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Islamic Law


Islamic Law and Society 18 (2011) 440-449


Book Reviews
Analysing Muslim Traditions: Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghz adth. By
Harald Motzki, with Nicolet Boekho-van der Voort and Sean W. Anthony.
Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, vol. 78. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
Pp. xvi + 520. ISBN 978-90-04-18049-9. 174.00; $258.00.
I am convinced that we can choose between more than re and water, and
between gullibility and skepticism. It is a aw in reasoning to presume that the
rejection of skepticism necessarily implies gullibility.
Harald Motzki (p. 223)
It could have been so easy: Had Zayd b. bit, the Prophets personal scribe, written
a biography of Muammad, ideally on parchment and in multiple copies, there would
have been no need for this review nor for the book it treats. In the absence of such a
work, however, all our information on the origins of Islam and on the life of its
founderbeyond a few scattered snippets of evidence from the rst Islamic century
comes in the form of adth or prophetic traditions. Each adth report contains an
anecdote (the matn) that promises to take us back to the prophetic age, as well as a
chain of transmission (the isnd), which serves as a caveat to notify the hearer that the
anecdote is the product of a multi-generational transmission process and thus not of
certain authenticity. e gullible will disregard the caveat and uncritically embrace the
content of the adth, while the skeptic will longingly envision Zayd b. bits
imaginary biography and declare that nothing less will do. In their search for certainty,
some skeptics have grasped the above-mentioned snippets of information in nonadth sources, e.g. early inscriptions or written reports by non-Muslims, and then
tried to reconstruct the whole of early Islamic history on the basis of such fragmentary
evidence. Unfortunately, this method has proven as reliable as recreating a house in
ruins solely on the basis of its surviving door handle. e resulting visions are so
radically incommensurable and fanciful that, beyond providing a motivation for
further research, they have little substance to oer regarding the historical narrative;
compare, for example, the account of Nevo and Koren in Crossroads to Islam with that
of Crone and Cook in Hagarism.
Is there a possible third way between gullibility and skepticism? A way of using the
enormous trove of material found in adth works by deploying a consistent
methodology that can distinguish reliable reports (or elements of reports) from
spurious ones, or at least establish a terminus ante quem for individual reports? e
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011

DOI: 10.1163/156851911X594717

Book Reviews / Islamic Law and Society 18 (2011) 440-449


most important research agenda for such a third way to have emerged in Western
scholarship on adth has been the so-called isnd-cum-matn analysis, most extensively
developed by Harald Motzki. While Motzki is well-known in the eld of Islamic
studies, to date a signicant part of his work has been available only in German. e
book under review bridges this gulf by providing English translations of four of his
most signicant articles, accompanied by an as yet unpublished piece by Motzki as
well as two studies on adth by younger scholars, Nicolet Boekho-van der Voort
and Sean Anthony.
What might at rst glance seem like a haphazard collection of articles turns out
upon closer scrutiny to be a well thought-out volume whose elements build on each
other to present a coherent exposition and demonstration of the isnd-cum-matn
method of analysis. e rst two chapterse Jurisprudence of Ibn Shihb al-Zuhr
(originally published in 1991) and Whither adth Studies (1996)confront two
towering skeptics in the eld of adth studies: Joseph Schacht (1902-1969) and
G. H. A. Juynboll (1935-2010), respectively. Drawing on the examples of al-Zuhr
(d. 124/742) and N (d. 117-120/735-738), Motzki argues, pace Schacht and
Juynboll, that a substantial amount of the material narrated by these two prolic
transmitters can be traced back to the beginning of the second Hijri century, and that
some of the material can in fact be credibly attributed to the rst Muslim generation.
Motzkis argument proceeds in three steps. First, he gathers all available chains of
transmission for a particular adth report and draws up a transmission tree that
synthesizes the chains into a single diagram. Second, he examines and compares the
various versions of the actual content of the adth. And third, he combines the results
of these two analyses by correlating patterns of variance in the content with the
structure of the transmission tree.
Motzki initially follows Juynbolls overall methodology and terminology by
identifying common links, that is, transmitters whose role is corroborated by the
large number of individuals to whom they are recorded as having transmitted a
particular adth. But then he parts ways with Juynboll. He criticizes both Juynboll
and Schacht for not including older and more extensive works on adth and
consequently in many cases identifying the common link a generation or so later than
it actually was. He also faults them for categorically considering the common link the
earliest historically tenable point at which the adths existence can be assumed.
Common links generally appear in the early second Hijri century; prior to this
watershed, most adth reports carry only single chains of transmission. Motzki
demonstrates (pp. 52-54) that this phenomenon can be explained by considerations
outside the world of isnds by drawing on the sociology of knowledge. He argues that
the common linksprominent among them al-Zuhr and Nrepresent the rst
systematic collectors of adth, who, in turn, became sought-after teachers of adth,
thus giving rise to the multiplicity of transmitters in the next generation.
As the subsequent chapters show, this argument was understood by others to mean
that Motzki assumes a priori that adth reports predate their common links, a
misunderstanding that he emphatically disavows. Rather, Motzki is merely open to


