Theological and Historical Tests of the Authority and Authenticity of the Hadith
[This article is an adapted version of Chapter 10 of the author’s book Rediscovering Genuine Islam: The Case for a Quran-Only Understanding, 2014]
The vast majority of Muslims revere the Hadith as the second essential source of religious law and guidance after the Quran. Any question, therefore, about its authority, authenticity, or reliability is likely to come as a great shock to them. Yet this question is of pivotal importance and needs to be settled dispassionately and decisively once and for all.
Many modern scholars portray Islam in a good light by tapping its “best traditions.” The issue, however, is not really about choosing between good and bad traditions; the issue is really about whether we can still afford to continue with traditions that may often misguide us.
The Hadith is generally considered as the main vehicle through which the Prophetic sunnah– the example of the Prophet embodied in his statements, actions, and overt or tacit approvals or disapprovals – has been conveyed. However, considering a stark lack of historicity of the Prophetic accounts as well as the absence of their theological basis (as we will see below), the sunnahjustification of the Hadith would appear to be a mere wishful thinking.
The authority of the Hadith rests on the question of whether it enjoys an unquestioned position as a source of religious law and guidance, which depends on whether the Prophetic teachings contained in the Hadith are really from God. The authenticity of the Hadith, on the other hand, relates to whether the alleged Prophetic reports contained in it are really genuine. It raises questions about the reliability of the historical chains of communication (isnad) through which Hadith have been transmitted as well as about the veracity of the reports communicated (matn), which in turn depend on the trustworthiness of each narrator in the chain in character and memory.
“The two issues are in some ways interdependent. Unless a Hadith is considered authentic, it will have no authority. However, if Hadith were not seen as authoritative, the question of authenticity would be moot.”
THEOLOGICAL TEST OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE HADITH
The Quran enjoys indisputable authority among Muslims. However, that is not the case with the Hadith. Even Muslim scholars and general believers who believe in the Hadith recognize that there could be problems with the Hadith because of flawed transmission (isnad) and text (matn) of the Hadith. Two stark facts make their reliability suspect: the selection of tiny fractions by various compilers out of mountainous piles of circulating alleged Prophetic reports and their compilation hundreds of years after the Prophet’s death. This is an authenticity issue that we take up later. We first deal with the authority issue.
Theologically, the authority of the Hadith rests on two key considerations: (1) Whether the Hadith is also divinely inspired like the Quran and (2) whether the Quran itself sanctions another scripture. Let us examine these considerations.
Is the Hadith Divinely Inspired?
It was al-Shafii (d. 204 AH/820 CE) who first elevated the Hadith to the status of divine revelation, amid widespread opposition to the Hadith during his time. In fact, al-Shafii’s work was a direct response to a group who rejected all Prophetic reports. He argued that the Prophetic Sunnah was preserved in the form of the Hadith as a second form of divine revelation (called wahy ghayr matluor non-recited revelation, as opposed to wahy matluor recited revelation, which is the Quran). Shafii’s argument goes like this:
[O]bedience to the Prophet is required of believers and […] obedience to the Prophet requires the acceptance of all Prophetic reports that come from a trustworthy source, because such reports are the only means of access to the Prophetic Sunna. As the repository of the Prophet’s Sunna, the Hadith constitute a form of divine revelation that is complementary to the Qur’an and necessary for the implementation of the divine commands contained in it.
This line of argument can be easily rebutted on the following grounds:
- There has always been a tendency on the part of some people to oppose or distort the Prophetic revelations. The Quran itself is a testament to the fact that even during the Prophet’s lifetime, there were people who used to distort the words of God and claim that those were divine revelation (2:78-79, 3:78). It’s probably not unnatural to assume that such tendencies accelerated after the death of the Prophet.
- If the Hadith were a second kind of divine revelation, it inevitably raises the question why neither the Prophet nor his immediate followers took any effective measures to record and preserve it in the same way as the Quran. On the contrary, there is more credence to reports that they rather strongly discouraged the recording, collection, and dissemination of Prophetic reports other than the texts of the Quran.
- A pertinent point is that the Quran itself affirms that the Prophetic sayings are nothing but what is embodied in the revealed message of the Quran:
69:40-43 It is the SAYING of an Honoured Messenger. It is not the saying of a poet; little ye believe. Nor is it the saying of a soothsayer; little ye heed. It is a Message revealed from the Lord of the Universe.
Some might contend that this verse does not point to the Quranic message only. But this assertion is invalid because the Quran always points to its own message that it calls on its readers to follow.
- The point that the Quran itself fully embodies divine revelation is further corroborated by the verse that says that for religious purposes the Prophet said nothing out of his own desire (53:3).
- Al-Shafii further argued that the Hadith represents the hikmahor wisdom mentioned in the Quran along with the Book in some verses. The Indian-Pakistani scholar Ghulam Ahmad Parwez effectively dismissed this argument by saying that “hikmahor wisdom” is meant in a general sense and cannot be characterized as specifically meaning the Prophet’s Hadith. The Quran vividly speaks of hikmahin a general sense in 2:269. This contention has support also in the fact that all prophets essentially undergo spiritual transformation and they all bring to humankind wisdom and insight into religion and spirituality. Their revealed book is the main vehicle of such wisdom. But apart from that it is also true that their followers and associates during their lifetime did have an extra advantage to have some access to such wisdom. Note also that the verse (62:2) refers specifically to the inhabitants of Mecca, who were in clear error, to whom the Prophet came. That the expression “the Book and the hikmah” used in the Quran need not specifically mean the Prophet’s Hadith is supported by the fact that the same expression is found to have been used also in the case of other prophets, Jesus, the house of Abraham and John (3:48, 79, 81; 5:110, 4:54; 19:12). Also note that God characterizes the Quran itself as a Book of wisdom(10:1; 31:2; 36:2; 43:4). So it cannot be held with certainty that the expression “hikmah” at 62:2 and other verses unequivocally refers to the Prophet’s Hadith. Rather all these verses reinforce the idea that “wisdom” refers to general “spiritual or religious knowledge and insight” that prophets are usually endowed with, and those who came in close association with such persons benefited the most from such wisdom. But this does not necessarily lend support to any Hadith hypothesis.
