When we deal with religious i.e. claimed to be divinely inspired
texts, two things are very important to be seen before taking any text as basis of a faith or making it a foundation of an exclusive claim to Salvation.
1- Whether its subject matter is rationally worthy to be attributed to the Almighty God?
2- If it can be traced back to the alleged divine mouthpiece on Earth on whom it is said to have been revealed?
One will obviously like to question the claim of someone being a divine mouthpiece. This is important but for we now we discuss just the 2nd point. Infact the claim of being a divine representative can be put to text under the discussion on the first point mentioned above.
Why talk of the trace back to the alleged source?
It is important to find out the trace back to know if the scripture known through history was actually by the alleged divine representative or not? If it was, then we can talk about the first point not under consideration in this session. If not, then we need not worry about it.
One may like to ask, why we relegate the all important subject matter. The answer is, even though the real importance is of the subject matter but it involves much of human subjectivity. And dwelling on it we may reach an impasse well before having involved into any real discussion.
Objective Science of Narration:
Obviously we cannot bring the alleged source person back to this world and ask him about the actual state of affairs i.e. if he wrote the texts attributed to him. We have to, but rely on some science of narration and transmission, some standards in textual criticism that have the inherent ability to provide an objective anchor for resting our convictions, positive or negative, about a certain scripture.
The Absence of an objective Science of Narrations:
I said, an objective science of textual criticism is required tracing the origins of scripture back to the alleged original source in a manner that puts it above reasonable doubt. Obviously speculation knows no limits! The objective science is a must to find out positive or negative evidence with regards to any text in the box.
But what if there is no such objective anchor to rest our convictions on? Can absence of negative evidence itself be considered positive evidence? No, it might be somewhat valid in other areas but not in the matters of faith and belief. It is not enough ‘positive evidence’ to make an exclusive claim for Salvation. To say it plainly, only an objective positive evidence tracing the scriptures back to their alleged source can support the idea of Salvation. No to say that any written thing traced back this way is essentially worthy enough for making it the basis of any religious conviction. Remember first of the two conditions mentioned right in the beginning?
Islamic Science of Narration/Transmission:
In the House of Islam, there is an objective science of narration/transmission used to verify the validity and textual stability of the scriptures.
In the following lines I explain the Islamic system briefly with regards to Hadith. Infact the same has been employed for Qur’an too.
The Isnaad [chain of narrators] system:
Whenever one looks into any original Hadith source book, for each report we find two things.
i- 'Isnaad', the chain of narrators.
ii- 'Matn', the body text giving the actual information
For example Mr. X did something in a particular manner or said something in a particular context. We know this person to be a historical fellow but to verify if he actually said or did that thing and the details of it we cannot simply resort to reasoning. We rather seek to find an eye witness for this. And when we happen to be at times quite distant from when the fellow X actually said or did that thing, we need to know who heard the report from the eye witness and who learnt it from that fellow and so on.
For the conformity, two things are extremely important.
i- Honesty of the people reporting it
ii- The fact each person who is reporting actually learnt it from someone who himself learnt it from the fellow who saw it and the whole idea rests on the fact there was some eye witness who reported it.
Beside both the conditions being expedient rationally we trace back their expediency to the Qur'an too. See 2:282, 65:2
Before I say briefly about the conditions and some natural questions that arise in many minds let me say that beside the above two conditions we have another step involved in verification and that is
iii- Comprehensive cross-examination of other isnaads.
I explain this with an example:
Suppose there are two people who narrate from the fellow Y who heard and reports it from an eye-witness. They are A and B. From A, a fellow C reports and from B another fellow D reports. Assuming that all of them are recognized as trustworthy. [The case in which some narrator is doubtful will be explained later] So we now have two chains i.e.
Y--> A --> C
Y --> B --> D
If they both report likewise, then this further supports our conviction that the report is true.
However, in case the report from different routes is not congruent, then we compare the otherwise trustworthy narrators among themselves. If both A and C are of higher caliber than B and D then the report through Y-A-C takes precedence and other one is rated as "Shaadh" i.e. aberrant and weak. Presence of other chains supporting the Y-A-C report solidifies what we concluded. If however both A and C are of the same caliber as B and D then the report we term this report through Y as "Mudhtarib" i.e. perplexed. All such similar cases are taken care of.
Any report that fails against the first two conditions i.e. all reporters being trustworthy and the chain being unbroken are termed as "Da'if" i.e. weak unless we have some supporting evidence through other authentic ways.
