Sunday, July 08, 2007

Isnad: An Arabic term meaning the 'chain of transmissions' by which one has recieved knowledge, primarily hadiths about the Prophet Muhammad but, by extension, about other major events, figures or information. The idea likely derives from Talmudic scholars who share the practice, and was likely introduced to Islam by converts. It's a interesting concept actually; when you discuss a scholar's isnad, what you're doing is validating his credentials by putting him within a web of knowledge transmission. In many Muslim chronicles and biographies, and obviously in a hadith, the isnad is crucial.

By contrast, we tend to judge genius by the its amount of uniqueness or originality. When we discuss great scholars, what we value are the intellectual and imaginative leaps they have made. They are validated not by tradition, but by the idea of intellectual rupture or discontinuity. Even within schools of thought, we use terms like doctrinaire and dogmatist to indicate a lack of originality. Conversely, we are perhaps overly accepting of ''original'' thinkers whose work is incorrect or incoherent.

I'm not sure that isnad is a better concept than genius; however, it does seem to better describe what it is that we actually do in scholarship. We stand upon the shoulders of giants and perhaps see something that they have yet to comment upon. However, the dream of regular radical breaks in scholarship is not only unrealistic and romantic; it might also discourage erudition.

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