Book Reviews / Islamic Law and Society 18 (2011) 440-449

the possibility that a adth could be dated earlier than its common link. For example,
al-Zuhr is the common link for a adth from Muammads wife isha regarding
the legal eects of giving breast milk to adults. Motzki reasons (p. 44) that since this
adth contradicts the legal position held by al-Zuhr himself, he would have had little
motivation to invent it, which makes it likely that the adth in fact goes back to
al-Zuhrs alleged informant Urwa in the rst Hijri century. e same reasoning holds
for Urwa, whose position corresponds to al-Zuhrs. is suggests that the adth in
question indeed originates with isha.
Chapters three and four consist of Motzkis review (e Prophet and the Debtors,
Der Islam, 2000) of Irene Schneiders book on debt slavery (Kinderverkauf und
Schuldknechtschaft, 1999) in which she used a combination of approaches including
Motzkis, and his reply to her reply (al-Radd al l-radd, Der Islam, 2001). Chapter
ve contains a previously unpublished rebuttal (e Origins of Muslim Exegesis) of
Herbert Bergs application of the isnd-cum-matn analysis in the latters contribution
to Method and eory in the Study of Islamic Origins (ed. Berg, 2003). is engagement
with interpretations of his earlier work forces Motzki to think through his method
aloud, so to speak, achieving a level of methodological self-reection absent in earlier
statements. Most importantly, Motzki insists that his method is not a mathematical
formula into which one can feed data to achieve results in a mechanistic way. He
emphasizes that the isnd-cum-matn analysis requires judgment and the weighing of
evidence. He does not claim to have discovered any universal truths about adth (thus
rejecting Bergs assertion that Motzki has declared most adths to be authentic). Nor
does Motzki claim that a report that in one instance is attributed to Muammad and
in another to a second-generation personality must necessarily be assumed to originate
with either the latter or the former. Rather, he stresses the need to develop
methodological tools specically to t the particular context of the reports in question
(pp. 211-13). His review of Schneider is a masterful example of methodological rigor,
paired with a willingness to draw broader and more speculative but still convincingly
argued conclusions from the results of the isnd-cum-matn analysis.
Chapters six and seven, authored by Nicolet Boekho-van der Voort and Sean
Anthony, respectively, apply the isnd-cum-matn method to examine particular
incidents during Muammads life. In her study of the raid of the Hudhayl, which
is part of a wider investigation into the sources of Muammads biography, Boekhovan der Voort traces two independent narratives of the raid to the adth scholar
al-Zuhr and the historian Ibn Isq (d. 150/767). She thus argues that reports about
such a raid circulated already a generation before these two scholars. Her chapter ts
well with the following study by Anthony, who deals with a specic report relating to
a crime and its punishment in the Medina of Muammads time. Beyond establishing
the reports existence in late rst-century Basra, Anthony uses isnd-cum-matn analysis
to track mutations of this early narrative among various types of transmitters. He
concludes (p. 464) that John Wansboroughs hypothesis regarding the emergence of
Muslim historical narratives is untenable: rather than forming part of an original
Heilsgeschichte that was later dismembered by adth scholars for the purpose of

Book Reviews / Islamic Law and Society 18 (2011) 440-449


lawmaking, this report originated as a adth narrative that was subsequently adopted
and elaborated by Ibn Isq and al-Wqid (d. 207/823).
Seen as a whole, the volume under review makes a strong case for the robustness
and viability of the isnd-cum-matn analysis as a research agenda for investigating early
Islam. e rst two chapters demonstrate its methodology, the following three chapters
carry the discussion to the meta-level, and the nal two chapters show two successful
applications of the method by the next generation of scholars. e growing popularity
of this approach among young scholars in both Europe and the United States is not
surprising: it provides a critical methodology for utilizing the vast amount of available
material and for dating each adth on a case-by-case basis, in contrast to the sweeping
judgments of earlier modern scholarship on adth. As the most comprehensive booklength formulation and defense of the isnd-cum-matn analysis, Analysing Muslim
Traditions raises the standard of theorization of adth and promises to invigorate the
debate on how to study early Islam.
Motzkis account of the isnd-cum-matn analysis, is, however, a work in progress
that has at least one signicant blind spot. e method of examining both the isnd
and the matn of each adth under study represents the closest approximation of
Western scholarship to the classical Muslim science of adth criticismin terms of
methodology, that is, rather than conclusions regarding the status of individual adth.
is raises the question of why Motzki declines to address this relationship. While he
does draw on the auxiliary literature of classical adth studies, such as biographical
dictionaries, adth collections appear in his work primarily as depositories to be mined
for chains of transmission; the process of sifting that went into the composition of
these works remains untheorized. It would seem that a sustained intellectual
engagement with the classical adth sciences in their early literary manifestations
from the third to the fth Hijri centuries would add a new dimension to the capabilities
of the isnd-cum-matn analysis. Recent studies by al-Sharf tim b. rif al-Awn,
Scott Lucas, and Jonathan Brown have begun to show what such engagement might
look like, and it remains to be seen whether and how its insights will be integrated
methodologically into the isnd-cum-matn approach.
Ahmed El Shamsy
e University of Chicago