The Social and Oral Structure of Isnad (Chain of Transmission ): Whose Narrative?


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Social and Oral Structure of Isnad (Chain of Transmission ): Whose Narrative?

The more than 1400 year-old social network of hadith (sayings of the Prophet) scholars is known traditionally as the isnad (chain of transmission) system which includes innumerable scholars in Islam’s broad geography. The intellectual pursuit of these scholars is known as the science(s) of hadith. Here the ilim (science) faces a systematic accumulation of knowledge. As an academic pursuit, the Science of Hadith is an oral discipline essentially related to narratives about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), together with branches that extend to Islamic culture and society. If the Quran is divine knowledge, then the Prophet’s Sunnah (his practices) is its essential and living state.

Islam possesses two basic sacred tests or narratives that are organically tied to one another and around which many-faceted interpretation traditions or elevated-narrations have appeared.

A narration system is formed by a social network in which reporters, listeners, the narrated text, and elevated-narrations intermingle. The process of narration ties these factors to one another. These factors, in regard to hadith narration, face, in turn, the hadith teacher, the hadith student, the hadith text, the hadith’s elevated-narration and the isnad system. These factors and the means that tie them to one another will be discussed below in regard to the hadith narration system or isnad.


Revolving Form of Narration

“Let those listening to me tell my words to others; let them tell others; perhaps the final ones will understand my words better than those listening to me directly.” During his Farewell Hajj (631 A.D.), the Prophet finished his Farewell Address, which he gave mounted on his camel in the middle of the Arabian Desert near Mecca, with these words. As they generally did the outset of the Prophet’s apostleship, the Companions abided by this frequently repeated directive and carefully preserved in their memories the words they heard and the actions they saw for the purpose of passing them on to their families, friends, tribes and future generations, in particular. I wonder if they could have imagined how much they were to contribute to an eternal social-oral masterpiece d by the hadith narration network with their speech which would be related again and again by reporters East to West.

As revolving reporting that historically narrated the matters the Prophet spoke and kept silent about, hadith brought forth a strong impetus towards the formation of a narration network. Hadith reporters consecutive generations tried to know the reporters who related to them well enough to be sure they were reliable in order to prevent any false narrations. The chain of reporters was called isnad, meaning “support” or “standing behind.” A few centuries after the death of the Prophet, the chain of transmission had grown considerably. The hadith structure emerged this process together with a new style of transmission formed by two factors (chain of reporters=proof and narration text=text).

Taking on the most vital role in the formation and continuity of the network, revolving narration connected generations of reporters to each other. It would have become impossible to connect many reporters in a social network without the power of revolving language.

Narration protocol or indirect expression closely examined hadith reporters for results of the authenticity of the narration. There were many expressions for indicating the transmission of a narration one scholar to another. Each of the expressions reflected one aspect or type of relationship between the speaker and listener. For example, “I heard it a” is not the same as simply saying “ a.” While the former expresses the formation of the time and place together, the latter leaves all this uncertain. Similarly, “a said to me” is not the same as “a said it.” While the former indicates a direct and personal contact, the latter leaves this unclear.

However, efforts to rank and tie indirect narration rules to a system did not gain support in that direction reporters. Together with this, isnad and hadith were classified according to expressions used to indicate indirect narration. For example, Buhari, the respected author of the most prestigious book of hadith thought that expressions in indirect narration meant that both the reporter and listener were in the same environment and, for this reason, he claimed that narration needed to be direct because it was the only method for accepting a narration as authentic. Together with this, his standards are difficult to attain for the majority who use easier criteria.

A Narration’s Content, Form and Network Distribution

How is the narration’s contents and form related to the expansion of the narration network? Formed with short sentences, hadiths, compositions learned by heart and stories are more amenable to being spread around in comparison to long, straight-forward texts with simple contents and texts containing legal commands. Without adding a causal or chronological tie, hadith possesses a form similar to a short episode or instant the Prophet’s life. What did hadith scholars aim to accomplish by developing this form? What meaning does the hadith narration form carry?  Before anything else, this form of narration nurtures the identity of hadith scholars by separating them scholars who produced other forms of narration. A disconnected, unplanned and disorderly form separates hadith reporters other groups dealing with hadiths like biographical writers, historians, and story tellers, who present a more chronological arrangement of materials based on a logic derived a more focused use of planning. Still, making a respected place for narrations regarding the Prophet, narrations developing like this as opposed to the empirical style of legal experts and traditionists were more attractive to the public. In this respect, the displeasure felt by some hadith scholars  against story tellers and even historians and the defensive reactions made by the others regarding history are a well-known side of Islamic intellectual history.

