegation to a bare authority for reference alone.” [Kenneth Cragg, The Mind of the Qur’ân, p.26. George Allen & Unwin: 1973]

Hadîth: An Islâmic Overview

Indeed, Muhammad, the Messenger of Allâh – peace and blessings upon him – explained to the people, completely and clearly, what their Lord had revealed for them; both the detailed matters and the important ones, the apparent matters and the hidden ones, to such an extent that he – peace and blessings upon him – taught them what they needed to know with respect to drawing closer to Allâh – the Most High, as well as in matters of eating, drinking, marriage, clothing and housing. He taught them the etiquette’s of social behaviour, such as kindness to parents, keeping ties of kinship, caring for the neighbour and keeping good companionship. He explained to them all that was pleasing the Creator of the heavens and of the earth and those things made forbidden for them, in fact, to such a complete extent that his Companion Abu Dharr said:

 “ “Indeed the Messenger of Allâh – peace and blessings upon him – passed away and there is not a bird flapping its wings in the sky, except that he mentioned to us some knowledge about it.” [Ahmad 5/153]

This then was the example, the living teaching of the final Messenger sent to the whole of mankind. He did not hesitate in calling the people back to their Lord in accordance with what he had been commanded:

The Messenger of Allâh – peace and blessings upon him – would explain the intent of the Revelation often by means of a statement, at other times he would do so by an act, and yet other times he would do so by means of both. For example, the Qur’ân commanded the Believers to establish regular Prayer, so the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – prayed among his followers and then told them: <> [Bukhârî 1/604] On some occasions an act would be performed in his presence or with his knowledge or similarly a statement made about which he would not express disapproval, thereby indicating its permissibility. Accordingly, the Creator made obedience to His Messenger an obligation upon the people, to follow his example and receive his teaching:

  “O Messenger! Proclaim that which has been sent down to you from your Lord.” [Qur’ân 5:67]

“We have sent down to you the Reminder, that you may explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, that perhaps they may reflect.” [Qur’ân 16:44]

It is for these reasons that the Companions of the Prophet were meticulous about his teachings. All his actions served them as an ideal, and hence a precedent (Sunnah); every word which he uttered was a law to them, while his moral choices, so different from those of their age, yet so immediate in their impartial wisdom, provided them with a system of personal and social virtue which they tried to follow faithfully. Given this intense devotion to the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him, inspired by his charisma and integrity, the Companions made a point of observing his life and recording for posterity everything that they could. Thus we find that Abu Hurairah kept his constant company, sacrificing all worldly pursuits, in order to see and hear what the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – said and did, and regularly devoted a period of time to fixing in his memory the words he had heard; so much so that the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – said to him on one occasion: “ O Abu Hurairah! I have thought that none will ask me about this hadîth before you, as I know your longing for hadîth.” [Bukhârî 8/574] Even those Companions who may have lived at a distance and were unable to attend the Prophet every day, made an agreement with other Companions that they would be present with him on alternate days, and report to each other everything they saw or heard from him. It is said to have been a common practice among the Companions that whenever any two of them met, one would inquire from the other whether there was any hadîth, and the other would tell him what he knew.

The Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – himself attached the utmost importance to the knowledge of his own hadîth and would encourage his followers to be attentive when he was imparting the message with which he was sent. Often he would be seen to repeat his words to ensure that they had been properly retained. We find the Companion Anas ibn Mâlik declaring: “Whenever the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – spoke a sentence, he used to repeat it thrice so that the people could understand it properly from him.” [Bukhârî 1/95] He would ask his Companions to make his hadîth as widely known as possible by instructing: “ It is incumbent upon those who are present to inform those who are absent . . . “ [Bukhârî 1/67] and would also say: “ May Allâh make joyful a person who heard my saying and preserved it, them transmitted it from me.”[Ibn Mâjah 1/236]

