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About Critical Approaches About Global Late Antiquity

A Genealogy of Islamic Law

A Critical Approach to Late Antique Islamic Legal History

Detail of a papyrus fragment from an early collection of ḥadīth (P.Duk.inv. 806v; courtesy Duke Papyrus Archive, Duke University Special Collections Library).

Lena Salaymeh


Genealogy has multiple meanings. A typical dictionary definition of genealogy is “family origins” or lineage.1 By contrast, the understanding of genealogy in critical theory, inspired by Nietzsche and Foucault, is a historical approach that reveals contingency.2 Put differently, the dictionary meaning of genealogy involves identifying roots, while the critical theory meaning of genealogy opposes the notion of understanding history in terms of roots.

The distinctions in these two meanings are significant for historiography: the first meaning reflects the assumptions of conventional scholarship in Islamic Studies, while the second meaning reflects the historiographic approach I have outlined in my new book The Beginnings of Islamic Law: Late Antique Islamicate Legal Traditions.3 By entitling my book’s introduction “Genealogies of Islamic law,” I seek to highlight the distinctions between conventional and critical approaches to the study of Islamic history.4

Conventional scholarship focusing on the late antique and medieval eras is nearly always involved either directly or indirectly in searching for “family origins.”5 In particular, this is evident in the prevalence of source criticism in Islamic Studies. Source criticism consists of comparing surviving textual sources and, based on a set of presumed “neutral” principles, determining which source is “older” or more “authentic.”6 Nineteenth-century European philologists devised a number of source-critical techniques. Like the “family origins” meaning of genealogy, source criticism assumes that there is a root, the “original text” (or Urtext). Recent scholarship in critical philology and critical bibliography has challenged – and, arguably, discredited – many of the assumptions of source criticism.7 Although many disciplines have relinquished or minimized source criticism, Islamic Studies in the West remains dominated by some form of it. This is why my book engages in a detailed critique of source criticism as it shapes the use of documentary sources, narrative-historical sources, and tradition reports (aḥadīth) in Islamic Studies. Because historiography is not equivalent to the study of “family origins,” critical genealogy is a productive and valuable tool for Islamic Studies. Below, I summarize the main theoretical points presented in my book; for elaborations of these points and their implementation in concrete case studies, I refer readers to the book.

Documentary sources

Scholarship on Islamic documentary sources, particularly papyri, is a burgeoning field.8 Much of this scholarship presumes that documentary sources are more reliable than narrative-historical sources, or that they are more “original.” This presumption is simply false: documentary sources are as prone to inaccuracy, forgery, or exaggeration as narrative sources are. All sources – including material and archival sources – are subjective because human actors (whose views are naturally subjective) create and interpret them. Those who maintain archives of documentary sources and those who compose documentary sources are as ideologically invested as those who compose, redact, or transmit narrative (including oral) sources.

viennapapyrus

Detail of a papyrus fragment of an early witness to the sīrah or biography of the Prophet Muḥammad dated to the 9th c. CE (A. P. 05476 Pap; courtesy Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna).

In addition to the subjectivity of their content, the preservation of documentary sources is often biased (usually reflecting elite power) or idiosyncratic. Consequently, historiography based on documentary sources is as subjective as historiography based on non-documentary sources. It is common for scholars of Islamic Studies to emphasize the absence or dearth of documentary sources as distorting Islamic historiography.

Crone, for instance, applies a common source-critical assumption by stating, “Very much indeed must have happened in the period from about 620 to 820, that is in the period for which our documentation is poor. Our chances of being able to reconstruct the origins of Islamic law with any degree of certainty are accordingly somewhat limited.”9 Crone’s claim illustrates the problematic correlation between the notion of “original” sources and “original” Islam (or Islamic law). Contrary to conventional assumptions, there is no causal correlation between the quantity of documentary sources and the reliability of historiography. Historiography is always provisional because it is based on the sources, information, and knowledge available at a particular moment. It is crucial to recognize that the quality and quantity of Islamic documentary sources reflect the geographic, social, and political conditions of Islamic societies, not their so-called “level of development.” Papyri, for example, were reused, deteriorated due to environmental conditions, or were destroyed for unknown reasons. In addition to the randomness of preservation, colonialism and theft have affected the survival of documentary materials in the Muslim world significantly.

