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Tradition as Seen by the Muslim Faith, Yesterday and Today

What is Islamic Tradition ? Michel Cuypers answers on occasion of the Oasis International Foundation Committee. Venice, June 22-23 2009.

1- What is the Islamic Tradition?



The Islamic religion, in matters of faith as well as law, is based on two fundamental normatives: the Koran and the Tradition (Sunna). Although the Koran is the primary one in terms of divine revelation, the Tradition constitutes its inseparable complement in terms of exegesis and prophetic development. In fact, it contains the words and acts of the Prophet of Islam (the hadîth) as well as those of his Companions; in this way, it hands down the Prophet's teaching and lifestyle as well as those of the first generation of believers. In short, it is a living commentary to the Koran. The hadîth are said to have been collected by the Prophet's Companions and by some other people close to him (his wives and family) and then transmitted orally through a chain of transmitters (isnâd) through the generations, until they were consigned to writing by the hadîth collectors, or "traditionists".



The Constitution of a written body of traditions has been much slower and more uncertain than that of the Koran. After a first century of oral tradition, it is only in the 2nd century from the egira that, by order of caliph Omar II, the written compilation of the traditions was initiate But the great age of the compilations is the 3rd century from the egira: then the traditions are gathered into vast collections, two of which will be considered incontrovertible references in subsequent Islamic history: the Bukhârî (which includes 7.275 hadîth) and the Muslim (3.033 hadîth) collections, which will be called "the two authentic ones" (Sahihayn), as they contain only those hadîth which are considered authentic. In fact, along with the lively traditions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries from the egira, and to the purpose of collecting the maximum amount possible of hadîth from everywhere (Bukhârî is supposed to contain 600,000), an actual "hadîth science” has been constituted to set the rules which distinguish between authentic and apocryphal traditions, with a rigour able to counter any political, ideological or partisan clai We shall return to this later.



2- What the Tradition Represents for the Believers



Despite the fact that the Koran is the primary and fundamental source of the faith and the law, the Tradition is no less important in the organization of the Islamic faith and practice, since it is configured as an illustration of the norms and values of the Koranic revelation, taught and lived by the Prophet, the perfect model of the Islamic ideal which every believer strives to imitate. The believers feed incessantly on the Tradition, through which they feel a lively union with the founder of Islam. The Tradition literally forms their religious conscience. Worship, preaching and teaching continually refer to it. Together with the Koran, the Tradition constitutes an indispensable reference for the religious sciences. The Koranic exegesis is supplied with a wealth of interpretations and asbâb al-nuzûl, those “occasions of revelation” which explain the historic reasons whereby this or that particular verse was reveale It provides theological norms (kalâm) and canon law (fiqh). First of all, the Koranic norm is impose However, in the absence of a revealed norm, tradition is the authority. If the Tradition is not explicit on a particular topic, two other secondary sources of the law will be used (these have been differently accepted or rejected by different juridical schools, because of their human origin): community consensus (ijmâ‘, which poses some practical problems), and rational effort (ijtihâd, which, due to its subjective component, cannot be imposed to all). Tradition, however, also feeds, to an even greater extent, the Islamic collective imagination by supplying historical and cultural references and reviving the first, exemplary, generation of believers. It therefore plays an important role in the present re-islamization of the Muslim world, a world that is so anxious to revert to its original purity. In reference to this we must remark on the importance of the Sîra, the “Prophet's life”, written by Ibn Ishâq (151/678) and re-elaborated by Ibn Hisham (218/833). Despite it not being part of the corpus of the hadîth, this biography enjoys a quasi-canonical status, performing a considerable role in the believers' devotion towards the Prophet and the first Islamic community. While granting ample space to the Prophet's military enterprises, the Sîra also describes in detail his approach to daily life, so that his Sunna (“way”) can be used as a model for the believer in for his practical, moral and spiritual behaviour. Some Notes on Tradition in Sciism So far we have spoken about the Sunnite orthodox majority of Islam. Sciism too has its own tradition, although this does not refer to either the same body of texts or the same transmitters. The words and actions reported are not only the Prophet's but, more generally, those of the "people of the house" (Ahl al-bayt), that is, the Prophet, his daughter Fatima and her husband 'Ali, with their two sons Hasan and Husayn' and the subsequent Ima The transmitters must also belong to the Prophet's descent. The main collection of Sciite traditions is that of Kulayni ( 329/940), with more than 16,000 quotations.



3- The Critique of Tradition




a- Classic Methodology of the “ hadîth Science”


From the earliest attempts to put the hadîth into writing, Muslim scholars have felt the need to make sure of their authenticity. This need has given rise to a “hadîth science”. Above all, this has developed an external critique, centered on the validity of the transmitters' chain (isnâd). Some typical questions it poses are: have the different transmitters really been in contact, so as to be able to hand on the word through an uninterrupted chain, starting with the Prophet's Companions and so on, down to the compilers of the corpus? Were they morally and intellectually reliable? Were they perhaps serving a sectarian cause or an unorthodox policy? This science has therefore taken the form of a biographical study of all the characters included in the hadîth transmitters' chain; among them are the Prophet's Companions, i.e., the earliest witnesses. A classic of this genre, the Book of Classes (Kitâb al-tabaqât) by tradition scholar Ibn Saʽd (230/845), collects about 4,250 biographical notes!



