Hadith Polemic and the Muslim Psyche

Abdul H. Manraj


The late Fazlur Rahman (1919 - 1988) was undoubtedly one of the greatest Muslim thinkers of the 20th century, yet he was only truly appreciated in academic circles. This may explain why he and intellectuals such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, Abdullahi Ahmed An Na’im, and others with similar credentials are seldom mentioned or even heard of in mainstream Muslim discourses, which hardly ever rise above the level of mediocrity. Fazlur Rahman bemoaned the decadence of Muslims worldwide and his profound influence extended across academia and in scholarly publications. After teaching spells at Durham University (UK) and McGill University (Canada), he returned to his native Pakistan with high hopes. Rahman tried in vain to make some progressive changes especially with regards to how the Qur'an and Hadith are interpreted and applied. After threats against his life, he ended up fleeing to the United States where he was an accomplished professor in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago until his death. This article is a summation of one of his early works (Islamic Methodology in History). Other contributions from this remarkable scholar include “Islam,” “Islam and Modernity,” “Major Themes of the Qur’an,” and “Revival and Reform in Islam,” his last book which was never quite finished due to his unexpected death in 1988. As Fazlur Rahman noted in his preface to "Islamic Methodology in History":

“The traditionalist-minded Muslims are not likely to accept the findings of this work easily. I can only plead with them that they should try to study this important problem with historical fair-mindedness and objectivity. I, for my part, am convinced, as a Muslim, that neither Islam nor the Muslim Community will suffer from facing the facts of history as they are; on the contrary, historical truth, like all truth, shall invigorate Islam for – as the Qur'an tells us – God is in intimate touch with history.1

With the exception of the “Introduction” and “Conclusion,” for the most part the applicable sections of “Islamic Methodology in History” were used verbatim in order to capture and synthesize the main themes for this article. Admittedly, a summary cannot do justice to any of Fazlur Rahman’s books, so readers are encouraged to study “Islamic Methodology in History” in its entirety, since it includes the evidence and sources to substantiate his research. As far as this synopsis goes, the focus will be on the role of the Sunnah / Hadith in the formative years of Islam, how the early Muslims understood and applied the Sunnah / Hadith following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, and how the Hadith subsequently became inflexible leaving little or no room for analysis, reinterpretation, or any discussion. The result is that there is a profound level of anti-intellectualism that permeates Muslim communities across the globe, with the majority of Muslims today believing that all of our “thinking” has been done for us centuries ago by the early generations of Muslims, therefore we should just unquestionably accept what has been passed down to us and nostalgically cling to the past, hoping that the glory days of Islam will somehow miraculously reappear.


Essentially there are four basic principles of Islamic thinking which supply the framework for all Islamic thought, viz., the Qur'an, Sunnah / Hadith, ljitihad (independent reasoning), and Ijma (consensus). The fundamental importance of these four principles – which, it must be reemphasized, are not just the principles of Islamic jurisprudence but of all Islamic thought – can hardly be overestimated. Particularly important is the way these principles may be combined and applied; this difference can cause all the distance that exists between stagnation and movement, between progress and petrification.2

Sunnah is a behavioral concept – whether applied to physical or mental acts – and further denotes not merely a single act as such, but in so far as this act is actually repeated or potentially repeatable. In other words, a sunnah is a law of behavior whether demonstrated once or often.3 In early Islamic history, two of the four principles (Ijtihad and Ijma) were intimately bound up not only with one another but also with the concept of Sunnah which, starting from the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, became an ongoing creative process of interpretation and elaboration and was given the sanction of ljma. This process of creativity stopped, however, grinding slowly to a standstill when this living Sunnah began to be cast in Hadith form and attributed to the Prophet.4

Western Islamic studies rejected the concept of the Prophetic Sunnah  because they have found (i) that a part of the content of Sunnah is a direct continuation of the pre-Islamic customs and mores of the Arabs; (ii) that by far the greater part of the content of the Sunnah was the result of the freethinking activity of the early legists of Islam who, by their personal Ijtihad, had made deductions from the existing Sunnah or practice and – most important of all – had incorporated new elements from without, especially from the Jewish sources and Byzantine and Persian administrative practices; and, finally (iii) that later when the Hadith develops into an overwhelming movement and becomes a mass scale phenomenon in the late second and especially in the third centuries, this whole content of the early Sunnah comes to be verbally attributed to the Prophet himself under the aegis of the concept of the "Sunnah of the Prophet".5

