Early Fiqh and the Issue of Ḥadīth Dating

By Mathieu Tillier

This is part one in a series of four posts on the historical formation of the Sunna, with a focus on methodological reflections on the emergence of Prophetic authority.

Classical Islamic law hermeneutics relied on four well-known sources: the Qur’ān, the sunna, consensus, and analogy (qiyās). The first two represent textual sources that do not share the same degree of historicity. Thanks to the work of the past decades on ancient Qur’ānic manuscripts, a majority of scholars now recognize the Qur’ān as a text that actually dates back to the first/seventh century, and whose ductus was broadly stabilized by the beginning of the following century despite the original existence of different recensions and the persistence of variant readings.[1] However, the number of Qur’ānic verses with normative value is limited. The first generations of Muslims had therefore to turn to other sources in order to approach God’s Law, through an effort of “understanding” (fiqh). They solicited various authorities supposedly qualified to address legal issues, either because they had known Muḥammad or his Companions, or because of their piety, or finally because their institutional role – as caliph, governor, qāḍī – placed them in a position to define and enforce legal rules.[2]

The sunna, however, only became strictly identified with a textual corpus, that is prophetic ḥadīṯh, at a later stage. Islamic sources report that writing down the Prophet’s words was at first controversial, for it might lead to some confusion with the Book of God. The Prophet’s sayings were therefore reportedly first transmitted orally, while systematic written collections did not emerge before the Marwānid period, especially from the 720s onwards.[3] Yet, prophetic ḥadīṯhs did not become a major source of law overnight. They awaited the emergence of a movement of “traditionalists” (ahl al-ḥadīth) who proposed, from the end of the second/eighth century onwards, to systematically elaborate Islamic law on the basis of ḥadīṯh. Only in the third/ninth century did this trend manage to prevail and permeate the emerging legal schools (madhhabs) with its methods.[4] Because of this turbulent history, ḥadīṯh has always proved to be a problematic textual material in the eyes of Muslims.[5] The quest for authority in order to defend particular rules resulted in the forgery of prophetic sayings and the falsification of chains of transmission (isnāds).[6] Consequently, Muslim scholars were required to develop critical methods to distinguish authentic from forged traditions, and isolate a corpus of sound traditions (ṣaḥīḥ) on which jurists could rely.

Modern historians, however, are moved by different concerns. Rather than focusing on the authenticity of the ḥadīṯh, which is only important to the person of faith who needs to know what the Prophet “really” said or did, historians question the historicity of this textual material. One may identify two main historiographical tendencies, which differ both in their methods and in their conclusions. On the one hand, a sanguine approach, which faithfully follows Islamic classical narratives, considers that ḥadīṯh potentially conveys words dating back to the historical Prophet, even though some formulations were altered over time. On the other hand, critical historians in the line of Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) and Joseph Schacht (d. 1969) approach ḥadīṯh as a literary genre disconnected from early Islam, and cast doubt on the possibility of detecting historical traces of Muḥammad’s sayings. These historians primarily intend to historicize the introduction and circulation of traditions, either through an internal critique of their content (matn) – through, for example, the search for anachronisms – or through isnād analysis – such as highlighting “common links” that mark the first diffusion of a ḥadīṯh –, or through a combination of both methods (the so-called isnād-cum-matn analysis first developed by Harald Motzki). These two major tendencies (sanguine and critical) are, as Herbert Berg pointed out, irreconcilable.[7]

Yet, regardless of the approach, studying the history of ḥadīṯh faces serious methodological constraints. First, as noted above, medieval Islamic sources themselves acknowledge that systematic written collection of ḥadīṯhs did not start before the reign of the Umayyad caliph ʿUmar II (r. 99-101/717-720). Although one of the earliest compendia dating back to the second half of the second/eighth century, Mālik’s (d. 179/795) Muwaṭṭaʾ actually came down to us through recensions from the beginning of the third/ninth century, and its earliest extant manuscripts were copied later. The earliest ḥadīṯh writings on papyri survived in a very fragmentary state. Such fragments are generally undated, although some were presumably copied in the third/ninth century.[8] Finally, literary ḥadīṯh is very difficult to cross-reference with documentary sources, since no quotations of ḥadīṯh in documentary papyri (such as letters) are known for the early centuries of Islam, nor are prophetic sayings quoted on coins – in contrast to Qur’ānic verses. Scholars are therefore left to study ḥadīṯh through ḥadīṯh, which may result in circular reasoning, or to study it through a literary tradition that postdates 750 CE.

