The Sunnah and the Orientalists: A Critical Examination of Joseph Schacht’s theory
This article outlines the meaning and usage of the word sunna, explains Schacht’s theory on the meaning of the sunna, analyses his sources and the examines validity of his arguments. Finally it looks at the implications that arise from Schacht’s theory. The article draws extensively on M. Mustafa al-Azami’s excellent book, On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence.
Lexically, sunna refers to the “flow and continuity of a thing with ease and smoothness” (taken from Ansari, 1972:259)1. This original usage of the word paved the way for Lane’s definition; “a way, course, rule or manner, of acting or conduct of life or the like… whether good or bad; approved or disapproved…a way that has been instituted or pursued by former people, and has become one pursued by those after them” (taken from Zarabozo, 2000:8). Prior to Shafi’i, sunna was often used in its lexical sense for example: “the sunna of ‘Umar, the sunna of Muslims,…the sunna of women” (Azami, 1996:32-33).
Bravemann defines sunna in juxtaposition to sira, stating sira means “the manner of proceeding…applied with respect to a certain affair”, [whereas sunna] describes ‘this manner of proceeding’ as something which has been established, instituted (by a certain individual)” (1972:169).
In its technical sense, sunna has a number of different meanings. According to the jurists, the sunna is a recommended act, also commonly known as mandub. Hence an act of the Prophet which was either obligatory upon the Muslim, or permissible, would not be ‘sunna’ according to the jurists.
According to the scholars of hadith, sunna is “what has been passed down from the Prophet , peace be upon him, of his statements, actions, tacit approvals, manners, physical characteristics, or biography, regardless of whether it was before he was sent as a prophet or afterwards” (Zarabozo, 2000:15).
The definition that interests us for the purpose of this essay is that given by legal theorists, which is: the statements, actions, and tacit approvals of the Prophet, after he received revelation, but not including the Qur’an .This definition which excludes the Prophet’s physical characteristics and biography, is alluded to in the hadith: “whoever avoids my sunna is not from me”. The sunna, according to this definition is a source of Islamic law, equal to that of the Qur’an with regard to rulings and obligatory to follow. The Prophet said: “I am leaving you two things, if you stick to them, you will never go astray, the Book of Allah, and the sunna of His Prophet2”
Any discussion about the meaning and usage of the word sunna is not complete until we discuss the relationship between the word hadith and sunna. Azami defines hadith as “narrations about or from the Prophet” (1977: 3). Some consider the word sunna synonymous with hadith.. However HJasan holds that the two are different in that:
However, only those hadith that meet the strict requirements for authenticity can be considered as conveying a sunna.
This synonymous use of the hadith and sunna, occurred after the time when ‘hadith’ had become restricted exclusively to the narrations of the Prophet, and ‘sunna’ likewise was restricted to the practice of the Prophet (Kamali, 2003: 61). Prior to Shafi’i, the words hadith and sunna were not always used interchangeably. For Malik, the sunna was established on the basis of the practice (or‘amal) of the people of Madinah with the caveat that the ‘amal was accepted by the scholars of Madinah (Ansari, 1991: 490). Joseph Schacht was an orientalist writer who originated from Holland. His two works; ‘An introduction to Islamic Law’ and ‘The origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence’ are considered by many orientalists to be the most important works on Islamic Jurisprudence in the 20th century.
Schacht believes that the ‘ancient schools of law’ developed in the first few decades of the second century after Hijrah (1982: 28). These ancient schools were located in Iraq (Kufa and Basra), Hijaz (Madinah and Makkah) and Syria (1982: 28). Of these, the schools of Madinah and Kufa, being identified with Malik, and Abu Hanifa respectively, were the most important. Malik took much of his fiqh, albeit indirectly, from the seven jurists of Madinah (Dutton, 2002:13). Abu Yusuf (d182H) and MuhJammad al-Shaybani (d185H) were two of the famous Kufan students of Abu HJanifa (d150H).
Schacht believes that “the early concept of sunna was that of the customary or generally agreed upon practice, what he calls the ‘living tradition’ ” (Azami, 1996: 36) which coincided “with the accepted doctrine of the school” (Azami, 1996: 67). The early concept of sunna had no connection at all with the Prophet. The ‘living tradition’ was a mixture of foreign legal elements and local practices, which had been Islamicized, and termed ‘sunna’ (Masud, 1995:10).
