Essays on hadith and Sunnah enlightening for lay readers

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Dhu al-Qa'dah 07, 1421 2001-02-01

Book Review

by Abdar Rahman Koya (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 29, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1421)

HADITH AND SUNNAH – IDEALS AND REALITIES edited by P.K. Koya, 2nd. edition, 2000; Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Email ibtkl@pd.jaring.my). Pp: 360. Price: RM36.

Trying to counter the fake intellectualism of those who trivialise the authority of the Messenger of Allah (saw) can be like talking to an atheist about God’s characteristics. The level of scholarship of those who have been unfortunate enough to be termed “anti-hadith” is such that no amount of argument can bring them out of their ignorance. This book, Hadith and Sunnah - Ideals and Realities, as the editor hints in his introduction, is not a direct response intended to those who snub the Prophet by highlighting false hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) and lambasting the scholarly works of hadith scientists (muhaddithun) such as Imams Bukhari, Malik, Muslim etc.

In Malaysia, where this book is published, these sort of arguments have been taken up by a small number of career-minded individuals whose excuses not to offer the five daily prayers are dubiously derived from the Qur’an, of all books! These people have always found satanic solace by misinterpreting the Qur’an, the only raison d’etre, they say, of the man whom they rudely call ‘Muhammad’. Among their more well-known simplistic arguments are the claim that hadiths are words of human beings and therefore not God-guaranteed in their truth and purity; that Rasool-Allah’s role was simply to deliver the Qur’an, period; that the five daily prayers are not mentioned in Qur’an but simply a tradition (and therefore stick to three, and don’t ask how to perform them); and that even the mention of Muhammad (“I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God”) after the first shahadah is shirk, i.e., associating others with God.

The truth is that the people who make these ridiculous arguments are unaware of the history of hadith-transmission and of the role of Abu-Qasim (peace and blessings be upon him) in living and demonstrating the Qur’an which Allah ta’ala revealed to him in Arabic. The great poet of Islam, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, brilliantly coined the phrase “Iblisian tawheed” to describe this cancer in the Muslim Ummah. Iqbal was of course referring to the refusal of Iblis (Satan) to bow down to Adam, a creation out of dust, despite being ordered to do so by Allah. The Arch-Rebel’s argument was that he was made of fire, a superior substance, and that his loyalty is to God alone. This attitude can be compared with the anti-hadith group who say that they will only abide by the Qur’an and nothing else but only what suits them.

The anti-hadith menace is not new. This type of people have existed in various periods of Islamic history. Some may consider them “dangerous”, but the truth is that Islam’s self-corrective nature through its vast scholastic tradition can ignore such ineffectual creatures. Their offshoots in our times may have done Muslims one big favour: renewed interest in the study of hadith and the Prophetic Sunnah (exemplary conduct). Mentioning the sayings of the Prophet is fine, but how many of us care to understand what hadith is all about? How many of us know, for example, the background of a particular hadith, how it came to be accepted as hadith and why? Often, the answer is that many of us take for granted the hadiths that we now have in various compilations, and therefore fail to appreciate the astronomical amount of work done to preserve the hadiths as we know them now. Knowing how hadith is narrated, transmitted, compiled and evaluated leads one to appreciate the works of scholars who were ahead of their time, meticulous and methodical in their approach.

The study of hadith, or the sciences of hadith (ulum al-hadith) as it is correctly referred to, is one of the disciplined branches of knowledge in Islam. A cursory glance at its divisions and subdivisions is enough to discourage an ordinary reader from specialising in this field, which is perhaps why this book’s first part begins with straight-forward introductions to the origin and development of hadith. This is perhaps the most important knowledge any student of Islam should know before he or she embarks on to the fruitless but entertaining task of arguing with people who are confused about the role and authority of the Prophet.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, as mentioned above, deals with the history of hadiths. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi and Muhammad Ali provide excellent introductions, each with their own focus, on the sciences of hadith. Zubayr gives a topic-by-topic overview of the various branches of ulum al-hadith. An interesting one is the asma’ al-rijal, or the study of the lives of the narrators of hadiths. Here, scholars of hadith dig deep into the biographies of those who narrated the hadiths of the Prophet right from the beginning of the chain of transmitters. Every detail of their lives is verified and analysed. This helps scholars of hadiths to determine the narrators’ identity, veracity and reliability. Mustafa A`zami, whose extensively researched works include Studies in Early Hadith Literature, explains at length about the isnad, or the chain of transmitters, the most common chapter in the study of hadith and perhaps also the most misunderstood.

The focus of the book however lies in part two, on the place of hadith and Sunnah in Islam. Here, Fazlur Rahman, arguably among the 20th century’s cream of Muslim scholars, looks at Prophetic examples in the light of their relevance to our present problems.

Shah Shahidullah Faridi then provides extensive proofs from the Qur’an to show that hadith is an integral part of Islam in addition to the Qur’an. Here, he dismantles what he identifies as the fallacies of the anti-hadith arguments. If Faridi attempts to show the compatibility of the Qur’an with the hadith, S M Yusuf seeks to show their differences, while not denying the function of hadith as the factual embodiment of God’s revelation.

Having established the importance and authority of hadith, two chapters that follow by Fazlur Rahman and Muhammad Asad provide realistic arguments to warn of the problem of extremism and the ensuing dilemma Muslims face. While we reject the childish notion of hadith’s irrelevance, we must also be mindful of the damage done by those who quote hadith liberally without understanding the need to ‘live’ the Sunnah of the Prophet. Muslim women and ijtihad suffer the most as a result of such extremism.

The achievement of living the Sunnah of the Prophet is demonstrated by Umar bin al-Khattab (r.a). Drawing lessons from Umar, Fazlur calls for “a relentless process of hard, clear, systematic and synthetic thinking” to face the challenges of the industrial age (and, if he had been still alive, the information technology age). He laments what he calls the “intellectual indolence” of Muslims that has given rise to two extremes: a laissez faire attitude towards new challenges, and the ‘escapist’ attitude of turning to the past solely for simplistic solutions to contemporary problems.

If part two of the book creates intense heat, then part three can be considered an epilogue, to express love of the Prophet by following his example in every aspect of our lives. While there may be some reservation about giving a ‘mystical’ cover to Islamic teachings, such as the Sunnah and the Muslims’ respect for the Prophet, there are simply too many works by scholars on this dimension that cannot be ignored. Along with Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, German writer Annemarie Schimmel captures in her own style how a single act of love and respect to the personality of the Holy Prophet gave rise to a timeless civilisation and culture in the Muslim world.

One shortcoming of this book must be mentioned here. The editor could have dedicated another part to the political dimension of the Seerah (life history of the Prophet), which is perhaps the field in which the Sunnah has played (and is still struggling to play) its most active and visible role. The number of works on this subject is negligible. Only lately has there been some effort to re-examine the Seerah of the Prophet from a political-power perspective, namely by the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, director of the Muslim Institute, London, particularly in his paper “Political Dimension of the Seerah”.

Fourteen essays by eleven renowned Islamic scholars, most of them of the twentieth century, were selected by the editor. The book ends with a chapter from the Risala of Imam Shafi’i, on the inseparability of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad, upon whom be peace. Unlike other recent books on Islam in English, the editor has also provided a useful index to guide readers on

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