The Development of the Term ‘Sunnah’: An Essay

Examine critically the usage and development of the term Sunnah in early Islam.

In this essay I will critically examine the term Sunnah by discussing two important aspects; its usage in the early period of Islām and its development on the one hand and the issue of its authoritativeness as theorised by the German Orientalist Joseph Schacht on the other. Accordingly, this essay is divided into two parts although they both compose one organic whole. In the first part I will examine the different definitions of the term Sunnah from a linguistic point of view and trace its mode of use through different Islamic fields of knowledge to which it was exposed including Qur’ānic studies, the Science of Traditions, theology and jurisprudence.  From this it will be shown that the term was quite fluid thus containing different meanings and usages; however by the beginning of the second century it had been standardised and restricted to one particular signification.

The second part of the essay will deal with Schacht’s central contention that the term Sunnah was originally understood by the ancient schools of law to mean ‘the living tradition’ or the ideal practices of the community and not the Sunnah of the Prophet which was a concept first opined by the eponym of the Shāfi῾ī school of law Muḥammad b. Idrīs al- Shāfi῾ī (d.204AH). This essay will argue that although the term Sunnah may have been utilised varyingly the concept of the Sunnah of the Prophet as an authoritative source was in existence from a much earlier stage than Schacht proposed.

Significations of the Term Sunnah 

The famous Arab lexicologist, Ibn Manẓūr defined the word Sunnah in his magnum opus Lisān al-῾Arab as a line of conduct, course or way or mode of life whether it be good or bad[1]. He also states that the term Sunnah itself originally signified a path which was traversed by the early people which subsequently became a path for those after them[2]. The root verb from which the word derives itself means to institute or establish a custom or practice which may be good or bad and to originate such in order to be followed by others after him[3]. The collocation or idiom sanna ṭarīqatan means to pursue a way, course or mode or manner of acting or conducting life. The term Sunnah is synonymous according to Lane with the word ṭarīqah[4]. The seventh century litterateur, Ibn al-Athīr discusses the term by mentioning that it originally signified a path and way of life[5]. However, when utilised religiously it denotes what the Prophet Muḥammad had commanded, forbidden and recommended whether through statements or actions and which is not articulated in the Qur’ān. For this reason he states, when referring to the evidences of the Sharī’ah one says The Book and the Sunnah meaning the Qur’ān and the Ḥadīth[6].

However the signification of a path and way of life was a later linguistic development predating Islām for we find, as Anṣārī posits, that the trilateral verb sanna originally meant ‘to flow’ and it denoted the ‘continuity of a thing with ease and smoothness’[7]. It also later extended to include the face itself following the collocation masnūn al-wajh referring to a person with a smooth and well shaped face[8]. It further evolved to incorporate the meaning of human behaviour and still retaining the sense of ease and smoothness it went on to denote a mode or way that could be adopted without difficulty[9]. Finally, it came to be used to refer to the Sunnah of so and so referring to ‘moral appropriateness and normativeness’[10].

Its use in the Qur’ān is less than conspicuous as it is mentioned 16 times being used in the genitive as Sunnatullāh (Sunnah of Allāh) eight times, Sunnatinā (Our Sunnah) two times Sunnat al-Awwalīn (Sunnah of the Ancients) four times and Sunnata man qad arsalnā qablaka min rusulinā (Sunnah of those who We have sent before you from our Messengers) two times[11]. Each occurrence in the Qur’ān contains a specialised meaning so for example the Sunnah of Allāh refers to His modus operandi[12], path to His obedience or His Sharī῾ah[13]. Sunnat al-Awwalīn refers to the manner in which God dealt with those who disbelieved and rejected His message[14] whilst the last phrase also denotes a similar meaning although referring to those who persecuted the Messenger in Makkah[15].

Despite its obvious absence in the Qur’ān, the usage and concept which has influenced the formation of Muslim thought the most is the term ‘Sunnah of the Prophet’[16]. However, its complete signification and discussion over its authoritativeness will be dilated upon in the second half of this essay. In this section I will discuss the use of the term al-Sunnah as used in Islamic jurisprudence, the science of traditions and works of theology. According to the early jurists (fuqhahā’), the term al-Sunnah has one of four possible meanings[17]; the first being a traversed path in the religion which is not obligatory. Secondly; an action persistently practiced by the Prophet but he did not indicate to it being obligatory. Thirdly; it denotes an action that is sought from the subject of the law strongly despite it not being obligatory. Fourthly; it refers to an action for which one deserves reward for its accomplishment and does not incur a threat of punishment for non-implementation.  In the lexicon of the Uṣūlīs it refers to the consensus that it is a Sharī῾ah evidence by which judicial rulings can be deduced and it includes what is mentioned from the Prophet in terms of his sayings, actions or tacit approvals[18].

This last usage is similar to the definition posited by traditionists in defining adīth (traditions) although the more refined definition is ‘what was attributed to the Prophet in terms of sayings, actions, tacit approvals or descriptions’[19]. Accordingly, it is evident that the Sunnah was equated with traditions due to the fact that ḥadīths were the repositories of the Sunnah[20].

Finally, the term Sunnah came to be used to refer to everything that was the antithesis of innovation (bidah). The expansion of the Islamic empire brought under its control diverse peoples and their cultures some of which was retained by these converts and syncretised with the original Islām. Additionally, access to Hellenistic philosophical works led to the proclamation of ideas, which according to the traditionists who saw themselves as the preservers and defenders of the Sunnah, were heretical. As a result, some authored works which sought to clarify the correct creed which was propagated by the Prophet and his Companions. Such works were typically entitled ‘al-Sunnah’, so we find Uṣūl al-Sunnah of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d.241), the eponym of the Ḥanbalī School of law, Shar al-Sunnah of al-Barbahārī (d.329) and al-Sunnah of Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim (d.287) setting out to achieve such an aim[21].

