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Notes from “On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence by M. M. A’zami”


In any evaluation of the isnad system one must keep firmly in mind its
centra! position in Islam. The belief that the ahadith handed down by the
Prophet have the force of law is largely based on Qur’anic injunctions.
These ahadith came to us from the Prophet through chains of transmit-
ters. They are, thus, the cornerstone of the Islamic faith and the code of
ethics associated with it. Sufyan al-Thauri (d. 161 AH.) says: “The isnad is
the believer’s weapon; thus, when he has no weapon, with what will he
fight? 1 Another scholar, Ibn Mubarak (d 181 AH), says: “Isnad is a part
of religion (din), and if there were no isnad everyone would be free to
report what he wants.” 2

The isnad system is a unique system applied by Muslim scholars in the
transmission of information relating to the Prophet. Although it was
originally initiated for the transmission of hadiih, it has a great impact on
the entire corpus of literature produced up to the fourth century. We find
in the works of such well-known Arabic writers such as al-Jahi? (163-235
ah), AI-Mubarrad (210-286 ah), Ibn Qutaiba (213-276 a.h.], Abu
Faraj al-Asfahanl (284-356 AH), and Abu ‘AH al-Qall (288-356 AH.),
that they so often adopted the isnad system in recording their materials
that they included isndas even when writing jokes and light-hearted
work. 3

Beginning and Development of the Isnad System

The isnad system was bom during the life of the Prophet and had developed into a proper science by the end of the first century A.H. It had
its beginnings in the Companions* practice of transmitting the ahddith of
the Prophet when they saw each other. In the last chapter 1 alluded to the
arrangements they made to attend the Prophets circle in shifts and
inform each other of what they had heard and seen. Naturally, in inform-
ing their colleagues they would have used sentences like “The Prophet
did so and so” or “The Prophet said so and so.” It is also natural that
anyone gaining information at second hand, when reporting the incident
to a third man, would disclose his sources of information and give a full
account of the incident.

These methods, used in the early days for the diffusion of the sunna of
the Prophet, were the rudimentary beginning of the isnad system. During
the fourth and fifth decade of the Islamic calendar the system gained in
importance because of the upheavals of the time. It is possible that the
first fabrications of ahddith may have appeared in that period for political
reasons. 4 Scholars became cautious and began to scrutinize the sources of
the information supplied to them. Ibn Sirin {d. 1 10 AH.) said: “They did
not used to ask about the isnad, but when the civil war [fitna] arose, they
said “Name to us your men.” As for those who belonged to AM Al-
Sunnah, their ahddith were accepted and as for those who were innova-
tors, their ahddith were put aside.’ ” 5

By the end of the first century, this practice had become a full-fledged
science. The learning of at least a portion of the Qur’an and the ahddith of
the Prophet was already an obligatory duty of every Muslim. In response
to this requirement, there was an outburst of educational activity
throughout the Islamic world. For many centuries in the educational
history of Islam the word “knowledge” {‘llm) was applied only to the
learning of ahddith and related subjects. 6 This zeal for the knowledge of
hddilh gave birth to al-Rihla, the journey to learn hddilh, which was
counted one of the essential requirements for scholarship. Its importance
is demonstrated by Ibn Ma’in (d. 233 A.H.), who said that anyone who
learns ahddith in his own city only and does not journey to acquire
knowledge will not reach maturity. 7 These journeys increased the num-
bers of transmitters and resulted in the spread of hddilh throughout the
many provinces of the Islamic world. Scholars undertook journeys to
study with Companions and Successors and then returned home to spread
the word.

Evidence for the transmission of ‘llm in this way is given by the
thousands of ahddith with identical wording found in different parts of the
Islamic world, which trace their origins back to a common source.

