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Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins

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 Method And Theory In The Study Of Islamic Origins
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Herbert Berg
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Following the work of Goldziher and the research of the scholars who further developed his ideas such as Schacht and others, this article explores the Islamic tradition (Hadìth) as texts that reflect the ideas and the beliefs of the Muslim scholars who produced and circulated them.

These ideas and beliefs, conceived in the first era of Islam and shaped by various influences, were projected backwards in time in order to provide them, by means of chains of transmitters (isnàds), with the authority of the people considered by the Muslim com- munity to be the founders of Islam.

The ultimate spiritual, moral and religious authority in Islam, who came to be identified and recognized by the community as its founder and lawgiver, is the Prophet Mu˙ammad. He is considered to be the founder of the oral law, the Sunnah, which regulates the believer’s everyday life. This law is referred to in the Islamic tradition as sun- nat rasùl Allàh or simply as sunnat Mu˙ammad.

Yet, other figures, the companions of the Prophet (ßa˙àbah), came also to be recognized in the Islamic tradition as authorities and law- givers. It is not unusual for companions of the Prophet to be credited with a sunnah of their own.

Thus, Abù Bakr, together with ‘Umar, is credited to have a sunnah, and the Prophet is said to have urged the believers to abide by it, saying: “Follow the example (iqtadù) of those who will come after me, Abù Bakr and ‘Umar.”2 In other tra- ditions we find expressions like “sunnat Abì Bakr al-ràshidah al-mahdìyah” (i.e., Abù Bakr’s rightly-guided sunnah),3 or “sunnat Abì Bakr aw

aw ‘Uthmàn aw ‘Alì” (i.e., the sunnah of each one of the ràshidùn, the four rightly-guided caliphs).4 Morever, the Islamic tradition frequently refers to sunnat ‘Umar, the topic of this article.

This brings to question whether there was a conflict in early Islam between Mu˙ammad’s authority and the authority of others. This issue was raised by Crone and Hinds in their God’s Caliph, in which caliphal law is set up against prophetic law.

The authors’ thesis is that while the caliphs, beginning with the Umayyads, saw themselves as the sole lawgivers of the Muslim community, calling themselves and being addressed as “the caliphs of God” (khulafà” Allàh), the Muslim scholars maintained that the sole lawgiver is Mu˙ammad, and therefore in their view the caliphs were only successors of the Prophet (khulafà” rasùl Allàh).

 Crone and Hinds listed the caliphs who were addressed, especially in the court poetry, as caliphs of God beginning with ‘Uthmàn b. ‘Affàn, the third successor to the Prophet.5

As for ‘Umar b. al-Kha††àb, the second successor, he was “classified” by the authors as the “mouthpiece” of the Muslim scholars, and therefore could hardly be involved in a conflict of authority with the Prophet.6 This article aims to identify and describe some traditions that deal with conflicts of authority in early Islam between the Prophet Mu˙am- mad and his most domineering and formidable successor, ‘Umar b. al-Kha††àb, especially regarding their images as founder of the Sunna.

‘Umar b. al-Kha††àb, the second rightly guided (ràshidì) caliph, is often portrayed in the Islamic tradition as a primordial instigator and initiator of the revelation of several Qur”ànic verses. According to several traditions, ‘Umar is supposed to have formulated an opinion on his own or behaved differently from other people, and God confirmed this opinion or behavior by revealing Qur”ànic verses.

These verses came to be known as muwàfaqàt ‘Umar, the agreements of ‘Umar (with God). This status is an important aspect of his image as an ideal leader privileged with God’s grace. Yet, ‘Umar’s religious and moral authority includes not only his role in shaping the content of the Holy Book (i.e., the written law) but also his role as a founder of the oral law, the Sunnah.

More than any other companion of Mu˙ammad, ‘Umar is priv- ileged with traditions portraying him as the sole model by whom to abide. This is evident from an utterance attributed to the famous exegete Mujàhid b. Jabr (d. between 100/718 and 104/722): “When people differ on any issue, look for ‘Umar’s doing and abide by it” ( fa-nΩurù mà ßana’a ‘Umar fa-khudhù bi-hi ).7 A similar saying is attrib- uted to ‘Àmir al-Sha’bì (d. 103/721 between 109/727).8

One may ask why Mujàhid or al-Sha’bì did not refer to the supe- rior model of the Prophet and chose that of ‘Umar instead. A likely answer is to be found in traditions where ‘Umar is portrayed as the only companion whose status as founder of the Sunnah set him up as a competitor to the Prophet himself, considered to be the most natural founder of the Islamic law.

Thus, a thorough analysis of the material related to ‘Umar as founder of the Sunnah may add a new dimension to his image, shaped as the ultimate religious and moral authority by the early Islamic tradition.

One opposed to the other: Farewell sermons

‘Umar and the Prophet are portrayed in farewell sermons attributed to each one of them, as founders of opposite sunnahs. Close to their deaths, and after having performed a last pilgrimage to Mecca, both are said to have delivered a farewell sermon. In these sermons, both delivered to the Muslims their moral and religious last will.

Mu˙ammad delivered his sermon at the height of the ˙ajj where he established the ritual ceremonies and bade the believers farewell (˙ajjat al-wadà’ ).9 There are several versions of this sermon.10 The circulation of these many versions points to the possibility, as already

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