These ancient schools of law were opposed by a group of traditionalists who fabricated hadith to support their doctrines (Azami, 1996:2). The ancient schools of law, despite their strong resistance to hadith were unable to counter them, so they responded with their own fabrications. They projected the living tradition back to “great figures of the past” (Azami, 1992:251), such as senior Successors,
and later on to the Companions. Eventually the living tradition was projected ‘back into the mouth of the Prophet’ (Azami, 1996:2 and 37). These ancient schools merely “renamed their living tradition… and called it the sunna of the Prophet” (Azami, 1996:104). The concept of the ‘sunna of the Prophet’ was thus a later invention, introduced by the Iraqi scholars “towards the end of the first century” (Azami, 1996: 29). Hence there was a shift in the meaning of ‘sunna from ‘living tradition’, unrelated to the Prophet, to the traditions of the Prophet, the latter being all fabrications (Dutton, 2002: 172).
Schacht accepts that ‘sunna’ was used shortly after the Prophet, but it referred to the practice of the first two caliphs, “providing a doctrinal link between the sunna of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar and the KJoran” (1982: 125) and only later on was it applied to the ‘practice of the Prophet (Bravemann, 1972: 125). Hence its initial use was political and not legal.
Schacht asserts that there is no evidence of any hadith relating to Islamic law in the first century (Esposito, 1998: 81) and any Prophetic hadith regarding Islamic law must therefore have been fabricated. He limits ‘Islamic law’ to civil and criminal law ignoring rules relating to ritual worship within the definition (Maghen, 2003:296). Given that Schacht acknowledged that many rules relating to ritual worship were derived from the Qur’an from the beginning (Dutton, 1991: 1), to include ritual worship within the definition of Islamic law would demolish his theory that Islamic law was non existent in the first century.
To prove his claim that “the early concept of sunna was that of the customary or generally agreed upon practice” (Azami, 1996: 36) which was unconnected in anyway with the Prophet, Schacht uses the works of Margoliouth, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and works from the Medinese, Syrian and Iraqi schools.
He states that “Margoliouth has concluded that sunna as a principle of law meant originally the ideal or normative usage of the community and only later acquired the restricted meaning of the precedents set by the Prophet” (taken from Azami, 1996: 37). However the majority of references he takes from Margoliouth in fact refer to the sunna of the Prophet, thus contradicting the position of Margoliouth and hence Schacht.
An example used by Margoliouth is: “The letter of ‘Uthman to Meccan in 35 A.H. [in which ‘Uthman states] ‘The good norm [sunna] which has been initiated by the Prophet and (then) the two Caliphs after him’ ” (taken from Azami, 1996: 38). ‘Uthman, who died in the early part of the first century, describes this ‘good sunna’ as originating from the Prophet, as well as the two Caliphs after him. This
disproves Schacht’s contention that, in the first century, the ‘sunna’ had no connection with the Prophet. Although Margoliouth argues that the ‘sunna’ was a only vague term referring to something customary, it is clear from the context in which the word is used, that it in fact refers to something specific, namely the practice of the Prophet (Azami, 1996:40).
In addition, most of the examples quoted by Schacht, date back to the “the first half of the first century (Azami, 1996: 37) contradicting his thesis that the ascription of sunna to the Prophet was an invention of the second century.
From the writings Ibn al-Muqaffa’, Schacht concludes that he believed that the sunna was based on the “administrative regulations of the Ummaiyyad (sic) government” (taken from Azami, 1996: 41), and hence it was unconnected with the sunna of the Prophet. However his writings show the opposite of Schacht’s claims. Ibn al-Muqaffa’ criticises those who shed blood using the sunna as justification. He complains that the sunna they refer to is not the way of the Prophet, but rather, it is the ‘sunna’ of one of the ‘Umayyad governors (taken from Azami, 1996: 42). It is clear that he believes that the only sunna to be followed should be that of the Prophet (or the rightly guided Caliphs) and not the decision of an Umayyad governor. In an even clearer example, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ states that “the caliph should attend carefully to seeing that they [the army] learn the Book [of God] and acquire knowledge of the sunna” (taken from Azami, 1996: 41).
