Hadith und Dichtung
I’ve blogged before about hadith, anecdotes about the life and times of Muhammad and his first followers that were collected during the beginning centuries of Islam as an additional source of revelation: if the qur’an couldn’t decide on an issue, maybe the example of the prophet could. I found a summary of one particularly exemplary one here:
Ali ibn Abu Talib, a companion of the Prophet who was about to slay his opponent in the midst of battle. As he raised his sword to strike, his enemy spat in his face. Ali immediately dropped his sword and refused to kill his opponent, “What is wrong with you, why do you not strike ?” the man asked “Because before you spat at me I was fighting you for the sake of Allah Almighty” Ali replied, “but after you spat I was fighting you because I was angry – and as a Muslim I can only fight for Allah , never for my own self.” Upon hearing this, Ali’s opponent recognized the nobility and truth of his words and immediately accepted Islam.
This anecdote shares some characteristics with other hadith: it’s short, it’s doesn’t have much context, there’s no information about chronology, reasons, causes or background, this one is a story with a plot and mainly with a lesson to teach and it’s timeless – in a sense.
Hadith are mainly used in Islam for legal purposes and as historical sources. Both deal with truth from two differing angles: what is right and what is wrong or what happened and what didn’t happen? From the historical perspective we can be sure that this story never, ever happened. I shall tell you why.
Anyone who’s ever been in a reenactment battle knows that battles make hideously loud noise, there’s no opportunity to have any conversation at all, save some single-word warnings at very close range. The main problem for commanders in antiquity: once the battle had started, no orders were getting though. Primarily because of the noise, secondarily because most soldiers wear helmets which cover the ears.
As a former fencer I can assure you sword-fighting is about body language and happens in deci-seconds. Reaction time for your opponent -and yourself- is about one tenth of a second. And your opponent is able to see whether you are about to lower your sword, just as you are able to see whether your opponent is hesitating. Those are the moments to strike. Once you even think about lowering your sword, in one tenth of a second, your opponent may strike at you. It is very, very difficult to move your sword in any parrying direction when your mind was just about to lower it. You’ll get hit even before you’ve actually lowered you sword. In other words: lowering your sword in the heat of battle is suicidal, even thinking about it is madness. No good swordsman (and Ali is reputed to have been one) ever does it.
Sword-fighting doesn’t happen consciously. What I just said is not entirely true: you don’t think about what you are about to do with your sword, body, shield, feet, you just do it. On instinct, from your spine. There’s no time for any cerebral activity, let alone for any moral contemplation on what you are doing and elegantly conversing about it with the guy who’s out to chop your limbs off, or worse. The only time when you can think, speak, plan or contemplate is during brief pauses to catch your breath, when you’re at a safe distance from each other. And that’s not the distance at which you can spit at each other.
So the story can’t be true, it never happened, it was made up. But still: it is so very, very true. In my native language there’s a phrase: “A poet lies the truth”. Even though this story isn’t poetry, the truth is lied in it. The fact that the battle, the name of the opponent, the issue at stake isn’t even mentioned has a damn good reason. It’s not about history, it’s not about what happened exactly, it’s about how we should behave in a conflict, about proper and noble intentions, about the control of anger and self, about chivalry.
A massive amount of hadith were stories just like this one: told around the campfire to make a point, to teach, to preach about life, faith, hope and love. The legal or historical accuracy of those stories did not matter, reality wasn’t the point: truth was.