- A further point that undercuts the divine status claim for the Hadith is the fact that the compilations of Bukhari and his ilk came more than two centuries after the Prophet’s death? The inevitable problems emanating from this long time gap are dealt with later while examining the Hadith’s authenticity question.
Does the Quran Sanction Another Scripture?
The basic argument used in defense of the Hadith is that the Quran urges us to obey God and obey the Prophet. Several of the Quran verses used to support their claim are as follows:
3:31-32Say (O Muhammad): ‘If ye do love God, then follow me; God will love you and forgive your faults, and God is Ever Forgiving, Most Merciful.’ Say: ‘Obey God and the Messenger; but if they turn away, then verily God loves not those who disbelieve.’ (See also 4:13, 59, 64, 5:92, 8:20, 24:54, and 33:71)
4:80 He who obeys the Messenger indeed obeys God.
59:7 Whatever the Messenger gives you, take it and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it.
33:21 Indeed in the Messenger of God ye have an excellent example for him who looks unto God and the Final Day, and remembers God much.
However, from these and similar Quran verses, it is not possible to conclude with certainty that they point to the need for accepting the Hadith as a separate source of religious law and guidance. The verse 59:7, in particular, has been used partially out of context; the full verse shows that the above statement relates to the distribution of war booties and has nothing to do with the acceptance of the Hadith. The early opponents of the Hadith such as Ahl al-Kalam and Mutazilites as well as their modern counterparts such as Ghulam Ahmad Parwez, Rashad Khalifa, Edip Yuksel and others have effectively argued that obedience to the Prophet or of his example should not be viewed as separate from following the Quran. The Hadith supporters have interpreted following God as following the Quran and following the Prophet as following the Hadith. However, the verses (3:31-32; 33:21) noted above clearly imply that we should love and follow the Prophet as a way of loving and following God. That these verses do not point to the need for following the Hadith becomes more evident when we consider other verses of the Quran, which emphasize the need for following the Quran alone.”
In fact the Quran itself uses the term “Hadith” in a number of places and warns believers not to believe in any Hadith other than the Quran (45:6, 31:6, 39:23, 6:114). The Quran declares,
45:6 Such are the revelations (ayats) of Allah, which We recount to you in truth, then in what Hadithwill they believe after Allah and His revelations (see also 7:185 and 77:50)?
We can see the import of this message also in another verse: “Shall I seek other than God as a source of law and judgment when He is the One who has sent down the Book to you in detail?” (6:114). Also, “What is wrong with you? How do you judge? Do you have another book which you study?” (68:35-36). The verse 39:23 refers to the Quran itself as Ahsanul Hadith(the best Hadith). These verses decisively rule out the need for another book, the Hadith.”
The key requirement for following the Messenger is to follow the very message he has brought and delivered to us, i.e., the Quran, which characterizes itself as an explanation of everything (16:89), easy, straightforward (44:58, 54:17, 22, 32, 40, 39:28), and detailed, self-explained (39:27, 12:111, 6:114). In fact, the Quran refers to the Sayings of the Messenger as the revelation (69:40-43).
The Prophet himself emphasized, “I follow naught except what is revealed to me” (6:50; 46:9) and God advised him and us to do the same (6:155; 45:6; see also 7:3). Also, he was asked to admonish his people only with the Quran (50:45). [Also, as we have noted above, other verses caution us against believing in anything other than God’s revelation (7:185, 45:6, 6:114, 68:35-36).] So if we just follow the Quran, we really follow him as well. And it is also noteworthy that the Prophet used to recite the Quran to people around him (62:2; 75:16-19). He did not need to explain it to them, as he was barred from doing that; the burden of explanation was on God Himself (75:18-19). […] Note also that the Prophet was specifically urged by God to judge only by the Quran, and not follow any personal desires (6:114; 4:105; 5:48-49). And the Quran also unequivocally proclaims that those who do not judge by what has been revealed from God are disbelievers (kafirs) (5:44), wrongdoers (jalims) (5:45), or rebellious (fasiqs) (5:49). This clearly means that the Quran alone should be used as the basis of religious law in Islam.
Also importantly, God proclaims in the Quran that the Prophet’s sole duty was to deliver this Book to humankind (5:67, 92, 99; 13:40; etc.): “But if ye turn away, then know that Our Messenger’s duty is only to deliver (the Message)” (5:92). Apparently because Muslims have been giving a lot of importance to other spurious teachings rather than to the Quran, the Prophet is going to lament to God on the Day of Judgment that his people have treated the Quran as a forsaken thing (25:30).
Is Not the Quran Sufficient and Easy Enough to Follow?
Like the Jews who took to the Talmudbesides the Torah, the Muslims have come to take recourse to the Hadith in much the same way. But does the Quran warrant it, especially since it unequivocally claims that it is fully sufficient and easy to follow as religious guidance?
16:89 And We have revealed unto you (O Muhammad) the Book explaining everything, a guidance and a mercy and good news for those who have surrendered (to God, i.e., who have become Muslims).
54:17And We have indeed made the Quran easy to learn; then is there any that will learn? (See also 6:114; 54:22, 32, 40.)
“The Quran is comprehensive; and all the requirements for belief and practice in religion are contained in it. It is a fully sufficient guidance for humankind.
17:9 Surely this Quran guides to that which is most right and gives good news to those who believe and do good work that theirs will be a great reward.