The Companions did not simply commit as many of the hadîth as they could to memory. Some of them collected them in books known as Sahifas, which they used as a basis for lectures, and which were later preserved by their families, and by the next generation of Muslims, the Successors. This writing of knowledge was directly from the command of the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – himself. When on one occasion he had delivered an address to the people he was asked: “ O Messenger of Allâh , have that written for me.” So he ordered his Companions to write it out for him [Bukhârî 1/112]. A bu Hurairah himself describes that a book was kept by Abdullah ibn Amr al-Aas [Bukhârî 1/113], and concerning this we find Nabia Abbott declaring: “ The sources are unanimously emphatic that Abdullah ibn Amr al-Aas from the start recorded hadîth and sunnah.” [Abbott, Studies, Vol. II, p.37] M. M. Azami in his Studies in Early Hadîth Literature (pp.34-60) gives details of 50 Companions who at one time or another preserved the hadîth in writing. The letters which the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – himself had sent to various provinces are no different from his hadîth.

As mentioned, the writings compiled by the Companions were often preserved and passed on by their families before being incorporated into later works. This led to numerous family chains of transmission about which Abbott writes:

  “Whatsoever the Messenger gives you take it, and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain from it.” [Qur’ân 59:7]

“Indeed in the Messenger of Allâh you have the best example to follow for him who hopes in the meeting with Allâh and the Last Day and remembers Allâh often.” [Qur’ân 33:21]

  “Family isnâds of several generations of literate traditionists imply continuos written transmission, an implication that is reinforced by the large number of traditions accredited to the members of such families and by the appearance of clusters of such traditions in the standard collections.” [Abbott, ibid, p.37] She also concludes that: “The development of the family isnâd and continuos written transmission lead to the third inescapable conclusion, namely that the bulk of the hadîth and sunnah as they had developed by about the end of the first century was already written down by someone somewhere . . . ” [ibid, p.39]

In this way, the hadîth literature originated in the early life of the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him, developed largely through his lifetime and immediately after, and spread simultaneously with the spread of Islâm throughout the new Muslim dominions. The Muslim armies which reached Syria, Palestine, Persia and Egypt included a large number of Companions who carried the hadîth with them. In particular, hadîth flourished not only in Makkah and Medînah, but also Kûfah, Basrah, Damascus, Fustat and Merv. Even the distant lands of North Africa and Spain received the hadîths before the end of the first century. And to the east, the message of the Qur’ân and the Sunnah had been received by India even before the conquest of Sind.

The death of the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – signalled the end of direct Revelation. With this the importance of hadîth inevitably increased and the Companions were no less anxious in seeking out and acquiring that knowledge which had been missed by them during the Messenger’s lifetime. Abdullah ibn Abbâs (himself a Companion) relates:

 “ “When the Messenger of Allâh died, I said to one Ansâri, ‘Let us ask the Companions of the Prophet as there are still a lot!’ He replied to me, ‘Quite curious, do you think, O Ibn Abbâs, that people will be in need of you while a great number of the Companions of the Prophet are still surviving?’ Ibn Abbâs continued: ‘So I left him and started asking the Companions. Sometimes when a hadîth was reported to me by anyone of them, I used to approach their houses and found them taking rest at noon. So I would rest my head on my cloak at their door while the wind blew dust on my face till the man came out and said: ‘O cousin of the Prophet, what brought you here?’ Why did you not call for me; so that I could come to you myself?’ I would say: ‘No, you deserved to be visited by me.’ Then I asked him concerning the hadîth.” [Mustadrak 1/107]

It will be noted that this comprises an early isnad, namely, one Companion narrating from another, from the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him. Abu Ayyub al-Ansâri travelled to Uqba ibn Amîr in order to ask him about a hadîth which, no one who remained alive, had heard it direct from the Prophet, except them. He said to the Governor of Egypt:

  “A hadîth which I heard from the Prophet and now no one except me and Uqba are alive who heard it from the Prophet. So please provide me with anyone who can guide me to his house. So he sent for a person who showed him the house of Uqba. Uqba on hearing the news of his arrival came out hurriedly as well and said: ‘What brought you here, O Abu Ayyûb?’ He replied: ‘A hadîth about protecting a believer which I heard from the Prophet and no one else except me and you are left who heard it from the Prophet.’ Uqba said: Yes, I heard the Prophet saying: <> Abu Ayyûb said: ‘You have told the truth.'” [al-Hâkim, Marifat, pp.7-8]