The contents of such works not only included creedal matters but also juristic issues such as wiping of the socks for ritual ablution which was an issue rejected by some sects. With such a variety of issues incorporated in these treatises it is obvious the word al-Sunnah[22] to them denoted more than just creed and more than just what the Prophet proclaimed. In fact, this particular use also included the Sunnah of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Evidence of this use lies with the eighth century Ḥanbalī jurist and traditionist, Ibn Rajab (d.795) who provided a holistic definition of the term Sunnah which conceptualises this particular feature by stating that the Sunnah is the trodden path which includes strongly adhering to what the Prophet was upon and his Rightly Guided Caliphs in terms of beliefs, actions and statements[23]. This, he says while conceding some later scholars utilised it exclusively to refer to doctrinal matters,  is the complete Sunnah which is why the Ancient Predecessors (Salaf) would not apply the term al-Sunnah to anything except to the totality of what was mentioned[24].

Schacht and the Sunnah

In his seminal work on Islamic law entitled ‘The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence’ Schacht paints a different picture when he examines the historical development of legal theory beginning with Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfi῾ī back to the earliest stages in the growth of Islamic jurisprudence[25]. One of his central arguments was that the ancient schools of law originally understood by the term Sunnah ‘the living tradition’ or ‘al-amr al-mujtama alayh[26]. Essentially, as Forte notes, the ‘Sunnah of the Prophet’ was used only theologically in the early years and not with a legal meaning and according to Schacht it was not ‘a shorthand version of the positive legal rules of the Prophet’[27]; a view which contradicts al-Shāfi῾ī’s postulation in his al-Risālah. Although he goes on to posit further arguments as a result of this assumption, our primary focus in this section will be on evaluating some of the evidences Schacht produces to substantiate his argument in this regard.

With the ‘Sunnah of the Prophet’ notion acquiring authority much later than believed by Muslim scholars, the early reality of Sunnah, according to Schacht, was composed essentially of three types. During the Caliphate and early Umayyad reign it consisted of long-standing traditional Arab customs and practices which apparently formed the ‘bulk of the legal rules in Arabia’[28]. Secondly, local customs and Umayyad administrative rules applied in newly conquered territories created a ‘parallel sunna’[29]. Finally, doctrines arising from schools of law which further developed these laws and customs called the ‘living tradition’ went on to form the third type of Sunnah[30].

Critics of Schacht’s theory, such as Azami, have argued that the authority of the Prophet is explicitly stated in numerous verses of the Qur’ān which exhorts and orders the believers to render themselves in obedience to the Prophet without question[31]. Importantly, Schacht failed to consult the Qur’ān as part of his study into the authoritativeness of the Prophet as a legal actor. Azami quotes the Qur’ān as describing the Prophet as the expounder of the Qur’ān[32], one endowed with legislative power[33], an excellent model to be emulated[34] and one who should be fully obeyed[35]. The Qur’ān, Azami notes, does not state that the source of law as such is the Sunnah however[36], what it does do is clarify the concept; a concept which predated the definition of the term Sunnah[37].

Schacht’s view that the Iraqians were the first to coin the term ‘sunna of the Prophet’[38] is questionable. Evidence for the concept of the Sunnah of the Prophet carrying primary authoritative status is found in early ḥadīth literature in which the Prophet, according to traditionists, utilised the term himself. The problem with this type of evidence lies in the fact that traditions are viewed with great scepticism in Orientalist discourse, especially since the nineteenth century as is evident in the works of Goldziher et al. Nevertheless, in the Musnad of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal a tradition is narrated from the Companion al-῾Irbād b. Sāriyah in which he relates the Prophet delivered a stirring sermon ordering them to hear and obey no matter who is put in charge of them and to adhere to his Sunnah and the Sunnah of the Rightly Guided Caliphs after him[39].

Ansari quotes evidence demonstrating both the wide use and authoritative nature of the term Sunnah of the Prophet in the early first century of Islām. For example, ῾Umar explained the function of his officials as including instructing people ‘in their religion and the Sunnah of their Prophet’[40]. Furthermore, after the death of ῾Umar the two leading candidates for the Caliphal role; ῾Uthmān and ῾Alī, were both questioned as to whether they would work according to not only the Sunnah of the Prophet but also of the two preceding Caliphs[41]. Finally, in a letter from the famous ascetic Successor al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, which he wrote to the Umayyad Caliph ῾Abd al-Mālik defending his doctrinal position regarding the issue of pre-decree he elicits the doctrine of the Salaf in his defence by adding that they followed the Sunnah of the Messenger[42].

One argument Schacht adduces to substantiate his view that the old idea of the Sunnah was not the same one that Shāfi῾ī came to define, is the words of Ibn Muqaffa’; ‘a secretary of state in late Umaiyad and early ῾Abbāsid times’[43]. Ibn Muqaffa’, claims Schacht, came to the conclusion that ‘the Caliph was free to fix and codify the alleged sunna’[44]. In the eyes of Ansari and Azami this is problematic since Ibn Muqaffa’ was not a jurist but a government official and litterateur whose focus was on administrative issues; areas in which ra’y (informed opinion) was utilised in the absence of any textual guidance[45]. In fact, a holistic reading of Ibn Muqaffa’s treatise, according to Azami, provides the exact context and the precise meaning of his words become crystal clear so to speak. He, in fact, believed that the Caliph was bound by the Sunnah of the Prophet and that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs[46]. Accordingly Azami concludes it is difficult to see how this piece of text was used by Schacht to deduce the view ‘that law in the first century was not based on the Qur’ān and Sunnah’[47].

