Prophet, or talks about him, and nowhere leaves him to speak for himself. The Qur'an describes itself as a scripture which God ''sent down'' to His prophet, and this expression, ''sent down'', in its various derivations, is used in the Qur'an well over 200 times. In Arabic this locution conveys immediately, and, implicitly, the principle that the origin of the Book is heavenly, and that Muhammad is no more than its receptacle. God is the one who speaks in this Book: Muhammad is addressed as ''O Prophet!'', ''O Messenger!'', ''Do'', ''Do not do'', ''They ask you ...'', ''Say!'' (this last command appearing more than 300 times). Sometimes the Prophet is reproached (9:43; 80:1-11). His status is unequivocally defined as ''messenger'' (rasul), and he is often reminded that his duty is simply to communicate (balagh) the message to his community.
A hadith reports that during his first experience of revelation the Prophet was alone in the cave, but subsequent circumstances in which the received episodes of revelation were witnessed by others and recorded. Sometimes these witnesses would report visible, audible and sensory reactions when the Prophet experienced the ''state of revelation''. His face would ''become bright'', and he would fall silent and seem to be contemplating distant things; his body would become heavy as though in sleep, a humming sound would be heard around him, and sweat might appear on his brow, even on winter days. This stage would swiftly end, and as it did so he would immediately recite new verses of the scripture. The sources report that this state was not the Prophet's to command: it might descend on him as he was walking, sitting, riding or giving a sermon, and there were occasions when he waited for it anxiously for over a month when he needed an answer to a question he had been asked, or sought an interpretation of some event. The Prophet and his followers understood these signs as experiences accompanying the communication of scriptural verses by Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation; his adversaries explained them as proof that he was ''possessed'', and in this regard, the Qur'an itself records many claims and attacks made upon it and upon the Prophet in his lifetime.2
The evidence suggests that for the Prophet himself, the Qur'an was ''sent down'' and communicated to him by ''the faithful Spirit'', Gabriel, and was categorically not his own speech. Stylistically, qur'anic material which the Prophet recited following the states of revelation described above is so evidently different from the Prophet's own sayings as recorded in the hadith, whether uttered incidentally or after long reflection, that the tradition has always ascribed them to two radically different levels of discourse.
For the Qur'an, the Prophet is the passive recipient of a revelation over which he has no control, and which does not allow for dialogue, even between him and the Angel of Revelation. By contrast, a general feature of the hadith is a constant conversation addressed to and reported by named individuals. In hadiths narrating the actions of the Prophet, there is often a description of the setting and the occasion, where the narrator speaks at length, while the Prophet, if he is involved, speaks only a few words, and perhaps not at all.
The Muslim historians report that with each new accumulation in the qur'anic corpus, the Prophet would recite it to those around him, who would memorise it and in turn communicate it to others. Throughout his mission the Prophet repeatedly read the Qur'an to his followers in formal prayer and at other times. An inner circle of his disciples wrote down the verses that he taught them. He himself was assiduous in having the text recorded even in the days of persecution, and he acquired scribes for this purpose (twenty-nine have been counted in the Medina period).
The word 'Qur'an' itself means ''reading'', and came to refer to ''the text which is read''. The Muslim scripture often calls itself kitab, ''writing'', and this word came to denote the scripture, the ''written book''. Thus the significance of uttering and writing the revealed scripture was emphasised from the beginning of the new religion, and is locked into the very nouns that designate the qur'anic canon.