The Companions settled themselves in the various towns and provinces of the Islamic empire. In these towns they were surrounded by a large number of Muslims who had not met the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – and who were eager to hear reports of his words and deeds from those who had associated with him and had heard his counsels. These Successors not only learnt from them the hadîths but also acquired the ethos and questing for the Traditions, and their careful cultivation and preservation. Upon them devolved the preservation and propagation of the narrations for over a century, firstly in association with the Companions, and, when the latter had passed away, with the help of their own pupils. These descending generations shared in common an astonishing zeal for the pursuit of hadîth. Rich men and women among them sacrificed their wealth for its sake, while the poor devoted their lives to it in spite of their poverty. James Robson writes

  “It may safely be assumed that from the very beginning Muslims were interested in what the Prophet said and did, and that after his death, when Islâm spread widely, new converts would be anxious to hear about him. Those who associated with him would be listened to eagerly as they told about him. While this was largely conveyed by word of mouth, there is reason to believe that some men made small collections for their own use. These can hardly be called books, but nevertheless the material they contained was incorporated in later works.” [James Robson, Mishkat al-Masabih, Vol.1, p.iii, Lahore: 1991]

M. M. Azami (pp.60-106) gives details of over 100 Successors who wrote down hadîth. The Successors, with the disappearance of eyewitnesses, realised the need to preserve and ensure the authenticity of the statements attributed to the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him. An isnâd (chain of transmission) was therefore indispensable to them, though signs of its use had appeared during the time of the Companions themselves. Abbott writes:

  “There was no call for emphasis on source until the first Civil War, which occurred in the fourth decade, and until the Successors were brought into the chain of transmission.” [Nabia Abbott, Studies, Vol. II, p.1]

We therefore have the famous statement of Ibn Sirin (d.110H): “They did not ask about the isnâd until when the Fitna (Civil War) arose they said: ‘Name to us your men.’ Those who belonged to the People of the Sunnah, their traditions were accepted and those who were innovators, their traditions were neglected.” [Muslim]

This statement implies that isnâd were used even before the Fitna. After the Civil War they became more cautious and began to inquire about the sources of information and scrutinise them. The Companion Ibn Abbâs had himself already said: “We used to report from the Prophet when the lies were not credited to him but when the people mixed up, we abandoned reporting from them.” [Muslim] These were amongst the first signs of ascertaining the status of the narrator, liars, as always were not to be trusted in their reports. At the end of the first century the science of isnâd was fully developed. James Robson writes:

  “There is therefore reason to believe that Ibn Sirin is to be credited with the words attributed to him. If that is granted, it would support Horovitz’s theory that the isnâd entered the literature of tradition in the last third of the first century, as its use so early would be bound to be represented soon in writing.” [Robson, Isnâd in Muslim Tradition, pp.21-22]

Such was the importance of the isnâd that Muslim scholars, both early and late, have warned the people from neglecting it and insisted on its preservation. From them:

  Al-Awzâ’î(d.157H) said: “The passing away of knowledge is not except the loss of the isnad.” [at-Tamhîd 1/57]

Ibn al-Mubârak (d.181H) said: “The isnâd is part of the Religion, if it were not for the isnâd then anybody would have said whatever they liked.” [Muslim]

Ibn al-Arabî (d.543H) said: “Allâh has honoured this Nation with the isnâd which He did not give to anyone else. So beware of following the way of the Jews and the Christians, will you narrate without isnâd, and thus remove Allâh ‘s blessing from yourselves. Opening yourselves to attack and seeking to keep your position whilst you are partners with a people whom Allâh has cursed and is angry with, and following their way.” [Fihrisul-Fahâris 1/80]

Al-Manawî (d.1031H) said: “Allâh has favoured this Nation with the isnâd and has made it one of those things particular to it to the exclusion of others. And He inspired them to strictly check and research it.” [Faydul-Qadîr 1/434]

With the earlier dispersion of the Companions throughout the Muslim lands and their imparting the narrations known to them over such a wide area, it was felt, in the period of the Successors, to travel extensively and gather together these narrations. The Caliph Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz (d.101H) took steps to bring about their collection. He wrote to the great Traditionist of Medinah, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn Hazm (d.120H) requesting him to write down the hadîth for him [see Bukhârî, Vol.1, p.79]. He also asked Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri (d.124H) to collect hadîths in the form of books in order to have these circulated throughout his dominions. According to Abu Nu’aym’s ‘History of Isfahan’, Umar also wrote a circular letter asking the hadîth scholars living in the various parts of his country to collect in the form of books as many hadîths as were available. All of this was going on whilst individual scholars were themselves traveling to collect hadîth for their own private collections.