In order to overcome these methodological pitfalls, it is first necessary to take into consideration that prophetic ḥadīṯh represents only a specific form of authoritative saying. While the Islamic tradition used to distinguish prophetic ḥadīṯh from non-prophetic āthārs such as Companions’ and Successors’ sayings, these two types of reports (khabar) differ neither in form nor, originally, in their uses. The traditionalists’ quest for authority simply led to the marginalization of non-prophetic sayings in favor of prophetic dicta alone. To approach the history of ḥadīṯh, it is therefore essential to understand this concept in its broader sense of “authoritative sayings.” Furthermore, the only way to escape circular reasoning would be to study ḥadīṯh in light of a separate body of texts, and if possible to rely on documentary sources, i.e., material sources frozen in the state of their production, and whose date can be ascertained with precision.

Such a corpus actually exists, namely, a body of epigraphic inscriptions on rocks, composed of official writings (by authorities, often on monuments), graffiti (such as those traced by travelers along routes), and funerary stelae (epitaphs). These inscriptions go back as early as the first/seventh century, and their number increased exponentially from the end of the second/eighth century onwards. They sometimes include a date.[9] One important genre that appears in these inscriptions is that of duʿāʾ, that is, supplications or invocations to God (daʿwa, pl. daʿawāt), a type of prayer that is more informal than ritual prayer (ṣalāt) and usually begins with the expressions Allāhumma (“O God”) or asʾalu Llāh (“I ask God”).[10] One of the earliest dated examples is the foundation inscription of a dam built by Caliph Muʿāwiya near Ṭāʾif in 58/667-678:

This dam belongs to the Servant of God Muʿāwiya, Commander of the Believers. ʿAbd Allāh b. Sakhr built it with the permission of God in the year 58. O God, forgive the Servant of God Muʿāwiya, Commander of the Believers, strengthen him and ensure his victory. Benefit the believers through him! ʿAmr b. Ḥabbāb wrote this.[11]

Unlike ritual prayer, invocations appear only marginally in fiqh literature,[12] inasmuch as Muslim jurists never came to consider that God required His creatures to address Him supplications in order to grant them salvation. In the third/ninth century, therefore, duʿāʾ rather came to incorporate renunciation literature (zuhd) and works devoted to supererogatory manifestations of piety, such as specialized ḥadīṯh collections on invocations.[13] However, one should avoid an overly teleological reading of this phenomenon. In the first two centuries of Islam, early Muslims did not address God in just any way, nor did they ask Him for just anything. Surviving inscriptions suggest that invocatory practices conformed to standards that evolved over time, including the use of ready-made formulae. The fact that duʿāʾ did not make its formal entry into fiqh was thus less due to the non-normative nature of this practice than to a choice made by the authors of the surviving legal sources. Invocatory standards thus represented, in the first/seventh and second/eighth centuries, would-be legal rules that, in the end, were rather relegated to a secondary normative system. Therefore, one may consider the early field of duʿāʾ as representative of a wider normative domain in formation.

I recently experimented with a new method of ḥadīṯh analysis, the results of which will be presented in detail in a forthcoming article in the journal Der Islam. I tracked invocatory inscriptions, using mainly the Thesaurus d’Épigraphie islamique.[14] I surveyed 1061 inscriptions in total, dated between the years 1 and 299 AH. Among these inscriptions, I considered mainly those that could be dated in an absolute way (inscriptions with a date), which allowed me to draft a chronological repertory in which I recorded the first appearance of supplication formulae. Subsequently, I searched for the formulae I identified in rock inscriptions within a corpus of 26 collections of ḥadīṯh composed up to the sixth/twelfth century, using the al-Maktaba al-Shāmila database, and focusing on formulae introduced by Allāhumma (the vast majority of epigraphic supplications) alone. By “formula,” I mean a group of words or a phrase employed to express a specific supplication. For instance, in Muʿāwiya’s dam inscription examined above, the main invocatory formula is Allāhumma ighfir li- (“O God, forgive”). Lastly, as a third step, I cross-referenced the two corpora: I first excluded the isnāds to focus on the lexical convergences of short formulae common to both epigraphic inscriptions and ḥadīṯhs, and I only reintroduced isnād analysis at a second stage.

