On the Search for Divine Revelation Outside of It

By Rashid Shaz

Divine revelation is a definite and self-contained entity. Even after its revelation if supplementary materials for human guidance are needed then it would be considered a lack or an inadequacy of the divine revelation. At all places in the Qur’an where divine guidance has been alluded to, it has been clarified beyond doubt that whenever such guidance was sent, it was sent in the most comprehensive form, including all details related to it. Verses like ثم آتينا موسى الكتاب تماماً (Al- Ina’m: 154) and وكتبنا له في الألواح من كل شئي موعظة و تفصيلا لكل شئي (Al- A’raf: 145), in fact, point to the fact that after the revelation of Torah, the Israelites did not need any other supplementary sources for their guidance. The attitude of the Qur’an towards its addressee, as evidenced in verses like –  افغير الله ابتغى حكما وهو الذي أنزل إليكم الكتاب مفصلاَ(Al- Ina’m: 115) is a pointer to its nature of being complete, comprehensive and definitive. Be they the Divine scrolls revealed to earlier prophets or the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad, if they do not have the status of being the primary and seminal sources of guidance, then they raise questions about the very nature of the divine revelation. As the Qur’an is the final document in the chain of divine revelations, it has the status of the guide to humanity after the Prophet. This is the reason why it includes the wisdom revealed to the past prophets. The style of the Qur’an at numerous places aims at teaching lessons to the present community through the narration of the stories of the earlier communities. These parables provide them the guidance to lead life righteously. وما كان هذا القرآن أن يفترى من دون الله ولكن تصديق الذي بين يديه وتفصيل الكتب لا ريب فيه من رب العالمين (Yunus: 37).

The allusions in the Qur’an to the earlier prophets and their descriptions should be seen in their historical perspective. The Israelites who are known to have built a thick barrier of interpretive literature around the Divine Revelation, and who have piled up so much ancillary sources of elucidation and interpretation around Talmud that practically the Pentateuch has been overshadowed by them in matters of providing guidance to the community. They are among the people who have been given
احسن تفصيلاَ لكل شئي But they considered the Divine Book inadequate and built a veritable jungle of interpretive literature around it.  As a result they strayed from the path of Divine guidance and began to follow the judgment of the people. Despite having a comprehensive Book ( كتاباً تفصيلاً) among them, the search for divine revelations outside it was a pursuit that, despite their deep religiosity, led the Israelites to a dead end. The frequent allusions in the Qur’an about the comprehensive Book in the context of the past communities and then drawing attention of the Muslims to the fact that the most comprehensive Book has been revealed to the Prophet are meant to forewarn them about this danger lest they also, at some particular moment of their history, begin to consider this comprehensive and clear Book as inadequate, and like the rabbis and Pharisees of the earlier communities, the scholars of Islam build a similar barrier of interpretive and elucidatory literature around the Divine Revelation.

The way the Qur’an reprimands the earlier communities for their deviation from the true religious path and aberrations in their thoughts makes it amply clear that deviation in religion emanates from misguided religious thinking. It is not possible for the clergy to become deities or prophets or lawgivers without according a high status to history and interpretation. If history takes the place of Divine Revelation or takes precedence over it, in both these cases the clergy usurps the right to explain and interpret Divine Revelation. When the Israeli rabbis attempt to derive laws from the sayings of the elders ignoring the commandments in Pentateuch, they, in fact, accord history as holy a status as the Divine Revelation, through their interpretation. This barrier of history around the Divine Revelation in the context of the earlier prophets has come under discussion in the Qur’an that regards it as a serious aberration.[1] If one comes to think of it, in history, the harm caused by the so-called religious thinking to religion has been greater than that caused by any non-religious or oppositional, even inimical thinking. History can thickly overlay Divine Revelation, and if it wears the cloak of holiness, it can strike Divine Revelation from within. While those who make opposition to Divine Revelation their main objective, operate from outside the bounds of history. They either get marginalised on the periphery of history or history itself throws them in a morgue like a paralysed part where, despite all their historical importance, they get frozen in the trashcan of history. However, sacred history that strikes Divine Revelation from within and, despite the presence of the Divine Text, creates a wedge of interpretation and elucidation around it that makes Divine Revelation almost redundant. Like the earlier communities, if Muslims of today have started regarding the Qur’an as a book of holy practices rather than the Book of Guidance, its main reason is the attack of the sacred history from within.

