ALSO BY MICHAEL MUHAMMAD KNIGHT
The Five Percenters
Osama Van Halen
Journey to the End of Islam
Why I Am a Five Percenter
William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an
Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing
Why I Am a Salafi
Magic in Islam
MUHAMMAD: FORTY INTRODUCTIONS
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Muhammad Knight
All rights reserved
First Soft Skull edition: 2019
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Knight, Michael Muhammad, author.
Title: Muhammad : forty introductions / Michael Muhammad Knight.
Description: New York : Soft Skull,  | Includes bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018040347 | ISBN 9781593761479 (pbk. : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Muhammad, Prophet, -632—Hadith. | Muhammad, Prophet, -632—Biography. | Hadith—Texts.
Classification: LCC BP135.8.M85 K65 2019 | DDC 297.6/3—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018040347
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To Azreal with love, from Azreal Wisdom
‘Ali bin Hujr reported to us that Ishaq bin Najih reported to us on the authority of Ibn Jurayj, on the authority of ‘Ata’ bin Rabah, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas, who said:
The Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, “Whoever preserves for my community forty hadiths from the Sunna, I will be an intercessor for him on the Day of Resurrection.” 1
Who is this Messenger of God for whom the stakes of memory are so high? For more than twenty years now, I have worn his name as my own, but still ask the question. If the above narration serves as our first glimpse of him, what does it show us? How much of the man could we retrieve from the promise he makes here?
Before approaching his words, we must first walk through names. This narration comes to us from the Forty Hadiths collection by Imam al-Nasawi (d. 915), who cites as his sources chain of teachers: al-Nasawi reports from a scholar of the preceding generation, ‘Ali bin Hujr (d. 859), who cites an earlier authority, who in turn cites an older scholar than himself. At the end of the chain, we find Ibn ‘Abbas, Muhammad’s cousin, telling us what Muhammad had said.
After the chain of names, we encounter Muhammad’s title, Messenger of God (rasul Allah), and immediately after this we read a prayer for peace and blessings upon him: our knowledge of Muhammad comes to us through those who loved him and believed in his prophethood. Finally, we arrive at the message: Muhammad tells us that anyone who preserves forty hadiths from the Sunna will have Muhammad himself advocating for that person on the Day of Resurrection.
The narration introduces key terms. The word used here for “narration,” hadith, literally means “news” or “report” and signifies the sayings and actions of Muhammad, or things said and done in his presence to which he did not object; this particular hadith therefore speaks on the virtues of the body of knowledge to which it belongs. Sunna, meaning “custom” or “precedent,” has come to represent the body of reported memories concerning Muhammad’s statements, habits, and preferences, establishing both his teachings and personal behavior as a template for how to live as a human in the world.
This hadith tells us that there is a Day of Resurrection and that the Messenger of God, many centuries after the end of his prophetic mission and earthly life, continues to play a crucial role in the salvation of humankind. He can act as our lawyer, interceding on our behalf. We see that an articulation of Islam centered primarily on the hadith tradition could offer a profound departure from one centered on other sources, such as the Qur’an; the Qur’an does not clearly name Muhammad as an intercessor on the Day, and many readers interpret the Qur’an as expressing a generally pessimistic view of humans’ prospects for intercessors with God. It is within the hadith tradition that Muhammad’s advocacy becomes available, and the narration informs us that it becomes available specifically to the person who preserves forty hadiths from the Sunna.
The Arabic word used for “preserve” in this narration carries meanings associated with memorization. For historical settings in which oral tradition wielded greater authority than written texts—and in a world before paper technology, let alone the digital storage of information—to preserve knowledge meant becoming an embodied archive. The hadith memorizer commits to defending Muhammad’s historical memory against the losses wrought by time and, by doing so, serves the broader salvation of humankind, and thus earns Muhammad’s help for his or her own salvation. This hadith empowers its own narrators, promising them extraordinary privilege in the next world.
