By Dr. Adis Duderija, NewAgeIslam.com
(University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies)
This writing is an excerpt from an academic article written by this author which traces in a chronological manner the development of the concept of an ‘authentic hadith’ in relation to the concept of Sunna during the first four generations of Muslims to show that Sunna was independent of the concept of an authentic hadith as defined by classical hadith sciences ( ulum-ul hadith). The full article can be downloaded here (http://d.yimg.com/kq/groups/14748388/1169442967/name/ALQ_023_04_03_Duderija.pdf )with full references for those who are interested.
Its aim is to provide counter arguments to those who claim that hadith were from the very beginning of Islam the only or adequate embodiment and means of perpetuating Sunna and as such they can be used as sources of Islamic law and beliefs. For the purposes of this article we will define an authentic hadith by following the classical muhaddithun definition i.e. as a written report going through an uninterrupted chain of transmitters ( isnad) back to the Prophet with all of the people involved in its transmission being of sound character and good memory and being , at each level of isnad, contemporaries of each other.
1.Ḥadith at the Time of the Prophet: Extent, Nature and Importance
According to Schoeler, it is difficult to determine accurately the extent to which early transmission of tradition was oral or written in nature. However, Souaiaia has recently convincingly argued that orality has from the very genesis of Islamic thought been the primary medium for preserving authentic transmission of knowledge primarily in form of solitary reports.
These solitary reports were firstly transmitted orally and later put in writing in the form of small, somewhat more comprehensive, collections. Hallaq’s view that the number of Ḥadith up to the end of the first century were “insufficient to constitute the basis of a substantial doctrine of positivelaw”, can be used as one approximate measurement of the extent of the written material during the first century of Hijrah.
We argued elsewhere ( including an article published on this website) that the practical, non-written embodiment of Prophetic actions, such as the ritual prayer, were adopted by the Muslim community in Medina and could be perpetuated from one generation to another simply by means of copying and repeating of actions (that is without relying on written-based sources). This is how most Muslims have learnt to perform their prayer even to this day. The practical perpetuation of Sunnah was, however, not the only way the Sunnah was transmitted. Elsewhere I also argued that other non-ʿamal ( i.e.practical) -based constituents of Sunnah, namely ethico-religious (Sunnah akhlaqīyah), principal or value-based Sunnah (e.g. Sunnāt al-ʿadīla or jarāt as-sunnah), and reason- compliant Sunnah could also be formulated, preserved and transmitted independent of any written documentation.
However, this does not mean that no written documentation of Sunnahic precepts and practices existed. The Prophet, as an ultimate authority and spiritual figure with the highest prestige among his devout followers, was always at the centre of attention in the Muslim community of Medina.
The general body of written literature as a whole concerning the Prophet, such as the sira, maghazī and Ḥadith texts demonstrates that those close to him were eager to spend as much time in the Prophet’s company observing his actions, asking for his advice and, in their absence from the Prophet, wishing to find out what he did and said often in an ad hoc manner. Thus, it would be reasonable to argue that some written form(s) of proto-Ḥadith existed in the earliest days of the Muslim community, including the Prophet’s time itself.
Indeed, the works of Abbott, Sezgin and Al-Azami have argued with some success that, against those authorities who questioned the existence and writing down of Ḥadith during the earliest time of the Muslim community, the process of writing down proto-Ḥadith started during the Prophet’s own time. Regardless of the value of the work of these scholars, Goldziher’s following remarks express the reasonableness of existence of written recordings of Prophetic activity while the Prophet was alive:
There is nothing against the assumption that the Companions and disciples wished to keep Prophet’s sayings and rulings from being forgotten by reducing them in writing” and that “it can be assumed that the writing down of Ḥadith was a very ancient method of preserving it.
