• Book Title:
 Hadith Origins And Developments
  • Book Author:
Harald Motzki
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Hhadith Origins  and Developments

Muslims USE the term hhadith (literally: “report”) to denote, on the one hand, a tradition about the prophet Muhammad or one of his Companions (the şa aba, sing. şa abı) ,1 and on the other, the whole corpus or the genre of such t rad it ions. 2 A complete hadith consists of a text ( matn) and infor­ mation about its path of transmission (isnad, literally: “support”), i.e. a chain of transmitters through which the report is traced back to an eyewit­ ness or at least to an earlier authority.

The form of hadith is also typical for reports about persons who lived later than the Companions, and the questions that arise in connection with the If hadith apply also to them.

The contents of hadiths are diverse. They report historical events in the life of the Prophet, the first caliphs or other Companions; they also provide information about opinions or actions concerning issues of belief, ritual, law, ethics, the Qur’an and its interpretation, and so on.

Therefore, hadiths are not only found in the so-called hadith collections, but also in compilations devoted to the life of the prophet Muhammad (sıra and maghazıliterature), in accounts of early lslamic history, in works on the exegesis of the Qur’an, in juridical treatises, and in biographical dictionaries.

Since the last-mentioned topics are dealt with elsewhere in this series, this volume will focus only on research on If hadith in general. Yet the boundary is artificial, since studies on If hadith, even if they purport to be general, are often based on a specific type of tradition.

The choice of the articles in this volume was made several years ago, and in the interiın six articles have had to be t ra nsla t ed3 and the entire work edited, printed and indexed. it was thus not possible to include very recent articles that might have fitted into this collection. The idea guiding the choice of articles was, first, to collect studies of interest from a methodological perspective and, second, to provide an overview of the development of hadith research published by scholars trained in the Western academic tradition.4

Origins and Transmission of the hadith


What the hadith is, how it was transmitted, and who the most important transmitters and authors of collections were, was known in Europe by the seventeenth century at the latest .5 Even so, the genuine scholarly study of this subject began only in the nineteenth century.

A prerequisite was the blossoming of the study of history in general and the growing interest in other cultures encouraged by the colonial expansion of the European powers. lnterest in Muslim religious literature was further stimulated in the nineteenth century by developments in Christian theology, the appearance of historical-critical studies on the life of Jesus, and the rise of a source-critical approach to Bible studies.

it was thus no coincidence that the first studies of If hadith were written by scholars who were concerned first of all with the project of a historical­ critical biography of the prophet Muhammad. They realised that next to the Qur’an, the Tradition was the most important source far the life of the Prophet and the history of early lslam.6 This finding compelled them to investigate the historical reliability of this source, and in this they were fallowed by scholars who were interested in the religious and legal ideas and institutions of early Islam and who alsa realized the importance of the hadith far these issues.

The first decisive Western studies on Hadith, which were all published in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, described their subject more or less as fallows. it was only natura! that the person, words and deeds of the Prophet and founder of the new religion were central topics of conversation already during his lifetime.

This custom continued and even intensified after his death, not only because of fascination and respect far the departed but above all because the Qur’an proved to be insufficient as a source of guidance far the practical life of the community as it spread beyond the confines of Arabia. The gap was filled by referring to the Prophet ‘s decisions and example, his sunna (“ha bit” ). 7 Muslims therefore tried to gather ali the information about their Prophet that they could find; where required, they invented precedents and ascribed them to him. 8 Semi-professional story­ tellers alsa contributed to the considerable stock of hadith that were al­ ready circulating in the first lslamic century. The content of the traditions was mostly preserved by memory and transmitted orally. Nevertheless, al­ ready during the Prophet’s lifetime, and then after his death, a few persons wrote hadith down and preserved them in this form, although there was a marked opposition against this practice.

At the end of the first/seventh century, initiatives of the caliphs and personal motives induced professional transmitters to collect a large part of the hadith then available and write them down. These scholars passed the content of their collections on to their students, mostly in the form of lectures.

The pupils took notes based on these lectures and later passed  this material on to their own students. in this manner the compilations of the most important collectors were pre­ served, but unfortunately, no remains of the actual collections made before the middle of the second/eighth century have survived to the present day.9 in the course of the following centuries the stock of hadith grew through col­ lection and fabrication and found expression in more and more voluminous cam pilations.ıo

in view of this system of transmission, which was essentially oral, though partly supported by written notes, the opinion of the first Western scholars concerning the historical reliability of the Jf hadith was ambivalent.

On the one hand, they accepted as genuine part of the traditions of the Prophet (e.g. those that were generally recognized by Muslim scholars because of their impeccable isniids) as well as several reports about his Companions and other individuals of the first/seventh century and the beginning of the second/eighth (e.g. those relating their views on the issue of writing down hadith or about their notes and notebooks), although it was conceded that  these may have been somewhat distorted during the transmission process.11

On the other hand, Western scholars assumed that the vast majority of l:ıhadiths circulating in the third/ninth century and growing even thereafter comprised the results of invention and forgery.12 According to the opinion of these scholars, two factors contributed to the distortion and falsification of traditions:

  1. For more than a century material was primarily communicated through oral transmission. During this phase the quality of transmission was dependent not only on the memory of individual transmitters, but also on latent bias, i.e. influences conditioned by the development of the Muslim community that unconsciously had an effect on how the transmitters understood and handed down what they had received. 13
  2. Political and religious strife within the community could lead to the falsification of existing traditions and to the invention of new ones.14


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