Qur'anic revelations are believed to have come to the Prophet piecemeal over a period of twenty-three years. The disparate material is invariably divided into 114 suras (''sections'', conventionally translated in English as ''chapters''). A sura may consist of no more than one line, such as suras 108 and 112; while sura 2, the longest, stretches over dozens of pages. Each sura consists of verses, each known in Arabic as aya (a ''sign'' from God). Some suras contain Meccan and Medinan ayas: the order of material in each sura, according to classical Muslim teaching, having been determined by the Prophet at the command of the Angel of Revelation, who delivered the qur'anic material to him. The hadith record that when each new unit of text was received he would request his disciples to place it in a given chapter, and the result was that material was distributed over the suaras not in chronological order of appearance, but as they were to be read by the Prophet and the believers.3
Over the years, in formal liturgical practice and in counselling his followers, the Prophet recited qur'anic material so frequently and at such length that it is reasonable to regard the current sequence of suras today as faithfully reflecting this original arrangement. By the time of the
Prophet's death in the year 632, the entire scripture had been written down in the form of uncollated sections, but many of his followers, having spent years in his company where the Qur'an was a constant presence, had memorised much or all of the text, and the book was principally experienced as an aural phenomenon.4 These men and women were members of a cultural world that had a longstanding tradition of committing literature, history and genealogy to memory. Two years after the Prophet's death, the battle of Yamama against the people of Najd in Central Arabia took place, in which a number of those who knew the text lost their lives, and the sources report that it was feared that parts of the text might be lost. The first caliph, Abu Bakr (632-4), therefore ordered that the Qur'an should be collected in a single written copy, which was then placed in the custody of 'Umar, and, after his death, was left with the Prophet's widow Hafsa. This copy was the basis of the codex issued in several copies by the third caliph, 'Uthmaan (644-56), to be distributed to several parts of the Muslim world to ensure that a universal standard text of the scripture would prevail. This has remained the sole canonical text of the Qur'an, recognised by Sunni and Shi'i theologians to the present time.5
Although the Qur'an is the unrivalled supreme revelation of Islam, the tradition also recognises a second form of revealed scripture: the hadith (hadith). Technically, Muslims came to define the hadith as ''the attested reports of the sayings, actions, and tacit approvals and accounts of the Prophet Muhammad''.6 These present records of the Prophet's statements, as well as statements by his companions relating to him. Collectively the hadith literature provides evidence for the Prophet's way of life (sunna), so that the word sunna is in the eyes of many synonymous with the word hadith.7 The relationship between the Qur'an and hadith is well defined: the hadith either emphasises what is in the Qur'an (sunna mu'akkida), explains the manner in which something should be carried out (sunna mubayyina) or introduces teaching based on certain qur'anic verses or principles (sunna muthbita). The latter category in particular was to become a prime source of material for the theologians.
The vast corpus of hadith includes reports of the Prophet's childhood and his experiences in Mecca before his prophetic career began;but most hadith refer to the Medina period, when the Prophet had thousands of followers who asked him questions and received instruction from him in all aspects of the new religion.8 The hadith show the Prophet as a skilled communicator and teacher.9 In Medina he was with his Companions for nearly all the daylight hours and for much of the evening; his house gave on to the mosque, and some hadith show that even when at home he would sometimes hear heated discussions taking place in the mosque and would come out to resolve the dispute. This constant interaction led to the creation of the immense body of hadith, which he is recorded as urging his followers to pass on to others: ''God bless the one who has heard me say something and preserved it [in his memory] so that he can pass it on to others, for many a person carries knowledge to others more knowledgeable than himself.''10
However, whereas with qur'anic material the sources record that the Prophet was careful to have it written down as well as learnt by heart, this was not the case with the hadith. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that only once the Qur'an was fully recorded did he begin to allow those Companions who could write proficiently to record the hadith in written form.11 After his death, the caliph 'Umar I (634-44) is said to have debated a scheme to have the hadith collected into a single text; he decided against this, fearing that it might come to rival the Qur'an. The collection of hadith appears not to have received official sanction until the time of the Umayyad caliph 'Umar II (717-19), who seems to have initiated and partly carried out the task of collating the material. But by the beginning of the second Muslim century the writing down of hadith and of other forms of Muslim learning was spreading exponentially. The community came to revere three successive generations who inaugurated and shaped this process. These were the Companions (sahaba) of the Prophet, a category made up of all who saw him or heard him speak (the last is said to have died in the year 110 ah);the Successors (tabi'un) who received the hadith from the Companions (the last of these, according to some claims, died in i80);and the Successors of the Successors (atba' al-tabi'in), some of whom allegedly lived until the first quarter of the third century of Islam.
