It may be possible to establish from the Quran the outlines and some of the details of Muhammad’s life, but the hadith tradition alone enables us to determine their relative position, and to weave them into the tissue of intermediate affairs. Islamic tradition consists of the sayings of the friends and followers of the Prophet, handed down by an alleged chain of narrators up to the period when they were collected, recorded, and classified.
The process of transmission was for the most part oral. It may be sketched as follows: After the death of Muhammad, the main employment of his followers was arms. The pursuit of pleasure, and the formal round of religious observances, filled up the intervals of active life, but afforded scanty exercise for the high faculties of the mind. The tedium of long and irksome marches had intervals occupied by re-calling the past.
The most enthusiastic events to be re-called were the sayings of the man that had brought into existence a conquering nation and placed it into their hands. The majesty of his character gained greatness by contemplation; and as time gradually removed him further from them, the lineaments of the mysterious mortal who had spent time talking with messengers of heaven, rose into dimmer but more gigantic portions.
When there was no standard of fact, imagination gained the ascendancy. The narratives of the ‘Companions’ would especially lodge in the young of the next generation. Then another generation sprang up who had never seen the Prophet – for example, on one occasion the youthful Obeida listened to a Companion who was reciting before an assembly how the Prophet’s head was shaved at the Pilgrimage, and the hair distributed amongst his followers; the young man’s eyes glistened as the speaker proceeded, and he interrupted him with the impatient exclamation: ’Would that I had even a single one of those blessed hairs! I would cherish it forever, and prize it beyond all the gold and silver in the world.’ Such were the natural feelings of fond devotion with which the Prophet came to be regarded by the generation which followed the ’Companions.’ This second generation are termed in the language of the patristic lore of Arabia, ‘Successors.’
Demands of an expanding empire required enlargement of the administrative code of the Quran
The Arabs, found in the Quran ample provisions for the regulation of their affairs, religious, social and political, but this aspect of Islam soon underwent a mighty change. Scarcely was the Prophet buried when his followers went forth from the Arabian Peninsula to impose the faith of Islam upon all the nations of the earth. Within a century they had, as a first step to universal subjugation, conquered every land that intervenes from the banks of the Oxus to the farthest shores of North Africa, and had enrolled the great majority of their peoples under the standard of the Quran. This vast empire differed widely from the Arabia of Muhammad’s time’ and that which sufficed for the patriarchal simplicity of the early Arabs, was found altogether inadequate for the multiplying needs of his descendants. Crowded cities, like Fostat, Kufa and Damascus, required elaborate laws for the guidance of their courts of justice; widening political relations demanded a system of international equity; the speculations of a people before whom literature was throwing open her arena, and the controversies of eager factions on nice points of doctrine, were impatient of the narrow limits which confined them: – all called loudly for the enlargement of the scanty and naked dogmas of the Quran, and for the development of its rudimental code of ethics.
The Quran at first the sole authoritative rule of conduct
And yet, Muhammad himself had ruled by the Quran alone with its first principles of the standard of Law, Theology and Politics. To the Quran and its teaching he always referred. If he, the heavenly Messenger of the Lord, and the founder of the faith, was bound to the heavenly revelation, how much more the Caliphs, his uninspired successors! But new and unforeseen circumstances were continually arising, for which the Quran made no provision. How, then, were its deficiencies to be supplied?
Deficiency supplied by the ‘Sunnat’
The difficulty was resolved by adopting the custom or ‘Sunnat’ of Muhammad – that is, his sayings and his practice – as supplementary of the Quran. The recitals regarding the life of the Prophet now acquired an unlooked-for-value. He had never held himself infallible, except when directly inspired of God; but this new doctrine assumed that a heavenly and unerring guidance pervaded every word and action of his prophetic life. Tradition was therefore invested with the force of law, and with something of the authority of inspiration. It was in a great measure owing to the rise of this theory, that during the first century of Islam, the cumbersome recitals of tradition out-stripped the dimensions of reality. The prerogative now claimed for Tradition stimulated the growth of fabricated evidence, and led to the preservation of every kind of story, spurious or real, touching the Prophet.
Before the close of the century it had imparted an incredible impulse to the search for traditions, and in fact given birth to the new profession of Collectors. Men devoted their lives to the business. They travelled from city to city, and from tribe to tribe, over the Muslim world; and sought out by personal enquiry every vestige of Muhammad’s biography which still lingered among the ‘Companions‘, the ‘Successors’, and their descendants; and committed to writing the tales and reminiscences for the purpose of edification. They also established schools of tradition in all the leading cities, and there held lectures, and recited their collections of traditions together with the authorities on which they rested.
Legendary tales of strolling story-tellers
Legendary strolling story-tellers have always been popular in the east; and in the early days of Islam they had special opportunities for the exercise of their vocation. As they travelled, they gathered around them crowds while they recited some episode of the Prophet’s life. Great latitude both in detail and colouring was allowed to these story-tellers, whose object was at once to entertain and edify. Such tales, no doubt formed the framework of the biographical legends so popular in the Muslim world. They are still recited on special occasions (as the birth and childhood of Muhammad in the first ten days of Rabi); and they form the basis of the biographies of Muhammad.
Formal collection of extant biographical traditions
It was soon found that the work of collecting and propagating authoritative traditions too closely affected the public interests, and the political aspect of the empire, to be left entirely to private responsibility and individual zeal. About a hundred years after Muhammad, the Caliph Omar the Second, issued circular orders for the formal collection of all extant tradition. The task once begun was vigorously prosecuted; but we possess no authentic remains of any compilation of an earlier date than the middle of the second century of the Hegira. Then, indeed ample materials had been amassed, and they have been handed down to us both in the shape of biographies and of general collections which bear upon every imaginable point of Muhammad’s character, and detail the minutest incidents of his life.
The weight of evidence seems to indicate that the traditions which we now possess remained generally in an unrecorded form until the latter part of the first century. The authority of these traditions rested on the memory of those who handed it down; and how dependent it must have been upon their convictions and prejudices. The value and defects of Tradition, the nature and extent of their influences must be thoroughly understood; and for this purpose it’s study is necessary.