Makhul (d.112H) travelled through Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Hijâz and gathered the knowledge of all the hadîth which he could obtain from the Companions who still lived there. He used to boast that for the sake of knowledge he had ‘travelled round the world’ [Dhahabi, Tadhkira, 1/71]. Al-Sha’bi (d.104H) said when asked how he had gathered the knowledge of such a voluminous quantity of hadîths: “By hard work, long travels, and great patience” [Ibn Abdul-Barr, Jâmi, 1/95]. Masruq (d. 63H) travelled so widely for the sake of learning that he was known as ‘the father of travelling’. Saeed ibn al-Musayyib (d.94H) used to travel for days just to learn a single hadîth from its narrator. One author wrote:

  “The migration of the Companions, the scholars’ open sessions in Makkah and Medina, especially during the annual pilgrimage season, and the journeys in search of knowledge speeded the transmission of Tradition. Evidence of continuous written transmission of Tradition from the second quarter of the first century onward is available in early and late Islâmic sources.” [The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, p.297]

Coupled with the appearance of these literary works an elaborate method of teaching was employed. A teacher would often read from his book to his students, this being the most preferred method of transmission at this stage. Even if regular meetings were held for the teaching, only a few narrations were taught in one lesson, perhaps three or four. On other occasions the book would be read by the student back to the teacher or by a reciter and other students compared the narrations with their individual books or only listened attentively. On other occasions, the teacher would write the hadîth himself for the student. Many other such methods were employed. A regular record of attendance was kept and after the reading of a book was completed, a note was written by the teacher giving details of attendance, e.g. who listened to the complete reading of a book and who joined partially, what part they read and what part was missed by them, giving dates and places. In this way permission was only granted to pass on those hadîth for which a student had been in attendance. It helped to ensure that individual narrators had taken their knowledge in the correct manner and were capable of passing on what they had acquired. A student would often stay with a teacher for many years.

Comparing the narrations of various students was one of many excellent ways of ensuring the continuous accuracy of the hadîth. A prime example is that of Yahya ibn Ma’în (d.233 H) who travelled to see eighteen of the pupils of Hammaad ibn Salamah in order to compare their hadîth and ascertain if any of them had been mistaken in their reporting [Ibn Hibbân, al-Majruhîn]. The employment of such a method guaranteed that fabricated narrations would not go unnoticed if transmitted in this way. If a student was seen to narrate a hadîth which was previously unknown or rare (perhaps because he had fabricated it) then it would be a simple task to compare his report with other students who sat with him in the company of their teacher, and it would be found that none of them had heard this narration from their teacher except him though they had all been in attendance at his sittings! He would then be suspected of forging that narration.

With such activities thriving and with more and more people being continually exposed to the hadîth, the value and importance of the Prophet’s words, however, were never forgotten and always kept to the forefront. The status of the Messenger of Allâh – peace and blessings upon him – and the awe in which he was held by the people ensured that his words were given the utmost respect that they deserved and that they were not altered or amended in any way. Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) in his Qâidah Jaleelah Tawwassul wal-Waseelah (p.92), whilst describing the early generations and their respect for the status of the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – writes:

