Did He Really Say That?
THE FIRST THING to be considered when any report reaches us is how it came to us. That is to say, what is the report’s means and history of transmission, and how reliable is its method of conveyance, reception, and successive human relay to us from its original source or event to our consciousness.
There is a well-known, live demonstration of the problems of human reporting that management teachers like to conduct in their seminars. They tell something privately to the nearest person to them in the audience. For example, “Farmer Brown’s wife is sick and his cow died.” Then they ask each person to convey the same statement privately to the one sitting nearest him, and so on, until everyone in attendance has received the report privately, one from another. Then they ask the last recipient of the report to state publicly the report he received.
Invariably, the reporters alter the statement beyond original recognition, usually something like, “Farmer Brown’s cow went mad and killed his wife.”
So, the question becomes this: By what mechanisms can we verify the truthfulness of the reports we receive?
The Preservation of Revelation
Muslims had paramount need to answer this question of how they could verify reports of religion. Thus, they developed criteria by which they could make this determination in order to safeguard their religion by ensuring the impeccable, unquestionably exact and accurate transmission of the divine Revelation sent to them by Allah.
(It is a commentary on the state of awareness and knowledge of our Muslim community today that I must state here that Revelation, wa ḥy, when it comes to the religion of Islam, encompasses both the Quran and the statements and acts of the Prophet ﷺ, including all that he condoned.)
It is true that Allah vouchsafed to us His Revelation. Indeed, it is We alone who have sent down the Reminder, that is, the Quran. And, indeed, We alone shall preserve it (Sûrat Al-Ḥijr, 15:9). And, by extension, this means the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ, for he himself, his words and way, are inseparably part of Revelation. But the mechanisms of this divine preservation of wa ḥy, from the blessing of Allah and as a dignity for the believers, and especially the scholars, incorporates human beings and their generations in its wheel.
Thus our predecessors, from the earliest Muslims, accounted for this need of establishing the veracity of reports by conceiving of the types, message, and means of reports and by codifying detailed criteria to accurately ascertain and adjudge them, individually and collectively.
The foremost conception, codification, and classification of a report toward defining its relative veracity is a division of it into two categories that define how it comes to one, that is, by gauging its channels and continuity of conveyance. The two categories are termed, in Arabic, tawâtur and a ḥâd. This first lesson in the reporting science (and it is a science) known as Mus ṭala ḥ Al-Ḥadîth, the Nomenclature of Prophetic Reports, is about the first category.
What Is Tawâtur?
The word ‘tawâtur’ in the Arabic language comes from the tri-literal root wa • ta • ra, represented in English by the letters ’w’ • ‘t’ • ‘r’. Some words derived from this root have the notions of “consecutiveness,” “rapid succession,” or “copiousness” woven into their meaning.
For example, in the Quran Allah states: Then We sent Our messengers ‘tatrâ’ (one after the other) (Sûrat Al-Mu’minûn, 23:44). And in the great poem of Labîd ibn Rabîʿah (a composer of the one of the prize-winning Muʿallaqât poems in pre-Islam Arabia) he describes the raindrops descending in “rapid succession,” drenching the fur coat of a doe, using the word mutawâtir.
Phonetically (and even visually when the sounds are written in English letters), this word sounds likes its meaning: watara, watara, watara. One can imagine this being the sound of raindrops pattering against a windowpane, one drop after another.
Tawâtur in the terminology of the scholars of ḥadîth means news that has been reported by so many people in unbroken chains that mistake or conspiracy is inconceivable. The relationship between the terminological meaning and the linguistic one is that what is mutawâtir is reported by one person after the other, after the other, and so on, as if the people were coming with their reports like raindrops in a downpour.
For example, take the great Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Asia and Africa on 26 December 2004. The vast majority of readers of this article were not eyewitnesses to its actual occurrence. Nor can one depend on what was seen on television to prove that it did happen because we all know that film technology is eminently capable of producing imagery, whether accurate or fake.
Even if we exclude the possibility of tampering with images, the report we received was that the tsunami hit the entire coastline of the Indian Ocean, Asia, and Africa, while the images we saw only covered a minute portion of this.
What would you say if I told you the tsunami never happened and that the news was a conspiracy? You would reject what I said without investigation, and you would be right in doing so. For it would be irrational to think that millions of people who were, indeed, witnesses to the tsunami would conspire to invent such a lie. Even though you were likely not an eyewitness to the tsunami, you can be a hundred percent certain that it did happen. That is an example of a mutawâtir report.
On the other hand, the first landing of man on the moon, for example, has remained a matter of popular dispute because the criteria of a mutawâtir report could not be achieved, or at least were not accounted for in the planning so as to remove all doubt.
The Conditions of a Tawâtur Report?
There are three conditions that must be fulfilled for a report to be mutawâtir:
1. A large, that is, unexceptionable, number of people convey the report. There is no specific number that constitutes a “large number.” Rather, this is defined by natural occurrence of sufficient eyewitnesses, and the impossibility of their conspiracy or collective mistake.
2. That there be a large number of people in every link of the chain of reporters. (Thus, the report of Jesus (A.S) dying on the cross is not mutawâtir, even though millions may attest to it, because the original reports are conflicting, not reliably datable as to their actual beginning and the occurrence of such an event, and the reports begin with indeterminably small origin of people (person) and from an undetermined date, with hearsay reports growing larger over time.)
3. That the conveyed report itself be about something that is tangible or perceptible, such as: “We saw,” or, “We heard,” or, “We felt,” and so on. So saying, for example, that the universe began with a Big Bang cannot be mutawâtir, since it is something conceptual, something that none of us were capable of perceiving. That does not mean the Big Bang is false. It just means that it is not a mutawâtir report, for without human eyewitnesses (that is, no reliable source) it is unknowable.
There are two categories of mutawâtir reports. The first are those reports that are conveyed word for word, such as the statement of the Prophet ﷺ: “He who lies about me intentionally, then let him await his place in Hell-Fire.” More than 70 Companions who actually heard him speak these words reported this verbatim. Then the number increased in every successive link of the chain through the generations.
The second category of mutawâtir reports are those a ḥadîth (s. ḥadîth) whose meanings are conveyed by tawâtur but not as verbatim, word-for-word statements, such as the fact that the Prophet ﷺ used to raise his hands, palms up, while making supplication (duʿâ). This has been reported in about a hundred a ḥadîth, all of which have some variations, but make the common, perceptible observation that the Prophet ﷺ used to raise his hands when he made duʿâ.
There are a significant number of mutawâtir reports, but the vast majority of the ḥadîth literature is comprised of ahâd reports, meaning anything that does not fall under the category of tawâtur.
The scholar, Jamal Al-Din Al-Suyû ṭî, and others have compiled these mutawâtir reports into books of their own for easy access.
This is the general idea of the concept of tawâtur.
— next up, insha’Allâh: Ahâd Reports