The Messenger did not leave behind a written autobiography or a copy of his daily schedule; we know him only through the memories of those who had been in his presence, who shared their recollections with those who had been born too late to know him. The names we walk through here show us the mediations by which Muhammad becomes the Muhammad whom we can access. Family members and friends who gave their reports as eyewitnesses to Muhammad, designated with the capitalized title Companions, became powerful custodians of the sacred past, and themselves continue to speak via their students, their students’ students, and so on. The Muhammad we find on this page is not simply an individual person who lived at a particular moment in history, but an assemblage formed by encounters between generations. In addition to being a specific body that lies entombed in Medina, Muhammad is also an oral tradition spanning centuries.
The scholarly producers of this oral tradition, while reporting with conviction in Muhammad’s supreme authority as the Messenger of God, in turn authorize him: they wield the power of their reputations as scholars and pious Muslims to vouch for these words as reflecting Muhammad’s actual speech. In this roster of scholars reporting on Muhammad (and one another), we witness the prophetic assemblage as it takes form.
The collected body of oral traditions reporting Muhammad’s words and actions is not the work of a single scholar, but of thousands of individuals. Nor is this marked as the domain of a united Muslim community held together by shared methods or a uniform roster of trustworthy experts. The people who knew and followed Muhammad in his own lifetime appear in the sources as having disagreed with one another on matters of correct belief and practice, and often gave conflicting accounts of what Muhammad had said. In the generations after Muhammad, networks of transmitters based in specific geographic centers came to be associated with particular theological, legal, or sectarian positions. But as scholars traveled between cities such as Basra, Kufa, and Baghdad to collect narrations of the Prophet, these local networks increasingly blended into one another, giving the appearance of a singular, monolithic body of scholarship. The collection of oral traditions into book form further masked the heterogeneity of Muhammad’s reporters, presenting these thousands of scholars as collaborators in a shared project.
One communal identity—that is, Sunni Islam, popularly marked with the collective ahl al-sunna, or People of the Sunna—has become specially designated for its investment in the Sunna. But we should remember that “non-Sunni” does not mean “non-follower of the Sunna.” Within Shi’i Muslim tradition, for example, we also witness great investment in the priority of Muhammad’s words and actions. Observing historical disagreements between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims (not to mention the enormous capacity for disagreement and multiple opinions within each tradition), we recognize the Sunna as a contested territory. Not everyone agrees as to what it means, where it can be found, or how it should be lived out, but the vast majority of Muslims, including Sunnis and Shi’is alike, agree that it matters.
The full body of hadiths is immeasurably vast, and the scholars of oral tradition mentioned here have each preserved many more than forty hadiths: our original source for these words, Muhammad’s cousin Ibn ‘Abbas, appears in one seminal collection as the credited reporter for nearly 2,000 narrations. Imam Bukhari, recognized as the greatest Sunni authority on hadiths, was said to have learned 300,000 (with only 1 percent of these narrations—not counting repetitions—meeting Bukhari’s standard of authenticity to merit inclusion in his collection). Before the modern transformation of these archives into mass-printed books and online databases, the hadith corpus would not have been navigable for average people. This knowledge remained marked as the domain of a highly specialized field of scholars who devoted their lives to learning not only the hadiths themselves, but the names of thousands upon thousands of hadith reporters (along with information concerning their biographical details and scholarly reputations) and a complex methodology for evaluating each hadith’s level of reliability. Muhammad’s promise of intercession grants incalculable advantage in the next life to those who dedicate themselves to learning and teaching.
While affirming the scholars’ otherworldly prestige, however, the hadith also democratizes their privilege, enabling the masses to share in access to Muhammad’s help. Thousands of hadiths, like the one cited here, consist of only a single sentence of Muhammad’s words; one does not have to undergo full training and lifelong dedication as a scholar to memorize a mere forty. This narration simultaneously grants supreme advantage to hadith scholars—entering us into the structure by which they become privileged and authorized—and gives the rest of us a share of that advantage for our own salvation.