With regards to the Medinese school, Schacht brings five examples from the works of Malik and his students to show that their understanding of the ‘sunna’ was “the ‘practice’ or ‘living tradition’ of the school” (Azami, 1996: 43) and not the traditions of the Prophet. For example, Schacht brings the following quote from SahJnun’s Mudawwana:
Schacht intends to use this quote to make two points; firstly that Malik ignored the two traditions transmitted by Ibn Wahb. Secondly, SahJnun had quoted the traditions of Ibn Wahb and the practice of the four Caliphs and senior Successors, demonstrating that he considered the sunna to be nothing more than the practice of the people of Madinah (Azami, 1996: 49).
However, Malik in his Muwatta’ “reports … that the Prophet prayed Zuhr and ‘Asr as well as Maghrib and ‘Isha’ together without being in any fear of war or on a journey (taken from Azami, 1996: 49-50).
Hence the action of joining prayers due to rain (or other causes) is a sunna according to Malik based upon the above hadith. SahJnun also quotes a Prophetic hadith to support his claim but Schacht fails to mention either Malik’s or SahJnun’s reference to the Prophetic hadith (Azami, 1996: 50). Hence this example used by Schacht is not valid as he excludes key information in his argument. When the relevant quotes from the Muwatta’ and the Mudawwana are given, they not only falsify Schacht’s claim, but prove the opposite, namely that the sunna according to Malik was a clearly defined concept; the practice of the Prophet.
There are instances where Malik relates a hadith, but then states that he follows the ‘amal, which is in contradiction to the hadith (Dutton, 2002: 49). An example of this is the hadith pertaining to the right to withdraw from a sale while the two parties are still together. Malik responds to this hadith by saying that there is no “established practice [of the people of Madinah] regarding it” (taken from Dutton, 2002: 49). Malik took this position because he considered the ‘amal of the people of Madinah as the best indicator of the sunna of the Prophet, and not because he rejected the concept of the sunna. In cases where ‘amal and hadith conflicted, ‘amal took priority. In his letter to al- Layth ibn Sa’d, Malik states:
Malik here, clearly derives the authority of the ‘amal of the people of Madinah from the Prophet himself due to the direct link between ‘amal and the practice of the Prophet.
Schacht argues that according to the Iraqi school, ‘sunna’ meant established religious practice (Azami, 1996: 52) and not the practice of the Prophet. Rather than quote the Iraqi scholars directly, Schacht quotes a summary of the Iraqi position by Shafi’i, a critic of the Iraqi school (Azami, 1996: 52). It is more just, when critically analysing an author’s work, to refer to it directly, rather than to
refer to a summary produced by the author’s opponent. The latter approach ruins any objectivity or fairness. Despite this inherently biased approach, Schacht’s argument doesn’t hold. He gives the example of the Iraqi statement attributed to ‘Ali: “Pray four rak’a on the occasion of ‘Id in the mosque. Two rak’a for the sake of the sunna, and two rak’a for not having gone outside the mosque to pray [as is normally done]” (taken from Azami, 1996: 53). Schacht concludes that the Iraqis refer to the sunna to support their argument, but they fail to bring any relevant hadith (Azami, 1996: 53).
The claim that the ‘two rak’a for the sake of the sunna’ on ‘Id was an ‘established practice’ unrelated to the Prophet (as no hadith was mentioned to state otherwise), begs the question, who instituted the practice of the ‘Id prayer (Azami, 1996: 53). I do not believe that even Schacht would argue that the ‘Id prayer was an invention of the Iraqis, and later falsely attributed by them to the Prophet. Hence the example used by Schacht does not support his claim.
There are numerous examples which prove that the Iraqi and Medinese scholars gave over-riding importance to the sunna. Malik said “…so thoroughly investigate my opinion, then take whatever agrees with the Book and the sunna, and reject whatever contradicts them” (taken from Phillips, 1990: 121). Abu Yusuf in his introduction to Kitab al-Kharaj quotes a number of hadith which emphasis following the sunna of the Prophet (Faruqi, 1992:398). In al-Radd ‘ala Siyar al- Auza’i, Abu Yusuf uses the word ‘hadith’ 25 times, in 23 of these he refers to solely to the Prophet (Ansari, 1972: 256).
