The Problematic History and Science of Hadith

The Hadith are a collection of the sayings and activities of the Prophet Mohammad PBUH that the vast majority of Muslims believe are key to their faith. The problem is that the majority of the Hadiths were collected and written more than 200 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad PBUH through a chain of oral narrations.

The Quran proclaims it is fully detailed and contains the details of everything (7:52, 6:114. 10:37).

So why is an additional source needed? 

We will examine several problems with the Hadith below.


THE HADITH ITSELF SAYS THE SAHABA (COMPANIONS OF THE PROPHET) AVOIDED RECORDING HADITH

What’s interesting is that according to the Hadith itself, the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) were hesitant to collect any sayings of the Prophet Mohammad PBUH outside of the Quran.

Narrated Aisha: My father gathered the ahadith of the Messenger of Allah, and they totaled five hundred, then he spent his night sleeplessly turning on his sides. I thought that he was upset because of someone’s complaint, or because of some news which he had heard. The next morning, he said to me, `Daughter! Bring me the ahadith in your possession,’ so I brought them to him, and he set them on fire.” Then he said: “It is possible that there should be certain things in it which did not correspond textually with what the Prophet had uttered, so I was worried that I die and these ahadith remain with me.

Reference: • See p. 237, Vol. 5, of Kanz al-`Ummal • Refer also to Ibn Kathir’s book Al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya as well as p. 5, Vol. 1, of al-Dhahabi’s Tadhkirat al-Huffaz


EARLY CRITICISM OF HADITH

And yet this science of Hadith eventually began some 100 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad PBUH, despite the fact that the Sahaba themselves were reportedly afraid to engage in it.

Systematic application of hadith criticism began with Abū ḥanīfa (died 767 CE/150 AH). A large number of forged hadith about the Prophet Mohammad PBUH was creating a situation out of control, so some scholars wanted to verify which hadith were legit and which ones were not, to try and avoid the spread of misinformation. 

According to the scholar Daniel Brown criticism of this Hadith science began in the second century of Islam when Al-Shafiʽi (767–820 A.D.)  was establishing the final authority of a hadith of Muhammad in Islamic law.

An opposing group known as Ahl al-Kalam criticized  both the traditionists’ method and the results of their work. They doubted the reliability of the transmission of the hadith, including the traditionists’ evaluation of the “qualities of the transmitters” of hadith they considered “purely arbitrary”, and thought the collections of hadiths to be “filled with contradictory, blasphemous, and absurd traditions.”

Source: Brown, Daniel W. (1996). Rethinking tradition in modern Islamic thought. Cambridge University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0521570770. Retrieved 10 May 2018.

Later, another group of Hadith rejecters known as the Mu’tazilites emerged (which flourished in Basra and Baghdad in the 8th–10th centuries CE). They also viewed the transmission of the Prophetic sunnah as not sufficiently reliable. And it was their view that the Hadith was mere guesswork and conjecture, while the Quran was complete and perfect, and did not require the Hadith or any other book to supplement or complement it.

According to Racha El Omari, early Mutazilites believed that hadith were susceptible to “abuse as a polemical ideological tool”; that the matn (content) of the hadith—not just the isnad (chain of authorities)—ought to be scrutinized for doctrine and clarity; that for hadith to be valid they ought to be “supported by some form of tawātur.” Tawātur (Arabic:تواتر) is a term in the science of hadith and the usul al-fiqh), which is used when an account is reported numerously by different narrators and through various chains of transmission, in a way that substantiates its authenticity. Such a report is called mutawatir.


MOST HADITH COME FROM A SINGLE CHAIN OF NARRATION, NOT MULTIPLE CHAINS OF NARRATION

In writing about mutawatir (hadith transmitted via numerous chains of narrators) and ahad (hadith with a single chain, i.e. almost all hadith) and their importance from the legal theoretician’s point of view, Wael Hallaq notes the medieval scholar Al-Nawawi (1233–1277 CE) argued that any non-mutawatir hadith is only probable and can not reach the level of certainty that a mutawatir hadith can. However scholars like Ibn al-Salah (d. 1245 CE), al-Ansari (d. 1707 CE), and Ibn ‘Abd al-Shakur (d. 1810 CE) found “no more than eight or nine” hadiths that fell into the mutawatir category.


CAN ANY HADITH BE ACCURATE WHEN THEIR TRANSMISSION IS SUBJECT TO HUMAN ERROR AND BIAS? 

Imagine you are telling a story to someone who tells a story to someone who tells a story to someone who tells a story. A 200 year game of telephone. Even with the most honest and well intentioned people involved, how much would that story diverge over the course of time?

One Mu’tazilite who expressed the strongest statement of skepticism of any source of knowledge outside of reason and the Qurʾān was Ibrahim an-Nazzam (c. 775 – c. 845). For him, both the single and the mutawātir reports could not be trusted to yield knowledge.

He recounted contradictory hadith and examined their divergent content (matn) to show why they should be rejected: they relied on both faulty human memory and bias, neither of which could be trusted to transmit what is true.

