The Sociological Aspects of the Hadith Transmission System


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Sociological Aspects of the Hadith Transmission System


The hadith transmission network, or chains of narration, which has covered the entire Islamic world, from Malaysia to Central Asia, and from Hijaz to Morocco for fifteen centuries, functioning as the nervous system of the Muslim world, is an interesting form of social organization, which makes social transmition of knowledge/information possible between generations and among different regions. This social network is the largest and longest ever network of social relations that we know of today. In no other religion and civilization than Islam is there such a social phenomenon, which has been recorded for centuries.

Today, however, the transmission system, which is a distinguishing characteristic of Islam, is largely ignored by even the scholars of hadith themselves, due to the fact that the hadith education has undergone a process of “academization” because of modernization and westernization. Thus, the transmission of hadiths has disappeared today, and its education has become formalized loosing its individual character. Unfortunately, this way Islamic societies are themselves throwing into the dusty pages of history a social structure that has for centuries served the transmission of a kind of knowledge and practice in an authentic way -even if relatively- and that has distinguished the Islamic civilization from other civilizations and religions; whereas this social structure has helped the survival of the Islamic society, its integration and the protection and expansion of Islam as a religion throughout its history.

Those scholars who are specialized in the study of hadith have recently sought for originality in employing the new technology in the service of their own disciplines by establishing sound connections with the past. For, originality or creativity in the study of hadithcannot result from ‘finding’ or putting forward a new hadith –the type and criterion of originality is different in every scientific discipline and artistic branch. When we look at the scholars who have been prominent in the study of hadith, we see that they are the ones who have made it easier for others to keep, have access to, and understand hadiths better, by successfully inventing new literary genres. The originality and creativity in the study of hadith, therefore, are found in the better protection of the hadithmaterial and in establishing the connection between this material and contemporary social problems, as well as its presentation to the general public with a literary genre that could best serve in meeting existing social and cultural needs.

Today, if a scholar of hadith is looking for creativity or originality, he or she should be concerned with a better integration of thehadith with the existing social structures and with the serious problems that we observe in terms of the role played by the sunna of the Prophet (pbuh) in the construction of a social life at the level of individual and the family, by trying to re-establish the relationship between the sunna and the society. Throughout the history of Islamic societies, hadith scholars have played important roles by presenting the model of the prophetic sunna as a solution to existing social problems, including first and foremost ethical problems, and trying to strengthen and re-construct the social structure on the basis of this model; rather than as experts on a literature that no longer has any say for the contemporary society.

The history of the hadith transmission network can be divided into three periods that partly overlap, and thus are difficult to distinguish with clear boundaries:

  • The period dominated by the transmission of single hadiths,
  • The period dominated by canonical compilations of authentic (sound) hadiths (starting especially with al Kutub al Sitta [the Six Books] in the 4th cenury (AH))
  • The period of academization, when the hadith education has been re-institutionalized within the modern university system, and the hadith transmission has disappeared or left to traditional institutions (especially since the second half of the 20th century).

Of these, the essential element of the first period included single hadiths and chains of narration; that of the second period included the canonical compilations of hadith on which there was social consensus –even though in relative terms- and their chains of narration; and that of the third period includes master’s and PhD theses completed in academic hadith departments. In this final period, the Dar al-hadith type educational institutions that used to offer traditional hadith education have been replaced by hadith departments in universities, which are organized in a modern and western style. Similarly, the approval (ijaza) and narrative chain (isnad) granted by a particular scholar/teacher (shaykh) himself have been replaced by diplomas given by universities, which are approved by the state. Therefore, each period has come into being under the impact of certain social, cultural and technological factors on the one hand, and each transformation has had certain influences on both the structure of the hadith transmission network and the relationships between the religion, the ulema and the society at large, on the other.

Religion as a Chain of Memory

Just as there has not been any society without religion, there has never been a leading sociologist who did not deal with the relationship between religion and society. From Ibn Khaldun to Karl Marx and Max Weber and to Talcott Parsons and Jurgen Habermas, all great sociologists have paid special attention to religion as a social phenomenon. In addition, the way sociologists see religion has undergone a significant transformation after the 1960s wherein the positivistic, materialistic, evolutionist and reductionist view that had been dominant until then started to lose its hegemonic position, and has gradually been rejected and replaced by a newer approach which is more idealist and anti-positivistic rejecting evolution and reductionism in the study of religion.  However, despite these developments, the traditional approach to society and narrative still continues to be applied in the East and the West by the Orientalist experts on Islam, who have failed to follow the new developments in social theory. Religion should no longer be understood as a “social institution” as defined by classical positivistic sociology of religion –and repeated without questioning by different academic circles and even by religious circles in Turkey; but rather we should embrace the view that sees religion as “religion” on the basis of these new approaches. Similarly, we need to re-construct the relationship between thehadith and the sunna on the one hand, and social structure, on the other.

