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 »


Difference of Approach in Dealing with Apparently Conflicting Aspects of the Sunnah

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Translator’s Preface

The following is an excerpt from our abridged translation of the masterpiece, Athar al-Hadīth al-Sharīf fī Ikhtilāf al-A’immah al-new3Fuqahā’, by the Syrian Hadīth scholar, the teacher of our teachers, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah. There were numerous requests for an abridged translation of the work for the benefit of non-Arabic readers, as the original work is relatively lengthy. We will post sections of it in installments and finally publish the complete abridgement in a separate post. We have previously posted the following sections of the book:

  1. Introduction/When is a Hadīth suitable for practice?
  2. The correct meaning of the statement, “When a Hadīth is authentic it is my opinion.”
  3. Is the authenticity of a Hadīth sufficient to practice upon it?
  4. Difference of the jurists in their understanding of a Hadith

The excerpt before you is an explanation of the third of four reasons of difference among the jurist Imām: difference of approach in dealing with apparently conflicting aspects of the Sunnah, which is regarded as one of the most important reasons of difference. In this chapter, the author explains three different approaches scholars have adopted in this regard: reconciliation (al-Jam‘), abrogation (al-Naskh), and giving preference (al-Tarjīh).

Moreover, he sheds light on the common error of immediately giving preference to narrations recorded in Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim over narrations recorded in other hadith works. He explains that this one of the last reasons of giving preference from a list of one hundred and ten reasons as mentioned by ‘Allāmah Zayn al-Dīn al-‘Irāqī (d. 806 AH). In addition, he explains the influence of the Fiqh of the hadith scholars upon their selection of hadiths in their respective compilations.

It is important to remember that this is only an abridged translation. Therefore, many sections were omitted and some were summarized.  To make the article more reader-friendly, an idiomatic translation was adopted in several places. Those who are interested in more detail are advised to read the original work.

Muntasir Zaman

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