Al-Naẓẓām supported his strong refutation of the trustworthiness of ḥadith within the larger claim that hadith circulated and thrived to support polemical causes of various theological sects and jurists, and that no single transmitter could by himself be held above suspicion of altering the content of a single report.


SCHOLARS WHO DISPUTE HADITH

Al-Nazzam (775–845 CE), Ibn Sa’d (784–845 CE), Al-Nawawi (1233–1277 CE), Ibn Hajar (1372–1449 CE), later reformers Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898 CE), Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938 CE); and scholars from the West such as Ignác GoldziherJoseph Schacht, and G.H.A. Juynboll, (and in the present day Israr Ahmed Khan).


FLAWS OF HADITH SCIENCE

For many critics, the contradictions of hadith with natural law and with other hadith demonstrated that the traditional scientists of hadith (muhaddithin) had failed to find all false hadith and there must be something wrong with their method.

Explanations of why this was included the neglect of hadith content (matn) by muhaddithin in favor of the evaluation of chain/isnad of the hadith. But this did not mean critics accepted the traditional evaluation of hadith transmission with its supposed knowledge of the character and capacity of the reported narrators, that the scientists had focused on. How could the study of the character of transmitters (ʿilm al-rijāl) be an exact science when it was “difficult enough to judge the character of living people, let alone those long dead”?

Information on the narrators was scarce and often conflicting. Hypocrites could be very clever. There was “no assurance that all the relevant information” had been gathered, and if hadith could be falsified, could not the historical reports about transmitters be as well?

Also, if the content (matn) of a hadith could be forged, why could not the chain of transmitters—the isnad? This was an issue traditional scientists of hadith had “completely discounted” and was “perhaps the most serious challenge of all” to classical hadith criticism. How could a hadith be judged “reliable” on the basis of its chain of transmission when we know that forgers commonly fabricated these chains “in order to hide their forgery?” There was, after all, strong incentive “to attribute one’s own information” to the most highly regarded authorities.

According to Bernard Lewis, “in the early Islamic centuries there could be no better way of promoting a cause, an opinion, or a faction than to cite an appropriate action or utterance of the Prophet.” This gave strong incentive to fabricate hadith.

Lewis, Bernard (2011). The End of Modern History in the Middle East. Hoover Institution Press. pp. 79–80. ISBN 9780817912963. Retrieved 28 March 2018.


UNRELIABLE TRANSMITTERS

The primary tool of orthodox ʻilm al-ḥadīth Hadith studies to verify the authenticity of hadith is the hadith’s isnad (chain) of transmitters. But in the oldest collections of hadith (which have had less opportunity to be corrupted by faulty memory or manipulation) isnad are “rudimentary”, while the isnads found in later “classical” collections of hadith are usually “perfect,” suggesting the correlation between supposedly high quality isnads and authentic hadith is not good.

I.e. if the earlier stuff is simpler and more basic, and the later stuff is much more elaborate and suddenly has new details that weren’t there before, this indicates embellishment and adding details that weren’t originally there. For example, if I was to tell my son a story that said, “I went to the store.” And then my great grandson told a story about me, “going to the store, the zoo and then getting a haircut.” This would be clear embellishment, adding details that weren’t in the original story.

According to Muslim Islamic scholar Jonathan A.C. Brown, 20th century Egyptian scholar Mahmoud Abu Rayya noted the problem of transmission of hadith from allegedly reliable Companions of the Prophet. One Abu Hurairah, joined the Muslim community only three years before the Prophet’s death (i.e. when the community was becoming triumphant) yet was the “single most prolific” transmitter of hadiths from among the Companions, passing on “thousands of hadiths he claimed” to have heard—far more traditions than companions who had been with Muhammad since the beginning. Abu Rayya and others think it highly unlikely Abu Hurairah could have heard the thousands of hadiths he claimed to transmitted, nor that he learned the details of ritual and law to avoid mangling the meanings of hadiths on these issues he reported.

There are also questions about Abu Hurairah, since he got deposed as the governor of Bahrain for stealing horses. 

Abu Hurayra and the Falsification of Hadith (Al-Islah)

Caliph ʿUmar prohibited transmission of hadith because the problem of forgery “had become so serious.” During the Umayyad dynasty, hadith forgeries that attacked their enemy Ali and supported dynasty founder Muʿāwiya were state sponsored. The succeeding Abbāsid dynasty circulated hadith predicting “the reign of each successive ruler”. Even traditionists whose job it was to filter out false hadith, circulated fabricated hadith for causes they thought worthy.


SOME AUTHENTIC HADITH CONTRADICT THE QURAN

Sahih hadith states that adultery should be punishable by stoning.

Reference: Sahih al-Bukhari 7543
In-book reference: Book 97, Hadith 168
USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 9, Book 93, Hadith 633

The Quran has a different punishment for adultery, which is lashing. 24:2

“Sahih” hadith orders death penalty on apostates:

Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to `Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn `Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Messenger forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Messenger, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'”

Reference: Sahih al-Bukhari 6922
In-book reference: Book 88, Hadith 5
USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 9, Book 84, Hadith 57

While the Qur’an says there is no compulsion in religion (2:256)


THE FALSE DOCTRINE OF ABROGATION

One way that scholars have used to make some of their hadith more “legitimate” than the Quran is through the principle of abrogation. They say that the later revealed verses abrogate the earlier revealed ones.

