Dr. Jonathan Brown on Historical Criticism of Islamic Primary Texts

A post based on my lecture notes from a talk given by Dr. Jonathan Brown, where he discussed the historical critical method and how it’s been applied to Islamic texts and especially hadith.


بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

This blog post is adapted from my notes taken from Dr. Jonathan A. C. Brown’s lecture on the topic of historical criticism and how it’s been applied to Islamic primary texts, especially the hadith collections. Watch the lecture here: part 1part 2part 3. Note that it’s about 3 hours long including the Q&A, so be warned. It’s definitely worth a watch though, from beginning to end.

The lecture was given around the time that the UK government-sponsored documentary Islam: The Untold Story by charlatan historian Tom Holland was in the news. Basically, the documentary tries to tell a speculative revisionist story of the origins of Islam. Dr. Brown’s lecture is not a direct response to the documentary, but it contextualizes some of the assumptions being made in this documentary and other revisionist pieces that are claiming to examine Islam from a “critical” lens. Anyway, I’ll end the introduction here and start the portion based on my notes. Note that the section “My Thoughts” at the end of this post is not based on the lecture; those opinions are strictly mine.

Assumptions and Methods

Differences between Muslim and non-Muslim academics over authenticity of hadith tradition are difficult or impossible to reconcile. We have different sets of assumptions. The Western academia’s historical critical method also contains a set of assumptions and tools, which are a product of its own past.

Historical critical method:

  • Principle of analogy (vs Golden Age)
  • Anachronism (vs prophetic knowledge)
  • Principle of dissimilarity (vs orthodoxy as truth)

Major themes:

  • Default skepticism and doubt towards texts
  • Suspicion of orthodox narrative
  • Belief that scholarly investigation can uncover the true history

This method developed from the Renaissance onwards in the West. It’s a Western historical product based on their experience of the world. The way people think about these things is conditioned by their cultural environment. Why assume this is the “correct” method? The origin of Islam discussion should start with a level playing field. Don’t make one approach superior to another.

Principle of analogy: the belief that human society is essentially always the same. People are the “same” in a negative way: greedy, self-interested, manipulate facts, etc. This comes from the Greco-Roman view of history: no beginning, no end, no better time, no worse time, etc. Cyclical view of history. Conflicts with the Muslim view that the Prophet’s generation was the best generation.

Anachronism: something that’s out of place and/or time. It’s used as a tool when analyzing a text, to show that it’s made up. But Islamic tradition says the Prophet made predictions about the future. So the tool works in other situations, but not when talking about a Prophet who has access to the Unseen (al-ghayb).

Dissimilarity: a principle discussed by Bart Ehrman. If something appears in a text that goes against the writer’s interest, it’s probably accurate.

Principal of verisimilitude: the idea that details are provided in a narration to mislead people into believing it. But it could also be to recreate the image or make it easy to remember.

These principles combine to form some overall approaches to text, e.g. default skepticism. Muslim scholars are also skeptical of reports. But there are degrees of skepticism. Extreme skepticism, like being skeptical of a municipal bus schedule, can quickly become kind of ridiculous. For example, Muslim scholars have less skepticism towards ahadith that are easily in line with the Qur’an.

Also part of the historical-critical method: suspicion of orthodox narratives. The belief that orthodox accounts of religious origins are probably not true, and deserve to be doubted. This only exists because Western scholars discovered this about Christianity. The orthodox account developed later; there was another version of events that was believed before. The assumption is that the original version is the “true” version, and then as time went on the orthodoxy changed things based on what was convenient.

In reality, it’s not necessarily true that the original version is the true one, and if things were changed, it’s not necessary that those changes are illegitimate.

Finally, you have the belief that scholarly investigation can uncover the truth. And if wrong, we just say that the orthodox narrative is false and don’t provide a coherent competing theory.

History of Orientalism

Before 18th-19th century, it was all essentially polemics. Mostly recognized as nonsensical today. The 1920s saw the first wave of thorough orientalism.

Western study of Islam is a direct extension of the study of the Bible. Historical-critical methods for studying the Bible were copied and pasted onto the Islamic tradition, with the assumption that it “worked” for Christianity, so the exact same rules apply to Islam.

Example: William Muir, a British colonial administrator in 19th century India, who wrote a biography of the Prophet ﷺ. He claimed that all ahadith are made up to glorify the Prophet ﷺ or promote a political agenda. He also said that Muslims only looked at transmission and not content, and therefore they authenticated ahadith that had anachronisms or scientific inaccuracies.

Very important in European study of hadith: Ignaz Goldziher, a Hungarian Jew who studied in al-Azhar. He said that hadith were a reflection of communal will, not accurate descriptions of the Prophet ﷺ. He used anachronisms as evidence for this. For example, Sunnis and Shias made up ahadith to support their positions, and ahadith about law were made up in the Abbasid era. They took existing laws and made them “Islamic” to justify their rule.

Note: many Orientalists had ties to (or were themselves) colonial administrators. A very important point.

Of course, the question still remains of when/how specific ahadith pop up. Goldziher used matn (content) to answer this, whereas Joseph Schacht focused on isnad (transmission).

Schacht’s common link concept: Prophet → Companion → Successor → Common Link → Various Transmitters. The assumption is that the Common Link made up the hadith, because if it existed earlier it would have been transmitted more widely.