  “It is mentioned that Mâlik (d.179H) was asked about Ayyûb as-Sakhtiyanî, so he said: ‘He is the most excellent from those whom I narrate hadîth to you from. He performed Hajj twice and I did not hear (narrate) from him until I observed that as the Prophet was mentioned he wept until I felt mercy for him. When I saw what I saw about his veneration for the Prophet I wrote hadîth from him.’ Mâlik ibn Anas would also relate: ‘I have seen Muhammad ibn al-Munkadar – and he was a leading reciter – that whenever he was asked to narrate hadîth, he wept until we had mercy on him. I have seen Jâfar ibn Muhammad – he was very facetious and given to laughter – that whenever the Prophet was mentioned to him, he would turn pale, and I have never seen him narrating except in a state of purification. Whenever Abdur-Rahmân ibn al-Qâsim mentioned the Prophet, he turned pale as if the blood in his face dried up and his tongue turned dumb with awe of the Messenger of Allâh – peace and blessings upon him. I have seen az-Zuhrî – he was jolly and very sociable – that when the Prophet was mentioned to him, he would become so perturbed that he would not recognise you nor would you recognise him. I visited Safwân ibn Salîm – and he was one of the true worshippers and jurists – that whenever he mentioned the Prophet he cried and did not cease crying until the people would get up and leave him.'”

It is therefore not surprising to learn that the scholars were extremely exacting in their verification of the narrations and would question deeply the ones who reported hadîth to them. Such sincere enthusiasts were not content with the mere scrutiny of the reporters. They also attempted to publicise for the whole Islamic community the character of those responsible for forgery, or for incompetent and erroneous reporting. Likewise, they would highlight those individuals who were known for their accuracy and care for the Prophetic hadîth, mentioning their teachers, students, and often times extremely detailed descriptions of their lives. These came to be known as the ‘books of rijâl’, giving authenticating or disparaging remarks against 1000’s of reporters. In the earliest period, the critics of the narrators was comparatively small because of the small number of weak reporters, and the reduced chances of mistakes and forgeries. When, towards the middle of the second century, less reliable narrators increased in number, a group of important traditionists discussed the subject, and debated the integrity and reliability of various reporters.

There existed then, as there continues to do so in every generation to this present day, a core of committed and competent scholars, men and women, who take it upon themselves to dedicate their lives towards carefully ascertaining what was authentic, preserving its purity and genuiness, and propagating it among the community at large. They would not accept narrations related by persons who held heretical views, nor persons who were known to commonly tell lies (even if they were not accused of it in connection with hadîth), or people with weak memories, or who were unfamiliar with the subject matter of the material they were reporting, however pious and eminent they might appear. This careful scrutiny of those who related traditions continued with unabated vigour at each stage of transmission. Montgomery Watt writes:

  “The chains of transmitters were therefore carefully scrutinised to make sure that the persons named could in fact have met one another, that they could be trusted to repeat the story accurately, and that they did not hold any heretical views. This implied extensive biographical studies; and many biographical dictionaries have been preserved giving the basic information about a man’s teachers and pupils, the views of later scholars (on his reliability as a transmitter) and the date of his death. This biography-based critique of Traditions helped considerably to form a more or less common mind among many men throughout the caliphate about what was to be accepted and what rejected.” [W. Montgomery Watt, What is Islâm?, pages 124-125, Longman Group Ltd: 1979]

Thanks to the precision and vigour of the elite, the vital core of the hadîth literature was preserved intact. Abbott concludes

  “Deliberate tampering with either the content or the isnâds of the Prophet’s Traditions, as distinct from the sayings of and deeds of the Companions and Successors, may have passed undetected by ordinary transmitters, but not by the aggregate of the ever watchful, basically honest, and aggressively outspoken master traditionists and hadîth critics” [Nabia Abbott, Studies, Vol. II, p.132].

Thus, through the energy and scrupulousness of the Companions, the Successors and the later generations of Muslims collected together the reports of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet – peace and blessings upon him – which had been scattered throughout the length and breadth of the Islâmic world. Once begun, the collection of hadîths accelerated rapidly. Within two hundred years almost all the important hadîth works were compiled. Scholars traced the lives and discussed the characters of all the reporters of traditions, and produced, sided by side with their collections, a vast literature on the reporters as an aid to the formal criticism of hadîth.
Professor Margoliouth was indeed right when he stated that: ” . . . its value in making for accuracy cannot be questioned, and the Muslims are justified in taking pride in their science of tradition.” [Lectures on Arabic Historians, p.20. Calcutta University: 1920]

Sahifah of Hammâm ibn Munabih

To take one of the above documents as an example, the Sahifah of Hammâm ibn Munabih, the student of the Companion Abu Hurairah. He must have compiled his work before 58H because this is the date when Abu Hurairah died.