Thus if God says He has made the Quran easy enough to learn or understand, it is incomprehensible why our ulamashould dispute it. On the other hand, it is also true that the Quran is a Book of wisdom, and that how far one succeeds in deciphering the wisdom of the Quran depends on one’s capacity to understand, which, in turn, is a function of one’s level of intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom. What turns out to be the real beauty of the Quran is that as one gets wiser and wiser, one can find and extract deeper and deeper meanings from the Quranic message. […] there are some verses in the Quran, which are allegorical and not easily comprehended by all. Only those who are grounded well in knowledge, i.e., spiritually advanced, understand them. The fact that there are some verses in the Quran, which are not understood or well understood by some readers, does not warrant them to take recourse to the Hadith. Is there any evidence that the Hadith has made clearer those verses of the Quran, which are not easy to understand? Rather on the contrary, the available evidence suggests that the Hadith has made confusion more confounded.
Indeed,the Quran has been revealed with so much clarity and elaboration and, in many cases, with repetitions of the same verses, that it hardly needs any explanation from an external source. To become a good and wise Muslim, one does not need any other document, just as Muslims during the two centuries after the Prophet’s death did not need any.
What we need to realize is that whatever has not been categorically mentioned in the Quran concerning anything should not be regarded as essential elements of Islam. Whatever religious practices God wants us to follow are adequately and lucidly described and explained in the Quran. Even minute details of admonitions have not been left untouched.
Do All of the Prophet’s Personal Living Ways Matter for US?
All of the Prophet’s personal ways of living may not carry religious significance for other contexts – for example, what he did with his beard or hair, how he cleaned his teeth, what dress he put on, how he slept, what particular foods except the forbidden ones he liked and ate, and so on. Indeed trying to follow everything that the Prophet did without trying to explore and understand their underlying reasons has no real meaning for us. Blind imitation of a person or of the past is “taqlid,” which has been dismissed by many Islamic scholars as inappropriate. It is like idolizing a person like a god. Such idolizing is what God has strictly forbidden us (3:79-80). Indeed the Quran does not want us to follow everything the Prophet did, since he also made mistakes (9:43; 80:1-10; 33:37; 66:1), which he, of course, corrected. Furthermore, when particular physical and socioeconomic environments differ, human needs and things that suit them best also differ. Even human body needs, and accordingly food needs, differ from person to person, and from time to time as well as in different health conditions for the same person. The same food may not suit everybody; many are found to be allergic to specific foods (e.g., even normal milk that contains lactose is unsuitable to those who are not lactose-tolerant). The Quran itself recognizes the diversity of nations and tribes (49:13; 2:60). For every one of us God has established a law and an open way; if God had willed He could have made us one nation, but He will try us in what He has given us (5:48). Thus even if the Hadith could succeed in giving us the real Prophet, it still would not have validated the need to follow him in every bit of detail. So an attempt to sanctify everything the Prophet did or said as sunnahfor us cannot be considered as relevant or appropriate. As Kassim Ahmad remarks:
It is unreasonable and unthinkable that God would ask the Muslims to follow the prophet’s personal mode of behavior, because a person’s mode of behavior is determined by many different factors, such as customs, his education, personal upbringing and personal inclinations. The prophet’s mode of eating, of dress and indeed of general behavior cannot be different from that of other Arabs, including Jews and Christians, of that time, except regarding matters which Islam prohibited. If the Prophet had been born a Malay, he would have dressed and eaten like a Malay. This is a cultural and a personal trait which has nothing to do with one’s religion.
From whatever point of view one likes to consider, the need for the Hadith has no legitimate basis. The Quran does not validate its authority as a source of religious law and guidance.
HISTORICAL TEST OF THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE HADITH
If the Hadith has no authority, as seen above, the issue of whether it has authenticity becomes irrelevant or redundant. Still one might like to know if the alleged Prophetic reports have credibility from a historical point of view. A number of factors that dent their authenticity are as follows:
- The reported prohibition of the Prophet himself on Hadith writing, and honoring of the same position by his immediate followers;
- The long time gap between the Quran and the Hadith, and the accompanying lack of proper records of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet;
- Flawed oral transmission due to weakness of the human sources including their imperfect memories;
- The influence of the ruling regimes, of people with wealth and power of the time, and of the disputing theologians on Hadith collection, recording, selection, and compilation; and finally
- The weakness of the criteria used to judge authenticity of individual Hadith texts.
The Positions of the Prophet and his Companions on Hadith Writing
A first key question relates to whether the Prophet himself approved of the recording and dissemination of such reports, aside from what were already conveyed through the revealed Quran. We have seen above that the Quran itself states that the Prophet followed only the Quran and that he was authorized only to deliver it and advise with it. As such he could not approve of another Scripture besides the Quran.
Kassim Ahmad notes: “Notwithstanding the conflicting versions of Hadiththat say otherwise, historical facts […] prove beyond any shadow of doubt that there were no Hadithcollections existing at the time of the Prophet’s death. History also proves that the early caliphs prevented the recording and dissemination of Hadith.”
The ulamatake it for granted that the Prophet gave his blessing to the collection and writing of his Hadith. Mazhar Kazi reports that in his farewell address the Prophet declared, “Convey to others even if it is a single verse from me.”This is taken as a go-ahead for Hadith dissemination. However, the statement here more meaningfully appears rather to point to the revealed Quranic verses, not his own words, since he was the messenger of God’s message and mercy for the whole universe (68:52; 21:107) and his message, which was nothing but the Quran, needed to be conveyed to all humankind.
Aisha Musa notes that three collections of Hadith contain a report narrated seven times, with only minor variations in textual content, by Abu Sa’id Khudri refer to “a direct command from the Prophet prohibiting his followers from writing down anything on his authority other than the Qur’an and ordering those who had done so to erase what they had written.”One such report finds place in Sahih Muslim (Book 042, Chapter 17, Number 7147). There are similar other Hadith reports, e.g., one from Abu Dawud, and another from Taqyidby al-Baghdadi confirming the Prophet’s prohibition on Hadith writing, and direction for erasure of any Hadith.Musa also notes that al-Baghdadi’s reports on the authority of Abu Sa’id Khudri, Abu Huraira, Zayd ibn Thabit, and others confirm the Prophet’s objections to writing.In one report, Abu Huraira quotes the Prophet as saying, addressing some companions who were writing Hadith, “Is it a book other than the Book of God that you want? The two communities before you went astray only because they wrote some books for themselves along with the Book of God.”Evidently, the Prophet was aware of the dangers of writing down his traditions beside the words of God. There are, however, also other reports that temper this position of the Prophet, saying that the Prophet later permitted Hadith transmission and writing.