For common people, the personality of the Prophet is something of a paradox and its balanced assessment is not possible without the strictest scrutiny of the Divine Revelation. To accept a person just like oneself as a prophet demands an extraordinary intellectual leap. It is like walking on a bridge thinner than hair and sharper than a sword. The acceptance or denial of the Prophet is such a thin line that determines the birth of two communities. The Prophet is neither absolutely human nor angelic. Those who are ready to recognise only his human aspects deny his apostleship, and those who regard him as purely angelic exaggerate this particular aspect of his personality and, in a way, defeat the very purpose of apostleship. Between these two extremes of denial (kufr) and associationsim or polytheism (shirk), the recognition of the Prophet is an extremely delicate task, and it is not always possible for societies to do it properly in all situations. It is not at all surprising if the events surrounding a person with whom God may be in dialogue, or on whom His message is revealed, and whose existence defines the relationship between the heavens and the earth, take on the aspect of holiness and forms a sacred history in the succeeding years.

History has its own temptations, especially the history which defines the relationship between the heavens and the earth, or which encompasses the occasions and circumstances of Divine Revelation. It is neither possible for the believers to regard them as mere facts of history and read them as such, nor is it desirable on an emotional or conscious level. The way the lofty attributes of the Prophet have been mentioned in the Qur’an [محمد رسول الله والذين معه  (Al- Fatah: 29)] strengthens the belief that it is not a common history, but the sayings of those great human beings whose lofty and sacred attributes have provided a successful model for the future. However, the role human perception plays in awarding a particular status to history and investing it with sacred and angelic qualities, so that it serves as a model, makes a great difference because the human perception or human recording of history cannot be equated with Divine perception or Revelatory truth. The earlier communities had committed the same mistake regarding the historical accounts and practices of their prophets. Rather than depending solely on Divine information regarding the Divine Revelation, they accorded human history an immutable and sacred status, paving the way for the substitution of Divine Revelation with human history.

The Israelites not only accorded the times and practices of Moses the status of sacred history, regarding them as oral Divine Revelation as opposed to the written Divine Revelation of Moses. They went still further and gave currency to the belief that the written Divine Revelations can be properly understood only through the oral Divine Revelations. Thus, history was not only equated with Divine Revelation, but got precedence over it in matters of interpretation and elucidation. Christ who had come basically to retrieve the lost sheep of the Israelites and who was greatly upset by the spectacle of meaningless debates among the rabbis and Pharisees on matters of Jurisprudence considered the barrier of interpretive literature around Torah to be a rejection of the Book itself. Criticising the attitude of the Pharisees towards religion when Christ said, “They sift flies and swallow camels”[2] he was, in fact, referring to the particular juristic school of human judgements (aara al-rijal) that had almost rejected Torah in preference to times and practices of the prophet of the time. Christ’s call to true religion created a stir in the still and stagnant pool of the religious thinking of the Israelites. However, in the subsequent years, when this call changed its tone and tenor in the hands of his followers because of the changing political and evangelical configurations, when he began to be seen as Prophet for the whole world instead of a bringer of glad tidings and counsellor to the Israelites. For the Israelites only, and when, far away from the practices of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the followers of Christ spread to different corners of the world for evangelical purposes, then the practices and days of Christ assumed as much importance as the message of Christ. Christ’s teachings based on Divine Revelation got mixed up with his times and practices in such a way that what to speak of separating them from one another, a new belief was formed with reference to the Word of God that Christ himself was the very embodiment of the Divine Revelation and that as long as he lived on the earth, every moment that he spent, every act that he did, every message that he transmitted, and every policy that he undertook was guided by it. As for their historical consciousness, the Israelites regarded themselves as a community that had a deep sense of the importance of history. It has been their strong belief that as the followers of Torah, they have a special place in the Divine scheme of things. They believe that they took upon themselves the responsibility of Torah at a moment when all other communities, because of their deplorable state, were not ready to accept this responsibility. The awareness of this special status actuated the Israelites not only to make all possible efforts to preserve their history, but also accorded it a much higher status than it deserves. Christ himself was the severest critic of such a view of history that invests it with holiness, and he passed the strongest strictures on historical jurisprudence and rabbinic laws. What is surprising is that his followers not only placed history and Divine Revelation on the same footing, but went a step further and conferred on history the status of the Divine Revelation. It might be that Christ’s companions did not write the testaments from this angle of holy history, in practice, however, these books are now read not as books of history but as books of Divine Revelation, or at least, as the genuine manifestations of Divine Revelation. In this continuum, if the times and practices of Prophet Muhammad are accorded a sacred status, or like the earlier communities, if the followers of Prophet Muhammad begin to see wahi ghair matlu in his sayings and practices, it will simply be an extension of the deviant historical attitude coming down from the earlier ages.

