Press Release


SOURCES OF SIRAT (2) .(Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad) EARLY ISLAMIC TRADITIONS Next to the Quran are those traditions which, whether theological, exegetical or historical, have been transmitted by the Sahaba i.e., Companions of the Prophet to their Successors, i.e., the Tabi’in [1] Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, Vol.6, p.91. [2] The fact that the Holy Quran is not recorded or read in its chronological order does not destroy its value as an historical document. For, we know the order in which the different parts of it were revealed and can study it in its chronological as well as in its present order. [3] Sir William Muir, op cit, Introduction, p. 28. [4] Literary History of the Arabs, p. 143 and by the Successors to their successors, i.e. the Taba’ Tabi’in and by them to others and so until those traditions were committed to writing and protected for all time. The historical value of these traditions compared with the historical value of similar records of other peoples is very great indeed. The Prophet’s companions, stimulated by an extraordinary love and affection for their Master, were always on the look-out for anything the Prophet ever said or did. What they observed, they recorded – sometimes in black and white – in admirable word pictures unequalled by any other traditional record of this kind. The Hadith – as the Muslim traditions are collectively known in Islamic terminology – provides an amazing reading to this day. One cannot but wonder at the meticulous care and thoroughness with which those unlettered sons of the desert preserved everything, great or small, which the Holy Prophet said or did. They afford us today knowledge of the minutest details of the Prophet’s life and character. They tell us how the Prophet fulfilled his obligations towards God and man, how he heard the voice of God, and how he communicated it to others; how he prayed and how he fasted. They tell us how he conducted himself in peace and war, how he dealt with friend and foe, and how he treated those who were near and dear to him, or those who were strangers to him. We have in the traditions descriptions of his domestic life, of his relations with his wives and children, of how he conducted himself at home, and outside; how he would laugh and how weep; how he would walk and how stand up; how he would sit and how rise from his seat; how he would eat and drink; how he would work and how rest; how 6 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS he would sleep and how get up. The traditions contain the minutest details of all aspects of the Holy Prophet’s every day life. To turn over the pages of any of the Books of Tradition is to meet – on every page – with living pen-portraits of different aspects of the Prophet’s life. HOW WERE TRADITIONS RELATED AND RECORDED Each tradition mentions the last narration first, and then step by step it goes back from narrator to narrator until it reaches the Holy Prophet or some Companion of his. When a tradition goes back to the Holy Prophet it is called Hadith; when only to a Companion it is called Athar. Some authorities confine the term Hadith to only religious or exegetical traditions, calling historical traditions by the more general term Khabar. Be that as it may, all kinds of traditions have their varieties. The commonest of them assumes the form: “A related to me that he heard B who heard C say, that the Prophet of God said or did such and. such a thing when he and such and such persons were present.” This is the form which traditional narratives generally assume. Actually, of course, there are many different and slightly varying forms, and the great traditionists have discussed them all, assigning to each its value. But wha-tever the difference between form and form, there can be no doubt that the general mode of narration is both natural and safe. Every part of the chain which runs through it, can be singled out and examined and the whole makes a delightful human appeal, making us feel as though we were part of the company which witnessed the Prophet say or do something. As I pointed in the beginning, traditions as a repository of history existed even before Islam. The change they underwent with the rise of Islam was in their organization and systemtization, and this turned an inchoate mass of narratives into a Science of Tradition which led to the establishment of many subsidiary sciences. A systematic account of this science is not possible here, but an outline sketch of it may be presented as follows: EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL CRITERIA The fundamental criteria which determine the value of traditions are of two kinds – External. External criteria relate to the chain of narration, the medium through which a given tradition reaches us. .Internal criteria relate to the inherent plausibility of that tradition, of its subject-matter and of the circumstances in which the subject- matter is presented. The external criteria may be stated broadly as SOURCES OF SIRAT 7 follows:- (1) that the narrator should be well-known person; (2) should be truthful and honest; (3) should possess good understanding and (4) a good memory; (5) should not be given to exaggerating, omitting or constructing; (6) should have no personal interest in the tradition; (7) contact between two consecutive narrators should be possible as a matter of history or under the conditions in which they lived; (8) the chain of narration should be complete, with no breaks anywhere; (9) other things remaining the same, the value of a tradition should depend upon the character and reliability of the narrators who narrate it; (•10) similarly, other things remaining the same, the value of a