Formerly “A Rhetorical Analysis of the Hadith”, which sounded way too stuffy.
Rhetoric can be best described as the art of persuasion. It may sound intimidating, but many of us use rhetoric in our daily lives without even knowing it. If you’ve ever read a quote or heard a speech that, for some reason, just sounded right, then odds are its author employed various rhetorical tropes to make it memorable. The direct translation of the word “hadith” into English is “saying”. The hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are seasoned with many fine examples of rhetoric. Most are bursting with simplicity and yet subtle in their complexity.
In this ongoing series I’ll be examining various hadiths from a rhetorical standpoint to why they are so effective and memorable. Now, it’s important to remember that the Prophet (pbuh) was not a poet, a magician, or a madman. He was illiterate, detested sorcery and its practice, and was well-known for his truthfulness and his superb character. As God says in the Qur’an, “Muhammad is but a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) have passed away before him.” (3:144). He was a man of humility and sincerity. It’s also important to note that these are merely translations from the original Arabic hadiths, and so there may be slight variations between different translations.
So, for starters, lets look at the following hadiths:
“Fear Allah wherever you are, and follow up a bad deed with a good deed and it will wipe it out, and behave well towards people.”
The Prophet (pbuh) was always known for his conciseness in speech, and this is one of his most shining examples. It is simple, straight to the point, and yet poignant in its wisdom. It is a fantastic example of clear, concise speech. It cannot be pared down or simplified any more than it already is. His instructions are straightforward and clear, and consist of no useless adjectives or adverbs. He always instructed his followers to speak clearly and concisely, and chastised them for using flowery language in their every-day conversations. The sentence consists of three separate clauses joined by the coordinating conjunction “and”. By using “and”, he gives equal importance to all three clauses, meaning we should not disregard any of them in our daily lives. As always, his advice is practical.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would frequently clarify what he said by providing examples, such as the following:
“Each person’s joint must perform a charity every day the sun comes up: to act between two people is charity; to help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it is a charity; a good word is a charity; every step you take to prayers is a charity; and removing a harmful thing from the road is charity.”
Epistrophe falls under a group of rhetorical schemes called “schemes of repetition”, and is characterized by a repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses. As we see in this hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) repeats the phrase “is charity” at the end of each clause. Some narrations place the phrase at the beginning of each clause (“A charity is…”), in which case this would be classified as anaphora. Regardless of its position, the repetition of the phrase helps to clarify his opening statement that “each person’s joint must perform a charity every day”. As is always the case, the examples he provides are practical and can be engaged in one’s everyday life. Even something as simple as a good word is considered charity. This also highlights the practicality and easiness of faith; had he said “donate money every day for charity”, then that would be too great a burden on many people, especially the poor.
And, finally, my favourite:
“The Merciful One shows mercy to those who are themselves merciful (to others). So show mercy to whatever is on earth, then He who is in heaven will show mercy to you.”
This is one of my most favourite hadiths because it is profound in its wisdom yet simple in its execution. The keyword “mercy” and its variations are used five times, appearing first as a noun phrase (“The Merciful One”), three times as a verb phrase (“show mercy”) and once as an adjective (“merciful”). Using multiple variations of a key word is a rhetorical scheme known as polyptoton, and is one of the more difficult schemes to use properly. Yet the Prophet (pbuh) used it masterfully and in such a way that it does not come off as repetitive. The second sentence is both a classical “cause and effect” relationship and an example of a rhetorical comparison by degree. By showing mercy to everything on earth in this life (the “lesser life”), we will be shown mercy by God in the hereafter (the “afterlife”).