The age of Prophet Muhammad with all its circumstances and ethos is certainly very important. However, unlike Moses or Christ or other prophets who were sent to particular communities or regions, the apostleship of Muhammad  was meant for the whole universe and, as the last and final Prophet, his teachings were to be valid till doomsday. If the Prophet who was meant for the whole humanity and whose status was to remain intact till the Final Hour is seen merely as a historical character, limited by time and space, and if the cultural manifestations around him are considered to have impact on the model or sunnah provided by him, then it is quite natural that questions would be raised about his mission that transcends history. Then one cannot deny the truth that however much we accord the times and practices of the Prophet the status of history or sacred history and follow it reverentially or regard it as a precedent, a return to the age and time of the Prophet is not possible for us on a historical plane. Whether the age of the Prophet is equated with Divine Revelation or whether it is regarded as pure history, on the levels of both emotion and intellect, we can only do this much that we put the seal of our belief on the information coming to us after being filtered through history. However, it would be essential for those who want to see Muhammad as the Prophet of the present and the future, beyond the confining bounds of time and space, that rather than depending on human sources and human perceptions regarding the Prophet’s time and his practices, they should seek guidance from the Divine Revelation itself, where his (Prophet’s) teachings and practices would be found here and there like sparks of authentic history. A history that is not simply fossilized information but that contains intimations for the future.

For the followers of Christ there is no other option except looking for Divine Revelation in the times and practices of Christ. However, for us it is possible to see a reflection of the Divine Revelation in the times and practices of Muhammad. There is a world of difference between the two. While the former represents a human effort to reclaim Divine Revelation through history, while the latter represents the timeless grandeur of the days and practices of the Prophet through the Divine Revelation. For the believers, information about the days and practices and the ways of its creative vision are important because in the affairs of daily life and in matters of safeguarding the Divine Revelation, the model provided by the Prophet is our only guide. In our quest for this model, it would be unreasonable for us to follow principles devised by human beings rather than the authentic sources provided by the Divine Revelation. This is also due to the fact that the act of recreating history through a historical process lands us into the dangerous waters of historiography. In the context of the extremely seminal nature of the Prophet’s age, we can say it with utmost certainty that no historical principle or historical narration has the power to encompass or manifest for us the days of the Prophet in all their dimensions. We should not forget that history is after all history, and it cannot be given the status of Divine Revelation. Moreover, no method of historiography can have the range and breadth to record all the details of the days and nights, of each moment that had the dimension of ages, in all its aspects. Tomes of history or biography can at best make a catalogue of important or semi-important events. But who would decide which particular moments were important in the long span of twenty-three years? The process of recreating history through history can provide us, at best, a collective, vague and rather inadequate record of the time, and that is all. Thus, there is no other option left to us except for striving to conceive the days and practices of the Prophet in the light of the Qur’an rather than history. Undoubtedly, it is such a Book where we not only find the quotidian of the Prophet in all their dimensions, but also the significant moments of earlier prophets and the grandeur of earlier Divine revelations. Despite the presence of an immortal and immutable model provided by the Prophet, our great dependence on human history is fraught with the danger that the personality of the Prophet might get lost in the image of the historical person. The presence of the Qur’an in undiluted form amongst us and the universal and timeless nature of Prophet Muhammad’s mission demand that, unlike the earlier communities, we must try to trace the days and practices of the Prophet beyond the normal historical process and transcending its bounds. It can be possible only when we are able to see the Prophet’s period not simply as a historical chronology but as archetypal history. Otherwise, like the earlier communities, our quest for the model would also be reduced to a mere study of history, a history that, for its own authentication, is dependent on a weak source like itself, i.e., history.

In the light of the complacency that had developed among the earlier communities about the days and practices of their prophets as a result of which history was regarded as the genuine interpreter of the Divine Revelation, or the Divine Revelation itself, the first generation of Muslims had adopted an attitude of extreme caution towards history. They knew that the extraordinary emotional attachment of the followers to the days and practices of their prophets have often led to aberrations in the world of thought in different communities. The straying away of the Israelites in their religious thought and their assertion that in addition to the written Torah, Moses was also given an oral Torah on the Mount Sinai that had travelled orally from generation to generation through the prophets, scholars and elders, were facts that the first generation Muslims were fully aware of. To give Mishnah and Gemarah the status of written documents for the oral Torah, and to regard the interpretation of Torah through them to be authentic had become such an accepted and valid principle that in practical terms the Pentateuch had remained beyond common people’s access. Its status was largely that of a book of benedictions; Talmud was considered a sufficient guide in the conduct of practical life. Apart from the genuine Divine Revelation, the presence of this interpretive and elucidatory literature that came to be regarded as a substitute for Divine Revelation, led not only to the distortion of the essence of Divine Revelation but also resulted in the fossilization of religious thinking altogether. The strictest strictures that the Qur’an levelled on this intellectual stagnation and religious aberration had forewarned the first generation of Muslims and they were extremely careful. To resist any kind of religious aberration through religion the four caliphs and the Prophet’s Companions displayed extreme caution and vigilance, and intellectual alertness. Their efforts were successful to a large extent as today in the huge corpus of hadith literature one cannot pinpoint even a few sayings of the prophet in verbatim, with all its linguistic and spatial dimensions, that can stand the test of historical enquiry or can be called authentic in the truest sense of the term or can be regarded as really “uninterrupted” (mutawatir) where an entire generation transmits openly and without any reservation to another generation. In this sense, it should be regarded as a considerable achievement on the part of the first generation of Muslims that despite their strongest attachment to the person of the Prophet, they realised the danger of religious aberrations in future and, to a great extent, restricted the growth of a possible “Mishanh” or “Gemarrah” in the religion of Muhammad.