Fazlur Rahman posits (1) that while the above story about the development of the Sunnah is essentially correct, it is correct about the content of the Sunnah only and not about the concept of the "Sunnah of the Prophet", i.e., the "Sunnah of the Prophet" was a valid and operative concept from the very beginning of Islam and remained so throughout (2) the Sunnah – content left by the Prophet – was not very large in quantity and that it was not something meant to be absolutely specific; (3) the concept Sunnah after the time of the Prophet covered validly not only the Sunnah of the Prophet himself but also the interpretations of the Prophetic Sunnah; (4) the "Sunnah" in this last sense is coextensive with the Ijma of the Community, which is essentially an ever-expanding process; and finally (5) after the mass scale Hadith movement the organic relationship between the Sunnah, ljtihad, and ljma was destroyed.6

It goes without saying that the Qur'an was taught as the nucleus of the new Islamic teaching. But the Qur'an is obviously not intelligible purely by itself – strictly situational as its revelations are. It would be utterly irrational to suppose that the Qur'an was taught without involving in fact the activity of the Prophet as the central background activity which included policy, commands, decisions, etc. Nothing can give coherence to the Qur'anic teaching except the actual life of the Prophet and the milieu in which he moved, and it would be a great childishness of the twentieth century to suppose that people immediately around the Prophet distinguished so radically between the Qur'an and its exemplification in the Prophet that they retained the one but ignored the other, i.e., saw the one as divorced from the other. Completely nonsensical is the view of modern scholarship which makes the Prophet almost like a record in relation to Divine Revelation. Quite a different picture emerges from the Qur'an itself which assigns a unique status to the Prophet whom it charges with a "heavy responsibility" and whom it invariably represents as being excessively conscious of this responsibility.7

The overall picture of the Prophet's biography – if we look behind the coloring supplied by the medieval legal mass – has certainly no tendency to suggest the impression of the Prophet as a pan-legist neatly regulating the fine details of human life from administration to those of ritual purity. The evidence, in fact, strongly suggests that the Prophet was primarily a moral reformer of mankind and that, apart from occasional decisions, which had the character of ad hoc cases, he seldom resorted to general legislation as a means of furthering the Islamic cause. In the Qur'an itself general legislation forms a very tiny part of the Islamic teaching. But even the legal or quasi-legal part of the Qur'an itself clearly displays a situational character. Quite situational, for example, are the Qur'anic pronouncements on war and peace between the Muslims and their opponents – pronouncements which do express a certain general character about the ideal behavior of the community vis-a-vis an enemy in a grim struggle, but which are so situational that they can be regarded only as quasi-legal and not strictly and specifically legal. A prophet is a person who is centrally and vitally interested in swinging history and molding it on the Divine pattern. As such, neither the Prophetic Revelation nor the Prophetic behavior can neglect the actual historical situation; God speaks and the Prophet acts in, although certainly not merely for, a given historical context.8

As already noted, early Islamic literature strongly suggests that the Prophet was not a pan-legist. For one thing, it can be concluded a priori that the Prophet, who was until his death, engaged in a dire moral and political struggle against the Meccans and the Arabs and in organizing his community-state, could hardly have found time to lay down rules for the minutiae of life. Indeed, the Muslim community went about its normal business and did its day-to-day transactions, settling their normal business disputes by themselves in the light of commonsense and on the basis of their customs which, after certain modifications, were left intact by the Prophet. It was only in cases that became especially acute that the Prophet was called upon to decide, and in certain cases the Qur'an had to intervene. Mostly such cases were of an ad hoc nature and were treated informally and in an ad hoc manner. Thus, these cases could be taken as normative prophetic examples and quasi-precedents, but not strictly and literally. Indeed, there is striking evidence that even in the case of the timing for ritual prayers and the detailed descriptions for such, the Prophet had not left a rigid model. For example, the following hadith seems to point to a campaign for fixing the standard times for prayers.

For times of prayers, see the Muwatta' of Malik, Hadith no. 1: "...Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz one day delayed a prayer. 'Urwah ibn al-Zubayr entered upon him and informed him that al-Mughirah ibn Shu'bah, while in Kafah, once delayed a prayer, but Abu Mas'ud al-Ansari came to him and said: 'What is this, O Mughirah! Did you not know that Gabriel came down and prayed and the Prophet prayed (with him): then (again) Gabriel prayed (i.e., the next prayer) and the Prophet prayed (with him); then (again) Gabriel prayed (i.e., the third prayer) and the Prophet did likewise: then (again) Gabriel prayed (i.e., the fourth prayer) and likewise did the Prophet: and then (again) Gabriel prayed (i.e., the fifth prayer) and so did the Prophet?' The Prophet then said, 'Have I been commanded this?' (On hearing this) Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz exclaimed, 'Mind what you are relating, O 'Urwah! Is it the case that Gabriel it was who appointed the times of prayer for the Prophet?' 'Urwah replied, 'So was Bashir, son of Abu Mas'ud al-Ansari in the habit of relating from his father'." Henceforward, whenever prayers are emphasized in the Hadith, the word "Salah" is almost invariably accompanied by the phrase "'ala miqatiha – [prayers] at their proper times."

