One of the things I have observed in the so-called ‘science of hadith’ is that every religious group and Islamic trend now sports its own cohort of hadith, and proceeds to condemn other hadith scholars as atheistic skeptics and heretics.


THE SUFIS, for example, have their Shaykh Abdullah Al-Hararī, founder of the Al-Aḥbāsh group in Lebanon, then there is Shaykh Abdullah bin Ṣiddīq Al-Ghamārī, while Salafists have their Shaykh Al-Albānī. Thus you find Sufis viewing Al-Albānī as an innovator while Salafists see Al-Hararī as a heretic. And Salafis actually use violent obscene language re Hararī, at times to the point of racism due to his black skin and Ethiopian origin. This means that the hadith is placed at the service of ideology and not the other way around.

And this despite the fact that the hadith are actually a body of knowledge and paths which constitute a method of thought, so that if the hadith changes, then the group and the method change completely. This severely impugns the science of hadith, in the sense that all speak of the sciences of the sanad (train of transmission), but these nevertheless differ among themselves even to the extent of mutually declaring takfīr. The main question here is: If the sanad constitutes a real knowledge and something that is agreed upon, how can the hadiths declare other hadiths to be heretical?

If the sanad constitutes a real knowledge and something that is agreed upon, how can the hadiths declare other hadiths to be heretical?

For this question we must go back to the source of the so-called ‘science’ of hadith[1] and ask another question: did the documentation of narrations and hadiths take place before the development of the hadith methodology or did the methodology precede their documentation? For we see books of hadith appearing over a period of three consecutive centuries, starting from the second century until the middle of the fourth, and the hadith scholars and jurists came to name nine of the most famous of these books declare six of these the ‘most reliable’. But this  classification in the methodology came late in the day.  

We see Ibn al-Jawzī al-Baghdādī writing on certain topics and Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ penning his famous introduction to the method, but these lived in the 6th and 7th centuries AH, more than 300 years after the authors of the collections of the ‘nine’ and the ‘six’. This has caused a major problem in the hadith scholarship – the effective non-application of this methodology – in that those who provided classifications for the hadith  according to this method were doing so centuries after the era when they were first recorded. They therefore were attempting to reconcile the ways that these hadith were first recorded with their fundamentalist methodology in setting controls for validating these hadith. Their intellectual product was disciplined in theory, but in practice not carried through by the hadith scholars.

Imam Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī provided a classification of the methodology of hadith scholarship in his work Nuzhat al-Nāẓir and placed a conditions on accepting the hadith that it should not contradict with an unambiguous Qur’ānic text, or something clearly rational or agreed upon by consensus, or something that was mutawātir.[2] Yet when it came to applying this, we see Ibn Ḥajar himself accepting all the hadiths recorded by Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ within the chapters of his work Fatḥ al-Bārī and attempts to reconcile and ‘interpret’ the apparent contradictions and does not employ his rational intellect to evaluate fabulous texts and imaginary stories.

Their intellectual product was disciplined in theory, but in practice not carried through by the hadith scholars.

Nor does he compare these to the Qur’ān, which in the end shows us that there appear to be two people in one and the same Ibn Hajar, the one mentally disciplined and viewing hadith with an enlightened mindset and the other a superstitious hadith scholar accepting all the tall tales without any rational evaluation or comparing them to the Qur’ān. This same approach was adopted by Imam al-Sakhāwī in his book Fatḥ al-Mughīth  and by Al-Suyūṭī in his work Tadrīb al-Rāwī. These books are constructed in a mentally disciplined was and apply strict criteria in validating hadith reports,  but when it comes to applying their rulings we see Al-Suyūṭī and Al-Sakhāwī – just as their teacher Ibn Ḥajar – failing to apply the methodology they set for themselves. They accepted flimsy and weak fables and reports that clearly conflict with sound reason and unambiguous Qur’anic texts.

This poses yet another problem, which is the true level of the methodology of the early hadith scholars and their acceptance of its conditions, and the level of the famous hadith compilers in the early days of Islam with respect to their theoretically fundamental, controlled validation of hadith scholarship. Here we find that their intellectual product is weak in documentation and compromised. This prompted some hadith scholars to challenge earlier hadith collections or provide commentaries on them as to their errors and weaknesses.

We see, for example, Al-Dārāquṭnī commenting on Al-Bukhārī and Al-Nasā’ī commenting on Muslim, an even Ibn Taymiyya Al-Ḥarrānī rejected many of al-Bukhārī’s hadiths and dozens of those contained in the two Ṣaḥīḥ collections  in his work Minhaj al-Sunna al-Nabawiyya, despite Ibn Taymiyya being famed for his  acceptance of the hadiths in the two Ṣaḥīḥ collections and his permanent preference for the sanad over against judgement based on their contents or any evaluation of the texts on the basis of reasonability.

At the time the hadith were being recorded the Qur’ān was the only source of legislation while the hadith were merely jurisprudence.

