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Tawaatur (تواتر) is a concept that seeks to classify hadith traditions into more or less reliable categories based on the multiplicity of attestation traditions standing behind them. Tawaatur means "succession" and in the "science" of hadiths (so called due to its Arabic designation, علم الحديث, "'ilm al-hadith", where "'ilm" meaning "knowledge" is also used in Arabic to mean "science" (compare Latin "scienta", "knowledge", source of the English word "science")) it means that there is a lot of isnaads (chains of narrators of an oral tradition). When a hadith has a lot of chains, the hadith is then called "mutawaatir" (متواتر). The mutawaatir hadiths are distinguished from hadiths that are called ahaad (آحاد) which have a "small" number of chains (although ahad literally means "singular" [1]).

The number of chains

The number of chains that a hadith needs to be mutawaatir is defined by scholars. However scholars do not agree as to what the number of chains is:

There is no precise definition for a "large number of reporters"; although the numbers four, five, seven, ten, twelve, forty and seventy, among others, have all been variously suggested as a minimum, the exact number is irrelevant (some reporters, e.g. Imams of Hadith, carry more weight anyway than others who are their contemporaries): the important condition is that the possibility of coincidence or "organised falsehood" be obviously negligible.

The hadith is mutawaatir when there is "no possibility" that so many people could agree on a lie. This is the traditional view, though forensic investigators or modern scholars of oral traditions would not use such a criterion. Some scholars might think that 4 chains are enough, other might think that 70 chains are needed, there is not a universal acceptance of what is and is not mutawaatir.

Methodological Criticisms

Modern standards of forensics and oral tradition scholarship would not find this criterion ipso facto convincing. Some possible criticisms:

  • There were thousands of Muslim transmitters available when the hadiths were written; even giving the the most generous assumptions of Muslim honesty, it wouldn't be hard to find 4, 5 or 70+ loose transmitters, liars, or persons willing to affirm a tradition they don't know to be true. Islamic scholars respond by pointing out that hadith scholars did more than just collect isnads, as they also analyzed the reliability of the transmitters. Consequently, it may well be the case that there are descriptions of the prophet that have been correctly transmitted - critical scholars admit that while the general bar of evidence for most hadiths considered authentic cannot be a source of certainty, there may still be some narrations that are reliable. As far as certainty is concerned - that is, knowing for a fact that a report is not fabricated or incorrect - this degree of certainty remains generally unattainable where empirical evidence is lacking (as a result, where a minted coin is found from the 8th century - determined using scientific methods - we may be relatively sure that this coin was minted at this time in history, but we can't be religiously certain it was minted by one or another person, and finding written evidence regarding someone's statements may not be sufficient, as there is always a chance that the scribe or report was mistaken, lying, or manipulating facts).
  • Most sahih hadiths are not mutawaatir, but they are accepted anyway (because all people in the chain supposedly always tell the truth), which calls the entire framework into question

False chains

When a hadith is mutawaatir it has to be accepted according to Islamic scholars, as fabrication and mistaken transmission are deemed impossible:

With regard to the ruling on mutawaatir reports: a mutawaatir report must be accepted, because it is definitive and certain, even if there is no other corroborating evidence. And there is no need to examine the biographies of its narrators. This is a matter concerning which no wise man will have any doubts.

The following are some critiques that have been made regarding the possibility of this kind of certainty::

  • If a person who writes the hadiths makes up his own hadith, he can include "many" (4, 5... or 70) made up chains and it will be called "mutawaatir"
    • This shows that a hadith can be mutawaatir even though it has 0 authentic chains, not even partially authentic
  • If "many" (4, 5... or 70) people who narrate the oral traditions to the person who writes the hadiths make up false chains, the hadith will be called "mutawaatir"
  • If "many" (4, 5... or 70) people who, narrated to the people who narrated to the person who will write the hadiths, made up false chains, the hadith will be called "mutawaatir"
  • If "many" (4, 5... or 70) people heard an authentic report from Muhammad, but weren't sure what exactly he said and consulted each other and the most confident of them "assured" them that his version is correct (although it wasn't) and then they narrated it to the people etc.. it will be called "mutawaatir"
  • If 70 honest people heard from other honest people who heard from other honest people.. an authentic report from Muhammad and then they narrated it to the person who will write the hadiths, but they knew only the names of the people who told them and didn't know the names of the people who told to the people who told them, then the hadith is unreliable.

Tawatur in transmission of the Quran

Tawaatur is often invoked to substantiate the reliable transmission of the Quran. The point of tawaatur is that many people say the same thing, therefore it must be true; yet in the case of the Quran, this criterion is not met. There are many versions (qira'aat) of the Arabic Quran accepted by traditional scholars as being authentic. We have 10 "reciters" (in Arabic qurra, plural of qari):

  • Ibn Kathir al-Makki
  • Abu 'Amr Ibn al-'Ala'
  • Aasim ibn Abi al-Najud - a famous rawi Hafs transmitted from him
  • Hamzah az-Zaiyyat
  • Al-Kisa'i
  • Ya'qub al-Yamani
  • Khalaf
  • Ibn Amir ad-Dimashqi
  • Abu Ja'far
  • Nafi‘ al-Madani - a famous rawi Warsh transmitted from him

And for every qari, there are two rawi's which also often differ, even though they had the same teacher. The most popular version of the Arabic Quran today is the version of Hafs, who was one of the students of Aasim. Since other versions of the Quran differ from Hafs' version, the most popular version of the Quran is ahad. And even if all 10 qari had exactly the same text of the Quran, according to some scholars mutawaatir requires 70 chains, so 60 chains would be missing.

On top of this, modern scholarship has uncovered variants such as the Sana'a palimpset which preserve readings not found in any of the qira'aat, further making it impossible to make the claim of being mutawattir of the text of the Quran.

  • The claim that the Hafs version is mutawaatir does not stand to scrutiny, despite the current widespread usage in Muslim devotion and liturgy. It's reasonable to assume that many other Muslims were memorizing the Quran through the ages, but their is no evidence they were all using the Hafs version and much evidence to the contrary.