Schacht and the Isnad System

Schacht devoted an entire chapter of his Origins of Muhammadan Juris-
prudence to the problem of isnad, and his findings were applauded by
many scholars. Professor J. Robson considered it “a very valu : : ‘ ‘;
which opens up new lines of research.” He wrote:

Dr. Schacht has studied the chains of authorities through whom legal tradi-
tions are transmitted and has put forward a most interesting theory. He has
found very often that, while some legal traditions are transmitted through a
variety of lines of authorities, they are liable to have a common transmitter
at a certain stage in the chain. There may be a number of transmitters from
him to succeeding generations, and the same may apply between him and the
Prophet. Dr. Schacht has concluded that the tradition was made current
either by this man , or by someone or some party who used his name This is a
very valuable contribution to the study of the development of Tradition, for
it not merely suggests a date when certain traditions became attributed to the
Prophet, but gives a certain value to the chain of authorities, suggesting that
the later part of the chain is genuine, whereas the earlier part which goes
back to the Prophet is fictitious . . . 13
Schacht’s overall contention is that the isnad system may be valid for
tracing traditions back to the second-century scholars, but that chains that
stretch back to the Prophet and Companions are spurious. His argument
can be summed up in six main points:

1. The isnad system began in the early second century or, at the
earliest, the end of the first century.

2. Isnads were put together carelessly and arbitrarily by those who
wanted to “project back” their doctrines into the mouths of ancient

3. Isnads were gradually “improved” by forgery and fabrication; early
isnads were incomplete, but all the gaps were filled in by the time of
the classical collections.

4. Additional authorities were created in ShafiTs time to meet the
objections that were made toahadith traced back to a single source.

5. “Family isnads” are spurious, and so is the material presented in

6. The existence of a common narrator in a chain is an indication that
the hadieh originated in the time of that narrator.

In addition to asking us to ignore the weight of evidence which points to
the authenticity of the isnad system, 14 Schacht wants us to believe in a
physical and psychological impossibility. First, he asks us to accept that
ahadith with substantially the same wording or meaning could spring up
in widely separated localities, a possibility now, with modern methods of
communication, but hardly feasible several centuries ago. Then he asks
us to accept either that these same narrators independently traced their
sources back to a common source, or that they were conspirators in a vast
confidence trick. Again, contemporary communications and the dis-
tances involved militate against such a possibility, let alone what we know
of psychology. Surely such gross fabrication would not have gone un-
noticed; someone would have come forward to point the finger of suspi-
cion. And yet no one did. The burden of proof rests on Schacht; it is the
aim of this chapter to show that he has not discharged that burden.

Origins of the System

Orientalists have differed in their views about the origins of the isnad
system. According to Leone Caetani, ‘Urwah (d. 94 A.H.), the oldest
systematic collector of traditions, as quoted by Tabari, used no isnads and
quoted no authority but the Qur’an. Caetani therefore holds that, in the
time of ‘Abd al-Malik {d. 70 – 80 AH.), more than 60 years after the
Prophet’s death, the practice of giving isnad did not exist. From this he
concludes that the beginning of the isnad system may be placed in the

period between ‘Urwah and Ibn Ishaq (d. 151 AH.). In his opinion the
greater majority of the isnad were created by Muhaddithin at the end of
the second century, or perhaps the beginning of the third. 15

Spre tiger is another scholar who has argued that the writing of Urwah
to ‘ Abd al-Malik does not contain isnads and that it was not until later that
he was credited with them. 16

Horovitz has answered these arguments in his article “Alter und
Ursprung des Isnads.” He points out that those who have denied the use
of isnad by ‘Urwah cannot have consulted all his writings. Furthermore,
he contends that there is a difference between what one writes when one
is asked questions and what one does withiri learned circles. His conclu-
sion is that the first entry of the isnad into the literature of hadith was in
the last third of the first century. 17

Schacht ignores this argument and the evidence amassed by Horovitz,
and simply reinstates Caetani’s argument: “In any case, there is no reason
to suppose that the regular practice ol using isnads is older than the
beginning of the second century A.H.” 1W He further says in the footnote:
“Horovitz (in Islam, viii, 44 and in Islamic Culture, i. 550) has pointed out
that the isnad was already established in the generation of Zuhri (d. 123
ah. or later), but to project its origin backwards into ‘the last third of the
first century AH. at the latest’ or ‘well before the year ah. 75’, is
unwarranted. Caetani (Annali, i, Introduction. 11), has shown that the
isnad was not yet customary in the time of ‘Abdalmalik (65-#6 AH.).””
His denial of the early existence of isnad is a natural outcome of his
theory regarding the hadith of the Prophet. As there were no a hadith of
the Prophet in the first century, according to Schacht, naturally there
could be no isnad. The necessity for Schacht not to find first-century
isnads blinds him to any contrary evidence. In discussing the statement of
Ibn Slrin (d. 1 10 AH.) that the demand for the interest in isnads started
from the civil war (Fitna), he says:

We shall see later that the civil war which began with the killing of the
Umaiyad Caliph Walid b. Yazid [ah. 126], towards the end of the Umaiyad
dynasty, was a conventional date for the end of the good old lime during
which the sunna of the Prophet was still prevailing; as the usual date for the
death of Ibn Sinn is ah 110, we must conclude that the attribution of this
statement to him is spurious. In any case, there is no reason io suppose that
the regular practice of using isnads is older than the beginning of the second
century a.H.»
Arbitrary and Careless Creation of Isnads

In Schacht’s view, “the isnads were often put together very carelessly.
Any typical representative of the group whose doctrine was to be pro-
jected back on to an ancient authority could be chosen at random and put
into the isnad. We find therefore a number of alternative names in
otherwise identical isnads, where other considerations exclude the possi-
bility of the transmission of a genuine old doctrine by several persons. “
Elsewhere , Schacht has impugned the Golden Chain of Malik – Nafi ‘ –
Ibn ‘Umar, basing his objections to its authenticity on the age of Malik
and on the “client” relationship of Nafi’ to Ibn ‘Umar. In his own words:
“But as Nafi’ died in AH. 117 or thereabouts, and Malik in AH 179, their
association can have taken place, even at the most generous estimate,
only when Malik was little more than a boy. It may even be questioned
whether Malik, whom Shafi’i charged elsewhere with concealing im-
perfections in his isnads, did not take over in written form traditions
alleged to come from Nafi’.”- 13 He says in the footnote that “nothing
authentic is known of Malik’s date of birth.” 34
If we consult the bibliographical works, however, we find that most of
the scholars, even those who were born a little earlier than Malik, state
that he was born in 93 A.H.; a few put it in the early months of 94 A.H., a
few in 90 ah, and a few in 97 AH.. But there is no one who maintains any
date later than this. So Malik was at least 20 years old, if not 24 or 27,
when Nafi’ died. He transmitted in the Muwatta from Nafi’ only 80
traditions of the Prophet, which cover in the printed text of Ibn ‘Abd
al-Barr about 15 pages. 35 Other athar transmitted by Malik on the author-
ity of Nafi’ are not taken into account; if we take an equal number to those
from the Prophet, then it would be some 30 pages. The teacher, Nafi’, and
the student, Malik, both lived in the same city until Malik was about 24
years old, which makes it difficult to say that he might not have learned
these 50 pages from his teacher.

The other point raised by Schacht is that Nafi’ was a client of Ibn
‘Umar. But why should we believe that a man is dishonest because of this
relationship, when he was clearly accepted among his contemporaries
and the later authorities as most trustworthy?

if we adopt Schacht’s view that
isnads were fabricated in the second century, we may find ourselves
surprised that scholars widely scattered throughout the Islamic world
were able to reach so much agreement on the isnads they created.
Without modern methods of communication this would seem improb-
able, if not impossible. Moreover, since we have shown that the alterna-
tive narrators were historically capable of having learned from the same
source, the existence of alternatives would be evidence of great care,
rather than carelessness, among the second-century scholars who “cre-
ated” isnads. Considerable research would have been required to estab-
lish that the alternatives in question were feasible. That is, the existence
of alternatives serves to vindicate the traditional view, rather than to
threaten it. Schacht’s only justifiable complaint might be the omission of
some of the authorities and the mentioning of only some of them.
Gradual Improvement of Isnads

One of Schacht’s central contentions is that isnads were gradually “im-
proved” by forgery and fabrication, early incomplete isnads being com-
pleted by the time of the classical collections. In his own words: ‘
The gradual improvement of isnads goes parallel with, and is partly indis-
tinguishable from, the material growth of traditions which we have discussed
in the preceding chapters; the backward growth of isnads in particular is
identical with the projection of doctrines back to higher authorities. Gener-
ally speaking, we can say that the most perfect and complete isnads are the
latest. As is the case with the growth of traditions, the improvement at isnads
extends well into the literary period . . . The Muhammadan scholars chose
to take notice of one particular kind of interference with isnads, the tadlls;
we saw that Shafi’i disapproved of it, but minimized its occurrence.
Most of the Orientalists* misconceptions may be attributed to their
choice of the wrong materials for the study of isndd. They use sirah and
hadith’Fiqh literature instead of pure hadith literature, ignoring the
different nature of these books. This is rather like using science fiction
works to learn about physics and chemistry -one may learn something of
value, but the knowledge will inevitably be incomplete.