Whatever historical reports we seem to have about the position of the Khulafai-Rashidun (the Righteous Caliphs) on the Hadith suggest that they also discouraged its compilation. According to one report, the first Caliph Abu Bakr burned his own notes of Hadith (said to be some 500), after being very uneasy about these notes.“According to Jayrajpuri, because the Companions (of the Prophet) so often disagreed with one another Abu Bakr forbade the collection of Hadith.”Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab is well known and well documented for his strong opposition to the transmission and recording of the Hadith.He is reported to have cancelled his initial plan to compile Hadith, apprehending its possible adverse impact in the form of neglect of the Book of God – the Quran. During his caliphate, “the problem of Hadith forgery was so serious that he prohibited Hadith transmission altogether.”Umar reportedly also arranged for burning of all available Hadith. The position of Uthman and Ali also appears to have been lack of any overt effort to collect any Hadith for dissemination purposes.
Hazy or conflicting historical reports about the early period of Islam notwithstanding, the fact remains that there were no written records of Hadith during the lifetime of the Prophet as well as during the rule of the four Caliphs. This is despite the fact that “several documents of the Prophet, such as the Medina Charter or Constitution, his treaties and letters, had been written on his orders.”This amply proves the point that if the Prophet had wished, he could have made arrangements for recording of his Hadith as a separate religious document, just as he did in the case of the Quran. The stark fact is that he did not wish such recording, and his discouragement of Hadith recording was honored by the four Caliphs and remained in force apparently for some thirty years after the Prophet’s death, but was ignored later. According to one report, a Hadith in Abu Dawud, the Ummayad ruler Muawiya wanted a Hadith to be written in the presence of one of the Prophet’s most noted scribes Zayd ibn Thabit, but when Zayd reminded him of the Prophet’s prohibition on Hadith writing, he (Muawiya) erased it.
As Iqbal notes in his celebrated work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, even Abu Hanifah, regarded as “one of the greatest exponents of Muhammedan Law in Sunni Islam […] made practically no use of […] traditions,” even though there were collections available at that time made by other people no less than thirty years before his death. Nor did he collect any Hadith for his use, unlike his peers Malik and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Thus, according to Iqbal, “if modern Liberalism considers it safer not to make any indiscriminate use of them [traditions] as a source of law, it will be only following [the example of Abu Hanifah].”“In reaction to a situation [where huge numbers of forged Hadith reports were in circulation] that was virtually out of control, Abu Hanifah approached Hadithwith the assumption that very few could be proved sahih[authentic].”
The Long Time Gap and The Lack of Proper Records
The long time lapse with which the Hadith surfaced after the Prophet’s death raises questions of its reliability that can never be satisfactorily resolved. Muslim and non-Muslim historians and scholars all point out that there were no written records of the Prophet’s sayings and deeds during the first century after his death, and not much Hadith writing – and not any Hadith book that gained respectability later on by the Muslim community at large – during the long two centuries after the Prophet’s death.The Hadiths that gained acceptance as sahihor authentic such as those collected and compiled by Bukhari (d. 256 AH/870 CE), Muslim (d. 261/875), Abu Dawud (d. 275/888), Tirmidhi (d. 279/892), Ibn Majah (d. 273/886) and Nasa’i (d. 303/915) – all came more than two hundred years after the Prophet’s death. The compilations accepted by the Shiites came even later.They were all based on oral transmission from generation to generation through chains of transmitters (isnads) numbering seven to even one hundred in the chain. Even written records of the past traditions were not good enough. As the historian MacDonald notes that one danger in written records “was evidently real … the unhappy character of the Arabic script, especially when written without diacritical points, often made it hard if not practically impossible, to understand such short, contextless texts as the traditions.”“There was fierce opposition to the written records of traditions for a long time also on the theological ground that this would lead to too much honoring of the traditions and neglect of the Quran, a fear that was justified to a certain extent by the event.”
The big question is: Why did the compilations come after such an inordinately long lapse of historical time after the Prophet’s death? Kassim Ahmad legitimately asks: “Why was the official compilation not made earlier, especially during the time of the righteous caliphs when the first reporters, i.e., the eye witnesses, were still alive and could be examined?”Because of the long time lagone can hardly be sure that the accounts are genuinely those of the Prophet Muhammad. How can one be so certain that the chain of narrators through the oral transmission has been successful in transmitting the same message ad verbatimfrom generation to generation, when even in the same generation, or say, even in the same year or month or day, people are often found unable to exactly reproduce one’s utterances?
The scholars of Hadith (the muhaddithun), “no matter how dedicated, were simply too distant from the time of the Prophet and forgery had become too rampant for authentic Hadithto be recovered.”Some anecdotes of the muhaddithunsuggest that they could not prevent forged Hadith from being circulated even in their own names.It is also worth noting that there were enemies of Islam and pseudo-Muslims who wanted to sabotage the propagation of true Islam by attributing false statements or reports either to God, or to His Prophet, right from the Prophet’s lifetime. Evidence that there were such people who directed their efforts to diverting attention from the mainstream Islam and to causing dissension and divisions in the Muslim ummaheven during the Prophet’s lifetime is provided by the Quran itself:
9:106-7And there are those who put up a mosque by way of mischief and disbelief, and in order to cause dissension among the believers, and as an outpost for those who fought against God and His messenger before. They will indeed swear: ‘Our intention is nothing but good’; but God beareth witness that they are certainly liars. Never stand there (to pray). A mosque whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety is more worthy of your standing therein, wherein are men who love to purify themselves. God loveth those who purify themselves.
