Hadith

Give It a Second Thought: Dealing with Apparently Problematic Ḥadīth

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Give It a Second Thought: Dealing with Apparently Problematic Ḥadīth

By Muntasir Zaman

 

The example of the intellect is sight free of defects and illnesses, and the example of the Qurʾān is the sun with rays spread out. Hence, the seeker of guidance that dispenses with one of them in lieu of the other is most fit to be included among fools. The one who turns away from the intellect, sufficing himself with the light of the Qurʾān is like one exposed to the light of the sun while closing his eyelids; there is no difference between him and the blind. Thus, the intellect with revelation is light upon light. The onlooker with an eye blind to one of them specifically is drawn in by a deceptive rope.[1]

– Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH)

The surge of criticisms in recent times towards supposedly problematic ḥadīths generally rest on the claim that such ḥadīths are absurd, unscientific, impossible, or contradictory. Every ḥadīth whose content is seen as problematic will have a specific explanation, for which relevant literature can be consulted. This article will highlight broad guidelines that are to be kept in mind when dealing with narrations of this nature. After some preliminary thoughts, four points will be proffered for consideration: (1) the limits of human reason and experience; (2) the importance of contextualization; (3) the usage of figurative speech; and (4) the need to distinguish between impossibility and unlikelihood. In no way are these guidelines meant to be exhaustive. As a first response, they can help to assuage the concerns of a Muslim whose conscience is constantly agitated by reading apparently problematic ḥadīths. Detailed discussions on specific ḥadīths can be offered on a case by case basis.

Preliminary Thoughts

In numerous places in the Qurʾān, Allah calls upon humankind to use their intellect and to contemplate the perfection of His creation. He says, “And now We have sent down to you [people] a Scripture to remind you. Will you not use your reason?”[2] In other verses, He reprimands those who do not use their intellect; “But the disbelievers invent lies about Allah. Most of them do not use reason”[3] is a striking case in point.[4] That the Qurʾān transcends a mere exposition of raw assertion by engaging in a process of argumentation and dialogue—it is the “evincive proof” (burhān) and “conclusive argument” (al-ujjah al-bālighah)—is indicative of its appeal to the human mind.[5] Therefore, there exists no incongruity between reason and revelation; the former in fact leads one to appreciate the latter while the latter enjoins and exemplifies the former.[6] There is, however, an important caveat that should not escape our attention: the reasoning has to be sound and the revelation authentic.[7]

From the formative period of Islamic history, scholars have written books to address apparently contradictory ḥadīths, a field known as mukhtalif al-adīth,[8] and ḥadīths that apparently conflict with other evidences or external reality, a field known as mushkil al-adīth.[9] In this vein, Imām al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204 AH) authored Ikhtilāf al-adīth,[10] regarded as one of the earliest works on the subject. Analogous works include Ibn Qutaybah al-Dīnawarī’s (d. 276 AH) pioneering monograph, Taʾwīl Mukhtalif al-adīth, Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭaḥāwī’s (d. 321 AH) peerless compendium, Shar Mushkil al-Āthār,[11] and Abū Bakr Ibn Fūrak’s (d. 406 AH) masterpiece, Mushkil al-adīth wa Bayānuhū. Scholars also dealt with such narrations in their general Ḥadīth commentaries when the occasion arose. Abū Bakr Ibn Khuzaymah (d. 311 AH) confidently proclaims, “I am unaware of any two authentic narrations of the Prophet that are contradictory. If anyone comes across such narrations, let him bring them to me so that I can reconcile them.”[12] Read the rest of this entry »

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On the Retention of the Companions

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On the Retention of the Companions

By Muntasir Zaman

To evaluate the reliability of a narrator, Ḥadīth scholars examined two integral characteristics: probity (ʿadālah) and retention (ab).[1] After studying the probity of the Companions (Allah be pleased with them), a person is left with the following question: companionship with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) does not enhance one’s memory,[2] so even if it is accepted that the Companions were upright, how sure are we that they adequately retained ḥadīths before transmitting them? In other words, did they meet the required standards of memory to transmit ḥadīths? The following explanation does not preclude the fact that they occasionally forgot or erred. It aims to shed light on factors that allowed them to satisfactorily retain the ḥadīths they heard and then transmit them to their students.

