Q. Can you please kindly comment on the validity of Muslims' belief in Hadiths, which undoubtedly contain contradictions, improbabilities, and impossibilities? This in view of the fact that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is even reported to have said among others: "Do not write anything from me except the Qur'an. Whoever wrote must destroy it." (Muslim, Zuhd 72; Hanbel 3/12, 21, 39). And Umar' b. al-khattab also said: "The Qur'an is enough for us, do not write anything from the Prophet." (Bukhari, Jihad 176, Gizya 6, Ilim 49, Marza 17, Megazi 83, Itisam 26; Muslim, Vasiyya 20, 21, 22). In addition, the events that happened 30 years after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) have been shown to uphold the Prophet's order not to write anything down except the Qur'an, notwithstanding other isolated hadiths that seemingly contradict this position.

Having regard to the criterion for judging God's words as spelled out in the Holy Qur'an: "If it were from other than God, they would have found in it numerous contradictions." (Q4:82), is it in order for us to continue to treat hadiths / Sunnah as constituting a revelation alongside the Qur'an, in spite of their well-documented shortcomings (I have a long list which I can forward for your perusal)? Is there any moral justification for condemning Christian religious text based on the anomalies that are found to be associated with hadiths too?

A. Your approach to the issue denotes that you are familiar with much of the problematic issues of hadith. Muslims have forgotten that the hadith was not a cut and dried concept that evolved after the Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) death. In fact what happened, in a nutshell, is that initially people did not need the traditions or any such thing. The Qur'an was there, and its message understood by them in light of the other scriptures around them. This is extremely important -- for Muslims often read the Qur'an in a vacuum divorced from its sitz im leben. Let us take a well-known Qur'anic verse: "Verily we have revealed the dhikr (remembrance) and we will protect it." This is a statement that cannot be understood unless we know the problems of the society of the time. The Christians were arguing about canonical text, the Jews were arguing about whether the Oral Torah was part of Torah, etc. And we know that the Qur'an is aware of this for it says too: "Woe be unto those who write the scriptures with their own hands and then say this is from God." What the Qur'an is trying to do if force the Muslims to rely on scripture / the Qur'an only.

The Qur'an is saying nothing else is protected. Now there are many who say that the term "dhikr" means Qur'an and Hadith, but there is a circular argument involved here. This is how it works: If we are debating about the hadith, the proof for or against the hadith has to come from other than the hadith. This means that you cannot use the hadith itself to prove its validity or lack thereof, since to accept any hadith is to accept its validity -- but how can you assume its validity when that is the very point we are arguing? And so this is what happens:

Person A: The verse means the Qur'an and Hadith.

Person B: How do you know this?

Person A: Because the Hadith says so.

Person B: But I don't believe that Hadith.

Person A: But the Hadith says that you have to accept the Hadith...

So you see the circularity here?

Remember too that the early Muslims had problems; Imam Malik wanted that the Sunnah of the people of Medina be taken as the only reliable source. Abu Hanifa put the term "Sunnah" to mean the deed of any companion as well. You may ask how we have jumped to Sunnah from Hadith? This is because the concepts are interrelated: the hadith being the oral reports of alleged sunnah. Until the time of Shafi, the scholars were widely divided on if hadith was acceptable or not as a source of Islamic learning. Now if the hadith were ab initio acceptable, why would they have this argument?

Also the early definition of hadith is "that which is attributed to Muhammad in terms of word, deed, and tacit approval." The structure of the definition -- particularly the use of the passive -- shows a lack of belief in the reliability. Another early rule was "the basic rule is that the Qur'an is accepted, and that hadith is rejected." Why would the jurists make up this law? What Shafi did was implement such rules of acceptance in that he hoped to erase the spread of false hadith. In theory this was good, but hadith is based on "asma al rijal", that is to say, the credibility of the reporters, (i.e. names of men -- is a science wherein the reliability of transmitters are examined). The problem is that while a lot of false hadith were thus ruled upon, several other hadith were vetted, because this is a man-made science and politics, etc. play a part. One assumed honesty based on nothing bad being known of a person. But if he were Shia, his material was rejected. Another thing too is that even today, top scholars are still rejecting hadith from so-called authoritative sources, such as Muslim and Bukhari. The late scholar (Muhammad Nasir al-din al-Albani) went through several hadith and compiled a long series of best-selling books called "series of the false and weak hadith."

Don't forget too that it is well known that hadith must be categorized as false, true, weak, etc. That shows that they must be examined, and we must assume that if they succeed, their ruling is still subject to man-made judgments. Even so, it does not follow the Qur'anic ayat that says: "Woe be unto those who write the scriptures with their own hands and then say this is from God." Consider carefully those who try to say that hadith were revealed! On the aspect of previous scriptures, I agree with you on them. But here are certain observations: The Qur'an talks about those who "take speech out of context," and "Woe be unto those who write the book with their own hands and say this is from God," -- and then the Qur'an tells us to read the Torah. What the Qur'an seems to suggest is that there are certain verses in the Torah that have been removed from their place and put elsewhere, and that there are those who want tradition to be part of the Torah.

Notice it never asks us to read the Gospel, presumably because in the Arabia of the Prophet's time, there was no universally accepted canonized Christian testament, or that the Christians had put such agrapha into it that it was, from a Muslim viewpoint, quite different to the original document. We are not sure if the Qur'anic verses refer to the texts themselves or to other material that did not make it in, or to material that did make it in, and we should not waste time trying to speak ill of these. For as you say, Muslims do the same thing: "And when it is said to them, follow that which God has revealed, they say, rather we would follow that which we found our forefathers doing." This is the essence of hadith / sunnah today, and the Qur'an leaves us no doubt as to its position on sunnah and hadith, the practice of our forefathers, who may or may not have fully discussed the consequences of their actions.

We know the Qur'an is protected beyond the shadow of a doubt. We know from reliable reports, and extrapolation from scripture, about the problem of hadith. God tells us: "This is a book in which there is no doubt."(Q2:3) Elsewhere God says: "We have omitted nothing from the book."Q6:39 These verses tell us where our proofs should lie. That being said, we take the position of the late, great Fazlur Rahman of blessed memory, who noted that it would be impossible to assume that the companions did not recollect the Prophet's (PBUH) sayings, etc. After all, he was an example. Certain things have lived on in the form of sunnah -- as we see in certain ritual activities. For the discerning Muslim, the Qur'an is the absolute guide, and any recourse to hadith must be taken with due acknowledgement of the incontrovertible fact that the latter is an area of conjecture and unreliability. May God guide us all.

Posted January 31, 2004