Narrative-historical sources

How to evaluate narrative-historical sources is the subject of intense controversies in Islamic Studies and beyond. Arguably, no student of Islamic history can escape the conundrum of debates surrounding these sources. Chase Robinson aptly observes, “it is a measure of just how conservative the professional study of Islamic history remains that the noisiest controversy of the last 25 years concerns the reliability of our written sources, rather than the models according to which we are to understand and use them.”10

When a scholar makes a claim about the supposed “unreliability” of late antique Islamic sources, she often operates under the positivist assumption of the existence of an “original Truth” that can be discovered through a specific methodology. There are three primary areas in which conventional Islamic studies scholarship imposes positivist assumptions about “original” sources: orality, variation, and historical distance.

Orality. Many specialists in the field of Islamic studies presume that the oral beginnings of late antique Islamic sources render these sources historically unreliable.11 However, oral transmission is as reliable as written transmission, in light of scribal errors, problems of textual preservation and transmission, and scribal agency. Contemporaneous oral composition of Islamic historical materials, which often coincided with written composition, is as reliable as contemporaneous written composition. Indeed, the bias against oral sources is both anachronistic and prejudiced.

Variation. Another repeated criticism of late antique Islamic sources is that they cannot be factual because they are inconsistent, as evident in variant narratives of the same historical event. This criticism is based on the incorrect premise that consistency is a necessary precondition for the reliability of historical sources. However, individuals experience, interpret, and relate facts differently. For example, variations in the testimonies of several witnesses to a crime are normative and do not preclude the admissibility of the testimony. The expectation that only one consistent narrative is factual is a manifestation of a positivist orientation that presumes an “original Truth.” The processes used in transmitting, transcribing, and compiling late antique Islamic sources inevitably resulted in dissimilarities, but these variations do not mean that the sources are unreliable. Muslim historians, transmitters, or compilers in Late Antiquity were not a homogenous group. The myriad political and theological debates that animated late antique Muslim societies suggest that moments of consensus among Muslim historians are unlikely to be mere fabrications.12

Historical distance. Many scholars claim that late antique Islamic sources reveal more about their compilers (or “authors”) than historical “facts” because they were transcribed in written form several centuries after the historical events; according to these scholars, later historical compilers were subjective and had socio-political agendas. These claims reflect problematic misconceptions about “original Truth.” The contemporaneity of a source does not guarantee its reliability: neither oral composition, nor oral transmission, nor historical distance cause unreliability. All historical sources (including contemporaneous ones) reflect the subjectivity of their compilers or transmitters. Thus, Islamic historical sources contain information about both the historical events and the socio-political circumstances of their compilation and redaction. In other words, historical distance does not negate historical reliability.

The three topics of orality, variation, and historical distance are presented in the field of Islamic Studies as being impediments to the use of Islamic sources for the writing of history. From the perspective of philosophy of historiography, these claims are simply illogical; they lack a philosophical basis. Written, consistent, and contemporaneous sources cannot be assumed to be more historically reliable than oral, varying, and later sources. History provides numerous examples of oral, varying, and later historical testimonies that turn out to be more reliable than written, consistent, and contemporaneous sources. Often, these instances reflect the differences between bottom-up historical testimonies and top-down historical constructions. Against the conventional assumptions in Islamic Studies scholarship, I argue that source-critical methodologies do not historicize Islamic sources; instead, they construct them in new ways.13 In turn, these source-critical constructions are impediments to the writing of Islamic legal historiography because they divert scholarly efforts toward technical and tedious matters.

sahihbukhari

The first ḥadīth cited in the classic collection Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī by Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (d. 870), indicating its chain of transmission from the Prophet via the second caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 644): “Deeds are known by their underlying intentions…” Kitāb al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ li’l-Imām al-ʿAllamah Abī Abd Allāh Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Juʿfī al-Bukhārī (4 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1862, 1.4).