Chronological arrangement was not of basic interest to hadith scholars. Under no circumstances was linear time an essential part of hadith reporters of the early period, because this concept only entered Arab culture during the time of Umar, the architect of the hijri calendar.

More importantly, it can be seen that there is a striking, pragmatic concern in the form of the hadith. A disconnected narration is a “memorizable” form that is easier to recall and disseminate; it is more permanent in the memory and more suitable to the functioning of the verbal part of the brain. Thus, as the text is broken up, it will be easier to disseminate. In this respect, I think that hadith is indebted to its disconnected form for its wide dissemination. If hadith had been in the form of a long, unified, single text, only a group of distinguished scholars possessing determination and opportunity could have reached it. The most widely dispersed hadith is generally known as “mutevatir (well-known).” If this is true, then it can be assumed that reporters with memorized narrations in their store of knowledge would be more famous.


The Emergence of the Isnad System

The question of what made the hadith network emerge is still waiting to be taken up a social and cultural perspective. It is not possible to make a fully convincing explanation of this with the current level of knowledge. In fact, thousands of handwritten documents which could illuminate this matter are dispersed throughout the world and are still waiting to be published. Together with this, I can indicate some areas of interest that can be seen as probable reasons for the emergence of the hadith narration network:

  • The Prophet’s continual commands to the Companions to pass on his words to others,
  • Efforts to learn the teachings of the Prophet,
  • The efforts of the state and jurists to protect one of the sources of the law,
  • The social position given by the people to scholars showing interest in narrations of the Prophet,
  • Sectarian conflict leading to efforts to support their own views with narrations the Prophet and to destroy narrations of the other party.

The historical roots of the hadith narration network can be traced back to Arab culture before Islam. The pre-Islamic “non-writing” culture necessitated that illiterate Arabs rely heavily on their memories in cultural and daily matters.  For a few cultured individuals the memorization of poetry and the family trees of tribes, families and respectable individuals was an inextricable part of the culture. With the advent of Islam, memorization found a new field of application and Arabs began to memorize the Quran and the Prophet’s words. Later, in the period after the Prophet’s death when it became important to know the ties among hadith reporters, the mass of information regarding connections among reporters, which resembled tribal and family genealogies in form, also began to be memorized.

According to various historical records, there is no exact ning date for the emergence of the hadith narration network and hadith sciences, which developed throughout the first two centuries of Islamic history. The hadith narration network took root in efforts to protect the whole body of the Prophet’s teachings which a short time later Muslims understood depended on a trustworthy narration network. The fabrication of hadiths that was triggered by political and sectarian concerns or, more simply, by instincts of legend and fantasy was not to the benefit of the Prophet’s Companions, new converts and the state. The Companions possessed the full trust of the Prophet on the matter of protecting his heritage fabrication. Learning the Prophet’s authentic teachings was also to the benefit of new converts to Islam. In addition, protecting one of the main sources of Islamic law also comprised a benefit for the state. These efforts eventually led to the transformation of narration an art to the present hadith sciences in many branches and the emergence of the hadith narration network which has continued its vitality during the past fourteen centuries to date.

The discoveries made as a group by scholars one after the other emerged in scattered places and they contributed to the development of the social structure of narration. Muslims invented special criteria to differentiate the special trading division: “hadith”; a special kind of social relationship: rivayet (narration) meaning the trading of hadiths; a special identity: muhaddis meaning hadith expert; a special network: isnad meaning taking knowledge to its source or simply “support,” and criteria to distinguish various transmission chains one another. To guarantee that the network functioned properly, they also invented formal rules to arrange this process called Usul-i Hadis (Hadith Methodology). By including a hadith in the transmission chain or by excluding it, these rules indicated the soundness of the hadith in circulation according to the scholastic activities of the reporters, the moral standards of their behavior, and their relationships with one another as teacher-student. Many identities emerged indicating the level of the reporters and their constructive position like hafiz (one who has memorized the Quran), “well-known,” “dubious,” “reliable,” and “liar.” These contested with one another for the purpose of controlling the period of narration dissemination.

In addition to responsibility for careful investigation of authentic narrations, the Prophet’s sincere followers also took on the responsibility for investigating the fabrication of hadith, which continued in spite of all these efforts to control it. Hadith scholars (al-muhaddisun), more than anyone else in society, dedicated their lives to this duty and developed a profession it.


