Is Hadith Literature a Reliable Source of History

The modern method of historical criticism, which has evolved since the time of renaissance and enlightenment in Europe, has radically changed the historical evaluation of biblical sources in Western academia. The stories of the prophets were turned into religious myths, and historical personalities were studied instead of their mythical counterparts. Thus, today we have historical Moses vis a vis mythical Moses. And historical Jesus vis a vis mythical Jesus. However, in the Islamic academia, since the times of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ it was apparently clear for Muslim scholars that the stories found in the bible, called as Israʼiliyyat (Arab. اسرائیلیات‎),  were not historically reliable. These scholars either totally dismissed them or narrated them for the sake of their own interest, but never as a serious source of history. At the same time, Muslims not only dismissed what was unreliable, but they have also developed an unprecedented critical method for the verification of historical narrative – the ulum al-hadith (sciences of hadith).

 

What we know about our Prophet ﷺ and most of Early Islamic history is a fruit of this method. While we believe in the promise of Allah ﴾Verily, We have sent down the Dhikr, and surely, We will guard it﴿ (surah al-Hijr 15:9), we don’t believe in it as a matter of unseen, rather, we can historically prove and show how Quran and the Sunnah have been preserved.

 

Thus, it would seem to us that the way Western Academia has criticized the narrations of the Bible, turning most of them into the category of myth (stories which cannot be historically verified), cannot apply to the sources of Islam and hadith narrations, which have so much in common to the same critical approach of Western scholars.

 

            However, it will probably come as a surprise for anyone who would read leading orientalist writings on the early Islamic traditions, that they have applied the same sceptical approach to hadith literature and rendered most of the early Islamic history (namely the Prophets’ ﷺ and the Righteous Caliphs periods) as a religious myth![1]

 

This article will analyze why have Western scholars made these conclusions and if any of their doubts should be taken seriously by Muslims in questioning the historical authenticity of hadith literature. It will be shown that Western criticism is baseless. We can quite confidently state that hadith literature stands for the most reliable source of pre-modern history.

 

 

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What Westeran Academia says about Hadith reliability?

 

hadith librairy

 

The questions of hadith literature authenticity and the historicity of early Islamic narrative are probably the most debated issues in current circles of orientalists. Some of them have dismissed it completely and even doubted the existence of the Prophet ﷺ (orientalists themselves have now discarded this theory) [1]. In contrast, others have accepted it with the same confidence for ahadith (plural. of hadith) authenticity as Muslims did [2].

 

However, the current mainstream scholarship consists of those who say that all of the ahadith should be considered spurious unless proven otherwise. Those who say that all of the ahadith should be considered true unless proven otherwise. Discussing all of these schools will take a long time and is not the goal of this article. Rather, we will discuss the general western premises, hopefully showing us that any discussion on their methods is not necessary to dismiss their false conclusions.

 

            First of all, let us ask why and how did orientalists reject hadith literature? The sciences of hadith (ulum al-hadith) are not mystical or dogmatic sciences based on belief in the unseen. We do not accept its validity because of a commandment from Quran or from the Prophet ﷺ and do not blindly believe in it as Christians believe in the mystical authenticity of the Bible. Rather, our belief in it is based on pure reason and logic [3], which, as mentioned before, is much similar to the modern critical method.

 

Thus, it would be reasonable to assume that the only way to criticize the authenticity of ahadith is through the dismantlement of the whole ulum al-hadith methodology, which supposedly would show that it was not effective to filter the real from fabricated narrations. However, it is not the case.

 

Why orientalists rejected hadith?

 

The primary reason why orientalists have dismissed the traditional Muslim methodology of hadith criticism was the presence of anachronistic and fancy hadiths, which according to them, could not represent the historical facts and are clear fabrications created by later Muslims [4].

 

By the anachronism, they clearly mean prophecies of the Prophet ﷺ, and by fancy hadiths, they mean the miracles performed by him ﷺ. Thus, we see that the only way to dismiss the traditional method of hadith criticism was through the assumption that the Prophet ﷺ was just a man, and that miracles are impossible. Obviously, it is a bunch of bias secularist assumptions that guided the Western research in the field of early Islamic history, and some of the orientalists are starting to notice it themselves [5].

 

Thus, instead of studying ulum al-hadith and criticizing its methodology, due to the above-mentioned assumptions, they have dismissed it as not worthy investigation and rather created their own methodologies of hadith criticism without even an attempt to assume the possibility that the Prophet ﷺ was a real Prophet and was able to perform miracles or to have knowledge about some of the future events. Here it could be argued further that if a valid scientific conclusion requires valid research with an assumption for a hypothesis to be valid, which either proves it to be true or false, then the rejection of ulum al-hadith methodology in Western Academia is unscientific!