Dating tradition-reports (aḥadīth)

One of the more dominant and respected contemporary methodologies for analyzing Islamic narrative-historical sources is dating tradition-reports (aḥadīth; singular, ḥadīth) through textual criticism (a particular form of source criticism). Textual criticism was traditionally concerned with uncovering an “original” text (Urtext).14 The preoccupation with textual criticism leads some Islamicists to pursue the equivalent of a “critical edition” of Islamic history, which is an impossible and meaningless task. Ironically, literary and bibliographic scholars have reconsidered the utility of the “critical edition” because it creates an artifact that is identified wrongly as the so-called “original text.”15 Much like the “rules” for textual criticism or editing, rigid methodological rules do not recover or reconstruct “original” tradition-reports (aḥadīth), but rather create constructs that are misidentified as “original” sources.

It is common for contemporary scholarship dealing with tradition-reports (aḥadīth) to include visual representations of the chain of transmission. These images represent tradition-reports (aḥadīth) in vertical linearity, implying an evolutionary change of the report from one transmitter to another. This hierarchical, linear framework implicitly shapes the scholar’s task as a search for one “Origin/Truth” and it reflects the imposition of textual-critical methodologies in the contemporary field of “ḥadīth criticism.” Yet tradition-reports are historical narratives that do not neatly correspond to manuscript variants (the focus of textual criticism). I do not advocate that the entire enterprise of textual criticism is flawed or that scholars should not create visual representations (i.e. visual chain of transmission trees) of tradition-reports. I am merely pointing out that searching for an “original” text or an “original” author is intimately related to searching for an “original” – that is, True – Islam. Searching for “original” Islam is a search for a root, but critical genealogy teaches us that there are no roots in history.

salaymehIn addition, it is important to recognize the power dynamics underlying the scholarly search for an “original” text. Modern scholars approach textual criticism in ways that simultaneously diverge from and discount the methods of medieval Muslim scholars.

We have extensive evidence that medieval Muslim scholars employed a variety of techniques to evaluate the reliability and authenticity of oral reports, based on both the chain of transmission and the text.16 While the heuristics and archival practices of late antique and medieval Muslims differed from those of modern scholars, they are just as subjective and imperfect. The medieval Muslim scholars who compiled and redacted tradition-reports created an archive of oral and written materials. When modern scholars dismiss the products of traditional Islamic ḥadīth science, they effectively dismantle the oral-written archive of late antique and medieval Muslim scholars. In other words, because modern methodologies identify Islamic historical sources (particularly tradition-reports) as myth and folklore rather than history, they task themselves with creating new, modern archives that effectively “subalternize” the sources. (“Subaltern” refers to those under the socio-political and cultural hegemony of an imperial/colonial power; to subalternize is to subordinate within a particular context of imperial/colonial power.)

I contend that there are two dimensions of this subalternization of Islamic sources. First, a linear, textual-critical analysis “modernizes” the historical testimony of the tradition-report’s subaltern narrator. Second, the application of source critical methods erases the subaltern, medieval Muslim historian.17 Subaltern theory indicates that the usage of source-critical methods in conventional Islamic Studies scholarship does not pursue historiography, but rather silences the voices in Islamic historical sources.

I have summarized the conventional criticisms of three types of Islamic historical sources (documentary sources, narrative-historical sources, and tradition-reports/aḥadīth) posed by Islamic studies scholars in the West. Conventional assumptions about these sources are illogical from the perspective of the philosophy of historiography and flawed from the perspective of critical theory. My book elaborates a genealogical approach to writing Islamic legal historiography by integrating both documentary and narrative sources, both Islamic and non-Islamic. In doing so, I do not assume that any source is inherently more reliable or authentic. Instead, I interweave the sources and scrutinize them against each other, identifying and theorizing intersections and divergences.

The book’s three case studies rely upon biographical texts (sīrah and maghāzī), pre-canonical collections of tradition-reports (muṣannafāt and sunan, particularly the compilations of ʿAbd al-Razzāq [d. 827, Yemen] and Ibn Abī Shaybah [d. 849, Iraq]), and exegetical materials (of Ibn ʿAbbās [d. 687, Arabia], Mujāhid ibn Jabr [d. ca. 720, Arabia], and Muqātil ibn Sulaymān [d. 767, Iraq]). The case studies illustrate the overlap between juristic and historical texts and model ways of exploring Islamic legal history without searching for origins. As I elaborate in the book, a genealogical approach embraces the interpretative dynamics of the writing of history.