Hadith Critique Methodology: Usul-i Hadis

Parallel to the collection of hadiths into volumes, a new branch appeared: hadith critique. Hadith scholars referred to this as Hadith Sciences (Ulumu'l-hadis), Science of Hadith Terminology (Ulm-i mustalahi'i-hadis), or Hadith Critique Methodology (Usulu'l-hadis). This branch developed gradually over the centuries.

The first hadith scholars used very fine rules and criteria that guided their work; however, some terminology varied one scholar to another and principles that had been dispersed in various books began to be written in a systematic way. Distinguished and innovative works were er-Risale by Safii (d. 204 H.), the introduction of Muslim’s (d.261 H.) Sahih, and Tirmizi’s (d. 279 H.) Cami. With careful work, early hadith scholars like Buhari produced many criteria, and later scholars determined which reporters or isnad would be accepted or rejected by them by means of their careful work.

Ramehurmuzi’s (d. 350 H.) work can be given as an example of the first comprehensive efforts. The main contribution after that was Hakim’s (d.405 H.) work called Marifetu ulumi'l-hadis which included fifty different hadith classifications. However, he did not mention some points at all; Abu Nuaym el-Isbahani (d. 430 H.) completed his work. After this comes Hatib Bagdadi's (d. 463 H.) el-Kifaye fî ilmi'r-rivaye on the etiquette of teaching and learning hadith. It is accepted that later scholars owed a great deal to this work of Hatîb.

After additions to the subject by Qadi Iyaz el-Yahsubi (d. 544 H.) and Abu Hafs el-Meyanci (d. 580 H.), there is the work of Osman b. es-Salah'in (d. 643 H.), which he wrote while teaching in schools of tradition in many cities in Syria, called Ulumu'l-hadis and widely known as Mukaddimetu Ibnu's-Salah. Its dimensions are small, but it is so comprehensive with the perfect way the subject is handled that it is has come down to us over the centuries and is used today as a standard reference book by hadith teachers and students.

Some of the many works based on the above work of Ibnu's-Salah are as follows: el-Irsad which is a summary of Mukaddime belonging to Nevevi' (d. 676 H.); he later summarized this in the Takrib; Tedribu'r-ravi written as a valuable commentary on the latter by Suyuti (d. 911 H.); Ibn Kesir's (d. 774 H.) Ihtisar-i ulumi'l-hadis; Tibi's (d. 743 H.) el-Hulasi, el-Bulkini’s (d. 805 H.) Mehasinu'l-istilah; all of these are a summary of Ibnu's-Salah's Mukaddime. Zerkesi's (d. 794 H.) en-Nuket, Iraki's (d. 806 H.) et-Takyid ve'l-izah, Ibn Hacer el-Askalsni's (d. 852 H.) en-Nuket are all commentaries on Ibnu's-Salah's work. A rewriting of the Mukaddime in the form of a long poem, Irakî's Elfiyyetu'l-hadis became the subject of many commentaries including, first of all, one short and one long commentary by the author, and es-Sehaviis (d. 903 H.) Fethu'l-mugis and Suyuti's Katru'd-durer.

Hadith critique was guided by some principles. Together with this, these principles are in dispersed form in classical works. I gathered these principles together below as tied to a system for the benefit of modern readers.

The first criterion used in hadith critique is related to the number of connections in the narration chain to the source: However few the connections in the chain are, the chain is that much reliable. This can be seen as the first rule in the critique of a transmission chain. It is obvious that every addition in the transmission chain increases the probability of deviation and decreases the level of soundness and reliability of the hadith. The shortness of a chain is relative and can only be determined in comparison with other chains. When two chains are taken into consideration, the one with fewer links is called “elevated (ali)” and the one with relatively more links is called “low (nazil).” Especially until respectable hadith books became widespread, hadiths were compared to examine the length of their chains. Promising students traveled to distant regions in order to get shorter narration chains prestigious teachers.  Together with this, after respected texts gained general acceptance, the interest in the shortest chains increasingly lost its importance. As for legal experts, they only choose shorter narration chains when there is a contradictory situation.

The second criterion adopted in hadith critique is the number of chains supporting one another on a narration or parallel to one another. In short, however many more parallel chains there are for a narrative, it becomes that much more reliable. We can see this rule as the second main rule in hadith critique. Again, it is obvious that a narration with more parallel chains is more reliable for listeners than one with few parallels. Legal experts give priority to a hadith with more parallel chains because it is accepted as more reliable.