This project seeks to introduce Muhammad by employing a literary genre that takes inspiration from the above hadith: the arba’in, the forty-hadith collection. If the preservation of forty hadiths earns a right to Muhammad’s advocacy in the next life, a forty-hadith text becomes more than scholarly discourse. It is a performance of piety itself, like a fast or pilgrimage, which seeks the pleasure of God and reward in the realm of the unseen. The forty-hadith collection reflects Muhammad’s prescription put into action.
Throughout Muslim literary history, scholars have compiled arba’in works, and this format seems to lend itself naturally to the genre of “intro to Islam” literature. Before modern media technology and literacy, the hadith corpus became somewhat more accessible to a general public through the arba’in genre, in which a scholar could present a selected handful of jewels from the tradition. Arba’in books could operate as the literary equivalent of a Friday sermon, providing an easily digestible sample of narratives on a particular topic or theme. These books hold particular convenience for Islamic pedagogy: within the constraints of the forty-hadith genre, scholars could focus on a singular concern and narrow down the enormous hadith corpus to a few dozen reports, providing an opportunity to define Islam’s essence in light of their own priorities.
Surveying topics in the genre throughout history, we find that each of Islam’s “five pillars” (bearing witness to the oneness of God and prophethood of Muhammad, praying five times daily, paying zakat or alms, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca) has been the theme for numerous forty-hadith collections. Scholars have devoted arba’in works to various aspects of the Qur’an, reporting Muhammad’s statements on topics such as the Qur’an’s oral recitation, particular suras (chapters) of the Qur’an, or even the special merits of a single verse—as in a collection of forty hadiths focused entirely on 2:255, the famous ‘ayat al-kursi, or Throne Verse. Themes relating directly to Muhammad himself, such as the noble character of his wives or the virtues of praying for him, have also become the focus of forty-hadith collections.
Arba’in authors have commonly used the genre to advocate for what they regard as the central values and priorities of Islam. Ascetics compiled forty-hadith collections praising asceticism; mystics provided hadiths that were relevant to mysticism. The larger canon of hadiths representing Muhammad’s sayings and actions remains so immense that one could dig up forty narrations to further almost any agenda. We find collections devoted to ethics, jurisprudence, marriage, mercy, justice, charity, martyrdom, manners, worship, medicine, signs of the end times, and the special virtues of locales such as Syria. As rulers gave patronage to favored scholars and commissioned books that furthered their interests, arba’in works addressed contemporary political issues and made calls for action: in the era of the Crusades, Sultan Nur al-Din Zangi commissioned the scholar Ibn ‘Asakir (1105–1176) to compile a forty-hadith collection on the merits and obligations of military jihad. 2 Scholars could also wield the arba’in genre as a powerful propaganda tool in sectarian debates. If Sunni and Shi’i Muslims disagreed on a point such as the merits of early caliphs, an arba’in volume could provide evidence to settle the issue for one side or the other.