It was only on major policy decisions with regard to religion and state and on moral principles that the Prophet took formal action, but even then the advice of his major Companions was sought and given publicly or privately. In the behavior of the Prophet, religious authority and democracy were blended with a finesse that defies description. That the Prophetic Sunnah was a general umbrella concept rather than filled with an absolutely specific content flows directly, at a theoretical level, from the fact that the Sunnah is a behavioral term: since no two cases, in practice, are ever exactly identical in their situational setting – moral, psychological, and material – Sunnah must, of necessity, allow for interpretation and adaptation.9

It should be abundantly clear that the actual content of the Sunnah of the early generations of Muslims was largely the product of ljtihad when this Ijtihad, through an incessant interaction of opinion, developed the character of general acceptance or consensus of the Community, i.e., ljma. This is why the term "Sunnah" in our sense, i.e., the actual practice, is used equivalently by Malik with the term "al-amr al-mujtama' 'alayhi", i.e., Ijma. Thus, we see that the Sunnah and the Ijma literally merge into one another and are, in actual fact, materially identical.10

The Sunnah of the Prophet was an ideal which the early generations of Muslims sought to approximate by interpreting his example in terms of the new materials at their disposal and the new needs, and this continuous and progressive interpretation was also called "Sunnah", even if it varied according to different regions. This is in stark contrast to the later rigidity that came with the full development of the Science of Hadith.11

That Hadith from the Prophet must have existed from the very beginning of Islam is a fact which may not reasonably be doubted. Indeed, during the lifetime of the Prophet, it was perfectly natural for Muslims to talk about what the Prophet did or said, especially in a public capacity. The Arabs, who memorized and handed down poetry of their poets, sayings of their soothsayers, and statements of their judges and tribal leaders, cannot be expected to fail to notice and narrate the deeds and sayings of one whom they acknowledged as the Prophet of God.12

The Hadith is nothing but a reflection in a verbal mode of the living Sunnah. The Prophet's Sunnah is, therefore, in the Hadith just as it existed in the living Sunnah. But the living Sunnah contained not only the general Prophetic Model but also regionally standardized interpretations of that Model – thanks to the ceaseless activity of personal ljtihad and ljma. That is why innumerable differences existed in the living Sunnah. But this is exactly true of Hadith also. This is because Hadith reflects the living Sunnah. Indeed, a striking feature of Hadith is its diversity and the fact that almost on all points it reflects different points of view.13

But the Hadith in the Prophet's own time was largely an informal affair, since the only need for which it would be used was the guidance in the actual practice of the Muslims, and this need was fulfilled by the Prophet himself. After his death, the Hadith seems to have attained a semiformal status for it was natural for the emerging generation to enquire about the Prophet. There is no evidence, however, that the Hadith was compiled in any form even at this stage. The reason, again, seems to be this, viz., that whatever Hadith existed – as the carrier of the Prophetic Sunnah – existed for practical purposes, i.e., as something which could generate and be elaborated into the practice of the Community. For this reason, it was interpreted by the rules and judged freely according to the situation at hand, and something was produced in the course of time which we have described as the "living Sunnah." But when, by the third and fourth quarters of the first century, the living Sunnah had expanded vastly in different regions of the Muslim Empire through this process of interpretation in the interests of actual practice, and as differences in law and legal practice widened, the Hadith began to develop into a formal discipline.

It appears that the activity of the Hadith transmitters was largely independent of, and, in cases developed even in opposition to, the practice of the lawyers and judges. Whereas the lawyers based their legal work on the living Sunnah and interpreted their materials freely through their personal judgment in order to elaborate law, the Hadith transmitters saw their task as consisting of reporting, with the purpose of promoting legal fixity and permanence. Although the exact relationship between the lawyers and the transmitters of the Hadith in the earliest period is obscure for lack of sufficient materials, what seems certain is that these two approaches represented in general the two terms of a tension between legal growth and legal permanence: the one interested in creating legal materials, the other seeking a neat methodology or a framework that would endow the legal materials with stability and consistency. It is also quite certain that in the early stages, the majority of the Hadith did not go back to the Prophet, due to the natural paucity of the Prophetic Hadith, but to later generations.