 

LENA SALAYMEH is Associate Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University.

 

  1. See, for example, www.genealogy.com.
  2. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957); Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 76-100; Mark Bevir, “What is Genealogy?”, Journal of the Philosophy of History 2 (2008): 263-275.
  3. Lena Salaymeh, The Beginnings of Islamic Law: Late Antique Islamicate Legal Traditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  4. Ibid., 1-20.
  5. “Islamic Late Antiquity” refers roughly to the period from the beginning of Islamic history to the end of the eighth century CE.
  6. On source criticism, see Chris Lorenz, “History: Theories and Methods,” in Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Oxford: Pergamon, 2001). See also Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).
  7. See Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); G. Thomas Tanselle, Textual Criticism since Greg: A Chronicle, 1950-2000 (Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of The University of Virginia, 2005).
  8. By way of example, see Alexander T. Schubert and Petra Sijpesteijn (eds.), Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World (Islamic History and Civilization 111; Leiden: Brill,2015) and Andreas Kaplony, Daniel Potthast, and Cornelia Römer (eds.), From Bāwīṭ to Marw: Documents from the Medieval Muslim World (Islamic History and Civilization 112; Brill, 2015).
  9. Patricia Crone, Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law: The Origins of the Islamic Patronate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 26, emphasis added.
  10. Chase F. Robinson, “Reconstructing Early Islam: Truth and Consequences,” in Herbert Berg (ed.), Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins (Islamic History and Civilization 49; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 115.
  11. See Gregor Schoeler, The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, ed. James E. Montgomery, trans. Uwe Vagelpohl (London and New York: Routledge, 2006). See also Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, trans. H. M. Wright (Chicago: Aldine, 1965 [1961]).
  12. Donner contends, “consensus exists because events actually did happen in the way described by our sources, and were so well known in the early community that all groups were required to accept the basic ‘script’ of events.” Fred M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins (Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 14; Princeton: The Darwin Press, 1998), 289.
  13. As Asad has explained in an analogous context, “statistics has been not merely a mode of representing a new kind of social life but also of constructing it.” Talal Asad, “Ethnographic Representation, Statistics and Modern Power,” Social Research 61 (1994): 55-88, 70.
  14. Traditional textual criticism is the scholarly pursuit of a critical edition of a historical text in order to “recreate” a lost “original” text. See Sebastiano Timpanaro and Glenn W. Most, The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). The practice of textual criticism has been the subject of vigorous debates and has changed considerably in recent years; for an overview, see G. Thomas Tanselle, Textual Criticism since Greg: A Chronicle, 1950-2000 (Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2005).
  15. For a discussion of the ambiguities and shifts in meaning of “original text,” see Epp Eldon Jay, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Harvard Theological Review 92 (1999): 245-281.
  16. For historical works, see Muslim b. Hajjāj al-Qushayrī (d. 875), Al-Tamyīz, ed. Ṣāliḥ b. Aḥmad b. Thābit Dayyān (Ṣanʿāʾ: Maktabat al-Imām al-Albānī, 2009); Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī (d. 1071, Iraq), Kitāb al-Kifāyah fī ʿilm al-riwāyah (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadīthah, 1972); ʿUthmān b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ al-Shahrazūrī (d. 1245), Muqaddamat Ibn al-Ṣalāh fī ʿulūm al-ḥadīth (Damascus: Dār al-Ḥikmah, 1972). See also Ṣubḥī Ṣāliḥ, ʿUlūm al ḥadīth wa-muṣṭalaḥuhu: ʿarḍ wa-dirāsah, 2nd ed. (Damascus: University of Damascus Press, 1963).
  17. I recognize that subalternity generally refers to a class of non-elite historical actors; while late antique or medieval Muslim historians may have been relatively “elite,” I use the term to draw a comparison to how modern historical methods silence these historical sources.