 

How authentic hadith literature really is?

 

 

When the first hadith with its chain and explanation of authenticity ruling (sahih or daif) reaches somebody who has never learned the methodology of traditional hadith criticism, probably the primary assumption which comes to the mind is that as the people of the early Islamic period had excellent memories, they were able to memorize narrations. Also, they were living in small communities.

 

Thus, they knew each other very well, and there was no difficulty differentiating a trustworthy narrator from a possible liar. These assumptions alone are convincing enough to believe in the genuineness of hadiths and the likelihood that untrustworthy narrations have been dismissed while trustworthy preserved. However, the ulum al-hadith and the history of the hadith collection is much more than that. In fact, the system by which hadiths were preserved could be compared to a modern computer system, which has the highest level of protection against mistakes.

 

            Since the time of sahaba, a specific group of hadith scholars emerged who have dedicated their whole lives to memorising and transmitting hadiths. These scholars were supervised by their own scholarly circles and their students. If one of them had a bad memory, it was effortless for students to find it, to such precision that today we know the exact time of when some of the narrators’ memories have become bad [6]!

 

Also, a scholar is not an ordinary person; many people know him, and sometimes he becomes famous in huge areas. And his biography (under which scholars did he studied and so on) is easily recorded. Thus, any bad actions from his side were noticeable, and the trustworthiness of a scholar could be established or invalidated without big efforts. At the same time, the scholar knew his students and their trustworthiness.

 

And all of this has happened while Muslims were well aware of the hadith, in which the messenger of Allah says: “Whoever tells a lie about me deliberately, let him take his place in Hell”. This hadith is mutawatir, which means that it was so widespread and known since the time of sahaba that it can’t be spurious [7]. Additionally, from the beginning of Islam, scholars were used to writing down their hadiths to support their memorization [8].

 

Considering all of these circumstances, instead of seeing the hadith preservation process as a human effort with all of its limitations and possibilities of mistakes, we should look at it as the scholar-machine technology with checks and balances to prevent false positives narrations.

 

It makes the hadiths an authentic source of history and even more authentic than any other written contemporary sources that historians are using to reconstruct history. In fact, we can say that hadith represents the most reliable source of pre-modern history. If any biography of historical personality can be reconstructed authentically, then that person must be the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

 

 

Some of the general proofs for hadith historical authenticity

 

 

The first thing that historian asks about any historical event is if that event is possible to happen. For example, if we read a papyri manuscript, which would state that the Caliph Umar once entered his son’s room and scolded him for playing a video game, it would be directly discarded as a forgery impossible to play video games at that time.

 

Let us apply this principle to the orientalist narration that hadith literature cannot be trusted because it was written down only two hundred years after the events described by Muslims themselves, who supposedly were biased towards what they wrote. According to this narration, most known hadiths were forged during the end of the first and second centuries AH.

 

And, to make it short, that would mean that all of the different sects and political groups of Muslims, who were already having fights and disagreements following the first fitnah, and covered the land from Andalusia to India, decided to agree on the biggest conspiracy in the history of humankind and invented so many ahadith, which not only became a common source for their fiqh schools but were placed in one traditional narration of Islamic history which all Muslims almost completely agree upon despite their differences in political or sectarian worldviews.

 

            If this narrative is true, and the invention of fabricated ahadith was a rule rather than an exception (as fabrication did really happen, but false ahadith were rejected by leading scholars with the help of ulum al-hadith methodology), then we should have completely different Islamic histories, completely different schools of jurisprudence, and completely different religious sects. But the reality is that even those groups of Muslims fighting in wars and religious debates have agreed on most of the “fabricated” events! Such a conspiracy is historically impossible [9].

 

Ironically, the same people who have created this narrative are known as sceptics. Still, seemingly, they completely forgot to be sceptical of themselves and created a nonsensical and even ludicrous story of ahadith forgery.

 

            The second factor, which indicates the reliability of hadith literature, is part of the ulum al-hadith methodology itself. When it comes to the criticism of hadiths, and specifically to the indication of forgeries (hadith mawdu), the main tool for it is not only the criticism of the chain but the criticism of narration. To establish a fabrication, a scholar needs to establish that the narrator is a liar. It is often achieved by comparing hadith to the Quran, other well-known ahadith, or the consensus of scholars [10].