Certainly, in the extant works of the second century, most of the legal and even moral traditions are not from the Prophet but are traced back to the Companions, the "Successors," and to the third generation. But as time went on, the Hadith movement, as though through an inner necessity imposed by its very purpose, tended to project the Hadith backwards to its most natural anchoring point, the person of the Prophet. The early legal schools, whose basis was the living and expanding Sunnah rather than a body of fixed opinion attributed to the Prophet, naturally resisted this development.14

By the middle of the second century, the Hadith movement had become fairly advanced and although most Hadith was still attributed to persons other than the Prophet – the Companions and especially the generations after the Companions – nonetheless a part of legal opinion and dogmatic views of the early Muslims had begun to be projected back to the Prophet. But still, the Hadith was interpreted and treated with great freedom.15 The evidence clearly indicates the increasing power of the Hadith over and against the living Sunnah, whose very lifeblood was free and progressive interpretation. It was against this background that Imam al-Shafi'i, the "Champion of Hadith," carried out his successful campaign to substitute the Hadith for the living Sunnah.16

The Hadith movement, which represents the new change in the religious structure of Islam as a discipline and whose milestone is al-Shafi'i's activity in law and legal Hadith, demanded by its very nature that Hadith should expand and that ever new Hadith should continue to come into existence in new situations to solve novel problems – social, moral, religious, etc. The majority of the contents of the Hadith corpus is, in fact, nothing but the Sunnah-Ijtihad of the first generations of Muslims, an Ijtihad which had its source in individual opinion but which, in the course of time and after tremendous struggles and conflicts against heresies and extreme sectarian opinion, received the sanction of Ijma, i.e., the adherence of the majority of the Community. In other words, the earlier living Sunnah was reflected in the mirror of the Hadith with the necessary addition of chains of narrators. There is, however, one major difference: whereas Sunnah was largely and primarily a practical phenomenon, geared as it was to behavioral norms, Hadith became the vehicle not only of legal norms but of religious beliefs and principles as well.17


It is clear that al-Shafi'i's notion of Ijma was radically different from that of the early schools. His idea of Ijma was that of a formal and a total one; he demanded an agreement which left no room for disagreement. But it is precisely the living and organic relationship between ljtihad and Ijma that was severed in the successful formulation of al-Shafi'i. The place of the living Sunnah-Ijtihad-Ijma he gives to the Prophetic Sunnah which, for him, does not serve as a general directive but as something absolutely literal and specific and whose only vehicle is the transmission of the Hadith.18

Ijma, instead of being a process and something forward-looking – coming at the end of free Ijtihad – came to be something static and backward-looking. It is that which, instead of having to be accomplished, is already accomplished in the past. Al-Shafi'i's genius provided a mechanism that gave stability to our medieval socio-religious fabric but at the cost, in the long run, of creativity and originality. There is no doubt that even in later times Islam did assimilate new currents of spiritual and intellectual life – for, a living society can never quite stand still, but this Islam did not do so much as an active force, master of itself, but rather as a passive entity with whom these currents of life played. An important case in point is Sufism.19

Without going into the details of the origins of Sufism, there is no denying that (as in every society) there must have been among the Companions those in whose temperament puritanical and devotional trends were stronger than purely activist traits, so it must be admitted that Sufism, as it developed from the second and, especially, third centuries, has little justification in the pristine practice of the Community. Its original impetuses came from politico-civil wars on the one hand and from the development of the law on the other. Its earliest manifestations are excessive individualist isolationism and ultra-puritanical asceticism. Furthermore, according to a Hadith in al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Jihad, the Prophet is represented as recommending that one should go "into a mountain cavity (shi'b), and leave people alone." That this Hadith should occur in the Sahih of al-Bukhari in the very chapter devoted to Jihad is a remarkable evidence both of the growing power of the Sufi movement and the catholic spirit of the Ahl al-Sunnah. But there are also equally powerful and extremely interesting counter-Hadiths. These Hadiths strongly recommend the earning of livelihood (against the extreme interpretation of the Sufi concept of Tawakkul) and condemn uncompromising indulgence in devotional piety.20

While we are not concerned with analyzing the content of Sufism historically and tracing its elements to foreign sources, it need not be denied and, indeed, it is convincing that the Sufi movement came under certain fundamental influences from without, especially in its later stages of development.21 It is also a historical fact that Judeo-Christian religious lore (what came to be called "Isra'iliyat") had begun to find its way into Islam at a very early date chiefly through the activity of popular preachers (qussas) who wanted to make their sermons as effective as possible.22

That there were already in the Middle East equivalent attitudes spread by other religions – notably Christianity and Buddhism – and that influences from these must have come into Islam at some stage, must be accepted. Out of the failure of political life to meet adequately the proper inner aspirations of the people, Messianism developed rapidly in Islam. In one form, these Messianic hopes simply took over the doctrine of the "Second Advent" of Jesus from Christianity. The orthodoxy in the course of time adopted it. In another form, which seems to have taken birth in Shi'i circles but came into Sunnism through the activity of early Sufis, these millennial aspirations are expressed in the doctrine of the Mahdi – the figure who will finally effect the victory of justice and Islam over tyranny and injustice. That this doctrine came into Islam through the Sufis is made certain by the fact that the beginnings of Sufism are clearly connected with the early popular preachers – known by various names – who used Messianism in their sermons to satisfy the politically disillusioned and morally starved masses. In the beginning, the two doctrines – that of the reappearance of Jesus and that of the Mahdi – are quite distinct, since their historical sources are quite different, but later the two figures are brought together, although not entirely successfully.23

