Review of "The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon" by Jonathan Brown
A brilliant history of their compilation and the process over centuries by which they came to be seen as canonical texts.
The Hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim tower in reputation above other Hadith collections.
Most Muslims regard them as canonical texts.
However, when they were first compiled, they encountered some controversy.
Their canonical status took several centuries to acquire.
Professor Brown reviews the history in a book that combines being authoritative with being very readable and accessible to the layman.
13 January 2021
Amongst Muslims, the two Hadith collections of Bukhari (Muhammad bin Ismail al-Bukhari) and Muslim (Muslim bin al-Hajjaj) tower in reputation above other Hadith collections. They are referred to as “Sahih” which means an authentic saying of the Prophet Muhammad.
Given their reputation today, it is hard to remember that there was a time when neither of these two collections existed. It is even harder to appreciate that after the collections were made, they were not instantly acknowledged as superior, and only acquired their status over a long period of time.
The author researched that process for his 2006 PhD thesis. I once found and downloaded a copy, but never finished reading it because I don’t like reading long PDF documents. (Reading it was made even harder because it was an OCR version made from the original microfilm.)
Accordingly, when I learned that it was available expanded into a published book, I was delighted to buy it in the spring of 2017 and read it shortly afterwards.
Professor Jonathan Brown holds the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is a White American convert to Islam. The Wikipedia article about him reports that he converted in 1997, when he would have been aged about 20.
I have met him once, very briefly, in February 2016 when I attended his lecture “Is there Justice Outside God's Law?: Making Sense of the Boundaries of the Shariah in Islamic Civilization” at SOAS University of London.
That lecture has since been uploaded to YouTube with the following blurb. You can watch it below.
"A key tenet of belief in Islamic civilization was that God's law, the Shariah, was the most just and perfect system of law for mankind. The primacy of the Shariah in the minds of many Muslims today remains strong, and an enduring tension in Muslim communities is negotiating the legitimacy of legal systems outside of the Shariah.
This presentation will explore how classical Muslim scholars understood the relationship of the Shariah to justice, and how they reconciled their belief in the rule of law with the urgings of equity."
In the video below, at 1:00:10, you can watch me asking about the parallels between the lecture subject and the historical division of English law between "Common Law" and "Equity" along with his response.
He is one of today's most interesting Islamic scholars, part of a long line of converts who have made major contributions to Islam. I have read several of his books.
Overview of the book
The book comprises 378 pages + 52 pages of Appendices, Bibliography and Index.
The best way to get an overview is to read the very detailed table of contents, which I have reproduced below:
Scholarship on the Sahihayn and the Hadith Canon [The author uses the term “Sahihayn” to refer to the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim together.”]
Addressing the Sahihayn as a Canon
Note on the Sources and Approaches of this Study
Problems in Approaches
2. The Study of Canons and Canonization
Canons in Context and the Emergence of Canon Studies
Canon Studies and the Islamic Tradition
Theoretical Tools and Common Historical Processes: Canon Studies and the Hadith Canon
Canons and Community
Kanon and the Measure of Revealed Truth [The Greek word “kanon” which Aristotle used to mean “measure” is the origin of the term “Canon” in religious studies.]
The Principle of Charity and Canonical Culture
3. The Genesis of al-Bukhari and Muslim
The Development of Hadith Literature
The Sahih Movement and the Bifurcation of the Hadith Tradition
The Continuity of the Living Isnad["Isnad" = The chain of transmission of a hadith.]
Reality: The Life and Works of al-Bukhari and Muslim
Al-Bukhari and the Controversy over the Created Wording of the Quran
Reality: Muslim, the Junior Partner
Muslim’s Methodology in his Sahih
Perception: Al-Bukhari, Muslim and the Greatest Generation
Reception: The Immediate Response to al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s Works
4. A “Period of Intense Canonical Process”: Imagination and the Study of the Sahihayn in the Long Fourth / Tenth Century
The Mustakhraj Genre [The author explains that “A scholar produced a “mustakhraj” by compiling a book of Hadiths based on an existing collection that he used as a template.”]
Mustakhraj: The Sahihayn as Formative Texts
Al-Ismaili: Rationalist Muhaddith["Muhaddith" = someone knowledgeable about hadith.]
Abu Nuaym al-Isbahani and Shiite-Sunni Polemic
Abu Awana and an Independent Legal Path
Ilal and Ilzamat: Interaction with the Standards of al-Bukhari and Muslim ["Ilal" are books of "flaws" and "Ilzamat" are books of "recommended additions."]
Required Study: Clarifying an Unclear Subject
Regional and Temporal Distribution of the Sahihayn Network
Naysabur: The Hometown Cult of Muslim
Jurjan: A Cult of al-Bukhari Among Friends
Baghdad: Inheriting the Study of the Sahihayn Among the Baghdad Knot
Other: Isfahan and Central Asia
An End to Regional Cults after 370 AH
The Sahihayn Network: A Shafii Enterprise
Intense Canonical Process: Imagining a New Epistemological Status for Hadith Books
Why the Sahihayn?
Conclusion: The Eve of Canonization
5. Canon and Community: al-Hakim al-Naysaburi and the Canonization of the Sahihayn
The Life and Works of al-Hakim al-Naysaburi
Al-Bukhari and Muslim in al-Hakim’s Vision of Hadith
The Shurut According to al-Hakim: The Requirements of al-Bukhari and Muslim ["Shurut" = standards of work / methodology.]
