Ascribing to Muhammad supernatural attributes
The object of many traditions was to invest Muhammad with supernatural attributes. Although in the Quran the Prophet disclaims the power of working miracles, he implies that there existed a continuous relationship between himself and the agents of the other world. He insists that the Quran itself is a message conveyed from the Almighty, communicated through Gabriel. Besides being the medium of revelation, that favoured angel is often referred to as bringing directions from the Lord for the guidance of his Prophet in the common concerns of life. The supposed communication with heavenly messengers, countenanced by Muhammad himself was implicitly believed by his followers, and led them even during his life-time to regard him with superstitious awe and that, after the object of their veneration had passed from their sight, fond devotion perpetuated and enhanced the fascinating legends.
If the Prophet gazed into the heavens, or looked wistfully to the right or to the left, it was Gabriel with whom he was holding mysterious conversation. Passing gusts raised a cloud from the sandy track; the pious believer exulted in the conviction that it was the dust of Gabriel and his mounted squadrons scouring the plain, and going before them to shake the foundations of some doomed fortress. On the field of Badr, three stormy blasts swept over the marshalled army; again it was Gabriel with a thousand horses flying to the succour of Muhammad, while Michael and Serafil each with an angelic troop wheeled to the right and to the left of the Muslim front. Why, the very dress and martial uniform of these helmeted angels are detailed by the earliest and most trustworthy biographers; and the heads of the enemy were seen to drop off before the Muslim swords had even touched them, because the unseen scimitars did the work more swiftly than the grosser steel of Medina! These are just specimens of vain legends and extravagance which run through the purest sources of tradition.
Difficulty of discriminating what originated with Muhammad himself, in supernatural tales.
It will frequently be a question, extremely difficult to decide, what portions of these supernatural stories either originated in Muhammad himself, or received his approval; and what portion owed its birth, after he was gone. The subjective conceptions of the fond believer have been reflected back upon the biography of the Prophet, and have encircled even the realities of his life, as in the pictures of Christian saints, with a lustrous halo. The false colouring and fictitious light so intermingle with the picture, as often to place its details altogether beyond the reach of analytical criticism. Take for example the following tradition:
‘The corpse of Sa’d lay in an empty room. Muhammad entered alone, picking his steps carefully, as if he walked in the midst of men seated closely on the ground. On being asked the cause of so strange a proceeding, he replied: ‘True, there were no men in the room, but it was filled with angels, all seated on the ground, that I found nowhere to sit down, until one of the angels spread out his wing for me on the ground, and I sat thereon.’
It is impossible to say what in this is Muhammad’s influence or what has been concocted for him.
To the same universal desire to glorify Muhammad must be ascribed the unquestioned miracles with which even the earliest biographies abound. They are such as the following: a tree from a distance moves towards the Prophet, ploughing up the earth as it advances, and then similarly retires; oft-repeated attempts to murder him are miraculously averted; distant occurrences are instantaneously revealed, and future events foretold; a large company is fed from a supply of food hardly adequate for a single person; prayer draws down immediate showers from heaven, or causes their equally sudden cessation. A frequent class of miracles is for the Prophet to touch the udders of dry goats which immediately distend with milk; and by his command to make floods of water well up from parched fountains, gush forth from empty vessels, or issue from between his fingers. With respect to all such stories, it is sufficient to say that they are opposed to the clear declarations and pervading sense of the Quran.
It by no means, however follows that, because a tradition relates a miracle, the collateral incidents are thereby discredited. It may be that the facts were fabricated to illustrate or embellish a popular miracle; but it is also possible that the miracle was invented to adorn, or to account for, well-founded facts. In the former case, the supposed facts are worthless; in the latter, they may be true and valuable. In the absence of other evidence, the main drift and apparent design of the narrative is all that can guide the critic between those alternatives.
To what degree is Muhammad responsible for these extravagant stories?
The same propensity to fabricate the marvellous must be borne in mind. The Quran, it is true, imparts a far wider basis of likelihood to the narration by Muhammad of such tales, than to his assumption of miraculous powers. When the Prophet ventured to place such fanciful and unworthy fictions as those of ‘Solomon and the Genii,’ of ‘the Seven Sleepers,’ or the Adventures of ‘Dzul-Qarnain’ in the pages of divine revelation, to what other puerile stories might he not stoop to in familiar social conversation! It must be remembered on the other hand, that Muhammad was taciturn, laconic and reserved and therefore it is not likely that he has given birth to the majority of the great mass of legend and fable which tradition represents as gathered from his lips. These are probably the growth of successive ages, each of which added its contribution to the nucleus of the Prophet’s words if indeed there ever was such a nucleus at all. For example, the germ of the elaborate pictures and colourful scenery of the Prophet’s heavenly journey lies in a very short and simple recital in the Quran. That he subsequently expanded this germ, and amused or edified his Companions with the colour which has been brought down to us by tradition is possible. But it is also possible, and far more probable, that the vast majority of these fancies have their origin in the imaginations of early Muslims.
