The notion of prioritizing reports about the Prophet was inherently objectionable in their eyes, and a scheme to incorporate hadiths into a legal structure raised an even more fundamental objection. They thought it was wrong to write down hadiths at all. Books in their view could only befuddle belief. The assumptions that underlay that opinion are hard to know for sure – not least, because no one holding them put them in writing – but countless chroniclers attest to its existence. Abu Bakr had reportedly doubted the wisdom of writing down even the Qur’an. Human literature of a lesser sort seemed pure folly.
Such ideas feel atavistic today, and it is easy to characterize them as superstitions or to reduce them to a fear of change. The invention of the printing press once produced similarly dire predictions television sets were more recently expected to destroy the moral fibre of baby boomers; and some commentators tut-tut today about the brain-rotting potential of the internet. But though complaints are always tiresome when they turn into moral panics, the move away from an oral culture carries genuinely far-reaching consequences.
That truth was well reflected a thousand years before the advent of Islam in a fable that Plato put into the mouth of Socrates. It told how Thoth, the ibis-headed god of ancient Egypt, had invented writing and offered it up to the king of Thebes (Alexandria) as an elixir of memory and wisdom – only for the monarch to complain that it was actually a recipe for forgetfulness and stupidity. Thoth’s innovation would encourage people to remember words rather than what they signified, warned the king, and promote the delusion that knowledge could be acquired without a teacher. Socrates, who famously wrote nothing himself, knew the limits of literature. Once a story has to be structured to convey a lesson, it loses buoyancy. A text read alone is no substitute for social interaction. And attempts to describe a truth can sap energies that would otherwise be used searching for it.