When Abu HJanifa was asked: “Why do you not raise you hands just before ruku’ and after?” he replied: “there is no recorded word or action of the Messenger of God, may Allah grant him peace, to authenticate this” (taken from al-‘Alwani, 1993: 59). Although, in this example, Abu HJanifa did not use the word ‘sunna’, it is clear that he was alluding to its concept. Failure to find evidence of the
terminological use of the concept of the sunna does not imply that the concept does not exist (Ansari, 1972: 299). Although the word sunna appears in the Qur’an sixteen times, nowhere does the Qur’an mention the term ‘sunna of the Prophet’ (Ansari, 1972: 261-2). However over 50 verses allude to the concept of the sunna of the Prophet (Zarabozo, 2000:257).
Regarding the Syrian school (of Auza’i) Schacht holds that “the continuous practice of the Muslims is the decisive element, reference to the Prophet…is optional, but not necessary for establishing it” (taken from Azami, 1996: 64). Schacht brings fifty cases from Auza’i’s treatise to prove his thesis. However only in 30% of cases does Auza’i refer to the continuous practice of the Muslims (Azami, 1996: 65). Hence it is incorrect to state ‘the continuous practice of the Muslims is the decisive element’. Almost half of all cases make direct reference to Prophetic hadith, refuting Schacht’s assertion that ‘reference to the Prophet [is] optional’ (Azami, 1996: 65). Further evidence that Auza’i adhered to the sunna of the Prophet is provided by Faruqi who states that Auza’i held that “the opinion and actions of a faqih must be in conformity with the hadith and that the faqih didn’t have the option to apply any other method of reasoning when there was a clear hadith available to him” (1992:399).
Schacht’s explanations of the origins of ‘practice’ are confusing and contradictory. He argues that the “popular and administrative practices of the late Umayyad period was transformed into the religious law of Islam” (taken from (Maghen, 2003:283) by the official qadis who made judgements “basing themselves on customary practice which…incorporated administrative regulations and taking the letter and spirit of the kJoranic regulations…into account” (taken from Maghen, 2003:282). The conclusion is not clear; the sunna is ‘living tradition’ derived from the practices of the Umayyads which in turn is based upon ‘customary practice’ which incorporates ‘administrative regulations’ and the ‘letter and spirit of kJoranic regulations’. Furthermore, the latter statement is then contradicted by Schacht’s assertion that “…the ancient schools of law…took the kJoranic norms seriously for the first time [i]n contrast with what had been the case in the first century of Islam…” (Maghen, 2003:285). Either the first century qadis were basing their judgments on Qur’anic regulations, (which also contradicts his belief that Islamic law did not exist in the first century) (Maghen, 2003:285), or the Qur’an as a source of legislation was only used in the second century. Both cannot be true.
We will now examine the evidence presented by Schacht for his assertion that the ancient schools of law initially resisted the authority of the hadith. Schacht brings certain principles that he claims, were used by the ancient schools, to disparage hadith. We have already shown that the schools of Madinah and Iraq gave utmost priority to hadith, and hence the sunna, but they differed in the principles and
rules used for accepting hadith. These principles were not used to disparage hadith, they were used as a criteria for the admissibility and authenticity of the hadith. Two examples will highlight this point.
Schacht lists eight means which the Medinese used to reject hadith (Azami, 1996: 80). Three out of eight means listed relate to the Medinese giving priority to narrations of the Companions over hadith from the Prophet (Azami, 1996: 80). However Malik would doubt the authenticity of a hadith if a Companion was known to act in opposition to it. The Companions’ practice was a criteria for authenticating hadith (Ansari, 1991: 491-492) and not a means for rejecting hadith.
He also mentions eight rules that the Iraqis used to oppose hadith (taken from Azami, 1996: 86). One such rule is the rejection of any hadith that contradict the Qur’an (taken from Azami, 1996: 87). However this is a principle used by Hanafi’s in dealing with apparently contradictory texts. Abu HJanifa would reject a solitary hadith if it came into conflict with stronger evidence (such as an apparent verse of the Qur’an) rather than to reconcile the two (Syamsuddin, 2001: 264). Solitary hadith could not specify the meaning of a Qur’anic verse, as they were considered to be in contradiction to it. (Syamsuddin, 2001: 265). Hence in the case of a conflict, the solitary hadith was considered to be inauthentic.