Apparently, it seems surprising that the band of holy men who sacrificed everything for the Prophet’s mission on earth, who considered his presence among them to be an extraordinary moment in human history, and who, on the day of his death, felt that the relationship between the heavens and the earth had severed for ever, should, despite their strong attachment to the Prophet, not allow his days and practices to overshadow Divine Revelation and thus protect it from any sort of distortion. As a matter of fact, the notion of a non-sacred history was propagated by the Prophet himself. The Prophet who took utmost precaution in compiling the Qur’an, and who saw to it that it remained protected both in the oral and the written form, had issued the strong instruction: لا تكتبوا عنّي غير القرآن و من كتب عني شيئاَ فليمحه  (recorded in Muslim). One consequence of this strong attitude of the Prophet was that his closest Companions, especially Omar, would always say, “حسبنا كتاب الله”, even though it was not possible for the Prophet’s Companions to completely ignore his days and practices on an emotional level. It is said that Abu Bakr had made a compilation of about five hundred traditions of the Prophet. Which compilation of the Prophet’s traditions could be more genuine than the one done by the closest and the earliest of his Companions? But Abu Bakr made the painful decision to rescind it for the specific reason that in future it might not acquire the status of another Mishnah.

The first generation of Muslims regarded history as history. After serious reflection and analysis Abu Bakr had reached the conclusion that there might be an utterance by the Prophet in his compilation that the listener might not have heard properly or might have misunderstood, or its real import could not have been understood for lack of availability of the specific context in which the utterance was made. This critical attitude towards history compelled him to rescind the most valuable compilation of the utterances of the last Prophet. In the early days of Islam, due to large-scale copying of the Qur’an, its memorisation that was very common among people, the availability of the master copy of the Qur’an, and the easy accessibility of the sacred text within covers, it was hardly likely that the compilation by Abu Bakr would acquire the status of a kind of secondary Divine Revelation. However, Abu Bakr was so careful about history that he did not want to lay himself open to such a possibility, however remote, lest it was taken to be the only genuine source of interpretation of the religion in the coming years. Voicing this apprehension he had said, “There may be something in these practices and utterances that the Prophet had not said quite the same way, or at least, meant the same way as it had been understood (by the reporters)”. While discarding the most valuable possession of his life, Abu Bakr’s notion of history was his only help and guide. He knew that despite the historical, interpretive and scholarly importance of his compilation, its absence would not result in any kind of distortion in the religion. In the words of Zahbi, “Hazrat Abu Bakr publicly exhorted the people that they should not report anything from the Prophet.”

Abu Bakr was not alone in protecting and propagating the Islamic notion of history. Caliph Omar, too, tried to stop the reporting of the Prophet’s utterances. It is said that in the beginning Omar had decided to compile a volume of the Prophet’s utterances and practices, but soon he also, like Abu bakr, reached the conclusion that such a compilation of the Prophet’s sunnah would open the door for religious deviations to which the earlier communities had fallen victims. He felt that any such compilation of the Prophet’s sunnah would soon acquire the status of a sacred book and, in the place of history, if the sunnah began to be regarded as Divine Revelation or similar to Divine Revelation, then it would affect the status of the Qur’an as the seminal, definitive and the basic Book. Omar who, in comparison with other Companions of the Prophet, was more aware of the religious heritage of the Israelites, did not want to risk the appearance of a Mishnah in the religion of Muhammad. In his words, “اني كنت اردت أن اكتب السنن و أني ذكرت قوما كانوا قبلكم كتبوا كتاباً فأكتبوا عليها وتركوا كتابا الله واني والله لا البس كتابا الله شئي” It is not only that Omar discarded the idea of compiling the Prophet’s saying at an administrative level, but also instructed other transmitters of traditions to take extreme caution and care. Some historians have even recorded the fact that when Omar came to know that people had recorded the sayings of the Prophet in writing, he had them brought to him and burnt them[3]. As a matter of fact, if Abu Bakr’s compilation of the Prophet’s traditions or a compilation by Omar done under the supervision of the central government and in the presence of the elderly Companions of the Prophet, had come into existence, then it would have been not only more authentic because of the chronological proximity with the Prophet’s age, but because of being put together under the central authority of the Caliphate. For these reasons, it would have enjoyed higher credibility and wide acceptability too. On the one hand, these circumstances could have conferred on it historical authenticity; but on the other, the same circumstances would have been considered sufficient to accord it a status similar to that of the Divine Revelation. The earlier communities had strayed exactly in this way through compilations like Mishanah and Gemarrah. Realising this danger, Omar had adopted a stern attitude towards history.

