Myth before ‘fact’ – the myth of reasonEver since I first read Fatima Mernissi’s Women and Islam more years ago than I care to remember, I have been troubled by the issue of hadith. Up until recently, my stance was to acknowledge the hadith linked to salah and sawm as generally authentic, whilst ignoring those used to justify or proscribe minutiae apparently at odds with Quranic values. This understanding would seem to be in keeping with the insights of reforming thinkers such as Fazlur Rahman.
Herbert Berg describes the debate over hadith in Western academia in terms of a 'dichotomy' between theories derived and developed from the works of Ignaz Goldziher, who place little stock in either the historical truth of either hadith or the chains of transmitters (isnads) that designate them as authentic (sahih); and Fuat Sezgin, whose writings are generally more supportive of traditional Muslim scholarship. Scholars aligned with Goldziher include Schacht, Cook, and Calder, with the latter view supported by Abbott, Azami, Motzki, Horovitz, and Fück, leaving Juynboll, Rahman, Robson, and Coulson vacillating between.
Today, I had one of those little epiphanies, when I suddenly wondered why I was so concerned with arguments surrounding the historical justification of hadith. It struck me that this whole argument sits more comfortable at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Goldziher was writing, than in the twenty-first. In one important sense, debating the historical 'truth' of hadith is as daft as philologically analysing Gia-Fu-Feng’s translation of Tao Tse Ching. No doubt some of the alleged words of Lao Tsu probably reflect the norms of China several millennia ago, as much as the translation reflects early 1970s hippyish spirituality. The question is, does this make the book any less profound?
Similarly, whether early Muslim scholars airbrushed the life of the Prophet (aws) with their own politico-religious convictions is a moot point. The truth is that, scholars of integrity with deeply felt pious convictions – such as Martin Lings – are able to utilise traditional texts to reconstruct a narrative of the Prophet (aws) in a way which is inspiring, not just to Muslims, but to anyone with a spiritual bent. In the 1920s, the idea that such representations might be deemed ‘myths’ was an argument steeped in colonial arrogance, where a myth was not an anthropological category as much as means of deriding a conquered religion as primitive.
Narrative hadith inspire in a way that transcends historical truth. Murata and Chittick preface their introduction to Islam with the hadith of Gabriel, on its own a sublime description and definition of the Muslim path. My personal favourite is of the man who came to confess to the Prophet (aws) that he broken his fast during Ramadan by having sexual intercourse with his wife, only to leave with a basket of dates after the Prophet (aws) realised he was one of the poorest of the poor. Muslims should be free to understand these stories in terms of the relevance to our own lives and communities, unsullied by either the repressive legalism of Mullahs or the stultifying drone of academics.
The mythological stories of Islam should not be hidden away as if they were some kind of embarrassing admission of unreason. Rationalism, that represents something which cannot be proven by positivistic empiricism as primitive, is a colonial ideology, and one that has been subjected to protracted critical analysis by a multitude of social theorists from Kuhn to Foucault. Myths are narratives that have spiritual value, and they pervade Muslim discourse from the Qur’an to the hagiographies of Saints. The tales of the Imams in Shi’a Islam are among the greatest examples of mythological beauty within Islam, not least the story of the murder of Husayn, still recounted with heartfelt grief by countless Muslims every year.
The beauty of Lings' Seerah transcends its biographical accuracy or otherwise, reaching as it does deep into the Prophetic psyche, exploring problems that confronted the mission of Muhammad (aws) and hence our own dilemmas which come from trying to realise Islam in the contemporary world. The sledge hammer of Imperial reason should not be permitted to shatter the beauty and resounding truth of such works, nor the narrative hadith nor the stories of Muslim Saints. All continue to illuminate Muslim culture and understanding today.