It may be difficult to recognize a relationship between a narrator’s probity and his retention, but functionally they are definitely intertwined. This is because an upright transmitter will only narrate material the authenticity of which he is certain. Towards the end of his life when Anas ibn Mālik was asked a question, he replied, “Go and ask our master al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī]. Indeed, we heard and he heard, but he remembers and we forgot.”[3] A narrator exercises caution when narrating ḥadīths proportionate to his probity; since the Companions possessed the highest level of uprightness, their caution was correspondingly firm.[4] This is more so given their familiarity with the Prophet’s warning, “Whoever lies about me should prepare his abode in the Fire.”[5] Companions like ʿAbd Allah ibn Masʿūd (d. 32 AH) and Abū al-Dardāʾ (d. 32 AH) are on record for following their narrations with phrases such as “similar to this” and “more or less”[6]  which they expressed out of caution, not out of doubt. Their cautious attitude even influenced Successors like Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. 96 AH) and ʿĀmir al-Shaʿbī (d. c.103 AH).[7] From this angle, there is a relationship between one’s probity and retention. Read the rest of this entry »

Guidelines on Evaluating Historical Reports

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Guidelines on Evaluating Historical Reports

By Shaykh Sharīf Hātim al-‘Awnī

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

[Translator’s preface: The following paper outlines an approach to evaluating the authenticity of historical reports. The author begins by emphasizing the merits of the Hadīth methodology, but makes sure to point out that not every science is obliged to adopt such a rigorous method. Drawing on statements from Hadīth experts like Ibn al-Mubarak and al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī, he proves that Hadīth scholars themselves were nuanced in their treatment of non-prophetic reports.

After a lengthy preamble, he presents a maxim that can be applied to such reports: every report that, directly or indirectly, forms the basis of a religious ruling will be accepted only through the rigorous methods of the Hadīth scholars used for the Sunnah; otherwise, their methods will not be applied. He then explains the theoretical application of this maxim in all areas from Sīrah to Companion statements to stories of the following generations; to illustrate its practical application, he provides two case studies.

To be sure, this paper is not a license to cite unsubstantiated stories. As the author himself explains, “Taking certain liberties when assessing transmitted information besides Hadīth is not tantamount to authenticating what is inauthentic; instead, every transmitted information is to be evaluated with a relevant scale.” Note: a paraphrased translation was adopted and subtitles were added to facilitate an easier read.]

Introduction

There has been an increasing demand to refine Hadīth studies in the fields of Sīrah, history, and prosopography. These demands have been made for a diverse set of methodologies, the most pure and cautious being the methodology of the Hadīth scholars. As a result, numerous research projects and books were produced, which is a blessed endeavor and a sign of great good. These studies have corrected many academic errors and refined some of the most integral primary sources. Nonetheless, these were human endeavors and therefore prone to error. An error in a peripheral issue is a light matter that can be easily resolved, but a methodological error is dangerous and its findings are difficult to remedy. Read the rest of this entry »

The Life and Works of Hāfiẓ al-Zayla‘ī, Author of Nasb al-Rāyah

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The Life and Works of Hāfiẓ al-Zayla‘ī, Author of Nasb al-Rāyah

By Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

Name and lineage

He is the Imām, prolific Hadith memorizer, and authority, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū Muhammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn Yūsuf ibn Yūnus Ibn Muhammad al-Zayla‘ī[1] al-Hanafī, one of the leading Hadīth experts of the 8th century, which brimmed with experts of Hadīth who revived the path of the earlier scholars vis-à-vis memorization, scope, and analytics. Biographers disagree on his name and his father’s name: is it ‘Abd Allāh ibn Yūsuf or Yūsuf ibn ‘Abd Allāh? The first opinion is more preferred, and Allāh knows best.[2]

Birth

Biographers have not specified the year of his birth, and neither have I come across any information to specify it either, but it is, nonetheless, safe to provide a rough estimation. Hāfiẓ al-Suyūtī writes, “the place of his entry is in the following generation. I mentioned him earlier only because his demise was earlier.” The “following generation” referred to in the quotation is the generation of Hāfiẓ Ibn Rajab (736-795 AH), Ibn Musallam (724-792 AH), Ibn Sayyid al-Nās (729-792 AH), and others. It is therefore not farfetched to assume that Hāfiẓ al-Zayla‘ī was born in the vicinity of 720 AH. A further indication of this estimation is that Hāfiẓ al-‘Irāqī would accompany him in research while sourcing the hadīths of al-Ihyā, and they would even assist one another; al-‘Irāqī was born in 725 AH.[3]

Read the rest of this entry »

The Science of al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl: Separating Wheat from Chaff

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The Science of al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl: Separating Wheat from Chaff

By Muntasir Zaman

“And true virtue is what critics cannot help but acknowledge” goes the popular adage.[1] A case in point is where the renowned Orientalist Aloys Sprenger (d. 1893 CE) humbles his pen to write, “There is no nation, nor has there been any which like them [Muslims] has during twelve centuries recorded the life of every man of letters.”[2] The exclusivity of Muslims vis-à-vis the isnādimage system, as explained earlier, lies in their detailed evaluations of the transmitters who form the chains of transmission, better known as al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl (lit. criticism and accreditation). In this article, we will briefly outline the origins and development, basic nomenclature, procedures, and relevant literature in the science of al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl (henceforth narrator criticism).