This comparison led me to question the meaning of such convergences (or, on the contrary, of divergences) between epigraphic inscriptions and ḥadīṯh. Were rock inscriptions inspired by authoritative sayings already disseminated at the time they were engraved? Conversely, were ḥadīṯhs based on invocatory practices as reflected in epigraphic inscriptions? Were the epigraphic formulae attributed to any particular group of religious authorities? In terms of dating, to what extent can inscriptions be used to date corresponding invocatory ḥadīṯhs? My next posts will present the results of these investigations.


[1] See F. Déroche, Qurʾān of the Umayyads. A First Overview (Leiden: Brill), 71, 137-39.

[2] On this issue, see M. Tillier, “Califes, émirs et cadis : le droit califal et l’articulation de l’autorité judiciaire à l’époque umayyade,” Bulletin d’Études Orientales 63 (2014): 147-90.

[3] For a synthesis of different views, see G. Schoeler, “Recording,” in The Wiley Blackwell Concise Companion to the Hadith, ed. D. W. Brown (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 93-107. For more detailed studies engaging with the relationship between oral and written in early Islam, see for example N. Abbott, Studies in Literary Papyri, I (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 5-31; M. Z. Siddiqi Ḥadīth Literature: Its Origin, Development, Special Features and Criticism (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993); G. Schoeler, The Oral and the Written in Early Islam (London: Routledge, 2006); J. A. C. Brown, Hadith. Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 18-31.

[4] See Ch. Melchert, “Traditionist-Jurisprudents and the Framing of Islamic Law,” Islamic Law and Society 8 (2001): 383-406.

[5] See for example J. Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), 45-52.

[6] J. Schacht, The Origins, 152-57; J. A. C. Brown, Hadith, 75-77.

[7] See H. Berg, The Development of Exegesis in Early Islam. The Authenticity of Muslim Literature from the Formative Period (Richmond: Curzon, 2000), 6-48. For a recent survey of these methods, see P. Pavlovitch, “Dating,” in The Wiley Blackwell Concise Companion to the Hadith, 114-33.

[8] N. Abbott, Studies in Literary Papyri, II (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 114-28. For a picture of this document, see https://www.islamic-awareness.org/hadith/perf731.

[9] On early Arabic graffiti, see F. Imbert, “L’Islam des pierres. L’expression de la foi dans les graffiti arabes des premiers siècles,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée 129 (2011): 57-78.

[10] See L. Gardet, “Duʿāʾ,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition, Brill Online.

[11] G. C. Miles, “Early Islamic Inscriptions Near Ṭāʾif in the Ḥijāz,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7 (1948): 236-41. The English translation has been modified according to R. Hoyland’s emendations in his article “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 69 (2006): 406 (emphasis added). For an online picture of this inscription, see https://www.islamic-awareness.org/history/islam/inscriptions/muwinsc1.html.

[12] See for instance al-Shāfiʿī, al-Umm, ed. Rifʿat Fawzī ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib (al-Manṣūra: Dār al-wafāʾ, 2001), II, 546.

[13] See for instance Ibn Fuḍayl, Kitāb al-duʿāʾ, ed. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Sulaymān b. Ibrāhīm al-Buʿaymī (Riad: Maktabat al-Rushd, 1999); al-Ṭabarānī, Kitāb al-duʿāʾ, ed. Muḥammad Saʿīd b. Muḥammad Ḥasan al-Bukhārī (Beirut: Dār al-bashā’ir al-islāmiyya, 1987); Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Kitāb al-zuhd, ed. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Qāsim (Beirut: Dār al-kutub al-ʿilmiyya, 1983).

[14] http://www.epigraphie-islamique.uliege.be/thesaurus/.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mathieu Tillier, Early Fiqh and the Issue of Ḥadīth Dating, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 6, 2022), https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/01/06/early-fiqh-and-the-issue-of-%e1%b8%a5adith-dating/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mathieu Tillier, “Early Fiqh and the Issue of Ḥadīth Dating,” Islamic Law Blog, January 6, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/01/06/early-fiqh-and-the-issue-of-%e1%b8%a5adith-dating/)

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