Post: The Importance of Hadith in Islam

The militant group that calls itself ‘Islamic State’, otherwise known as IS, is terrorising innocent people across Syria and Iraq and threatening the stability of the region.  The group professes to be following a ‘pure’ form of Islam that is founded upon the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad and the early generations of Muslims.

In a forthcoming book, Making Sense of Militant Islam, I explore the roots of this extremism starting from the early Islamic period through to today.

The following is a short excerpt from Chapter One that looks at the importance of Hadith (sayings of the Prophet).  My suggestion is that groups such as IS lift selective texts from the Qur’an to justify their brutal acts without reference to the historical context, the Hadith or a long tradition of Islamic scholarship.

Soon after the death of the Prophet his followers began collecting various sayings and actions that were attributable to him. So began another body of literature that became known as hadith, meaning the tradition of the Prophet according to his sayings and actions. Since Muhammad was to become the role model for all Muslims it was necessary to have as much information as possible about his life so that this information could provide a guide for the community.

The hadith is divided into two parts; one part being the narrative or account of the words and deeds of the Prophet, the other part providing a chain of reliable witnesses to the particular saying or action. These witnesses were traced chronologically back to the life of Muhammad.

Arab society in the 6th century was oral and all the hadiths were originally orally transmitted. Consequently both content and witness were open to error, which in turn led to the need for hadith-criticism. The scholars who undertook this task paid particular attention to the trust-worthiness or otherwise of the witnesses. The hadiths were therefore categorised as being: a) sound/authentic, b) weak or c) fabricated.

One of the most reliable collections of hadith that is widely recognised across the Muslim world is the work of al-Bukhari who was born in Bukhara, Khorasan in 810 CE and died in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 870 CE.

The Sunni and the Shi’a have different corpus of hadith that reflects the schism between the two sects that occurred in the 7th century. This schism is described in an earlier book in this series (Abraham’s Children: Jew Christian Muslim Commonality and Conflict) and will be covered in the following chapter. Briefly, the Sunni accept all the hadiths of the first four Caliphs and also that of Muhammad’s wife Aisha. However, since the Shi’a reject the authority of the first three Caliphs they naturally reject the hadiths of those witnesses. Furthermore, the Shi’a have an extremely low regard for Aisha and would consider her hadiths to be weak, or even more likely, fabricated.

The Qur’an and hadith were rooted in Arab culture and from the beginning there was no separation between secular law and religious law. Therefore when Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula it was necessary to integrate the local customs and traditions of the newly conquered territories into Islamic law. This was to be the task of the Qadi (religious judge) and the ulema (religious scholars and clerics). The religious scholars based their judgments on the Qur’an, the hadith and the tradition or consensus of the early Islamic community.

By the middle of the 9th century four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence, or law, known as madhhabs, had emerged within the Sunni tradition across the Muslim world. These were known as the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi’i, and the Hanbali, each school taking its name from its founder. The Shi’a had their own madhhabs, known as the Jafari and Zaidi. The Ibadi is a separate madhhab that has its roots and practice in Oman.

Imam Abu Hanifa, (699 – 767 CE), the first of the founders, was born in Kufa, modern Iraq and was probably of Persian origin. Being born only 66 years after the death of Muhammad he was able to meet some of the Companions of the Prophet. It is believed that he received hadith directly from them, which gives him a very high status in terms of authority. The Hanafi School is named after him and is followed by the majority of Muslims in the world.

Imam Malik (711 – 795 CE) lived his entire life in Medina and is highly revered on account of his ‘chain of witnesses’. For example, Muhammad narrated to Umar, who was the second Caliph, who then narrated to Nafi who in turn narrated to Malik. This places the scholar just two witnesses removed from the Prophet. The majority of Muslims in North Africa follow the Maliki School.

Imam Shafi, (767 – 820 CE) was born in Gaza and spent some time studying in Medina under Imam Malik. After a period in Baghdad he finally settled in Egypt where he established his school of jurisprudence. He was known to promote the use of human reasoning along with the ‘revealed’ word of the Qur’an and hadith. Followers of the Shafi’i Madhhab can today be found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and South India.

Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780 – 855 CE) was the last of the four great scholars and he was born in Baghdad at a crucial time in the history of Islam. Just thirty years before his birth the Abbasids, who descended from the Prophet’s youngest uncle Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (566 – 653 CE), overthrew the Ummayad dynasty and moved the capital of the Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad from where they ruled from 750 to 1517 CE.