Due to the importance of direct teacher-to-student transmission in classical hadith scholarship, producing an arba’in work also serves to showcase the compiler’s pedigree of master teachers and superior lineage, offering a succinct but potent display of scholarly credentials. Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi (1703–1762), for example, compiled an arba’in volume of hadiths that he had heard directly from his teacher, Abu Tahir al-Madani, which Abu Tahir had received through unbroken chains of transmission tracing directly to the Prophet’s great-grandson Zayn al-‘Abidin, who had heard them from his father, Husayn, who had heard them from his father, ‘Ali. 3 Drawing forty hadiths from such a specific chain—and one with such prestigious transmitters as the descendents of the Prophet—serves to illustrate Shah Wali Allah’s depth as a hadith scholar and his link to venerated figures of the sacred past. As scholars employed the medium to establish their own credentials, the forty-hadith genre even inspired a vanity subgenre, in which scholars showcased their mastery by compiling arba’in collections based on exceedingly restrictive criteria. In one of the more amazing examples, Ibn ‘Asakir—who, in addition to his arba’in work on jihad, compiled forty-hadith collections on the Prophet’s wives and the virtues of his Companions—produced a collection in which each of his forty hadiths came from a different teacher, hailing from a different town, transmitting the hadith from a different Companion of the Prophet, addressing a different topic. Similarly, Sadr al-Din al-Bakri compiled a forty-hadith collection in which each hadith came from a different Companion and addressed a different topic, with the added condition that each of his forty hadiths must have been found in a distinct forty-hadith collection. 4 In another momentous endeavor, the modern Palestinian scholar Yusuf an-Nabhani (1849–1932) compiled al-Arba’in Arba’in, a meta-arba’in project in which he organized 1,600 hadiths into forty unique forty-hadith collections on specific topics.
Far and away the most famous forty-hadith collection belongs to the Syrian scholar al-Nawawi (1233–1277). Instead of a collection that focused on a particular topic or issue, al-Nawawi endeavored to compile a more comprehensive work in which each hadith served as the foundation for a particular aspect of Islam. The assembled collection would serve as the ultimate introductory pamphlet to guide Muslim belief and practice. Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths became widely circulated as an accessible primer for general audiences, its fame growing in modernity amid translation and mass printing to such a degree that if you say “forty hadiths” today, Nawawi immediately comes to mind. For countless Muslims, al-Nawawi’s collection provides a primer that boils down the immense tradition of Islam to a manageable core. If al-Nawawi intended to make each hadith stand as a foundation, his arba’in collection could conceivably provide the first step for forty journeys. Each hadith would open a portal into many more hadiths, guiding one’s way through the hadith corpus at large. The forty-hadith collection can thus become a collection of introductions.
I thought about al-Nawawi and the forty-hadith genre while preparing to teach Islamic Studies courses at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. My teaching schedule for that fall semester included “Classical Islam,” an introductory lecture course that would start with Muhammad and the Qur’an, and “Muhammad,” a senior seminar that involved a heavier reading load but nonetheless assumed no prior knowledge and was meant to provide an introduction to the Prophet. While reflecting on my priorities for these courses, especially my Muhammad seminar, I considered the theoretical problems of introducing Muhammad. Any introduction, purporting to give you the “basics” or “main idea,” must first decide where the basics or main idea is located. Because an introduction by definition faces limits of space and depth, it must decide what it can afford to leave out; it must neglect some materials and privilege others. For this reason, the introduction does not only introduce, but also produces and creates the artifact that it seeks to present. In establishing a center, it invents the thing that needs a proper introduction. To some extent, every introductory syllabus, reflecting the topic as creatively imagined by its designer, inevitably becomes a work of fiction.
An introduction is especially challenging with a figure such as Muhammad, whose life and legacy undergo endless reimagination in Muslim traditions. There is more than one Muhammad to consider. Which should become the center for an introduction? Muhammad the lawgiver and statesman? Muhammad the general and battlefield hero? Muhammad the prophet of monotheism, heir to biblical figures such as Moses and Jesus in what some would call “Abrahamic” tradition? Muhammad the visionary mystic who ascended into the heavens? Muhammad as an example of the perfect body or even a cosmic principle whose light preexisted not only his physical form, but the world itself? Muhammad the husband, father, grandfather, friend? Muhammad the orphan?