Because of the delay in commencing the authentication process, and because of the sheer size of the hadith material (which was preserved in the form of perhaps a million separate reports), the early Muslim scholars admitted the existence of a large number of forgeries and distortions, many of which echoed early sectarian tensions. In reaction, the growing class of scholars ('ulama') slowly developed intricate methods for assessing the reliability of individual hadith reports. A tradition of travelling in search of relevant information began, retracing the footsteps of the Companions and others who had migrated to the far corners of the new Islamic world. We are told, for instance, that it took the
Central Asian al-Bukhari (d. 870) sixteen years of travel and study to assemble his collection.12
Bukhari's criteria for accepting a hadith as sound (sahib) were that it should have reached him from the Prophet on the authority of a well-known Companion, by means of a continuous chain (isnad) of narrators who, according to his records, had been accepted unanimously by trustworthy scholars as men and women of integrity, retentive memories and firm faith. If they did not explicitly state that they had received the material from their own teachers, he took care to establish that they had demonstrably met those whom they cited as teachers.
Given the overwhelmingly oral nature of the hadith in the early period, it was only natural that hadith specialists should have begun with the chain of narrators; but their criticism was not limited to this. General principles for the criticism of the transmitted text (matn) of the hadiths evolved during the second and third Islamic centuries, and foremost among these principles was the understanding that a hadith should not contradict the Qur'an, or other hadiths which were already and generally accepted as authentic, and that it must not conflict with the absolute consensus of the community (ijma' qat'i), or a list of accepted general principles of the religion. For a hadith to be an acceptable source of practice or of doctrine it was thought that it should not contradict the established historical facts known about the time of the Prophet, or report an event that should have been visible to a large number of people yet was not reported by anyone else, or be the result of any demonstrably partisan motivations. Traditional Muslim scholars continue to assert, with some justification, that this insistence on authenticity and exactitude in determining the scriptural canon is unparalleled in other pre-modern cultures. In consequence, a body of accepted hadith was able to form a highly reputable second source of Muslim teaching which, it was thought, should complement and augment the doctrine of the Qur'an itself.
The most elementary components of Islamic faith might be said to appear in a single qur'anic verse:
The Messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, as do the faithful. They all believe in God, His angels, His scriptures and His messengers: ''We make no distinction between any of His messengers.'' They say: ''We hear and obey; grant us Your forgiveness, our Lord. To You we all return.'' (2:285)
On the basis of this and similar statements, Islamic theology was often broken down into the following five basic components: belief in one God, His messengers, His books, His angels, and the day of judgement.
In traditional Muslim theology, any credal article fundamental enough to distinguish believer from non-believer has to be established by categorical proof-texts which have been rigorously transmitted and which indisputably mean what they are claimed to mean. Accordingly, fundamental matters of creed ('aqada) can only13 be based on the Qur'an, since it is believed to be categorically authentic in the highest degree, and only on such verses in the Qur'an that are indisputable in meaning (qat 'I al-dalala).14
A rather small number of axiomatic beliefs fall into this category. They came to be distinguished from a range of other theological problems, such as whether God can be seen by the human eye, whether His attributes are other than His essence, whether or not a person committing a major sin will be punished everlastingly, whether there will be a mahda who will come at the end of time, whether or not Jesus will return in person, whether or not it is obligatory for God to do what is best for people, whether or not a person creates his own actions voluntarily, and whether or not the sins people commit are willed by God. These issues, which have been disputed by the theologians, are not taken by Ash'arism, the main school of Muslim orthodoxy, to be the most fundamental axioms of the creed, and disbelief in any one of them will not put anyone outside the fold of Islam, since they are not established by absolutely categorical proof-texts in the scriptures.
A salient feature of the qur'anic presentations of doctrines is that they are not treated together and exhaustively in a single sura. Instead, as the medieval exegete al-RazI concludes in his account of the ''stylistic habits of the Qur'an'', they are the armature of other, practical teachings.15 Thus even in discussions of legal matters, theological statements often come before and afterwards, reminding the reader of God's power and glory, and also of the judgement, both of past nations and at the end of time. It is these scattered declarations, together with the names which God has given Himself in the Qur'an, which form the qur'anic quarry from which Muslim theology is hewn.
The core of Islamic theology is limited to the explanation and defence of the five fundamental beliefs listed above. In the sahlh hadith anthologies of Bukhara and Muslim we find these reiterated; to give but one well-known example, in a hadith related by the second caliph 'Umar, the beliefs given in Qur'an 2:285 are reported in the same order: ''When the Prophet was asked: 'Tell me what is faith (iman),' he replied:
'Faith is to believe in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, whether good or bad.'''16 This hadith merely repeats the information supplied in Qur'an 2:285, adding the belief in destiny established elsewhere in the scripture, as at 57:22-3 and 64:11.
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