Teaching ḥadīth: Ibn Ṭūlūn and the Thulāthiyyāt genre

This week I return to Garret Davidson’s dissertation on post-canonical ḥadīth transmission. Davidson offers a wonderful overview of the genres involved in establishing elevated, i.e. short, chains of transmission and the status that these brought for people who had access to them. While these genres could amount to very different scopes and sizes, it is safe to say that in this context small-scale hadith collections occupied a central position. These often would include the most elevated and thus sought-after chains a well-aged transmitter had to offer to the following generations, and at minimal time to be afforded. This impetus became pervasive in other fields of knowledge as well, at least for a lay audience.

Here, I will not give a summary of Davidson’s classification, however. I reckon for that we will have to wait for the reviews once the book is published. But, continuing where I left off in an earlier post, I will connect his general findings to the specific case of Ibn Ṭūlūn. In this post, the Thulāthiyyāt genre of ḥadīth will be at the center.

The term Thulāthiyyāt denotes originally the shortest traditions found in al-Bukhārī’s canonical ḥadīth work al-Ṣaḥīḥ (and to a smaller degree in other canonical compilations), which link al-Bukhārī to the Prophet by only three intermediaries. Starting in the 12th century, they were frequently compiled separately, again putting emphasis on elevated chains of transmission between the author of a compilation and al-Bukhārī:

By compiling a selection of only the collection’s shortest three-link chains of transmission scholars created a conduit that served to connect them to the Prophet through some of the shortest possible and most venerated chains of transmission (Davidson, 261).

The brevity of these compilations was their greatest strength, since they enabled transmission “in a matter of minutes making it a time efficient way for scholars to hear hadith from the most revered collection of the canon through some of the shortest chains of transmission available” and from large numbers of transmitters (ibid.). This would remain a popular mode of transmission until the 20th century.

Our old friend Ibn Ṭūlūn himself authored only one work of this genre, titled al-ʿUqūd al-luʾluʾiyyāt fī al-aḥādīth al-thulāthiyyāt (The arrangement / the half-score of pearls of traditions with only three links between al-Bukhārī and the Prophet), which does not seem to have survived.

Yet, in at least two of his biographical dictionaries, the genre appears frequently in the context of recitation sessions, attesting to the high status of elevated chains Davidson describes. The two titles Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī and Thulāthiyyāt al-Ṣaḥīḥ are used interchangeably. Whereas in al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya fī tarājim mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions it as part of his education, in the second work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr, he himself is the host or at least the authority in those sessions where the text is read.

I have not yet finished my reading of the former work. It is bulky with some 940 biographies covering mostly the 6th through 10th centuries. And so far, I have come across only one mention of the work. Yet, in unison with the other biographical work, it epitomizes the place the Thulāthiyyāt is granted in biographies. Moreover, in this case I would argue that the recitation was actually part of the author’s education and not purely for the sake of elevated chains of transmission.

The Thulāthiyyāt is mentioned in the biography of one Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Sulaymān (885-916), with whom Ibn Ṭūlūn studied (Istanbul, Süleymaniye Library,  MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, fols. 20a-22b). As in the following cases, the text is mentioned in conjunction with al-Musalsal bi-l-awaliyya. As Davidson explains it, it “means literally the hadith of serial first transmission, because it became common for it to be the first hadith an authority would transmit to a student coming to hear hadith from him” (Davidson, 125).

The reading of both texts took place when Ibn Ṭūlūn had already reached maturity. According to his own calculations, he must have been in his late twenties at the time. Moreover, in this instance, he received a qualified license to teach these texts:

I recited before him al-Musalsal bi-l-awaliyya with his conditions (sharṭ), then the Thulāthiyyāt al-ṣaḥīḥ, then I heard in his articulation al-Silsil bi-sūrat al-ṣaff, then al-Ḥadīth min riwāyat Abī Ḥanīfa. Then I extrapolated all of it before him in [several] sessions, the last of which fell on Sunday noon, 27.04.908 in the ḥanafī miḥrab of the [Umayyad Mosque]. He wrote me an ijāza for teaching in his own handwriting.

The joint mention of both texts occurs repeatedly in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s accounts of biographical trajectories of other ḥadīth transmitters. Whereas this makes sense for the Musalsal (since it is defined by being the first one transmitted), the elevated status of the Thulāthiyyāt is emphasized by being a close second. As the quote shows, they are followed by several more ḥadīth works.

This is strong evidence for a teaching context. Even more so since Ibn Ṭūlūn continues to list five more works he studied with Ibrāhīm, receiving another ijāza for giving fatwas on 09.04.911. That indicates a longterm commitment on both sides to this teacher-student relationship (rather taraddud than mulāzama, I guess). The session also coincided with his appointment as imām of the Yūnusiyya Khānqāh in the quarter of Sharaf al-Aʿlā (on 08.04.908).

Turning to the second work, Dhakhāʾir al-qaṣr fī tarājim nubalāʾ al-ʿaṣr, here Ibn Ṭūlūn emphasizes his role as a teacher and authority. This is little surprising since contextual evidence suggests he authored the work during the very last years of his life. It is much smaller in scope than al-Ghuraf with some 160 biographies and a much more decisively local selection of biographees.

In at least 15 biographees, Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions the Thulāthiyyāt al-Bukhārī / al-Ṣaḥīḥ, exclusively when he was the transmitter. In this case, Davidson’s argument that most hadith transmission should not be considered an educational  but a devotional endeavor seems to hold true. Only in one case, an ijāza for teaching is issued and then only after repeated auditions.

This impression is substantiated when we look at the sites of the sessions. The only institution featured in the sample where Ibn Ṭūlūn had a post, is the Ottoman Salīmiyya Mosque (four entries for Ṣafar 942; one for 05.05.949). Admittedly, it is the one site mentioned most often but none of his other teaching posts are at all mentioned. Instead, the second-most important site is the garden of his cousin Burhān al-Dīn Ibn Qindīl (three entries for 13.05.940).

Another case in point is that the account of these recitations is usually immediately followed by a list of which of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works these people heard from him. Since the majority of those recitations took place in villages around Damascus, most importantly a shrine for Abraham in Barza (maqām Khalīl), and since those works were usually hadith compilations, this suggests that also the Thulāthiyyāt were recited in a devotional context.

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