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The Hadith: The Traditions of Islam


1. Criticism of the Hadith Literature in the West.

Up to this stage our study of the Hadith and comments made pertaining to the authenticity of the traditions have followed the general Muslim attitude. Western scholars have, however taken a far more sceptical approach to the subject in the last century. The whole body of Hadith literature has been called into question and it has been suggested that none of the traditions surviving can be accepted as genuine at face value. Conclusions of some of the more prominent writers to this effect read as follows:

Extensive studies into the legal character of most of the traditions have led Western scholars to the opinion that, as the laws of the widespread Muslim community developed, so traditions were forged to provide an authority for them allegedly stretching back to the time of Muhammad himself. After all, if the law was based on the decree of the founder of Islam, it could hardly be queried or rejected. For some writers the fabrication of the whole tradition literature has become such a fait accompli that every tradition is automatically treated as the product, and not the source, of the early development of Islamic law. Efforts are therefore made to place the origin of each hadith within the growing framework of Islamic law in those early days.

Even Muslim scholars of Hadith freely admit that wholesale fabrication took place but argue that the major works of Hadith literature contain, on the whole, genuine traditions only and that the forgeries have largely been eliminated. Consensus has, at any rate, been reached on the following points: that many traditions were fabricated to uphold the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties respectively, that early schools of law created traditions to support their specific points of view, and that opposing schools fabricated similar hadith to counter these. So widespread was hadith fabrication that a tradition was even invented to the effect that Muhammad anticipated the forgery of sayings attributed to him and declared that whoever alleged that he had said anything other than what he did say would be cast into hell. This must surely rank as one of the most remarkable of pious frauds! Others produced a less exclusive but nonetheless equally preemptive assessment of the practice of hadith fabrication to follow after Muhammad's death in the following saying which has been attributed to him:

In the West, however, the prevailing distrust of the authenticity of the whole body of tradition literature has led to the general conclusion that the Hadith represent what Islam became during its development and not what it was during the formative period of Muhammad's life and the early Caliphate.

During the middle of the last century Sir William Muir first expressed the form of scepticism which has become the norm in Western studies of the Hadith to this day and his brief study was followed up with a thorough criticism by the great Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher. The latter's thesis has become the foundation upon which all succeeding studies have been based and is found in the second volume of his Muhammedanische Studien first published in 1889 (the work quoted in this book is an English translation of his book). His most prominent successor says of his study that he "has not only voiced his 'sceptical reserve' with regard to the traditions contained even in the classical collections, but shown positively that the great majority of traditions from the Prophet are documents not of the time to which they claim to belong, but of the successive stages of development of doctrines during the first centuries of Islam" (Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, p. 4).

Even though Islamic orthodoxy has accepted almost without question the formulation of the Hadith literature in the early days (i.e. that the six major works are generally authentic, especially the two Sahihs, and that the other early collections contain many genuine traditions), Muslim scholars tended to appreciate the Western interest in this subject in the beginning. The pessimistic conclusions of the major scholars has, however, naturally made them unwilling in recent times to sustain this appreciation and, while the works of these scholars have been treated on the whole with respect, their Muslim counterparts have fallen back on the exact conclusions, based almost exclusively on the isnad-system, reached during the days of Bukhari and Muslim. Islam, rightly or wrongly, is strongly resistant to critical analyses of its heritage and finds its security in the unanimity of opinion maintained over successive centuries of its history. It fears that such an approach to its received records of Muhammad's life might lead to an undermining of its whole legacy.

2. Modern Muslim Attitudes to the Hadith Literature.

Among the orthodox the unquestioned authenticity of the two Sahihs, the general reliability of the four Sunan works, and the value of the Sirat literature and other Hadith works, remains unchallenged to this day. In some circles, however, there are more broadly-minded Muslim scholars who are willing to approach this subject from a more objective, analytical point of view and even the hitherto almost sacred works of Hadith have been tested and, at times, found wanting. One such scholar says:

It seems probable that the truth is somewhere between the two extreme opinions thus far considered. It is highly unlikely that the whole body of Hadith literature may be forged as is often advocated in Western writings. Can one sincerely believe that the early Muslims exercised extreme care in faithfully preserving the Qur'an, the book given to them by Muhammad, but that they at the same time neglected the record of his other sayings and cared nothing for a universal forgery of utterances in their place? Is it likely that the whole heritage of their prophet's life, words and deeds, was lost and that a forged picture filled the vacuum? Surely much of the record that survives must contain elements of the truth. Can we honestly attribute to Islam what the Muslims vainly attribute to Christianity - that the religion of its founder has been so developed that it is no longer a faithful reproduction of its original state?