Motzki on the other hand criticises Azami for not understanding Schacht’s reasoning for mentioning Ibn Muqaffa’[48]. He states that Schacht did not wish to draw the conclusion from this particular source that neither the Qur’ān nor the Sunnah formed the basis of law in the first century as Azami appears to understand it, rather he was reporting a descriptive observation from Ibn Muqaffa’[49]. However, it appears to this writer that Azami was responding to the implication of Ibn Muqaffa’s statement as quoted by Schacht which gives the impression that the Sunnah of the Prophet did not hold authoritative status with the early Muslims – a conclusion Schacht seeks to demonstrate throughout the whole of his book.

Nevertheless, in responding to Schacht’s view regarding a particular tradition relating to the legal position of divorcing a woman during her menstrual cycle, Motzki argues that Schacht is wrong in attempting to shift its origin to the middle of the second century when in fact the latest time to which it should be attributed is the first quarter of that century[50]. The reason being, according to Schacht’s own common link theory it appears that Ibn ῾Umar was the ‘original source of the Prophetic tradition’[51].  The point which relates to our discussion however is the fact that the early Meccan jurist ῾Aṭā’ referred to this tradition in responding to legal question which demonstrates that he ‘not only held the legal position but also knew the corresponding tradition of the Prophet’[52].

A final cursory point which should be made with regards to evidences Schacht brings throughout his book which seek to substantiate his theory that the Sunnah of the Prophet was not an authoritative concept in the first century of Islām, is in relation to the utilisation of or disregard for traditions in proving judicial rulings among early jurists.  The prominent medieval scholar and jurist commonly referred to as Shaykh al-Islām ibn Taymiyyah (d.728) authored a small treatise entitled ‘Removing the Blame from the Great Imāms’ in which he posits a number of factors which may have led a jurist to base his ruling on other than textual evidence such as traditions – a stark contrast to Schacht’s cynical view on the integrity of early Muslim jurists. Three main reasons are given; firstly, the jurist may not have believed that the Prophet actually made a statement on the topic in hand due to nescience of all available traditions[53] or the belief that the tradition was unsound. Secondly, even if a tradition did exist it may not have, in the jurist’s view been applicable to that issue at hand[54]. Thirdly, the text may have been considered to be abrogated[55]. Such factors it appears may be applied to majority of the cases Schacht quotes.

In conclusion, I have examined the term Sunnah by tracing its definition through time and its various uses in different areas of Islamic knowledge such as in the science of traditions and jurisprudence. I have attempted to show that the term was used varying and with different meanings and that the genitive use of the word Sunnah as in the ‘Sunnah of so and so’ was not only used for the Prophet’s regulatory practices but also his Companions’ practices and even more broadly the practices and customs of others. However, the term Sunnah came to be restricted to the concept of the Prophet’s authoritative words and practice; a concept which had already existed prior to the restriction of the term to this particular concept. I have also examined some arguments posited by Schacht which sought to substantiate his view that the Sunnah of the Prophet was originally not authoritative and attempted to demonstrate the weaknesses they possess. Finally, I have briefly mentioned some legitimate factors which may have caused an early jurist to discard the use of a tradition in support of his juridical position; factors which are less cynical than those put forth by Schacht.                                                     WORD COUNT: 2859

Bibliography

Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), pp. 255-300.

Azami, M.M. (1992) Studies in adīth Methodology and Literature. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications.

Azami, M.M. (1996) On Schacht’s Origins of Muammadan Jurisprudence.  Oxford: Islamic Texts Society.

Brown, Jonathan (2009) adīth: Muammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Dutton, Yassin (1999) The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qur’ān, Muwaṭṭa’ and Madinan Amal. Surrey: Curzon Press.

Forte, David (c.1999) Studies in Islamic Law: Classical and Contemporary Application. Landham: Austin & Winfield.

Al-Ḥanbalī, ῾Abd al-Raḥmān b. Shihāb (1424/2004) Jāmi al-Ulūm wa al-ikam fī Shar Khamsīn adīthan min Jawāmi al-Kalim, eds. Shu῾ayb al-Arnā’ūṭ and Ibrāhīm Bājis, Tenth Edition. Beirut: Mu’assah al-Risālah.

Al-Handāwī, ῾Abd al-Ḥamīd (2007) Mufradāt Alfāẓ al-Qur’ān al-Karīm by al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī in Jāmi῾ al-Bayān fī Mufradāt al-Qur’ān. Riyāḍ: Maktabah al-Rushd.

Ibn al-Athīr, Abū al-Sa῾ādāt al-Mubārak (1428/2008) al-Nihāyah fī Gharīb al-adīth wa al-Athar, ed. ῾Alī b. Ḥasan al-Ḥalabī. Al-Dammām: Dār Ibn al-Jawzī

Ibn Ḥanbal, Aḥmad (1416/1995) Musnad al-Imām Amad b. anbal, eds. Shu῾ayb al-Arnā’ūt and ῾Ādil Murshid. Beirut: Mu’assah al-Risālah. 50 volumes.

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Ibn Taymiyyah, Aḥmad b. Abd al-Ḥalīm (1413) Raf῾ al-Malām ῾an al-A’immah al-A῾lām. Riyāḍ: Ri’āsah al-῾Āmmah li Idārah al-Buḥūth al-῾Ilmiyyah wa al-Ifṭā’ wa al-Da῾wah wa al-Irshād.

