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The Sayings of the Prophet and the Fortunes of Salafism

Although subject to different trends and assessments, the Hadīth continues to play a leading part in contemporary Islam, too. Preserved in the most prestigious medieval works, the most famous episodes in Muhammad’s life enjoy a fame comparable to some passages of the Qur’an and are cited and used in every context. They are an inescapable point of reference for every aspect in the life of believers and the community.

Alongside the Qur’an, Sunni Islam reserves a particular role to what the Prophet Muhammad did and said. These individual testimonies are called hadīths, the name being taken from an Arabic term meaning “account” or “story:” during the first centuries of Islam’s existence, the word caught on as a technical term designating the traditions that reported the Prophet’s deeds or sayings. In their totality, Muhammad’s sayings collectively constitute what is called the Sunna, another Arabic term meaning “custom” or “conduct.” Hence the concept of “Sunnis,” which derives precisely from the status reserved to Muhammad’s Sunna as the model of inspiration for believers.



The origins, authenticity and dissemination of the hadīths (ahādīth in the Arabic plural) have been subject to varying assessments both from Muslims and Western academics, who nevertheless have a common starting point: the absence of contemporary testimonies at the time of Muhammad (570-632) and the difficulties in finding one’s way through an almost unlimited literature that only compiles the prophetic traditions in any considerable number from the end of the second century after the hegira (c. 800 AD) i.e. almost two centuries after Muhammad’s death. This time gap and the absence of any preserved works dating back to the first generations of Muslims have sparked various debates and comments about the acceptability and historicity of these data and, above all, about the reasons why the words attributed to Muhammad assumed, alongside the words of the Qur’an, such importance in the construction of the Islamic tradition in the broad sense of the term.



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