Q: Many Muslims stress not only the importance of the Qur'an, but the Sunnah / Hadith as well. Yet in some of your responses, you seem to make no mention whatsoever of hadith, and in others you barely touch on it. Can you explain why?
A: First we need to understand that there is a fundamental difference between the early scholars and the latter ones, in respect to the use of hadith: the former differentiated between the use of the terms "sunnah" and "hadith," whereas the majority of the latter ones use the terms interchangeably. As Fazlur Rahman indicates, the term "sunnah" in early usage means not only the practice of the Prophet, but of those respected companions, since they presumably were able to understand his outlook and message. I think that wherever possible, we can analyze their views.
The hadith, in many cases, are clearly at odds with the Qur'an. Scholars try to harmonize between the two with often regrettable results. As a researcher who has majored in the difference between the Qur'an and Hadith, I have developed an approach which does not reject hadith outright, but focuses more on the Qur'an as an incorruptible document. My approach is more in line, I feel, with the early scholars whose definition interestingly enough is: "That which is attributed to the Prophet in terms of word, deed, or tacit approval." The use of the passive case in "is attributed" denotes, in hadith usage, that the sayings purported to have come from the Prophet are treated with the presumption of rejection at first sight: i.e. "They have to be proven to be correct in order to be accepted." If they cannot be proven to be correct, then they are to be rejected.
The modern method of hadith application seems to ignore this essential understanding. Muslims seem to accept a hadith as being presumably true simply because it is called a "hadith." We have too, several non-scholars quoting hadith and claiming that such narration are authentic, when in fact they have no knowledge of the relevant research. Out of respect for previous researchers, they blindly accept a narrator's statement as being conclusive. We find therefore, that the majority of Sunni Muslims accept the collections of Muslim and Bukhari as being absolutely true, the argument being that for centuries, Muslims have made this claim.
The fact of the matter is that scholars have questioned the authenticity of some of the hadith, al Daraqutni being the most famous. Muslims often take a dichotomous position when arguing for authenticity. A typical example is the argument that the Qur'an does not preach that Eve was created from Adam's rib. Muslims are eager to point out that this is a Biblical teaching, and is not sanctioned. This argument overlooks the fact that the very teaching is in the hadith -- in the most authoritative collection -- that of Bukhari. If one hadith can be inauthentic, so can others.
In my own research for my master's thesis, I found that the overwhelming majority of the hadith in Sahih Muslim on the subject of eschatology, had nothing to do with the Qur'anic imagery, but depends rather on Jewish and Christian importation. In addition to my own research, there are several other works by people who question hadith. Some of the arguments against hadith are by those who know neither Qur'an nor the hadith, and as such, they are not even worth looking at. Others are by those who have sectarian bias as their prime inspiration. Some works, however, are indeed excellent.
Unfortunately, the majority of Muslims have chosen to put creed before truth, dismissing those works before even examining them for whatever merit they may have. Other scholars have gone against researchers with ad hominem attacks, rather than with direct rebuttals to the arguments. The best position and the most logical is as stated by Fazlur Rahman: i.e. "It is impossible to assume that the Prophet did not say anything other than the Quran." And it is impossible that since he is, by the text of the Qur'an itself, shown as the best example, that the people did not report what he said and did. So there is a ground for hadith.
The problem is sifting the false from the true. Unfortunately, the books on the probity of narrators do not solve the problem, for political and sectarian considerations skewed the views of the researchers. Indeed, even logic was thrown aside, and so sometimes we have the ridiculous verdict of "authentic in terms of chain, not in terms of text." More weight is given to the (alleged) continuity of the chain of transmitters, rather than the text. This is done on the assumption of the collective probity of the companions of the Prophet, which is in itself a sectarian doctrine (since the Shias do not share this view). This is most certainly a later development in Islamic thought, since a thematic reading of the Qur'an does not provide any grounds for the assumption of collective probity.
Secondly, the Qur'an is what we know provides absolute truth, the hadith on the other hand only provides probability (al-'ilm al-Zanni). This goes back to the simple fact that Allah (s.w.t) has promised us to protect the Qur'an. As such, we have no ayah which is considered "Sahih" as opposed to another considered "Mawdu". On the aspect of legislation, one has to use absolute proof, and so I restrict myself as much as possible to the Qur'an.
Posted September 24, 1998.