Since the twelfth century, the best and most creative minds of Islam have been drifting away from the orthodox system of education to Sufism. One has only to pick up any collection of Sufi biographies to see how many people "left formal, external education" and joined the Sufi ranks. The 'Ulama' (scholars) were left with little more than dry bones, the real currents of life having escaped their system and taken their own way.24 Now we have the Shaykh and his authority, an endless mythology of saints, miracles, and tombs, hypnotization and self-hypnotization and, indeed, crass charlatanism and sheer exploitation of the poor and the ignorant.25

The World of Islam and Islamic scholarship are by now familiar with the proposition that "the gate of ljtihad (fresh thinking) in Islam was closed". Nobody quite knows when the "gate of ljtihad" was closed or who exactly closed it. There is no statement to be found anywhere by anyone about the desirability or the necessity of such a closure, or of the fact of actually closing the gate, although one finds judgments by later writers that the "gate of Ijtihad has been closed." It may, therefore, be safely concluded that whereas the gate of ljtihad was never formally closed by anyone – that is to say, by any great authority in Islam – nevertheless a state of affairs had gradually but surely come to prevail in the Muslim World where thinking on the whole, and as a general rule, ceased.26

The denial of ljtihad in practice has been the result not of externally over-strenuous qualifications but because of a deep desire to give permanence to the legal structure, once it was formulated and elaborated, in order to bring about and ensure unity and cohesiveness of the Muslim Ummah. We have pointed out recurrently in the earlier part of this work that the Hadith movement launched by al-Shafi'i in the domain of law was itself a bid for uniformity amidst what threatened to be legal and dogmatic chaos. Subsequently, as Iqbal tells us, after the destruction of the Baghdad Caliphate and the breakup of the political unity of the Muslim World, the religious leadership concentrated all the more on ensuring the unity of the Ummah through law and other institutions. Such unity has, no doubt, reigned in the Muslim World but at the cost of inner growth, as the Muslim World suddenly discovered under the impact of the foreign powers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But at the theoretical level the door of Ijtihad has always remained open and no jurist has ever closed it. To the causes enumerated by Iqbal must also be added the gradual deterioration of intellectual standards and the impoverishment of the intelligentsia of Islam over the years through a gradual narrowing down of the educational system.27

Although the "gate of Ijtihad" was never formally closed, 'Taqlid' (blind acceptance) of mere authority became so rampant that ljtihad became practically non-existent. 'Taqlid' was originally recommended for the common man although it was long conceded that even the common man has the power of discernment enough to decide between conflicting views. Later, however, 'Taqlid' enveloped almost all members of the Muslim society. Voices against this have been arising, particularly since the appearance of Ibn Taymiyah, and 'Taqlid' and closing of the door of Ijtihad have been imputed to the immediately earlier generations ever since. Proportionately, the emphasis on the necessity of ljtihad has increased particularly since the Islamic reform movements of the eighteenth century. The Muslim Modernist has espoused Ijtihad all the more and with all the greater sense of urgency since the impact on Islamic society of the new forces in all its forms.28

If the study of early Hadith materials is carried through with constructive purposiveness under the canons of historical criticism and in relation to the historico-sociological background, they take on quite a new meaning. A Hadith, say, in al-Muwatta, that Umar did so-and-so, when read as mere Hadith, i.e., as an isolated report, remains a blank and yields little; but when one fully comprehends the sociological forces that brought the action about, it becomes meaningful for us now and assumes an entirely new dimension. There is only one sense in which our early history is repeatable – and, indeed, in that sense it must be repeated if we are to live as progressive Muslims at all, viz., just as those generations met their own situation adequately by freely interpreting the Qur'an and Sunnah of the Prophet – by emphasizing the ideal and the principles and re-embodying them in a fresh texture of their own contemporary history – we must perform the same feat for ourselves, with our own effort, for our own contemporary history.29

There are examples of Umar demonstrating this creativity with the Sunnah. When it came to dividing up conquered land among the Companions, what Umar and those who agreed with him – and ultimately everyone had to agree – felt most strongly was that the Prophet was acting within a restricted milieu of tribes; that, therefore, you cannot carry on the same practice where vast territories and whole peoples are involved; otherwise you violate the very principles of justice for which the Prophet had been fighting all his life. One thing is certain: that although Umar obviously departed formally from the Sunnah of the Prophet on a major point, he did so in the interest of implementing the essence of the Prophet's Sunnah. We know also that Umar suspended the punishment for theft when there was a scarcity of food. Indeed, there are few men in history who have carried on the mission of the Prophet so creatively, so effectively, and so well. But these are the choices and the decisions which every living society has to face almost incessantly but particularly at times when massive new factors enter into it.30

Umar also curtailed the "rights" of slave-owning men and even went against a Sunnah in order to keep the bases of the Sunnah alive, strong, and progressively prosperous.31 The evidence demonstrates beyond any shadow of doubt that our earliest generations looked upon the teaching of the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet not as something static, but essentially as something that moves through different social forms and moves creatively. Islam is the name of certain norms and ideals which are to be progressively realized through different social phenomena and setups. Indeed Islam, understood properly, ever seeks new and fresh forms for self-realization and finds these forms. Social institutions are one of the most important sectors of the Islamic activity and expression. Social institutions, therefore, must become proper vehicles for the carriage and dispensation of Islamic values – of social justice and creativity, etc. This is the clear lesson that we learn from the early development of the Sunnah.

