October 30, 2003


The discussion of Luxenberg has reminded me of something I'd wanted to quote for some time -- from Farid Esack's work The Qur'an: A Short Introduction. I think I can launch into it without much of a preface:

As we have seen on our discussion of the Qur'an's createdness, the early centuries after the Prophet's demise were characterized by an enormous diversity of opinion on every conceivable political and theological issue and more often than not these were interrelated. As the Muslim empire expanded and brought along with it a host of complex legal and ideological issues both the Qur'an and the Sunnah became contested terrain in the various struggles for authority and legitimacy. The emerging orthodoxy both spearheaded and, in a sense, was the product of the attempts to define, gather, codify and authenticate the Sunnah of the Prophet. The various and often varying accounts of the Prophet's words, deeds and approval by silent consent multiplied rapidly and it is possible to find more than tens of thousands of hadith attributed to a Companion who was in his early teens when the Prophet died.

In a footnote, Esack adds,

Tens of thousands of hadith were, for example, attributed to Abu Hurayrah (d. 57 or 58/676-677), a Companion who had spent just three years in the company of the Prophet. Muhammad Mustafa al-'Azami estimates that there are about three quarters of a million hadith.

Earlier in the work, Esack distinguishes between the sunnah -- by which I think he means the precedents and, to some extent, the consensus reached under the four rightly guided Caliphs and the precedents set by the Prophet himself -- and the Sunnah, which were the precedents set by the Prophet himself (and, it seems, arrived at at some distance in time from the life of the Prophet). Esack explains the difference in style: "Al-Shafi' argued that the Sunnah -- which now gets a capital letter -- was to be regarded as co-equal to the Qur'an in authority "for the command of the Prophet is the Command of God." Al-Shafi' died in 819 CE and the Prophet in 632 CE -- by way of comparison, the present is equidistant from the year 1816. Esack goes on to write,

With Sunnah now equated with the sunnah of Muhammad and elevated to the level of a source of religio-legal authority, and with Hadith established as the only means to authenticate Sunnah, the various disputants attempted to justify their views and to strip their opponents of legitimacy on the basis of Hadith. This contributed to the emergence of both a corpus of Hadith literature and an entire science around it, much of it based on the growing informal hadith manufacturing industry.

He also adds this footnote:

Brown notes that the "extent of the forgery was dramatic. Forgers became active even during the life of Muhammad, in spite of the warning that whoever spreads lies about him would burn in hell. In the Caliphate of 'Umar, the problem became so serious that he prohibited transmission of hadith altogether. Forgery only increased under the Umayyads, the first dynasty of Islam that reigned from 661 until 750. They considered hadith a means of propping up their rule and actively circulated traditions against 'Ali in favor of Mu'awiyah [ibn Abi Sufyan (d. 680), the founder of the dynasty]. The Abbasids [who succeeded them] followed the same pattern, circulating Prophetic hadith which predicted the reign of each successive ruler. Moreover, religious and ethnic conflicts further contributed to the forgery of hadith. The Zanadiqah (those who professed Islam while holding Manichean ideas, as we are told by the heresiographers), for example, are reported to have circulated 12,000 fabricated traditions. The degree of the problem can be seen from the testimony of the muhaddithum themselves. Bukhari, for example, selected 9,000 traditions out of 700,000."

I found all this rather fascinating. It's also worth noting that Esack is a Muslim.

Posted by Ideofact at October 30, 2003 11:47 PM