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 »

The Life and Works of al-Kamāl Ibn al-Humām

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The Life and Works of al-Kamāl Ibn al-Humām

By Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAwwāmah

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

[The following excerpt is an abridged translation of the biography of Ibn al-Humām, the 9th century Ḥanafī legal theorist and jurist, whose erudition was acknowledged in countless fields like language, law, and Ḥadīth. For the entire piece, see Shaykh ʿAwwāmah, Dirāsah Ḥadīthiyyah Muqāranah, pp.221-37]

Introduction20180415_141402

His name was Kamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Humām al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Wāḥid, better known as al-Kamāl ibn al-Humām. His ancestry was from [the Turkish province of] Sivas, but he was born in Alexandria and grew up and passed away in Cairo. His student al-Sakhāwī writes, “He was possibly born in the year 790 AH, as I have read from his own writing.”[1] He hailed from a family of knowledge and repute. His father was a judge in Sivas who later became a judge in Alexandria and married the daughter of the Maliki judge of Alexandria; she gave birth to al-Kamāl [lit. perfection].[2] Read the rest of this entry »

The Preservation of the Ḥadīth Literature

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The Preservation of the adīth Literature

By Muntasir Zaman

Marks of ink on one’s mouth and clothes are emblems of honor.”[1]

– Ibrāhīm al-Nakha‘ī

Introduction

How has the Islamic civilization maintained the rich literary heritage of Ḥadīth developed by early Muslim scholars? What guarantee is there that the collections of ḥadīths in our possession have reached us accurately or that they were compiled by their purported authors? Far from being exhaustive, this article intends to provide answers to these questions. It begins by examining the procedures scholars instituted to ensure accurate transmission of Ḥadīth books. It then proceeds to study the practice of oral/aural transmission (samā‘) and public reading sessions and their influence in preserving the Ḥadīth literature. Thereafter, the article builds on three arguments that Ibn al-Wazīr al-Yamānī (d. 840 AH) posits in response to those who doubt the authorship of the major Ḥadīth collections. Before concluding, it sheds light on the usage of wijādah in terms of transmission and practice. The appendix contains diagrams on the transmission of aī al-Bukhārī.

Procedures for Preservation

The attention and care scholars gave to the vast literature of Ḥadīth to ensure that the efforts of their predecessors were not in vain is truly awe-inspiring. They were methodical in their treatment of the Ḥadīth literature. They laid out guidelines on issues like book authorization, auditions, and the handling of manuscripts and registers. Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ’s (d. 544 AH) al-Ilmā‘ ilā Ma‘rifat Uūl al-Riwāyah wa Taqyīd al-Samā‘ is among the most prominent titles on the subject.[2] Although an oft-cited authority on the subject, Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ was by no means the first to address this topic. He drew extensively from earlier works like al-Rāmahurmuzī’s (d. 360 AH) al-Muaddith al-Fāil and al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī’s (d. 462 AH) al-Kifāyah fī‘ ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah and al-Jāmi‘ li Akhlāq al-Rāwī wa Ādāb al-Sāmi‘. At times, scribes would devise creative techniques to prevent confusion when reading their manuscripts. For instance, Shu‘bah ibn al-Ḥajjāj (d. 160 AH) narrated the ḥadīth of Abū al-Ḥawrā’ to a student who wrote the ḥadīth and further added the word “ḥūr ‘īn” (wide-eyed damsel) as a note beneath the name Abū al-Ḥawrā’. The reason for this peculiar note was the presence of a narrator by the name Abū al-Jawzā’ in the same generation as Abū al-Ḥawrā’. To avoid confusing the two similar yet distinct narrators, the student diligently wrote ḥūr as a note to remind him of al-Hawrā’, which is the singular form of ḥūr.[3] Read the rest of this entry »

The Life and Works of the Hanafī Jurist and Hadīth Scholar Qāsim ibn Qutlūbughā

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The Life and Works of the Hanafī Jurist and Hadīth Scholar Qāsim ibn Qutlūbughā

By Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

Introduction

His name is Zayn al-Dīn Abū al-‘Adl Qāsim ibn Qutlūbughā al-Jamālī al-Hanafī, better known as ‘Allāmah Qāsim. He was born in Cairo in 802 AH where he lived until his demise in Rabī‘ al-Ākhir 879 AH. Growing up as an orphan, he began his studies at a tender age and would occupy himself with tailoring, but eventually focused on acquiring knowledge – after exerting himself therein, he shone and showed brilliance. He began his literary career early, authoring his first book at the age of 18 on inheritance. From a galaxy of teachers, his most prominent teacher in Hadīth was Hāfiẓ Ibn Hajar and in Fiqh and legal theory Sirāj al-Dīn Qāri’ al-Hidāyah and al-Kamāl Ibn al-Humām. His student Hāfiẓ al-Sakhāwī said:

His dedication increased by frequenting the company of Ibn al-Humām. From 825 AH to Ibn al-Humām’s demise in 861 AH, he studied every book that was taught in his circle and learnt the most from him. The books he studied include the first quarter of his commentary on al-Hidāyah, part of Tawdīh of Sadr al-Sharī‘ah, and the entire al-Musāyarah (of Ibn al-Humām). […] He also studied books of Arabic literature and poetry, memorizing a significant portion thereof.[1]

Academic standing

His teachers respected him due to his academic excellence. For instance, Hāfiẓ Ibn Hajar authored al-Īthār bi Ma‘rifat Rijāl al-Āthār upon his request to compile a book on the transmitters in Imām Muhammad’s Kitāb al-Āthār. He then – at the age of 33 – studied it under Ibn Hajar, who authorized and described him as, “The eminent Shaykh, the qualified and unique Hadīth scholar. He contributed [to the class] and shared his observations on several places that were noted down and further illuminated the book.”[2] Later on in another occasion, he described him as “The authority, the learned, the Hadīth scholar, the jurist, and the prolific memorizer.” Bear in mind that the one conferring these accolades is Hāfiẓ Ibn Hajar, who requires no introduction. Al-Sakhāwī said: Read the rest of this entry »

On the Study of Comparative Fiqh (al-Fiqh al-Muqāran)

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On the Study of Comparative Fiqh (al-Fiqh al-Muqāran)

By Dr. Salāh Abū al-Hājj

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

[The following is an abridged translation of Dr. Salāh Abū al-Hājj’s discussion on comparative Fiqh. The author describes three methods of studying the differences of the jurists. The third method, better known as comparative Fiqh, is a modern concept that traces its origins to the 20th century Egyptian scholar Ahmad Ibrāhīm. Although the study of scholarly differences is integral to comprehension of Fiqh, the author concludes, its study should be undertaken only after developing proficiency in knowledge; a premature exposure to scholarly differences can leave a novice confused. For the purpose of brevity, only relevant parts were translated. For the entire discussion, see Abū al-Hājj, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal ilā al-Fiqh al-Hanafī, pp.435-42]

Definition and Origins

There are three distinct disciplines: (1) Fiqh al-Ikhtilāf; (2) ‘Ilm al-Khilāf; and (3) al-Fiqh al-Muqāran.

Fiqh al-Ikhtilāf is a study of the opinions of the jurists with or without an expose of their respective evidences and answers to opposing views. The primary objective here is the differences of the jurists. General Fiqh texts only tangentially mention opposing views to underpin the strength of the preferred view whereas books of Ikhtilāf are written with the purpose of presenting the differences of the jurists whether the author only mentions their opinions or supports the evidence of the preferred view of his madhhab. This discipline traces its origins to the beginning of Fiqh itself; it is part of the study of Fiqh and without it Fiqh is not firmly established. In the 2nd century, scholars compiled Hadīth collections on the reports and differences of the Companions and Successors on legal issues; the discipline further evolved during the era of the mujtahid scholars where they began citing legal issues alongside the disagreements therein.[1] 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 »