Understanding Hadith


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


When Islam is brought up, discussion usually moves to the question “What does the Qur’an say about this?” Because people are told that the Qur’an is “the Muslim Bible,” it’s natural to assume that the Qur’an is where we can find answers to questions about Muslim faith and belief. But many basic tenets of Islamic worship and even beliefs are not found in the Qur’an. For example, nowhere in the holy book does one find explicit mention of the exact timings of the five daily prayers that all Muslims are supposed to perform. Where one does find this crucial information is in the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, namely his authoritative precedent and teachings. Included in the Sunnah are the Hadith, which are reports about the Prophet Muhammad’s words and actions.

The Sunnah is the essential companion of the Qur’an, and the two cannot be read one without the other. For example, the Qur’an provides the spiritual impetus for Muslims to pray and to give charity; the Sunnah explains how, when, and how much. Hadith often deal with matters of worship, such as descriptions of how the Prophet held his arms during his prayers or when he fasted. Hadith can involve issues of ethics, such as the Prophet saying, “The best amongst you is the best to their family.” They can also be legal, such as the Prophet saying, “Do not sell what you do not own,” or his instruction that judges should never pass judgment when angry.

Due to the importance of Hadith in understanding the Qur’an, and in order to mitigate the risk of misunderstanding, early Muslim scholars like Imam Bukhari took on the enormous task of developing an objective system for grading the authenticity of statements claimed to be made by the Prophet. Hadith studies consist of examining whether the chain of transmission (isnad) is possible (e.g., making sure that all of the transmitters and transmittees were alive and living in the same area at the time of transmission) and whether the transmitters were considered to be reliable. Hadith that were known to be transmitted by reliable sources are considered sahih (authentic). Those transmitters who are reported to have lied at any point in their lives, or were reputed to be heedless, were rejected as unreliable and likely to have misunderstood what the Prophet said.

Scholars saw the use of unreliable Hadith as both a danger to social morality and contrary to the stated values of Islamic thought. Moreover, these unreliable Hadith carried a high social cost, threatening the Muslim community’s ability to assign proper priorities to elements of belief and action. The most conscientious acknowledgment of the social consequences of promulgating weak Hadith comes from Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201). Concerns over irresponsible preachers, their use of unreliable stories, and the heretical ideas they spread were powerful motives in Ibn al-Jawzi’s writings.

In his works, Ibn al-Jawzi vents his anxieties over the effects of unreliable hadith on society, most specifically on people’s ability to assign moral weight to actions: “How many complexions have become yellow with hunger, and how many people fall asleep flat on their faces out of wandering in pious travel (bi’lsiyaha)? How many have forbidden to themselves what is permitted, and how many have abandoned the transmission of religious knowledge (‘ilm), claiming that they are resisting the desire of their souls to do so? How many a person has orphaned his children by asceticism while still alive, and how many have turned away from their wives, not fulfilling their obligations to them, leaving them neither single nor women with a master?!”

When it comes to understanding the meaning of Hadith, they must be viewed in relation to the overall principles and rules that the Prophet Muhammad taught. One Hadith is just part of a much larger equation. It can’t be understood properly unless it is placed alongside the Qur’an and other relevant Hadith. One finds the seemingly controversial Hadith in which the Prophet says, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they say ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God,’ and if they do so then their lives and property are inviolable to me.” This seems to say that Muslims should fight all non-Muslims until they convert to Islam. But the Qur’an specifies that followers of existing religions, such as Christians and Jews, can retain their religion even if they lived under Muslim rule. The meaning of this particular Hadith becomes clear when one looks at another translation of it, which reads, “I have been commanded to fight the polytheists until they say ‘There is no god but God’,” showing that the Prophet was only talking about fighting the polytheistic Arab tribes in Arabia. Beyond those narrow circumstances, a Muslim state can exist in peaceful relations with its neighbors and respect the religious rights of non-Muslim minorities.

Neither the Qur’an nor the collections of Hadith should be picked up and read without some reliable reference that can provide context and explanation. A Qur’anic verse or Hadith read on its own might have a very different meaning than when it’s read in the context, of when they were said and its meaning might change entirely when placed in relation to other parts of these sources. Though they operate under the Prophet’s banner, Daesh’s violent actions violate and stand in direct contrast to the message of the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.