Who told you so?
When in 632 AD Muhammad died, he left not only his next of kin bereaved, but also a nascent religious community without leadership and guidance. Until today Sunni and Shi’a Muslims disagree as to who should have taken the place of leader of the community. Leadership in the Islamic community wasn’t institutional, but personal. How could it be anything else when the leader in charge was acknowledged by his followers as a prophet, one to whom God took direct access?
Naturally after the demise of Muhammad, his collected revelations -the qur’an- became the first and foremost source of guidance for the community. Among it’s 6204 to 6236 verses (depending on which copy you consult) only a few dozen are about legal issues. That doesn’t make it a good source of guidance for a community whose territory is expanding as fast as 70 metres a day and whose leaders moved from being petty Arab chiefs to kings and princes of an empire that spanned half the planet.
With such shortcomings the leadership looked for other sources and there were two: the way things had been run at home or were run in the conquered territories, and the way Muhammad himself had done things. Surely, the example of someone who had had such intimate intercourse with the heavenly world accounted for something?
It would have been logical if the Muslim leadership had taken up the latter principle, but unfortunately Islam crystallised slower than the arising need to organise an effective system of government. Most rulings we know from the very early Islamic period seem copies or adjustment of laws and regulations of the subjugated Byzantines and Persians. In practice Muslim rulers applied the first principle: the way things had been run at home or were run in the conquered territories. A wise decision in view of the fact that Muslims rapidly became a small minority in their own expanding empire.
In theory however, Muslims felt the need to adhere to the second principle: the example of the prophet. While the main Islamic rulers conquered and governed, it was a lower tier that tried to formulate a way out of this dilemma. It was the judges appointed by the rulers that tried to give the legal system a religiously sound theoretical foundation. Luckily traditional stories abounded about the prophet and his fist followers. The subjects varied widely and the judges used them in deciding issues that the qur’an couldn’t decide on. The traditions therefore became important, not just as the stuff sermons are made of and not just as historical or moral anecdotes, but as a source of law.
The Islamic world was very multicultural. Medina for example was an Arab village of date farmers. Kufa in Iraq however a cosmopolitan trading city. Preexisting rules varied widely, even the issues about which laws had to be made or applied varied. In Medina class played no role whatsoever, in Kufa class decided whom you could and couldn’t marry. A judge in Kufa confronted with a lawsuit on marriage between members of different classes, would be in dire need of traditions about that subject whereas a judge in Medina really didn’t give a damn. Preexisting systems of law decided the focus of judges and other experts in Islamic law when they searched out and transmitted traditional stories.
During the entire Middle Ages travel was dangerous, arduous, expensive and time consuming. The judge appointed in one town would not easily consult his colleague in another town. Eventually experts in Islamic law came to the conclusion that laws varied too much and too many spurious stories were about. If Islamic law had to live up to the pretence of being truly Islamic, it couldn’t be too diverse. Over time a special caste of Islamic scholars emerged: the collectors of traditions. These not only took it upon themselves to collect anecdotes from everywhere, but also to scrutinise every tradition they found.
Originally these had a different Sitz im Leben: preaching in the mosque, education around the campfire. Historical accuracy was not important, but truth was: religious and moral truth. Just like the apophthegmata of the Christians, these stories usually started with the mention of their source. Out of this the legal people created a criterion: if the person who told the anecdote was truthful and reliable, and had heard it from another truthful and reliable source, the tradition was considered true.
With this, not just the traditions became important, but also the list of persons who transmitted them. In every discussion on law the scholars would ask for the sources and their reliability. Soon traditions were accompanied by a long chain of transmitters -the isnad– and scholars produced a massive amount of biographical material, so the most relevant answers could be found: who was who, did the successive transmitters actually meet, were they trustworthy, could they be relied upon?
The scholars who collected traditions and scrutinised isnads invented increasingly refined methods. Sure, an isnad that linked people that had actually known each other could be a good one, but there were other issues to be considered. Were these people honourable? In the Middle East they had to be, so beggars -for example- were excluded. Persons deemed too young at the time were considered unreliable too. Unfortunate, because we now know that memory function is best in kids about age four to nine.
There’s a famous anecdote about Muhammad al-Bukhari, one of the most famous tradition-collectors, who travelled half the world to interview a man who reportedly knew a lot of prophetic stories. When Bukhari eventually arrived he found the man luring his horse in by waving an empty sack of oats at it. Bukhari concluded that the man lied to his horse, was therefore unreliable and left. Massive amounts of material must have disappeared arbitrarily by rather un-methodological ad-hoc decisions like this one, robbing future generations of Muslims the opportunity to study the content of their traditions discarded.
While these discussions ranted on, new traditions kept emerging. The original place where these were invented -for moral and religious reasons- kept producing them and they were transferred to the legal and historical realm. Furthermore: the research into isnads not only made it possible to check traditions, it also made deliberately falsifying stories easy, not to mention bona fide scholars who provided traditions they were convinced were genuine with a proper isnad. That in turn led to scholars increasing the strictness with which they scrutinised isnads. Eventually Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i formulated the ultimate requirement: an isnad needed to reach back right to Muhammad himself though an uninterrupted line of transmitters, otherwise it was considered unreliable.
It was a good solution for a very different problem. One generation later, countless traditions that still had incomplete isnads in the collections of older scholars now had updated ones. Isnads grew backwards. Instead of the legal systems adapting to the new demands, the sources were adapted to legal systems already in place. Still, ash-Shafi’i’s work caused a considerable degree of standardisation. Thanks to him, instead of numerous local systems of law, Islam developed six schools of law: one Shi’a and five Sunni, one of which disappeared in the Middle Ages.