Back to the Isnād: The Prophetization of the Sunna

By Mathieu Tillier

This is part four 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.

In the first three posts in this series on the historical formation of the Sunna, I have argued that it is possible to compare epigraphic and literary data in order to better understand the dynamics of ḥadīth formation during the early centuries of Islam, and its integration into an Islamic normative system. Dates found in invocatory inscriptions can be considered, in many instances, as termini post quem to the dissemination of models that incorporated the same formulae into ḥadīths. These ḥadīths attributed those formulae to various authorities, beginning with anonymous sayings and ending with prophetic ones, which confirms to a large extent Joseph Schacht’s model. By focusing on invocatory formulae, those first three posts have purposely set aside the issue of isnād. It is now time to reintroduce the study of chains of transmitters in order to examine (1) the extent to which they confirm or invalidate the chronological convergence between the appearance of an invocation on stone and its dissemination in the form of ḥadīth, and (2) how they may help understand the prophetization process of formulae. To do so, I shall rely on two examples.

The first one relates to the formula Allāhumma … ighfir li-… wa-irḍa ʿan (“O God, forgive him and be pleased with him”), which first appears in an inscription dated 121/738-739.[1] This formula first occured in ḥadīth form in the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 211/827) as an anonymous saying transmitted by Ibn Jurayj (d. 150/767).[2] It was subsequently quoted in a prophetic form in the Muṣannaf of Ibn Abī Shayba (d. 235/849) and in the Musnad of Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 241/855), as well as in the works of later traditionists.[3] The earliest transmitters of this ḥadīth are obscure characters, who were positioned in different orders from one isnād to another (which suggests that authors did not even know when they lived), and with contradictions. The common link is Misʿar b. Kidām, who died around 153/770, that is, thirty years after the formula first appeared on stone.[4] In other words, the formula seems to have spread during the lifetime of Misʿar b. Kidām, who may have been either a mere figurehead for the creation of a prophetic tradition, or himself the main actor in the transformation of the formula into a prophetic ḥadīth. This convergence between epigraphy and isnād incidentally confirms the validity of the “common link” theory as developed in particular by Joseph Schacht and Gauthier Juynboll, according to which common links played a key role in the dissemination of prophetic traditions.[5] We can therefore conclude that this invocatory formula spread in the first half of the eighth century CE. It was then repeated in an anonymous saying that reached ʿAbd al-Razzāq in the early third/ninth century. Soon after, a prophetic tradition came into being.

My second example relates to the invocatory formula Allāhumma irfaʿ daraja (“O God, raise [him] to degrees…”), whose first stone-dated attestation was engraved in 228/842-843.[6] This formula did not result in the composition of a unique ḥadīth equipped with more or less similar isnāds, but rather in several ḥadīths with different isnāds that can be found in the works of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ibn Abī Shayba, Ibn Ḥanbal and Muslim.[7] Although these are different traditions, their chains of transmitters partially overlap. Without going into detail here, we note first that according to ʿAbd al-Razzāq, this formula was pronounced by figures with weak authority, including Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī (d. 131/748-749), and the radical Shī’ī Jābir al-Juʿfī (d. 128/745-746). Yet, ʿAbd al-Razzāq also heard it through traditions going back to Companions Ibn ʿAbbās and ʿAlī – which corresponds, according to our previous post, to the second attribution stage of a formula. He finally also knew it according to a prophetic ḥadīth. Despite their different isnāds and matns, these non-prophetic and prophetic sayings are interconnected by means of their concomitant ascription to a transmitter who is not a “common link” (insofar as we are not examining different versions of a same tradition, but rather different traditions), but whom I would rather call a “hub.” In ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s traditions, this hub is Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī, who went from being the initial speaker of the invocatory formula to becoming a transmitter from an earlier and more authoritative Successor, namely, Ibn Sīrīn (d. 110/729), and finally became the transmitter of a prophetic saying. I call this transmitter a “hub” for he is only a figurehead used as a link between non-prophetic and prophetic reports. He cannot be held responsible for the prophetization of the formula, since ʿAbd al-Razzāq also identifies him as the speaker of this formula. The intermediate transmitter between al-Sakhtiyānī and ʿAbd al-Razzāq, namely Maʿmar b. Rāshid (d. 153/770), more likely projected the formula onto the Prophet. For this reason, I propose to call that intermediate transmitter the “key to the prophetization process.” This intermediate transmitter likely used Ayyūb al-Saḫtiyānī’s name to transform the formula into a prophetic saying. If my conclusions are correct, the formula started being engraved on stone in the 830s or 840s, at the same time it became a prophetic dictum, or only a bit later. This matches the typical dynamics of the third century AH (and not of earlier periods), during which the diffusion of ḥadīths influenced epigraphic practices.