At the time of the Prophet, writing down the Ḥadith, however, was rather a random and individualised undertaking. The number of Ḥadith must have been rather limited, for Rahman writes, “the only need for which it [Ḥadith] would be used was the guidance in the actual practice of the Muslims and this need was fulfilled by the Prophet himself.” Similarly the actual nature and concept of Prophetic authority as a whole, in fact, was not conducive to proliferation of Ḥadith. In this context, Rahman points out that:
. . . the overall picture of Prophetic biography—if we look behind the colouring supplied by the Medieval legal mass-has tendency to suggest the impression of the prophet as a pan-legist neatly regulating the fine details of human life from administration to those of ritual purity. The evidence, in fact, strongly suggests that the Prophet was primarily a moral reformer of mankind and that, apart from occasional decisions, which had the character of ad hoc cases; he seldom resorted to general legislation as a means of furthering the Islamic cause.
In addition, given the circumstances of the Prophet’s mission, a large body of written documentation was not warranted. In this context Rahman avers:
. . . that the Prophet, who was, until his death, engaged in a grim moral and political struggle against the Makkans and the Arabs and in organising his community-state, could hardly have found time to lay down rules for the minutiae of life . . .
It was only on major policy decisions with regards to religion and state and on moral principles that the Prophet took formal action but even than the advice of his major Companions was sought and given publicly and privately.
At this point in time, and for most of the first two centuries of the Islamic calendar, the nature of the concepts of the Sunnah and Qurʾān were essentially seen as a coherent whole existing in a unitary, symbiotic, hermeneutic relationship. ( I will explain this in another article )
Furthermore, the overall life and circumstances under which Prophetic embodiment of the Qurʾānic message manifested itself, as reflected in the Qurʾānic content itself, suggests that many Qurʾāno-Sunnahic principles were also socio-culturally and situationally embedded and are to be understood in terms of general ethico-religious principles rather than in a literal all-comprehensive manner. In other words, the Sunnah was conceptualised in values or objective-based parameters rather than an all-embracing source of positive law. It is because of these factors that there was no urgency and need felt for a large-scale written documentation of Prophetic words or deeds at this period of time in Muslim history.
2.Ḥadith at the Time of the Companions and Earliest Successors: The Extent, Nature and Importance
With the death of the Prophet, Ḥadith attained a semi-formal status. The main purpose of Ḥadith, as mode of Sunnahic transmission, was, according to Rahman, for practical reasons “as something, which could be generated and be elaborated into the practice of the community”.70 Its random writing down marked the development of Ḥadith during this period of time in simple notebooks usually referred to as ṣaḥīfa/ṣuḥuf. Nonetheless, judging by their own involvement in making decisions based upon them, the importance given to Ḥadith at the time of the Caliphs was not great. Juynboll asserts that:
It is safe to say that Abu Bakr, the first caliph, cannot be identified with Ḥadith in any extensive way. This may show that during his reign examples set by the prophet or his followers did not play a decisive role in Abu Bakr’s decision making. With regards tosecond Caliph’s [Umar] use of word Sunnah ‘the term is usually use to mean: the normative behaviour of a good Muslim in the widest sense of the word’ [rather than aḤadith]. In case of the Uthman’s [third Caliph] view of Ḥadith in conducting of community’s affairs Uthman seems to have relied solely on his judgement.
From all the different sources on which the juristic decisions of Ibn Abbas’s (d. 68) disciples such as Ata b. Abi Rabah were based, only a small number of Prophetic Ḥadith were used.
By the same token, the importance given to Ḥadith during the entire period of the Umayyad Caliphate (ending in 132 AH/750 CE) was marginal phenomenon’. The early religious epistles studied by Van Ess and Cook, suggest that the term Sunnah “has nothing to do with Ḥadith” and that in them Ḥadith are rarely, if at all, cited but that this “lack of Ḥadith did not betray any hostility towards the notion of Sunnah”. Again, these statements must be understood in the context that the understanding of the word Sunnah at that time, as we demonstrated earlier, was ethico-religious in nature, permitting a large scope for exercising of one’s own judgement so that Ḥadith was “interpreted by the rulers [of that time] and the judges freely according to the situation at hand.” An indication that practice-based, non-written Sunnah was considered superior to that of Ḥadith is found in the chapter of Iyad’s book entitled On What Has Been Related from the First Community and the Men of Knowledge Regarding the obligation of Going Back to the Practice (ʿamal) of the People of Medina, and Its Being a Conclusive Proof (hujja) in Their Opinion, even if it is Contrary to Ḥadith (al-athar).”
