The Transmission Of Knowledge

From the emergence in the eighth century of the traditional ''Islamic sciences'', which include grammar (nahw), exegesis (tafsi), dialectic theology (kalam), study of hadith, and jurisprudence (fiqh), the establishment and maintenance of a connection to the event of revelation became the central preoccupation of those who dedicated themselves to learning. If revelation represented a special infusion of knowledge into the world, this knowledge had to form the basis of human scholarly endeavours, and therefore had to be transmitted accurately from generation to generation.

The fundamental method of transmission at the heart of the emerging Islamic disciplines was the face-to-face encounter of teacher and student. Students took private lessons with their teachers or -more frequently - participated in their mentors' teaching circles, in which the master would deliver a lecture, seated, to a cluster of students, the most advanced of whom sat closest to him. Lectures were typically, though not always, based on a text or texts, which the teacher read out in sections, explaining and commenting on each segment. Students took notes, or had notes taken for them by professional scribes. Depending on the nature of the subject and the disposition of the teacher, students could participate by asking questions, voicing their disagreements and engaging the teacher in debate. At the conclusion of each class, students would revisit their notes, ideally committing them to memory, and discuss their contents with fellow students. Many of the classical works of Islamic scholarship that can still be accessed today originate in such lecture notes.

The medieval Islamic world was a manuscript culture: the texts studied had to be copied by hand, often by the students themselves. Given the many pitfalls inherent in copying a handwritten text, a variety of techniques aimed at minimising and detecting mistakes in manuscripts was developed in order to safeguard the integrity of the transmitted text. This was particularly important for the two sacred texts, the Qur'an and the hadith. The content of the former was preserved both orally and in written form in countless identical copies, and it was thus considered secure. Individual prophetic traditions, on the other hand, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and were in most cases known by only a few people. Their accurate transmission was thus a matter of paramount importance. It was, accordingly, the traditionists (muhaddithun) who devised a protocol for the authoritative transmission of texts from teacher to student that rested on the direct aural link between transmitters.

There were two ways in which an individual could claim truly to know a text. Either he had heard the text read aloud by its author or by someone who had received it through authoritative transmission (a process known as sama'), or he had himself read the copied text aloud to such a person, who could correct any mistakes (a method termed qira'a). At the end of a manuscript produced by the student through one of these forms of transmission, a certificate was added. This specified whether the text was the product of sama' or qira'a and gave the names of the teacher and the student as well as the date of completion. Through such a certificate, the student was incorporated into a chain of transmission (isnaad) that linked the student to the original author of the text, thus preserving an authoritative connection to the past. This was a crucial feature in the self-understanding of medieval Muslim scholars, who proudly proclaimed that the maintenance of chains of transmission was a unique characteristic of the Muslim community. At the same time, these certificates functioned as important tokens of authority and permission for the student to transmit the work further. When the newly appointed chief judge of Egypt, Muhammad al-'Abadani, began to offer lessons in hadith in 891, local experts noticed that he was teaching from books that he had simply bought but never studied with a teacher who was part of an isnaad. As a result, the Egyptian scholarly community branded al-'Abadani an imposter and boycotted his lessons.

Transmission via sama' and qira'a remained the primary mechanism for ensuring the authenticity of seminal or sacred texts well into the Mamluk period (1250-1517). However, for the bulk of scholarship these methods soon gave way to a more thoroughly literate modus of textual transmission. Already in the beginning of the ninth century, the famous jurist al-Shafi'i granted an ijaza - a general permission to teach one of his books - to a particularly gifted scholar even though the latter had never studied the work in question with him. In subsequent centuries, the practice of granting such permissions became widespread. A student could receive an ijaza in a number of ways. Often, it was granted once a teacher was familiar enough with a student to have sufficient confidence in the latter's general academic potential. However, it was also not uncommon for teachers to award ijaazas in response to well-phrased letters of request, or to bestow ijaazas on the children of friends, colleagues and notables, even if the ''student'' was still an infant or indeed unborn.

Western scholarship has generally interpreted the spread and seemingly unconstrained use of the ijaaza as a sign of the degeneration and growing decadence of Islamic scholarship from the tenth or eleventh century onwards.1 However, while there is no doubt that the significance of the ijaza as a genuine indicator of competence declined, this does not necessarily imply a corruption of the culture of scholarship itself. First, with the explosive growth of the Islamic sciences, both the number and the length of the available works increased to the point where it was no longer possible for an individual scholar to study all the works he desired to master by reading them aloud to a teacher or having them read to him. Second, as the disciplines matured and grew more sophisticated, they acquired common terminologies and accepted paradigms. A student could familiarise himself with the technical vocabulary particular to his subject by studying a short basic text (matn) with a teacher, and then go on to read more extensive works on his own. The decline of sama' and qiri'a in the Islamic sciences may thus be an indication not of decadence but of the development of a more mature, literate, scholarly culture.

A side-effect of the emergence of the ijaza system was the decline -though not disappearance - of an important educational institution of the first centuries of Islamic scholarship, the ''journey in search of knowledge'' (al-rihla fi talab al-'ilm, or simply rihla). This practice had developed among traditionists who, having gathered the prophetic traditions circulating in their own locales, set out to collect and bring back the traditions of the other major centres of learning. The rihla was more than a business trip; it often had a penitential aspect. Thus, Abu Hatim al-Razi, who lived in the ninth century, chose to undertake his four rihlas entirely on foot, travelling from his native Rayy near present-day Tehran westwards as far as Egypt. With the growing acceptance of the practice of granting by correspondence the licence to transmit works (known as ijlzat al-riwlya), the motivation for undertaking a rihla diminished. In addition, by the end of the ninth century most of the localised prophetic traditions had been collected, evaluated and disseminated. In its heyday, however, the rihla played an important role in the creation of a cosmopolitan class of traditionists who were united by a common ethos that embodied shared notions of theology, law and ethics.

Another institution that contributed to the training of young scholars was the apprentice-like relation of suhba (''companionship'') into which a student who sought to learn a particular subject in depth entered with a senior scholar. In such a relationship, the apprentice (slhib or ghulam) was socialised into the culture and proper etiquette of the field by his mentor, whose role was not limited to the academic guidance of his pupil. In the classical Islamic sciences, knowledge was not defined simply as the possession of an ability to process information, but rather rested on a holistic model of personal transformation that was to accompany and give meaning to the acquisition of information. Medieval theoretical manuals of education thus stress that the teacher needs to serve as a role model and a guide for the student's personal growth. On a more mundane level, scholars used their apprentices as teaching assistants who handled the supervision of ordinary students, explained to them the master's lectures, and were available to answer questions. Apprentices also typically took on the role of personal servants to the master. Famous examples of this relationship in the ninth century are the jurist al-Shafi'I and his close student al-Rabi' (who was instrumental in spreading al-Shafi'i's teachings after the latter's death), and the prominent Mu'tazilite theologian al-Nazzam and al-Jahiz, the apprentice who was to become one of the most influential figures of classical Arabic belles-lettres.

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