Umar changed the form of the Prophet's Sunnah of war in certain fundamental aspects and yet that very Prophet's Sunnah was all the more prosperous because of this change. The Muslims, indeed, changed the Qur'anic law of evidence and, instead of insisting on two witnesses, began deciding cases on the basis of one witness and an oath. They knew that what the Qur'an was after was to establish justice and not two witnesses. If we can now have a recorded self-confession (provided its authenticity is established beyond doubt), may we not even dispense with conventional modes of evidence in a given case? But all these are problems that must be answered now, and they must be answered from the depths of the Islamic conscience, not from a mimicry of the past. If the right and successful answer emerges now from the Islamic conscience, therein shall live the Sunnah of the Prophet.32


Something that cannot be emphasized enough and which must be made absolutely clear is that Fazlur Rahman is not advocating that Muslims completely discard the Hadith. As he points out, if all Hadith are given up, what remains is but a yawning chasm of fourteen centuries between us and the Prophet. And in the vacuity of this chasm not only must the Qur'an slip from our fingers under our subjective whims – for the only thing that anchors it is the Prophetic activity itself – but even the very existence and integrity of the Qur'an and, indeed, the existence of the Prophet himself become an unwarranted myth.33

Perhaps to the annoyance of some readers, Hadith, although it has as its ultimate basis the Prophetic Model, represents the workings of the early generations on that model. Hadith, in fact, is the sum total of aphorisms formulated and put out by Muslims themselves, ostensibly about the Prophet although not without an ultimate historical touch with the Prophet. The very aphoristic character of Hadith shows that it is not historical. It is rather a gigantic and monumental commentary on the Prophet by the early Community. Therefore, though based on the Prophet, it also constitutes an epitome of wisdom of classical Muslims.34

The genesis of some of the important political, theological, and moral doctrines showed how doctrines, which had originated in the "living Sunnah" as a product of Islamic history acting on the Qur'an and the Prophetic Sunnah, were transformed, through the medium of the Hadith, into immutable articles of Faith.35

The religious history of Islam is that Islam has always been subjected to extremisms, not only political but theological and moral as well. The Ahl al-Sunnah wa'l-Jama'ah (a group that claims to be adherents to the Sunnah) whose very genesis had been on an assumed plea of moderation, mediation, and synthesis – which is an ongoing process – and who, indeed, actually functioned as such a force in the early stages, themselves became, after the content of their system had fully developed, authoritarian, rigid, and intolerant. Instead of continuing to be a synthesizing and absorbing force, they became transformed into a party-among-parties with all its rejecting and exclusivist attitudes.36

Sunnah for the early generations of Muslims was not just the Sunnah of the Prophet but included all the legal points, decisions, etc. deduced from it by rational thought.37 It is a sheer delusion to imagine that by stifling free, positive thought, one can save religion; for by doing so, religion itself gets starved and impoverished. The result was that after a few centuries, the real "Dark Ages" of Islam, the orthodoxy was left with little more than an empty shell; a threadbare formal structure with hardly any content.38 The purity of pristine Islam has been compromised with un-Islamic accretions both in doctrine and practice.39

What is needed is not just a simple "return" to the Qur'an and the Sunnah as they were acted upon in the past but a true understanding of them that would give us guidance today. A simple return to the past is, of course, a return to the graves. And when we go back to the early Muslim generations, this process of a living understanding of the Qur'an and the Sunnah is exactly what we find there.40

Should a society begin to live in the past – however sweet its memories – and fail to face the realities of the present squarely – however unpleasant they may be – it must become a fossil; and it is an unalterable law of God that fossils do not survive for long: "We did them no injustice; it is they who did injustice to themselves." (Q11:101; 16:33, etc.).41

This calls for a relentless process of hard, clear, systematic, and synthetic thinking, which is not yet visible in the Muslim World. By and large, and in effect, we are still suffering from intellectual indolence and consequently, for all practical purposes, are experiencing the two extreme attitudes born of this indolence, viz., (a) a laissez-faire attitude towards the new forces which makes us simply drift, and (b) an attitude of escape to the past which may seem emotionally more satisfying immediately but which is, in fact, the more obviously fatal of the two attitudes.42

The research and evidence can be summarized with the following salient points:

1)      Sunnah for the early generations of Muslims was fluid, dynamic, and creative, and not just the Sunnah of the Prophet but included all the legal points, decisions, etc. that the Companions and successive generations deduced from it by rational thought based on interpretations of the Prophetic Sunnah.