As Muslims engage Muhammad’s life as a resource to answer questions in their own lives, some ideas about Muhammad become more immediately relevant than others. In The Lives of Muhammad, Kecia Ali even anticipates Muslims writing of the Prophet as a modern business executive:
Can Muhammad be seen as a model CEO? Perhaps. After all, early Muslims wrote about him as a shepherd, because all prophets were shepherds; and mid-twentieth-century Egyptians wrote about him as a socialist reformer, because that is what they needed. Why should a businessman not write about him as the epitome of executive skill? 5
During my research for this project, I actually found such an endeavor: 40 Hadith Reflections on Marketing and Business, in which the author promises to reveal the “hidden gems of marketing in Islam,” demonstrating the miraculous relevance of a man who lived in seventh-century Arabia for modern capitalism. 6
In today’s world of live-streamed sermons, the forty-hadith genre continues to reconstruct Muhammad’s legacy and value on new platforms. In the wake of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, for example, the popular shaykh Omar Suleiman presented a series of lectures titled “40 Hadiths on Social Justice,” offering resources from within the prophetic tradition for those working to enact change. One Muslim even compiled a “40 Hadiths on Social Media” booklet, applying Muhammad’s guidance to the challenges of modern communication via relevant hadiths such as “The excellence of a person’s Islam is that he leaves what does not concern him,” and “The servant who conceals the faults of others in this world, Allah would conceal his faults on the Day of Resurrection.” 7
Non-Muslims (and Muslims responding to them) often mold their image of Muhammad in relation to images of Islam that they encounter in contemporary media—that is, they define Muhammad in terms of violence, religious intolerance, radical politics, and reactionary patriarchy. As Kecia Ali’s work points out, the modern biography of Muhammad, whether written by a critic or defender of the Prophet, consistently reports his life in such a way that gives priority to modern concerns. Whether one seeks to trace a direct line from Muhammad to the horrors of ISIS or to rescue him from Islamophobia networks, these conversations highlight the ways in which we create Muhammad with the questions we ask of him. Our questions are historically specific, informed by our own experience, and are not the same questions that would have been asked of Muhammad in a different age. When Martin Luther wrote about Muhammad, the concepts of a secular state, “Western civilization,” and feminism did not exist, so Luther never asked whether these things were compatible with Muhammad’s worldview; Christians in sixteenth-century Germany would not think to condemn Muhammad as patriarchal, homophobic, or antisecular. While Muhammad’s opponents today highlight his participation in slavery and concubinage, and Muhammad’s defenders present him as a fierce opponent of racism and reformer of slavery, these attacks and defenses would not have been intellegible as such for many in the nineteenth-century American South (though some proslavery American authors in the nineteenth century, aware of differences between Muslim and American slaving practices, cited Muslims as a positive example of slavery’s historical diversity and potential to exist in a more benevolent form). 8 While American critics of Muhammad today often emphasize the age of his wife A’isha as a mark against him, others writing prior to the late twentieth century barely noticed that Muhammad married a young girl, focusing instead on his practice of plural marriage. Even if the sources do not change, our changing values and attitudes transform what we find in them.
Faced with the problem of introducing Muhammad to primarily non-Muslim students as I designed my syllabus, I wished that they could get forty introductions, each offering a distinct way of looking at Muhammad for the first time. If every introduction must leave things out, perhaps forty introductions could reduce our loss. At one point, I imagined how we might introduce Muhammad with one hadith per unit over the course of a forty-week semester. (This desire did not last too long, I assure you.) As each hadith in a forty-hadith work necessarily calls upon other hadiths, not to mention a wealth of references beyond the confines of hadith literature, an arba’in collection designed for an “intro to Muhammad” syllabus could both provide a series of snapshots of Islamic tradition and invite further investigation.
But are we looking here at “Islamic tradition” or at Muhammad himself? The hadith at the start of this chapter provokes a conversation about hadiths’ authenticity and the question of whether sifting through these thousands of narrations can reliably give us the historical Muhammad. This hadith’s valorization of the scholars who preserve Muhammad’s Sunna finds its mirror in a widely reported hadith in which Muhammad states, “Whoever lies about me deliberately, let him take his seat in the Fire.” 9 Muhammad was apparently aware that Muslims might invent hadiths in his name, and Muslim scholars quickly recognized the flood of forged hadiths that circulated th
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