On the other hand only traditional Muslim orthodoxy can sustain the claim that the six major works are totally authentic. No genuinely objective study can support this fancy. Western studies have shown that numerous hadith in these collections could not have been derived from Muhammad's embryonic Muslim community at Medina but only from a strongly developed jurisprudence dating many generations after his death. Many other traditions, such as those marvellously embellishing the story of Muhammad's night-journey vision, transforming it into an ascent through the heavens to the throne of Allah, have been proved to be dependent on Zoroastrian and other works discovered by the Muslims only after their campaigns many years after Muhammad's death.

One of the best modern scholars of Islam perhaps advocates the most appropriate approach to this subject when he says of the Hadith literature: "A healthy caution rather than outright scepticism is likely to lead to reliable and constructive results" (Rahman, Islam, p. 49). Many Western scholars have also recognised that much of the tradition literature must be genuine:

The test suggested in this last quote is perhaps the best that can be applied. No general opinion of the considerably varied nature of the traditions can be offered with any certainty. Each hadith must be analysed in the light of its content, likely origins, teaching, consistency, and legal context. While we may openly question whether the isnad-system can validly serve as an infallible proof of the reliability of the traditions, it does not seem justifiable to place a question-mark over the whole heritage of Hadith literature as Western scholars have done. One needs to examine each tradition carefully to determine whether it is likely to be genuine and an example of how such a test can effectively be applied follows in the next section.

3. Selected Means of Testing the Hadith Literature.

There are, as has been indicated already, a number of ways of testing the various traditions and many of them yield evidences which show that they were compiled generations after Muhammad's death. In this section we shall consider a few examples.

During the reign of the Ummayad caliph Yazid, grandson of Muhammad's archenemy Abu Sufyan, Abdallah ibn az-Zubair, a close companion of Muhammad's grandson Husain, revolted against the caliph and made himself ruler of Mecca and then Medina. By the time Abd al-Malik became caliph in Damascus about fifty years after the death of Muhammad, Ibn az-Zubair had such control over Arabia that the Ummayad caliph was not able to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. Accordingly he built the Dome of the Rock between 685 and 691 AD in Jerusalem over the site of Muhammad's alleged ascent to heaven as an alternative place of pilgrimage. (The building is designed in an octagonal form and the interior has a clear circle around the rock for circumambulation by pilgrims in imitation of the rituals around the Ka'aba). A year later, however, Abd al-Malik sent an army under al-Hajjaj, the scourge of the Iraqi Muslims, to besiege Mecca and overthrow Ibn az-Zubair which duly ended the revolt. (The usurper was killed in the fighting). In the light of such historical developments one reads the following tradition with much interest:

The mosques referred to are those in Medina, Mecca and Jerusalem in that order. It is extremely doubtful whether Muhammad made this statement as no Muslim ever made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during his lifetime and it was only during the caliphate of Umar that Jerusalem was conquered. No mosque stood in the city until Umar built a small edifice which has grown into what the Masjidul-Aqsa is today. During Muhammad's lifetime only the Ka'aba was a place of special importance to the Muslims. His own crude structure in Medina likewise held no fascinations as such for Muslim pilgrims and it was only after his death, when he was buried within its precincts, that it became a sanctuary for pilgrims to the Hijaz. In another tradition, however, we read:

It is also hard to believe that this tradition is genuine for much the same reason, yet one cannot help noticing a distinction between them. In this latter hadith no mention is made of the mosque in Jerusalem - only those in Mecca and Medina are elevated above all others. It is probable that the first tradition was invented by supporters of the Ummayads at about the same time that the Dome of the Rock was built to give it equal status with the mosques of Mecca and Medina. The second tradition, however, was probably invented by the dissenters in Medina to counter it. A similar tradition bears out this probability all the more:

A portion of the great mosque in Medina, with a few bushes and trees, has always been sealed off accordingly as a visible part of the "gardens of Paradise". The point of significance in this tradition, however, is the mention of Muhammad's pulpit as part of the hallowed garden. During the reign of Mu'awiya, Abu Sufyan's son, an attempt was made to take this pulpit to Damascus.

