Monday, January 21, 2019

Ḥadith at the Time of the Prophet: Extent, Nature and Importance

According to Schoeler, it is difficult to determine accurately the extent to which early transmission of tradition was oral or written in nature.44 However, Souaiaia has recently convincingly argued that orality has from the very genesis of Islamic thought been the primary medium for preserving authentic transmission of knowledge.45 The transmitted knowledge (either oral or written) consisted of short solitary report(s), which referred: . . . zu einem bestimmten historischen Faktum oder Verlauf gewesen ist[sind] und nicht (wie in anderen Kulturbereichen) die umfangsreichere Darstellung grosserer Zusammenhaenge unter bestimmten Geschichtspunkten.46

 These solitary reports were firstly transmitted orally and later put in writing in the form of small, somewhat more comprehensive, collections.47 Hallaq’s view that the number of Ḥadith up to the end of the first century were “insufficient to constitute the basis of a substantial doctrine of positive law”,48 can be used as one approximate measurement of the extent of the written material during the first century of Hijrah.

 We argued elsewhere that the practical, non-written embodiment of Prophetic actions, such as the ritual prayer, were adopted by the Muslim community in Medina and could be perpetuated from one generation to another simply by means of copying and repeating of actions (that is without relying on written-based sources).49 This is how most Muslims have learnt to perform their prayer even to this day.50 The practical perpetuation of Sunnah was, however, not the only way the Sunnah was transmitted. Elsewhere I also argued that other non-ʿamal-based constituents of Sunnah, namely ethico-religious (Sunnah akhlaqīyah), principal or value-based Sunnah51 (e.g. Sunnāt al-ʿadīla or jarāt as-sunnah), and reason-compliant Sunnah could also be formulated, preserved and transmitted purely orally and independent of any written documentation.52

However, this does not mean that no written documentation of Sunnahic precepts and practices existed. The Prophet, as an ultimate authority and spiritual figure with the highest prestige among his devout followers, was always at the centre of attention in the Muslim community of Medina. The general body of written literature as a whole concerning the Prophet, such as the sira, 53 maghazī54 and Ḥadith texts demonstrates that those close to him were eager to spend as much time in the Prophet’s company observing his actions, asking for his advice and, in their absence from the Prophet, wishing to find out what he did and said often in an ad hoc manner.55 Thus, it would be reasonable to argue that some written form(s) of proto-Ḥadith56 existed in the earliest days of the Muslim community, including the Prophet’s time itself.57

 Indeed, the works of Abbott, Sezgin and Al-Azami have argued with some success that, against those authorities who questioned the existence and writing down of Ḥadith during the earliest time of the Muslimcommunity,58 the process of writing down proto-Ḥadith started during the Prophet’s own time.59 Regardless of the value of the work of these scholars,60 Goldziher’s following remarks express the reasonableness of existence of written recordings of Prophetic activity while the Prophet was alive:

 There is nothing against the assumption that the Companions and disciples wished to keep Prophet’s sayings and rulings from being forgotten by reducing them in writing” and that “it can be assumed that the writing down of Ḥadith was a very ancient method of preserving it.61

At the time of the Prophet, writing down the Ḥadith, however, was rather a random and individualised undertaking.62 The number of Ḥadith must have been rather limited, for Rahman writes, “the only need for which it [Ḥadith] would be used was the guidance in the actual practice of the Muslims and this need was fulfilled by the Prophet himself.”63 Similarly the actual nature and concept of Prophetic authority as a whole, in fact, was not conducive to proliferation of Ḥadith. In this context, Rahman points out that:

 . . . the overall picture of Prophetic biography—if we look behind the colouring supplied by the Medieval legal mass-has tendency to suggest the impression of the prophet as a pan-legist neatly regulating the fine details of human life from administration to those of ritual purity. The evidence, in fact, strongly suggests that the Prophet was primarily a moral reformer of mankind and that, apart from occasional decisions,which had the character of ad hoc cases; he seldom resorted to general legislation as a means of furthering the Islamic cause.64

In addition, given the circumstances of the Prophet’s mission, a large body of written documentation was not warranted. In this context Rahman avers: . . .

 that the Prophet, who was, until his death, engaged in a grim moral and political struggle against the Makkans and the Arabs and in organising his community-state, could hardly have found time to lay down rules for the minutiae of life . . . It was only on major policy decisions with regards to religion and state and on moral principles that the Prophet took formal action but even than the advice of his major Companions was sought and given publicly and privately.65

At this point in time, and for most of the first two centuries of the Islamic calendar, the nature of the concepts of the Sunnah and Qurʾān were essentially seen as a coherent whole existing in a unitary, symbiotic, hermeneutic relationship that Graham called the ‘Prophetic-Revelatory event’.66 Furthermore, the overall life and circumstances under which Prophetic embodiment of the Qurʾānic message manifested itself, as reflected in the Qurʾānic content itself, suggests that many Qurʾāno-Sunnahic principles were also socio-culturally and situationally embedded and are to be understood in terms of general ethico-religious principles rather than in a literal all-comprehensive manner.67 In other words, the Sunnah was conceptualised in values or objective-based parameters rather than an all-embracing source of positive law.68 It is because of these factors that there was no urgency and need felt for a large-scale written documentation of Prophetic words or deeds at this period of time in Muslim history.

taken from this academic article ( free PDF).

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