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Common Sense and Ḥadīth – A Look at Modarressi’s Text and Interpretation

Posted by on November 18, 2022

The latest addition to Hossein Modarressi’s oeuvre, which was much anticipated, unfortunately failed to impress. It was nothing close to his Crisis and Consolidation which was undoubtedly paradigm shifting in its effect. With half of the book comprised of ‘examples’ – traditions from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (a) on various, mostly jural, topics – this work on the legacy of the sixth Imam of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) is in no way groundbreaking. That is not to say that there is nothing to be gained from the monograph. There are indeed many tidbits of interesting information peppered around the text, some of which must surely have required a good amount of time to unearth and decipher. The author’s original translation of numerous traditions also constitutes a mine for translators of classical texts, though like all other translations it does have its imperfections.

After highlighting the fact that ḥadīth fabrication had been rampant among the late Umayyads and early Abbasids, Modarressi notes that the phenomenon of fabrication was also present among the Shīʿahs, who, like their Sunnī counterparts, at times ascribed lies to Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) due to the popularity of his name (pp. 9-10). This then leads us to what is perhaps the most disappointing thing about the work, namely the author’s ‘methodology’, if one could call it that, in evaluating the aḥādīth and identifying the authentic traditions from those that are “spurious”. By his own admission, no attention is paid to the chains of transmission as they could easily have been forged (p. 12, footnote). Hence, centuries worth of biographical studies on the narrators of ḥadīth by Muslim scholars have been singularly dismissed by the author as worthless.

Instead, Modarressi has opted to adopt ‘common sense’ as the litmus test for authenticity of traditions. He appeals to the ‘style’ of the Imams in the language and conventions they employ as a distinguishing factor (p. 10), though he does nothing to clarify how one can actually go about recognizing the speaker from his speech, especially when it was spoken so long ago and, in many cases, paraphrased by its transmitters. Indeed, if this was a viable method on its own, Muslim scholars would have employed it much earlier. Apart from the most obvious cases of fabrication, it is very difficult (not easy – as Moderressi claims. See p. 10 footnote. 20), to arrive at an undeniable conclusion about the validity of the ascriptions of statements to the Imams. That which ‘can reasonably be deemed reliable’ due to its correspondence with ‘common sense’ and any internal and external corroborating evidence (p. 11) is an open-ended gauge susceptible to subjectivity – the kind of subjectivity that is anathema in academic research.

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