“Speed reading” of hadith

I have recently been reading Garrett Davidson’s exciting PhD thesis “Carrying on the Tradition: An Intellectual and Social History of Post-Canonical Hadith Transmission“. It attempts – very successfully – a reassessment of the methods, purposes, and underlying logic of hadith transmission once the canon was fixed with the compilation of the canonical six books.

It contains a plethora of points pertinent to Ibn Tulun’s oeuvre, and I will address some more in the future, such as how the devotional character of reciting hadith as well as chains of transmission relate to several of his compilations on animals, plants or food. Even though he is often characterized as a historian, hadith was like the mortar that held the edifice of his written corpus together.

The one point I want to address today is the phenomenon of speed reading (sard) which  preserved the appearance of oral transmission while trying to fit as much text into a restricted period of time (pp. 107-112). Davidson mentions several outstanding examples of that practice when readers went through the entirety of Bukhari’s or other canonical hadith compilations in only a few days.

Interestingly, Ibn Tulun also mentions most of the same feats in his biographical dictionary Dhakhāʾir al-Qaṣr fī Tarājim Nubalāʾ al-ʿAṣr. They appear in the biography of one Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. ʿAlī al-Nābulusī al-Qudsī, who was also known as al-Hijazi (MS Gotha, Orient A 1779, fols. 57a-b). While Garrett cites multiple sources like the Meccan historian al-Fāsī, Ibn Rajab, al-Kattani, or Ibn Hajar himself, Ibn Ṭūlūn combines all this information in this inconspicuous place.

Among those examples is that of Ibn Ḥajar’s “most famous act of speed transmission[…,] his having raced through al-Ṭabarānī’s al-Mu’jam al-saghir, a collection that consisted of more than one thousand five hundred hadith, in a single audition session between the noon and afternoon prayers” and Bukhari’s Sahih in ten sessions (pp. 109-110).  Or, in Ibn Tulun’s own words:

the fastest thing happened to Abū al-Faḍl Ibn Ḥajar on his Syrian journey when he recited the al-Muʿjam al-ṣaghīr by Abū al-Qasim al-Ṭabarānī in one session between the noon and afternoon prayer[ recitation]. This book is a volume which is organized in about 1.500 ḥadīth, because he published one unique ḥadīth for each of his 1.000 shaykhs. And he transmitted the Ṣaḥīḥ in the Khānqāh al-Baybarsiyya in 10 majālis of 4 hours each.

Otherwise, Ibn Tulun says about the biographee that he heard some of Bukhari’s Sahih with him but recited by a member of the al-Shuwaykī family. While this took place in the Takiyya Salimiyya, he also attended shortly Ibn Tulun’s sessions (durus) in the Umariyya madrasa just next door. He also attended the teachings of shaykh Sharaf al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī al-Ḥanbalī but fell out with him later. Almost half of the biography, however, is an account of feats in speed reading.

The practice seems to have been continued into Ibn Tulun’s own times. The biographee is doubtful that such fast readings could be done at all but Ibn Tulun (obviously) has examples at hand. He himself had seen in the thabat of the khatib Shihab al-Din al-Himsi that he had recited the whole Sahih al-Bukhari in six sessions in Ramadan 882. Ibn Tulun’s teacher had another example in Jamal al-Din al-Askari who went through the whole work in three and a half days at the end of Rabi II 880.

Ibn Tulun himself seems to have endorsed speed reading. The former’s cousin Zayn al-Din al-Askari recited the Sahih before Ibn Tulun in five days and Abu al-Abbas Ahmad b. Ahmad al-Sufi’s work named here only as al-Mu’taqad before him in three days, “the last of which was 15 Ayyār 1806 according to the Alexandrian and Roman (rumi) calendar, which is one of the longest days of the year”. So while Ibn Tulun did believe in the benefits of speed reading, he was also aware that certain extrinsic conditions could be favorable in doing such feats.

Finally, speed reading appears to have had a pervasive function in communal devotional contexts at the time. In 873 (1468-69), Damascenes suffered through a drought and, thus, a dearth in food prices. The price for wheat increased five-fold  to more than 2.000 dirham per sack (ghirara). Ibn Tulun’s near-contemporary Ali al-Busrawi describes in his chronicle that people were so desperate that they gave away their children and themselves resorted to eating “mayta” – carrion or corpses? – just to stay alive.

In reaction to their plight, people convened during the holy nights around Mid-Sha’ban praying for rain. Al-Busrawi also states that in the course of just two nights, they recited the complete Sahihs of both al-Bukhari and Muslim – twice each night! According to the account, those measures proved successful: the very next day, rainfalls began and simultaneously wheat prices plummeted by half.

Initially, I suspected the Sahih recitations (and some other aspects of the account) to be tropes. Yet, there are other explanations, one of them being speed reading. Nonetheless, if we compare this instance with the acclaimed feats mentioned before, the double recitations still seem out of the ordinary (or even the extraordinary). The only explanation I can imagine would be that in this context several reciters worked simultaneously, splitting up the two Sahihs between them. The auditory experience must have been incredible.


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