In his book titled “Religion as a Chain of Memory” the prominent French sociologist Daniel Hervieu Leger argues that religion used to constitute the memory of the traditional society; however, modernization process has led to the emergence of a social amnesia (or loss of memory). For any society, collective memory means collective culture. Thus, the loss of the collective memory, or its disintegration would be a grave danger for the survival of a society. For, no society can come into existence without having a collective memory, nor can it survive afterwards without it. In addition, as observed by Fueck, the collective memory of the Islamic society is constituted by the prophetic tradition (sunna). The emergence, integration and survival of the Islamic society has been possible through the penetration and preservation of the collective memory, which is embodied by the prophetic sunna, into all layers of the society.

The Islamic society, which consists of many different races and cultures, has had a shared culture and a common identity to a certain extent despite the existence of differences among its members. Is it then possible to specify the sources of these cultural similarities, which are strikingly evident on a global scale? In his context, we are of the opinion that the prophetic sunna has played a crucial role by providing Muslims with the common models of action that have been internalized by them –models that cover all domains of life. Put more concretely, the question we would like to ask is this: what role does the sunna of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) play in terms of the cultural integration of the global Islamic society and for providing Muslims with a common identity and common models of action?

From a sociological point of view, cultural integration has two main dimensions: the integration of different generations that lived in different historical periods; and the integration of different social groups and classes who are part of the same generation. In my opinion, both inter-generational and inter-regional integration has been achieved in the Islamic civilization through the penetration of the transmission of hadiths into every layer of the society. In other words, the scholars of hadith have greatly contributed to the constitution of a common Muslim identity by helping disseminate the prophetic models into ever corner of the Islamic world. Ifhadith scholars did not help create a common life style and action model by disseminating the prophetic tradition and establishing the hadith as a reference point, there would emerge no collective culture, neither between generations nor between different regions. Rather, different generations would live very differently and think in radically different terms; similarly, people living in different regions would interpret and apply the principles of the Qur’an in extremely different ways.

Figure 1: Hadis Rivayet Ağının Değişen Merkezleri

The question of “how did Islamic scholars transmit the prophetic sunna across generations, and establish this tradition as the collective culture in different parts of the Islamic geography?” could not be answered without investigating the basic social structure of the hadith transmission network, or in technical terms, the isnad. It is thus important to understand the social structure of the network of hadith transmission and its contribution to the integration of different generations and of different regions. Furthermore, we need to keep in mind that the prophetic sunna involves a flexible approach to the problems of social life, and an attitude that reserves room for variations, rather than a series of standard and fixed models of action. For, the prophetic sunna itself approved and even encouraged differences in the application of its principles. Thus, when it reaches a region, the prophetic tradition does not clash with and replace existing local mores, but rather gives it its own distinctive color.

Contributions of the Hadith Transmission Network to the Inter-regional Collective Culture

The social network hadith transmission is the largest and longest ever network of social relations that is recorded and known today. No other network of a comparable scale has ever been discovered by social scientists. Likewise, no civilization other than Islam contains such a network system. As the scholars of hadith themselves proudly stated, the isnad is unique to Islamic civilization only. Moreover, the tradition of giving references to sources in a systematic and critical way is a very recent phenomenon in other civilizations. In the Christian and Jewish traditions in particular, no such tradition has ever existed. Although the system of the narration of traditions in these two civilizations has some similarities to the Islamic isnad system, their structure could not compare to the Islamic hadith transmission network as a system.

In the era of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh), the center of the transmission of hadiths was Medina. In later periods, Medina’s central position was replaced by Damascus, Baghdad and then Iran. Eventually, a multi-centered social structure emerged in this system, with no one single center enjoying the status of prominence (see Figure 1 below). If the of transmission of hadithsremained confined to Medina, the prophetic tradition would not be able to disseminate to the entire Muslim world but would influence the life and culture of a limited group of people. However, this situation did not occur, and the sunna of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) traveled to wherever Islam reached since the very beginning. This also points to the fact that Islam cannot be imagined without the prophetic sunna.