The critique has arrived at a classification of the hadîth according to their greater or lesser validity, from the solid (or healthy) hadîth through to the good, acceptable, or passable ones, down to the weaker or the frankly false, apocryphal ones. The success of the Bûkhârî and Muslim collections depends precisely on the great number of 'solid' hadîth contained in them. The hadîth considered most 'solid' (and consequently unanimously accepted) are those transmitted identically by a number of Companions and through several chains of guarantors all in agreement with one another. Given a solid transmitters' chain, a traditionist would incline to include a hadîth, however implausible its contents. The internal critique essentially referred to the agreement between the tone (matn) of the text of a hadîth and the Koran. In the case of incompatibility between the two, the hadîth would, in principle, have to be considered false. A marginal school (Zâhirism) did not nevertheless hesitate to admit that a hadîth could actually abrogate the Koran, due to the inspired character of the Prophet's words (hadîth). A total inversion of the critical method will only take place with Ibn Khaldûn (1406), who attributes greater importance to the actual text of the hadîth than the transmitters' chain. «The latter method [validation of the isnâd] should not be used unless the report itself has been studied in order to understand whether the facts contained in it are plausible or not».



b. The Reformers and the Tradition



From the end of the 20th century two main attitudes to the critique of the Tradition can be distinguished. On one hand, some official institutions have perpetuated the classic position until the present day.



Let us quote a modernist Muslim author (Ali Merad): In many Islamic universities the role of the teaching body seems to be limited to ensuring the continuity of a knowledge validated by a sort of community consensus. As to the Tradition (as well as the Prophet's biography), the quasi-sacralization of the ancient authorities is the rule. To discuss these authorities and open new research paths means breaking with a cultural model which has worked for over a thousand years and which sends back to the Community the image of its own identity and its own social and cultural equilibrium, through continuity with its original sources.



On the other hand, there emerges a riformist current represented by Sayyid Ahmad Khân ( 1898) in India, al-Afghânî ( 1897) and Muhammad ʽAbduh (1902) in Egypt, and their disciples. In the name of faith's purity, for which God remains sole legislator, these thinkers admit only two normative sources in Islam, the Koran and the Tradition, therefore excluding consensus and ijtihâd. They submit Tradition to a more severe critique of the transmitters' chains and, above all, of the text itself. They only keep a small number of hadîth, thereby rejecting those traditions which are incompatible with reason or common sense. They value the model of the Ancients (the first three generations of muslims, the Salaf), to instil new dinamysm into religion, without, at the same time, locking it up into its past: their purpose is to let Islam find its own identity and independence in a modern and changing world.



Tradition After Reformism.



The reformist position seems to have evolved following two divergent directions: a legalist and conservative neo-fundamentalism and a more laical modernism which abandons the Tradition as its normative source. According to the former, the reformists' choice not to consider the two secondary normative sources (consensus and rational effort) leads to increasing the normative role of Tradition whilst also idealising the Salaf, or early transmitters of the traditions. As a reaction to modernity (of which only material progress is accepted) they withdraw into an identity whose model is an idealization of the original Islam. The Muslim Brethren (founded in 1929) are the main representatives of this tren For the latter, modernist trend, Tradition has lost its normative character: the authenticity of the majority of traditions, submitted to a more severe rational critique, is questioned (following renowned islamologist Ignaz Goldziher, 1921). As an alternative, only the ethical and spiritual aspects of it are retained, as wisdom and source of inspiration. The Koran therefore becomes the only really normative source of Islam. A Sola Scriptura situation, not without the influence of Protestant models (some modernists are often called Islam's “Luthers”).



This escape from the Tradition's meshes allows the hypothesis of a new exegesis of the Koran, now demanded by some Muslim intellectuals. The “occasions of revelation”, derived from the hadîth, no longer are the privileged method for interpretetion. A critical exegesis is now possible. The flipside of this 'open' position is that the modernist intellectuals are situated on the margins of the general current of Islam which remains strongly attached to the Sunna as a norm for faith and law organically connected with the Koran. We can therefore understand that the different conceptions of the Muslims on the subject of Tradition are at the heart of Islam's current crisis.



As a conclusion, I add two personal observations, derived from my personal research on the Koran:


1. The critical study of the Koran text leads to a totally different understanding of some of its verses from that developed throughout the centuries by the Muslim exegetic tradition. A particularly significant example is the so-called “abrogation” verse («We shall neither abrogate nor let you forget any verse without giving you a better or equivalent one» 2,106). This line has always been understood, in the classic exegetic tradition, in the sense that a Koran verse can abrogate another one with which it is found to be in contradiction (the abrogating verse is obviously supposed to be following, not preceding, the abrogated one). Once it is read in its literary context, it becomes absolutely clear that this verse is not about the abrogation of the Koran by the Koran but about the abrogation of certain verses of the Torah (not the entire Torah) by the Koran. The question is therefore shifted from Islamic law (what are the the Koranic norms abrogated by other, chronologically later, ones?) to the relationship between Islam and Judaism and their respective Scriptures. The theory of the Koran's self-abrogation developed by the law experts (fuqah⡯) has no foundation in the Koran.


2. The exegetic tradition of the Koran has always appeared to be extremely diffident towards any references to previous literature. Some of the Koran's early commentators had used “Hebrew sources” (isr⡯îliyyât) but these were subsequently rejected as suspicious because of a supposed falsification (tahrîf) of the Torah. In fact, since the Revelation is conceived of as God's direct dictatum, any resorts to scriptural antecedents become superfluous. In fact, today's study of the texts increasingly shows the close link between the text of the Koran and a whole cultural context which is extremely rich and variegated, whose knowledge reveals to be indispensable in order to understand all the semantic subtleties of the Koran's text.