We can see that of the 138 narrations in the Sahifah, 98 of them are faithfully witnessed in the later collections of Bukhârî and Muslim, both through narrations of Abu Hurairah and witnessing narrations from other Companions.

We also see that all but two of the narrations are found in one section of the Musnad of Imaam Ahmad, again witnessing the preservation of hadîth and that earlier works were faithfully rendered in later documents.

The History of Isnad

Arbitrary use of an isnâd (chain of transmission) has been traced to the Indians long before Islâm. An occasional use, for instance, can be found in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature. In the Mahabharata, we read: ‘Vysda composed it, Ganesa served as a scribe, and the work was handed down by Vaisampayana, who communicated it to the king Janamejaya; Sautim who was present at the time, heard it and narrated it to the assembly of sages.‘ [Mahabharata, Book 1, Canto 1]. The Puranas also contain some short isnâds of this type. The Sutras (exegetical works of Vedic literature) contain brief chains mentioning some of the transmitters through whom they have been handed down. It appears that isnâd was used casually in some literature in the pre-Islâmic Arabia in a vague manner. The system was also used to some extent in transmitting pre-Islâmic poetry. [Nasiruddin Asad; Masadir Shi’r al-Jahili, pp.255-267, 2nd Edition. Cairo:1962]

When did the Isnâd system begin in Islâm?

Many Western non-Muslim scholars who have made an in-depth study of the subject have differed as to an exact date for the commencement of the use of an isnâd when transmitting items of Islamic knowledge (including Prophetic hadîth, commentaries of the Qur’ân, biographies etc.) Many of them placing it at a very early period, from them we read:

Nabia Abbott – Placing it from the very earliest period to 40AH:
She writes: “Analysis of the content and the chains of transmission of the traditions of the documents and of their available parallels in the standard collections, supplemented by the results of an extensive study of the sources on the sciences of Tradition – ulum al-hadîth – lead me to conclude that oral and written transmission went hand in hand almost from the start . . . ” [Nabia Abbott, Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, Vol. II, p.1. Chicago: 1967]

She also says: “There was no call for emphasis on source until the first Civil War, which occurred in the fourth decade of Islâm, and until the Successors were brought into the chain of transmission.” [Nabia Abbott, Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, Vol. II, p.1. Chicago: 1967]

Josef Horovitz – Placing it prior to 75AH:
Horovitz concluded that the first appearance of isnâds was not later than the last third of the first Muslim century. After adducing a series of facts to demonstrate this, he says: “Isnâd in its primitive form was then – somewhere about the year 75AH – already established, and one has not right, merely because it appears only incidentally in the letters, to deny to Urwa (d.92AH) without further consideration, those ahadîth supplied with statements of authorities for which he stands as sponsor . . . Isnâd was, indeed, already customary in his (Urwa’s) time, but it was not yet an absolute necessity.” [Josef Horovitz, The Earliest Biographies of the Prophet and their Authors, pp.550-51: 1927]

R. S. Humphreys writes: “A number of very capable modern scholars have defended the general authenticity of isnâds . An important early contribution was Josef Horovitz, Alter Und Ursprung des Isnad, Islâm, viii (1918), 39-47, 299; xi (1921), 264-65, who connected the earliest use of isnâds to the turmoil of the second civil war of the 60s/680s when it became an urgent matter to be able to identify the provenance of doctrinally loaded statements concerning Muhammad and the Companions.” [R. S. Humphreys, Islâmic History – Revised Edition, p.82. Princeton University Press: 1995]

Ignaz Goldziher – Placing it at a very early period:
Goldziher, an Orientalist, whose views on hadîth and conclusions are at most times highly questionable, yet even he has to admit the use of isnâd at a very early stage in the history of Islâm. He studied under the Ottamanist scholar and revert to Islâm, Arminius Vambery. He writes: “Many a Companion of the Prophet is likely to have carried his Sahifa (book) with him and used it to dispense instruction and edification to his circle. The contents of these Sahifas were called matn al-hadîth (lit. text of the hadîth); those who disseminated these texts named in succession their immediate authorities, and thus the isnâd came into being.” [Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies, II p.22. London: 1967]

