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  • Narrative Social Structure: Anatomy of the Hadith Transmission Network. 610–1505
  • Behnam Sadeki
Narrative Social Structure: Anatomy of the Hadith Transmission Network. 610–1505. By Recep Senturk (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2005) 336 pp. $55.00

Anecdotes about the Prophet Muhammad, called hadiths, were first transmitted orally and eventually through a mixture of written and oral exchange. For any given hadith, the chain of the names of its transmitters constituted evidence of its reliability (or lack thereof). The number of transmitters in such chains during the first two centuries of Islam alone is more than 9,000, and the total number of extant hadith variants is probably more than 200,000. By the ninth century, the corpus of hadiths had been largely standardized, having been compiled in many books. Yet these books, various hadiths within them, and individually floating hadiths continued to be handed down through the centuries from teachers to students, generating ever-lengthening chains of transmitters.

The hadith literature and the scholarly networks that sustained it clearly demand quantitative analyses. Senturk's book is one among the first batch of such studies. Senturk uses his empirical findings to illustrate theoretical assertions about the relationship between words and deeds, as well as between narratives and social structure. The book is thus relevant to three disciplines—Islamic studies, literary computing, and social theory. However, the limited scope of the contribution means that an article would have been a more suitable venue.

Senturk is interested in the scholarly networks of hadith transmitters from the seventh century through the fifteenth century a.d. He limits himself to 1,226 transmitters who were especially prominent (those retrospectively given the title hafiz). He divides the nine centuries into twenty-six generations, or "layers" of scholars. These layers are overlapping; scholars at any given time might belong to several different layers. Senturk measures the denseness of the ties between scholars belonging to different layers—a "tie" indicating that one scholar transmitted hadiths to another. [End Page 328]

The central empirical finding of the book is a phenomenon that has always been well known: Scholars tended to transmit not from scholars in their own layer but from contemporaneous scholars who belonged to the earliest layer possible. Transmitters sought the shortest possible chain to the Prophet for any given narrative. Although this observation is not new, Senturk's confirmation and quantitative establishment of it across many centuries are positive contributions.

For Senturk, this phenomenon has deep theoretical implications for the relationship between speech and action. It shows that narratives can determine and shape social networks, just as they can be shaped by them. Although this conclusion may be valid, far more banal examples of it might suffice. For example, jokes attract a different type of audience than historical narratives. Moreover, all other factors being equal, the larger a comedian's repertoire, the more frequently he or she is able to entertain audiences. Thus, narratives shape social patterns—namely, patterns of attendance at performances.

Another result is Senturk's graph of the number of hadith transmitters in different cities for three different generations of transmitters: (1) the Companions (those who actually met the Prophet), (2) the Followers (those who met the Companions but not the Prophet), and (3) the Followers of the Followers (those who met the Followers but not the Companions). The graph is based on the selected list of 1,601 transmitters given by the medieval author Ibn Hibban in Mashahir 'ulama' al-amsar (Beirut, 1987). This is a convenient source, given Ibn Hibban's enumerated list of transmitters separated according to region and generation. The total number of transmitters in a particular category is obtained by subtracting the number of the first transmitter in that category from the last one (and then adding 1). Senturk's errors in subtraction result in numbers for Medina, Kufa, and Syria that are wrong by 100 transmitters apiece. As a result, he mischaracterizes Syria as the main center of Hadith transmission under the 'Umayyad caliphate, a glaring inaccuracy that would surprise any scholar of hadith. Another puzzling mistake is Senturk's statement that, in the second generation, Mecca had seventy transmitters and...


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pp. 328-329
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