Juynboll, G.H.A.; Brown, D.W. “Sunna.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2010. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 26 January 2010 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_COM-1123&gt;

Lane, Edward William (1968) An Arabic to English Lexicon. Beirut: Librarie du Liban. 8 volumes.

Motzki, Harald (2002) The Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence: Meccan Fiqh before the Classical Schools, Translator: Marion H. Katz. Leiden: Brill.

Schacht, Joseph (2010) The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. New York: American Council of Learned Societies.

Al-Shāfi῾ī, Muḥammad b. Idrīs (2004) Al-Umm: Al-Risālah, Second Edition, ed. Dr Rif῾at Fawzī ῾Abd al-Muṭṭalib. Al-Manṣūrah: Dār al-Wafā’.

Al-Sibā῾ee, Mustafa (2008) The Sunnah and its Role in Islamic Legislation. Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House.

Al-Sibā῾ī, Muṣṭafā (2000) Al-Sunnah wa Makānatuhā fi al-Tashrī῾ al-Islāmī. (No Place) :Dār al-Warrāq/al-Maktab al-Islāmī.

Al-Ṭaḥḥān, Maḥmūd (2004) Taysīr Muṣṭalaḥ al-Ḥadīth. Riyāḍ: Maktabah al-Ma῾ārif.

Wakin, Jeannette, Remembering Joseph Schacht (1902-1969), Islamic Legal Studies Program: Harvard Law School. Occasional Publications 4; January 2003.


[1] Ibn Manẓūr, (2003) Lisān al-Arab. Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, v.4, p.716

[2] Ibid, v.4, p.717

[3] Lane, Edward William (1968) An Arabic to English Lexicon. Beirut: Librarie du Liban, vol.4, p.1436, column 2

[4] Loc. cit.

[5] Ibn al-Athīr, Abū al-Sa῾ādāt al-Mubārak (1428/2008) al-Nihāyah fī Gharīb al-adīth wa al-Athar, ed. ῾Alī b. Ḥasan al-Ḥalabī. Al-Dammām: Dār Ibn al-Jawzī, p.449

[6] Ibid. p.449. Interestingly Ibn al-Athīr’s definition is mentioned verbatim in Ibn Manẓūr’s Lisān, v.4, p717.

[7] Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), p.5

[8] Ibid, p.6

[9] Loc. cit.

[10] Ibid, p.7

[11] ῾Abd al-Bāqī, Muḥammad Fu’ād (1417/1996) Mu’jam al-Mufahharas li Alfāẓ al-Qur’ān al-Karīm. Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, p.451

[12] Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), p.8

[13] Al-Handāwī, ῾Abd al-Ḥamīd (2007) Mufradāt Alfāẓ al-Qur’ān al-Karīm by al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī in Jāmi῾ al-Bayān fī Mufradāt al-Qur’ān. Riyāḍ: Maktabah al-Rushd, v.1, p.460

[14] Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), p.8

[15] al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr (2001) Jāmi al-Bayān an Ta’wīl Āyā al-Qur’ān, ed. ῾Abd Allāh b. Abd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī. Cairo: Dār Hajr, v.15, p.21

[16] Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), p.8

[17] Al-Mawsū῾ah al-Fiqhiyyah, (1980) Kuwait: Wizārah al-Awqāf wa al-Shu’ūn al-Islāmiyyah, v.25, pp.264-266

[18] Loc. cit.

[19] Al-Ṭaḥḥān, Maḥmūd (2004) Taysīr Muṣṭalaḥ al-Ḥadīth. Riyāḍ: Maktabah al-Ma῾ārif, p.17

[20] Forte, David (c.1999) Studies in Islamic Law: Classical and Contemporary Application. Landham: Austin & Winfield, p.39

[21] Brown, Jonathan (2009) adīth: Muammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, p.36

[22] By the end of the second century the use of the term Sunnah prefixed with the definite article ‘al’ referred exclusively to the Sunnah of the Prophet as stated in legal books and deductions thereof. See: Azami, M.M. (1992) Studies in adīth Methodology and Literature. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, p.4

[23] Ibn Rajab, ῾Abd al-Raḥmān b. Shihāb al-Dīn (2004) Jāmi al-Ulūm wa al-ikam eds. Shu῾ayb al-Arnā’ūt & Ibrāhīm Baljis. Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risālah, part 2, p.120

[24] Loc. cit.

[25] Wakin, Jeannette, Remembering Joseph Schacht (1902-1969), Islamic Legal Studies Program: Harvard Law School. Occasional Publications 4; January 2003, p.24

[26] Schacht, Joseph (2010) The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, p.58

[27] Forte, David (c.1999) Studies in Islamic Law: Classical and Contemporary Application. Landham: Austin & Winfield, p.45

[28] Ibid, p.43

[29] Loc. cit.

[30] Loc. cit.

[31] Azami, M.M. (1992) Studies in adīth Methodology and Literature. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, p.5

[32] The Qur’ān, 16:44

[33] Ibid, 7:157

[34] Ibid,  33: 21

[35] Ibid, 4:64

[36] Azami, M.M. (1992) Studies in adīth Methodology and Literature. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, p.7

[37] Loc. cit.

[38] Schacht, Joseph (2010) The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, p.73

[39] Ibn Ḥanbal, Aḥmad (1416/1995) Musnad al-Imām Amad b. anbal, eds. Shu῾ayb al-Arnā’ūt and ῾Ādil Murshid. Beirut: Mu’assah al-Risālah, vol.28, pp. 367-376 (narrations 17142 and 17144-46)

[40] Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), p.263

[41] Loc. cit.

[42] Loc. cit.