Elsewhere Iyad notes that Umar Ibn al-Khattab [second caliph] once said on the mimbar (pulpit), “By Allah, I will make things difficult for any man who relates a Ḥadith which is contrary to ʿamal.” Another factor which leads us to conclude that Ḥadith literature did not enjoy a great deal of importance in legal matters, and that it was quite restricted in scope in the first century, is the fact that the nature of legal literature from that period deals overwhelmingly with issues that the Qurʾān addresses directly such as inheritance, marriage and divorce, injury and compensation, rather than those aspects of the Prophet’s life that were not directly alluded to by the Qurʾān. J. van Ess’ examination of first century Muslim literature led him to conclude that the use of Ḥadith and their importance in these works was practically non-existent.
The earliest indications that Ḥadith literature was spreading are the stories about the faḍāʾil (merit) of the Companions which are likely to have originated during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, that is during the first two years after the Prophet’s death giving rise to what can be termed as politically motivated Sunnah. Another genre of early Ḥadith literature is the awāʾil/anecdotes of the quṣṣās (preachers) originating at about 40 AH.
The subject matter of these Ḥadith/stories predominantly dealt with edification of the Prophet and the first generation Muslims termed tarhīb wa targhīb. Another early genre of written literature to emerge was that ofrudimentary tafsīr which was, however, not recorded during the Prophet’s time. The ḥalāl–ḥarām genre of Ḥadith (i.e. those which have a legal value) “must have been extremely limited in scope and were mainly the products of individual judgement on the part of the first legal minds Islam produced.”
In terms of isnād development, the second element in the ‘authentic Ḥadith’ equation, is only towards the end of the period under examination (70 AH) that the first consistent usage of isnād was put into practice.
Modes of transmission were both oral and written in nature and included reading from a Ḥadith book by a teacher to students (samāʿa), reading by students from books to teachers (ʿard/qirāʾa) and written correspondence (wasīyah). Towards the end of this period, coinciding with the establishment of regional schools of thought and regional Sunnah, most of the Ḥadith were regional in character, having regional isnāds based on the Companion’s interpretation of Prophetic Sunnah. The isnād of Ḥadith stopped at the level of the Companions (or Successors) supporting the broader principle of the schools’ general concept that Companions were in the best position to internalise and be living proponents of Prophetic Sunnah.
This was reflected in their overall Sunnahic hermeneutic we referred to elsewhere as as-sunnah al-maʾrufa and/or regional Sunnah.
3. Ḥadith at the Time of Successors and Early Successors: Successors up until 130 AH; The Extent , nature and Importance
The previous discussion led us to conclude that most of the Companions and early Successors had died before the importance of ‘standardised Ḥadith’ came into being and that non hadith independent concept of Sunnah still enjoyed more credence than Ḥadith. The end of the first and beginning of the second century saw a significant growth of Ḥadith as a result of the talab ul-ʿilm/rihla phenomenon so that Ḥadith acquired more currency.
As argued elsewhere, two broad mechanisms were responsible for this development. Firstly, the general perception among some influential and reputable Successors that the expanding Muslim empire would becomeorganically detached from the Qurʾānic and Sunnahic teachings was becoming widespread. Secondly, a change in political fortunes and subsequent rise of the Abbasid dynasty (132 AH), which used the argument of being custodians of the Prophet’s Sunnah through his uncle’s cousin Abbas to justify and legitimise their political power, along with partisan tensions that emerged within the nascent Muslim community fighting for religious legitimacy, created an ever greater impetus for a more systematic collection of, and searching for, Sunnah in any form. These two trends resulted firstly in the practice-based , hadith independent concept of Sunnah being increasingly clad in the mantle of written-based Sunnah, and secondly in the development of more stringent mechanisms to establish its authenticity of written—especially in terms of the mode of its transmission, i.e. ʿulum-ul-isnād.