The early lawyers mention the importance of isnads time after time, but
they also state explicitly that, for the sake of brevity, they chose not to
quote all the authorities and sources available to them* Their main
concern was the legal point at issue and we can easily sec that they would
feel justified in not quoting isnads, particularly if the hadith in question
was well known among the scholars. We find Abu Yusuf, for example,
saying that considerations of brevity prevented him from recording all the
ahddith and isnads at his command. S1 Even Shafi’i remarks in places that
he has heard unbroken isnads for the ahadith he quotes, but cannot
remember them at the time.* 2

We must accept, first, that these scholars’ knowledge was partial, and,
second, that they omit in their works many details that were known to
them. The following phenomena are common in hadith-Fiqh literature as
will be clear in the light of the Appendix I.

Omitting the isnarf entirely where other sources prove they knew it.

Quoting only partial isnads – citing either the immediate and highest
authority, or various authorities at different points- where other sources
prove they knew it in full.
Another of Schacht’s central theories is that new isnads and additional
authorities were created with the intention of confirming a doctrine by
apparently independent evidence: “Parallel with the improvement and
backward growth of isnads goes their spread, that is, the creation of
additional authorities or transmitters for the same doctrine or tradition.
The spread of isnads was intended to meet the objection w hich used to be
made to ‘isolated’ traditions’.” 1 * 1

Much of his argument rests on the e silemio thesis and his lack of
understanding of the early scholars’ methods of using isnad- points which
have already been commented on at length. His view is merely supposi-
tion and the evidence he produces is inconclusive, as can be seen from
looking at the examples he uses.
The Common Link in a Chain

Another of Schacht’s central theories is that the existence of a common
link in a chain of transmission indicates that the hadtih in question
originated at the time of that common member. This allows us to date the
time of forgery. He writes:

These results regarding the growth of isndds enable us to envisage the case in
which a tradition was put into circulation by a traditionisi whom we ma\ call
N.N., or by a person who used his name, at a certain time. The tradition
would normally be taken over by one or several transmitters, and the lower,
real part of the isndd would branch out into several strands. The original
promoter N.N. would have provided his tradition with an isndd reaching
back to an authority such as a Companion or the Prophet, and this higher,
fictitious part of the isndd would often acquire additional branches by the
creation of improvements which would take their place beside the original
chain of transmitters, or by the process which we have described as spread of
isnuds. But N.N. would remain the (lowest] common link in the several
strands of isndd for at least in most of them, allowing for his being passed by
and eliminated in additional strands of isndd which might have been intro-duced later]. Whether this happened to the lower or to the higher pari of the
is mid or to both, the existence of a significant common link [N.N.| in all or
most isnads of a given tradition would be a strong indication in favor of its
having originated in the time of N.N. The same conclusion would have to be
drawn when the isnads of different, but closely connected traditions showed
a common link.

The case discussed in the preceding paragraph is not hypothetical but of
common occurrence. It was observed, though of course not recognized in its
implications, by the Muhammadan scholars themselves, for instance bv
Tirmidhi in the concluding chapter of his collection of traditions, lie calls
traditions with N.N. asacommon link in their isnads ‘the traditions of N.N.’,
and they form a great part of the traditions which he calls gharib, that is,
transmitted by a single transmitter at any one stage of the isntid.
Insertion of Authorities

Schacht maintains that the name of the Iraqian authority, Ibrahim
Nakha’i, was introduced into two isnads as a late counter move by the
Iraqians against the prevailing Mcdinese doctrine. He quotes his source
as Tahawi (d. 32! A.M.) But 150 years before Tahawf we find Ibrahim
cited as an authority for this hadith in Iraqi literature. U2 Schacht accuses
the traditionists of projecting their doctrines back to early authorities.
Here we might well accuse him of projecting his doctrines forward.

On the point of creating additioonal authrities, we may also note that
the hadith was accepted in the early days when only ‘Abdullah b. Dinar
was quoted as its authority. When the same hadith was narrated by Ibn
Majashun, through Malik -Nafi’ – Ibn ‘Umar, it was rejected because no
other student reported this hadith from Malik. 173

Can we really believe that scholars capable of such fine discrimination
in a situation where a hadith had only one accredited supporter would
stoop to creating additional authorities?


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