The following verse is used to promote this principle of abrogation.
“We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent (2:106)?” 

Quran-Islam.org has a great response to this. The word translated to “verse” here also means “sign.” So the verse could actually be saying:

Whichever ‘ayat’ (miracle/sign) We instate or cause to be forgotten, We replace it with that which is better than it or similar to it. Did you not know that God is Capable of all things? (2:106)

The idea that verses of the Quran can abrogate themselves also contradicts the following other verses:

A.L.R. A Book whose verses have been perfected. 11:1 (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)
There is no changing the Words of God. 10:64  (word by word grammar and Arabic of verse)

How could the Quran be a book that is perfected and the unchanging word of God if it changes over a short period of Mohammad PBUH’s prophethood (some 22 years)?


BUKHARI WAS IMPRISONED BY THE SCHOLARS OF HIS TIME

Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī (Persian: بخاری‎, ‎) (19 July 810 – 1 September 870) is highly regarded by Sunni Muslims for collecting the most authentic collection of hadiths. He finished his collection around 846 AD, more than 200 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad PBUH.

Most Sunnis tell me that Bukhari was wildly respected and revered in his time. However, not many know that he was at one point imprisoned and then driven out of the city by the Hadith scholars of his time. This is because he preached that one’s recitation of the Qur’an is created, whilst the Qur’an itself is uncreated.

Bukhari also preached the doctrine of predestination (similar to Calvinism). This is a doctrine that all of one’s actions are ultimately controlled by God and God alone.

According to Ibn Hajar, Bukhari signified that if someone was to accept autonomy in creating his acts, he would be assumed to be playing God’s role and so would subsequently be declared a polytheist.

Thus Bukhari preached against free will and individual accountability, a concept that the Quran highly promotes. (3:182), (18:29).

Sources:

Wahab, Muhammad Rashidi, and Syed Hadzrullathfi Syed Omar. “Peringkat Pemikiran Imam al-Ash’ari Dalam Akidah.” International Journal of Islamic Thought 3 (2013): 58-70. “Disebabkan itu, al- Bukhari dalam kebanyakan perkara berkaitan dengan persoalan akidah dikatakan akan mengambil pendapat Ibn Kullab dan al-Karabisi(al-‘Asqalani 2001: 1/293)”

Azmi, Ahmad Sanusi. “Ahl al-Hadith Methodologies on Qur’anic Discourses in the Ninth Century: A Comparative Analysis of Ibn Hanbal and al-Bukhari.” Online Journal of Research in Islamic Studies 4.1 (2017): 17-26.


HORRIFIC AUTHENTIC HADITH

50 Horrific Hadiths 

Most often when people cite their reasons for leaving Islam, they cite some horrific authentic hadith they read, such as the hadith where Mohammad PBUH is telling people to drink camel urine (an import from Zoroastrianism) or when Mohammad PBUH is stoning to death a monkey.


THE QURAN ITSELF PROHIBITS USE OF HADITH OUTSIDE OF QURAN

THE QURAN ALONE AS A DIVINE AUTHORITY

These are God’s verses which we recite unto you [O Muhammad] truthfully. Therefore, in which HADITH other than GOD and His verses do they believe in? (45:6

And recite (and teach) what has been revealed to thee of the Book of thy Lord: none can change His Words, and none wilt thou find as a refuge other than Him. (18:27)

Say: “Shall I seek for judge other than Allah? – when He it is Who hath sent unto you the Book, explained in detail.” They know full well, to whom We have given the Book, that it hath been sent down from thy Lord in truth. Never be then of those who doubt. (6:114)

The word of thy Lord doth find its fulfilment in truth and in justice: None can change His words: for He is the one who heareth and knoweth all. (6:115)

The Quran warns against those who will break down its message into portions and treat it as an uncomplete message. 

Just as We had revealed [scriptures] to the separators. Those who break the Qur’an into parts. Them, by thy Lord, We shall question, every one. (15:90-92).


CONCLUSIONS

There is much more to say on this topic, but I will stop here. People say that the Hadith is necessary to practice the Deen, but given that most of it wasn’t written and compiled until 2 centuries after the Prophet Mohammad PBUH’s death, how did those people in the first two centuries of Islam function according to this logic? If anything, the Muslim people experienced immense success in the growth of their civilization before any hadith was collected and written down.

The Quran has instructions for all the things that are necessary to practicing the Deen. It is a simple text that relies on people to use their own common sense and judgment to figure things out. We don’t need to be told what foot should we should use to step into the bathroom or what side we should sleep on. This is all minutia.

Everything we need to know to practice our faith is full and complete in the Quran. 

For the important matters such as how to pray, give charity, fast and do the hajj, there is some great advice here.