The idea that the ancient schools of law resisted hadith also contradicts his ‘el silento principle’; “the best way of proving that a tradition did not exist at a certain time is to show that it was not used as a legal argument in a discussion which would have made reference to it imperative, if it had existed” (taken from Azami, 1996: 78). If the ancient schools of law were hostile to hadith, why would they quote them in legal arguments? (Azami, 1996: 78).
We will now discuss Schacht’s assertion that having failed to resist the growing importance of hadith, the ancient schools of law projected the living tradition ‘back into the mouth of the Prophet’ (Azami, 1996:2 and 37).
Schacht claims that Auza’i gives the continuous practice of the Muslims the authority of the Prophet, irrespective of whether a Prophetic narration exists or not (Azami, 1996: 65). However on examining the fifty cases from Auza’i, that Schacht quotes, it is clear that Auza’i is very particular about referencing his sources. He clearly differentiates between the statements of the Prophet, that of the four rightly guided Caliphs, the practice of the Muslims, and his own opinion (Azami, 1996: 65). Hence Auza’i does not give the authority of the Prophet to the practice of the Muslims, rather he clearly differentiates between the two.
In addition, Abu Yusuf agrees with Auza’i’s authentication of the majority of hadith (Azami, 1996: 106). If Auza’i was projecting back the practice of the Syrian school ‘into the mouth of the Prophet’, Abu Yusuf would not have agreed with him on authenticity of these hadith (Azami, 1996: 106) as they would merely represent the opinions of Auza’i (many of which Abu Yusuf disputes).
However, Abu Yusuf does dispute Auza’i’s interpretation of these hadith. If they had both agreed on the interpretation and the authenticity of the hadith, the argument that they had both projected their living traditions back to the Prophet might have tenable, although how they would have independently fabricated the same hadith, takes some stretch of the imagination (Azami, 1996: 106). The fact that they agreed on the authenticity, whilst differing on their interpretation, shows that the hadith could not have originated from the practice of these two schools. They must have come far earlier, from the Prophet himself (Azami, 1996: 106).
The contention that the entire body of legal hadith is fabricated can also be disproved from a number of angles:
Firstly that scholars from many opposing theological sects, agreed on a large body of legal hadith (Azami, 1992:243). It is inconceivable that these various sects, while pronouncing their opponents to be heretics, or even disbelievers, would conspire with these same opponents to fabricate hundreds of hadith.
Secondly even for scholars of the same theological persuasion, the task of fabrication on the scale the Schacht is suggesting would also be impossible. Azami mentions that often one tradition from the Prophet had, by the early part of the second century, dozens of narrators in over ten separate cities and even countries. With the rudimentary communication systems that existed at that time, the task of fabricating one hadith, so that each narrator in each location reports it exactly (or to its nearest meaning), would be a momentous task. For these narrators, many of whom were widely known for their piety and integrity, to carry out this forgery for all legal hadith, and without anyone noticing, or raising an objection is a ludicrous proposition (1992:230).
In fact, when Ahmed ibn Hanbal asked the Caliph to bring forward just one hadith to support the claim that the Qur’an was created, neither he, nor his scholars were able to do so (Azami, 1996: 2). HJadith fabricators rarely went undetected. As Nabia Abbot stated: “Deliberate tampering with the either the contents or the isnad’s of the Prophets traditions… may have passed undetected by ordinary
transmitters, but not by the aggregate of the ever watchful, basically honest, and aggressively outspoken master traditionalists and hadith critics” (taken from SJiddiqi, 1993: 38).
Thirdly, there exist of a number of hadith collections from the first century. One such book is the Sahifah of Hammam bin Munabbih, a student of Abu Hurayrah. The book containing 138 hadith, with isnad , was written in the early part of the first century (Hamidullah, 2003). There is also the Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al- San’ani.
To justify the thesis that all legal hadith were fabricated, Schacht has to also prove that isnad‘s were also fabricated. He claims that isnad’s were put together arbitrarily and carelessly, that over time isnad’s were improved and completed, and that new and additional isnad’s were added to strengthen solitary reports (Azami, 1996). However rather than using hadith literature to critically examine isnad’s, he relies on sira and fiqh literature. To study the phenomena of isnad using fiqh and sira literature inevitably leads to an incorrect conclusion as scholars of fiqh and sira would often omit the isnad or part of the isnad for the sake of brevity and flow of text (Azami, 1996: 183).