For those who were close to the Prophet, what could be more pleasurable to them than the memory of those days when Allah’s Prophet was present with them, and of those assemblies where the Prophet was the centre of attraction? However, it was more important to safeguard the religion from all potential sources of danger in future. That is why the caliph of the period discouraged people from excessive reporting of the Prophet’s traditions. This difference between history and Divine Revelation was so clear in the mind of Omar that while sending Qarza bin Ka’b in Iraq he instructed him in clear words not to overburden people with the knowledge of Prophetic traditions lest they got alienated from the Qur’an.[4] Qarza recorded that after that day he had never narrated any tradition. It is said that once when he saw Abi bin Ka’b narrating a tradition he went over to him with a whip to reprimand him.[5] It is recorded in the books of history that Omar had forbidden some of the venerable Companions of the Prophet like Abdullah bin and Abuzar from reporting traditions, in the strongest terms[6]. It has been recorded in some reports that Omar had imprisoned Ibn Mas’ud, Abi Darda and Abu Mas’ud Ansari for the simple reason that they were found guilty of excessive reporting of the Prophet’s traditions.[7] The Madina of the four venerable caliphs witnessed the glorious tradition of referring to the Book of Allah for guidance. There, the Prophet’s Companions’ notion of history developed in the light of the Divine Revelation under the personal guidance of the Prophet and the possibility of the emergence of a new Mishnah was rather remote. Despite this if the venerable caliphs did not show any flexibility in their vigilant and cautious view of history, the reason for this was that, apart from the Qur’an, they did not want to establish any other model or framework based on the Prophet’s utterances which, because of its interpretive merits and the sacredness attached to it, could ever pave the way for a Mishnaic literature. It is said that once Ali’s son, Muhammad, wanted to present two written pages that he had taken from his father to Othman that, according to his report, contained commands about zakah attributed to the Prophet. Othman’s reported reply was, “I do not want to associate myself with this ….”[8] The Prophet’s people regarded history as mere history. They were not ready to regard it as an aid to interpretation or elucidation, because according to them, every effort of interpreting Divine Revelation should emanate from within it which they considered the source of the authentic and immutable Prophetic model. That is why when the Prophet’s Companions departed from this world one after another, none of them dared to leave behind him any compilation of the utterances and practices of the Prophet for the community.[9]