Here it refers to some people who put up a mosque to cause dissension among Muslims. Such people were evidently not well-meaning Muslims. Thus,forgers had been active even during the Prophet’s lifetime. Forgery had been rampant during the caliphate of the Prophet’s immediate successors, and it “only increased under the Umayyads, who considered Hadith a means of propping up their rule and actively circulated traditions against Ali, and in favor of Muawiya. The Abbasidsfollowed the same pattern, circulating Prophetic Hadith, which predicted the reign of each successive ruler. Moreover, religious and ethnic conflicts further contributed to the forgery of Hadith.”
Flawed Oral Transmission Due to Human Sources
Since the Hadith was preserved and transmitted primarily orally, both by default and design, the transmission process was as good as the human sources involved in the process. The oral transmission was preferred to written records by the Hadith scholars, because written records to be credible required direct attestation by living transmitters of Hadith who could vouch for their credibility. The question is: Was this transmission process reliable enough to give assurance that what we get as words or reports of deeds of the Prophet are genuinely those of the Prophet?
Also note that Hadith reports originating from all narrators do not command the same credibility. Hadith reports that are reported to have originated from two of the companions of the Prophet, Anas b. Malik and Abu Huraira are especially suspect. Anas lived long (about hundred years), because of which it was convenient for Hadith forgers to list him as an originator.“Aisha criticized Anas for transmitting traditions although he was only a child during the life of the Prophet.”Aisha was reported to have criticized also Abu Huraira and Ibn Abbas joined her in this criticism.Abu Huraira was originator of a very large number of Hadith texts (more than 5000), even though he converted to Islam in less than three years before the Prophet’s death. According to some reports, the second Caliph “Umar called Abu Huraira a liar,”and reprimanded him for his questionable conduct. During Muawiya’s rule, he reportedly lived in his palace in Syria.His memory was poor, but the Bukhari compilation provides reference to his poor memory being miraculously cured by the Prophet (Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 1, Book 3, #119, also repeated at Vol. 4, Book 56, #841, also repeated by another narrator with a somewhat different text at Vol. 1, Book 3, #120), a claim that might not be true. And legitimately, a question also arises: how sure can one be that the later transmitters (who are known as rawis, some of whom were tabiun, i.e., companions of the companions of the Prophet, or tabi-tabiun, i.e., companions of the tabiun) in the isnadattributed Hadith texts to the original companion of the Prophet accurately without any mistake, even with full good intentions? Any mistake made by anyone of the narrators of any Hadith in the isnadinvolved would necessarily make its transmission flawed and its accurate attribution to the Prophet difficult.
There are even some Hadith texts in Bukharithat suggest that even the Prophet used to forget things (Sahih Bukhari, VOL. 1, BOOK 5, #274, ALSO VOL. 1, BOOK 8, #394)! Surely the less reliable human agents involved in Hadith transmission were more likely to forget and make mistakes. The authenticity of Hadith breaks down on this count alone. It definitely relies on too many unproven assumptions.
The Influence of Power Struggles and Theological Rivalries on Hadith Writing
The Umayyad and Abbasid rulers actively promoted Hadith writing. According to a historical tradition, Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 742 CE) was the first individual to record (in writing) the Hadith, but under duress – under orders from Caliph Hisham, “who became the first traditionist [sic] to violate the Prophet’s prohibition on recording Hadith in writing. Al-Zuhri is reported to have said: ‘We disapproved of recording knowledge until these rulers forced us to do so. After that we saw no reason to forbid Muslims to do so.’”
About the power struggles and theological rivalries that led to forging of Hadith in circulation, MacDonald notes:
[T]he Umayyads, who reigned from AH 41 to AH 132, for reasons of state, […] encouraged and spread—also freely forged and encouraged others to forge—such traditions as were favorable to their plans and to their rule generally. This was necessary if they were to carry the body of the people with them. But they regarded themselves as kings and not as the heads of the Muslim people. This same device has been used after them by all the contending factions of Islam. Each party has sought sanction for its views by representing them in traditions from the Prophet, and the thing has gone so far that on almost every disputed point there are absolutely conflicting prophetic utterances in circulation. It has even been held, and with some justification, that the entire body of normative tradition at present in existence was forged for a purpose.
One example of Hadith fabrication given by Goldziher is that by Ummayad caliph Abd al-Malik also known as Malik b. Anaswho was an important collector of Hadith is as follows:
When the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik wished to stop the pilgrimages to Mecca because he was worried lest his rival ‘Abd Allah b. Zubayr should force the Syrians journeying to the holy places in Hijaz to pay him homage, he had recourse to the expedient of the doctrine of the vicarioushajjto the Qubbat al-Sakhra in Jerusalem. He decreed that obligatory circumambulation (tawaf) could take place at the sacred place in Jerusalem with the same validity as that around the Ka’ba ordained in Islamic law. The pious theologian al-Zuhri was given the task of justifying this politically motivated reform of religious life by making up and spreading a saying traced back to the Prophet, according to which there are three mosques to which people may take pilgrimages: those in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. […] An addition which, apparently, belonged to its original form but was later neglected by leveling orthodoxy in this and related sayings: ‘and a prayer in the Bayt al-Maqdisof Jerusalem is better than a thousand prayers in other holy places,’ i.e. even Mecca or Medina. Later, too, ‘Abd al-Malik is quoted when the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is to be equated with that to Mecca.
Contemporary Muslim scholar Jeffrey Lang cites another example of a politically motivated Hadith. The following Hadith report in Sahih Bukhari, “which so succinctly exonerates the first three Caliphs [after the Prophet’s death] in the precise order of their reigns, certainly sounds like it was invented to refute their detractors.”