Schacht’s alleges that the Iraqi school of law projected the living tradition ‘back into the mouth of the Prophet and that the concept of the ‘sunna of the Prophet’ was a later invention, introduced by the Iraqi scholars “towards the end of the first century” (Azami, 1996: 29). To support these two hypotheses he refers to the case of a runaway slave who is recaptured by his master. Abu Yusuf disagrees
with Auza’i’s view that the Imam could either behead or crucify the recaptured slave stating that “there is no executed sunna from the Prophet to this effect” (taken from Azami, 1996: 107). It is clear that Abu Yusuf opposes Auza’i because Auza’i has no Prophetic hadith (or ‘executed sunna’ as he puts it) to base his fatwa on. This in no way shows that the Iraqis had been the first to invent the concept of the sunna.
Given that according to Schacht, there were no legal traditions in the first century, and that also in 140H, it is known that Abu HJanifa made “a clear statement about the overruling authority of the sunna of the Prophet” it follows that in the space of less than 40 years (from 100H to 140H) the following activities must have taken place: (Azami, 1992:252).
Obviously, for all of these activities to have occurred in less than half a century is clearly untenable.
Schacht’s argues that ‘sunna’ initially referred to the practice of the first two caliphs, in the context of choosing a successor to ‘Umar. Only later on did ‘sunna’ refer to the practice of the Prophet, with ‘sira’ then being used to refer to the ‘practice of the two caliphs (Bravemann, 1972: 125). However the narration of al-Baladuri in Ansab al Asraf concerning Uthman’s oath mentions that Uthman swore to “act in accordance with the sira of the Messenger (bi sirati Rasuli-llahi) wa’ Abi Bakrin wa ‘Umara” (taken from Bravemann, 1972: 125-6). The term ‘bi sirati Rasuli-llahi’ refers specifically to the Prophet, and not the practice of the community (Bravemann, 1972: 129) showing Uthman knew the concept of the sunna of the Prophet. Also it is significant that the practice of the Prophet was
termed ‘sira’, and the term ‘sunna’ was not used in this particular context, thus refuting Schacht’s argument that the ‘sunna’ provided “a doctrinal link between the sunna of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar and the Koran” (taken from Bravemann, 1972: 128).
Braveman also refutes Schacht’s claim that sunna originally referred to the custom of the community and only later came to mean the example of a single individual, i.e. the Prophet (1972: 151-5). He examines the word ‘sanna’ (derived from sunna), and from a number of examples he shows that sanna is used in the context of a:
A number of implications arise from Schacht’s false theory.
All legal traditions from the Prophet are fabricated. By extension all non legal hadith (e.g. those pertaining to belief, exegesis, etc) are also likely to be fabricated. Hence there are no authentic books of hJadith.
As a corollary, the religious and legal practices of the Muslims have no connection whatsoever with the teachings of the Prophet
Third, the sunna is based on (as Schacht alludes to elsewhere), Hebrew and Roman laws (Maghen, 2003: 296-7).
Fourth, the scholars of this era were all dishonest, and had no qualms about lying against the Prophet. The sciences of jarh wa ta’dil, ilm ar-rijal, and the extensive journeying were merely a cover for this mass fabrication.
Fifth, the Companions did not consider the words and actions of the Prophet as legally binding (Ansari, 1992:157).
Sixth, either the Prophet did not bother to ensure that the Companions preserved his sunna, or he did, but they failed to do so. The latter went undetected by the Prophet.
Seventh, from the death of the Prophet, up to the second century, there was a legal vacuum (Esposito, 1998:81), as no legal hadith existed.
Seventh given that the sunna was not preserved, the Qur’an orders us to do the impossible; to implement the numerous verses of that command us to follow and obey the Prophet.
When we examine the implications of Schachts theory, it is clear that this jewish orientalist who wrote The origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence’s, a book replete with contradictions, overgeneralisations, arbitrary use of source material, unwarranted assumptions, mistake of facts, and misinterpretation of the meanings of texts quoted, did so in order to destroy the very edifice of Islam.
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