To ensure the accurate transmission of the Prophet’s teachings, the science of narrator criticism inherently involves an exposition of a narrator’s personal details. [3] Disclosing a narrator’s faults for a greater need can be justified by verses from the Qur’ān,[4] the practice of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him),[5] and the higher objectives of Islamic law.[6] Since this permission was granted as an exception, it is limited to disclosing relevant information that has a direct bearing on transmission.[7] Consequently, when a narrator’s status can be made apparent by highlighting one flaw, it is unlawful to mention a second.[8]

Narrator criticism began early in Islamic history.[9] Among the Companions, the names of ‘Umar, ‘Alī, Ibn ‘Abbās, and ‘A’ishah (Allāh be pleased with them) feature prominently among the first group of narrator critics.[10] This practice was then inherited by the subsequent generation of senior Successors, such as Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab (d. 94 AH),[11] ‘Amir al-Sha‘bī (d. 103 AH), and Ibn Sīrīn (d. 110 AH).[12] Like other Islamic disciplines, the material on narrator criticism during the first century is fairly minimal. This owes itself to the fact that transmitters at the time were either Companions, who were collectively upright, or senior Successors, among whom were relatively few impugned transmitters.[13] Read the rest of this entry »

The Isnād System: An Unbroken Link to The Prophet

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The Isnād System: An Unbroken Link to The Prophet

By Muntasir Zaman

Pause for a moment, and ask yourself: what are the greatest accomplishments of the Muslim civilization? At first thought, a number of things will probably come to mind, ranging from mathematics to medicine to architecture—perhaps even coffee.[1] But unfortunately we tend to overlook one of the greatest accomplishments, if not the greatest: the isnād system. That a person, till this day, can attribute a hadīth to the Prophet and then follow it with a list of authorities reaching back successively to the source is what scholars as early as Abū Bakr al-Thaqafī (d. 309 AH)[2] described as an exclusive accomplishment of the Muslim civilization.[3]DSCN9800

The word sanad (lit. base)[4] refers to the chain of transmitters leading to the text of a hadīth while isnād refers to the mentioning of the chain.[5] Majority of scholars, however, use both terms interchangeably.[6] Al-Bukhārī (d. 256 AH), for instance, mentions, “Makkī ibn Ibrahīm—Yazīd ibn Abī ‘Ubayd Allāh—Salamah: I heard the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) say, ‘Whoever lies about me should prepare his abode in the fire.’”[7] In this example, the names leading to the text form the sanad of the hadith.[8]

The usage of isnād began simultaneously with the transmission of the Prophet’s hadiths. Companions like Abū Salamah al-Makhzūmī (d. 3 AH),[9] and Ja‘far ibn Abī Tālib (d. 8 AH),[10] who passed away during the Prophet’s lifetime,[11] transmitted hadiths citing the Prophet as their source.[12] Furthermore, Companions who were preoccupied with their daily responsibilities would take turns to attend the gathering of the Prophet. When the present partner would relate the day’s teachings to the absent partner, he would obviously preface his words with “The Prophet said so and so.”[13] The shortness of the chain­, i.e. direct transmission from the Prophet, makes this first rudimentary usage of isnād unnoticeable. During this time, transmitters were not required to disclose their sources. That is why we find Companions like Anas ibn Mālik, who lived during the Medinan period, relate incidents from the Meccan period without citing their sources.[14] This was not an issue because even the thought of lying about the Prophet was inconceivable to the Companions.[15] Read the rest of this entry »

Sixty Years in The Making: A Closer Look at Shaykh ‘Awwāmah’s Edition of Tadrīb al-Rāwī fī Sharh Taqrīb al-Nawāwī

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Sixty Years in The Making: A Closer Look at Shaykh ‘Awwāmah’s Edition of Tadrīb al-Rāwī fī Sharh Taqrīb al-Nawāwī

By Muntasir Zaman

When an expert assures you that he invested sixty years of experience in a given project, it should come as no surprise that such a work deserves undivided attention. That is the case with the latest edition of Imām Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī’s (d. 911 AH) magnum opus Tadrīb al-Rāwī fī Sharh Taqrīb al-Nawāwī, which was critically edited by the Syrian Hadīth scholar Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah. Shaykh ‘Awwāmah prefaces the work by saying, “I have written therein the crux of sixty years of dedication to thisislamic field.”[1] In this article, we will take a closer look at this new edition by going through a general overview of the work and by highlighting three salient aspects of it, namely, the editor’s style of writing, method of tracing sources, and personal insights.

Overview

This edition was jointly published by Dār al-Yusr and Dār al-Minhāj in five volumes. The first volume comprises of a forward by Shaykh ‘Awwāmah, a description of the manuscripts used for Tadrīb al-Rāwī (the commentary) and al-Taqrīb wa al-Taysīr (the text),[2] the thabat of Ahmad Ibn al-‘Ajamī,[3] detailed indices for the entire book,[4] and the bibliography. The remaining four volumes comprise of the text of al-Taqrīb wa al-Taysīr and its commentary Tadrīb al-Rāwī, Ibn al-‘Ajamī’s marginalia, and Shaykh ‘Awwāmah’s footnotes, and each volume has its own table of contents. Read the rest of this entry »