On the authority of Abu Musa: the Prophet entered a garden and bade me guard its gate. Then a man came and asked leave to enter. And [the Prophet] said: Let him enter, and announce to him [that he will gain] Paradise. – And lo, it was Abu Bakr. Thereafter another man came and asked leave to enter. And [the Prophet] said: Let him enter, and announce to him [that he will gain] Paradise. – And lo, it was ‘Umar. Thereafter another man came and asked leave to enter. And [the Prophet] remained silent for a while; then he said: Let him enter, and announce to him [that he will gain] Paradise after a calamity that is to befall him. – And lo, it was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan.(Similar texts in Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 5, Book 57, # 42, 44)
Lang provides two examples of Hadith fabrication in the area of theological disputes. One point of contention is that “[…] the legitimacy of ijma(consensus) as a source of Islamic Law was much debated during Imam al Shafi’i’s time, who defends it in his Risala, Yet al Shafi’i, a leader in the Hadith party, was apparently unaware of the famous statement of the Prophet, “my community will never agree on an error” (al Tirmidhi), which establishes its validity. Another point of contention among al Shafi’i’s colleagues is whether prophetic sunnahs on issues unmentioned in the Qur’an are binding. This time, however, al Shafi’i is able to call upon a made-to-order Hadith:
Narrated Abu Rafi: The Prophet said: ‘Let me not find any one of you reclining in his couch and saying when a command reaches him, “I do not know. We shall follow [only] what we find in the Book of God.” (Abu Dawud)
Lang also cites the example of the stoning of married adulterers introduced by the Hadith, but which conflicts with the Quran, and which did not go unchallenged in early Islam. He further notes:
There are numerous examples like these in the tradition literature of seemingly made-to-order Hadiths that provide unequivocal proof for the correctness of various juridical stances that were taken in long-standing legal debates. If these traditions are genuine, it is surprising that these debates persisted so long – often into the late second and third Islamic centuries – and that these extremely convenient traditions are not cited in earlier works that discuss the topics they address.
The rijal and other Hadith related literature describe […] motivations behind Hadith fabrication. Political, sectarian, partisan, prejudicial, and self-aggrandizing aims were frequently behind Hadith deception. Most often Hadiths were manufactured and manipulated to lend prophetic authority to customs, opinions, doctrines, or party planks that were unconnected to his [the Prophet’s] teachings and behaviors.
About questionable Hadith authentication, contemporary Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan comments as follows:
By the ninth century, when the Islamic law was being fashioned, there were so many false Hadith circulating through the community that Muslim legal scholars somewhat whimsically classified them into two categories: lies told for material gain and lies told for theological advantage. In the ninth and tenth centuries, a concerted effort was made to sift through the massive accumulation in order to separate the reliable from the rest. Nevertheless, for hundreds of years, anyone who had the power and wealth necessary to influence public opinion on a particular issue – and who wanted to justify about, say, the role of women in society – had only to refer to a Hadith which he had heard from someone, who had heard it from someone else, who had heard from a Companion, who had heard it from the Prophet.
Thus according to Aslan, one basic reason behind the distorted Prophetic traditions was that those who took upon themselves the task of projecting Islam – “men who were, coincidentally, among the most powerful and wealthy members of the ummah– were not nearly as concerned with the accuracy of their reports or the objectivity of their exegesis as they were in regaining the financial and social dominance that the Prophet’s reforms had taken from them.”
The Novel Criteria Used to Judge the Authenticity of the Hadith
The Hadith believers boast of certain criteria that were used by the compilers to screen out fake Hadith and select authentic Hadith. These criteria are euphemistically labeled as “the science of the Hadith” (ilm al-Hadith) or the science of accepting and rejecting narrations (ilm al-Jarh wa al-Ta’dil). However, on close scrutiny, these criteria are not fool-proof to establish undisputed authenticity of Hadith accounts, as evidenced by the inclusion in so-called sahihHadiths of numerous texts that are “vulgar, absurd, theologically objectionable, or morally repugnant.”These criteria, as an anonymous writer remarks, are:
[A] system of guidelines which numerous scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have clearly shown to be seriously inadequate – if not a complete farce, as these standards are broken on numerous occasions in even the ‘best’ collections of Hadith. This of course makes the authenticity of the Hadith dubious at best – a situation with serious ramifications for the Islamic SHARIAand the religion of Islam as a whole [when, of course, understood in terms of the Quran and the Hadith together].
The criteria relate to the isnadand matn. However good such criteria might look on paper prima facie, they are inherently grossly inadequate for the following reasons:
- The subjective nature of judgments by individual Hadith compilers about the character of the numerous narrators involved;
- The multiplicity of isnadnarrators involved spanning several generations and possible problems associated with isnads;
- Possibility of human error committed by narrators involved due to communication, human memory, or other problems;
- The sheer vast number of matntexts involved;
- Observed biases of the compilers in their choice of narrators and choice of texts; and
- Flaws in the criteria themselves.
The basic question that needs to be judged first is that it is the compiler like Bukhari, Muslim, etc., who is judging the character and qualifications of the narrators, and whose judgment could easily go wrong. It is beyond anybody’s comprehension how it was possible for one to ascertain with full accuracy that a narrator had not lied or not made any unintentional mistake in stating things, even if he was known to be pious or virtuous by some traditional standards. As Jayrajpuri aptly notes, “Honesty and dishonesty are internal qualities which cannot be known with any certainty by observers. As a result, ilm al-rijal[the knowledge of men] is only an approximate qiyasi[science], and one can never be absolutely certain that one’s judgment about a transmitter is correct.”Also, according to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, judging the character of contemporary people is difficult enough; accurately judging that of the transmitters of earlier generations must have been very hard indeed, if not totally impossible, especially when the transmitters involved were so numerous and the period covered was so large. As contemporary Muslim scholar Jeffrey Lang aptly notes, “All things considered, it seems that a major drawback of classical Hadith studies is that judgments on the veracity of one set of data – the Hadith reports – are based on a second set of data – the rijalreports – that we have no compelling reason to believe is more reliable than the first, quite the opposite.”
