Thursday, December 4, 2008


The first salient feature of the hadith folk I have alleged is unremitting seriousness. One example of this is refusing to laugh. This was fairly common among ascetics of the late 8th century.Al-Fudayl ibn 'Iyad (d. 803) discouraged laughing and was never seen laughing by an associate of thirty years. The Antiochian Yusuf ibn Asbat (d. 810-11) did not laugh for thirty years or jest (yamzahu) for forty. The famous Syrian ascetic Abu Sulayman al-Darani (d. 830-31) advised, "The laughter of the knower ('arif) is smiling." This was also common in later traditionalist circles. Bishr al-Hafi (d. 84) is often loosely associated with Ahmad ibn Hanbal. He is said to have warned a laugher he would not die in such a state. Isma'il ibn 'Ulayya (d. 809) was angry with his disciples for laughing when Ahmad was in his circle. 'Abd al-Wahhab (d. 865) was the ascetic whom Ahmad is said to have named his successor. His son related that he had never seen him laughing - only smiling. When he once came across his son laughing with his mother, he asked, "Does a master of the Qur'an laugh in this manner?" Muhammad ibn Dawud al-Qantari (d. 871-72) and al-'Abbas al-Turqufi (d. 881) were two other Baghdadi traditionalists who were never seen laughing or smiling. It is probably a measure of how traditionalist were some, at least, of the 9th century Shi'is that the Kufan traditionalist 'Ubayd Allah ibn Musa al-'Absi (d. 829) was never seen laughing.

This is not to say that all hadith folk refused to laugh. Some did laugh, and all related hadith reports by which the Prophet would laugh until his molars showed (although usually with the gloss that his laughing was really smiling). If all had refused to laugh, those who refused to would not have been noteworthy. However, it does show that refusal to laugh was admired, while it is rare for the biography of a traditionalist to observe that he liked to joke and laugh.

The point of not laughing was mainly, I think, that one should restrict one's attention to solemn, religious matters. Remembered William James's definition of "divine" as "such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse or a jest." Jurisprudents of all tendencies debated whether laughter during one's ritual ablution or prayer would invalidate them. These traditionalists simply extended the ban on laughter to the rest of everyday living. Hodgson speaks of "devotion to the One expressed in the Qur'an, and to its moral demands," which nothing should be allowed to weaken.

Single-minded devotion manifested itself in many ways - for example, in traditionalists hostility to chess. Ahmad's close follower Abu Bakr al-Marrudhi (d. 888) related the hadith report from the Prophet, "He who plays chess is accursed, and whoever watches them is like the eater of pork." Other hadith reports had the Prophet calling on God to curse whoever played chess or reporting that God already had cursed them. What did they have against playing chess? Jurisprudents commonly objected that chess might be the subject of betting. Some Kufan traditionalists considered chess to be involved with Magianism. The qadi Abu Yusuf (d. 798) was said to have disallowed the testimony of one who had bet on chess or let it distract him from his prayers. (Hanafiyyah such as Abu Yusuf were not hadith folk, of course, and stories of their piety show mixed attraction and repulsion. Take, for example, two accounts from 11th century sources. According to the first account, Abu Hanifa was never seen laughing, merely smiling; according to the second, Abu Hanifa used to joke a great deal.) Gambling was forbidden, but fear that the chess player would forget his prayers agrees with hostility to other diversions, such as playing musical instruments.

... The Piety of the Hadith Folk, Christopher Melchert

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