tradition should depend upon the number of reliable narrators who narrate it. The internal criteria may be set forth, as follows:- (1) that a tradition should not conflict with any reliable contemporaneous record; accordingly, any tradition which conflicts with the Holy Quran will be rejected; (2) it should not conflict with any accepted established truth; (3) nor with any other tradition whose validity is stronger; (4) it should not pertain to a matter which could have had a number of narrators but which, nevertheless, has only one narrator; (5) it should not be impossible or extremely improbable. These are the criteria which Muslim traditionists established early in the history of Islam, and in terms of which they judged the traditions which reached them, and which they transmitted to others. No better 8 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS criteria could have been found. I do not mean to suggest that every one of the Muslim traditionists and historians paid the fullest regard to these criteria, but only that these criteria were generally adopted as canons of criticism by Muslim traditionists and that they were on the whole observed in their works. [1] For a fuller description of thse two kinds of criteria see Path al-Mughith by Hafiz Zainuddin ‘Abdur Rahim b. al-Husain, al-‘Iraqi; Al-Maudu’at by Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari; and Muqaddama by Ibn Salah. It is possible that temperamental peculiarities of individual collectors may have affected their judgment. One collector may have attached more value to one criterion and another to another. It is also possible that some, collectors may have been inspired unduly by.the ideal of comprehensiveness, and may have included in their collections traditions possessing only a degree of probability. It is also possible that some collectors may have lacked a proper measure of caution. Nevertheless, it remains true that both external and internal criteria were strictly observed by early Muslims, and the more careful among them observed those criteria very strictly indeed. The value which early Muslims attached to external criteria is acknowledged on all hands. But some European writers – and among them is Sir William Muir [1] – deny that Muslims observed the internal criteria of’ traditions. It is important therefore to present here examples of how internal criteria were observed by early Muslim traditionsists. First of all, let it be remembered that the Holy Quran itself inculcates the urgency of both external and internal evidence. Thus it says:- “If a person, who is a Fasiq i.e., an unrighteous person, brings you a report, then look carefully into it.” In this verse, the reference to a Fasiq or unrighteous person bringing a report points to the urgency of an external examination, and the instruction to look carefully points to the equal urgency of an internal examination of the report. Again it says:- “Surely they who fabricated the lie (against ‘Aisha) are a party from among you … Why did not believing men and SOURCES OF SIRAT 9 women when you heard it, think good of themselves and say, ‘This is an obvious lie’? … And why did you not say when you heard it, ‘It is not for us to speak of this. Praised be the Lord! This indeed is a mighty calumny’.” The verse clearly points to the importance of internal criticism of reports. The Companions of the Holy Prophet are here rebuked for not discrediting a report which clearly conflicted with .’Aisha’s established repute. A report was not to be credited merely because the narrators were apparently decent persons. It was to be judged and examined also in terms of its internal and inherent plausibility. Following this instruction in the Holy Quran we have a similar instruction in the Hadith. Says the Prop net:- “It is evidence enough of the untruthfulness of a person that he should relate, without examining, whatever he hears.” This tradition emphasises the need both of an external and internal examination. The words whatever he hears unequivocally point to the principle that a report does not become credible only because of its channel. It must also be-judged in the light of its own internal character. In fact, he who does not examine a report before passing it on to others is, according to this tradition, himself a liar. [1] Sir William Muir, p& cit, Introduction pp. 42.43 [2] The Holy Quran, 49:6 [3) The Holy Quran, 24:11-15. [4] Muslim, Vol. I, Chapter on “Don’ts about Traditions.” In short, both the Holy Quran and the Hadith require us to pay due regard to the internal as well as the external parts of the evidence. We meet with numerous examples in the Hadith which show that the Companions of the Prophet and those who came after them appealed to internal as well as external evidence. Often they rejected traditions, which were otherwise strongly reported, on the grounds that their internal character made them improbable. Thus we read in the Hadith:- “Abu Huraira relates that the Holy Prophet once said that the use of a thing cooked on fire, entails on the part of a Muslim the obligation to perform Wudu, upon which Ibn ‘Abbas, interrupting, asked, ‘Are we then to perform Wudu, 10 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS have taken boiled butter or oil, and after we have used warm water?” After recording this tradition, Tirmidhi, a well-known collector of Hadith, says that the great majority of Muslim theologians have taught and practised the principle that the use of things cooked on fire does not make Wudu obligatory. Thus a tradition proceeding from Abu Huraira, to whom we owe more traditions than to any other Companion of the Prophet, is rejected on the grounds of its inherent improbability. For, as has been argued, firstly