Islamic Emails

There is an intriguing parallel between communication in Islamic law and communication via internet. A parallel where no-tech meets high-tech. You can see it when you compare the structure of an email with the structure of a hadith (stressed on the long “ee” vowel), i.e. a legally relevant quote from the prophet Muhammad. Both serve the purpose of authorized message sending. But why the internet, you will ask, every letter does that. Of course every letter does that, but a letter is different, firstly because it is usually addressed to only one person or group, and secondly letters have no isnad. No what? OK, let’s start at the beginning:

Beginning from about 610 A.D. Muhammad received the Qur’an and became a prophet. As the years went by it became clear to the people from Medina and from Mekka that a new era with a new culture and language and legal system had dawned and that all this manifested in the prophet. So they started memorizing and writing down whatever Muhammad said and did, for they knew it would be an important guidance and legend for later generations. But how could they preserve the exact wording of what Muhammad said? You must know that the Arabs at that time were very accurate about texts and wordings. So they invented and developed the hadith and the khabar systems, hadith for the information from the prophet, and khabar for other historical information. The structure was basically the same, only in hadith they had to be even more precise as it was the second-highest ranking source of jurisprudence and jurisdiction. A single hadith consists of two elements: the message (matn) and the chain of transmitters (isnad, stressed on the long “a” vowel). Thus a hadith basically has a form like this:

Yahya bin Sa’id al-Ansari said: Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Taimi said: ‘Alqamah said: ‘Umar said: the Prophet said: “Actions are to be judged by their intentions”.

Five people are in the chain of authorities here, this is the first part, the isnad, then follows the message. If it was not for the chain of transmitters, there would not be much of a parallel between hadith and emailing. But when you forward a message to your friend and when your friend forwards it further you create a chain of transmitters which is even more precise than the one in hadith.

Nice for a chuckle, you might think, but think about it again. We are not talking about anecdotes here, this is about the way we deal with information in general, this is epistemology. The hadith technique is reviving in email communication. The interesting bit is the authenticity of the chain. Because of the technical circumstances people hardly doubt the originality of the chain of transmitters and their identities. Of course email identities are not completely safe and can be highjacked, but the same holds true for hadiths. Some of them are controversial and some were simply made up in later times. Such is life. In the general discourse, however, this is not a major issue or obstacle. We also have the expectation that the text of a forwarded email is authentic, and why shouldn’t we? In case of doubt we can even ask the earlier chain members. Here is an example of forwarding:

Newspaper E said: journalist D said: politician C said: peace activist B said: opinion leader A said: “Let’s sign this statement.”

Differently from email forwarding, the chain of transmitters in hadith normally consists of people from different generations. One of the main motivations for hadith was to preserve the words through time. Thus the above Arab chain needed more than a hundred years to be generated. In forwarding, on the other hand, the chain of transmitters serves the purpose - in the cases it serves a purpose at all - to trace a message back to the originator and to pass on authorized information in no-time.

This is possible since the the virtual public was invented with mailme persons. Mailme persons (or even mailme celebrities) are networking people like journalists or politicians or artists who have a publically known email address and thus a public identity (including reputation etc.) similar to the hadith transmitters then. Of course they do not all share the same discourse, as hadith transmitters did, but the analogy seems to make sense for example in peace networking where idealistic motivations prevail.

It is a recognition system and part of the augmented public we call the virtual world. Homepage messages are similar. You can quote them. This is no-tech communication in a high-tech mantle. Welcome, internet, to Islamic epistemology! (German version)

Anis Hamadeh, Kiel - Germany

Anis Online is a journalistic art website in German, English, and Arabic with about 730 pages. It contains music, poetry and prose, essays, children’s stories, satires, interviews, media criticism, Palestiniana, Orient Online, drawings, an Elvis page, and a lot more.