To conclude this series of posts, the method I have tested and whose results I summarized here consists in a synoptic reading of epigraphic inscriptions and ḥadīths, with particular attention to lexical convergences. This method, based on cross-referencing documentary and literary sources, offers a firmer ground for studying the emergence of a specific tradition than mere internal examination. It also helps understand how formulae attested on rocks were eventually incorporated into the sunna. This method attempts to overcome the polarization between sanguine and critical, even ultra-critical methods. It is, of course, more in line with the latter than the former. However, by taking dated documentary sources as a reference point, this method provides more nuanced results than those achieved by revisionist historical schools. While critical historians regard ḥadīth as a literary genre detached from the prophetic era, it turns out that ḥadīth potentially preserves an ancient “core,” lexical in nature. This does not mean that traditions that convey this lexical core can be historically traced back to the Prophet. The attribution of certain sayings to major authorities of early Islam, including the Prophet, nevertheless appears as realistic when corroborated by documentary sources.

Notwithstanding the existence of such a historical lexical core, my research confirms, with respect to the issue of duʿāʾ, that prophetic ḥadīth must be understood to a large extent as the result of a slow transformation of sayings previously attributed to other authorities. Given the immensity of the Islamic empire, ḥadīth prophetization probably took place at different times depending on the regions. My preliminary study suggests, however, that this process spanned about half a century, between the second half of the eighth and the first half of the ninth century CE. The slowness of this process left traces in pre-canonical ḥadīth collections, namely through the competing attributions of sayings to different authorities. These rival ascriptions coexisted for several decades before disappearing from the ḥadīth canons that developed in the second half of the ninth century CE.

The extent to which this methodological approach is applicable to the entire corpus of ḥadīth, and especially to those traditions that supported legal norms in fiqh literature, remains to be ascertained. So far, I have not been able to identify any other category of ḥadīth whose formulae could be compared with normative epigraphic practices dating back to the earliest centuries of Islam. However, the notions of “hub” and “key,” by which I referred to transmitters that may be held responsible for the prophetization of certain sayings first ascribed to non-prophetic authorities, may well be applicable to further research focused on more legal ḥadīths. It will be necessary, for that purpose, to consider short formulae, or even legal maxims, that have been placed successively in the mouths of several authorities, along with ḥadīths that share these formulae but neither the rest of their wording nor their isnāds. The field of possible inquiries is huge and will require more advanced investigations than the preliminary research I have presented here.


[1] Khaleel I. Al-Muaikel, Study of the Archaeology of the Jawf Region (Riyadh, 1989), 142, #3.

[2] ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī, Muṣannaf ʿAbd al-Razzāq, ed. Ḥabīb al-Raḥmān al-Aʿẓamī (Beirut: al-Maktab al-islāmī, 1983), III, 119 (#4989).

[3] Ibn Abī Shayba, al-Muṣannaf, ed. Muḥammad ʿAwwāma (Beirut: Dār al-qibla-Muʾassasat ʿulūm al-qurʾān, 2006), XV, 17779-180 (#29963); Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Musnad al-imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnaʾūṭ and ʿĀdil Murshid (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-risāla, 1997), I, 351 (#223).

[4] See al-Dhahabī, Taʾrīkh al-islām wa-wafayāt al-mashāhīr wa-l-aʿlām, ed. Bashshār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf (Beirut: Dār al-gharb al-islāmī, 2003), IV, 212-216.

[5] Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), 175; G. H. A. Juynboll, Muslim Tradition: Studies in Chronology, Provenance and Authorship of Early Ḥadīth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 206-17.

[6] Gaston Wiet, Catalogue général du Musée arabe du Caire : Stèles funéraires, IX (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1941), 115, #3386.

[7] ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī, Muṣannaf, I, 496 (#1911); II, 211 (#3104); III, 393 (#6067), 687 (#6422), 491 (#6432); Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, VII, 247 (#11480), 427 (#12100); Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Musnad, XLIV, 165 (#26543); Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, ed. Muḥammad Fuʾād ʿAbd al-Bāqī (Cairo: Dār al-ḥadīth, 1991), II, 634 (#920).

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mathieu Tillier, Imploring God and the Back to the Isnād: The Prophetization of the Sunna, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 27, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mathieu Tillier, “Back to the Isnād: The Prophetization of the Sunna”: A Relative Chronology of Epigraphic and Traditional Invocations,” Islamic Law Blog, January 27, 2022,

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