2)      The Prophet was not a pan-legist neatly regulating the fine details of human life from administration to those of ritual purity. He was engaged in a severe moral and political struggle against the Arabs and in organizing his community-state, and as such could hardly have found the time to lay down rules for the minutiae of life. Even the prayer times were not inflexible until after the proliferation of the Hadith.

3)      Hadiths and counter-Hadiths were created by assorted groups as they vied for supremacy over each other in sectarian and political spheres. The majority of the Hadith did not go back to the Prophet due to the natural paucity of the Prophetic Hadith, but to later generations. However, in order to give provenance to the Hadith, they were projected backwards to the Prophet.

4)      It is a historical fact that accretions from Arab culture along with pre-Islamic beliefs and practices including Buddhist, Persian, Byzantine, and Judeo-Christian found their way into Islam at a very early date and ultimately the Hadith collections (examples include the second coming of Jesus and the Mahdi, stoning to death for adultery, punishment in the grave, second class status and segregation of women, niqab, hijab, beard, etc.)

5)      'Taqlid' (blind acceptance and following) was initially recommended for the layman although it was long conceded that even the common man has the power of discernment enough to decide between conflicting views. The gate of Ijtihad was never formally closed but 'Taqlid' became so rampant that ljtihad became practically non-existent. A movement that gained momentum and a sizeable following as a result of Taqlid is Sufism, especially with the aid of Isra'iliyat.

6)      Legislation from the Sunnah / Hadith (and even the Qur'an) is not meant to be immutable as rulings were largely situational, so they must be continuously revisited / reinterpreted with successive generations based on social and cultural considerations, as well as scientific and technological advances. It should be obvious that if rules are based on conditions that no longer exist, then the rules may no longer apply. For example, if a predator invades a woman's home and rapes her, and DNA evidence proves the presence of the man's sperm inside of the woman, then only a fool or an extremist would argue that based on the Qur'anic guidelines, four eyewitnesses must confirm that a crime was committed. This is not the kind of justice that the Qur'an advocates.

7)      During the Prophet’s time, cultural practices were left intact unless they were in flagrant violation of the Qur’anic message, e.g., female infanticide, abuse of women and slaves, etc., Muslims today seldom draw a distinction between what is religious versus cultural, so for example, Muslims raised in the West must avoid western culture because being western somehow contravenes being Muslim. In other words, western Muslims must adopt an alien culture in order to be good Muslims.

Just like the Quraysh who refused to accept the Prophet’s doctrine given that it threatened their establishment, and similar to Abraham’s people who rejected his message of monotheism in favor of their idols because they found “their forefathers worshipping them,” likewise many Muslims today will discard the premise of this article as blasphemous. Their position will not be based on proof and logic, but on the fact that they have been conditioned via centuries of “Taqlid” to accept the majority (if not all) of the Hadith as infallible. This is because there is a “Science of Hadith” and all of the validation and categorization has already been done for us, so there’s no need to give the Hadith any further scrutiny. Some even assert that the Hadith is revelation on par with the Qur’an since everything uttered by the Prophet is divinely inspired. What people fail to realize is that verification of a chain of narrators does not necessarily mean that the initial source of the data is authentic. For example, person “A” says that he heard something from the Prophet or saw him do something, which could be misinterpreted or fabricated; however, person “A” passes it on to persons “B”, “C”, and “D”. All four of these then each pass the report to future generations, and once the chain of narrators is verified back to the four sources even though the initial report actually came from one source, then the report is deemed genuine from multiple sources.

There are many preposterous Hadith that deal with the belittling of women, quack medicine, or urban legends like the Prophet’s open heart surgery at a very early age (to name just a few examples). These Hadith insult the human intelligence and are antithetical to the Qur’anic / Prophetic message. Naturally many of these reported pronouncements and stories appeal in large part to the naïve and the ignorant. A good rule of thumb is that if a Hadith defies logic, and by extension is not in harmony with the Qur’anic message, then it has no place in Islam. Some Hadith have nothing to do with the Sunnah and in many cases are an affront to God and His noble Prophet. For example, there are Hadith that would have us believe that everything in our lives is predestined and we have no control over our decisions. The inference then is that God has chosen to deliberately lead people astray and then punish them for it, something that is unthinkable for any rational person.**

Fazlur Rahman urged Muslims to indulge in critical thinking and not blindly accept what was passed down to us over the centuries, but to return to Ijtihad as practiced by the early generations of Muslims in order for us to continuously progress in all aspects of life, as exemplified by some of the early Muslims who built model civilizations. He believed that the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah provide a foundational framework from which fresh vision and creativity can materialize, given that knowledge is constantly developing and each new generation and its environment are not frozen in time. Moreover, Fazlur Rahman advocated that our best thinking is not behind us, but ahead of us and will only be realized through unremitting Qur’anic exegesis and judicious analysis of the Hadith. This is the methodology that will lead Muslims away from lethargy and towards a true understanding of the Qur’anic Weltanschauung and authentic Prophetic Sunnah.


