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  • Guarding Oral Transmission:Within and Between Cultures
  • Talya Fishman (bio)

Like their rabbinic Jewish predecessors and contemporaries, early Muslims distinguished between teachings made known through revelation and those articulated by human tradents. Efforts were made throughout the seventh century—and, in some locations, well into the ninth—to insure that the epistemological distinctness of these two culturally authoritative corpora would be reflected and affirmed in discrete modes of transmission. Thus, while the revealed Qur’an was transmitted in written compilations from the time of Uthman, the third caliph (d. 656), the inscription of ḥadīth, reports of the sayings and activities of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, was vehemently opposed—even after writing had become commonplace. The zeal with which Muslim scholars guarded oral transmission, and the ingenious strategies they deployed in order to preserve this practice, attracted the attention of several contemporary researchers, and prompted one of them, Michael Cook, to search for the origins of this cultural impulse.

After reviewing an array of possible causes that might explain early Muslim zeal to insure that aḥadīth were relayed solely through oral transmission,1 Cook argued for “the Jewish origin of the Muslim hostility to the writing of tradition” (1997:442).2 The Arabic evidence he cites consists of warnings to Muslims that ḥadīth inscription would lead them to commit the theological error of which contemporaneous Jews were guilty (501-03): once they inscribed their Mathnā, that is, Mishna, Jews came to regard this repository of human teachings as a source of authority equal to that of revealed Scripture (Ibn Sacd 1904-40:v, 140; iii, 1).3 As Jewish evidence for his claim, Cook cites sayings by Palestinian rabbis of late antiquity and by writers of the geonic era, which asserted that extra-revelationary teachings are only to be relayed through oral transmission (1997:498-518).

Occasioned by Cook's remarks, this paper argues that exhortations to guard oral transmission, whether articulated by Jews or by Muslims, were not expressions of any essentialist preference for the oral over the written, but, rather, historically contingent utterances that addressed the particular political, theological, or social needs of their proponents. When the nascent communities of rabbinic Jews and Muslim distinguished between the authoritative corpora of knowledge that each possessed, they did so in response to specific challenges. The technological and behavioral strategies they adopted in order to maintain these distinctions were ones they had inherited from Hellenistic culture. And when pockets of Jews and Muslims exhorted preservation of oral transmission well after the formative periods of their respective cultures, they were not echoing innate cultural predispositions to “oralism” in the “hollow” manner of “revivalists” (Cook 1997:439), but were responding to specific stimuli.

In order to put to rest the claim of Jewish culture's putative preference for oral over written transmission, the first part of this study will reconstruct the historical contexts within which Jewish endorsements of oral transmission were formulated, both in antiquity and in the period of the Geonim, that is, the “Eminences” who presided over post-talmudic rabbinical academies in the area of Baghdad between the seventh and eleventh centuries. The second part will discuss performative strategies that rabbinic Jews used in order to tag certain corpora as “oral,” even when the latter clearly existed as written texts. Widespread use of inscribed texts of oral matters did not alter rabbinic society's need to preserve a classification that distinguished sharply between two types of transmission, and it did not diminish the cultural meaning of this taxonomy. Finally, stimulated by studies on early Muslim resistance to ḥadith inscription undertaken by Cook (1997), Menahem Kister (1998), and Gregor Schoeler (1989 and 2006), the third part will ruminate on the timing and regional specificity of admonitions to guard the oral transmission of tradition that were articulated in eighth- and ninth-century Iraq by Muslims and Jews alike.

Disparate Jewish Motives for Championing Oral Transmission

Third-century rabbis claimed that “Oral Torah,” extra-scriptural tradition, had been revealed at Sinai along with Scripture itself (Jaffee 1998:i, 54; 2001:140-67), and they promulgated rules to regulate the production, handling, transmission, and use of such oral matters on...

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