there seems to be no apparent connection between Wudu and things cooked on fire or touched by it. And secondly, when we know that the law of Islam is generally based on the principle that religious duties should not be too hard to perform, how could the Holy Prophet have made Wudu obligatory merely on the use of a thing cooked on fire? On such grounds most traditionists and legists of Islam – in spite of the authority of Abu Huraira — have disregarded this tradition. It is not suggested here that Ibn ‘Abbas or any later traditionists disregarded it, even while they knew that it was a saying of the Prophet. What is suggested here is that according to them Abu Huraira must have misunderstood what the Holy Prophet said, or what the Prophet said must have had only a limited or passing significance. The incident, however, is an example of how a tradition, strongly supported by external testimony, is rejected because of its internal weakness. If traditions reported by a companion of the character of Abu Huraira, who possessed a wonderful memory, are liable to be turned down, because of internal defect, how can Muir or any other Orientalist say that Muslims paid regard only to the external evidence of traditions, and neglected the urgency of examining their internal character? In another tradition we learn:- “Abu Ishaq said that once he and Aswad b. Yazid were sitting together when Sh’abi said that Fatima b. Qais had reported that when she was divorced by her husband, the Holy Prophet did not let her have a house or maintenance, upon which Aswad threw a handful of pebbles at Sh’abi and declared, ‘Do you tell us this whereas ‘Omar hearing the same story said that he could not. give up the Quran and the Proophet’s own practice, merely on the basis of a. woman’s statement, about whom we know not whether she understood or remembered exactly what happened.” Here we find ‘Omar, the Prophet’s second Successor, rejecting the SOURCES OF SIRAT 11 report of a lady because it conflicts with the Quran and the practice of the Prophet, and his explanation is that the lady either did not understand or did not remember what happened. This is a clear example of the best of external testimony being ruled out by ‘Omar, on the grounds of its inherent lack of plausibility. All later Muslim authorities hold Fatima to be in the wrong and ‘Omar to be in the right. [1] Bukhari, Chapter on ‘ Non-obligatory prayers’. According to yet another Hadith:- “Mahmud b. al-Rabi’ says that he heard ‘Itban b. Malik say that the Holy Prophet once said that whoever truly recited the Kalima, i.e. the the Muslim formula of faith, would be saved from hell-fire; but that when he (Mahmud) related it to a company including Abu Ayub Ansari (a Companion of the Prophet), the latter rejected the tradition saying ‘By God I cannot think the Holy Prophet could ever say such a thing’.”7 Here Abu Ayub Ansari rejects an Hadith which is quite sound as far as external testimony is concerned, on the grounds that it does not fit in with his standard of internal probability. It is possible that Ayub’s reasoning was at fault or that he did not understand the significance of the words of the Holy Prophet, but there can be no doubt that this tradition clearly proves that the Companions of the Prophet did not credit traditions merely because externally they were correctly reported. They, required them besides to stand an internal examination. According to yet another tradition:- “Ibn ‘Abbas says that ‘Omar used to say that the Holy Prophet said that crying over the dead brought chastisement to the dead. Ibn ‘Abbas further said that after ‘Omar died he related this tradition to Aisha who said,’ God forgive Omar! By God the holy Prophet said nothing of the kind. He only said that if the descendants of a kafir (i.e. an unbeliever) cried over his dead body, their action tended to augment his punishment,’ and by way of augment ‘Aisha also said, ‘Sufficient for us is .the saying of the Quran: Verily no soul can bear the burden of another’.” The importance attached by early Muslims to internal probability is 12 . REVIEW OF RELIGIONS obvious from this Hadith, in which ‘Aisha rejects a tradition attributed to ‘Omar, the second Khalifa, not by citing just another tradition but by pointing to its own unconvincing character in the light of a verse of the Holy Quran. Whether ‘Aisha was right or wrong is quite another matter. My concern here is only to expose the utter futility of the charge that early Muslims did not question traditions so long as they were well reported. For, as would appear from the foregoing examples, they weighed even well-reported traditions in the balance of reason, and on the basis of this internal criterion many great Companions differed among themselves with regard to the value of certain traditions. LIMITATIONS OF INTERNAL CRITERIA Muslim’s records furnish other examples besides the four quoted above, but these four should suffice to prove that right from the days of early Islam traditions were tested in terms both of their internal reasonableness and of their external reliability. There is ample evidence that early Muslim authorities made liberal and honest use of internal criteria. Thus the difficulty which Muir and others have raised has no foundation in fact. If, however, the idea is that internal reasonableness should have a priority over external testimony in all cases, and that a tradition, however well reported, must^e rejected only because it does not seem plausible to come, then I must say at once that such a course, however, strongly advocated by some European scholars, would be both wrong and dangerous. For, however important the criteria of internal plausbility may be, they involve two serious dangers which must