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  • The Constitution of the Koran as a Codified Work:Paradigm for Codifying Hadīth and the Islamic Sciences?
  • Gregor Schoeler (bio)

The Koran1 was already a book during the life of the Prophet—although only as an objective or an idea, not in reality.2 It wasn’t until 20-25 years after the death of the Prophet that it became an actual book. The codification process progressed from occasional notes to deliberate collections to an edited and published book.

Hadīth (the tradition, singular), that is, the transmitted reports (traditions or hadīths, plural) 3 on the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad, were originally to have been taught and passed on purely orally and not in writing. Some hadīth scholars (also called traditionists) nonetheless occasionally made notes from the beginning; later (from about 680 CE on) they compiled collections, and, as of the middle of the eighth century, systematic collections subdivided into chapters according to content-relevant criteria.4 After about another 100 years, hadīth was in existence in (more or less) codified works, the most important of which, the canonical collections of al-Bukhārī (d. 870) and Muslim ibn al-Hajjāj (d. 875), almost equal the Koran in importance for the religion of Islam.

Based on observations that the codification process of both Koran and hadīth exhibits considerable similarities and that the codification of many Arabic-Islamic sciences proceeds analogously to that of hadīth, the following will examine whether the codification of the holy book of Islam was paradigmatic for the codification process of hadīth and the other Arabic-Islamic sciences. “Paradigm” here is understood not as a “mystical” prefiguration, but as a pattern of development that repeats itself two or more times because the same or similar prerequisites elicit the same or similar effects. The question as to whether such a pattern exists can demand a certain interest: if a positive answer can be arrived at, it would be possible to demonstrate a regularity according to which the development from speech to writing took place in Islam.

The Koran

Initially, when the revelations were still short, there was possibly no need to write them down. This situation changed, however, when they became longer and more frequent. It is most probable that Muhammad began to have revelations put into writing early on, during the so-called second Meccan period (615-20) (Nöldeke 1909-38:i, 45f. and ii.1ff.; Watt 1977:37 and 136; Bellamy 1973:271; Neuwirth 1987:102). Islamic tradition provides numerous details regarding this process of writing, including the names of the various individuals to whom Muhammad dictated Koranic passages. Suffice it to mention here the most important “scribe of the revelation” (kātib al-wahy), Zayd ibn Thābit (d. ca. 666). These writings were, however, nothing more than mnemonic aids to help the faithful in their recitation.

We do not know precisely when the project of producing a “book,” a veritable “scripture,” became a priority. The fact, however, that within the Koran itself the term kitāb (“scripture,” “book”) began to be used in increasing measure to describe the sum total of the revelation, effectively replacing the term qur'ān (Koran) (“recitation”), shows that the idea of a scripture, in book form, like those possessed by the “people of the book” (Christians and Jews), namely a lectionary (Neuwirth 1987:102f.), gained more and more prominence.

Yet no “scripture” or compiled “book” existed at the time of Muhammad’s death—Muslim tradition and the majority of modern scholars are in agreement on this point.5 According to Muslim tradition, all that existed at the time, besides oral tradition, were scattered writings on various materials, such as fragments of parchment and papyrus, slates, pieces of leather, shoulder blades, palm stalks, and suhuf, sheets, “containing the Book” (fīhi al-kitāb) (Ibn Abī Dāwûd 1936-37:24 [Arabic]).

According to the dominant opinion in Muslim tradition, the first collection of the Koran was ordered by Abû Bakr on ‘Umar’s advice, a task then undertaken by Zayd ibn Thābit, the most important “scribe of the revelation”: this resulted in the compilation...

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