The criteria of classical Hadith judgment are subject also to criticism that there was always the possibility of forging of the isnad, and such forging, according to some reports, took place on just as large a scale as the forging of contents. For forgers, there was always a great incentive to attribute reports to most trustworthy authorities.It appears that isnadtampering occurred in various ways: isnadinvention and theft and, most frequently, isnadmanipulation, which involved “’tampering with isnadsin order to make them appear more reliable than they are in reality.’It consisted either of interpolating the name of a trustworthy transmitter or eliminating the name or names of discreditable transmitters from the isnad, or both of these.”This practice of what is called tadliswas widespread; and it consisted of ihala(transfer) of traditions from a dubious to a reliable isnad, waslor tawsil(connecting) of missing links in the isnadby interpolating some names of authorities, and raf(raising) a tradition to the level of a more prestigious authority, mostly the Prophet, by supplying the necessary links.”As Jeffrey Lang points out, “we know from rijal and other Hadith related literature that besides matnfabrication, isnadtheft, invention, and tampering had also occurred on an enormous scale, so that the focal point of Hadith evaluation had also suffered from extensive corruption. Yet if the main evidence of Hadith criticism had often been manipulated, then we have every right to wonder how well suited was isnadcriticism to detecting corrupted chains of transmission.”Lang further notes, “Another weak point of classical isnadappraisal is that systematic rijalcriticism upon which it depends did not commence until around 130 AH/747 CE, nearly a century after the origins of the isnadsystem. Hence we find ourselves in a serious predicament: the assessment of the reliability of Hadith reports is based on information that is in nature less reliable than the material we are supposed to judge. This is all the more disconcerting since we have every reason to believe that tadlis(isnadtampering) occurred on as massive a scale as matnfabrication.”
And how could one be fully certain that the narrator fully remembered what he had heard from another narrator, that any of the narrators involved in the chain had not made even the slightest mistake in communication, and that there was absolutely no communication gap between the narrator who narrated a certain story and the narrator who heard the story? There was almost always the possibility for human error, even assuming that the narrators had all the good qualifications and good intentions? As we know from the experience of extensive scientific experimentation carried out in the field of modern information science, it is a proven fact that we find most people not able to exactly reproduce statements made by others – sayings change swiftly from one set of ears to another set. We also know that the compilers had biases in their choice of narrators and both the compilers and the narrators had biases in their choice of Hadith texts, motivated by political and theological grounds. One critic cites that a Hadith originating from Abdullah bin Umar was rejected by Bukhari, although the basically same Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira was accepted, and although many other Hadith texts from Abdullah bin Umar were accepted by Bukhari.In a nutshell, there were too many unknowns and uncertainties as well as biases involved in the selection process of so-called authentic Hadith, which it could not be humanly possible to resolve fully satisfactorily by people like Bukhari. Kassim Ahmad notes:
However accurate the methodology of the isnad, the scholars first started talking about it and started writing it down only about 150 – 200 years after the deaths of the very last tabi`i tabi`in. This means that when the research to establish the isnadgot started, none of the Companions, the succeeding generation, or the generation coming after them [was] available to provide any kind of guidance, confirmation or rebuttal. Therefore, the authenticity of the statements cannot be vouched for at all.
It is not our intention to say that Bukhari, Muslim and others were fabricators. However, even students of elementary psychology or communication will testify that a simple message of, say, 15 words will get distorted after passing through only about five messengers. (Our readers are welcome to try out this experiment). Keep in mind that the Hadith contains thousands of detailed and complex narrations – everything from ablution to jurisprudence. These narrations passed through hundreds of narrators who were spread out over thousands of miles of desert, and spanned over two to three hundred years of history. All this at a time when news traveled at the speed of a camel gait, recorded on pieces of leather or bone or scrolls in a land that had neither paper nor the abundance of scribes to write anything down!
Kassim Ahmad continues, “It stands to reason that the Hadith writers depended on much story-telling to fill in the blanks. Many `authentic’ narrators whom the Hadith writers allude to in their chains of isnadwere wholly fabricated names.”It was “preposterous and impossible” for Bukhari to have meticulously considered over six hundred thousand Hadith texts to pick his authentic 7,275 Hadith texts in his lifetime in an age when the camel journey was the only available means to cover long desert distances.
Some of the matn criteria that were used are flawed or weak on grounds as follows:
- The criterion that a text should not be inconsistent with other texts of Hadith is weak, as even if a text is not inconsistent with other Hadith texts, all such texts could be simultaneously wrong. Also, this criterion is found violated by Hadith texts included in the so-called sahih category that are either self-conflicting or conflicting with one another.
- Texts prescribing heavy punishments for minor sins or exceptionally large rewards for small virtues were rejected. But this involved the value judgments of the Hadith compilers about what constituted «too heavy» or «too large». There are serious instances of violation of this criterion – One glaring example is Hadith-prescribed punishment for apostasy by killing, though the Quran allows full religious freedom.
- Texts referring to actions that should have been commonly known and practiced by others but were not known and practiced were rejected. This criterion is flawed; it does not guarantee the veracity of the text about the Prophet.
- Most importantly, the criterion such as that the Hadith texts should not be contrary to the Quran, reason, or logic has been flagrantly flouted in numerous cases. Many scholars have demonstrated that numerous Hadith texts do in fact contradict the Quran or do not stand to reason or logic or scientific truths.
As Hadith critics have pointed out, the Hadith scholars were mostly concerned with the isnad criteria and in the process they neglected the matn criteria. Otherwise, how could they compile traditions that were clearly absurd or simply unacceptable from the point of view of the Quran? Khaled Abou El Fadl points out:
[T]he methodologies of the field [of ‘ilal al-matn, i.e., the field within the science of Hadith related to the defects of Prophetic reports] were elusive, and the judgment reached was fairly subjective. Furthermore, most of the efforts of past scholars of Hadith were directed at authenticating the isnadof Hadith. Matnanalysis remained undeveloped and under-utilized. Even more, the science of Hadith did not correlate the authenticity of Hadith with its theological and social ramifications. The scholars of Hadith did not demand a higher standard of authenticity for a Hadith that could have sweeping theological and social ramifications. Additionally, […] Hadith scholars did not engage in historical evaluation of Hadith or examine its logical coherence or social impact. Consequently, Hadith scholars often accepted the authenticity of Hadith with problematic theological and social implications.