[43] Schacht, Joseph (2010) The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, p.58

[44] Ibid, p.59

[45] Anṣārī, Zafar Isḥāq, Islamic Juristic Terminology before al-Shāfi῾ī: A Semantic Analysis with Special Reference to Kūfah, Arabica, T.19, Fasc. 3 (Oct. 1972), p.265

[46] Azami, M.M. (1996) On Schacht’s Origins of Muammadan Jurisprudence.  Oxford: Islamic Texts Society, p.42

[47] Ibid, p.43

[48] Motzki, Harald (2002) The Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence: Meccan Fiqh before the Classical Schools, Translator: Marion H. Katz. Leiden: Brill, p.43

[49] Loc. cit.

[50] Ibid, p.136

[51] Loc. cit

[52] Ibid, p.135

[53] Ibn Taymiyyah, Aḥmad b. Abd al-Ḥalīm (1413) Raf῾ al-Malām ῾an al-A’immah al-A῾lām. Riyāḍ: Ri’āsah al-῾Āmmah li Idārah al-Buḥūth al-῾Ilmiyyah wa al-Ifṭā’ wa al-Da῾wah wa al-Irshād, p.9

[54] Loc. cit.

[55] Loc. cit.

The Collection of the Qur’an: An Essay


Quran-e-Pak-680x252EXAMINING THE STAGES OF THE QUR’
ĀN’S COLLECTION 

In this essay I will critically examine the different stages of the collection of the Qur’ān and highlight the importance of each of those stages and the critical role they played in relation to the preservation of the Qur’ānic text that Muslims possess in their hands today.  I will firstly begin by situating the context of the discourse thereafter defining the term ‘collection’ in classical Sunnite tradition. Secondly I will outline only the essential details of the traditional Muslim view of the process of collection as stated in various primary sources and at the same time present some of the central arguments in more detail proffered by Western scholarship apropos of particular aspects of the traditional view which I will evaluate.

In order to provide a facilitative framework from whence the discussion can be conceptualised, I have divided the stages of collection into two broad phases; the Prophetic collection and the Caliphal collection, the latter phase being divided into two sub phases; namely Abū Bakr’s collection which was later followed by ῾Uthmān’s collection. This is generally in line with the classical traditionalist view.[1]

Before delving into the subject, an important point that needs to be highlighted in order to situate this essay in its contextual discourse is its close connection with the Science of adīth. At the heart of this discussion lies the issue of Western scholarship on Islāmic traditions (adīths) which plays a crucial role in our understanding of the many non-traditional stances taken by scholars of this persuasion in relation to the historicity of the Qur’ānic text. It should be noted from the outset the traditional Sunnite view on the history of the Qur’ān is based largely on traditions that have been collected and reported in canonical adīth collections which are viewed with great scepticism in Western scholarship. This is partially explained by the fact that modern Western study of history follows the Historical Critical Method approach which had its basis in the Renaissance but was further developed in eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany[2]. It involved a critical attitude towards historical sources by questioning their authority and reliability which could be assessed for example by the presence of anachronisms in historical reports.

Additionally the Principle of Analogy which stated that human society, regardless of era or place, function in essentially the same manner, therefore we can understand the reason behind the occurrence of events in any ancient civilisation.[3] Thus, if people in general pursue selfish interests ‘to advance their own agendas today’ this means they did the same in any previous civilisation[4]. In the field of biblical studies these perceptions culminated in the theory of Form criticism which assumed historical texts to be of doubtful authority and reliability, the presentation of orthodox views in such texts to be suspicious and the criteria for analysing the veracity of historical source could be deciphered by ‘identifying which parts of the text served which historical agendas’.[5] The ‘default setting for the scholars was to doubt the reliability of material transmitted about the past’ as Brown insightfully notes [6].

It was not long until these perspectives of textual criticism were applied to Islāmic history thereby creating suspicion of the historical reliability of its sources.[7] In particular, I. Goldziher was instrumental in advancing a thesis which cast aspersions on the reliability of adīths as a sound source because he believed such reports attributed to the Prophet or Companions were influenced by religious, dogmatic, political and ‘juridical developments of the Muslim community at a later time’[8]. Also the fact that Western views of adīth and Islāmic history developed in the backdrop of European colonial pursuits with the aim of domination of the ‘other’ has led some to conclude that ‘Western discussions about the reliability of the adīth tradition are thus not neutral’[9].  The Western criticisms of the traditional views that I mention below to balance the arguments offered in this essay reflect such modes of thinking as described above.

The final introductory point is regarding the term jam (collection) which is defined as understood by the classical Muslim scholars. The term, according to its multiple occurrence in numerous traditions has been varyingly defined as meaning; arrangement[10], writing[11], memorisation[12] and physical collection[13] in relation to the Qur’ān. As a result of its multivalent meaning, the revisionist scholar; John Wansbrough (ob. 2002) concluded that it was indicative of the nebulous nature of the traditional conception of the Qur’ānic collection[14]. However, the following discussion will seek to demonstrate that each meaning is in fact clearly reflective of the different contextual stages of the Qur’ānic collection.

The Prophetic Collection

The traditional view states that during the lifetime of the Prophet revelation would be written down immediately following its reception by one of his many amanuenses including Zayd b. Thābit on primitive writing materials that were available at hand inter alia stripped palm branches, stone plates, leather parchments and animal shoulder blades[15]. In this manner the complete Qur’ān was noted down on scattered pieces of materials but had not been compiled into one volume as reported by Zayd b. Thābit who stated: “The Prophet passed away without having collected the Qur’ān in anything[16].”Consequently, the view adduced primarily from this tradition and secondarily from others was that the Qur’ān was not compiled between two covers during the Prophetic era.[17]

However a minority of Muslim scholars such as Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim (ob. 287AH)[18] have claimed that the Prophet had compiled the Qur’ān into a muṣḥaf and sought to substantiate this view with a tradition that forbids travelling to enemy lands with the muṣḥafs. In tracing the sources of this tradition I found that none of the texts (mutūn) mention the word muṣḥaf or its plural maṣāḥif but instead they all mention the word Qur’ān.[19] Therefore, it appears Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim is mistaken in using the word maṣāḥif in the tradition instead of the proper word Qur’ān. Furthermore, even if the term muṣḥaf was used it would refer to the personal collections made by his Companions as some have argued[20].

