Criticism of Hadith

Criticism of Hadith

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Hadith studies


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Criticism of Hadith refers to critique directed towards canonised reports concerning the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadith. The criticism revolves primarily around the question of the authenticity of hadith reports and whether they are attributable to Muhammad.

Sunni and Shi'a Muslims accept the authenticity of the majority of the Hadith, though they often disagree over the authenticity of certain hadith or how others might be interpreted, and have different canonical collections. Shi'as also believe that narrations of the Fourteen Infallibles, especially Ali bin Abi Talib, are valid as hadith, whereas Sunnis accept only narrations traceable to Muhammad: Sunnis and Shi'as also have different methods of analysing the chain of transmitters, as Sunnis view all of the Companions of Muhammad to be upright individuals, and their narrations valid and free from defect of malicious intent, whereas Shi'as analyse the life of each Companion separately in determining whether their narrations are authentic. Others, such as Qur'anists (who are considered unorthodox by the orthodox), do not consider the hadith to be an integral part of Islam and interpret the Qur'an without reference to them, and some, such as Ahmadiyyas (again considered unorthodox), view them as a collection of folk stories and not as binding law or precedent for fiqh, in much the same way Humanist Jews view the halakha and Rabbinical literature.



It has been suggested that there exists around the Hadith three major sources of corruption: political conflicts, sectarian prejudice, and the desire to translate the underlying meaning, rather than the original words verbatim.[1]

Orthodox Muslims do not deny the existence of false hadith, but believe that through the scholars' work, these false hadith have been largely eliminated.[2]

Muslim critics of the hadith, Quranists, reject the authority of hadith on theological grounds, pointing to verses in the Quran itself: "Nothing have We omitted from the Book",[3] declaring that all necessary instruction can be found within the Quran, without reference to the Hadith. They claim that following the Hadith has led to people straying from the original purpose of God's revelation to Muhammad, adherence to the Quran alone.[4]

Early prohibitions against hadith collection

"Do not write anything from me except the Qur'an. Whoever wrote, must destroy it."

Muhammad, as narrated by Abu Sa'eed al-Khudri[5][6]

Within the Hadith, Muhammad is reported to have forbidden his followers from writing down anything he said, with the exception of the Revelation he received from Angel Jibril, the Quran.[6][7] After Muhammad's death, Omar is also reported to have stated that he had desired to write down a collection of the prophet's sayings, but refrained for fear of the Muslims choosing to abandon the teachings of the Quran in favour of the Hadith.[8]

Early in Islamic history there was a school of thought that adhered to the view that the Hadith were incompatible with Islam, but it receded in importance after coming under criticism by al-Shafi'i.[citation needed]

In response to criticism, orthodox Muslims point to hadith that legitimise hadith collection. For example, a man was said to have come to Muhammad and complained about his memory, saying: "We hear many things from you, but most of them slip our minds because we cannot memorize them" and was encouraged to write them down to avoid forgetting them.[9] Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr also said that the Quraysh had forbidden him to write down the words of Muhammad, noting that "the Prophet is human, who speaks while angry and pleased?", but was reassured when the prophet responded that "nothing emanates from [his mouth] except the truth,”[10] but, again, these accounts are derived from the sources being criticised.

Within the Quran itself, a number of verses mention hadith. The following examples are from the Yusuf Ali translation, with the instances where the word hadith is translated and added in parenthesis which usually seems to referring to Quran:

  • 4:87 Allah, there is no god but He; of a surety He will gather you together against the Day of Judgement, about which there is no doubt. And whose word can be truer than Allah's?
  • 7:185 Do they see nothing in the government of the heavens and the earth and all that Allah hath created? (Do they not see) that it may well be that their terms is nigh drawing to an end? In what message after this will they then believe?
  • 31:6 But there are, among men, those who purchase idle tales , without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a Humiliating Penalty.
  • 39:23 Allah has revealed (from time to time) the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teaching in various aspects)...

Criticism of the Hadith by Muslims

A Muslim who denies the authority of the Hadith, following the Quran alone, is often called a Quranist.

Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) is often considered the founder of the modernist movement within Islam, noted for his application of "rational science" to the Quran and Hadith and his conclusion that the Hadith were not legally binding on Muslims.[11] His student, Chiragh ‘Ali, went further, suggesting nearly all the Hadith were fabrications.[11]

Ghulam Ahmed Pervez (1903–1985) was a noted critic of the Hadith and believed that the Quran alone was all that was necessary to discern God's will and our obligations. A fatwa, ruling, signed by more than a thousand orthodox clerics, denounced him as a 'kafir', a non-believer.[12] His seminal work, Maqam-e Hadith argued that the Hadith were composed of "the garbled words of previous centuries", but suggests that he is not against the idea of collected sayings of the Prophet, only that he would consider any hadith that goes against the teachings of Quran to have been falsely attributed to the Prophet.[13]

Al-Shafi'i, a Muslim scholar, ruled that "only the Koran can abrogate the Koran, and only a Sunna can abrogate a Sunna".[14] But when scholars ran into trouble seeking to have Hadith overrule aspects of the Quran, they "probably" invented the category of al-Tilawa bidun al-hukm, the doctrine that there had originally been a Quranic verse which supported the Hadith - and could thus overrule the troublesome Quranic invocation - even though it no longer survived.[14]

The 1986 Malaysian book "Hadith: A Re-evaluation" by Kassim Ahmad was met with controversy and some scholars declared him an apostate from Islam for suggesting that "“the hadith are sectarian, anti-science, anti-reason and anti-women".[11][15]

Western Criticism

John Esposito notes that "Modern Western scholarship has seriously questioned the historicity and authenticity of the hadith", maintaining that "the bulk of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad were actually written much later." He mentions Joseph Schacht, considered the father of the revisionist movement, as one scholar who argues this, claiming that Schacht "found no evidence of legal traditions before 722," from which Schacht concluded that "the Sunna of the Prophet is not the words and deeds of the Prophet, but apocryphal material" dating from later.[16] Though other scholars, such as Wilferd Madelung, have argued that "wholesale rejection as late fiction is unjustified".[17]

Impact of the Hadith

"So far from the Quran alone being the sole rule of faith and practice to Muslims, there is not one single sect amongst them whose faith and practice are based on it alone".

Edward Sell, 1880[18]

Some Muslims have suggested that the original prohibition against Hadith led to the Golden Age of Islam, as the Quran was able to stand up to critical thinking and questioning; and Muslims were thus schooled to be inquisitive and seek answers to every quandary. They posit that the increased reliance on Hadith, which was allegedly illogical and required the suspension of disbelief, led to the eventual downfall of scholastic pursuits in the religion.[15]

In 1878, Cyrus Hamlin wrote that "Tradition, rather than the Quran, has formed both law and religion for the Moslems".[19] In the early 20th century, a book was written in defence of the Hadith stating "Anyone who denies the role of Abu Hurayra denies half of the canonical law, for half of the hadiths on which judgments were based had their origin in Abu Hurayra".[20]

Recently, the Pakistani judiciary has played down the importance of the Hadith compared to the Quran in its court rulings, pointing to theological reasons.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b Brown, Daniel W. "Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought", 1999. p. 113 & 134
  2. ^ Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. "Shi'ism", 1988. p. 35.
  3. ^ Quran, Chapter 6. The Cattle: 38
  4. ^ Donmez, Amber C. "The Difference Between Quran-Based Islam and Hadith-Based Islam"
  5. ^ Sahih Ahmed, Volume I, page 171.
  6. ^ a b Sahih Muslim, Zuhd, 72
  7. ^ Ibn Hanbal, "The messenger of God ordered us never to write anything of his Hadith."
  8. ^ Jami' Al-Bayan 1/67, "I wanted to write the Sun'an, and I remembered a people who were before you, they wrote other books to follow and abandoned the book of God. And I will never, I swear, replace God's book with anything'"
  9. ^ Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 12.
  10. ^ Collected in the Musnad of Ahmad (10\15-6\ 6510 and also nos. 6930, 7017 and 1720), Sunan Abu Dawud (Mukhtasar Sunan Abi Dawud (5\246\3499) and elsewhere.
  11. ^ a b c Latif, Abu Ruqayyah Farasat. The Quraniyun of the Twentieth Century, Masters Assertion, September 2006
  12. ^ Ahmad, Aziz. "Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857 -1964". London: Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ Pervez, Ghulam Ahmed. Maqam-e Hadith, Urdu version
  14. ^ a b Vikor, Knut S. "Between God and the Sultan". p. 47
  15. ^ a b Ahmad, Kassim. "Hadith: A Re-evaluation", 1986. English translation 1997
  16. ^ Esposito, John (1998). Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-19-511234-2. 
  17. ^ Madelung, Wilferd (1997). The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-521-64696-0. 
  18. ^ Sell, Rev. Edward. "The Faith of Islam", 1880.
  19. ^ Hamlin, Cyrus. "Among the Turks", 1878. p. 82
  20. ^ Iþýk, Hüseyin Hilmi. Saadeti Ebediye-Tam Ýlmihal

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