Supposed anticipation of Muhammad by Jews and Christians
Connected indirectly with Muhammad’s life, is another class of narrations which would conjure up on all sides prophecies regarding the founder of the faith and the anticipation of his approach. These probably, for the most part, depended upon some general declaration or incidental remark of the Prophet himself, which his enthusiastic followers deemed themselves bound to prove and illustrate. For example, the Jews are often accused in the Quran of wilfully rejecting Muhammad, ‘although they recognised him as they did one of their own sons.’ Tradition provides us, accordingly, with an array of Jewish rabbis and Christian monks, who found it written in their books that the last of the Prophets was at this time about to rise at Mecca, and who asserted that not only his name, but his personal appearance, manners and character were therein depicted to the life, so that recognition could not but be instantaneous; and among other absurd particulars, the very city of Medina is pointed out by name as the place where he would take refuge from the persecutions of his people!
Again, the Jews are in the Quran accused of grudging that a Prophet should arise among the Arabs, and that their nation should therefore be robbed of its prophetic dignity. Therefore, in fit illustration we have numerous stories of Muhammad having been recognised by the rabbis, and of attempts made by them to kill him; and this, too long before he had any suspicion himself that he was to be a Prophet, even during his infancy! It is enough to have alluded to this class of fabrications.
Anticipations of Islam
Such unblushing inventions will lead us to receive the whole series of tales in which it is pretended that Muhammad and his religion were foreshadowed, so that pious men anticipated, long before the Prophet arose, many of the peculiar rites and doctrines of Islam. It was a fond conceit of Muhammad that Islam is as old as Adam, and has from the beginning been the faith of all good men, who looked forward to himself as the Prophet charged with winding up all previous dispensations. It was therefore natural for his credulous followers to carry out this idea, and to invest the memory of any serious-minded man or earnest enquirer who preceded Muhammad with some of the dawning rays of the divine effulgence about to burst upon the world.
History of the Prophet’s ancestors, and of early Arabia, borrowed from Jewish Scripture and tradition
To the same spirit we may attribute the palpable endeavour to make Muhammad tradition and the legends of Arabia tally with the Scriptures of the Old Testament and with Jewish tradition. The canon has little application to the biography of Muhammad himself, but it has a wide and most effective range in reference to the legendary history of his ancestors and of early Arabia. The desire to regard, and possibly the endeavour to prove, that the Prophet of Islam was a descendent of Ishmael began even in his life-time. Many Jews, versed in the Scriptures, and won over by the inducements of Islam, pandered their knowledge to the service of Muhammad and his followers. Jewish tradition had long been well known in Medina and in the countries over which Islam early spread, and the Islamic system was now made to fit upon it; for Islam did not ignore, but merely superseded, Judaism and Christianity, as the whole does a part, or rather as that which is complete swallows up what is incomplete. So there arose such absurd anachronisms as the attempts to identify Qahtan with Joktan (between whom, at the most moderate estimate, fifteen centuries intervene); and earlier links were forged of the Abrahamic genealogy of Muhammad, and numberless tales of Ishmael and the Israelites, cast in a semi-Jewish semi-Arab mould. These, though pretending to be original traditions, can be recognised as plagiarisms from rabbinical lore, or as Arabian legends forced into accommodation with them.
Traditions as to Jewish and Christian Scriptures being mutilated and interpolated.
Of analogous nature may be classed the traditions which affirm that the Jews and Christians mutilated or interpolated their Scriptures. After repeated examination of the Quran I have been unable to discover any grounds for believing that Muhammad himself ever expressed a doubt in regard either to the authority or the genuineness of the Old or New Testaments, as extant in his time. He was profuse in assurances that his system entirely corresponded with both, and that he had been foretold by former prophets; and, as perverted Jews and Christians were at hand to confirm his words, and as the Bible was little known among the generality of his followers, such assurances were implicitly believed. But as Islam spread and began to include countries were the Holy Scriptures were well-known the discrepancies between them and the Quran became patent. The sturdy Muslim believer, with an easy conscience, laid the blame at the door of the dishonest Jews and Christians, the former of whom their Prophet had accused in the Quran of ‘hiding’ and ‘dislocating’ the prophecies regarding himself; and, accordingly a host of stories detailing Jewish fabrications grew up.