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A Genealogy of Islamic Law

A Critical Approach to Late Antique Islamic Legal History


Lena Salaymeh


Genealogy has multiple meanings. A typical dictionary definition of genealogy is “family origins” or lineage.1 By contrast, the understanding of genealogy in critical theory, inspired by Nietzsche and Foucault, is a historical approach that reveals contingency.2 Put differently, the dictionary meaning of genealogy involves identifying roots, while the critical theory meaning of genealogy opposes the notion of understanding history in terms of roots.

The distinctions in these two meanings are significant for historiography: the first meaning reflects the assumptions of conventional scholarship in Islamic Studies, while the second meaning reflects the historiographic approach I have outlined in my new book The Beginnings of Islamic Law: Late Antique Islamicate Legal Traditions.3 By entitling my book’s introduction “Genealogies of Islamic law,” I seek to highlight the distinctions between conventional and critical approaches to the study of Islamic history.4

Conventional scholarship focusing on the late antique and medieval eras is nearly always involved either directly or indirectly in searching for “family origins.”5 In particular, this is evident in the prevalence of source criticism in Islamic Studies. Source criticism consists of comparing surviving textual sources and, based on a set of presumed “neutral” principles, determining which source is “older” or more “authentic.”6 Nineteenth-century European philologists devised a number of source-critical techniques. Like the “family origins” meaning of genealogy, source criticism assumes that there is a root, the “original text” (or Urtext). Recent scholarship in critical philology and critical bibliography has challenged – and, arguably, discredited – many of the assumptions of source criticism.7 Although many disciplines have relinquished or minimized source criticism, Islamic Studies in the West remains dominated by some form of it. This is why my book engages in a detailed critique of source criticism as it shapes the use of documentary sources, narrative-historical sources, and tradition reports (aḥadīth) in Islamic Studies. Because historiography is not equivalent to the study of “family origins,” critical genealogy is a productive and valuable tool for Islamic Studies. Below, I summarize the main theoretical points presented in my book; for elaborations of these points and their implementation in concrete case studies, I refer readers to the book.

Documentary sources

Scholarship on Islamic documentary sources, particularly papyri, is a burgeoning field.8 Much of this scholarship presumes that documentary sources are more reliable than narrative-historical sources, or that they are more “original.” This presumption is simply false: documentary sources are as prone to inaccuracy, forgery, or exaggeration as narrative sources are. All sources – including material and archival sources – are subjective because human actors (whose views are naturally subjective) create and interpret them. Those who maintain archives of documentary sources and those who compose documentary sources are as ideologically invested as those who compose, redact, or transmit narrative (including oral) sources.

viennapapyrus

Detail of a papyrus fragment of an early witness to the sīrah or biography of the Prophet Muḥammad dated to the 9th c. CE (A. P. 05476 Pap; courtesy Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna).

In addition to the subjectivity of their content, the preservation of documentary sources is often biased (usually reflecting elite power) or idiosyncratic. Consequently, historiography based on documentary sources is as subjective as historiography based on non-documentary sources. It is common for scholars of Islamic Studies to emphasize the absence or dearth of documentary sources as distorting Islamic historiography.

Crone, for instance, applies a common source-critical assumption by stating, “Very much indeed must have happened in the period from about 620 to 820, that is in the period for which our documentation is poor. Our chances of being able to reconstruct the origins of Islamic law with any degree of certainty are accordingly somewhat limited.”9 Crone’s claim illustrates the problematic correlation between the notion of “original” sources and “original” Islam (or Islamic law). Contrary to conventional assumptions, there is no causal correlation between the quantity of documentary sources and the reliability of historiography. Historiography is always provisional because it is based on the sources, information, and knowledge available at a particular moment. It is crucial to recognize that the quality and quantity of Islamic documentary sources reflect the geographic, social, and political conditions of Islamic societies, not their so-called “level of development.” Papyri, for example, were reused, deteriorated due to environmental conditions, or were destroyed for unknown reasons. In addition to the randomness of preservation, colonialism and theft have affected the survival of documentary materials in the Muslim world significantly.