It would be of interest here, and not out of place, to quote Goldziher’s view of Islâm in general. We find him boasting in 1890 whilst writing in Damascus that: “I truly entered in those weeks into the spirit of Islâm to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophical minds. My ideal was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level.” [Raphael Patai, Ignaz Goldziher and His Oriental Diary, p.20. Wayne State University Press: 1987]

Compare this with his study and findings in respect of Christianity, he says that:

  “Islâm signifies a mighty advance in relation to Christianity.” In recollecting in 1890 the impression Christianity made on him he lets loose one of his most vehement attacks. He writes: “In this abominable religion, which invented the Christian blood libel, which puts its own best sons to the rack, they want to entice away the believers in the one and only Jehova – in Muslim lands. This is an insolence of which only Christians, the most abominable of all religions, is capable. It has no forehead to become aware of the insolence that forms its historical character. The forehead of a whore, that is the forehead of Christianity.” [Raphael Patai, Ignaz Goldziher and His Oriental Diary, p.21. Wayne State University Press: 1987]

· Smith says:
“What’s more, the science of ISNAD, which set about to authenticate those very isnâds only began in the tenth century, long after the isnâds in question had already been compiled, and so have little relevance for our discussion. (Humphreys 1991:81)”

Smith quotes the gist of what Humphreys has to say and then adds his own words into the reference, again casting doubt on his ability to accurately interpret what his sources are trying to convey. To give the full excerpt from Humphreys, he says on page 81: “Medieval Muslim scholars were of course aware of this and ultimately evolved a very elaborate science on this subject. Unfortunately, the procedures of this science were not fully articulated until the 4th/10th century, well after the major compilations of hadîth and historical akhbar had been assembled. Even so, isnâds and the principles which govern them are only intelligible through the work of Muslim scholars; any modern analysis must reflect a sound knowledge of their critique.”

In comparing Smiths claims with that of his reference, we may ask the following questions:

  1. Where does Humphreys state that the science of isnâd “ only began in the tenth century “? Rather he says that they were not “fully articulated” until that time; that is to say, they reached their perfection then and the works appeared more numerously, not that nothing existed before this time!
  2. Where does Humphreys state or imply that such works “have little relevance for our discussion”? Rather he categorically states that they must be relied upon when he confirms that ” . . . isnâds and the principles which govern them are only intelligible through the work of Muslim scholars; any modern analysis must reflect a sound knowledge of their critique.”

Neither has Smith relied on the works of Muslim scholars nor does he reflect any sound knowledge of their critique, thereby producing laughable errors when dealing with even the most basic principles.

The references compared, lets take another look at Smith’s claims in this paragraph, for he has indeed reached erroneous conclusions, defied common sense and copied blindly without verification:
1. If he had bothered to carry out any meaningful research he would have found strong evidence of isnâd analysis and criticism well before the period to which he alludes. The following examples, most of which are available in print, shows the futility of his baseless comments:

– Ar-Risâlah of ash-Shafi’î (containing specific sections on the standards and criteria for an authentic hadîth as well as a chapter on the authenticity of narrations which come through only one chain of transmission)

– Tarîkh ar-Rijâl wal-Ilal of Yahya ibn Maeen (evaluating the narrators in the isnâd as well as discussing hidden defects which might be contained in the chain).

– Al-Ilal of Ali Ibn al-Madini.

– Ar-Ruwât ad-Du’afâof al-Fallâs (discussing weak narrators in the isnad)

– Al-Ilal wa Marifat al-Rijâl of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (evaluating the narrators in the isnâd as well as discussing hidden defects which might be contained in the chain).

– Tarikh al-Kabîr of al-Bukhârî (evaluating the isnâd through its narrators).

– Tamyiz of Muslim (The methodology of hadîth criticism)

– Abu Dawud in his famous letter to the citizens of Makkah (describing, for the benefit of his readers, the varying degrees of authenticity of the hadîth in his Sunan).