Concept of “back-growth” of hadith: the isnad grows backwards as time goes on. The theory is that in the 7th century, no unified notion of “Sunnah” existed. Rather, you had various schools of law that were competing with each other, and they made up ahadith to trump each other.

“Argument from silence” concept: absence of evidence is evidence of absence. For example, if Malik’s Muwatta includes a report attributed to a Companion, that means the Prophetic hadith doesn’t exist because he would have cited that instead.

Gautier H. A. Juynboll expanded on Schacht’s ideas – see the graph below. He assumed that the Common Link made up the hadith, and the other isnad is made up as well. Ahadith which didn’t have common links were called “spiders.”

Screenshot from 2018-02-08 23:08:02

The hadith which says: “Whoever lies about me, let him take his seat in the Hellfire” has over 60 Companions narrate it, but Juynboll still claims, based on his methodology, that it’s made up.

However, while some Common Links are later, some are even Sahaba. This makes the “Common Link made it up” hypothesis improbable. Plus, many transmitters admitted that they didn’t understand something, or it went against their positions. Why would they make it up then? Only conclusion is that there were reliable transmitters of hadith.

Implicit in Schacht and explicit in Juynboll: all ahadith are made up. The entire hadith tradition is essentially a mass conspiracy.

Important point: Muslims didn’t just come up with the science of hadith for no reason. It was because they recognized that ahadith were being forged, and they wanted to counteract that.

Criticism of Orientalist Claims

There were some who criticized the Orientalist claims about hadith. One example is Nabia Abbott, of Iraqi Christian origin, who studied papyrus from the 8th century. She pointed out the distinction between tradition (hadith) and narration (riwayah). Often times there are many riwayahs for the same hadith.

In the 8th century, Muslims got paper. Before that, it was extremely expensive to write something down. So they only wrote notes to “jog their memory.” These notes don’t make a lot of sense to modern scholars – it’s like reading someone’s lecture notes.

Abbott also mentioned that Muslims treated different subjects differently in hadith. For example, they were strict with legal ahkam, and less strict with spiritual exhortations.

Important point: the hadith literature is vast. Cannot reject the whole thing by judging a minority of ahadith. The Prophet ﷺ lived many years and taught many Companions, so it’s not inconceivable that his teachings survived! The issue is finding the correct ones, and even Muslims knew ahadith were being made up for various purposes.

Revisionist Narratives

Some revisionist Orientalists claim that all Muslim sources are biased and only non-Muslim sources should be used. This fails because nearly all the early sources are Muslim. You can’t build any narrative relying only on non-Muslim sources. Also, non-Muslim sources confirm much of what Muslims say about the origins of Islam. See the book “Seeing Islam As Others Saw It.” When non-Muslims disagree, it can be attributed to their lack of knowledge.

Revisionists also claim that all of the hadith and Qur’an were made up later. But who runs the conspiracy to create this stuff? Muslims spread from Spain to Sindh very fast, and split into countless groups and sects that fought each other constantly. How could they come to an agreement on the text of the Qur’an and the details of the life of the Prophetﷺ? And the Qur’an itself contains no evidence of later Muslim issues which would be indicative of a later origin – it doesn’t mention Ali, Hussein, the Kufans, the Basrans, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, etc. The only realistic possibility is that the Qur’an must have an early 7th century origin.

San’aa manuscript: pretty much confirms what Muslims say. The differences are extremely minor, no more than the differences between the various recitations that exist today (Hafs ‘an Asim, Warsh, etc). Much ado about nothing.

Hadith that contradict modern norms, such as the age of Aisha and the sun prostrating to God at night – multiple approaches taken by Muslims. A common theme is “God and His Prophet ﷺ know better.” Another approach is to interpret things figuratively on a case-by-case basis. Some heretical Muslims dismissed the entire hadith corpus just because of a handful of “problematic” ahadith! But you cannot “judge” ahadith because ethics change over space and time. One year something’s right, 10 years later it’s wrong.

My Thoughts

Understanding the assumptions and methods of Orientalists is very important, and some great scholars have done excellent work in this area. There’s one assumption that runs through the core of secular Western thought when it comes to Islam: they need the Muslim story of the origin of Islam to be false. There’s an underlying recognition that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would have been unable to produce the Qur’an, with its linguistic beauty and deep oceans of meaning. And the idea that he would have been able to bring the uncultured tribes of the Arabian peninsula together, who had been fighting each other constantly and were stuck in backwardness like burying their daughters alive, and launch a movement that gained enormous power very quickly, seems impossible unless he had significant outside help.

So they’re troubled by the origin of Islam, and they feel the need to concoct theories about it to explain it away. No matter how fanciful those theories are and no matter how much they fly in the face of the actual evidence, of course. To the secularized mind, the alternative is too horrifying to even contemplate.

However, Islam refuses to submit to the monoculture and become just like any other religion. Our scholars developed robust methods for authenticating and classifying narrations, and their methods have been vindicated by whatever physical evidence has been discovered. Islam is a unique religion in many ways, with its fast rise to power, its extensive legal frameworks, its beautiful primary text, and the preservation of so much of the life of its Prophet ﷺ. I think Muslims have the tools to defend their religion from any kind of criticism or accusation, and this is something we should continue to do.



9 February 2018

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