 

book hadith litterature

 

If the hadith in question is contradicting the well-established sources, then it is rendered as a fabrication. This indicates a strong and monolithic core of hadith literature that doesn’t accept contradictions, which can be existing only if the source of it is one source. Interestingly, this applies not only to fabrications but also to the weak ahadith. High-level scholars who have studied ahadith a lot and have memorized a significant part of them attest that they usually can feel when the hadith is weak even without investigation of its chain. This is similar to when one becomes a master of a certain literature author and can differentiate his original works and the false attributions. This type of indication would be impossible if the hadith literature were a work of a group of people.

 

            However, it could be argued here that it only indicates that a group of conspirators have agreed upon a bunch of ahadith and rejected the ahadith of other rival groups. It would mean that Shia were creating Shia ahadith and rejected everything that was supporting Sunni doctrines, while Sunnis were creating Sunni ahadith and rejected everything that contradicted their doctrine.

 

Consequently, a Sunni scholar can feel when the hadith is weak or fabricate because it simply doesn’t match the Sunni doctrine. While this explanation seems compelling, it fails to explain why all Islamic sects agree upon so many ahadith? Why the Fiqh of Shia doesn’t completely contradict the Fiqh of Sunnis but is quite similar? Why there isn’t a Sunni narrative of Islamic history and Shia or Khawarij narrative which would be completely different?

 

Why would a scholar agree with a made-up narration of another scholar from a rival sect? All these questions indicate the fact that the source for hadith literature is one. While it is true that so many ahadith were fabricated, the scholars who have adhered to the primary source had no problems in filtering those ahadith with a scientific method of hadith criticism.

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

When one of the leading orientalists, Bernard Lewis, was consulted before the invasion of Iraq, he wrote that “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us” [11].

 

This statement alone should raise a big question mark for us when dealing with anything that orientalists are saying. The implication of the hadith reliability question in the Western Academia is not without serious consequences. If it is not authentic, and all of the early Islamic history is nothing but a religious myth, then colonization and the enforcement of Western values on the Muslim countries become a liberation of uneducated and superstitious people who follow an artificial religion with an artificial law which needs to be changed because man needs to make progress.

 

What would be a destruction of a great civilization built on the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ suddenly becomes a moral act of liberation from falsehood and backwardness.

 

            Thus, in this article, it was shown that orientalists not only failed to refute the methodology of ulum al-hadith, but they did not even try to do it. Rather, they created their own speculative methodologies with various conclusions on the hadith reliability. Before they try to deal with the traditional Muslim method scientifically, any conclusions shouldn’t be taken as a serious scientific attempt. Still, they should be looked at with caution and great scepticism due to the imperialistic need for the same conclusions that these “scholars” make.

 

Additionally, it was showed that it is their conclusions that are mythical and historically impossible. There is not only a good reason to trust the authenticity of hadith literature, but that it can be stated with confidence that it is more authentic than any other sources of pre-modern history.

 

References

 

[1] Jane Dammen McAuliffe, The Cambridge Companion To The Qurʼān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 100.

[2] Nabia Abbott, Studies In Arabic Literary Papyri II (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 2.

[3] محمد أبو الليث الخير آبادي، علوم الحديث أصيلها ومعاصرها،  (دار الشاكر: ط6، 1432ه/2011م)، ص17.

[4] Fred M. Donner, Narratives Of Islamic Origins (Princeton: The Darwin Press, 1998), p. 9.

[5] A. F. L. Beeston et al., Arabic Literature To The End Of The Umayyad Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 321.

[6]  محمد أبو الليث الخير آبادي، علوم الحديث أصيلها ومعاصرها،  (دار الشاكر: ط6، 1432ه/2011م)، ص251.

[7] Ibid, p. 146.

[8] Ibid, p. 58.

[9] J. A. C. Brown, “Encyclopedia Of Canonical Hadith * BY G. H. A. JUYNBOLL”, Journal Of Islamic Studies 19, no. 3 (2008): 391-397, doi:10.1093/jis/etn054.

[10] محمد أبو الليث الخير آبادي، علوم الحديث أصيلها ومعاصرها،  (دار الشاكر: ط6، 1432ه/2011م)، ص218-219.

[11] Douglas Martin, “Bernard Lewis, Influential Scholar Of Islam, Is Dead At 101”, Nytimes.Com, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/21/obituaries/bernard-lewis-islam-scholar-dies.html.

 


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