How Muslims preserved the Historical Record of Islam

by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din

The Light (UK), September 2006 Issue (pp. 6–7)

Note by the Editor: This is taken from an article in The Islamic Review, September 1929, pages 311–313. The author explains how the record of the early history of Islam was preserved by Muslims savants.

No pre-Islamic religion in the world has succeeded in maintaining the purity of its record; and if corruption had crept into Islam it would not have been astonishing. But Islam in its very early days produced a band of seekers after truth who at once set to work to forestall and remedy the evil. The Holy Quran, in alluding to human interpolation in other religions, warned Muslims against the possibility of such an occurrence in theirs. It put them on their guard. They became alive to the situa­tion, especially when they beheld an extraordinarily huge influx of non-Arab races into Islam. This occurred towards the end of the first century of the Muslim era, and seemed to them to suggest a possibility of the corruption against which they had been warned. They therefore set themselves at once to fortify Islam against any such unnatural growth. They lost no time in locating the possible channels of corruption and made every possible effort to stem it. For brevity’s sake I will content myself with the mention of two things in which they detected a special menace to the purity of Islam.

First, the language itself — the vehicle of human thoughts; and secondly, the Traditions of the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)]. The changing nature of almost all the languages of the world has injured the integrity of ancient records more than anything else. Words in a language are constantly undergoing an impercept­ible but rapid change — rapid-seeming, per­haps, because so imperceptible both in form and meaning, in the course of time, and thus their original meanings are lost. Sometimes, too, new significance is given to them by succeed­ing generations — at least, the process of generalization or particulari­zation in the connotation of words goes on inces­santly. We may possess an original record of ancient days — in the very language of the time when the text was composed — but no one can be sure of the meaning he gives to the text in after days. Hindus assert that the Holy Vedas have reached them in the very language in which they were written by the ancient Rishis. It may be so; but there are several trans­lations of the Holy Vedas which differ diametrically from each other, and all because of the change of meaning which the Vedic words have undergone. Though Arabic is the most conservative language in this respect, yet the early Muslims began to raise a bulwark [a defensive wall] against this subtle attack. They began to prepare Arabic lexicons; in fact, herein is the genesis of all Arabic dictionaries. Among the lexi­co­graphers, Jauhari, a great scholar of the day, set himself to compile a dictionary of the Quranic vocabulary, and today we possess a standard work on the subject in his book Sihah­-i-Jauhari. All these lexicographers adopted one principle in ascertaining the meanings of words. They would give them only such meanings as they received in the works of ancient writers and poets. In selecting these authori­ties the compilers of the Arabic dictionaries confined their research only to authors living either before Muhammad or contemporaneously with him. It is chiefly for this reason that the words of the Quran, as well as of the Traditions, are understood in the same sense which they conveyed in the days of the Prophet — a thing unique and unparalleled in the history of Religion.

In collecting the Traditions, the early Muslims were not less vigilant in ascertaining their genuine­ness. They evolved a science of criticism for testing the trustworthiness of the various recorders of the Prophet’s sayings and doings. In the first place they would very rarely accept a tradition which had only one authority to support it. They would not rely on the report of any person who had been known to have made a false statement in his life, no matter how trivial the matter. They went farther than that; they declined to accept the authority of one who was known to have deviated once from the Quranic moral standard even in other respects. They would make long journeys to ascertain the genuineness of one tradition. It would need a volume to tell adequately of the arduous methods which they adopted to achieve their high purpose. I will here allude only to one or two books of traditions, and the labour which the writers undertook in their preparation. Imam Malik, the first writer on the subject, was born in 93 Hijra [Islamic era], in Medina. In his very early days, he had meditated collecting the traditions. He sat at the feet of nine hundred masters for this object, and then he produced a collection of somewhat above one thousand traditions as the fruit of his life. He got seventy of the best scholars of his day in Medina to attest the correctness of his book, and named it Muatta. At the end of the second century (A.H.) another great traditionist, Muhammad son of Ismail, was born in Bukhara. After finish­ing his course of studies, he spent sixteen years in the work of collecting, and collected more than six hundred thousand traditions; but of these he chose only four thousand for his famous book Sahih Bukhari — a work that has won an ever-lasting fame for its genuineness. The beginning of the third century saw the birth of another Imam, Imam Muslim by name. He also produced a collection, in which he gave twelve thousand traditions out of one hundred thousand which he had collected before he even began to write the work. There are four other books, the preparation of which entailed similar labour and pains. These six books besides Muatta are called Sihah Sittah and are passed as standard works on the subject.