Constructive Critics

Constructive Critics

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Reviewed by Aftab A. Malik

Reading a “Brill” publication, one has many high expectations. Safe to say, this work by Lucas, not only lives up to the Brill name, but exceeds it in many instances. In what is a subject that could have easily fallen into several volumes, Lucas writes in a way whereby no words are wasted nor any points overly emphasised. Each chapter closes with a review of how it has been relevent in gaining a better understanding of the critical role of third century hadith scholars in the articulation of Sunni Islam. Lucas sets out to demonstrate that the discipline of hadith narrator criticism (jarh wa ta’dil) had begun prior to Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 204) and to the compilation of the Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih al-Muslim, being the most regularly cited authorities for articulating Sunni Islam.

It is refreshing to see an academic allow the Islamic tradition to speak for itself rather than being construed to a set of presupposed assumptions. By drawing heavily on two magestrial works by Hafiz al-Dhahabi (the Tadkhirat al-huffaz and the Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’) Lucas is able to identify and evaluate major hadith masters that contributed to the development of hadith scholarship. It should come as no surprise for those familiar with the development of hadith scholarship that Dhahabi includes a number of Sufis amongst his list of hadith masters, allocating a number of them the honorific title “Shaykh al-Islam” (“The Senior of Islam”). Lucas’ exercise in discussing the hadith masters aims to show the western audience that Sunni hadith scholarship did not end with the complation of the “six cannonical books” but rather, it continued to grow, entering “its richest phases after the compilation” of the six books.

In identifying the major early hadith scholars, Lucas also extracts a further list consisting of hadith narrator-critics, comprising of a “relatively small number of scholars who became recognised as authorities.” Forming what we could refer to as an elite group among the hadith scholars, they were able to critically evaluate the narrators of an isnad and thus able to declare them one of 31 grades (p. 291). This is no small feat, for it meant that these hadith-narrator critics were able to exact an “extraordinary [amount of] knowledge of the approximate birth and exact death dates, [as well as the ability to cite their] teachers and students.” In short, it was a lifetimes work and something that not all hadith scholars were equipped to do.

Lucas sets out to demonstrate that because of the prior work conducted in the area of hadith-narrator criticism, both Bukhari and Muslim were able to benefit from the grading of narrators. This thesis is premised upon the writings of three hadith scholars in particular: Ibn Sa’d (d. 230) Ibn Ma’in (d. 233) and Ibn Hanbal (d. 261). His selection of these hadith scholars (who were also hadith-narrator critics) was on the basis that they have left us a “significant body of critical opinions” which form the earliest instances of the usage of technical terms. He also indicates that these scholars themselves arguably systematised and expanded upon what had already begun to be articulated (albeit in a limited fashion) by their teachers. Singling out Shu’ba (d. 160), Malik (d. 179) and Ibn ‘Uyayna (d. 198), Lucas demonstrates that these scholars had already begun to adopt various technical terms (such as thiqa [reliable] and da’if [weak]) for grading hadith narrators and which subsequently their students adopted and expanded. Indeed, Lucas shows clearly throughout the book, that the relationships between major hadith scholars in one generation and those in another, were connected through the link of a teacher and student. More than often, major hadith masters were either the students or teachers of other masters.

By examining the works of the three scholars (Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Ma’in and Ibn Hanbal), Lucas is able to argue that both Imam Bukhari (d. 256) and Muslim (d. 261) were able to build upon the work of their preceding generation of master hadith-transmitter critics (“some of whom were their direct teachers”). So we find Ibn Sa‘d introducing terms such as “not authoritative,” “questionable transmission,” and “elevated,” and applying them to narrators. Ibn Ma’in, who is regarded amongst the most severe hadith-transmitter critics introduces terms such as “wicked man,” “not bad,” “nothing” and “worthless.” Interestingly, Ibn Ma’in also “identifies experts of particular bodies of transmissions from prominent early scholars,” as well as remarkably, ranking and rating the “hierarchy of pupils from an individual transmitter,” thus adding a more nuianced and precise form of grading than that of Ibn Sa’d. Finally, turning to Ibn Hanbal, Lucas shows that he differed from the previous two scholars in that he actually records “the opinions of several of the earliest master [hadith] critics.” By determining a common list of narrators ranked and rated bythese three scholars, Lucas is able to identify the least, most favourite and most prestigious transmitters according to these three third century hadith-narrator critics (pp. 312-314).

The net effect of Lucas’ invesigation is that the reader recognises how these three scholars introduced a number of technical terms that were to become standardised, but more importantly, provided “a vehicle by which individual scholars could express whom among their predecessors they considered to be trustworthy authorities of the prophetic teachings that lay at the very heart of the Sunni articulation of Islam.” By systemising a discipline that had begun in its infancy with the likes of Shu’ba, Malik and Yahya l-Qattan, Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Ma’in and Ibn Hanbal developed and applied this to an “unprecedented number of men.” Amongst them, they were able to come to a consensus as to the “identities of the most authoritative hadith transmitters” and thus paved the way for the articulation of Sunni Islam that we have come to know vis-à-vis the hadith compilers of the third century.

Lucas writes with clarity and amply demonstrates his mastery and passion for his subject. By providing a panaromic landscape of the major hadith scholars, the reader is left with a unique insight into the development of hadith scholarship, spanning some seven centuries. Lucas’ work will prove to be instrumental in understanding the articulation and development of this tradition from the masters themselves. An indespensible book that is a must for serious researchers in the area of hadith scholarship and criticism.

LUCAS, Scott, Constructive Critics, Hadith Literature, and the Articulation of Sunni Islam: The Legacy of the Generation of Ibn Sa‘d, Ibn Ma‘in, and Ibn Hanbal. (Leiden: Brill, 2004) pp. 423.

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