By Ahmed El Shamsy (The University of Chicago)
The peripatetic Meccan jurist Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) studied with Mālik in Medina as a precocious youth. He reportedly memorized Mālik’s book, the Muwaṭṭaʾ, and then turned up at Mālik’s doorstep, demanding to study the text with its author personally and refusing to take no for an answer. Later in his life, when writing his own magnum opus, the Umm, al-Shāfiʿī drew extensively on his study of the Muwaṭṭaʾ: he quotes Mālik more than six hundred times, reproducing often sizable chunks of the latter’s writing. Though he attributes the quoted material explicitly to Mālik’s book only once, there is an extremely high degree of mostly verbatim overlap between al-Shāfiʿī’s quotations and the extant text of the Muwaṭṭaʾ’s various recensions. It is thus not a stretch to use the quotations to reconstruct what we might call al-Shāfiʿī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ—a fragmentary one, to be sure, but one that nonetheless clearly conveys Mālik’s positions and approach.
Whether al-Shāfiʿī had recourse to a written copy of the Muwaṭṭaʾ when writing his Umm remains a mystery. That he could have reproduced the extensive and numerous quotations from Mālik’s work so accurately from memory even after the passage of decades strains credulity, but precisely that is suggested by a comment that al-Shāfiʿī appends to a report taken from the Muwaṭṭaʾ concerning the exchange of currency: “I read [this passage] correctly to Mālik, there is no doubt about that; but much time has passed since then, and I no longer remember it exactly, and so I am unsure whether the word [he used] was ‘treasurer’ (masculine) or ‘treasurer’ (feminine). Others transmit this from him as ‘treasurer’ (masculine).” (The comment relates to report no. 1987 in the new edition and translation of the Muwaṭṭaʾ.) Al-Shāfiʿī’s comment reveals both his reliance on memory, at least for this particular passage, and his awareness of and familiarity with other recensions of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, transmitted by other scholars who had studied with him; the word in question indeed appears in the masculine form in the other recensions.
The material that al-Shāfiʿī transmits from Mālik amounts to more than just an amorphous body of traditions like those compiled by al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) and ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr (d. 93/711 or 712): Mālik’s authority and voice are clearly discernible. Comparing al-Shāfiʿī’s version of the text with other recensions, particularly those of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Laythī (d. 234/848) and Abū Muṣʿab (d. 242/856), allows us to evaluate the degree of similarity between the transmissions of Mālik’s various students.
Most commonly, al-Shāfiʿī’s quotations of the Muwaṭṭaʾ are identical or nearly identical to the text found in Yaḥyā’s recension; compare, for just a few examples, ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib’s edition of the Umm, 8:693, with the new edition of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, no. 1744; Umm, 8:776, with Muwaṭṭaʾ, no. 2378; Umm, 8:571, with Muwaṭṭaʾ, no. 165; and Umm, 8:583, with Muwaṭṭaʾ, no. 1033. In several such instances, al-Shāfiʿī’s version is shorter than Yaḥyā’s, either condensed or, more commonly, truncated. Since we do not have an independent recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ by al-Shāfiʿī but must rely on a secondhand reconstruction via the Umm, we cannot know whether the difference reflects intentional abbreviation or simply different versions of the original statement. However, the high degree of overlap in both wording and meaning makes abbreviation often a plausible explanation.
Perhaps more interesting, however, than the many instances of overlap between the recensions are the cases of divergence in which in the wording, the amount of information given, or even the position attributed to Mālik is different in al-Shāfiʿī’s recension compared to those of Yaḥyā and other transmitters. Sometimes the differences allow us to plot the relative closeness and distance between al-Shāfiʿī’s recension and the others.
In one instance, for example, al-Shāfiʿī relates from Mālik that when ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar took a ritual bath, he sprinkled water into his eyes. Then al-Shāfiʿī comments that with regard to sprinkling water in the eyes, “Mālik said: Practice is not in accordance with it (laysa ʿalayhi al-ʿamal).” In Yaḥyā’s recension (no. 113), we find only the report about Ibn ʿUmar, without Mālik’s statement—so the reader is left with the implicit impression that Mālik endorsed Ibn ʿUmar’s precedent. Abū Muṣʿad’s recension, by contrast, parallels al-Shāfiʿī’s by adding: “Mālik was asked regarding Ibn ʿUmar’s sprinkling water into his eyes. He said: Not obligatory.” This is one of several instances in which al-Shāfiʿī’s version is closer to other recensions of the Muwaṭṭaʾ than it is to Yaḥyā’s.
In another example, al-Shāfiʿī cites Mālik as saying: “The agreed-upon rule among us (al-amr al-mujtamaʿ ʿalayhi ʿindanā) concerning an abandoned child is that he is a free person, and the right to his patronage belongs to the Muslim community.” The version of the statement in Yaḥyā’s recension is longer, adding an explanation of the legal ramifications of this status in terms of inheritance and liability (no. 2163). More significantly, it replaces the phrase “agreed-upon rule among us,” which indicates a relatively high degree of universal acceptance among Medinan scholars, with another, weaker term: “the rule in our view” (al-amr ʿindanā). Again, al-Shāfiʿī’s version is matched by Abū Muṣʿab’s recension.
A third and final example relates to a prophetic tradition on the sale of dogs. Mālik’s comment on the tradition is the same in all recensions. But whereas al-Shāfiʿī and Abū Muṣʿab use highly similar wording in their quotations of Mālik (“the sale of dogs is disliked”), Yaḥyā’s wording is different (“I dislike that a seller should benefit from payment for a dog”; no. 2039).
The similarity between al-Shāfiʿī’s quotations of Mālik in the Umm and Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Laythī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ has been noted by Harald Motzki, among others. But these brief examples indicate that although al-Shāfiʿī’s recension overall parallels Yaḥyā’s, it seems to be closer to the recension of Abū Muṣʿab than to that of Yaḥyā. The closeness between al-Shāfiʿī’s and Abū Muṣʿab’s recensions is not surprising when we consider the biography of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā, on the one hand, and those of al-Shāfiʿī and Abū Muṣʿab, on the other. Whereas Yaḥyā traveled to Medina from the faraway al-Andalus in his late twenties, studying the Muwaṭṭaʾ with Mālik in the final year of the latter’s life and not quite completing his studies before Mālik’s death, al-Shāfiʿī and Abū Muṣʿab had encountered Mālik and studied the Muwaṭṭaʾ more than a decade earlier. We should bear in mind that the differing recensions are not simply copies of a singular archetype authored by Mālik but rather reflect an evolving text that was repeatedly amended and rewritten over several decades and whose contents therefore underwent a considerable degree of change. As a consequence, the closer in time to one another two individuals studied the Muwaṭṭaʾ, the more one would expect their recensions to resemble one another. The intratextual evidence thus correlates with the biographical information we have of Mālik’s students.
If later biographical sources are accurate, al-Shāfiʿī taught his recension of Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ to, inter alia, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241/855), who declared it the most reliable of the dozen or so recensions of the work he was familiar with. The relatively minor degree of variance suggested by the limited examples given here among many others that could be given indicates that the text of the Muwaṭṭaʾ as it was taught by Yaḥyā in the Islamic West, al-Shāfiʿī in Egypt, and Abū Muṣʿab in Medina was remarkably stable, and that Mālik’s statements and positions differed only in details across the different versions. It is likely that the variants stem as much from Mālik’s own rewrites as from the recording and citation practices (and failures therein) of his students.