There appear to be several reasons why the Qur’ān was not compiled into one volume during the Prophet’s life. From a Sunnite creedal point of view the Prophet had been promised by Allāh that he would not forget the Qur’ān as stated in 75:17-19, however this promise did not extend to his Companions who were individually liable to forget. As long as the Prophet was alive he was the reference point of the Qur’ān so there was no exigent need to compile it in a book form. From a practical point of view some verses were subject to abrogation as well as the fact that the chronology of the revelation of the Qur’ān was not reflected in its non-chronological arrangement which means it would not have been practically feasible to maintain a fixed volume, accordingly as al-Azami states; ‘a loose page format greatly simplified the insertion of new verses and new sūras[21]. With the death of the Prophet and cessation of revelation and just as significantly the availability of the whole Qur’ān in scattered written form as recorded in the presence of the Prophet; it was an opportune moment to now compile the Qur’ān ‘into a single, unified volume’[22].

Abū Bakr’s Collection

The traditional summative view states, as recorded by Bukhārī from Zayd b. Thābit’s report that during the Apostasy Wars, which Abū Bakr had to deal with upon being appointed the Caliph of the Islamic state, in one particular sanguinary battle a large number of readers (qurrā) were killed. News of this severely distressed ῾Umar who advised Abū Bakr to compile the Qur’ān otherwise much of it would disappear. Abu Bakr’s initial reluctance was followed, after persuasion from ῾Umar, by a firm conviction to collate all the Qur’ān into one volume for which he tasked Zayd to undertake. Zayd was chosen due to his youth and intelligence, unimpeachable character, having been the Prophet’s scribe and for having attended the final review of the Qur’ān in the last year of the Prophet’s life[23]. Although Zayd also hesitated at first he was convinced by Abū Bakr and ῾Umar and proceeded to undertake this momentous task. The Qur’ān was collected from disparate primitive writing materials and from people’s memories – along with witnesses to attest to it being written in the Prophet’s presence[24] – and put into one volume. The end of the ninth sūrah was found with none except Abū Khuzaymah al-Anṣārī. The copy was kept with Abū Bakr and then by ῾Umar who finally left it with his daughter and the wife of the Prophet ‘Ḥafṣah[25].

The historical reliability of the above report is rejected by the German Orientalist Friedrich Schwally (ob. 1919) who produced a revised edition of Theodore Nöldeke’s classical study on the history of the Qur’ān entitled Geschichte des Qorāns.[26]Whilst Nöldeke adopted the traditional Sunnite account of the Qur’ān’s historicity Schwally on the other hand in the first two volumes of the revised edition independently compiled by him arrives at conclusions markedly different from those of Nöldeke.[27]

One particular argument put forward by Schwally to support his conclusion that there was a spurious connection between the collection of the Qur’ān and the heavy death toll of the memorisers in the Battle of Yamāmah, thereby casting doubt on the motive for the collection, was the mention of only a handful of names in the list of dead who were experts of the Qur’ān.[28]The weaknesses in this argument lie firstly in the fact that no evidence is produced to substantiate the claim and secondly in the existence of documented proof of some of the names of memorisers who fell at the battle such as ῾Abd Allāh b. Ḥafṣ b. Ghānim, Sālim the client of Abū Ḥuẓayfah b. ῾Utbah b. Rabī῾ah, Zayd b. al-Khaṭṭāb (῾Umar’s elder brother) et cetera.[29]

Another argument which Schwally believes disarticulates the traditional view is that the Caliphal copy of the Qur’ān was bequeathed by Abū Bakr to ῾Umar who passed it onto his daughter Ḥafṣah and not to ῾Uthmān – an act which he believes contradicts the claim that it was an official copy.[30] However, ῾Umar’s bequeathing of the Caliphal copy to his daughter in no way discredits its official nature due because; firstly, unlike Abū Bakr, ῾Umar did not appoint a specific person to be his successor but instead left a consultation body consisting ‘six senior Companions’[31] to choose the next Caliph. As there was no Caliph to leave the copy with and there being no modern system of state archives or ‘official depository of records’[32] he left it in the hands of his daughter Ḥafṣah. Secondly, Ḥafṣah was not just ῾Umar’s daughter but was also one of the prominent wives of the Prophet, accordingly ῾Umar’s bequeath to his daughter was not merely the transference of something to an undistinguished heir lacking social recognition or status but to the religiously recognised institution of ‘The Mothers of the Believers’ which was bestowed upon the wives of the Prophet.

Watt adds a further argument which questions the validity of the motive by stating that according to other traditions, the Qur’ān was already in written form albeit in scattered materials therefore there was no need to fear the loss of the Qur’ān along with the death of the memorisers[33]. The problem with this argument is that Watt seems to have overlooked the established fact that the written Qur’ānic material during that particular period was consonantal in appearance and therefore divested of yet-to-be- conceived diacritical vowel marks.[34] Consequently, in order for majority of the Muslim populace to be able to recite the Qur’ān correctly the physical availability and expertise of the qurrā was the sine qua non of Qur’ānic teaching and learning[35] and a mitigating factor in incorrect readings. This latter point appropriately leads us to our next discussion regarding ῾Uthmān’s collection.