We are therefore confronted with two different readings of the hadith: the first Is that of the  Salaf predecessors and the second is that of the Khalaf successors, which in my opinion also goes for the Qur’ān itself. For it is a feature of Islamic thought, when we contemplate the fatwās issued by the Muslim Salaf as to how to read the Qur’ān, that you find them differing from contemporaries in several ways.

Firstly: The Qur’ān in the beginning was the sole source of legislation, and everything else constituted ijtihad.[3] They thus stipulated how the Qur’ān was to be read or handled intellectually – hence the two methods of Ahl al-Ḥadīth wal-Ra’ī , the ‘People of Hadith or Opinion’.  But the Qur’ān in the end is the only source for legislation. This is confirmed by the words of the Tunisian Imam al-Ṭāhir ibn ‘Āshūr in his commentary:

Commenting on the appropriate etiquette on reading the Qur’ān our jurists stated that understanding with a little reading is better than reading much without understanding.[4]

Al-Ṭabarānī narrates from Abdullah ibn ‘Amr that the Prophet said:

Read the Qur’ān till it exhausts you, and if it does not exhaust you are not reading it [correctly].

This means that at the time the hadith were being recorded the Qur’ān was the only source of legislation while the hadith were merely jurisprudence. The evidence for this is the saying ‘understand the Qur’ān first’, and this indicates that in the culture of the Muslim Salaf there was their own standard for reading, it was not important in itself and religion and faith was not to be measured by this. The idea of abrogating the Qur’ān with a hadith had yet to emerge, otherwise the way the Qur’ān was understand would have been replaced, in other words, by the understanding of a hadith.

Secondly: Working with the hadith and making these the second source of legislation – and sometimes the first – began with Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Ḥajar, meaning 600 years after the death of the Prophet and 300 years after the death of al-Bukhārī. The reason for this is that when the Ṣaḥīḥ books and the Sunan appeared in the 3rd century AH they were not immediately taken as sacrosanct. They remained for centuries merely an ijtihad to be accepted or rejected. The evidence for this is the rejection of some of them by hadith scholars, as we mentioned. In this atmosphere, that is over a period of some 600 years, how the Qur’ān was to be treated remained a matter of the conscience of the jurists. Just take the famous statement of the Companion ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ūd:

The Qur’ān was revealed that they might act thereby. So make the study of it your act.  Let one among you read the Qur’ān from its opening sūra to its final sūra; any letter omitted therefrom will mean an annulment of one’s act.

There is also Ḥasan al-Baṣrī:

You have taken on the reading of the Qur’ān in stages and have turned the nighttime into a camel to ride, cutting it up into stages. Whereas those who came before you saw it as communications from their Lord, and would contemplate its message during the night and act on it during the day.[5]

Even al-Bukhārī himself did not believe that his words constituted material for legislation, as he quoted the words of Abū ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Salamī:

The primacy of the Qur’ān over all other words is like the primacy of the Lord over his creation.[6]

He also said the following:

On the authority of ‘Ubāda ibn al-Ṣāmit, he heard the Prophet was asked “Which deeds are superior?” He replied: “Faith in God, belief in His Book. There are some who in their acts denigrate your deeds, who read the Qur’ān while it never goes beyond their throats, they pass straight through the religion like an arrow… He showed that to read the Qur’ān is to act upon it.[7]

Think about al-Bukhārī’s words: “To read the Qur’ān is to act upon it.”

Thirdly: With the Islamic Awakening of the Wahhābī Muslim Brotherhood since the sixties and seventies, the situation has reversed. Manifestations of religiosity has turned into law in itself, as a means of resisting what the jurists at the time termed ‘Westernization’ and ‘Christian evangelization’ campaigns that accompanied the Cold War.  

From that day the reading of the Qur’ān became for the religious a basic ritual, whether this be carried out in the street, on public transport or at work. The Qur’ān has become fertile ground for conflict, for trading in religion and oppression others through it, as happens at times when hearing Qur’ān recitations is imposed  upon those listening to songs, in order to demonstrate that those who listen to music are, in the end, infidel and haters of religion. To ridicule extremists, fanatics and traffickers in religion and its rituals and slogans there is a popular example underlining their logic:

A bag with a religious book inside.

[1] In practical terms, some scholars have proposed as more useful the translation into English of the term ‘ilm al-ḥadīth as ‘scholarship of hadith’ (Ed.)

[2] That is, a hadith of which the narrators constitute a group or large number, on the understanding that it is considered impossible for them all to agree to transmit a lie. See Glossary under ‘Ḥadīth’.

[3] See Glossary.

[4] التحرير والتنوير  Vol I, p.29.

[5] Al-Manar magazine, 1/829

[6] خلق أفعال العباد p.40.

[7] Op. cit., p.53.

Main image: The ḥadīth considered as a text ranking with Qur’anic scripture: a muṣḥaf-like page from the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī with gold illumination. The passages calligraphically inscribed are Ḥadīths 815 and 816 from chapter كتاب الأذان : “The Prophet was ordered to prostrate on seven bony parts and not to tuck up his clothes or hair” (when performing ṣalāh). Unknown artist, Shiraz, dated 1400-1450. From the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, Object number K.1.2014.800.1.