The tradition was almost certainly invented post evento by the inhabitants of Medina to prevent any further efforts to remove the pulpit from their city. One cannot help seeing he marks of fabrication in these traditions, anticipating as they do later developments in Islam. One writer says o the tradition making Jerusalem as much a place of pilgrimage for Muslims as Mecca and Medina:

An Egyptian Muslim scholar, on the other hand, has questioned whether this tradition really was fabricated to support Abd al-Malik's objectives in the light of the fact that it does not speak specifically of his structure al- qubbatassakhrah, the Dome of the Rock, but rather masjidul-aqsa:

Traditions, however, were never fabricated in such a way that they blatantly promoted the objects of their inventors for the forgery would then be all too apparent. The purpose was always veiled within the tradition which had to be interpreted to give the meaning in view. Furthermore as the Qur'an itself speaks of Muhammad's journey from Mecca to Jerusalem as being from masjidul-haram to masjidul-aqsa (Surah 17.1), it is to be expected that the creator of the relevant hadith would seek to strengthen the influence of his tradition by using the same terms as are found in the Qur'an. Of course no masjidul-aqsa whatsoever existed at the time of Muhammad, but we have seen that he himself was led to believe otherwise and it is not surprising therefore to find later traditions claiming that he advocated pilgrimages to the site.

These are just a few examples of traditions that can be shown by analysis to be forged some time after Muhammad's death. Whole books could be written on the subject, but these items will have to suffice as illustrations of the point.

4. The Reported Traditions of Abu Hurairah.

One can hardly consider the question of the authenticity of the Hadith literature without reference to Muhammad's companion Abu Hurairah for, on the one hand, he is the greatest reporter of traditions, having handed down well over five thousand - more than double the number recorded by any other companion. On the other hand, he has been exposed to criticism throughout the ages, especially within the Islamic heritage. In this case the accusation has generally been that Abu Hurairah himself has been the forger of the hadith attributed to him, as opposed to the usual conviction that the traditions were composed many years later and fathered on various companions.

Abu Hurairah only became a Muslim about three years before Muhammad's death and the early Muslims wondered how someone who had known Muhammad for such a short time could learn so many hadith from him. One tradition attributed to him does tend to reflect poorly on his reliability. It is reported by the other great traditionist Abdullah ibn Umar that dogs were to be destroyed unless they were kept for one of two purposes.

Dogs, therefore, were only to be kept for watching herds or for hunting. Abu Hurairah's tradition reads as follows:

In this hadith we find that dogs who look after fields were to be spared in addition to those serving the other two purposes mentioned by Ibn Umar. The tradition has an interesting addendum: "Zuhri said: The words of Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) were conveyed to Ibn Umar who said: May Allah have mercy on Abu Huraira; he owned a field" (Sahih Muslim, op. cit.). Quite clearly Ibn Umar believed that Abu Hurairah had forged the permission to preserve dogs who looked after fields to protect his own vested interests. As a Western writer says, "A better illustration of the underlying motive of some hadith can hardly be found" (Guillaume, The Traditions of Islam, p.78).

The orthodox scholars of Islam, who regard the six major works as authentic, naturally do not wish to query the genuineness of Abu Hurairah's traditions, making up, as they do such a large part of the tradition literature. One writer, aware of the weaknesses attributed to him, assesses his contribution as follows:

One of the most significant features of his traditions the emphasis on the esoteric side of Muhammad's experiences. While most of the hadith are principally juristic, many relate to the subjective side of religious experience and of these Abu Hurairah is invariably the original transmitter.

The same writer draws a poignant conclusion: "The transformation of Mohammed in men's minds from the character of statesman and warrior to that of saint and philanthropist is due in the main to the inventions of Abu Hurairah, the first Traditionalist" (Margoliouth, op.cit., p.353). If such traditions had been fairly widespread among the earliest transmitters, one would be inclined to treat them more seriously but, coming as they do chiefly from one source, one cannot help being somewhat sceptical. Furthermore it is very significant that the author of most of the traditions should be regarded as the least reliable authority as this has serious omens for the tradition literature as a whole.

In some of the other collections of Hadith of far less authority it is recorded that the caliph Umar threatened to exile Abu Hurairah if he did not refrain from transmitting hadith, deliberately accusing him of telling lies in Muhammad's name. Whether these traditions are true or not cannot be established. One thing is clear, however, and that is that the criticism of Abu Hurairah's traditions does tend to reflect negatively on the authenticity of the Hadith literature as a whole.

In conclusion it may be said that there is no certain way of testing which traditions are genuine and which are not, but from the examples given in this chapter it is quite apparent that many, even in the main works regarded as authentic by the Muslims, prove to be spurious upon critical examination. On the other hand a large proportion must be true and one is inclined to treat hadith that are principally historical in character as probably genuine to one degree or another. A question-mark must, however, hang over those that are more consistent with the developed fiqh of Islam, those that glorify Muhammad beyond the image presented in the Qur'an, and those that show evidences of being drawn from the records of other religions.

Muhammad and the Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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