The faith and practice of Islam, like Christianity, is hedged around with tradition. Like Christianity there is a central core upon which later traditional faith and practices are built. In the case of Islam this central core is known as the Quran. The words
of the Quran are God’s words, coming through the mouth of His Prophet Mohamed, like music from a gramophone record. In their
beliefs pious Moslems are all Fundamentalists. origin. Christianity was born in a nation which had inherited the Hebrew tradition and had also imbibed Greek culture. The position of Mohamed was therefore very different from that of Christ. The former could speak as the voice of God with no one to question him. He could institute a new Faith,
dictate new beliefs and practices derived from nothing more
ancient than his own beliefs and imagination. The legality of the
tribute to Caesar could be answered by Mohamed with no dissenting
The questions put to Christ on the other hand were very like questions put to a Brains Trust today. In His case there was always
some one to get up and say: This answer conflicts with what soand-
so, an acknowledged authority, used to say.
Hence the traditions of Islam go into much greater detail than
do those of Christianity, they regulate public and private actions to
a far greater degree, and they are far more binding than Christian
traditions. They differ, too, in that they are supposed to be the
ipsissima verba of Mohamed, whereas the traditions of Christianity
are none derived from Christ’s own words and at the best can but
represent His mind.
To doubt the authenticity of the individual words of the Quran
is forbidden to a Believer, though ‘printers’ errors’ are admittedly
possible. But when the significance of these words is raised, quite
another question is opened. It is here that Tradition begins.
The first method of interpreting the Quran is by means of the
Quran itself. Such a method is called Deduction or al-Qiyas.
Thus, many Islamic casuists maintain that modern alcoholic
drinks cannot have been forbidden by the Prophet because he did
not know of them. Others consider that the principle of ‘The
Whole contains the Parts’ is to be applied. And because the Quran
forbids intoxicants in general, it must therefore also forbid them
Another example of this Deductive Method of interpretation is
the application of the principle of e fortiori. The Quran does not
forbid a child to strike his parents. But it does torbid the saying
of ‘Fie upon you’ to them. E fortiori violence is condemned.
A second method of interpretation depends upon the sayings
and doings of the Prophet. The corpus of these sayings and doings
is known as The Sunna LJI. An individual saying incorporated
in the Sunna is known as al-Athara s[‘. These actions and
sayings are a legitimate method of interpreting doubtful Quranic
texts. The veracity of the Sunna itself depends upon the trustworthiness
of the chain of authorities along which it has passed
from the life-time of the Prophet until its written record. In
technical language an authority for an athara is known as a Sanad
j (pl. asanid) (pl. vjLj). The act of making such a chain of
authorities is called al-Isnad L’.U!. Only one such chain is
quoted in its entirety in this work. See folio i io.
The Sunna is contained in the ‘Six authentic books’ of Tradition.
Those who accept these traditions are known as Sunnis and
to this division of Islam the greater part of the Moslem world
belongs. Followers of this division not only accept the Sunna
as their rule of faith and practice, but also differ from their coreligionists
by acknowledging the first three successors of Mohamed
as genuine caliphs, that is to say, Abu Bakr, ‘Umr, and
‘Uthman. The two parties reunite in recognising ‘Ali who succeeded
‘Uthman. The Sunnis also accept the teaching of the four
orthodox schools of jurisprudence, headed by al-Hanbal, al-HIanifa,
al-Malik, and al-Shafi’i.
The word Sunna, which may best be rendered by ‘Tradition’
although a more exact meaning is “Path”, is not confined to what
the Prophet said or did. It is enlarged by Moslem theologians to
include words and deeds of the Companions of the Prophet, that
is, of the people who were in actual contact with him and who
were by that very fact presumed to know his intentions. Unlike
Christian tradition, antiquity alone adds no weight to a tradition.
The early Moslems of Ethiopia, for example, were never in contact
with the Prophet, except of course the Muhaijirun who had fled
from Mecca. In consequence their sayings and doings, although
very primitive, can form no part of the Sunna
It is obvious, then, that there is no general obligation to accept
the Sunna. It is in fact rejected by a large section of Islam, known
as the Shi’as. But to the Sunnis (who include the Turks and a
large part of the Arabs) if the foundation of a tradition is unassailable,
then it commands belief. And anyone who accepts any
tradition as a true tradition and yet disbelieves it or acts contrary
to it, then such a one becomes ipso facto an Unbeliever. Tradition
is therefore under circumstances elevated to the position of revealed
dogma and is supplementary to the Quran.
Traditions are classified according to the various walks in life
with which they were concerned. Thus, there are the Traditions of
the theologians, the Traditions of the lawyers, and the Traditions
of the doctors of Medicine.
Should a decision on a new point of faith or practice be required,
the jurisconsult fled to the Sunna for the authority on which to
base his decision. A parallel drawn from Western practice will
make this clear. The Church of Rome can give an ad hoc decision
by virtue of having in the Pope a living voice. Non-Catholics
appeal to the first four or five centuries of Christianity. Yet neither
is quite similar to Islam. Their base is wider. A closer resemblance
is that of English case law. Here the corpus of the Law is erected
upon previous decisions which in turn date back to previous
decisions, which in turn date back to accepted custom or law.
Write for ‘accepted custom or law’ ‘the Quran and the Sunna’
and the parallel is exact.
One section of the Sunna which contains only the very words of
the Prophet himself, is further distinguished by its own tittle. It is
known as al-Hadith 1~jI. The book of which a translation
follows, is a collection of the hadith concerned with Medicine.
Like other branches of conduct the art of therapeutics among
the primitive Arabs in the early days of Islam was based on the
customs of the desert, modified by what the Prophet said and did.