At this time, the largely regional character of the Ḥadith body of literature, due to increased inter-regional contact, now became ‘mixed’, that is, it consisted of local/regional and inter-regional Ḥadith. It is at this point in time that the scattered Ḥadith were now increasingly gathered together and compiled into books. Modes of Ḥadith transmission, apart from those already in operation, included munawalah (handing book to a student without samāʿa or qirāʾa), ijazah (giving permission to teach Ḥadith contained in a book) and wasīyah (entrusting a book for transmission).
Nonetheless, while the importance of Ḥadith was slowly gaining moreground, the transmission, compilation and normalization of Ḥadith was still not widespread at this point in time. For example, the first public statement containing a prophetic Ḥadith (without an isnād) for governmental
purposes was only instituted at the time of Caliph Al-Mahdi in the year 159 AH/776 CE. Moreover, Motzki argues in the context of the role and importance of Ḥadith as sources of legal doctrine in Mecca during the period under examination that: “Propheten-aḥādīth spielten als Rechtsquellen nur eine bescheidene Rolle”. Furthermore, most of the Ḥadith during this period were still going back to the Companions and Successors rather than to the Prophet himself and had incomplete chains of transmission.
Whilst it is difficult to accurately generalise the usage of isnād in all major centres of learning, the assertion by Motzki made in the context of the status of isnād usage in the Meccan School of jurisprudence during the first two centuries of Hijrah is likely to be indicative of the level of isnād development in general:
. . . im 1. Jahrhundert [war]die Angabe eines isnād ehe Ausnahme als die Regel [und] dass sich seit dem Begin des 2. Jahrhunderts aber der Gebrauch des isnād mehr und mehr durchsetzte. Das ist nur als eine Tendenz zu verstehen. ( in the first century the narrating of the isnad in hadith transmission was an exception rather than the rule....that the use of isnad started to become more prevalent in the second century Hijri but this is only to be understood as a general tendency)
4. Ḥadith at the Time of Successors up to and including Shafiʾi (130-200 AH): Extent, Nature and Importance
Above we have briefly noted the reasons for increased ‘Ḥadithification’ of the concept of Sunnah. We refer to these as the forces of traditionalisation that were responsible for the paradigm shift in the way in which not only the concept of Sunnah came to be understood but also the entire subsequent Islamic thought. The process of traditionalisation is defined here as those social, political and jurisprudential mechanisms that throughout the second century of Hijrah contributed to:
1. the gradual shift in formulation, preservation and transmission ofknowledge from the oral to the written mode in general and, as acorollary, the continued growth and proliferation of Ḥadith;
2.the increased perceived importance given to Ḥadith at the cost of the ethico-moral and ʿamal-based concept of Sunnah;
3. the absorption of practical and oral-based Sunnah into Ḥadith;
4. the increased application of Ḥadith in Qurʾānic and Sunnahic sciences such as tafsīr, ʿuṣūl-ul-fiqh and ʿuṣūl-as-sunnah including theology and ʿaqīdah; and
5. the development of hierarchical, literal legal hermeneutic models thatwere entirely textually based (i.e. based on the Qurʾān and Ḥadith) and the marginalisation of non-textually based epistemologicomethodological tools of Sunnah (and Qurʾān) such as notions about of raʾy and ijtihād.
However, this process of traditionalisation during the first half of the second century of Hijrah still did not appear to be dominant. For example, according to Motzki who analysed the content of Abdarrazaq’s (d. 211 AH) Musannaf which contains materials from Ibn Abbas (d. 68 AH) and his disciples, only 14% of Ibn Juraij’s (d. 150 AH) text collections were based on Prophetic aḥādīth, not all of which were considered binding but only those which were seen to be in accordance with the established Meccan tradition. In this context he argues that:
Propheten aḥādīth haben [daher] auch in der ersten Haelfte des 2. Jahrhunderts im mekkanischen Fiqh nur eine untergeordnete Rolle gespielt.
