Kathryn Walbert in her work “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students,” provides five major areas which need to be examined by scholars who want to analyze a primary source. In particular, Walbert mentions, “In order to fully understand a primary source, you’ll want to identify it, contextualize it, explore it, analyze it, and evaluate it” (Walbert 2). In this paper, I will explore an excerpt from the Muslim writings Sunna known as the Hadith of Bukhari. Specifically, in line with Walbert’s article, I will discuss the source’s historical context, explore its factual information, analyze it based on the suggested framework, and, ultimately, evaluate it through comparison with another primary source.
To begin with, if to identify the nature of the source, Hadith is in its essence an oral history account. It is a collection of teachings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad as well as a collection of stories about his life. The collection was compiled by several scholars, one of them Muhammad al-Bukhari in the 9th century. It has been regarded as a guide to Muslims’ living second only to Quran in its importance. The Hadith of Bukhari was narrated by multiple authors. While some of them are easily identified (for example, Aisha, one of prophet Muhammad’s wives), the identity of others is less clear or may even be unknown for the modern reader. The source was produced within around 200 years after the death of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. At any rate, all hadiths in the excerpt were produced by the followers of Muhammad and devout Muslims. With regard to the place where the source was produced, Muhammad al-Bukhari created it in Bukhara, Persia (Bukhara is a city in present-day Uzbekistan).
Further, with regard to the historical context of the source, one should say that the source was created in the 9th century, which is known as the Islamic Golden Age (Parkinson 321). The Abbasid caliphs made Islam thrive and actively sponsored scholarship. It was the time when Baghdad was named a House of Wisdom and emerged as “the foremost intellectual center in the Islamic world” (Parkinson 321). Works of Persian as well as Greek, Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Phoenician scholars were translated into Arabic, and education was valued highly. At the same time, the influence of the Persian civilization was the strongest. If to place Muhammad al-Bukhari in this context, one can say that he was a Persian from Bukhara, one of the biggest centers of Islamic scholarship at the time, and that he learnt from renowned scholars and was a devout Muslim himself. Muhammad al-Bukhari created his book because he wanted to contribute to his faith by collecting the correct norms and dismissing unreliable details or stories.
Next, when one decides to explore this primary source, one will discover that it conveys factual, biographical information about the life of Islamic prophet Muhammad as well as information about the reaction of Heraclius (Eastern Roman Emperor) to the invitation o of Muhammad’s people to convert to Islam. Whereas some details of the talk between Heraclius and the narrator cannot be verified, others can. For example, Kaegi in his book Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium, cites reliable primary sources to prove that Heraclius practiced astrology (Kaegi 31). In the source, facts are intertwined with opinion. The opinions found in hadiths are all favorable of Muhammad so that the stories conveyed by different narrators come as united by a single idea of Muhammad’s chastity, generosity, fairness, and piety.
It is not said in this source why this or that narrator is selected for inclusion by the author. Some narrators are members of the prophet’s family while others are not, and it is not clear what criteria were used by Muhammad al-Bukhari when giving voice to this or that person. It is interesting that in this source one may find contradictions. For example, in one hadith it is said that Khadija’s cousin Waraqa who believed prophet Muhammad “became a Christian” during the pre-Islamic period whereas in another hadith it is said that Khadija’s relative did not practice the religion that the people at that town practiced. Another thing that surprised me is that some stories seem abrupt and the logical chain seems to break. For instance, in Aisha’s hadith it is not said whether Muhammad began reading after the angle pressed him in the cave. In this source, there are things that are still unclear to me. For example, it is unclear why Muhammad is reported not to harm only Muslims if the Jews and Christians are also recognized as following a similar faith and these religions are believed to share the same prophets (by Muslims). It would have been logical for the prophet to urge his people not to harm all those who believed in the same God.
Additionally, the information is conveyed from the first person of view in each hadith. This enhances the credibility of the source and creates the effect of first-hand account. Moreover, the creator of the source tries to appeal to the emotions and religious belief of his audience. For example, he describes Muhammad as a human being who is not devoid of fear, doubt, and inner struggle. At the same time, he is presented as brave enough to embrace the mission bestowed upon him. What is more, by mentioning the religious figures (such as the angel), the author appeals to the religious belief of his readers.
Also, if to evaluate this source, one should say that it is reliable only to a certain extent. On the hand, it conveys information that seems truthful and is confirmed by other sources. On the other hand, it conveys information which cannot be verified, is not provided in Quran, and is based on aural accounts which may well be just gossips. If to compare this source to Quran, it is not as reliable as the latter. It does not include any comments from the author as to the reliability of the stories included, and it has many illogical moments.
Overall, Hadith of Bukhari is an important primary source of Islam, because it provides an insight into the origins of the religion and on the personality of prophet Muhammad. At the same time, it should be read with caution because of the narrators’ unreliability and possible author bias.