Generally there are narrators of first three generations after the Prophet [pbuh] only:
i- Companions: All of them are recognized as trustworthy for Qur'an repeatedly speaks of their virtues without an exception. But yes lapse of memory and unintentional mistake is possible and is well taken into consideration in the check against the third condition and likewise.
ii- ii- Successors: That is the generation after the companions. There are among them all ranks of narrators, some authentic, some otherwise. If a person from this generation is known to be trustworthy then there is no further checking except the general checks earlier said. This generation belongs to the first century After Hijra and the first half of the second century while obviously there might be some exceptions.
iii- Succeeding Successors: the third generation. Their period generally extends the second century. They have among them all sort of narrators. Unless a narration of a third generation fellow is verifiable through other sources it is labeled as "Gharib" i.e. strange.
iv- Regardless of one’s repute the narrations of a fourth generation person are rejected unless supported from other valid sources.
Among the second and third generation people there were exceptional scholars who produced monumental works on the gradation of isnaad and narrators. The details of this subject are so vast to be summed up in a justified manner here.
Degrees in classification of narrators:
There are as twelve categories, the highest being "imam" i.e. the leader and the lowest being "Kazzaab" i.e. liar.
Continuity of the chain:
A chain is required to be unbroken. If a chain is broken anywhere it is doubtful. Even a narration by one of the senior most and highly trustworthy successors relates something to the Prophet [pbuh] i.e. without giving the name of the authority from among the companions, the report falls down in rank. Though it may be accepted in some situations governed by rules e.g. if the chain gives virtues of something which are already established and things like that.
Infact the following fact gives a glimpse of how important is this condition.
The case of Tadlis and element of doubt:
In the chain of narrators each person while relating from another narrator uses some words, they are of great importance. If the narrator says "haddathani" i.e. "he said to me." or if he says, “Sami'tu" i.e. "I heard" then all is fine but if he says "An" i.e. 'from" which is rather ambiguous way of giving the authority and further if the person using this "An" is known for subtly leaving out a narrator then the narration comes under strict scrutiny. If in no other chain he narrates though unambiguous manner saying "haddathani" or "Sami'tu" etc then the report is graded as "Weak". The phenomenon is called "tadlis" and the one who is known for this "Mudallis."
This shows how strongly we Muslims shun the doubtful when it comes to our faith and practices related to it. A person is trustworthy, could have met the fellow whom he attributed something but the subtle element of doubt, makes his narration unacceptable. This is called objectivity and carefulness in the matters of faith.
This is not the complete science, infact just a small part of it. A few more concepts will be explained under the headings below.
Importance of acceptability with earliest generations:
In every religious tradition much value is attached to acceptability of some idea among the earliest generations. In the Muslim terminology it is referred to as the practice and beliefs of the Salaf and in Christianity, especially Catholicism, the notions held by the Early Church Fathers.
Well, while its importance is valid at its place, still we ought to have an objective anchor to know the roots of their conviction. This is especially true for accepting some text as divinely inspired or otherwise.
In the house of Islam this is catered for. We may say that some Hadith is authentic because all the early scholars accepted it like it but this is only if it has basic requirements fulfilled, the ones mentioned above. Otherwise we feel no qualms in rejecting if something was believed by too many of the early Muslims. For instance, there is an alleged narration that attributed to the Holy Prophet [pbuh] the words, “[Scholarly] Difference among my Ummah is a blessing.” Many early scholars believed in this, and this may well be taken as a wise saying but for a person who knows the science of narration and deals with it, this is utterly wrong and the Prophet [pbuh] never said it for we do not have a chain of narrators to know the actual worth of it. You see, absence of objective negative evidence is not considered positive evidence!
The state of affairs in the Christian intellectual tradition:
Contrary to Islamic educational methodology the Christian tradition has no objective science of narration and transmission. They rest their ideas on the good belief and blind trust in the people involved with the scriptures throughout the history even though nothing is known as to who they were.
The actual state of affairs in the Christian tradition was aptly summed by a certain Christian scholar and apologist, Thomas Hartwell Horne:
"The accounts left us by the ecclesiastical writers of antiquity, concerning the times when the Gospels were written or published, are so vague, confused, and discordant that they lead us to no solid or certain determination. The oldest of the ancient fathers collected the reports of their own times, and set them down for certain truths; and those who followed adopted their accounts with implicit reverence. Thus traditions, true or false, passed on from one writer to another, without examination, until it became almost too late to examine them to any purpose." (The Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures Vol. IV, Part II, Section II, p. 229 pub. E. Litteli, Philadelphia, 1825)
Yes, it is the opinion of one individual but I find nothing in Christian tradition to the contrary. Do you find?
My question to Christian reads is, can such scriptures be a made a source the foundation of one’s belief system? Can rejecting such be termed a heresy and disbelief? As a born Christian one may find it too easy to trust the vague Christian tradition, but how to satisfy others?
The objective science of transmission/narration is missing in the Christian educational methodology which makes the case of all their scriptures doubtful. You never know if Jesus [pbuh] ever said anything what the Gospels attribute to him or for that matter if any Biblical author ever wrote or said anything attributed to him.
On the contrary Islam has an aobjective science of narration which can be learnt by anyone and he can test the originality of the texts.
May Allah guide all of us.
And indeed Allah knows the best