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The Conceptual Framework of Authority in hadith Literature

by Dr. Asma Hilali

By Conceptual framework of authority in hadith literature I mean the contribution of hadith-sciences in  establishing hadith authority.

My aim in this presentation is to describe how those who conceive theory participate to the authority of hadith.  First of all, I will define what the conceptual framework is in hadith literature. Then I will analyze the  different levels of authority in hadith. Finally, I will show the gap between theoretical texts and transmission  of hadith.

Theory of authenticity

Theoretical texts appeared in hadith literature at the beginning of the XIth century. (More than three  centuries after the beginning of the transmission of hadith). hadith-sciences deal with authenticity of  transmitted texts. These sciences are elaborated as a complex structure.There are for example the science of transmitters,  the science of conceptualization and so on...
Each science proposes a different method to arise (and not to resolve) the problem of authenticity. The science of  transmitters develops a method for the identification of transmitters. Their good and bad qualities are mentioned with the  aim to specify their capacity to transmit genuine hadith-s. But, the most important task in this framework is to answer the following question: What is the text named hadith? We will see that the answer to this question is the  first step in the process of authority in hadith literature.

I will give two examples of definitions: The first definition belongs to the author of the first theoretical text in hadith literature (Al-Râmahurmuzî, Xth):

   «We have not to consider as source of judgment, the hadith of a transmitter who transmits  traditions about the prophet without saying: «I heard…» or «so-and-so transmitted to  us…» or «so-and-so declared to us…» or «…informed us…»  or any word that implies the authenticity of the transmission.»

Authenticity depends on the words used by transmitters when they mention their sources and the context of transmission.  But the important element in this definition is that only authentic hadith is considered as source of judgment.  The expression "source of judgment" is ambiguous; it does not refer automatically to hadith as source  of law but to hadith as powerful argument. Authority of hadith is not only legal authority.

The second definition belongs to an author of the XIth, al-Khatîb al-Baghdâdî:

   «The authentic hadith is the hadith transmitted from the prophet with an uninterrupted chain  of transmission and its transmitters are well known. The same hadith can be transmitted to me by a well known and  reliable man from another that I don’t know but that my source knows. All the transmitters of this hadith must be known until the Prophet. This hadith is necessary and authentic. We have to accept it from its transmitter  if he is sincere and conscious of what he transmits. These are the apparent aspects of the transmission which constitute  the basis of the judgment of hadith. The hidden aspects of transmission are unknown and can include the confusion  of the transmitter, his lie, his oversight, or his decision to introduce [in the chain of transmission] one or more names  [of false transmitters] between his source and himself, or other similar deeds implying that the context of the  transmission was different than what he said. We must have knowledge of this hadith starting from the apparent  aspects of its transmission. We can not accept it starting from its apparent weakness…»

I would like to stress two important elements in this definition:

1- The prophetic origin of the text is the first element in the definition. Authentic hadith must be attributed to  the Prophet and the chain of transmission is the proof of its prophetic origin. (I have to mention that hadith does  not denote always prophetic sayings but also words of the companions of the Prophet). This definition implies the  restriction of the corpus of hadith.

2- The obligation to know the authentic text and to consider it as prophetic sayings, as a powerful argument.

I would like to stress the expression "hidden aspect of transmission", unknown by scholars. The authors of  hadith-sciences have not the project to reconstruct what happen during the transmission of hadith, but  their task is to justify the authority of existing texts. Their aim is not authenticity of hadith but authority  of hadith. Authenticity is the argument of the authority.

Levels of Authority

However, authenticity is a gradual notion in the science of hadith. This graduation implies that authority of  hadith is also a gradual development. There are many types of hadith. All they are potentially authentic.  At the same time, authentic hadith does not exist; it denotes only a theoretical possibility at each level of  hadith.

An Andalusian judge and hadith-scholar of the XIth, Ibn ’Abd al-barr al-Qurtubî expresses  the gradual structure of authenticity:

   «I would like to record hadith in the following three ways: first of all, I will put down in  writing hadith that I consider as a guideline, then secondly, hadith of an unknown transmitter that I  record without considering it as a guideline and without rejecting it, and third, hadith of a reliable transmitter  that I prefer to know but that I don’t consider [as a guideline].»

I have two important comments:

  1. The critical issue of classification is writing down hadith-s. The constitution of a corpus termed  hadith is the first level of authority in hadith sciences.
  2. The very aim of writing down hadith is to use hadith as argument. This is the meaning of saying "I  consider it as a guideline".

There are two levels of authority in theoretical texts:

  1. Hadith-scholars put the confines of the corpus. The corpus of hadith expresses the authority of  those who define what is named hadith.
  2. Hadith-scholars rely authenticity and obligation; to know hadith and to consider it as a source of  judgment: hadith establish, exert authority of powerful precept.

In theory of authenticity, hadith express authority and is in the same time the tool of authority.

The limits of the theory

One of the articles we recommended for this study day, the paper by G. H. A. Juynboll, "Muslim’s introduction  to his sahih. Translated and annotated with an excursus on the chronology of fitna and  bid’a" in J. S. A. I. 5 (1984), pp. 263-311. This article shows one of the first hadith scholars  at work. The hadith scholar explains in the introduction of his compilation that scholars need a corpus of  hadith because texts of hadith are spread in Muslim society beyond the control of hadith scholars.  Progressively the compilation of Muslim will be considered by scholars of hadith as a source of authentic texts.  However, this compilation will not be accepted easily by Andalusian scholars before the 11th century because  they used to transmit other corpus of texts.

There are three historic facts showing the gap between theory of authenticity and transmission of hadith:

  1. The consensus of hadith scholars about the authenticity of some compilations was established two or more  centuries after the elaboration of these compilations and their transmission in Muslim society.
  2. There are two different historical processes of hadith authority: the Oriental one and the  Occidental/Andalusian one. The first compilations of hadith met with great resistance in al-Andalus of the  IXth century. Others corpus were used in al-Andalus in that time as source of legal thought.
  3. My final remark to highlight another kind of hadith authority. Apocryphal hadith-s are considered  by scholars as inauthentic, as forged texts. But the history of these texts shows that these marginal texts have another  kind of authority. The marginal hadith texts were spread in Muslim society. What scholars called  "apocryphal" hadith were used to justify a large number of social and ritual practices.

The conceptual framework of authority in hadith literature can explain a part of the process of hadith authority. I tried to demonstrate two levels of authority:

  1. To define hadith as prophetic and authentic sayings and to define the confines of the corpus and  the exclusion of others types of texts: To define hadith is to exert authority and to confer authority to this  text.
  2. What is at stake in the conceptual framework is hadith knowledge: the obligation to know authentic  hadith is the second level of hadith authority. The implication of knowledge is usage of hadith.  Hadith-Scholars did not deal with legal or theological usages of hadith, they just offered a theoretical  frame to an existing authority. The authority of hadith is not the result but the motive of the conceptual  framework.

To understand other aspects of hadith authority we have to observe how hadith is used by  different disciplines, we have to examine different structures of hadith texts, and different types of  argumentation included in hadith. The theory of hadith is a very important entry point to this literature  but must be complemented by a literary analysis of the text and a historical study of its transmission and usages. I  would like to finish with pointing out that hadith authority denotes men’s authority, authority of those  who use hadith as a powerful argument.