I’m currently reading…

Salaam Alaykum everyone.

This is just a post letting anyone who cares that I’m still writing, it’s just that the last semester has been a very hectic one. Now that winter break is here, I should have time to get back to writing again, even though Ramadan and other commitments have admittedly taken much of my free time. I thought I’d begin a new project that’s more serious than anything I’ve done so far. I’m going to be tackling Tom Holland’s revisionist theories on the origins of Islam. As far as I am aware, there hasn’t been any thorough rebuttals of his work (though many of his ideas are quite… imaginative to say the least). I do not intend this to be a post detailing a refutation of his book (this will come later insha’allah – and it would probably be far longer than this).

In the Shadow of the Sword

What do I think about it so far? Without dwelling on the condescending tone with which Holland writes about Muslims and Muslim scholars and their (so-called) pseudo-academic attitude towards early Islamic history, I have to say that the writing style is quite engaging. I find the arguments far less agreeable.

On Hadith

To justify his revisionism, Holland attacks his only obstacle to touting his own vision of early Islam: Hadith criticism.

The arguments therein are basically repeats of what Schacht proposed many years ago, and accepting the logic of Holland’s argument entails that we accept the following:

Muslim traditionalists and jurists, who sometimes risked their very lives for their craft, were generally dishonest and had no qualms in tacking their own rulings with isnaad chains to justify them.

To quote Holland himself:

“What the jurists of the early Caliphate had succeeded in pulling off, by means of ‘a fiction perhaps unequaled in the history of human thought’, was the ultimate lawyers’ tricks: a quite breathtaking show of creativity and nerve” (In the Shadow p36)

It seems Holland does not realize that he is asking us to believe in something more difficult to accept for the objective observer than the traditional Muslim seerah (excepting miracle stories). Here’s why: Holland asks us to trust Schacht to be right (In the Shadow p36) about Hadith. It is then somewhat problematic that Schacht’s own criterion for determining the origination date of a certain Hadith – the ‘common link method’- brings us certain Hadiths, such as the Hadith of following the Imam in prayer[1] where the “common link” (and therefore the originator according to Schacht) is often a companion of the Prophet (ص ) or even the Prophet himself.

I also want to highlight the credulity required to believe that religious scholars are generally dishonest- is there any doubt that religion is at the very least one of the primary influences in the lives of most of the early fuqahaa’? If not, why would they even need to ascribe Hadith to the Prophet, unless the society they were in saw him as a very important person? If it can be accepted that these religious scholars did see religion as an important part of their life, is there anywhere in Islam where attributing false sayings to the Prophet is justified (other than through coercion)? After all, does the Qur’an not say that to “invent about Allah untruth” is “a manifest sin” (4:50)?

I also think it’s hard to believe that there was a mass-corroboration between the early Caliphate and the scholars of the law, given that many early prominent traditionalists (ie. hadith scholars) and jurists were said to be staunchly apolitical. This is from the reading of several books I’ve come across, though I will have to investigate this counter-point further before I can judge its validity.

For now though, I’ll keep reading, insha’allah.

[1] See On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammad Jurisprudence, p 156


On the origins of the Isnad: Ibn Sirin’s statement and Schacht’s interpretation of it

One of Schacht’s underlying contentions behind his magnum opus, “The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence”, is that hadith literature did not exist in the first century of Islam. This obviously means that the isnads – the chains of narration that link a hadith report back to the Prophet – are almost completely fictitious. They cannot trace information back to the first century and consequently are not reliable sources of information on the Prophet himself or even his companions.

On the other hand, we have the statement on the origins of the isnad from Ibn Sirin (d. 110AH) who spent the early years of his life growing up in Ali’s caliphate and lived until the dawn of the second Islamic century. He says:

They did not use to ask about the isnad, but when the fitna arose, they said, “Name us your men.”[1]

Schacht interprets this statement in light of his preconceived conclusions. He says:

We shall see later that the fitna which began with the killing of the Umaiyad Caliph Walid b. Yazid [A.H. 126], towards the end of the Umaiyad dynasty, was a conventional date for the end of the good old time during which the sunna of the Prophet was still prevailing; as the usual date for the death of Ibn Sirin is A.H. 110, we must conclude that the attribution of this statement to him is spurious. In any case, there is no reason to suppose that the regular practise of using isnads is older than the beginning of the second century A.H.[2]

Essentially, this is Schacht’s logic: The “fitna” refers to the killing of the Umayyad caliph Walid b. Yazid, so the isnad started being used in the second century, not the first. Also, because Ibn Sirin wasn’t even alive at this time, the statement is forged anyway!

The problem with this interpretation is obvious: the “fitna” probably does not refer to the death of the Umayyad Caliph[3]. It is more reasonable to suppose that Ibn Sirin was talking about the greatest fitna of early Islam- the fitna between ‘Ali and Mu’awiyah, only decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). As other events happened during the life of Ibn Sirin that were also called by the word fitna, he probably meant the most significant one.

Harald Motzki [4] also rightly points out that if the statement was falsely attributed to Ibn Sirin then the forger would have taken care to specify which fitna the attribution is referring to. This is because, again, there were many such events- had the forger wanted to actually achieve his goal (of proving the Isnad to be a 2nd century invention) he would have made Ibn Sirin more specific, otherwise readers would potentially be confused as to which fitna was being spoken of.

Schacht’s argument only really works if we have very good reason to believe that the isnad did not originate in the first century. Both the works of Harald Motzki and Mustafa Al-Azami go far to dispel this claim. Further information can be found in their books, “The Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence” and “On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence”.

[1] Al Azami, Mustafa. On Schacht’s Origins. Islamic Texts Society. 1996. p 155

[2] Schacht, Joseph. Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford University Press. 1967. p 36-37

[3] Al Azami, Mustafa. On Schacht’s Origins. Islamic Texts Society. 1996. p 168

[4] Motzki, Harald. The Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence. Brill. 2002