Among the first generation of Muslims, the differing notions of history and Divine Revelation were so clear and strong that any information coming through history, even if it was presented as the Prophet’s utterance was not acceptable to them merely because it was attributed to the Prophet. It is said that when Mahmood Ansari narrated the tradition that whoever said “لا اله الا الله” would never be sent to hell, Ayyub Ansari responded immediately by saying, “I do not think that the Prophet ever said any such thing.”[10]  Similarly, the report by Fatima, daughter of Qais, that the responsibility for providing accommodation and maintenance for a divorced wife does not fall on the husband, was not acceptable to Omar as this statement, attributed to the Prophet, could not be corroborated by any evidence from the Qur’an. Omar’s view was, “How can accept the report of a woman for which there is no justification in the Qur’an? One does not know whether she has remembered it rightly or not.” Ayesha’s strong criticism and comments on the reports by the Prophet’s Companions regarding the Prophet’s utterances also point to the fact that the first generation of Muslims were aware of the constructive principles of history and adhered to them. Rather, in view of the extraordinary importance of the Prophet’s age, they displayed utmost caution and circumspection in their critique of history. It has been recorded in Sahih that once Abdullah bin Abbas was copying down the text of a decision taken by Ali. He would omit words at places and say, “By Allah, Ali must not have taken such a decision.” Similarly, Abu Huraira’s report that one loses purity acquired through ablution (wazu) if he comes in contact with something touched by fire was not acceptable to him. Likewise, when the report… Badr through Ibn Omar that the dead can hear reached Ayesha she exclaimed, “May Allah have mercy on Ibn Omar!” It said clearly in the Qur’an – إنك لا تسمع الموتى و ما انت بسمع من في القبورIt is said that Ayesha had immediately rejected the report that the dead are subjected to punishment if the members of the family mourn them volubly. She offered the following verse of the Qur’an in support of her view: لا تزر وازرة وزر اخرى Similarly, when some people began to narrate exaggerated reports relating to the Prophet’s meeting with or sighting of Allah, she rejected all of them with reference to the following Quranic verse: لا يدركه الأبصار The Prophet’s Companions were aware of the fact that the realisation of the Divine Revelation on the basis of which the foundation of the future Muslim society was to be laid had already been preserved in the form of the Book within covers, and that history, despite all its positive ramifications, is but mere history. To regard it as the key to understanding and interpreting an absolute and definitive entity like the Divine Revelation would open the doors to many other complications. Because of their deep sense of responsibility, the Companions of the Prophet would often tremble while reporting the Prophet’s utterances or narrating his sayings or practices. It is said that when Abdur rahman bin Abi laila had requested Zaid bin Arqam to narrate some tradition of the Prophet, Zaid response was: “I have grown old and do not remember correctly. It is such an onerous task to narrate the traditions of the Prophet.” Those who narrated any utterances attributed to the Prophet or any interpretation of them did not find themselves capable of the historical responsibility of such an act. It is said that on the request of Emir Muaviah, Zaid bin Sabit narrated to him a tradition of the Prophet, but when he saw that Muaviah was making arrangement to have it written down, Zaid took it from him and wiped out the text. He reprimanded Muaviah by saying that it was Prophet’s instruction that his traditions should not be written down.[11]  It is said that when the disciples of Abu Sai’d Khadri had requested him to have some traditions written down, he responded as follows: “The way we had heard and internalised the traditions from the Prophet orally, you should also do the same.” Abu huraira also held the same view.[12]

In matters of historiography, the first generation of Muslims were fully aware of the fact that even if some misreporting took place in the process of oral narration of the Prophet’s sayings and practices, it would soon vanish. But if the sayings and practices were recorded in the written form, such misreporting of history regarding the sayings of the Prophet would perpetuate forever. That is why, firstly, they took extraordinary care in the narration of the Prophet’s sayings, and secondly, they tried their best that no compilation of his sayings and practices should take the form of a written document.[13]

History vs. Divine Revelation

AS long as the collective identity of the community of Muslims was protected, the dividing line between history and Divine Revelation was very clear in the mind of the common people. However, after the martyrdom of Othman, the Muslim world faced a crisis of momentous proportion, and the unity of Muslim was seriously threatened. Under the circumstances, it became difficult to maintain the fine distinction between history and Divine Revelation.  One more reason why this delicate balance could not be maintained was the fact that for safeguarding Divine Revelation, the Muslims had never negated history, nor they were in favour of rejecting it altogether. People were permitted to narrate the sayings and practices of the Prophet but were expected to exercise great caution in doing it, so that it should not distract people’s attention from Allah’s Book, or allow the growth of another framework based on the Prophet’s traditions. Prohibition of excessive narration of the Prophet’s traditions, avoidance of writing down the traditions according to the Prophet’s own instruction, and the deep sense of responsibility in the transmission of the Prophet’s utterances and maintain a strict scrutiny on them through the administrative machinery of the time are the acts that helped to keep history within its limits. However, with the crisis in the Caliphate, this surveillance on history could not be maintained any longer. As a result, it became possible for history not only to wear the cloak of holiness and transcend its limits, but also to take the help of reports and traditions that could not be corroborated by historical bases themselves.