(Propthetic ahadith therefore also in the first half of the second century Hijri in Meccan fiqh were of marginal importance)
It is also worth mentioning that of those 14%, less then one half of the Ḥadith going back to the Prophet had a complete isnād and for those aḥādīth whose chain of narrators stopped at the level of the Companions had even a lesser number of complete isnād.
It is during the last half of the second century that the above-stated traditionalisation forces started to be felt more markedly. Therefore, this period can be rightfully described as a period of transition between regional non-Ḥadith-dependent concept of Sunnah and emerging concept of Ḥadith-based Sunnah. What was the attitude of major authorities on law towards this phenomenon, especially with regard to Ḥadith-based Sunnah proliferation?
When talking about the same period under examination in terms of Ḥadith-independent Sunnah, the opinion of Abu Yusuf was quoted as to his attitude with regard to the problem of ever-expanding Ḥadith literature. This methodology is also repeated in another passage found in Abu Yusuf ’s work al-Radd ʿalā Siyar al-Awzaʾi in which he states:
Ḥadith multiplies so much so that some Ḥadith are traced back through chains of transmission are not well known to legal experts, nor do they conform to Qurʾān and Sunnah. Beware of solitary Ḥadith and keep close to the collective spirit of Ḥadith
The use of words well-known is highly significant here because it suggests that the well-known Sunnah was still conceptually different from Ḥadith and was used as a methodological tool, along with the Qurʾān, to divorce Sunnah from Ḥadith.
Having examined the use of Ḥadith in Malik’s Muwatta, al-Shaibani’s Kitab al-Siyar and writings of Awzaʾi Rahman makes an important conclusion in saying that:
Awzaʾi regards the Ḥadith of the Prophet as being endowed with fundamental obligatoriness but the Sunnah or the living practice is of same importance to him. His appeals to the practice of the Community or its leaders are to judge from the extinct materials, the most regular feature of his legal argumentation. Malik adduces Ḥadith (not necessarily Prophetic Ḥadith) to vindicate the Medinise Sunnah but regards Sunnah in terms of actual importance, as being superior to the Ḥadith. As for Abu Yusuf and Shaybani, very few of whose legal Ḥadith go back to the Prophet at all, they interpret the Ḥadith with [a] freedom . . . The Iraqi school recognize the supreme importance of Ḥadith but the Ḥadith, according to it, must be situationally interpreted in order that law may be deduced from it.
Sadeghi makes a similar assertion by asserting that “for Abu Ḥanifa and Al-Shaybani not only were the Ḥadith not a primary source of law in practice but that they were also possibly not always binding in theory either.”
The importance given to what can be termed situational interpretation of Ḥadith in the light of the Qurʾān and well-known Sunnah was due to the formulation and projection of many theologico-politically sectarian and moralo-legal Ḥadith to that on to the Prophet himself that were taking place at the time. Many of these reports found their way into the Sahih Ḥadith books such as those complied by Bukhari (d. 256 AD) and Muslim (d. 261 AH). Also it is at this time that Musnād Ḥadith books came into existence. Musnād books contain Ḥadith which have uninterrupted chains of transmission up to the level of the Companions and are ordered according to the Companions’ names. As such, they were not collected with an aim of being used as tools for jurisprudentic purposes, as in the case of Bukhari and Muslim.
As we have seen from the above, this methodology of non-literal interpretation and conceptual differentiation of Sunnah and Ḥadith was still evident throughout most of the second century. Rather than accepting Ḥadith, even ‘authentic Ḥadith’, in an a priori fashion, the concept of assunnah al-maʾrufa was used, as a filter to distinguish between Ḥadith, which could potentially embody Sunnah, and those, which did not.
