Islamic Perspectives

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The Sacred Hadith Project

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat


In the first two Islamic centuries there were Muslims who downgraded Hadith to varying degrees making the Holy Qur'an in effect the only source of Islamic guidance/law, completely self-sufficient. Recently many writers are arguing for the same Qur'an-only position. On the other hand, from the first century on there have also been people who insisted that the Sunnah or the Hadith is an independent source for Islamic guidance/law. At some point this position became the majority position, if it was not always so. For the first two centuries Hadith existed with teachers of Hadith, some in written documents and some in oral form only. But in the third century it began to be collected in more comprehensive books. Gradually Hadith came to be identified with particular collections of ahadith. These collections were viewed as substantially reliable historical records of what the Prophet said and did. Today Muslim views vary between the position that the Qur'an is the only source of Islamic guidance/law and the position that the ahadith found in the recognized books are authentic and constitute an independent and binding source of Islamic guidance/law along with the Qur'an. When a position somewhere between these positions is held, it is usually not formulated in a clear way, which is probably the reason why the tendency of Muslims is to move towards one or the other of the two extreme positions, usually the second one.

In this book it will be shown that none of the two positions at the two ends of the spectrum is tenable in the light of the evidence. Also a more precise statement of a middle position is presented and supported by evidence.

More specifically, the book examines, and attempts to give precise answers to, questions such as the following:

  • Is the Qur'an completely sufficient for the purpose for which God sent the Prophet Muhammad or is the Hadith also needed for that purpose?

  • Is the Hadith revelatory or is it simply words and actions of the Prophet as just an ordinary human being? If it is revelatory, to what degree it is binding?

  • To what degree of authenticity is the Hadith preserved? Why was the Hadith not preserved with as much certainty as the Qur'an, if it is revelatory?

  • Granted that there came to exist a large number of unauthentic ahadith, can we advance further the earlier work of separating these unauthentic ahadith from the authentic? Or, do we have to either accept the results of earlier muhaddithun (Hadith narrators) or simply ignore the Hadith and concentrate on the Qur'an?

  • What is the relationship of the Hadith with the Qur'an? Is it a means to clarify and interpret the Qur'an or is it an independent source of guidance/law?

The importance of such questions for Muslims, and therefore for humanity generally can hardly be overestimated. Answers to them determine how Muslims live as individuals and what kind of societies they will create in the future. This is true despite the fact that religion does not play a very important role in the lives of a large number of Muslims. For, at the heart of every civilization there lie some ideas and values that in many different ways assert themselves and shape the directions the civilization takes, even if a large number of individuals seem to depart from those ideas and values. In case of the Muslim civilization the ideas and values provided by the Qur'an and Hadith occupy a central position, making the above questions of singular importance.

Historical questions connected with the Hadith such as the question of authenticity are of interest for humanity generally for other than purely religious reasons. The examination of the huge number of extant traditions and the vast amount of available data about the people who were involved in their transmission can throw light on the way people report, change, and create traditions. This in turn can also be used to better understand the past and present human communities and the differences between them. It can also be used to clarify religious traditions in Judaism, Christianity and other religions, traditions that did not preserve the same amount of data. Thus, for example, it is often said that since Paul met Peter a few times for short periods (Gal 2) what he presents as received tradition regarding Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Cor 15) must be historical truth shared by Peter. Similarly, when Mark says that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross of Jesus (Mark 15:21) and also mentions Simon's sons Alexander and Rufus whom he presumably personally knew, it is concluded by some scholars that here we have a historical tradition that Simon's sons preserved and transmitted to Mark. A study of Hadith reveals the complete uselessness of this type of argument. For similar links between the narrators and people who are expected to have knowledge of the reported events can be established in the case of many Muslim traditions that on other grounds must be rejected as spurious.


Main conclusions

The questions raised above have of course been discussed from the very earliest centuries of Islam. But in this book the answers provided are in many ways different from the generally held views and may be briefly summarized thus:

The Hadith provides a revelatory context for the interpretation of the Qur'an. Hence authentic ahadith are sacred and a source of Islamic guidance/law. However, even many of the ahadith that are classified as sahih are subject to much greater doubt than is generally believed. This obviously raises the question: if the Hadith is part and parcel of the revelatory and prophetic work of the Prophet Muhammad, then why was it not preserved more reliably than is the case? The answer given in this book is that the Hadith is like the revelation given to the earlier prophets that was not preserved in purity. The main message of Islam was stated and preserved in the form of a relatively small book, the Qur'an, while the transmission of the much more voluminous Hadith was left, like the earlier revelations, to normal human processes of transmission with all their faults.

The fact that the Hadith was not preserved in a completely reliable way would not have been too problematic if the Muslims had given the Qur'an its due and continued and improved upon the work of the classical muhaddithun (traditionists); for, a great deal of guidance can be found by interpreting the Qur'an in the light of the Qur'an and some guidance from the Hadith has come down to us in a very dependable way, almost like the Qur'an itself. However, contrary to fact the classical Hadith collections, almost in their entirety, have come to be regarded as reliable historical records of what the Prophet said and did. Ahadith in these collections can sometimes effectively override even the Qur'an in the mind of many Muslims just as one verse of the Qur'an can abrogate another. As a result some erroneous views and practices have been sanctified and firmly established and this has been slowly harming the mission of Islam.

Consequently, it is necessary to:

  1. re-examine the relationship between the Qur'an and the Hadith;

  2. to revive hadith criticism and to re-evaluate the degree of authenticity of ahadith. This second task is the sacred hadith project referred to in the title. In Part IV of this book the work involved in this project is outlined.


Definition of some basic terms

In what follows the term hadith (plural: ahadith) will signify an event or a report about it, in which the Prophet Muhammad is present as an active or passive participant, e.g. as observer, speaker, actor. The term will also be used to refer to ahadith collectively. In this sense the word will be written with a capital H. Since it is universally recognized that some words and actions were falsely attributed to the Prophet we need to stress here that the reader should at all times be aware of the distinction between authentic ahadith which report with at least substantial accuracy what was actually said or done by the Prophet and ahadith as they have come down to us, although, following common usage, the term "hadith or Hadith" would be used for both. Sometimes the distinction would be left understood while at other times it would be stressed by the addition of the word "authentic". Also, we will not assume that the "authentic hadith" is the same as "sahih hadith". By sahih hadith we mean simply a hadith which meets certain criteria set by the scholar who describes it as sahih. This means, in particular, that authentic ahadith are not identical with those found in any known collections of ahadith such as one or all of the six "canonical" sunni books of Hadith. In fact in Parts II and III it will be shown that the work of the classical muhaddithun should be regarded as no more than a stage in the ongoing project of determining the authentic ahadith.

Another term that needs to be clarified is sunnah (plural: sunan). In Islamic literature this term has been used in a variety of senses including: a non-compulsory religious practice, conduct of the Prophet, the practice in the Muslim community during the days of the companions or a practice in the community at any period having continuity with the past. We will, however, use it to mean a prevalent practice that was established on the basis of actions done, ordered or approved by the Prophet; the approval could be explicit or implicit. The term can refer to a single practice or to practices collectively. When the word has a collective sense it will be written with the capital S.

From the above definitions it is clear that the Sunnah is established on the basis of the Hadith and is therefore very closely related to it. We can almost say that the Sunnah is part of the Hadith in that all that comprises the Sunnah is based on what may be found in the Hadith. The reverse is not true, since not all ahadith deal with practices; some of them deal with ideas, attitudes, predictions, etc. 

In addition to the Sunnah and the Hadith, we also need to deal with historical reports that are not directly about the Prophet but about the companions after him and subsequent generations of Muslims. This is because some important questions about the authenticity of ahadith are related with these historical reports. For example, the question whether the first khulafa prepared official collections of the Hadith or the question how far they used the Hadith to make legal decisions has a bearing on the question of the reliability of the extant ahadith and of the role of the Hadith in Islam. For this reason discussions about the Hadith often have to refer to such historical reports. We will use the term riwayah (plural riwayat) or tradition to cover both the hadith and other reports about early Islamic community and personalities. Some writers use the term hadith to refer to all kinds of traditions, and then refer to the traditions about the Prophet as hadith nabawi (prophetic tradition). But in this book we will consistently use the term hadith for hadith nabawi and riwayah for reports more generally.

For our subsequent considerations, it would be convenient to divide ahadith into three main categories:

  1. Those which record sayings or actions of the Prophet that regulated the life of the Muslim community. They may consist of his orders to the community or to individuals in charge of certain affairs in the community. Or, they may consist of approval of decisions that other people took in regulating community life. We shall refer to such a hadith as a regulatory hadith. The regulatory hadith is essentially the sunnah as we have defined above. By its very nature a regulatory hadith must have been widely known.

  2. Those which record words and actions of the Prophet that were spoken/done in the presence of individuals or small groups and were aimed at their religious, spiritual and/or moral education. We shall refer to such a hadith as a teaching hadith. A teaching hadith might not have been widely known when the Prophet left this world. Note also that a regulatory hadith can be considered a teaching hadith but not necessarily vice versa.

  3. Those sayings and actions of the Prophet that he spoke/did in the capacity of an individual living in a certain time, place, and culture, e.g., his riding a camel. We would refer to such a hadith as a circumstantial hadith.

Finally we will need to often refer to certain existing views about Hadith and it would be convenient to define them more precisely. In the main there are four views with various possible shades of opinion in each:

  1. The Qur'an is the only source of Islamic guidance/law; the hadith has no revelatory value (this will be referred to as the Only-only position).

  2. The Hadith is a secondary but revelatory source of Islamic guidance/law and the question of authenticity of ahadith will forever remain open although with research more and more probable results can be obtained. This is the view argued in this book.

  3. The Hadith is an independent source of Islamic guidance/law but the question of authenticity is open.

  4. The Hadith is an independent source of Islamic guidance/law and the question of authenticity was settled with high degree of reliability by the classical muhaddithun (this will be referred to as the traditionalist position).


A word about methodology

In discussing fundamental questions of the type with which this book is concerned we need to be clear about our sources. Certainly, the Qur'an is one of our sources, since from the point of view of faith as well as from the critical point of view its substantial authenticity is beyond any reasonable doubt. A common mistake is to introduce the Hadith as a source from the very beginning, even when the authenticity of the Hadith itself is being discussed. A couple of examples will illustrate the point. 

In the Qur'an we read:

"Say! I find not in the message received by me by inspiration any (food) forbidden to be taken by one who wishes (to take it), unless it is dead meat or blood poured forth or the flesh of swine, for it is an abomination, or what is impious (meat) on which a name has been invoked other than God's" (6:145).

The Sunnah has forbidden many things not mentioned in this verse, as for example in the sayings of the Prophet: "All predatory animals with tusk and every bird with claw are forbidden for consumption." "God and his Messenger have prohibited the consumption of domesticated asses, for they are filth" (Bukhari and Muslim). From these facts it is agued that without such ahadith, we would today be eating predatory animals and birds with claws and thus be doing something that is haram. But such an argument is clearly unsatisfactory unless we first establish beyond a reasonable doubt that these ahadith about forbidden animals are authentic. Another example is the use by some traditionalists of ahadith in which the Sunnah is described as a source of guidance/law in order to counter the Only-only position. But either the question of the authenticity of such ahadith is not raised at all or it is settled by reference to the isnad methodology, which is hardly a methodology that is free from problems.

The Only-only people also use ahadith and historical reports to support their positions without sufficiently supporting the authenticity of the reports. Both sides also often use Qur'anic verses without due regard to the words used and the context of those words. Thus the Only-only people use the verse "The messenger is not obliged except to convey (the message)" (5:99) to conclude that the messenger had no other function except that of reciting the Qur'an to the people, even though the verse does not say how the message is to be delivered. Likewise the traditionalists from very early times have been quoting a portion of 59:7 ("what the messenger gives you take it and what he withholds from you abstain from it") to support their point of view without giving due importance to the fact that in the Qur'an these words are used in the context of the distribution of booty. The result of such argumentation is that the discussion does not advance in a positive way.

Consequently, in this book it would be our effort to use ahadith and other traditions with considerable caution and also to make the question of authenticity a part of the discussion whenever an important use of ahadith is made. Similarly, a conscious attempt is made to use interpretations of the Qur'anic verses that can be justified by the actual words used in the Qur'an and by their context. More specifically, we will follow a "mountain-climbing approach": In climbing a mountain a hiker first finds a secure place to put his foot; then from that point he searches or constructs another secure place to climb to, and so on. Similarly, we will first work with the Qur'an, the first and the most secure place to develop Islamic thought, and derive from it answers to the questions raised above with some reasonable certainty. This is done in Part I, where only the Qur'an, some basic logic, and, occasionally very well-established facts of history are used. Then in Part II we examine some of the same questions in the light of the traditions, using only historical facts that can be established with a high degree of probability.

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