Ours is a long journey into the compilation of statements and announcements ostensibly pronounced or enunciated by our caring Prophet (pbuh). Let no one be quick to judge this humble effort when we are still at its beginning. As we proceed, we will begin to see the wider picture and the “fine print” that are not initially so obvious. Be patient. Be polite. And be perceptive of what is said and what is meant in this delicate column every month.
The first certainty that has to take root in our minds, whatever Islamic identity we carry—Sunni or sub-Sunni and Shi‘i or sub-Shi‘i—is the fact that the Prophet’s hadiths were not recorded as the Qur’an was, nor were they documented the way the Qur’an was documented. And the Prophet’s hadiths were not written down in the same manner as the Qur’an was related, recorded, and registered.
When we state this, we do not mean to say that the Qur’an is primary and the Prophet (pbuh) is secondary. Not at all. The Qur’an and the Prophet (pbuh) are on par, just like our article of faith when we testify that there is no deity/authority except Allah (swt) and we follow that with our testimony that Muhammad (pbuh) is His Messenger. The mostly undetected issue here is that what Allah (swt) revealed was, per the Prophet’s orders and instructions, sustained and safeguarded without any doubt whatsoever.
The Qur’an was gathered and organized in a way that left no doubt or skepticism about its contents: letter by letter, word by word, ayat by ayat, and surah by surah. There is the ummah’s consensus from the moment it was revealed, throughout the past fourteen centuries and until the end of time concerning the authenticity of its ayats, the soundness of its surahs and the overall cogency of this Qur’an from cover to cover. This is generally referred to in Islamic terminology as tawaatur. But that is not the case with the hadiths of our compassionate Prophet (pbuh). Had that been the case we would not have had the copious quantity and in some cases mediocre “quality” of hadiths that we have today.
The ayats of the Qur’an were committed to memory and to inscription at the same time, at one time, and in real time. The hadiths, though, were collected in the second century after the Prophet (pbuh) passed on; which means the first manuscripts of hadith were written more than a hundred years after our affectionate Prophet left this earthly abode. Scholarly candidates who are looking for a badge of honor and are up to it should research and investigate whether the penning of hadith began as an independent earnest initiative by the narrators or was it, in addition to that, done under the supervision and ratification of certain rulers. Later, we will visit the Prophet’s instructions relating to his forbidding anyone from transcribing his hadith while the Qur’an was being revealed.
To the best of this writer’s knowledge there is no hadith book that we have in our possession that was written in the handwriting of the narrator. It appears that the books of hadith that we have today were, more or less, finalized during the third and fourth hijri centuries. One of the stumbling blocks in the process of gathering hadiths is the definition, evaluation, and reliability of the persons who became Muslims, early or later on during the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh).
Another question arises: how can we be sure that the first edition of the books of hadith is still the same without any interference from those who were, over the centuries, more concerned with the stability of their dominion than they were with the “idealism” or justice content of the hadiths. The more mainstream books of hadith—al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nisa’i, and Abu Dawud—were “confirmed” during the third and fourth hijri century (200-300 hijri). Some hadiths were akin to unanimity hadiths (muttafaqun ‘aleyhi) while others were unrepeated or “one-off” (aahad) hadiths.
The ‘ulama were not of the same mind and the same evaluation of such hadiths. They did not accept hadiths with the certainty that they accepted the ayats in the Qur’an. To them hadith literature is not sacrosanct. Remember, the books of hadith that were available in Morocco and Spain were not automatically available in Indonesia and Malaysia. There were no printing presses, much less telecommunications, satellites or internet at that time.
The scholars of Usul al-Din as well as the rationalist scholars were suspicious of what is called hadith aahad. The scholars of hadith did not concern themselves with a systematic scrutiny of hadith as that was beyond their scope. They were more interested in the relators and compilation of hadith than in the cross-examination of hadiths – between what is a hadith of unanimity on one hand and a “rare or atypical” hadith on the other.
As for the fiqhi scholars, they appear to have been blithe about hadiths that were not in the scope of the founder of their particular school of thought. Thus, the Hanbali, Shafi‘i or other faqihs who lived after the founders of their particular madh-hab died and who followed their originating faqih, were not concerned with a “living fiqh” as much as they were concerned with explaining the ijtihad of their deceased fiqh founder.
This went on for centuries. In some cases, it continues to this day. Some madh-hab-centric scholars are so attached to their madh-hab that if they were to encounter a hadith common to all major hadith books but not in their math-hab’s books, they would rather cling to their madh-hab and not defer to the hadith.
Take as example the famous book by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in and you will find scores of hadiths that were never considered by the faqihs simply because they did not want to “take issue” with their own madh-hab. And if one were to ask them why; their answer would be something like this: our Imams (senior faqihs) did not do so, and they knew better as they were of the preceding and erstwhile generations. They were closer-in-time to the Prophet’s generation, the sahabah and the tabi‘in. And so they knew better…
For those who are fluent and articulate in the Arabic language, mention should be made here of the fact that the exceling Arabic grammaticians do not cite the hadiths as being a linguist reference in the way and manner they cite the ayats of the Qur’an. This is an implicit recognition by them that the statements attributed to the Prophet (pbuh) are in sundry cases so prosaic that they cannot be a reference for language rules. That does not mean that some of these types of hadiths are void of meanings expressed by the Prophet (pbuh) as much as it means that the syntax may not belong to the Prophet (pbuh). Rather, it belongs to whomever was trying in his own words to express a well-founded teaching of the Prophet (pbuh).
To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single scholar in Islamic history who has endorsed and validated all the hadiths that are in all the books of hadith. Any scholar truly knowledgeable about hadiths can immediately tell a forged hadith from a genuine one.
Wading through hadith literature is a weighty burden and responsibility. This writer feels that there will be opposition to this work from some quarters. And that is to be expected since we have not yet engaged our minds fully in this most vital area. Once we do, we will appreciate separating the faux hadiths from the original ones.
One other point has to be asked in candor and with respect: why don’t we understand, explain, and go into more detail about what the Prophet (pbuh) did instead of what he said. There is a “verbal Sunnah” and a “practical Sunnah”. Isn’t it time we concentrate on his actions, his movements, and his events? If we stay this course together, we will see later on that some words attributed to our generous Prophet (pbuh) are quite frankly, completely inappropriate. Once we put a distance between nonsensical words attributed to our lucid Prophet (pbuh) and the Prophet (pbuh) himself, we will have gone a long way to hold him in the highest regard.
I plead with enlightened Muslims, those of conscience, and above all the committed Muslims to understand that this effort is dedicated to our abundantly appreciated Apostle, our perfect Prophet, and our much-loved Messenger, may the peace, blessings, and mercy of Allah be his in perpetuity.
Indeed, a messenger [Muhammad] from among you has come to you: worried is he that you might [reject him and thus] suffer; he is full of protective concern for you, alive with compassion and mercy towards the committed Muslims. (Al-Tawbah, 128)