Where Tradition Comes Alive
Islam is a religion based on a revelation from God. Despite its appropriateness for various times and places, it is a religion imbued with a deeply conservative spirit. This spirit helps to safeguard the integrity of the revelation. Muslims believe that the beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ conveyed the last message of God to humanity. Preserving the purity of that message poses one of the greatest challenges for the community of the faithful. Perhaps the best way to preserve that message is to implement it in one’s life. Hence, one of the central precepts of the Qur’an urges the believers to adhere closely to prophetic guidance. God mentions in that regard, Follow him [the Messenger of God] in order that you may be guided (7:158).
He also reveals, Say [O, Muhammad!], “If indeed you love God, then follow me. God will in turn love you and forgive you your sins. Surely God is most forgiving, most merciful” (3:31).
These injunctions to dutifully follow the Messenger of God ﷺ are coupled with strong exhortations against innovation in religious matters. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ warned in that regard:
Those of you who live after me will surely witness much dissension. It is incumbent on you to adhere to my tradition and the way of my rightly-guided successors; cling tenaciously to them. And especially beware of innovated religious practices, for every innovation [in religious affairs] constitutes straying (Sunan Abi Dawud, 607; Sunan Ibn Majah, 6).
He also stated, “Whoever introduces an unfounded novel practice into our religion will have it rejected” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 469).
Preserving the Prophetic Guidance
This duality, of encouraging adherence to guidance while discouraging innovation, is buttressed by the authentic chains of transmission, which have served as the principal means of conveying religious knowledge. These chains of transmission have safeguarded both the foundational texts of Islam and scholarly writings from the earliest centuries of the religion, facilitating an intellectual stability that has prevailed in the Islamic realm. They have also helped to establish a tradition of qualified scholarship that is essential for the preservation and perpetuation of the prophetic guidance.
Herein lies one of the distinctive features of Islam: each generation of scholars received knowledge from those preceding them, establishing verifiable chains of transmission extending back to the source of the knowledge they related. Abu Ali al-Jayyani (d. 498/1105) said, “God has distinguished this community with three things: Verifiable chains of narration; meticulous documentation of lineages; and desinential inflection in our language” (Siraj al-Din, Sharh al-manzumah al-bayquniyyah, 153). Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak (d. 181/797), one of the greatest scholars of the second century AH (eighth century CE), said, “Verifiable chains of transmission are an integral part of this religion. Were it not for those chains, anyone could have said anything he wished [and attributed it to Islam]” (Sahih Muslim, 51).
The primacy of chains of transmission places central importance on the human element in relating proper Islamic knowledge. And this knowledge is as much of the head as of the heart. In the Islamic tradition, conveying knowledge does not involve the mere transfer of information from the lines of books or the screens of computers to the student. It also involves human hearts connecting with one another, and the transfer of states of being. A sincere student benefits most from a teacher who is an active practitioner of the knowledge he or she conveys. Hence, the chains of transmission have always involved both the outward transferral of information from the teacher to the student and the inner transferral of the secrets of a teacher’s state. The importance of the inner transferal cannot be overemphasized; it results in a successful student implementing the teacher’s knowledge with etiquette, mercy, and nuanced understanding.
“Knowledge,” as many of the scholars say, “is to be found in the hearts of humans, not in the lines of books.”
“[Zaytuna] is far and away the single most influential institution that's shaping American Muslim thought. On the one hand they speak so much about being American. On the other hand, they have also plugged these American Muslim students into the global Muslim curriculum, that has all the rigor of traditional Islamic scholarship.”
Dr. Omid Safi
Professor, University of North Carolina