The change of dynasty from the Ummayads to the Abbasids not only marked a change in power but it also marked a change in cultural influence, away from its Arabian heritage into a Byzantine/Greek/Persian world. This led to a period known as Islam’s Golden Age, a time of great scientific, philosophical and cultural flowering. It was this new world of philosophical and religious debate, that stressed the importance of logic and reason that allowed the doctrines of the Mu’tazilis to flourish. Of particular importance was the Mu’tazilis concept of the created nature of the Qur’an. In other words, they believed that while Muhammad heard the Word of God, those words were then transcribed by human act. Consequently while the Word is divine, the Qur’an is created. This was totally contradictory to the teaching of Ibn Hanbal who believed that the Qur’an was uncreated, co-eternal with God. This led to him being summoned before the Caliph al Ma’mun who demanded that he recant his views. When the scholar refused he was imprisoned, as mentioned above. Ibn Hanbal is revered for his commitment to the early Sunni traditions of the first generations of Muslims. Followers of the Hanbali School can be found today in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates with minority groups in Syria and Iraq.

Of interest to us is that an element of today’s militant Islam can be traced back to the Hanbali doctrines of the 8th century.  

The four main Sunni madhhabs were founded in the early period of Islamic history in response to the needs of the qadis (judges) and ulema (clerics) whose responsibility it was to formulate the sharia for the growing number of believers across the Empire. While the early schools shared much in common, any differences usually reflected the social and cultural setting of the particular community. Each of the founders of the four schools took as their source material the text of the Qur’an and the hadith that was composed of hundreds and thousands of different sayings. The early scholars travelled widely collecting hadith all the while constantly checking the authenticity and reliability of the witnesses.

The next task was to check each hadith against both the Qur’an and other hadiths. The checks concerned such things as names, dates and events. Where inconsistencies appeared, whether within the Qur’anic text or across different hadiths, further study was required. A particular task was to assess whether or not an early ruling had been superseded by a later text, a situation that frequently occurred. From the very beginning Islam has always placed great emphasis upon learning with the expectation that all Muslims, female as well as male, should study the Qur’an and hadith. However, it has equally been acknowledged that the task of making judgments in accordance with Islamic law can only be the preserve of those scholars who are qualified for the task, in other words the qadi and the ulema.

Furthermore these scholars didn’t work in isolation but learned from others within the same school or even those from a different school. For example, we saw above that Imam Shafi studied for a while under Imam Malik. In this way particular theological traditions developed and all later scholars and Imams would identify with one particular school of jurisprudence or madhhab. The madhhabs therefore provide a system of sound scholarship, which is ongoing, against which Islamic Faith and practice can be measured.

Today however there are signs that some Muslims regard the madhhabs as irrelevant, claiming that the Qur’an and hadith is sufficient. In other words they disregard the wealth of Islamic scholarship that has sustained the Faith for centuries. The result is that they take a literal view of the Qur’an together with unreliable hadith. This would be the position of most adherents of militant Islam today. Their understanding of the Faith is limited and has led to an extremism that the majority of mainstream Muslims reject as being un-Islamic. In other words they will take their chosen text as authoritative while there may well be later scholarship that is accepted by mainstream Islam offering quite a different meaning to the text. An example here would be the desecration of graves that some groups have carried out believing that this is what Muhammad commanded during his lifetime. According to most scholars this only applied at a time when the Arabian Peninsula was still populated by pagan, idolatrous tribes. It does not apply to the graves of the Companions or Muslim saints.

Sheik Nur Ha Mim Keller highlighted the seriousness of the situation whilst on a lecture tour of the United States, Canada and England during 1994 and 1995 when he said:

It cannot be hidden from any of you how urgent this issue is, or that many of the disagreements we see and hear in our mosques these days are due to lack of knowledge of fiqh or “Islamic jurisprudence” and its relation to Islam as a whole. Now, perhaps more than ever before, it is time for us to get back to basics and ask ourselves how we understand and carry out the commands of Allah. Without a guiding hand, the untrained reader will misunderstand many of the hadiths he reads… Such a person is particularly easy prey for modern sectarian movements of our times appearing in a neo-orthodox guise, well financed and published, quoting Quran and hadiths to the uninformed to make a case for the basic contention of all deviant sects since the beginning of Islam.’

This chapter has looked at the Qur’an, the hadith and the schools of jurisprudence, or madhhabs in terms of authority. The Qur’an, as the revealed Word of God, takes primacy. The hadith, being the sayings and actions of Muhammad, is also considered an authoritative body of literature to be studied alongside the Qur’an. The early Islamic scholars categorised the hadith according to reliability.

As Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula the scholars were faced with the task of integrating local cultural practices into Islamic law (sharia). This resulted in the founding of four distinct schools of jurisprudence. An extremely important task of the scholars was to discern how a particular text might have been superseded by a later text or hadith. While Muslims are encouraged to study the Qur’an and hadith individually, the importance of qualified teachers, preachers or imams has always been recognised. These imams would normally follow the tradition of a particular school of jurisprudence. It follows therefore that Qur’an may be interpreted differently according to first, the use of particular hadith and second, according to the particular madhhab. This is why we see a great cultural and religious diversity across the Muslim world.

The concern today is that the various radical groups disregard the madhhabs and have a very limited understanding of the Qur’an and hadith. Consequently they will select certain texts from the Qur’an as authority for jihad, murder and other terrorist activities.