It is also a fact, however, that the isnad, or the chain of the narration of hadith, which survived 14 centuries, was cut in some parts of the Muslim world, including Turkey among others, in the 20th century. Despite this, in many parts of the Islamic world, transmission of hadiths within the isnad system still continues, even though to a limited extent. Thus, we know that the isnadtradition has been going on particularly in Syria, India and Pakistan, though it has been weakened in these areas as well.

Contributions of the Hadith Transmission Network to the Inter-generational Cultural Continuity

The transmission of hadiths has been going on since the ear of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with no interruption up until today. Within this system, each generation has functioned as part of this very long chain of transmitting the prophetic knowledge. In this way, the prophetic tradition has shaped the culture and life of every generation and provided a collective culture for them. Let us, however, take a counter factual example. If the chain of hadith narration were cut in one or more generations, it can be plausibly argued that the re-construction of this chain would no be possible anymore. This in turn would result in the emergence of significant cultural differences among different generations, and the cultural unity of Islam, which has been living for centuries, could not survive. 

Figure 2: The Rise and Fall of the Number of Prominent Hadith Scholars through Time, 610-1505.

As Figure 2 indicates above, though the number of the prominent hadith scholars within the system of hadith transmission does not remain the same but changes over time, the network of relations among these scholars have continued with no interruption through 26 layers. The figure also indicates the fact that there has been a general decline of interest in the systematic and critical transmission of hadith after the period when the authoritative compilations of hadith, known as al Kutub al Sitta (the Six Books), gained the status of canonical sources in the 4th cenury (AH). Ironically, when prominent hadith scholars made a remarkable achievement in preserving and narrating hadiths, the interest in their profession started to decline, because the canonization of the compilations of authentic hadiths rendered it unnecessary to a large extent to memorize hadiths.

Would the Cultural Unity of Islam be Still Possible, if the Hadith Literature were not Established Firmly?

If there were many different hadith literatures in different parts of the Muslim world, rather than one unified literature, which is the case today, then this might have caused the disintegration of the global Islamic civilization. On the other hand, it is true that there is an obvious divide between the Sunni world and the Shia in terms of their understanding of hadith and the hadith literatures they respect. For instance, the most reliable hadith compilations in the Sunni world, al Kutub al Sitta (the Six Books), do not enjoy the same status among the Shia Muslims. Moreover, the Shiites accept the sayings of the Shia imams as hadith, unlike the Sunni Muslims who limit the hadith with narrations that go back to the Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions (ra) only.

The structure of the hadith transmission network has functioned and evolved throughout centuries. Different moments of transformation, in which the scholars of hadith crucially contributed to the unification of the Muslim world around a collective memory, include the following:

  1. The transition from a period when verbal narration was dominant to the one in which written narration dominated
  2. The transition from the education based on direct, individual relationship between the teacher and the student to the institutional education via the establishment of Dar al hadith’s.
  3. The replacement of the scattered literature by the acceptance of the al Kutub al Sitta [the Six Books] in the Sunni world in the 4th cenury (AH).
  4. The emergence of a standard method of hadith criticism that was accepted by the entire ummah.

These phases of development improved, on the one hand, the standards of hadith transmission and made it more reliable, and on the other hand, it further contributed to the constructive function of the hadith for the Muslim society.

عن أبي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه قَالَ:
قَبَّلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْحَسَنَ بْنَ عَلِيٍّ وَعِنْدَهُ الأَقْرَعُ بْنُ حَابِسٍ التَّمِيمِيُّ جَالِسًا‏.‏ فَقَالَ الأَقْرَعُ إِنَّ لِي عَشَرَةً مِنَ الْوَلَدِ مَا قَبَّلْتُ مِنْهُمْ أَحَدًا‏.‏ فَنَظَرَ إِلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ثُمَّ قَالَ ‏"‏ مَنْ لاَ يَرْحَمُ لاَ يُرْحَمُ ‏"‏‏
God's Messenger kissed Al-Hasan bin Ali (his grandchild) while Al-Aqra' bin Habis At-Tamim was sitting beside him. Al-Aqra said, "I have ten children and I have never kissed anyone of them", God's Messenger cast a look at him and said, "Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully." (Bukhari, Good Manners and Form (Al-Adab), 18)

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