A third main criterion used in hadith critique can be defined as the continuity of the chain: However few indirect connections there are, the chain is that sound. In other words, however little a chain has been broken, it is that sound, or however much connections in a chain are recorded with the whole, the chain is that much reliable. One of the first matters examined in an indirect narration is the possibility of its being followed to the source of the chain without interruption. Every link and every relationship must be verified one by one. Together with this, sometimes it is not easy to establish definite information regarding every link and its relationship. In such a situation we have to rely on what is possible at that moment. When looked at this angle, every chain has a relative reliability, with the least interrupted being the most reliable. Final typology encompasses these categories: “uninterrupted” is a continuous chain; “hanging” is an uncertain chain; “broken” is where many reporters are not known; and “perplexing” is when the first link is broken and the name of the Companion was not indicated.

A fourth criterion used by hadith critics can be stated as the respectability of the reporters in the chain. Thus, the fourth rule can be expressed as follows: however respectable the reporters in a chain are, the chain is that much trustworthy. This principle can be applied to indirect narration and our daily experience. News coming respected and well-known reporters usually gives us more trust. To the contrary, unknown and unidentified reporters or speakers will probably not give the same trust and confidence. With the systematic application of this rule, three types of reporters emerged: “renowned” for narration chains possessing reporters all of whom are well-known; “irregular” for a narration chain with unknown persons in it; “intentionally interrupted” for doubtful narration chains where the reporters have not been indicated or, contrary to the truth, where they have falsely been made to appear to be well-known and reliable.

The fifth criterion is related to the type of narration and the relationship or connection between the teacher and student. Hadith critics examine the strength of the connection among reporters in order to decide on their relative reliability. This is determined by the narration method: however adequate the narration method is, the chain is that much reliable. Eight narration types were formulated by hadith scholars to show how the relationship was established between the teacher and student:

  • Sema' (listening) and imla (spelling): Oral narration realized with the teacher’s having it written down or not;
  • Kiraat and Arz: The student’s repeating the narration to the teacher who transmitted it;
  • Icazet: The teacher’s giving the student permission to transmit his narrations;
  • Munavele: The student’s getting a teacher’s book;
  • Mukatebe: A student’s getting his teacher’s written narrations by letter;
  • Ilam: A teacher’s transmission to a student without giving permission to narrate it to anyone else;
  • Vasiyyet: A student’s receiving a teacher’s book through a last will and testament;
  • Vicade: A student’s finding a teacher’s book.

The sixth general principle of hadith critics focuses on the academic sufficiency of the reporters shown by the relative strength of their memories. Thus, according to the rule, however powerful the reporter’s memory is, the chain is that much reliable. According to this principle, it is necessary that the memory of every reporter in the chain be strong in order for the hadith to be reliable. For this reason, reporters should have none of these five faults: Su-i hifz, untrustworthy memory; kesretu'l-galat, eroding mistakes; vehim, constant indecision; Fartu'l-gafle, absent-mindedness; muhalefetu's-sikat, being in opposition to the most reliable authorities. If one of these faults is found in a reporter, he cannot be accepted as reliable.

The seventh criterion focused on by hadith critics is the reporter’s character and morality ('adi): However noble a reporter’s character is, the chain is that much reliable. This can be considered as the seventh main principle of hadith critics. A reporter’s character should be free these five faults: kizb, fabricating a hadith; ittiham bi'l-kizb, telling lies in daily life; fisk, violating ethical and religious principles; bid'at, deviation; cehl, uncertainty. These faults are unacceptable in a reporter and will disqualify him his profession.

The application of these rules gave birth to a complex, multi-dimensional or multi-variable evaluation system. Narrations approved by some were rejected by others. Hadiths were classified in this way in respect to the authority the scholars attributed to them:

  • Sahih: reliable, sound
  • Hasan: good, acceptable
  • Da’if: weak
  • Maudu: fabricated or forged

This classification is not universal; other more detailed classifications can be found.

The ideas of reporters are focused more on the form of the narration than on its content. This tendency was criticized by those who wanted the texts to be focused on. It is generally accepted that the value of a chain of transmission is as great as its weakest link. In regard to content, it is generally stipulated that the inconsistency of an event that has been demonstrated empirically comprises a sufficient basis for disqualifying a narration as fabrication. In case criticism of content is not made, hadith critique must concentrate in a firm manner on the narration period, reporters and relationships.

There are some practical results of narration classification, because Islamic creed uses only hadiths that are sahih in every respect (well-known ones are used; Islamic law uses the first two categories – sahih and hasan; some law schools use sirah and Sufism and weak hadiths). Even if a legal or theological principle is only a concept defined in different ways, it can be drawn a sahih hadith. For this reason, we can comfortably say that every religious branch of knowledge (hadith, fikih, kalam, tasawwuf and history) has developed its own elevated-narrations regarding hadiths for their different purposes.


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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