Friday Sermon: Excursions in Islam 3: Hadith

By Babatunde Jose

After Muhammad’s death in 632, the revelations ceased, and the community was faced with the vexing question of how to order its affairs (including its political and religious leadership) in the absence of their prophet. Jurists decided to start collecting news and reports (Hadiths) which recorded the Prophet’s words on a given occasion and his habitual mode of behavior (Sunnah). The Hadith became crucial to the body of Islamic law and principles of Islamic jurisprudence.

These reports multiplied during the 8th and 9th centuries, until a bewildering number of Hadith circulated throughout the Caliphate, covering everyday matters, metaphysics, cosmology, cosmogony and theology as well as politics. They were finally collected and anthologized: The most famous editors were Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875). A Hadith was declared sound, acceptable or weak. Because some Hadith include questionable and even contradictory statements, the authentication of Hadith became a major field of study in Islam.

Because many, of the Hadith reflect theological or legal debates that occurred after the Prophet’s death, some Western scholars have dismissed them as fabrications or even forgeries. Yet we do not speak of the gospels in this way, even though they too were produced decades after Jesus’ death and reflect later conditions. Both the gospels and the Hadith were however, attempts to ground the present in the sacred events of the past. The gospels, like the Hadith, are a commentary on the original revelation, which for Christians is the incarnate Word and for Muslims the Word recorded in the Quran.

The Hadith were vigorously promoted by a populist contingent known as the Ahl al-Hadith (‘Hadith People’) who insisted that Muslim law be rooted in these eyewitness reports instead of the ‘independent reasoning’ (ijtihad) developed by the jurists. Their piety appalled the more rationally inclined Muslims, since it threatened their strict sense of the divine unity, but these practices also resembled the way Christians had come to think about Jesus. With the Hadith, Muslims have surreptitiously conferred on the prophet a divinity which the Quran has not bestowed on any of its prophet.

Hadith have been called “the backbone” of Islamic civilization, and within that religion the authority of Hadith as a source for religious law and moral guidance ranks second only to that of the Quran.

Scriptural authority for Hadith comes from the Quran which enjoins Muslims to emulate Muhammad and obey his judgments see Quran 24:54; 33:21.

While the number of verses pertaining to law in the Quran is relatively few, Hadith give direction on everything from details of religious obligations such as ablutions for prayer, the number of rakats, to the correct forms of salutations.  Thus the “great bulk” of the rules of Sharia (Islamic law) are derived from Hadith, rather than the Quran.

Muhammad is alleged to have forbidden his followers from writing down anything he said, with the exception of the revelation of the Quran which he received from the Archangel Gabriel: “Whoever wrote must destroy it.” —Muhammad.

Early in Islamic history there was a school of thought that adhered to the view that the Hadith were incompatible with Islam. For 300 years following the Prophet’s death, there remained a portion of Muslims who “mocked and derided” the system of Hadith. There are many modern Muslims (some of whom call themselves Quranists but many are also known as Submitters) who believe that most Hadiths are actually fabrications created in the 8th & 9th century AD, which were collected to suit the political whims of the reigning Caliphs but which are falsely attributed the Prophet.

It should be noted that the corpus of Hadith is an amorphous body of information with a mass of contradictions, sometimes embarrassment not only to Muslims but a source of discomfiture to Islam. Some have given ammunition to enemies of Islam and have often been used to cast aspersion on the prophet. The obnoxious satirical book of Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses is a good example and the vilification of our prophet as a pedophile is an abuse that won’t go away owing to the fact that the Hadith erroneously lend credence to such charges. There are other such embarrassing issues such as stories of the prophet going through all his wives in one night; the prophet condemning use of the left hand saying it is associated with the Devil: Yet Allah in His wisdom created the left handed child; it is the same Allah that created John Kennedy that created Barak Obama.

The Quran says there will be no intercession on the Day of Judgment; repeated three times viz, Quran 2:48 “Then guard yourselves against a day when one soul shall not avail another nor shall intercession be accepted for her, nor shall compensation be taken from her, nor shall anyone be helped (from outside)” also 2:123 and 254). But, Hadith is at odds with the Quran in expressions of religious philosophy, in terms of the personal nature of salvation as some Hadith claim that the Prophet will intercede on behalf of his people on the Day of Judgment.

Finally, we look at the issue of rituals and dogma. The five pillars of Islam, are a set of dogmas which are said to define the religion. These five pillars of Islam are clearly defined in a Hadith where the archangel Gabriel visited the Prophet in human form in order to test his knowledge of them. However, this “confessional style” Islam is not to be found in the Quran at all. In fact, the Quran’s renditions of these concepts related to the five pillars are process-oriented and linked to the development of the self.

It is the same with ritual prayer (salat). While Hadith literature speaks of things which “nullify” the prayer as if it were a product to be inspected, the Quran focuses on internalizing the reading so that it prevents us from injustices and evil acts (29:45). Prayer is not about form but rather substance.

By the year 200 H total of 600,000 Hadiths were in existence, out of which 408,324 Hadith were fabricated by 620 forgers. Most notorious forger Ibn Au’jaa professed before he was hanged that he alone had forged 4,000 Hadiths.

Another point is that the Hadith are too voluminous and there are bound to be much repetitions and contradictions in them. Bukhari has 10 volumes and Muslim has nearly that amount; including Sunan Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’I and Sunan Ibn Majah. The Hadiths tried to cover every facet of life of the prophet including his very private life such as his sex life. Some are still source of contention 1400 years after. A good example is the debate over the age of Aisha when the Prophet married her.

John Esposito notes that Modern Western scholarship has seriously questioned the historicity and authenticity of the Hadith, maintaining that “the bulk of traditions attributed to the Prophet were actually written much later and could not have been accurate. He mentions Joseph Schacht who concluded that “the Sunnah of the Prophet is not the words and deeds of the Prophet, but apocryphal material.”

Mainstream Muslims do not deny the existence of false Hadith, but believe that through the scholars’ work, these Hadith have been largely eliminated from the traditions. Some scholars have suggested that traditional Islam, which derives more of its content from the Hadith and Sunnah than from the Quran, is similar to Roman Catholicism’s abrogation of the early church in Christianity. In 1878, Cyrus Hamlin wrote that “Tradition, rather than the Quran, has formed both law and religion for the Moslems”.

In recent years, the Pakistani judiciary has played down the importance of the Hadith compared to the Quran in its court rulings, pointing to theological reasons.

One takeaway from Muslims’ dependency on the Hadith is that it engenders a link to the roots of the religion; however, it has made them to continue living in the past, which is not in consonant with the modern scientific age. This could also be said of the other faiths such as Christianity and its obsession with the divinity of Christ and the tendency to see things through the prism of Byzantium. If truth must be said, many of the practices are anachronistic and there is a need to tune these practices to the changing of the times.

Having said these we can now turn to the Holy Quran which Muslims believe is a literal transcript of God’s word as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (570–632 AD).

Barka Juma’at and Ramadan Kareem

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