Narrative-historical sources

How to evaluate narrative-historical sources is the subject of intense controversies in Islamic Studies and beyond. Arguably, no student of Islamic history can escape the conundrum of debates surrounding these sources. Chase Robinson aptly observes, “it is a measure of just how conservative the professional study of Islamic history remains that the noisiest controversy of the last 25 years concerns the reliability of our written sources, rather than the models according to which we are to understand and use them.”10

When a scholar makes a claim about the supposed “unreliability” of late antique Islamic sources, she often operates under the positivist assumption of the existence of an “original Truth” that can be discovered through a specific methodology. There are three primary areas in which conventional Islamic studies scholarship imposes positivist assumptions about “original” sources: orality, variation, and historical distance.

Orality. Many specialists in the field of Islamic studies presume that the oral beginnings of late antique Islamic sources render these sources historically unreliable.11 However, oral transmission is as reliable as written transmission, in light of scribal errors, problems of textual preservation and transmission, and scribal agency. Contemporaneous oral composition of Islamic historical materials, which often coincided with written composition, is as reliable as contemporaneous written composition. Indeed, the bias against oral sources is both anachronistic and prejudiced.

Variation. Another repeated criticism of late antique Islamic sources is that they cannot be factual because they are inconsistent, as evident in variant narratives of the same historical event. This criticism is based on the incorrect premise that consistency is a necessary precondition for the reliability of historical sources. However, individuals experience, interpret, and relate facts differently. For example, variations in the testimonies of several witnesses to a crime are normative and do not preclude the admissibility of the testimony. The expectation that only one consistent narrative is factual is a manifestation of a positivist orientation that presumes an “original Truth.” The processes used in transmitting, transcribing, and compiling late antique Islamic sources inevitably resulted in dissimilarities, but these variations do not mean that the sources are unreliable. Muslim historians, transmitters, or compilers in Late Antiquity were not a homogenous group. The myriad political and theological debates that animated late antique Muslim societies suggest that moments of consensus among Muslim historians are unlikely to be mere fabrications.12

Historical distance. Many scholars claim that late antique Islamic sources reveal more about their compilers (or “authors”) than historical “facts” because they were transcribed in written form several centuries after the historical events; according to these scholars, later historical compilers were subjective and had socio-political agendas. These claims reflect problematic misconceptions about “original Truth.” The contemporaneity of a source does not guarantee its reliability: neither oral composition, nor oral transmission, nor historical distance cause unreliability. All historical sources (including contemporaneous ones) reflect the subjectivity of their compilers or transmitters. Thus, Islamic historical sources contain information about both the historical events and the socio-political circumstances of their compilation and redaction. In other words, historical distance does not negate historical reliability.

The three topics of orality, variation, and historical distance are presented in the field of Islamic Studies as being impediments to the use of Islamic sources for the writing of history. From the perspective of philosophy of historiography, these claims are simply illogical; they lack a philosophical basis. Written, consistent, and contemporaneous sources cannot be assumed to be more historically reliable than oral, varying, and later sources. History provides numerous examples of oral, varying, and later historical testimonies that turn out to be more reliable than written, consistent, and contemporaneous sources. Often, these instances reflect the differences between bottom-up historical testimonies and top-down historical constructions. Against the conventional assumptions in Islamic Studies scholarship, I argue that source-critical methodologies do not historicize Islamic sources; instead, they construct them in new ways.13 In turn, these source-critical constructions are impediments to the writing of Islamic legal historiography because they divert scholarly efforts toward technical and tedious matters.

sahihbukhari

The first ḥadīth cited in the classic collection Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī by Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (d. 870), indicating its chain of transmission from the Prophet via the second caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 644): “Deeds are known by their underlying intentions…” Kitāb al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ li’l-Imām al-ʿAllamah Abī Abd Allāh Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Juʿfī al-Bukhārī (4 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1862, 1.4).

