Mushkil

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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