In summary though,  according to the traditional Sunnite view Abū Bakr’s aim was to gather all primary, first hand Qur’ānic fragments that were scattered amongst various Companions in Madīnah ‘and arrange for their transcription into a master volume’[36]. The importance of this stage to the Qur’ān thus lay in the fact that this action allowed the preservation of the Qur’ānic message which Muslims believe the Prophet Muḥammad had been sent with as a form of creedal and practical guidance.

Uthmānic Collection

The rapid expansion of the Islāmic state not only precipitated the expatriation of numerous Companions into different parts of the world but also brought a spectrum of languages and cultures under its control[37]. Classical traditions state the Companion Huẓayfah b. al-Yamān whilst leading a cosmopolitan army in the areas of present day Armenia and Azerbaijan noticed disputes arising amongst his men over the validity and supremacy of each others’ regional dialects and Qur’ānic reading styles. Shocked by these events he set out to ῾Uthmān and entreated him to act immediately ‘before they differ regarding the Book just as the Jews and Christians have differed’[38]. ῾Uthmān subsequently borrowed Ḥafṣah’s muṣḥaf and commissioned Zayd b. Thābit, ῾Abd Allāh b. al-Zubayr, Sa῾īd b. al-῾Āṣ and ῾Abd al-Raḥmān b. al-Ḥārith b. Hishām to transcribe the copy and streamline any differences in dialectal readings that occurs amongst themselves to that of the Quraysh dialect as the Qur’ān had been revealed in that dialect[39].

According to another report a different methodology was used which was more similar to that utilised in the time of Abū Bakr’s collection[40]. Not only was the master copy from Ḥafṣah used but the written materials along with witnesses[41] were also required to be present during the scribal process[42].  Upon completion of the task copies of the muṣḥaf were dispatched to various provinces along with a decree for the burning of all other muṣḥafs[43].

One of the criticisms Watt brings in relation to the motive of ῾Uthmān in compiling the Qur’ān is that his instruction to write it in the Quraysh dialect is questionable due to the primitive writing system of the time.[44]Although it is conceded that the writing system especially of ‘῾Uthmān’s Muṣḥaf [was] largely consonantal, frequently dropping vowels and containing no dots’[45] this does not mean the differences of certain variations of dialectical readings could not be exhibited through their writings – otherwise there would have been no reason to burn all other copies of the muṣḥaf. To further remove any confusion over the correct reading ῾Uthmān sent with each of the copies a reciter to demonstrate the correct form of reading[46]. The main importance of this stage to the Qur’ān is that the aim was to unite the Muslims upon a uniform reading of the Qur’ān[47] and to this end ῾Uthmān was highly successful.[48]

Western Displacement of the Traditional View

Two of the principle criticisms regarding the traditional views mentioned above stem from Burton and Wansbrough. Burton believed that European scholars had fallen short in thinking that only one version of a ḥadīth is true whereas no one had thought of suggesting that the whole corpus of ḥadīth traditions was equally untrue[49]. He believed it was the Prophet himself who collected the Qur’ān but Muslim jurisprudents upon examining the Qur’ān when it was later identified as a serious source noticed that many of their juridical rulings had no basis in the Qur’ān[50]. Consequently, in order to gain legitimacy for their views the Uṣūlīs forged the notion of naskh (abrogation) thereby suggesting the Qur’ān was incomplete and the Prophet had not collected the Qur’ān due to the possibility of naskh. Since the Prophet was excluded as the original compiler the job was ascribed to the next best people who were his Companions[51].

Wansbrough’s views were even more radical than Burton’s. Similar to Burton he suggested the Caliphal collection history was forged and fictitious but went farther based on two primary reasons; firstly he accepted Schacht’s scepticism regarding traditions that they were produced two centuries after the Prophetic era without actually investigating those traditions himself.[52] Secondly, due to his ‘form-analytical’ study of the Qur’ān and Muslim exegetical works[53] which he believed indicated the composite nature of the Qur’ān and that ‘the period required for its achievement was rather more than a single generation’[54].  The radical conclusion therefore is that the Qur’ān as we know it today was not canonised until after the end of the second century according to both Burton and Wansbrough[55].

The problem facing this conclusion, as demonstrated by Motzki’s methodological developments, lies in the fact that documented evidence exists of traditions mentioning the collection of the Qur’ān which have been dated to the last quarter of the second century AH in the form of ‘fragments found in Ibn Wahb’s Jāmi῾’[56]. Furthermore, the texts of these traditions must have existed earlier than manuscript evidence based on the concept of the ‘common link’ in the isnād (chain of ḥadīth transmission). If for argument’s sake we accept that these traditions are forged as both Burton and Wansbrough believe, then the source of this forgery can be identified via isnād analysis. Motzki’s analysis illustrates that the famous Minor Successor; Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī is the common link and therefore the originator of the ḥadīth[57]. This would then place the traditions in the ‘first quarter of the 2nd century AH’, thereby rendering Burton and Wansbrough’s theories fundamentally flawed and can ‘therefore be dismissed’[58].

More explicitly, Whelan’s analysis of the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Madīnah inscriptions place the writing of a canonised form of the Qur’ānic text to 72AH[59]. Her analysis showed that the verses inscribed on these buildings were in conformity with the popular Cairo edition of the Qur’ān except for minor variations and the inscriptions on the Great Mosque indicate that the Qur’ān was in a fixed and stable form, especially sūrahs 1 and 91-114. This completely contradicts Wansbrough’s conclusions[60].