Two Rawis[hadith narrators] and the Elimination of Jahala[anonymity]
Doubling Transmission: 1→2→ 4
A Standard for Authenticity and a Standard for the Sahihayn
Admitted Exceptions: al-Mustradak and the Standards of the Sahihayn as Ideal Rather Than Reality ["al-Mustradrak" was al Hakim's work comprising "ilzamat" ("recommended additions").]
Al-Hakim’s Politics: The Expansion of the Authentic Umbrella
Al-Hakim’s Mubtadia and the Ten Thousand ["Mubtadia" = "heretics"]
Al-Hakim’s Target Audience: The Mutazilites and their Criteria for Authentic Hadiths
The Mustadrak as a Common Measure of Authenticity
The Discourse of Legal Theory: The Consensus of the Umma on Hadith
The Later Mutazilites
The Shafii / Ashari Orthodoxy
The Hanbali Orthodoxy: Abu Yala Iban al-Farra
Al-Hakim and the Consensus of the Umma
A New Common Ground between the Hanbali / Uber-Sunnis and the Shafii / Ashari Schools
An Articulate Uber-Sunni: Abu Nasr al-Waili
Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni: A Consummate Shafii and Ashari
The Sahihayn Canon: The Authority of Convention and Common Ground
Conclusion: Why the Sahihayn Now?
6. The Canon and the Needs of the Community: The Sahihayn as Measure of Authenticity, Authoritative Reference and Exemplum
The Need for a Common Measure of Authenticity: The Sahihayn in Scholarly Debate
Takhrij: Applying the Measure of Authenticity [The “Takhrij” of a hadith is a listing of the various collections in which it is reported.”]
The Origins of Takhrij Among the Students of al-Hakim al-Naysaburi
The Historical Application of Takhrij
Polemics and Debate
Bolstering Formative Texts
Misuse of the Sahihayn Canon
The Need for an Authoritative Reference: The Sahihayn and Non-Hadith Specialists
The Need for an Exemplum: Aristotle’s Poetics and the Canon that Sets the Rule
The Limits of the Canon’s Authority: The Dialogic Power of the Sahihayn
7. The Principle of Charity and the Creation of Canonical Culture
The Beginnings of Canonical Culture: Between 390 – 460 / 1000 – 1070
The Character of the Canonical Culture: Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi and Defining the Personas of Al-Bukhari and Muslim
Charity and the Maintenance of Canonical Culture
Reinventing the Etiology: Charity and Legitimising al-Bukhari’s Sahih
Charity and Maintaining the Superiority of al-Bukhari over Muslim
Charity and Muslim’s Meeting with Abu Sura al-Razi
Reconciling the Canon with Convention: the Sahihayn and the Rules of Hadith
Charity and Tadlis [obfuscation]
Charity and Transmitters
Rebutting Earlier Criticisms
8. The Canon and Criticism: Iconoclasm and Rejection of Canonical Culture from Ibn al-Salah to the Modern Salafi Movement
Rejection of the Canonical Culture: criticism after Ibn Al-Salah
Iconoclasm and Institutional Security in Islamic Civilization: The Salafi Tradition
Revival and Reform in the Early Modern and Modern Periods
Traditionalist Salafis in the Middle East
Muhammad b. Ismail al-Sanani: A Yemeni Salafi
Shah Wali Allah and the First Condemnation of Criticizing the Canon
Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani: Iconoclast Extraordinaire
Against the Canon: Al-Albani’s Criticism of the Sahihayn and His Detractors
Conclusion: Al-Albani’s Reply and the Continuity of Iconoclastic Hadith Criticism
9. Canon and Synecdoche: The Sahihayn in Narrative and Ritual
Delimiting the Infinite: Managing the Sunna through the Hadith Canon
Synecdoche in Ritual: Usage of the Sahihayn Canon in Ritual Contexts
Supplicatory and Medicinal Rituals
The Ritual Power of the Sahihayn: The Muhammadan Blessing
The Canon and Synecdoche in Narrative: A Salvational Trope in a Narrative of Decline and Salvation
Khaje Abdallah al-Ansari and the Beginning of Synecdoche in Narrative
Al-Ghazali’s Return to the Straight Path: The Sahihayn as Synecdoche
Al-Dhahabi’s Narrative of Islamic History: The Sahihayn as Synecdoche
Why the Sahihayn and Not Other Books?
What Forces Led to the Canonization of the Sahihayn?
Why Did the Canon Form at the Beginning of the Fifth / Eleventh Century?
Did the Canon Emerge from Ferment and Strife?
Was the Canon a Response to Shiism or the Product of the Seljuq State?
Was the Sahihayn Canon the Product of or Limited to a Specific Region?
Appendix 1: References for the Sahihayn Network Chart
Appendix 2: The Question of the Attribution of the Sahihayn
Why the book matters
Some Muslims, known as Quranists, reject Hadith entirely.
Conversely, as mentioned in my review of “A Textbook of Hadith Studies” mentioned above, some Muslims believe that doubting the authenticity of a single Hadith places you outside the boundary of Islam.
Most Muslims, including me, are somewhere between these two extremes. For them, it is important to understand both the methodology used by Hadith scholars and the history of the major Hadith collections, which the Sahihayn are the most important.
Assessment of the book
The above table of contents may look intimidating. However, the book is very easy to read and immensely informative.
After finishing the book, I had a far better understanding of Bukhari and Muslim as people, and of the process by which their Hadith collections acquired their status.
The book, as a major academic work, is immensely well referenced and is an excellent illustration of the high quality Islamic scholarship being undertaken in America, Britain and other free societies today.
Sadly, such scholarship is severely lacking in Muslim majority countries due to their widespread limitations on academic and religious freedom.
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