With regard to the development of isnād, it is during the third decade of the second century that birth of the ‘classical’ sciences of criticism of informants (rijal) started. In additional, it should be pointed out that the bulk of Ḥadith put into wider circulation took place at the level of Successors’ Successors early during the second century and, according to Juynboll, no foolproof method in terms of discerning authentic from inauthentic Ḥadith at the isnād level of Companions can be developed since the majority of Companions died prior to isnād science being systematically use and because of the fact that Companions cannot be considered responsible for their being included in isnāds
5. Ḥadith at the Time of Shafiʾi, Ahmed Ibn Ḥanbal and Beyond
The increase in volume and importance of Ḥadith in the theological and legal interpretation of the Qurʾān and Sunnah induced in the coming generations a frame-of mind in which it was expected that “ever new Ḥadith should continue to come into existence in new situations to face novel problems—social, moral, religious.” The champion and proponent of this Ḥadith-based Qurʾānico-Sunnahic hermeneutic was Shafiʾi.
Shafiʾi’s insistence on Sunnah being only in a written form with an authentic isnād going (in most cases) back to the Prophet diminished the value of the ijtihād–ijmāʿ element inherent in the concept of ʿamal- and oral-based Sunnah, and its overall importance in evolution of legal hermeneutic development, and substituted it with that of Ḥadith-based one. Noticing this conceptual shift in Sunnah, Rahman asserts that:
Whereas Sunnah was largely and primarily a practical phenomenon, geared as it was to behavioural norms, Ḥadith became the vehicle not only of legal norms but of religious beliefs and principles as well.
In other words, the largely ʿamal-based, ethico-religious or value-objective based and non-written-dependent concept of Sunnah that existed at the time of the first three generations of Muslims now became increasingly viewed as being qualitatively and quantitatively identical to specific, edified and static view of the Sunnah as reflected in proliferating Ḥadith.
This process was, however, not entirely complete. Shafiʾi madhhab indeed differed from the ʿahl-ul-hadith movement (as well as Ḥanafi and Maliki madhhab) spear-headed by Ahmed ibn Ḥanbal on several hermeneutic principles so that the former was described as semi-traditionalist whilst latter was referred to as traditionalist. Maliki and Ḥanafi madhahīb were usually referred to as rationalist.
Ibn Ḥanbal, the major proponent of ʿahl-ul-ḥadith movement’s purely Ḥadith-based Sunnahic hermeneutic restricted the scope of non-textual and non-literal interpretations of the Sunnah (and the Qurʾān) which still featured to some extent in Shafiʾi thought even further. His approach to the concept of Sunnah is clearly demonstrated in his treatise Tabagatul- Ḥanaabilah in which he states:
And the Sunnah with us are the aathaar (narrations) of the Prophet” (wa-s-sunnatu ʿindana atharu resulillah). Moreover, in terms of epistemologico-methodological value and interpretational tool of Ḥadith, Ḥanbal maintains that: “the Sunnah (i.e. athar/ Ḥadith) explains and clarifies the Qurʾān (wa-s-sunnetu tufassiru-l-qurʾaan) . . . there is no analogical reasoning in the Sunnah and the examples are not to be made for it” (wa laisa fi-s-sunneti qiyyas, wa la tudhrebu laha al-amthal).
Nor is it [Sunnah] grasped and comprehended by the intellects or the desires (wa la tudreke bi-l-ʿuquli wa la-l ahwaʾ).
Thus, Sunnah was epistemologically and methodologically self-identified with Ḥadith/athar and was considered as supreme commentary upon the already earlier discussed deutungsbeduerfigkeit of the Qurʾān.
This period also witnessed for the first time the ordering of Ḥadith books solely according to legal subjects going back to the Prophet, such as Bukhari’s and Muslim’s Ṣaḥīḥayn (pl. of Ṣaḥīḥ). The criticism of Ḥadith literature, however, has since continued so that the science of ʿulum-ulḥadith saw its efflorescence in the works of later authorities such as Al- Baghdadi (d. 463 AH), Al-Salah (d. 643 AH) and Al-Nawawi (d. 676 AH). It may therefore not come as a surprise to note that the most authentic Ḥadith compendia, such as those of Bukhari and Muslim, contain
Ḥadith that were subsequently identified as weak (ḍaʿīf ) or which did not fulfill some of the pre-requisites of authenticity for a Ṣaḥīḥ Ḥadith.”
