Friday, July 11, 2014

Ramadan 2014 -- Day 12, Learning About Shari'a, Part 2

(This is part two of my overview of Islamic Jurisprudence, you can find part 1 here)

I’m now reading the lengthy chapters in my book of Islamic Jurisprudence dedicated to the Sunnah (the way a Muslim should live his life) and hadiths.

Hadiths are the sayings and doings of the Prophet Mohammed, narrated by witnesses, and are the primary source for Sunnah after the Qur’an. Most hadiths either reiterate principles in the Qur’an or add additional clarifications to the Qur’an. For example the Qur’an approves selling things but forbids charging interest (riba), while the Sunnah/hadiths further clarifies where certain types of transactions might be considered riba.

That said a minority of hadiths involve matters not mentioned in the Qur’an and these are generally considered an independent source of law in their own right. Scholars still look to see if there are overarching principles in the Qur’an which may modify the hadith or provide context in how to interpret it.

The book then goes on to discuss a serious issue in interpreting Sunnah – fake hadiths. There are tens of thousands of hadiths and while some where written down during the time of the Prophet most were written down after his death. There are some stories that state in the early days of Islam the Prophet did not want hadiths written down lest there be confusion between Qur’anic revelations and hadiths, causing people to inadvertently consider hadiths as the word of Allah, but there are hadiths that note that later in life the Prophet did not object to hadiths being recorded. Many hadiths were kept orally, with people committing them to memory and transmitting them through the generations. Hadith scholarship and research was taking place since the time of the Prophet but some of the most significant efforts to record and collect the authentic hadiths in books, such as the Sahih Al-Bukhari, occurred two to three centuries after the Prophet’s death.

It was well known that shortly after the Prophet died that some people were deliberately propagating fake hadiths, either for fame, political purposes, to discredit Islam or what have you. In other cases people were inadvertently misremembering them or there were errors in recording them. Many were created during the Sunni-Shi’a schism or other wars, supporting one side’s views while discrediting the other. Because of this a lot of scholarly effort goes into researching hadiths to see if they are authentic or forgeries. Such was the extent of forged or questionable hadiths it is said that books such as the Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Al-Muslim, despite containing thousands of hadiths, only contain a small percentage of the total hadiths that were reviewed when compiling the collections.

So what do scholars do when analyzing a hadith for authenticity? A lot is involved.

First you analyze who the source is for the hadith as well as the people narrating it:

o Trustworthiness of the sources is vital. Have there been instances in the past of those people lying or falsifying hadiths? Apparently there is a lot of literature in the Muslim world discussing the many people who are the sources for hadiths and to what extent they can be trusted.

o You also need to examine the timeframe and location that the hadith was narrated. Many hadiths have been proven false by identifying that the narrator and the person recording it were unlikely to have met at the time or even been in the same area.

o Does the hadith appear to contain things that are beneficial to the narrator or recorder, thus indicating possible personal motives for creating the hadith? It could indicate it is a false hadith or should at least call it into question and further confirmation would be required before declaring it authentic. The book gives an example where a man claimed the Prophet said that always eating a certain food improves your health -- a food that the man just happened to sell as a merchant.

After that a scholar examines the text of the hadith itself for things that might call into question the authenticity:

• Style of language – hadiths are typically in an elegant and sophisticated wording. Crude language, slang, or words inconsistent with other hadiths could indicate it might be fake.

• Inconsistencies in historical fact, such as a hadith narrated by someone who met the Prophet at a public bath, when historical evidence showed there were no public baths in the city at that time.

• Statements that are in opposition to what is in the Qur’an. This can be subtle, the book gives an example of a hadith that states you will go to Heaven for naming one of your children Mohammed, which is in opposition to Qur’anic teachings that Heaven is for those who do good work and live a just life.

• Hadiths that indicate extreme or fanatic viewpoints, likely falsified by someone pushing an extremist view.

• Hadiths that were claimed to have been known to many people yet only one source has reported it. If a hadith says the Prophet said xyz at the crowded mosque then more than one source should have noted it. Islamic scholars usually try to get multiple examples of the hadith from many sources as a way to verify its authenticity.

• When hadiths use disproportionate or exaggerated language for rewards or punishments. An example was given of a dubious hadith which stated if you say a certain phrase Allah will create a bird with 70,000 tongues that speaks 70,000 languages praying for you.

Surprisingly (to me anyway) hadith scholarship appears to be an exercise in critical thinking and historical research. A lot of effort goes into assessing hadiths to determine if they are authentic.
This also provides more insight into how the various schools of Islam could diverge in their views. