By Muhammad Yunus, for New Age Islam
Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
There is a common knowledge that some of the ahadith (pl. form of hadith) are weak and fabricated. The bold and erudite critique Dr. Shabbir Ahmed, refers to them as “bizarre, outrageous and awful statements”  – an expression they aptly deserved, were they framed today. Their theme can range from a simplistic explanation of the cause of an illness as people thought in that era to highly preposterous positions like those abound on all Islam critical websites and are meticulously listed in Dr. Shabbir Ahmed’s publication, ‘The Criminals of Islam’, featured on this website. The most unfortunate part, however, is not in the themes of such ahadith – whether they appear the most repulsive morally, most offensive or derogatory to women, most untenable scientifically, most insulting of our Prophet, most demonizing of our faith or most contradictory to the Qur’anic message, but the fact that the orthodoxy have not screened them for over a millennium following their canonization as a form of divine revelation around the fifth century of Islamic calendar. There were compelling reasons for the veneration of the Hadith corpus as the secondary source of Islamic law, but the fact remains that their compilers had clearly warned the posterity about the presence apocryphal and questionable ahadith in their compilations.
Thus, the first compiler of the Hadith, Imam Muhammad Ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (194-256 AH/ 810-870 CE) declared:
“Why do people impose conditions which are not in Allah’s book (Kitab il lah)? Whoever imposes such conditions as are not in Allah’s Laws (Kitab il lah), then that condition is invalid even if he imposes one hundred such conditions, for Allah’s conditions (as stated in the Qur’an) are truth and more valid” .
The second great compiler of Hadith, Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, (202-261AH/ 817-875 CE), who, like al-Bukhari came from Iran was also highly suspect of the authenticity of many ahadith that he recorded in his compilation. He records his doubts in an oblique manner by citing the example of an arbitrary critical scholar who demands a proof of personal meeting between the narrators and transmitters of ahadith in each of the seven to eight generations back to the Prophet’s era. He then says:
“If we discuss about all those accounts which are held authentic (Sahih) before the learned, and suspect by the critical scholar, we would simply be tired (because they are so large in number).” …‘This argument is novel in its approach, and it is wrong that early scholars did not believe in this. Neither is its denial by those who came later, any ground for its repudiation… and God is there to help repudiate what is wrong in the religion of the learned and I trust in Him” .
What is a hadith and how did the present compilations evolve?
Before Islam, the Arabs did not have any scripture. They were divided into tribes and the customs and values of each tribe were based on ancestral wisdom or the ‘trodden path’ of their forebear, which was called ‘Sunnah.’ The term denotes a spirit, a moral ideal that served as the building blocks of the tribal more. Being of an abstract nature, it needed a story, a saying or a narration to be understood by common people. Such story, saying, narrative was known as hadith. The Qur’an uses this term to denote an ancient story (12:6, 23:44, 79:15, 85:17), an account (4:42, 45:6), a truthful account or speech (4:78, 4:87), a topic of conversation or theme of discussion (4:140, 6:68), social conversation (33:53) and its own narrative (45:6, 52:34,53:59, 68:44).
The first compilation of the Hadith literature (by al-Bukhari) was undertaken at least two centuries, or seven to eight generations after the Prophet’s death. During this period the very definition of hadith was changed. Until around the middle of the 2nd century of Islam, hadith embodied the normative ways and examples of all the prominent people in the preceding five to six generations. Since the number of prominent people – scholars, jurists, administrators, generals, governors etc. increased exponentially generation after generation dating from the Prophet’s era, the number of ahadith also grew exponentially. This, created a great deal of confusion, not merely on account of their sheer number, but also because their different eras and locations of origin rendered many of them self contradictory as what may have been a norm at a given historical location could be outdated or invalid at a later era or another region in the same era. Al-Shafi’i, one of the greatest jurists of Islam, resolved this by disregarding all those ahadith that originated from anyone other than the Prophet. But as time went by, more and more ahadith were introduced in the name of the Prophet to address new situations and emerging realities. Thus, at the time of their compilation by the early Imams – some fifty years after al-Shafi’i rationalization, there were reportedly a few hundred thousands of ahadith in oral circulation – all attributed to the Prophet as his sayings.
Impact of historical factors on the multiplication of ahadith
The multiplication of ahadith with the succession of generations was inevitably influenced by the prevalent historical factors that included:
- Introduction of forged hadith by the dynastic rulers, as well as those with vested interest to serve their purpose or justify their practices.
- Many of the juridical experts based their opinions on the practices of their regions. So the ahadith representing their Sunnahs were conditioned by local and personal factors.
- State of knowledge, and social and political conditions of the time when a given hadith came into currency.
- Propensity of the introducers of new ahadith in each generation to trace their ahadith back to the Prophet by establishing a chain of transmitters in each generation (called isnad) going back to one of the Prophet’s companions who had seen or heard the Prophet doing or saying a thing. This was to lend credibility to their accounts.
It was humanly impossible for the compilers to address all these historical factors that had interacted during this long period. The compilers could only rely on the integrity of the narrators in the transmission chain (isnad) through the preceding generations stretching back to the Prophet’s era. This is the best they could do, as the state of knowledge of the era was not conducive to verifying, whether:
- The narrators and transmitters of the Prophetic traditions (ahadith) in each successive generation ever met in their lifetime.
- The substance of a given tradition (hadith) was revoked by a subsequent Qur’anic revelation – which had continued until a few months before the Prophet’s death.
As a result of these limitations, a large number of forged, spurious and fabricated accounts skipped the screening process and found their way into the authentic (Sahih) corpus. Many learned people of the era were aware of this, but religious passion was so intense that even the most learned and pious were afraid to question the truth of an apparently ‘questionable’ account, if it furnished a chain of reliable transmitters.
The Glory and Ramifications of the Hadith sciences during the era of their evolution
The Hadith sciences covered practically all the activities of the community and theological branches. The Qur’an, as a book of guidance, only lays down the broader principles governing human relations at personal, conjugal, communal/national and international levels, and provides a common set of paradigms to guide humans in business ethics, pursuit of universal knowledge and to infuse him with a spirit of enterprise and exploration. It does not give any details on any physical parameter of life – barring passing references to some of the existing practices. The expanding Muslim community needed comprehensive guideline to handle the myriad of day to day transactions of life. The Hadith furnished this. Thus, Imam al-Bukhari’s compilation  is spread over 9 volumes, divided into a total of 93 sections (or books) and 3981 chapters.
For its era, the knowledge contained in the Hadith enabled the growing Muslim community to lead a peaceful, harmonious and progressive life and contributed to the consolidation of the civil society of Islam. Besides, and more importantly, it preserves the heritage of the Prophet and that of his companions. Hence, the contribution of Hadith in the history of Islam remains paramount, and anybody with slightest familiarity of the ethical and moral depravity (by this day’s ethos) of the rival civilizations of the medieval ages, can only admire the compilers of the ahadith in the superlatives.
Conclusion: There can be no denying that the authenticated (Sahih) Hadith compilations contain some accounts that sound most bizarre and purport to provoke sexuality, induce terrorism, foment inter-faith hatred, and stand deeply misogynist, scientifically untenable, self contradictory and Qur’an-incompatible  – but this must not be attributed to any intellectual turpitude on the part of the Imams who compiled them. The early compilers confronted hundreds of thousands of accounts in oral circulation and applied the prevalent isnad (integrity of narrators in the transmission chain) based screening methodology to accomplish their works. Human reason was in its primitive form and what appears most bizarre and grotesque today, did not register as such in the minds of the common people of Islam’s early centuries, as they were accustomed to believe in legends and fairy tales. The great Imams, who were among the most learned in their era, were cognizant of the ingress of forged and fabricated ahadith in their compilations, but they were not in a position to delete the suspect ahadith as long as they met their criteria of screening. Accordingly they warned the community and posterity about it. This happened a little over two centuries after the Prophet’s death. The canonization of the Hadith as indirect revelation and repository of all worldly knowledge happened after another two centuries or so.
The problem therefore lies with the orthodoxy for failing to carry out any further scrutiny of the ahadith over the last millennium. The problem also lies with some of the Ulama as well as secular minded anti-Islamic Muslims and non-Muslims who selectively pick preposterous and anti-Qur’anic ahadith to launch fatwas and make high sounding statements to demonize Islam, and to bring shame and disgrace to the early compilers of Hadith.
Furthermore, as the literary style, setting, paradigms, and dialectical constructions of the Hadith literature date back to the early medieval era “their continued teaching and propagation, such as in traditional religious schools (madrasas), can adversely impact the mental development of the students, shackling their power of reasoning and virtually freezing their intellect into the early medieval era” . Hence, as suggested in a related article, “there is a long-standing need to treat the Hadith corpus in its historical, regional and cultural perspective as a closed domain and to restructure the curriculum of traditional religious schools by displacing the Hadith and other theological disciplines with a focused study of the Qur’anic message, and the diverse branches of universal knowledge and art forms” . However, as the Hadith remains a critical part of Islamic religion, in so much as it preserves the legacy of the Prophet, no less his companions, it should be reserved for enlightened specialists who have attained sufficient maturity, knowledge, and training to distinguish between weak and reliable Hadith, and not to confuse or parallel them with the Word of God – the Qur’an. This will exculpate the great Imams from the preposterous charge of leaving highly objectionable materials for posterity; shut the mouths of the anti-Hadith modernist Muslims and secularists who deride the Hadith disregarding the anachronism factor, and remove doubts and frustrations from many educated Muslims who are bombarded with what is most atrocious in the Hadith on their internets and mobile phones.
- Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Ullah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA 2009. P 342
- Criminals of Islam by Dr. Shabbir Ahmed posted on this website
- Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi 1984, Acc. 364, 735/Vol.3.
- Sahih al-Muslim, Urdu translation by Wahiduz Zaman, Aeteqad Publishing House, New Delhi (year not mentioned), extracted from the muqaddimah.
- “The evolution of the Hadith sciences and the Prophet’s Sunna and the need for a Major Paradigm Shift regarding the role of the Hadith Corpus and the scope of Madrassa education.” Sec. 10
July 24, 2012.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.