Dating tradition-reports (aḥadīth)

One of the more dominant and respected contemporary methodologies for analyzing Islamic narrative-historical sources is dating tradition-reports (aḥadīth; singular, ḥadīth) through textual criticism (a particular form of source criticism). Textual criticism was traditionally concerned with uncovering an “original” text (Urtext).14 The preoccupation with textual criticism leads some Islamicists to pursue the equivalent of a “critical edition” of Islamic history, which is an impossible and meaningless task. Ironically, literary and bibliographic scholars have reconsidered the utility of the “critical edition” because it creates an artifact that is identified wrongly as the so-called “original text.”15 Much like the “rules” for textual criticism or editing, rigid methodological rules do not recover or reconstruct “original” tradition-reports (aḥadīth), but rather create constructs that are misidentified as “original” sources.

It is common for contemporary scholarship dealing with tradition-reports (aḥadīth) to include visual representations of the chain of transmission. These images represent tradition-reports (aḥadīth) in vertical linearity, implying an evolutionary change of the report from one transmitter to another. This hierarchical, linear framework implicitly shapes the scholar’s task as a search for one “Origin/Truth” and it reflects the imposition of textual-critical methodologies in the contemporary field of “ḥadīth criticism.” Yet tradition-reports are historical narratives that do not neatly correspond to manuscript variants (the focus of textual criticism). I do not advocate that the entire enterprise of textual criticism is flawed or that scholars should not create visual representations (i.e. visual chain of transmission trees) of tradition-reports. I am merely pointing out that searching for an “original” text or an “original” author is intimately related to searching for an “original” – that is, True – Islam. Searching for “original” Islam is a search for a root, but critical genealogy teaches us that there are no roots in history.

salaymehIn addition, it is important to recognize the power dynamics underlying the scholarly search for an “original” text. Modern scholars approach textual criticism in ways that simultaneously diverge from and discount the methods of medieval Muslim scholars.

We have extensive evidence that medieval Muslim scholars employed a variety of techniques to evaluate the reliability and authenticity of oral reports, based on both the chain of transmission and the text.16 While the heuristics and archival practices of late antique and medieval Muslims differed from those of modern scholars, they are just as subjective and imperfect. The medieval Muslim scholars who compiled and redacted tradition-reports created an archive of oral and written materials. When modern scholars dismiss the products of traditional Islamic ḥadīth science, they effectively dismantle the oral-written archive of late antique and medieval Muslim scholars. In other words, because modern methodologies identify Islamic historical sources (particularly tradition-reports) as myth and folklore rather than history, they task themselves with creating new, modern archives that effectively “subalternize” the sources. (“Subaltern” refers to those under the socio-political and cultural hegemony of an imperial/colonial power; to subalternize is to subordinate within a particular context of imperial/colonial power.)

I contend that there are two dimensions of this subalternization of Islamic sources. First, a linear, textual-critical analysis “modernizes” the historical testimony of the tradition-report’s subaltern narrator. Second, the application of source critical methods erases the subaltern, medieval Muslim historian.17 Subaltern theory indicates that the usage of source-critical methods in conventional Islamic Studies scholarship does not pursue historiography, but rather silences the voices in Islamic historical sources.

I have summarized the conventional criticisms of three types of Islamic historical sources (documentary sources, narrative-historical sources, and tradition-reports/aḥadīth) posed by Islamic studies scholars in the West. Conventional assumptions about these sources are illogical from the perspective of the philosophy of historiography and flawed from the perspective of critical theory. My book elaborates a genealogical approach to writing Islamic legal historiography by integrating both documentary and narrative sources, both Islamic and non-Islamic. In doing so, I do not assume that any source is inherently more reliable or authentic. Instead, I interweave the sources and scrutinize them against each other, identifying and theorizing intersections and divergences.

The book’s three case studies rely upon biographical texts (sīrah and maghāzī), pre-canonical collections of tradition-reports (muṣannafāt and sunan, particularly the compilations of ʿAbd al-Razzāq [d. 827, Yemen] and Ibn Abī Shaybah [d. 849, Iraq]), and exegetical materials (of Ibn ʿAbbās [d. 687, Arabia], Mujāhid ibn Jabr [d. ca. 720, Arabia], and Muqātil ibn Sulaymān [d. 767, Iraq]). The case studies illustrate the overlap between juristic and historical texts and model ways of exploring Islamic legal history without searching for origins. As I elaborate in the book, a genealogical approach embraces the interpretative dynamics of the writing of history.