The major juristic works of this time still did not exhibit the purely Ḥadith-based Sunnah hermeneutic. Indeed, Calder argues that all of the early Ḥanafi texts on law (based on the writings of Abu Ḥanifa, Abu Yusuf and Shaybani) Kitab-ul-ʿAsl or Mabsūṭ “displays a minimum quantity of Prophetic Ḥadith.” Additionally, “a real systematic interest in the hermeneutic argument based on appeal to Prophetic Ḥadith can hardly be demonstrated for the Ḥanafi tradition prior to the corpus of works ascribed to Al-Tahtawi (d. 321 AH).”
Calder’s analysis of Sahnun’s (160-240 AH) Mudawwana, a juristic work from the Maliki school of law, also lead him to the following conclusion:
Of material or literary forms which suggest that the law is hermeneutically derived from the Prophetic Ḥadith there are only hints throughout the Mudawwana . . . Prophetic Ḥadith are relatively few and it is difficult to accept that there was a widespread recognition of the authority of Prophetic Ḥadith for legal purposes. The same author based on the study of Muzan’s (d. 264 AH) Mukhtasar, a Shafiʾī school of law juristic composition, asserts that the author “refersto Ḥadith but rarely in full and never gives an isnād.”
Lucas in this context asserts that “prior to the mid-third century the majority of the material found in the sunnan books was not prophetic reports and consisted instead of sahabi and tabiʾi athar. . . .”
This article attempts to present a brief chronological analysis of the development of the Sunni Ḥadith literature and the concept of an authentic Ḥadith. The article has focused in particular on the question as to what extent the classical definition of the concept of Sunnah can be seen to embody the concept of Sunnah as it was understood during the formative period of Islamic thought.
In this context, theextent, importance and nature of Ḥadith literature as well as the developmental stages of an authentic Ḥadith, during the first four generations of Muslims, have been investigated. The findings presented herein suggest that the writing of Prophetic reports probably took place even during the Prophet’s time, although the conditions for its widespread writing, transmission and proliferation were not favourable, not only in relation
to circumstances surrounding the Prophet’s life but also on the basis of cultural preferences for oral transmission of knowledge. This led Juynboll to assert that the volume of Ḥadith literature remained very small during the first century. Moreover, its importance during this period of time as source of law against the regional concepts of Sunnah was negligible. A marked growth in the corpus of Ḥadith literature, although still not in its ‘authentic form’, took place from the middle of the second century. It was during this period of transition that an epistemologico-methodological shift in the concept of Sunnah was becoming ever more prominent. Consequently, this resulted in its more frequent semantic association with Ḥadith.
However, as Souaiaia demonstrated in relation to Islamic inheritance laws during the formative period of Islamic thought, spanning the first two and one half centuries or so, traditions from the Prophet in form of Ḥadith as defined by classical ʿulum-ul-ḥadith sciences could not alone produce an adequate framing of inheritance laws. As such, even towards the end of the second century, Sunnah and Ḥadith were seen as conceptually different terms. Due to his effort to bring more uniformity into the largely divergent legal theories in various regions of the Muslim empire, Shafiʾi was the first second-century-born jurist to narrow down the concept of Sunnah to that of an ‘authentic Ḥadith’ usually going back to the Prophet. This conceptual alteration in Sunnah provided by Shafiʾi was brought to its logical extreme, accepted and further consolidated by Ahmed ibn Ḥanbal.
It is his literal, decontextualised, reason-condemning bilā kaifa (‘without asking how’) approach to ‘authentic Ḥadith’ as sole repository, conveyer and ultimate interpretational tool of Sunnah that is implied by the muḥaddithūn’s classical definition of the concept of Sunnah which did not correspond to the way the concept of Sunnah was understood by the first four generations of Muslims but is still prevalent in the majority mainstream Muslim community.
Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.