Thus the so-called criteria used to authenticate Hadiths are inherently flawed and simply inadequate to the massive task. They rather mask or camouflage the real character of the Hadith and thus mislead unwitting Muslims.
Musa, Aisha Y., Hadith As Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 5.
Ibid, p. 19.
Excerpted from “How Did the Recent Facebook Hadith Debate Go?” on the link: http://quranonly.com/how-did-the-recent-facebook-hadith-debate-go/.
The Mishna and the Gemara together make up the Talmud. The Mishna serves much the same function that the Hadith have come to serve in Islam.
Ahmad, Kassim, Hadith: A Re-Evaluation, 1997, Translated from his original book in Malay Hadis — Satu Penilaian first published in 1986; web link:
Ahmad, Kassim, ibid, 1997.
Kazi, Mazhar U., A TREASURY OF AHADITH,Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, (Abul-Qasim Publishing House), 1992.
Musa, op. cit, p. 29.
Meherally, Akbarally, Myths and Realities of Hadith – A Critical Study, 2001.
Musa, op. cit, pp. 75-76.
Ibid, p. 76.
Ibid, pp. 29, 76.
Rahim, M. Abdur, The History of Hadith Compilation(in Bengali), p. 290.
Jayrajpuri, Muhammad Aslam, Ilm-i-Hadith, Lahore, n. d., 2; cited in Brown, Daniel W., 1996 (paperback 1999), Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought, Cambridge University, 1996, p. 86.
Musa, op. cit, pp. 22-29, 74-79.
Brown, op. cit, p. 96.
Ahmad, Kassim, op. cit.
Iqbal, p. 137.
Al-Shibli, Sirat al-Numan, Lahore, n. d. Trans. Muhammad Tayyab Bakhsh Badauni as Method of Sifting Prophetic Tradition, Karachi, 1966. 179; cited in Brown, op. cit, p. 114.
Early books of Hadith writing are the Muwattaof Malik ibn Anas (d. 179 AH) that related to legal matters and the Musnadof Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 AH).
MacDonald, Duncan B., Development of Muslim Theology Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory(George Routledge and Sons), London, 1903, p. 76.
MacDonald, Duncan B., 1903, ibid, pp. 76-77.
Ahmad, Kassim, 1997.
Brown, op. cit,, p. 96.
Jayrajpuri, Ilm-i-Hadith, p. 16, cited in Brown, op. cit., p. 96.
First Muslim ruling dynasty after the Khulafai Rashidun; it ruled during 41 AH/661 CE-132 AH/750 CE
The second ruling dynasty of the Muslim empire after the Umayyads, who ruled during 132 AH/750 CE-923 AH/1517 CE
Brown, op. cit, p. 96.
Juynboll, Muslim Tradition: Studies in Chronology, Provenance and Authorship of Early Hadith,Cambridge University, 2008, p.145.
Brown, op. cit., p. 86.
Ibid, p. 86.
Ibid, p. 86.
Mustafa, Ibrahim, Hadith and the Corruption of the Great Religion of Islam, undated, pp. 9-10.
Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat, II, ii, p. 135; cited in Azami, Studies in Early Hadith Literature, Beirut, 1968; Indianapolis, 1978, p. 285; cited in Brown, op. cit,, p. 92.
MacDonald, op. cit,, pp. 77-78.
Malik b. Anas (716-794 CE) is recognized as the founder of one of the four juristic divisions of Sunni Muslims. He was a major collector of Hadith.
Goldziher, Ignaz, op. cit,, p. 45.
Lang, op. cit,, pp. 251-252.
Asad, Muhammad (trans.) Sahih al-Bukhari: the Early Years of Islam, Dar al-Andalus (1981), pp. 47-48; cited in Lang, op. cit,, pp. 251-252.
Lang, op. cit, 2004, p. 253.
Lang, op. cit, 2004, p. 255.
Lang, op. cit, 2004, p. 263.
Aslan, op. cit, p. 68.
Aslan, op. cit,p. 68.
Brown, op. cit, p. 95.
Cited in HADITH AUTHENTICITY: A SURVEY OF PERSPECTIVES, op. cit
Jayrajpuri, Ilm-i-Hadith, pp. 22-23; cited in Brown, op. cit,, p. 98.
Lang, op. cit,, pp. 214-215.
Jayrajpuri, op. cit,, p. 26; cited in Brown, op. cit,, p. 98.
Juynboll, op. cit., 1983, pp. 179-180; cited in Lang, 2004, op. cit,, p. 218.
Lang, op. cit,, p. 218.
Lang, op. cit,, p. 222.
Lang, op. cit,, p. 215.
Lang, op. cit,, p. 246. To be fair to the author, note that though he displays a critical outlook to the Hadith, he is not totally disposed toward dismissing all Hadith as unacceptable. He accepts those “authenticated legal traditions that do not seem to conflict with the Qur’an.” He also thinks “it necessary to take into consideration the historical contexts of the Prophet’s acts. [He thinks] it important to derive general ethical and spiritual lessons from them, rather than attempt to replicate the cultural and historical specifics they describe or to mimic tangential aspects of the Prophet’s example.” And he admits that his position on the Hadith is an evolving one. (Lang, op. cit, 265) He is “more wary of non-legal traditions … [and] especially cautious with regard to the theological traditions”. These points are also repeated on pages 270-271 of the same reference.
HADITH AUTHENTICITY: A SURVEY OF PERSPECTIVES, op. cit,, pp. 3-4.
Ahmad, Kassim, op. cit.
See Abdur Rab, Rediscovering Genuine Islam: The Case for a Quran-Only Understanding, 2014, Chapter 11, for a description of Hadith texts that are in conflict with the Quran, science, or reason.
Fadl, Abou El, And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and the Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses, University Press of America, Inc., Lanham and Oxford, 2001, pp. 70-71.