2. Smith himself has already indicated that the likes of Bukhârî took a vast quantity of hadîth, accepting some of them and rejecting others. We know from their respective works that both Bukhârî and Muslim set themselves the task of only collecting some of those hadîth which were of the sahîh class. How could they have gone about this duty if, as Smith claims, the science of evaluation “only began in the tenth century”? Whats more, the books from the tenth century onwards are full of praise for Bukhârî and Muslim for fulfilling their task accurately, showing that the science of hadîth analysis was already in place in their time.

3. The Sunan works of at-Tirmidhî and Abu Dawud contain the authors comments after many of the hadîth showing the reliability or weakness of the isnad. How could they have done this if the science of evaluation “only began in the tenth century”?

4. There are the critical comments of the likes of Malik ibn Anas, az-Zuhri, Sufyan ibn Uyainah, Yahya ibn al-Qattan, Shu’bah and numerous others littered throughout the biographical works, all speaking of the science of hadîth and the evaluation of the narrations.

5. James Robson writes: “By the second century the criticism of traditions was well developed, and warnings were given against unreliable transmitters.” [James Robson, Mishkat al-Masabih – English translation, Vol.1, Introduction, p.iii. Lahore: 1991]

Despite all of this, what difficulty does it pose – if it were true – that the science of isnâd analysis was not developed until the tenth century? We are only today perfecting techniques for the authentication and verification of age old artefacts. Are we to say then that such verification is of no value because it was only developed and carried out years after the artefacts first went into circulation? The application of Smith’s arguments into other fields shows their complete absurdity.

· Smith says: “Consequently, because it is such an inexact science . . . “
Smith finds it easy to make such sweeping statements, largely based on his own fractured research (or lack of it). From what has preceded and that which is to follow we can see the futility of Smith’s assertions and the weak foundation upon which he has built his argument.
Bernard Lewis writes: “But their careful scrutiny of the chains of transmission and their meticulous collection and preservation of variants in the transmitted narratives give to medieval Arabic historiography a professionalism and sophistication without precedent in antiquity and without parallel in the contemporary medieval West. By comparison, the historiography of Latin Christendom seems poor and meagre, and even the more advanced and complex historiography of Greek Christendom still falls short of the historical literature of Islâm in volume, variety and analytical depth.” [Bernard Lewis, Islâm in History, p.105. Open Court Publishing:1993]

Professor D. S. Margoliouth says: ” . . . its value in making for accuracy cannot be questioned, and the Muslims are justified in taking pride in their science of tradition.” [Lectures on Arabic Historians, p.20. Calcutta University:1920]

Smith began by posing a dichotomy:

  ” . . . in the early 7th century, Islâm, a religion of immense sophistication, of intricate laws and traditions was formulated in a backward nomadic culture and became fully functional in only 22 years.’

‘How did it come together so neatly and quickly? There is no historical precedence for such a scenario. One would expect such a degree of sophistication over a period of one or two centuries provided there were other sources, such as neighbouring cultures from which traditions and laws can be borrowed but certainly not within an unsophisticated desert environment and certainly not within a period of a mere 22 years.”

He tell us that secular historians cannot simply accept the position posited by the latter (Muslim) that ‘’in the early 7th century, Islâm, a religion of immense sophistication, of intricate laws and traditions was formulated in a backward nomadic culture and became fully functional in only 22 years.’
It is part of the consistent problem faced by the Christian and secularist polemicist. Their prejudicial stance in their mutual refusal to accept the Prophethood of Muhammad forces them to try and find any alternative explanation. Their inability to fight Islam according to the sources of Islam, and the fact that their attempts to discredit the Prophethood of Mohammad have proved mutually contradictory has now forced them to adopt their radical “demythologising” alternative.

The fact that we have amply illustrated with evidence, including that which must be acceptable to any unbiased “secular” historian, that the Qur’ân and authenticated traditions of the Prophet are not only reliable historical information but rank in authenticity far above anything Christianity can offer, or anything ancient and indeed much of modern history. All this leads inevitably to the conclusion that Muhammad was indeed the Universal Prophet of Allah and the early Muslim community was guided by the Light and Wisdom that ensued from Divine guidance. It is this that accounts for the phenomena of Islam, even if the disbelievers detest it.

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