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Salamun Alaikum (Peace be upon you)

 

 

UNWARRANTED PREJUDICE AGAINST PAST SCHOLARS, COMPILERS AND HISTORIANS

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Copyright 2009 Joseph A Islam: Article last modified 24th July 2012


 

Sadly, it has become a quintessential approach amongst some that claim a Quran-centric approach to at times overtly criticise, and at worse, curse ancient scholars, historians and compilers for the works that have been transmitted in their names. In some cases, criminality is associated to their intentions as well as the charge of deliberate obfuscation.

Such a judgmental criticism towards anyone's intentions is not only against the spirit of Islam but also shows a complete lack of erudite study of the material that is often criticised.


There is little or no respect afforded to the oft caution exercised by the ancient compilers which speaks volumes of their honest reservation in the information they have transmitted. As a case in point, the statement 'za'ama or za'amu often precedes the statements given by one of the earliest biographers of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq (d. 767 CE) implying the inherent caution of something being 'alleged'. This should make it clear for any sincere enquirer that there is more than a hint of a caution that the veracity of the statement he compiles is not necessarily determined as fact. Many narratives are hedged with Arabic terms which suggest the exercise of extreme reservation and caution for the reader to undertake.

In most cases, many historians and compilers were simply transmitting what they had heard. Nothing makes this point more exquisitely, than the introduction chapter of one of the major historians of Islam of the 10th century CE, al-Tabari who states in his colossal annals (bold emphasis mine):

 

"Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader of listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us"

 

Therefore, any criticism against the author's intentions would be unfounded if only the introduction of his works were consulted.


It is clear that by the time the earliest compilers were committing traditions to a formal corpus in the late 8th, 9th and 10th centuries CE, much spurious information had already accumulated. Scholarly scrutiny aside, even a cursory comparison between two Islamic historians placed 50 years apart shows a growth of information within their traditions as information travelled from storyteller to storyteller. As scholar Patricia Crone notes:


The third way in which the contribution of the storytellers to the tradition on the rise of Islam is manifest is the steady growth of the information. It is obvious that if one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while the third would know everything that an audience might wish to hear about it. This process is graphically illustrated in the sheer contrast of size between the works of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) and Waqidi (d. 823), that of Waqidi being much larger for all that it covers only Muhammad's period in Medina.   [1]
 

If the growth of information within the traditions was so vast in only approximately 50 years between two historians as mentioned above, one can only but wonder how much accretions would have taken place in the traditions during the approx 150 years prior, from the end of the Prophet's ministry (632 CE). The later generation of compilers were too far removed from the Prophetic ministry and their efforts were at best an attempt to salvage history.

It is in the earlier Non-Muslim sources and in their polemic works that one notes how much misinformation already was in place many decades before the major Muslim compilers completed their works. With a view to make this point clearer, a major Non-Muslim polemic work is cited that was compiled by St. John Damascene (b. c. mid to late 600's and d.749 CE) who was a Syrian monk and priest from Damascus.

 

His work clearly indicates how much misinformation of the Quran's true message was already in place amongst the Muslims mingled with traditions, many decades before the major Muslim compilers completed their works.

 

 

Illustration - Joseph Islam

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above provides some indication of the misinformation about the Quran's message that was already prevalent in the public domain long before the well known Muslim compilers ever completed their works.

 

It also would not be implausible to suggest that much spurious information resulted during discourses with Non-Muslims which gained currency in Muslim thought and were later canonised as Ahadith by later Muslim compilers.

 

One can only imagine the extent of spurious information Muslim compilers had to contend with during their lifetimes, relying mostly on the credibility of the narrators, an undoubtedly very subjective enterprise.

 

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

If any criticism is to be justifiably apportioned, it is arguably not to be attributed solely to the compilers whose personal, social, political and sectarian circumstances we could never be aware of or know with certainty. We do not even know with certainty whether their works were faithfully transmitted by subsequent generations which reach us in their names.

 

After all, we often do not have their original penned works.

 

Any justified criticism is better apportioned to those scholars of the past and today that have taken these works as indisputable 'facts' and from which religious judgments are derived and biased theology supported. This is especially when the compilers often themselves never intended for their reports to be treated with such a degree of certainty.

 

There is much wider wisdom in the following verse which one feels is apt to underscore the theme of this article.

 

002.134

"Those are a people who have passed away. Theirs is that which they earned, and yours is that which you earn. And you will not be asked of what they used to do"

 

REFERENCES

 

[1] CRONE, P. Meccan Trade and the rise of Islam, Gorgias Press 2004, Part III. Conclusion, 9 The Sources, Page 223.

[2] DAMASCENE. ST. JOHN, Derived from a Translation by Rev. G.N. Warwick of the The Patristic Society, The Fount of Knowledge, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Pages 40-42.

 

 

 Joseph Islam

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