**   Some examples of nonsensical Hadith that deal with the degradation of women, quack medicine, open heart surgery, and predestination, not to mention the sadistic retribution allegedly meted out by one who was sent as a “mercy to mankind.”

Narrated Abu Bakra: During the battle of Al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a Word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet heard the news that the people of Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen (ruler), he said, "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler." (Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:219)

The Prophet said, "I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women." (Sahih Al-Bukhari 4:464, also 7.125, 7.126, and 8.456 have similar reports)

We went out and Ghalib bin Abjar was accompanying us. He fell ill on the way and when we arrived at Medina he was still sick. Ibn Abi 'Atiq came to visit him and said to us, "Treat him with black cumin. Take five or seven seeds and crush them (mix the powder with oil) and drop the resulting mixture into both nostrils, for 'Aisha has narrated to me that she heard the Prophet saying, 'This black cumin is healing for all diseases except As-Sam.' 'Aisha said, 'What is As-Sam?' He said, 'Death.'" (Sahih Al-Bukhari 7:591)

Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "There is healing in black cumin for all diseases except death." (Sahih Al-Bukhari 7:592)

Some people from the tribe of 'Ukl came to the Prophet and embraced Islam. The climate of Medina did not suit them, so the Prophet ordered them to go to the (herd of milch) camels of charity and to drink their milk and urine (as a medicine). They did so, and after they had recovered from their ailment (became healthy) they turned renegades (reverted from Islam) and killed the shepherd of the camels and took the camels away. The Prophet sent (some people) in their pursuit and so they were (caught and) brought, and the Prophet ordered that their hands and legs should be cut off and that their eyes should be branded with heated pieces of iron, and that their cut hands and legs should not be cauterized, till they die. (Sahih Al-Bukhari 8:794)

Anas b. Malik reported that Gabriel came to the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) while he was playing with his playmates. He took hold of him and lay him prostrate on the ground and tore open his breast and took out the heart from it and then extracted a blood clot out of it and said: That was the part of Satan in thee. And then he washed it with the water of Zamzam in a golden basin and then it was joined together and restored to its place. The boys came running to his mother, i.e., his nurse, and said: Verily Muhammad has been murdered. They all rushed toward him (and found him all right). His color was changed, Anas said: I myself saw the marks of needle on his breast. (Sahih Muslim 311, also Sahih Al-Bukhari 4.429, 5.227, and 9.608 have similar reports)

Allah's Apostle (peace be upon him) said: When the drop of (semen) remains in the womb for forty or fifty (days) or forty nights, the angel comes and says: My Lord, will he be good or evil? And both these things would be written. Then the angel says: My Lord, would he be male or female? And both these things are written. And his deeds and actions, his death, his livelihood; these are also recorded. Then his document of destiny is rolled and there is no addition to and subtraction from it. (Sahih Muslim 1216, also Sahih Al-Bukhari 4.430, 4.549, 8.593, and 9.546 have similar reports)

Works Cited

1. Rahman, Fazlur. Islamic Methodology in History (Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad, Pakistan, 1965). p. vi

2. Ibid. p. v

3. Ibid. p. 1

4. Ibid. p. 139

5. Ibid. p. 5

6. Ibid. p. 6

7. Ibid. p. 9

8. Ibid. p. 10

9. Ibid. p. 11-12

10. Ibid. p. 18

11. Ibid. p. 27

12. Ibid. p. 31

13. Ibid. p. 74-75

14. Ibid. p. 32-33

15. Ibid. p. 34

16. Ibid. p. 40

17. Ibid. p. 44-45

18. 10. Ibid. p. 23

19. Ibid. p. 24

20. Ibid. p. 65-66

21. Ibid. p. 106

22. Ibid. p. 49

23. Ibid. p. 109

24. Ibid. p. 136

25. Ibid. p. 117

26. Ibid. p. 149-150

27. Ibid. p. 172

28. Ibid. p. 173

29. Ibid. p. 178

30. Ibid. p. 181-182

31. Ibid. p. 183

32. Ibid. p. 189-190

33. Ibid. p. 70-71

34. Ibid. p. 76

35. Ibid. p. 87

36. Ibid. p. 91

37. Ibid. p. 130

38. Ibid. p. 132-13

39. Ibid. p. 142

40. Ibid. p. 143

41. Ibid. p. 176

42. Ibid. p. 177

Posted August 17, 2012