Abdullah bin Zubair had reported the following comment of his father regarding the statement –  من كذب علي فليتبوأ مقعده من النار[14], attributed to the Prophet: “I see that people have added the word متعمدا, whereas I have never heard the Prophet uttering this word.” This reflects the changing attitude of the Muslims towards history. Those who, till the other day, trembled at the thought of transmitting the Prophet’s utterances lest they might be liable to error, however slight that error might be, and who were conscious of the fact that the slightest error in this regards, despite all their good intentions, might include them to the list of those for whom it was said – من كذب عليّ.The addition of the word متعمدا, through the error of the reporters and the lack of comprehension or miscomprehension of the listeners, provided a justification for the errors that would enter into the exegetical literature in the process of thematic and linguistic transmission. The scope provided by the addition of the word  متعمدا also paved the way for the justification of the notion in future that if anyone reads/ observes anything good anywhere, he should think that the Prophet might have said that.[15] Firstly, in the hands of simple-minded preachers, this notion of history got alienated from the critical principles of historiography. Secondly, now that it was considered possible to imaginatively recreate the Prophet’s traditions through history, it was not difficult for history to wear the cloak of sacredness. There were some basic reasons for this laxity in the attitude of Muslims towards history. First, the internal crisis of the caliphate; second, the impact of the earlier people of the Book and their attitude to history; third, political groupism; fourth, good-intentioned but simple-minded preachers; and fifth, the presence of hypocritical Muslims (munafiqeen) who were active at different places and who were bent on placing history on the same pedestal as the Divine Revelation, thus causing harm to Islam. The political turmoil paved the way for groupism, the supporters of Othman and those of Ali took the help of fabricated traditions in support of their stand. Later, the Umayyads and the Abbasids worked for their political consolidation on the basis of such traditions. This climate of mutual clash and rivalry provided a wide field for the scholars and fabricators belonging to the people of the Book to give currency to their own view of history. The participation of Abu Huraira in the assemblies of Ka’b Al-Ahbar, the curiosity of Muslims about the knowledge of Ka’b Al-Ahbar about the earlier religions, the general permission for the transmission and publication of the scholarly and narrative accounts by Tamim Dari and Ka’b Al-Ahbar opened the door for the interpretation of the utterances and practices of the Prophet that, to a great extent, owed its origin to the Jewish view of history[16]. In the prevailing climate of confusion and chaos, those potential hypocrites for whom the Qur’an had declared in unambiguous terms – ومن أهل المدينة مردوا على النفاق لا تعلمهم (Al Taubah: 101), and who had so long kept their motives concealed because of the strictness and alertness of the administrative machinery, saw their great opportunity.

Since I do not intend to record a detailed history of the Prophet’s traditions in these pages, but merely to point out the deviation in our thinking about the Divine Revelation that has crept in because of the change in the Quranic concept of history. That is why we will here limit our discussion to the factors that have contributed to the process of investing history and Prophetic practices with the mantle of sacredness, and if, like the Israelites, we, too, have begun to regard history as a reliable tool for the understanding and interpretation of Divine Revelation, then what are the reasons for such an error? The first generation of Muslims, in their effort to resist the emergence of a Mishnah, had delimited the bounds of history and kept them under strict surveillance. Why this surveillance could not be maintained in the later years? If common people began to entertain misconceptions in this regard, then what were the reasons for it? What were the reasons for the emergence of the notion that history is a genuine source of the Prophet’s sunnah, or the notion that sunnah is a collection of sayings and practices outside the Qur’an? And the most important of all – why the Prophetic model was equated with the sunnah for which people began to excavate the collections of the Prophet’s sayings and practices? At which turn of history the sunnah came to be regarded as synonymous with hadith? Our journey from the concept of the model to the sunnah, and from sunnah to hadith records such a profound transformation in our concept of history that without understanding the real nature of this transformation we cannot have a proper appreciation of the Prophetic model, nor can we point to its genuine sources. As it is not possible for us to advance a single step without the Prophetic model, similarly, the slightest mistake in our identification of the sources of this model can distance us from this source of guidance that we regard as the most authentic manifestation of the final Divine Revelation. It is not difficult, on principle, to make a choice between history and Divine Revelation in our quest for the Prophetic model, because there is consensus among all about the superiority of Divine Revelation. The problem really crops up when history is adduced as an additional source or an interpretive tool for the Divine Revelation. The crux of the problem is – history cannot be absolutely discarded, and accepting it as an interpretive tool is also fraught with pitfalls. If the Muslims of the first generation had tried to keep history within its specified bounds rather than rejecting it altogether, it was a well-considered decision. The truth is – without restoring the delicate balance between history and Divine Revelation, it will not be easy for us to reverse the cycle of misconceptions that has taken root among us regarding the Prophetic model.  

Notes and References

[1] Pointing to the deviation in the thinking of the People of the Book, the Qur’an says:

إتخذوا أحبارهم و رهبانهم أرباباً من دون الله (Al Taubah: 31)

[2] The embellishment of the law by the Pharisees and Sadducees (rabbis of Jesus’ day) were condemned by Jesus in Matthew 15:6, Luke 11:46, 52 and in other similar verses.

The jurisprudence propounded by the clergy not only made God’s worship immensely complex, but also the unnecessary restrictions and insistence on self-imposed rituals paved the way for human interference in the act of God. The Israeli rabbis could not abide by the following instruction of the Torah:

“You shall not add to the word which I am Commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” [Deuteronomy 4:2]

Under these circumstances, Jesus Christ had to make the fossilized and soulless attitude the target of his attack in his Sermon on the Mount.