A narrator relates that there was, in the kingdom of Syria, a Jew who, while, busied on the Sabbath perusing the Old Testament, perceived on one of the leaves the name of the blessed Prophet in four places; and out of spite he cast the leaf into the fire. On the following day, he found the same name written in eight places; again he burnt the pages. On the third day, he found it written in twelve places. The man marvelled exceedingly. He said within himself: ‘The more I remove this name from the Scripture, the more do I find it written therein. I shall soon have the whole Bible filled with the same.’ At last he resolved to proceed to Medina and see the Prophet. He arrived soon after Muhammad’s death, embraced his garments, ‘and expired in the arms of his love.’
Why were such extravagant and unfounded traditions not contradicted?
If it appears strange that extravagant and unreasonable stories of the kind alluded to should not have been contradicted by the more upright and reasonable Muslims of the first age, and thus nipped in the bud, it must be remembered that criticism and freedom of opinion were completely stifled under the crushing dogmas of Islam. The attempt to disprove tales once they were current would be difficult and dangerous. Supposing that they contradicted no well-known fact or received dogma, by what arguments were they to be rebutted? If any one for instance, had contended that human experience was opposed to the marvellous foreknowledge of the Jews regarding Muhammad, he would have been scouted as an infidel. Honest enquiry, as it would have sapped the foundations of Islam was not tolerated. Who would dare to argue that a miraculous story which honoured Muhammad was improbable, or that in the Quran itself miraculous powers were disclaimed by the Prophet? The argument would have placed the neck of the heretic in jeopardy for the faith and polity of Islam were one, and that free opinions and heresy were synonymous with conspiracy, treason and rebellion.
This is well illustrated by the treatment which the ‘hypocrites’ or ‘disaffected’ are represented as receiving even during Muhammad’s life-time. On the expedition to Tabuk, Muhammad prayed for rain, which accordingly descended. A perverse doubter however said:’ It was but a chance cloud that happened to pass.’ Shortly after, the Prophet’s camel strayed; again the doubter said: ’Doth not Muhammad deem himself a Prophet? He professeth to bring intelligence to you from the heavens, yet he is unable to tell where his own camel is!’ Ye servants of the Lord!’ exclaimed his comrade,’ there is a plague in this place, and I knew it not. Get out from my tent, enemy of the Lord! Wretch, remain not in my presence!’ ’Muhammad had of course, in due time, supernatural intimation conveyed to him not only of the doubter’s speech, but of the spot where the camel was; and the doubter afterward repented, and was confirmed in his faith. ‘Umar’s sword was readily unsheathed to punish such sceptical temerity. And so under the shelter of the civil arm and of the fanatical credulity of the people, these marvellous legends grew up in perfect security from the attacks of doubt and of rational enquiry.
Traditions unfavourable to Muhammad became obsolete
The converse is like wise true; that is to say, traditions, founded upon good evidence, and undisputed because notorious in the first days of Islam, gradually fell into disrepute, or were entirely rejected because they appeared to dishonour Muhammad, or to countenance some heretical opinion. The nature of the case renders it impossible to prove this position so fully as the preceding, since there can have survived but little trace of such traditions as were early and entirely dropped. But we discover vestiges of a spirit that would necessarily produce such results, working even in the second and third centuries. We have seen the momentary lapse and compromises of Muhammad with the idolatry of Mecca is well supported by the earliest and the best authorities. But theologians began to deem the opinion dangerous or heretical that Muhammad should have thus degraded himself ‘after he had received the truth;’ and the occurrence is therefore denied, or entirely omitted by some of the earliest and most of the later biographers, though the facts are so patent that the more candid fully admit them. The principle that was found to be in existence in the second and third centuries, may be presumed to have been at work also in the first.
The system of pious frauds is not abhorrent from the axioms of Islam. Deception, in the current theology of Islam, is under certain circumstances allowable. The Prophet himself, by precept as well as by example, encouraged the notion that to tell an untruth is on some occasions allowable; and what occasion would approve itself as more justifiable, no meritorious, than that of furthering the interests of Islam? The early Muslims would suppose it to be fitting and right that a divine religion should be supported by the evidence of miracles, and they no doubt believed that they were doing God service by building up such a testimony in its favour. The case of our own religion, whose purer morality renders such attempt the less excusable, shows that pious fabrications of this description easily commend themselves to the conscience, whenever there is the inclination and the opportunity for their production.