To understand the foundations of what later became known as the
Arabian System of Medicine it is necessary to grasp this fact. For
the System grew from Bedouin Medicine. In this work of al-
Suyiuti the author has collected and commented on a large number
of these medical sayings of Mohamed. Hence its importance in the
History of Medicine.
Physicians have never been famed for orthodoxy and the story
of Arabian Medicine is one of continual rebellion by the doctors
against the system of thought imposed upon them by the theologians.
The first opponent of orthodoxy was desert folk-lore with
its superstitions and relics of paganism. This put up a very poor
fight. Then came Greek Medicine, Indian Medicine, and probably
Chinese Medicine. These were all incorporated into Arabian
Medicine and more or less islamised. But it is very evident that
the theologians realised the heterodoxy of the new-comers, for
over and over again laws were passed governing the relationship
between the orthodox patient and the non-believing doctor. It
was a continual struggle to fit traditional Medicine into a new and
more scientific system which was being introduced from outside.
With the arrival of Western Medicine the theologians gave
up the task. It is no part of this book to describe the losing fight
that traditional Arabian Medicine put up against the Western
system. I have tried to describe it in my book entitled Persian
Medicine. All that I would say here is that traditional beliefs and
practices still survive in many parts of Saudi Arabia and among
the tribes along the Persian Gulf and that it only finally disappeared
from Persia in the beginning of the 2oth century.
The value of al-Suyuti’s work, I repeat, is that it shows the foundations
upon which Arabian Medicine was built, that it shows how
far orthodox Arab physicians were restrained in the development
of scientific ideas by religion, and it makes clear why the greatest
names of early Islamic physicians were Persians who were Shi’as
and were not bound by the Sunna or were Christians or Jews who
were not bound by Islam at all.
To revert to the Sunna from which I have strayed. From what
has been said above it is clear that a large amount of the onus of
interpreting the meaning of the Quran is shifted to proving the
authenticity of the traditional sayings. Hence the early Arabs as
soon as centres of learning and culture appeared, produced four
sciences which were considered to be of the highest importance.
These sciences were the Science of Quranic exegesis, the Science
of Apostolic Tradition, the Science of Quranic Criticism, and the
Science of Grammar. To these were soon added the Sciences of
Jurisprudence, Scholastic Theology, and Lexicography. As the
number of works on these subjects increased, there were also
added the Sciences of Rhetoric and Literature. These nine sciences,
being called into being by the needs of the Quran and the Traditions,
the Arabs looked upon as their own offspring in a very
special manner and therefore they called them the Nine Native
Opposed to the Nine Native Sciences were the Sciences of the
foreigner or the Ancient Sciences. These included philosophy,
geometry, astronomy, music, medicine, magic, and alchemy. These
the Arabs scarcely touched: the way was left open to the Persians
Sabeans, Jews and mixed races. Thus, the Christian Ibn Jazla
studied Medicine under a Christian teacher. But when he wished
to take up Logic, he was compelled to seek a Moslem professor
‘for none of the Christians of those days were enamoured of that
As I have already remarked, the final link in each chain was
required to be one of the Companions of the Prophet who had
actually heard the words spoken. Hence, when traditional sayings
came to be written down, they were originally grouped according
to their final authority. Later, as in this work, they were grouped
and classified according to their subject. When this latter method
was adopted, they became known by the technical term of musannafat
Because of the weakness of one or more of the links in the chain
Traditions vary in credibility and later Traditionalists classify
them into various grades depending upon the value to be attached.
The most authoritative traditions are known as Mutawatar jl’
and of these there are said to be about two thousand five hundred.
The next in value are either Hasan c.- or Sahih . or
better than either Hasan sahih , ?,- (see ff. 5I & 53).
A tradition which is unreliable through weakness of any link is
called Za’if ‘s. And finally certain traditions should be rejected
as unsupported. Such are known as Matruk 2J~ or M6zu’
c,:. (See f. 92).
Occasionally a more daring critic will hazard a guess at the origin
of these ‘weak traditions’. Some such were styled Isra’ili, judging
that they were of Jewish origin. Others were called Fursi, as being
of Persian origin. Generally speaking, any traditional saying
extremely improbable or difficult to believe was said by the Arabs
to be a Persian invention.
The lengths to which critics went to prove or disprove their
authorities often involved much labour. It is said that a certain
shaykh once met a new tradition and learning that one of the
authorities in the chain was still alive, took a three day journey to
consult him. On his arrival he became his guest. But when his
host announced that his camel had been fed and watered and he
(i) Bar Hebraeus Hist.
found this to be untrue, he rejected the new tradition because
this one link in the chain was manifestly unreliable.
The most important of these Musannafit by reason both of its
size and the careful research of its author is the Sahih of ‘Abd-Ullah
Mohamed bin Isma’il al-Bukhari (194-256 A.H., that is 809-
869 A.D.). His name occurs many times in this work.
It is interesting to note how closely connected are the famous
traditionalists, how they all rose to fame within a few years of
oneanother. Take al-Tirmidhi, for instance, who is quoted in this
book in frequency second only to al-Bukhari. He studied under
Ibn Hanbal, under al-Bukhari himself, and under Abu Dawuid,
all three giants in the subject. Abu Dawuid himself was a pupil
of Ibn Hanbal and besides teaching al-Tirmidhi had as a pupil
al-Nasa’i, also a famous traditionalist. All these lived and wrote
in the days of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad and it was in their
days that the completion and inscription of the canon of the Sunna
was determined. In fact, Traditionalists flourished in those days
in Baghdad like painters in Florence and like fleas and princes in