be carefully guarded against. Firstly, the use of such criteria depends on argument and deduction, and these admit of wide differences. Secondly, what is called plausibility usually takes ‘account only of past experience and information. But experience and information keep growing and new facts are daily added to the old ones. To bind ourselves to past experience is, therefore, to block the way to new knowledge. [1] Bukhari, Chapter on ‘Non-obligatory prayers’. [2] Bukhari, Kitab al-Janaiz, Chapter, ‘Wailing over the dead’. The criteria of internal plausibility are thus not an unmixed and unqualified good. One may hastily reject a tradition, because according to him it is in conflict with the Quran; yet it is possible that another may not find it in conflict with any verse of the Quran, and may interpret the Quran and the Hadith in such a way that no conflict is left between the two. Similarly, one may reject a tradition because it is against established truth; yet it is possible that according to another SOURCES OF SIRAT 13 the established truth may not be so well established. Still again, one may judge a tradition to be against human experience, and yet it is possible that another, whose experience has been wider or different, may judge it to be quite in harmony with human experience. It follows, therefore, that to stress plausibility always and under all circumstances is not only unreasonable, but calculated to jeopardise the intellectual advance of mankind. The attempt to do so is evidence of a cramped and confined outlook, and if blindly pursued it would only give a setback to human knowledge. If the early traditionists and historians of Islam had acted upon it to the extent to which Muir and others with that they might have done, we should have lost a great part of the very important and useful material which we possess today on the life of the Holy Prophet. Different writers would have found different traditions repugnant to their own ideas of plausibility and reasonableness and would have each discarded a number of traditions. And yet much of what they would have discarded need not have been unreasonable at all. Many things which appear to us to be unintelligible at one time turn out to be intelligible at another. The only just course for early Muslim historians, therefore, was to base their works primarily upon reported traditions, but at the same time to test those traditions in terms of their internal and intrinsic reasonableness. If they had not done so they would not have left behind those vast treasures of Tradition which we now possess. But for their care in recording properly-reported events and utterances, we would not have had the opportunity to employ today their own good principles in order to separate the grain from the chaff of historical material on the subject of early Islamic history. RECORDING OF TRADITIONS A tradition is a tradition whether it is oral or recorded, and many traditions of early Islam have come to us by oral transmission. But, at the same time, some traditions were committed to writing in the very beginning. Some narrators, not trusting their memory, would take down whatever was narrated or reportd to them. They would read to others from these written records, and the practice of reading only enhanced the value of their records. With the spread of culture and the wider use of the art of writing, the number of those who wrote down what they heard naturally increased. When the present Books of Tradition began to be colle’cted about the second century of the Hijra, the practice of committing traditions to writing had become well established. Oral transmission had given way to reading traditions from well-kept records. But as in accepted legal practice of 14 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS all times, the present not expected, written documents have to be supported by oral evidence. Muslim traditionists, therefore, did not distinguish between oral and written traditions. There can be no doubt, however, that our present collections of traditions include a fair proportion of traditions which were recorded from the very beginning. To demonstrate this, it is enough to cite examples of the Holy Prophet’s Companions who recorded traditions as soon as they were reported to them. For if we can prove that traditions were recorded even in the days of the Companions, when the art of recording was not so widespread, we can very safely assume that this practice must have increased very considerably with the extension of that art in subsequent times. As recording became less and less difficult, it must have been adopted more and more widely as a means of conserving traditions. Apart from the emphasis which the Quran lays on the importance of writing down all contracts, agreements, sales, [1] etc., which ( [1] The Quran, 2:282 ) must certainly have impressed the Companions with the importance of writing down every thing of value, the first significant tradition in this connection is the one in which the Holy Prophet is himself reported to have urged the importance of writing on those who could not trust their memory. Thus we read in Tirmidhi:- “Abu Huraira relates of a citizen of Medina who came to the Holy Prophet and said that he heard things from him which he could not remember, upon which the Holy Prophet told him to bring his right hand to his aid, meaning that he should commit the traditions to writing.”1 It thus appears that at times the Holy Prophet himself urged the importance of writing on those who possessed weak memory. This instruction by the Holy Prophet must have led a number of literate companions to record their traditions. It must at least have led the one, whom the Prophet addressed, to take up that advice.