In conclusion I have examined the three different but critically important stages of the collection of the Qur’ān and the importance each step played towards the preservation of the text as is extant today. I have demonstrated how each ‘collection’ was different and the preparatory role each played for the other. At the same time I mentioned some of the key criticisms that have been made by Western scholars in relation to the motivations for each stage of collection and brought evidence to clarify the weakness of such arguments. I have made references to how the two very different perspectives of the Muslim traditional view based on the Science of Ḥadīth and the Western view based on form and textual criticism have come, at times, to completely diametrically opposed conclusions and the rationale behind the latter.

Word Count: 3115

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END NOTES


[1] Al-Naysābūrī, Abū ῾Abd Allāh al-Ḥākim (1997) Al-Mustadrak alā al-aḥīḥayn, ed. Muqbil b. Hādī. Cairo: Dār al-Ḥaramayn, vol. 2, p.275

[2] Brown, Jonathan (2009) adīth: Muammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, p.200

[3] Ibid, p.202

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p.203

[6] Ibid, p.201

[7] Motzki, Harald (2001) ‘The Collection of the Qur’ān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments’. Der Islam: 78:1-34, p.7

[8] Ibid.

[9] Brown, supra n. 2, at p.198

[10] Al-Naysābūrī, supra n.1, at vol.2, p.275

[11] Ibid.

[12] Al-῾Asqalānī, Aḥmad b. ῾Alī b. Ḥajr (2000) Fat al-Bārī SharṢāḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, eds. ῾Abd al-῾Azīz b. ῾Abd Allāh b. Bāz & Muḥammad Fu’ād ῾Abd al-Bāqī. Riyāḍ: Dār al-Salām, vol.9, p.15

[13] Ibid, p.17

[14] Wansbrough, John (1977) Qur’ānic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.46

[15] Al-Suyūṭī, Jalāl al-Dīn (1425/2004) al-Itqān fī῾Ulūm al-Qur’ān ed. Zamarlī, Fawwāz Aḥmad. Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-῾Arabī, pp.156-157

[16] Al-Suyūtī, Jalāl al-Dīn (nd) Al-Itqān fīUlūm al-Qur’ān ed. Markaz al-Dirāsāt al-Qur’āniyyah. Saudi Arabia: np, vol.2 p.377

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim, Abū Bakr (1991) Al-Āḥād wa al-Mathānī, ed. Bāsim Faiṣal Aḥmad al-Jawābirah. Riyāḍ: Dār al-Rāyah, vol.3, p.191

[19] See: BukhārI (2990), Muslim (1869), Abū Dawūd (2610) and Ibn Mājah (2879) respectively. All these authors used the word ‘Maṣāḥif’ in their headings for the tradition Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim is referring to, so it appears he has mistakenly interpolated the headings of the authors with the actual text of the tradition.

[20] Qadhi, Abu Ammaar Yasir (1999) An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’ān. Birmingham: al-Hidaayah Publishing and Distribution, p.130

[21] Al-Azami, M.M (2003) The History of the Qur’ānic Text from Revelation to Compilation. Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, p.77

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, p.78-79

[24] Al-Sijistānī, ῾Abdullāh b. Abī Dāwūd (1427/2006) Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif ed. Salīm b. ῾Īd Al-Hilālī. Beirut: Mu’assasah Ghrās, p.144

[25] Bukhārī, Muḥammad b. Ismā῾īl (1419/1999) aḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Riyāḍ: Maktabah Dār al-Salām, p.894

[26] Motzki, Harald (2001) ‘The Collection of the Qur’ān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments’. Der Islam: 78:1-34, p.7

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid and repeated by Montgomery Watt in Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’ān, p.41

[29] ῾Alī, Muḥammad Mohar (2004) The Qur’ān and the Orientalists. Oxford: Jam’iyat Iḥyā’ Minhāj al-Sunnah, p.234

[30] Motzki, supra n. 15, at p.8

[31] ῾Alī, supra n. 29, at p.237

[32] Ibid.

[33] Turner, Colin (ed.) (2004) The History of the Text by W. Montgomery Watt The Koran: Critical Concepts in Islāmic Studies. Oxon: RoutledgeCurzon, p.95

[34] ῾Alī, supra n. 18, at p.235

[35] Ibid.

[36] Al-Azami, supra n. 21, at p.84

[37] Al-Rūmī, Fahd, (1427/2006) Dirāsāt fī ῾Ulūm al-Qur’ān al-Karīm. Riyāḍ: NP, p.90

[38] Bukhārī, Muḥammad b. Ismā῾īl (/14191999) aḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Riyāḍ: Maktabah Dār al-Salām, p.894

[39] Ibid.

[40] Al-Sijistānī, supra n. 24, at pp.209-210 and 205-206

[41] Ibid.

[42] Al-Azami, supra n. 21, at pp.92-93

[43] Bukhārī, supra n.38, at p.894

[44] Turner, supra n.33, at p.97

[45] Al-Azami, supra n. 21, at pp. 94-95

[46] Ibid.

[47] Al-Sijistānī, supra n.24, at p.172

[48] Ibid, p.97

[49] Burton, John (1977) The Collection of the Qur’ān. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.160

[50] Ibid, p.161

[51] Ibid, p.165

[52] Motzki, supra n. 26, at p.11

[53] Ibid.

[54] Wansbrough, supra n.14 p.44

[55] Motzki, supra n. 26, at p.15

[56] Ibid, p.20

[57] Ibid, p.29

[58] Ibid, p.31

[59] Turner, Colin (ed.) (2004) Forgotten Witness by Estelle Whelan, The Koran: Critical Concepts in Islāmic Studies. Oxon: RoutledgeCurzon, pp. 185-206

[60] Ibid.