Orientalists and hadith scholarship: some reflections

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Modern Western critical inquiry into texts carrying religious authority has been carried out on the assumption that those texts are of natural (this-worldly) origin and any claims of supernatural origin are simply mechanisms by which the religious authority of those texts is established and sustained. This approach is supported by the historical fact that the Christian scriptures came to be recognized as authoritative concurrently with the establishment of geographically dispersed and, to some extent, competing Christian communities. Only after one of the dominant communities had forged an alignment with the political authority of the Roman Empire did it become possible to settle on an authoritative canon of religious texts. This canon allowed for some variation in narrative and interpretation but, necessarily, it also excluded certain texts and interpretations and condemned them as heretical. The authority of the Church depended to a considerable extent on its monopoly of power to determine what was acceptable within the canon, and within that, what was an authorized interpretation and what was heresy. It is unlikely that this monopoly was exercised merely for the sake of maintaining their power – analogies with political ideology and the legitimization of political power cannot be appropriate for people whose primary concern was not to preserve their own power but to preserve their own and their community’s faith in their religion and to preserve the unity of the community. It makes a difference whether power is a primary or merely a secondary concern, whether it is an end in itself or merely a means. Nevertheless, modern Western critical inquiry adopts precisely this outsider’s or non-believer’s perspective and generally assumes that the Christian texts themselves and the way they were to be understood were a collective fabrication, analogous with the history-writing done for and by political rulers who wish to glorify, in the eyes of the people and of posterity, their own or dynastic achievement and their ideology.

Textual and stylistic criticism developed for the study of ancient texts was extended to religious texts from the late eighteenth century onwards. It was able to demonstrate layers of editing and other interventions in the religious texts. Then, by reference to established historical events and by comparison with written records and other materials of a non-religious provenance contemporary with those events, the critics were able to suggest possible dates for the various layers within the religious texts. In this way, they were able greatly to diminish if not destroy the authority of those texts. Some Christians responded by accepting some of the criticism and relocating their faith in Christianity as a religion without sound textual authority; others reacted by rejecting the criticism altogether and insisting on the literal truth of texts that were to be believed in even though they were no longer preserved in their original languages, and those languages themselves had long since fallen into disuse.

It is entirely predictable that modern Western inquiry into Islamic religious texts, including the Qur’an, should have proceeded by applying the same methods for the same purpose, to debunk their authority and to demonstrate that they were the result of human construction done for the purpose of maintaining the clerical class in positions of power and to prevent people from thinking for themselves and making their own determinations of what is good and bad, right and wrong. It is also predictable, given the history of Western attitudes to the Islamic world – roughly, five centuries years of (more or less) jealous fear of being overrun, five of jealous rivalry, and three of claiming (and demonstrating) military and cultural superiority – given this history, it is predictable that the effort to debunk and disprove Islam was done without any of the respectful tenderness or heartfelt irony that attended the debunking and disproving of Christian scriptures. Too often, in the heyday of Orientalist critique of the religious texts of Islam Western scholars dismissed Islamic scholarship about those texts with contempt as unworthy of consideration because that scholarship was ‘spoiled’ by being an insider’s perspective. Whatever Islamic scholars had to say, it was assumed, they said because they were believers, not because they had good scholarly reasons for saying that. So Orientalists prided themselves on professionalizing scholarship about Islamic texts and Islamic history by cleansing it of the stain of belief. They were able, without much shame or scruple, to report what Islamic scholars had written and then say what those scholars really meant, i.e. what they would and should have written if they had not been hindered by their being Muslims.

No doubt, an outsider’s perspective has value; but so too does an insider’s. It often happens that professional outsiders, precisely because they are professionals trained to think in a certain way – to constitute problems in the manner that will produce a certain kind of solution – miss very important elements of what they are looking at, and, even more commonly, miss important connections between those elements and others that are somehow beyond the scope of their professional interest and inquiry. The consequences can be not solutions to the problems being studied, but aggravating complications, making old problems worse or creating new problems. Perhaps a simple example from outside our subject will help to clarify what I mean. For professional urban planners and architects in the 1960s and 1970s, the problem of how to house lots of people cheaply in places where land was very expensive, was solved by building what they called vertical streets, that is, high towers in which the lifts and emergency stairs substituted for the space which connects houses built on the same level, i.e. the street. Insiders, that is, people who would have to live in this solution, were not consulted about it. Had they been consulted, the people would surely have told them that a street is more than a connecting space between homes. A street is also an outside-space which stands at a manageable distance from the inside-space of the home; moreover, this outside space is not only open to sky and weather but also connects directly in a manageable way to other streets and other amenities on the same level as the inside-space. By removing this manageable distance between inside and outside space, the high towers created new problems, social as well as psychological, for the families who had to live in them, problems which could have been foreseen if the professionals who came up with the vertical street idea had been open to the insider perspective and experience of living in a street. The professionals solved only the financial problem of housing units per square metre of expensive urban land. (The only positives from this experiment are that childless families, and those who enjoy being cut off from their immediate physical neighbourhood, either do not mind or actually like living in such high towers.)