[3] Tabqat Ibn Sa’d, Part 5, p. 140, published in Europe.

[4] Mukhtasar Jame’ Bayan al-ilm, p. 175; Tazkirah Al-Hiffaz, vol. I, p. 7.

[5] Tazkirah Al-Hiffaz, p. 7

[6] For details, see, Taujih Al-Nazar Ila Usool Al-Asar by Shaikh Tahir bin Salih Al-Jazairi, pp. 2-18.

[7]Zahbi, Tazkirah Al-Hiffaz, vol. I, p. 7

[8] Taujih Al-Nazar, op. cit

[9] it is quite possible that the collections of reports attributed to some of the Prophet’s Companions that did not reach us, and we do not feel that our Faith has been affected in any way for that reason, might not have been written at all. In the light of the Qur’an’s positive discouragement regarding the gathering of the hadiths and the Prophet’s categorical declaration  لا تكتبوا عنى  , it seems hardly likely that the Prophet’s Companions made any plans for collecting the sayings and practices of the Prophet. Though it seems quite natural that people would feel actuated to chronicle the glorious history of a great period in human civilisation and preserve the practices of the Prophet in the written form, and probably for this reason precisely that Abu Bakr had thought of preserving the Prophet’s traditions which led to the collection of about five hundred hadiths. However, the apprehension that such a collection could soon acquire a sacred status with reference to the Prophet’s personality desisted him from giving it a final form. Omar’s consultations with the Prophet’s Companions on this issue and finally taking the same stand as that of Abu Bakr, rather going a step further and annulling such collections, point to the fact that the Prophet’s Companions had reached a consensus about not undertaking any compilation of the Prophetic reports even as historical documents. As matters stood, it seems hardly likely that some of the Prophet’s Companions would undertake such a task, against the clear decision of the Islamic administration of the time. And this, despite the clear Quranic injunction on the subject as evident from the following verse:  يا أيها الناس قد جائتكم موعظة من ربكم وشفاء لما في الصدور وهدى ورحمة للمؤمنين. قل بفضل الله وبرحمته فبذلك فليفرحوا هو خير مما يجمعون (Yunus: 57)    

[10] Chapter, “Salat Al-Nawafil Jama’a” in Sahih Bukhari

[11] Abu Dawood, Kitab Al-ilm

[12] Abdus Salam Mubarakpuri, Sirat Bukhari, Patna, 1329 H.E., vol. 2, p. 27.

[13] It is said that when Omar took practical steps to prevent people from recording hadiths in the written form and cast into the fire the hadiths written down by some individuals, he warned Muslims as follows: “O my people, do you also want to create a Mishnah, like the People of the Book?” Ali was so sensitive about the sayings of the Prophet that whenever he heard anyone describing a hadith, he would ask him to take an oath vouching for its veracity. Once, in one of his addresses, he exhorted people to destroy any hadith that they might have had in written form, as the earlier communities had brought ruin upon themselves as they followed the conventions established by their clergy in preference to Allah’s Book. Abu Nazra had asked Abu Sai’d Khudri: “Won’t it be advisable to write down the hadiths that we hear from you?” the reply was – “Do you want to make it a (divine) text?” Abdullah bin Masu’d was so dead against writing down hadiths that when a collection of hadiths was brought to him, he cast it into the fire and said, “I beseech you in the name of Allah that if anyone has this kind of collection then let me know about it so that I can go there (and take appropriate steps).” He opined that the earlier communities had brought ruin upon themselves as they gave up Allah’s Book and started following such collections. In history books one finds evidence of similarly strong stances taken by Abdullah bin Abbas and Abdullah bin Omar, against writing down hadiths. Even after the age of the Prophet’s Companions, for a long time Muslims were not in favour of recording hadiths in the written form. If among the followers of the Prophet’s Companions great scholars like Alqama, Sha’bi, Masruq, Qasim, Mughira and A’mash had strong reservations about recording hadiths, the reason for this was that in view of the extraordinary importance of the Prophet’s period and the emotional association of Muslims with the utterances and practices of the Prophet, there was strong apprehension that such accounts could, in the subsequent years, take the aspect of Mishnah among Muslims.     

[14] Bukhari

[15] to arrest this trend in the changing concept of history, if on the one hand, the tradition of critiquing and evaluating hadiths began, on the other hand, it was declared that hadiths should be harmonised with the general framework of Islam, for their universal acceptability. Abu Yusuf undertook a detailed discussion about the conditions for the acceptability of hadiths in his Al-rad A’la Sayyar Al-Auza’i. Later, the wide acceptability of the concept of ahl-e sunnat wal-jama’at and reports such as, من شَذ شُذ في النار can be understood in this light.  

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