Value and defects of tradition

December 2020

Guarantees and evidence of the honesty of the Compilers

There is no reason to doubt that the collectors were sincere and honest in their activities. It may be admitted that they sought out in good faith all traditions actually current, enquired carefully into the authorities on which they rested, and recorded them with scrupulous accuracy. Bukhari was heard to say ‘that he never inserted a tradition in his Sahih, until he had made an ablution, and offered up a prayer of two Rakaats.’

The traditional collections were openly published, and the credit of the compilers would have been endangered by a fabrication of such evidence. The Collector was also, in general the centre of a school of traditional learning which, as it were, challenged the public to test its authorities.

Again, the simple manner in which the most contradictory traditions are accepted and placed side by side is a guarantee of its sincerity. All that could be collected seems to have been thrown together with scrupulous fidelity. Each tradition though it be a bare repetition, or possibly the direct opposite, of a dozen preceding it, is noted down unquestioned, with its special chain of witnesses

No account whatever is made of the most violent improbabilities, of incidents plainly fabulous, or even of patent contradictions. The biographers of Muhammad when they relate contradictory or varying narratives, sometimes add an expression of their own opinion as to which is preferable. They also sometimes mark doubtful stories by the addition: ‘The Lord knows whether this is false or true’. Now this is evidence at least of an honest design. There seems no attempt to exclude or soften down opposing statements or views that crossed the prejudices of the compiler.

How far do the collections of tradition contain elements of truth?

Having conceded the general honesty of the collectors in making their selection although based upon an untenable principle, we now turn to the authenticity of their material. How far does the present text afford ground for confidence that its contents are identical with the supposed evidence originally given by contemporary witnesses?

The work of the collectors of Tradition like Bukhari and others was not just a way of collecting the traditions but an attempt to submit the accumulated mass of material to certain standards of criticism. Yet the moment we enquire into what those standards were it becomes equally evident that their efforts were inadequate.

It is evident that some form of criticism was practised by the compilers of the Traditions, and that too, so unsparingly that out of every hundred traditions on an average ninety-nine were rejected. Rigorous as though it was, it was not the subject-matter of a tradition which decided the question of their credibility but its authority rested on some Companion of the Prophet, and on the character of each individual in the long chain of witnesses (isnad) through whom it was handed down. If these were unimpeachable, the tradition must be received.

Companions of the Prophet were exempt from criticism

They never applied the principles of internal criticism to the text (matn) of a tradition. If they could satisfy themselves that the isnad was sahih they passed the test, even though the narrative was in itself improbable, impossible or absurd. More precisely, their methods of criticism were wholly external; they confined themselves to scrutinizing the genuineness of the isnad. But even here it can be shown that they failed to carry out their task, for although they sometimes did reject a tradition on the ground that the “chain” revealed chronological or other impossibilities yet their courage seems to have largely failed them when it came to passing adverse criticisms on the transmitters themselves. While they might, and did, deal drastically with narrators nearer their own time, it was not a task to their liking to find fault with those wonderful men of an earlier age, the Companions of the Prophet and their immediate successors. It resulted in this, therefore, that for all practical purposes these Companions were exempt from criticism. But in a matter of this kind it is the upper end of the chain, the source, that requires the more rigid scrutiny, for defects there affect all that follows; yet it was just at this point that they least applied their criticisms.

Traditions attributed to the younger companions of the Prophet

The significance of these remarks becomes apparent when we turn to enquire who the Companions were whose names stand at the upper end of the ”chains”. As a matter of fact, nearly all the best of this select class died within twenty or thirty years of the death of Muhammad, and we seldom find their names mentioned among the narrators. Instead, we observe that the greater numbers of the traditions are attributed to the younger companions of the Prophet. Most frequently we find the name of Abu Huraira who is made accountable for thousands of traditions, although he embraced Islam only four years before Muhammad’s death, and during those years was an unknown youth. Also we frequently find Ibn ‘Abbas, to whom also thousands of traditions are attributed, he was only a lad of fourteen when Muhammad died, and was in contact with him for the last four years only. Anas bin Malik, a man of no education, was only nineteen years old when Muhammad died yet it has been estimated that more than half of even Bukhari’s selected traditions are attributed to these lads. In the famous history of Tabari (d. A.D. 923), Ibn ‘Abbas is quoted 286 times, Abu Huraira 52 times, Anas bin Malik 47 times, whereas the first four Khalifa’s are not quoted once! There remains the name of ‘Ayesha, Muhammad’s favourite wife. Naturally no objection can be brought against her name on the ground of the brevity of her association with the Prophet, but she is notoriously partisan.

Traditions gathered in the form of isolated units

Each tradition is purported to have been written by the Companions and recorded afresh at every stage of transmission. Each tradition is short and abrupt and completely isolated from every other. The isolation extends not simply to the traditions themselves as finally compiled by the collector, but to their whole history and descent throughout the long period preceding their collection. At every point each tradition was completely detached and independent; and this, coupled with the general brief and fragmentary character of the statements made in them, deprives us of the checks and critical appliances which are brought to bear on a continuous composition. There is little or no context whereby to judge the soundness of a tradition. Each witness in the chain, though professing simply to repeat the words of the first narrator, is in effect an independent authority; and we cannot tell how far, and at what stages, variations may or may not have been allowed, or fresh matter interpolated by any of them.

Each tradition was not only isolated, but was held by the collectors to be an indivisible unit, and as such received or rejected. If the traditional links were unexceptionable, the tradition must be accepted as it stood, whole and entire. There could be no sifting of the component parts. Whatever in each tradition might be true, and whatever might be fictitious, – the probable and the fabulous, – composed an indissoluble whole; so that the acceptance or rejection of one portion involved the acceptance or rejection of every portion, as equally credible or undeserving of credit. The good seed and the tares were reaped together, and the latter vastly predominated.

The early traditions were exclusively oral in character

There is no ground for believing that the practice of writing down traditions was observed in the first days of Islam, or became general until the greater part of a century had elapsed. The existence of an early record would have afforded some check; but as the facts stand, there is no check at all. A record would have at least fixed the terms in which the evidence is given; whereas tradition purely oral is affected by the character and habits, the associations and the prejudices, of each witness in the chain of repetition. No precaution could hinder the commingling in oral tradition of mistaken or fabricated matter with what at the first may have been trustworthy evidence. The flood-gates of error, exaggeration, and fiction were thrown wide open.

Tradition tested by the Quran

It is a universal canon that no tradition can be received which is contrary to the Quran, and it is related that when Ayesha heard ‘Umar say that Muhammad had taught that the dead could hear, she rejected the tradition as spurious, because it was contrary to the teaching of the Quran. We find that in its main historical outlines the Quran is at one with the received traditional collections as it notes either directly or incidentally, those topics which most interested Muhammad. The statements and allusions to a variety of important incidents concerning Muhammad, his domestic relations, public events and the progress of Islam appear on the whole to tally. Therefore, it would appear that a large amount of historical truth has been conveyed by tradition.

On the other hand, there are subjects in which the Quran is directly at variance with Tradition. For example, there is no position more satisfactorily established by the Quran than that Muhammad did not in any part of his career perform miracles, or lay claim to the power of performing them. Yet tradition abounds with miraculous acts belying the plain declarations of the Quran. Moreover, such miracles, if at all based on fact, would undoubtedly have been mentioned in the Quran itself, which omits nothing, however trivial, calculated to strengthen the prophetical claim. Here, then, in matters of simple narration and historical incident, we find tradition discredited by the Quran.

Abridged – Sir William Muir and L.Bevan Jones