In the time I have to speak today, I want to present the insider’s perspective on Islamic scholarship about the Islamic religious texts we know as hadith. I will argue that, in orthodox or Sunni Islam, the piety of the scholars did not significantly diminish their professional detachment as scholars, their duty to get and preserve accurate texts, nor did they make their arguments for the positions they adopted except on the basis of what is nowadays called “public reasoning”. That is a form of reasoning that can be applied after a particular position has been adopted to interrogate that particular position, and perhaps reach a different position, or remain in doubt and allow that different positions are possible. “Public reasoning” in Sunni Islam is reasoning that is free from mysterious or charismatic authority; it has usul, principles and methods, which can be learnt and taught by all. I will argue also that there are in Islamic history, as in the history of every comparable civilization, elements of scholarship and reasoning that suffer from the inertias that afflict both individuals and schools of thought, so that they prefer to be stuck with defending a position or school that is very hard to defend in the face of evidence and experience rather than they change their position. This inertia is not a function or consequence of being a believer; the same problem afflicts any way of thought that has stiffened up over time through institutionalization and professionalization of the relevant discipline. Where there is a lot at stake, and in religion there is more at a stake than in any other sphere where humans apply their minds, the inertia is strongest. But it is the same inertia as in other institutional systems, political or academic. On the other side, it can also be argued that where the non-religious systems acquire a pseudo-religious dogmatism, the inertia is more pernicious than in religious systems. In the religious sphere, provided the commitment to religion is strong and sincere, there is always the possibility of someone who considers him or herself as answerable to God, not to a school of thought about God, and who accordingly finds the authority to unblock hearts and minds. Islamic history has known many such revivers and renewers of the religion. Indeed, in certain respects, it could be argued that the first developments of hadith were the responses of believers to the problems they encountered ¬ namely, uncertainties and defects in thinking, believing, and behaving as Muslims. They sought to alleviate or correct these problems by reference to a sound body of knowledge directly connected to the unquestioned authority of the Qur’an through the Sunna of the one on whom the burden of its authority was laid, salla-llahu `alayhi wa-sallam.

The Prophet’s Companions were, so to speak, the insiders. The ones who came to learn from them were, to begin with, outsiders. The recording and transmission of hadith is an effort to convey by word and example how it is to live as an insider to Islam – and the Companons’ students lived with them for years, decades even. As the generation of the Companions died out, the confidence and ease with which the insiders’ knowledge was held and embodied diminished. The Companions’ successors had to demonstrate the authenticity of their knowledge; the practice of formal isnads developed. Within a generation, variations in the wording of hadith were being recorded and questioned, and the different narrators’ relevant qualities were being discussed. Throughout this period, memorization of hadith and isnad were being increasingly supplemented by written records. That made textual comparison possible and more differences were noticed. The effort to preserve the inside knowledge in texts had led to the problem of how to verify the texts. The texts also led to disagreements on whether and how far they were relevant to the definitions of right and wrong action in legal terms. So the hadith had to be related to fiqh. These are the matters that I shall be discussing with detailed examples.

The science of kalam, speculative theology, arose as a response to outsider perspectives brought into reflections on the Qur’anic text. These were the perspectives of former Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who had been influenced to varying degrees by Hellenic philosophy, and asked of Islam the questions that had been asked of their former religions. As a result Muslims had doubts about, for example, what kind of attributes God has, vis-à-vis those attributes in reference to human beings. Muslim scholars and thinkers were fearful that the same schisms and disunity that afflicted the former peoples, might now afflict the Muslims also (the Arabs among them were severely outnumbered by non-Arabs). They wanted to put an end to people’s doubts and misgivings on such matters. However, they were bound to formulate the problem in the language and from the perspective of the outsiders. Unsurprisingly, they did not thereby heal the divisions on `aqida, they complicated them by making it possible, apparently, to hold certain position within Islam that had been held in the Jewish or Christian traditions: needless to say, these positions could not be reconciled. For generations ever since, Islamic philosophical theology has wrestled fruitlessly with the same problems, and done so for the same reasons and with the same consequences, as the previous peoples of the Book. An outsider’s perspective brought in to resolve insider problems is not necessarily harmful or fruitless, but it is unlikely to solve those problems because it does not internalize, it does not make use of, the relevant knowledge that the insiders have.

By contrast, the different sciences of hadith are all related to efforts to recover or benefit from the insider’s perspective, the perspective of those who heard the Prophet speak and saw him live, who had achieved an inward self-attunement to the Sunna that late-comers could not achieve to the same degree. This does not mean that hadith scholars did not learn important practical lessons from the experience and traditions of the scholars of the Jewish and Christian traditions. It means only that, unlike kalam, the influences of the outsider perspectives did not determine the kind of questions that the Muslim scholars asked about the Sunna nor dominate the way they formulated those questions. I think the same can be said for the development of fiqh and usul al-fiqh as can be said about usul al-hadith. The development of tafsir falls somewhere between these two, on the one side, and kalam on the other.