The Prophet Muhammad is ever present in the lives of Muslims, but how often do we ask ourselves about the nature of our connection to him or how his teachings have come down to us? Certainly we know of his teachings and example from the Quran and Hadith, but there is also a living connection to the Prophet that has been cultivated and guarded by generations of Muslim scholars. The tradition of Islamic scholarship is a process of guarding, interpreting and drawing on the teachings of God and His Prophet generation after generation. When I was in Turkey last month I saw an example of this unbroken tradition of reverence for the Prophet and his message.
If one goes to the Fatih Mosque at the right time of the day after prayers, one can meet Shaykh Emin Sirac, a Muslim scholar who must be in his eighties now. Shaykh Sirac teaches and supervises lectures in the mosque that follow the old tradition of Muslim religious education: students are seated around the teacher in a circle on the carpet of the mosque listening to him explain the Quran, a book of Hadith or law. I attended one of these lessons after the Fajr prayer one Saturday morning.
Shaykh Sirac was supervising a younger scholar as he gave the lesson to a crowd of attendees who had come to stay after the prayer. He was explaining Hadith that describe the special characteristics of the Prophet. One of the Hadith mentioned is the famous report of Umm Zara', in which Aisha tells the Prophet of a time when she and a number of other women sat together and described their husbands. Some of them praised their husbands, and some of the indirectly criticized them. The Prophet found the story interesting, adding that Aisha need not worry since he was the best of husbands.
One might wonder why attending a lesson on such a topic is useful today. The answer comes from the continuous tradition of transiting knowledge from teacher to student across the centuries. Over the generations, Muslim scholars extracted from even the most arcane Hadith useful lessons for law and life.
In the story of Umm Zara', for example, we learn that there is nothing wrong in mentioning something bad that someone said about someone else as long as you do not mention who the two people are. We know this because Aisha recounted how one of the anonymous women had criticized her anonymous husband and the Prophet had not reprimanded her for gossip. This is potentially very useful lesson in our lives. For example, if I am speaking to someone I can recount a story or cite as a critical example other people as long as I do not specify their names or make their identity known.
The unbroken chain of teaching and interpretation that extends back to the Prophet is most clear in the practice of transmitting Hadith today. Muslim scholars like Emin Sirac cultivate their own chains of transmission (isnads) all the way back to the Prophet. This is just a ritual - Muslim scholars long ago collected the Hadith in books like the Sahih of al-Bukhari. But continuing the transmission of these Hadith throughout the ages represents Muslims' commitment to keeping their literal connection to the Prophet alive. It is tradition that when a student asks a teacher to transmit a Hadith from the Prophet, that the teacher begin with the Hadith of Mercy. Scholars begin with this Hadith because it reminds students to be merciful towards others they meet in this world in hope that they themselves will enjoy God's mercy. When I met Emin Sirac he gave me permission (ijaza) to transmit Hadith through him, and through him via his most famous teacher, the Ottoman-era scholar Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari (d. 1952).
Here is the isnad for this Hadith from me to Emin Sirac through al-Kawthari:
Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari heard this hadith from his teacher Shaykh Yusuf al-Tikwashi, who heard from his teacher Muhammad bin Ali al-Tamimi al-Tunisi (d. 1870) in Istanbul, who heard it from his teacher Muhammad al-Amir al-Kabir (d. 1816-7) in Cairo, from his teacher al-Shihab Ahmad al-Jawhari, from his teacher Abdallah bin Salim al-Basri in Mecca, from his teacher Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Rawdani, from Abu Uthman Sa'id al-Jaza'iri in the village of Qaddura in Palestine, from Abu Uthman Saʿid al-Tilimsani al-Maqqari in Morocco, from another Moroccan scholar Ahmad bin Hajji al-Wahrani, from Ibrahim bin Muhammad al-Tazi, from Abu al-Fath Muhammad al-Maraghi, who heard it from Zayn al-Din al-Iraqi in Cairo, from Sadr al-Din al-Maydumi, from Ibn al-Sayqal al-Harrani, who heard it from Ibn al-Jawzi in Baghdad, who heard this hadith from the Persian scholar Ahmad bin Abd al-Malik al-Nishapuri, from his father Abd al-Malik bin Ismail al-Mu'azzin, from Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Ziyadi, from Abu Hamid Ahmad al-Bazzaz, from Abu Bishr Abd al-Rahman al-Abdi, from Sufyan Ibn Uyayna in Mecca, from Amr bin Dinar, from Abu Qabus, from the Companion Abdallah bin Amr bin al-As, who heard the Prophet (salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam) say, "The merciful, the Most Merciful God has mercy upon them. Be merciful on the earth and He that is in the Heavens will be merciful with you (al-rahimun yarhamuhum al-Rahman, arhamu mam fi'l-ard yarhamkum man fi'l-sama)." (Sunan al-Tirmidhi)