Difficulty of distinguishing conscientious witnesses
There were indeed conscientious persons among the early Muslims, who would probably have scrupled at such open fraud; but these are the very individuals from whom we have the fewest traditions. We read of some cautious and scrupulous Companions who perceiving the difficulty of reciting accounts of their Prophet with perfect accuracy, and perhaps in disgust at the barefaced effrontery of the ordinary propagators of garbled and unfounded traditions, abstained entirely from repeating the sayings of Muhammad. For example ‘Umar declined to give certain information saying: ‘If it were not that I feared lest I should add to the facts in relating them, or take there from, verily I would tell you.’ Similar traditions are given regarding ‘Uthman. Abdallah ibn Masud was so afraid of repeating Muhammad’s words wrongly, that he always guarded his relation by the conditional clause – ‘He spake something like this, or near to it; But one day, as he repeated a tradition, the unconditional formula of repetition – ’thus spake the Prophet of the Lord’ – escaped his lips, and he became oppressed with anguish, so that the sweat dropped from his forehead. Then he said: ’If the Lord so will, the Prophet may have said more than that, or less, or near unto it.’ Again Sa’d was asked a question, and he kept silence saying; ’I fear that if I tell you one thing, ye will go and add thereto, as from me, a hundred.’ So also one enquired of Abdallah ibn Zobeir: ‘Why do we not hear thee telling anecdotes regarding the Prophet, as such and such persons tell?’ He replied ’It is very true that I kept close by the Prophet from the time I first believed (and therefore intimately acquainted with his words); but I heard him say, “Whosoever shall repeat a lie concerning me, his resting place shall be in hell-fire”’
In explaining why several of the principal Companions had left no tradition, Wackidi writes: ’From some there are no remains of tradition regarding the Prophet, although they were more in his company, sitting and hearing him, than others who have left us many traditions, and this we attribute to their fear of giving erroneous traditions.
Regarding those Companions from whom the great mass of tradition is drawn, and their immediate successors, it does not appear that we are now in possession of any satisfactory means for dividing them into separate classes, of which the trustworthiness would vary to any great extent. With respect, indeed, to some it is known that they were more constantly than others with Muhammad, and had therefore better opportunities for acquiring information; some, like the garrulous ‘Ayesha, were specially given to gossiping tales and trifling frivolities; but none of them, so far as we can judge, was free from the tendency to glorify Muhammad at the expense of truth, or could be withheld from the marvellous by the most glaring violations of probability or of reason. Such at least is the impression derived from their evidence in the shape in which it has reached us.
Examples of capricious fabrications
The testimony of the Companions, as delivered to us, is so unaccountably fickle and capricious that, even where no motive whatever can be guessed at, and where there were the fullest opportunities of observation, traditions often flatly contradict one another. For instance, a score of persons affirm that Muhammad dyed his hair: they mention the substances used; some not only maintain that they were eye-witnesses of the fact during the Prophet’s life, but after his death produced relics of hair on which the dye was visible. A score of others, possessing equally good means of information, assert that he never dyed his hair, and that moreover he had no need to do so, as his grey hairs were so few that they might be counted. Even the exact number of his white hairs is given by different authorities variously, as 17, 18, 20 or 30. Some say that when he oiled his head they appeared; others that the processing of oiling concealed them. As to the colour used, the accounts differ. One says he employed henna and qatam which gave a reddish tinge, but that he liked the yellow best; another mentions a jet-black dye, while others say the Prophet forbade this; e.g. Muhammad said: ’Those who dye their hair black like the crops of pigeons, shall never smell the smell of Paradise.’ In the day of Judgement, the Lord will not look upon him who dyes his hair black.’
Again with respect to his signet ring – a matter involving no faction, family interest or dogma – tradition is most discordant. One party relate that, feeling the want of a seal for his dispatches, the Prophet had a signet ring prepared for that purpose of pure silver. Another party assert that Khalid ibn Sa’d made for himself an iron ring plated with silver; and that Muhammad taking a fancy to it, appropriated its use. A third tradition states that the ring was brought by ‘Amr ibn Sa’d from Abyssinia; and a fourth that Muadz ibn Jabal had it engraved for himself in Yemen. One set of traditions hold that Muhammad wore this ring on his right hand, another on his left; one that he wore the seal inside, others that he wore it outside; one that the inscription upon it was, ‘The truth of God,’ while the rest declare that it was ‘Muhammad, Prophet of God.’ These traditions all refer to one and the same ring; because it is repeatedly added that, after Muhammad’s death, it was worn by Abu Bakr, by ‘Umar, and by ‘Uthman, and was lost by the latter in the well Aris. There is yet another tradition that neither the Prophet, nor any of his immediate successors ever wore a ring at all. Now these varying narratives are not given doubtfully, as conjectures which might either be right or wrong; but they are told with the full assurance of certainty, and with such minute particulars as to leave the impression that each of the narrators had the most intimate acquaintance with the subject.
Unsupported tradition is insufficient evidence
To what tendency then or habit of mind, but the sheer love of story-telling, are we to attribute such gratuitous and wholesale fabrications? We may, therefore, from all this fairly conclude that tradition cannot be received with out caution and no important statement should be accepted as securely proved by tradition only, unless there be some farther ground of probability, analogy, or collateral evidence in its favour.