Give It a Second Thought: Guidelines on How to Approach Seemingly Problematic Hadīth
By Muntasir Zaman
“The example of the intellect is sight free of defects and illnesses, and the example of the Qur’ān 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 in the deluge of fools. The one turning away from the intellect, sufficing with the light of the Qur’ān, his example is one exposed to the light of the sun, while closing the eyelids, so there is no difference between him and the blind. Thus, the intellect with the sharī‘ah is light upon light. The onlooker with an eye blind to one of them specifically is drawn in by a deceptive rope.”
– Imām al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH) 
In numerous places, the Qur’ān calls on man to use his intellect and to contemplate over the perfection of Allah’s creation. Allah says, “We have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention. Then will you not reason?” In other verses, the Qur’ān reprimands those who do not use their reasoning, such as, “But those who disbelieve invent falsehood about Allah, and most of them do not reason.” Therefore, there exists no incongruity between reason and revelation; rather, reason leads one to appreciate and understand revelation. But it should be ensured that the reasoning is sound and the revelation is authentic.
From the formative period of Islamic history, scholars have written books to address apparently contradictory hadīths, a field known as Mukhtalif al-Hadīth, and hadīths that seem to conflict with other evidences or external realities, a field known as Mushkil al-Hadīth. In this regard, Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204 AH) authored Ikhtilāf al-Hadīth, regarded as one of the earliest works on the subject, Ibn Qutaybah al-Dīnawarī (d. 276 AH) authored his pioneering monograph Ta’wīl Mukhtalif al-Hadīth, Abū Ja‘far al-Tahāwī (d. 321 AH) authored his peerless compendium Sharh Mushkil al-Āthār, and Abū Bakr Ibn Fūrak (d. 406 AH) authored his masterpiece Mushkil al-Hadīth wa Bayānuhū (Allah have mercy on them all). Scholars have also dealt with narrations of this nature in their Hadīth commentaries. Abū Bakr Ibn Khuzaymah (d. 311 AH), a leading authority in Hadīth, states, “I am unaware of any two authentic narrations of the Prophet that are contradictory. If anyone comes across such narrations, let him bring it to me so that I can reconcile between them.”
The surge of criticism in recent times towards supposedly problematic hadīths has arisen because critics claim that these reports are absurd, unscientific, impossible, or contradictory. Many of the narrations that have been cast into the spotlight for allegedly problematic content were already discussed in detail by the greatest Islāmic minds. The difference, however, between classical Muslim scholars and modern critics is the perspective with which the two groups view the objection. Traditional scholars were not oblivious to scientific realities nor were they blind to logical fallacies. They were simply more charitable in their readings of scriptural texts whereas modern critics are not willing to do so.
It will be beneficial to keep a few broad guidelines in mind when dealing with narrations of this nature. By no means are these guidelines meant to be exhaustive. But keeping them in mind can help to provide a more charitable reading of hadiths that may appear problematic. Read the rest of this entry »