 

LENA SALAYMEH is Associate Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University.

 

  1. See, for example, www.genealogy.com.
  2. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957); Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 76-100; Mark Bevir, “What is Genealogy?”, Journal of the Philosophy of History 2 (2008): 263-275.
  3. Lena Salaymeh, The Beginnings of Islamic Law: Late Antique Islamicate Legal Traditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  4. Ibid., 1-20.
  5. “Islamic Late Antiquity” refers roughly to the period from the beginning of Islamic history to the end of the eighth century CE.
  6. On source criticism, see Chris Lorenz, “History: Theories and Methods,” in Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Oxford: Pergamon, 2001). See also Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).
  7. See Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); G. Thomas Tanselle, Textual Criticism since Greg: A Chronicle, 1950-2000 (Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of The University of Virginia, 2005).
  8. By way of example, see Alexander T. Schubert and Petra Sijpesteijn (eds.), Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World (Islamic History and Civilization 111; Leiden: Brill,2015) and Andreas Kaplony, Daniel Potthast, and Cornelia Römer (eds.), From Bāwīṭ to Marw: Documents from the Medieval Muslim World (Islamic History and Civilization 112; Brill, 2015).
  9. Patricia Crone, Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law: The Origins of the Islamic Patronate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 26, emphasis added.
  10. Chase F. Robinson, “Reconstructing Early Islam: Truth and Consequences,” in Herbert Berg (ed.), Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins (Islamic History and Civilization 49; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 115.
  11. See Gregor Schoeler, The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, ed. James E. Montgomery, trans. Uwe Vagelpohl (London and New York: Routledge, 2006). See also Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, trans. H. M. Wright (Chicago: Aldine, 1965 [1961]).
  12. Donner contends, “consensus exists because events actually did happen in the way described by our sources, and were so well known in the early community that all groups were required to accept the basic ‘script’ of events.” Fred M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins (Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 14; Princeton: The Darwin Press, 1998), 289.
  13. As Asad has explained in an analogous context, “statistics has been not merely a mode of representing a new kind of social life but also of constructing it.” Talal Asad, “Ethnographic Representation, Statistics and Modern Power,” Social Research 61 (1994): 55-88, 70.
  14. Traditional textual criticism is the scholarly pursuit of a critical edition of a historical text in order to “recreate” a lost “original” text. See Sebastiano Timpanaro and Glenn W. Most, The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). The practice of textual criticism has been the subject of vigorous debates and has changed considerably in recent years; for an overview, see G. Thomas Tanselle, Textual Criticism since Greg: A Chronicle, 1950-2000 (Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2005).
  15. For a discussion of the ambiguities and shifts in meaning of “original text,” see Epp Eldon Jay, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Harvard Theological Review 92 (1999): 245-281.
  16. For historical works, see Muslim b. Hajjāj al-Qushayrī (d. 875), Al-Tamyīz, ed. Ṣāliḥ b. Aḥmad b. Thābit Dayyān (Ṣanʿāʾ: Maktabat al-Imām al-Albānī, 2009); Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī (d. 1071, Iraq), Kitāb al-Kifāyah fī ʿilm al-riwāyah (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadīthah, 1972); ʿUthmān b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ al-Shahrazūrī (d. 1245), Muqaddamat Ibn al-Ṣalāh fī ʿulūm al-ḥadīth (Damascus: Dār al-Ḥikmah, 1972). See also Ṣubḥī Ṣāliḥ, ʿUlūm al ḥadīth wa-muṣṭalaḥuhu: ʿarḍ wa-dirāsah, 2nd ed. (Damascus: University of Damascus Press, 1963).
  17. I recognize that subalternity generally refers to a class of non-elite historical actors; while late antique or medieval Muslim historians may have been relatively “elite,” I use the term to draw a comparison to how modern historical methods silence these historical sources.

A Genealogy of Islamic Law

A Critical Approach to Late Antique Islamic Legal History

A Genealogy of Islamic Law

A Critical Approach to Late Antique Islamic Legal History