Dr. Laher opened his lecture with a broad explanation of the term tawatur for his diverse audience, all of whom were not well-versed in Islamic Studies. He stated that when you have the “same information coming to you from different sources – at one point, you attain certainty.” Of course, it is at times difficult to identify at which point one achieves such a level of confidence, but there are several factors that are involved, including the identity of the source.
Dr. Laher traced the beginning of this concept from the time of the Greek empiricists who intuitively relied on it for certitude about knowledge of distant lands and historical events. As far as Muslims are concerned, he said that it was introduced and elaborated in the second century A.H. by the Mu’tazilites (Muslim rationalists). Over time, this group of Muslims “became marginalized, came to be known as deviant, outside of Ahl-al-Sunnah – yet the concept became permeated throughout all Muslims [by the fourth to fifth centuries] irrespective of sect or
school of thought. Even the Jews and Christians talked about it.”
In addition, it expanded from the original discourse on theology to the sciences of hadith and fiqh. However, how it was conceptualized and applied from one discipline to another mattered. Whereas tawatur is an intellectual exercise in usul al fiqh, it takes on practical dimensions in usul al hadith. “When one applies theoretical definitions in hadith, the result is confusion which is where the term ‘twisted threads’ comes from,” Dr. Laher said.
He added that the notion of tawatur is often associated with hadith literature – whether a hadith’s chain of transmission makes it reliable. Different scholars established various classifications to ensure reliability – for instance, Suyuti decided that if a hadith is narrated by 10 sahabah, then it is mutawatur. A mutawatur hadith is widely narrated and very reliable, but not at the level of the Qur’an.
In modern times, the concept of tawatur is reflected in the widespread concern that culture has ‘corrupted’ religion. Hence, the concept of tawatur continues to be “important and relevant,” expressed Dr. Laher.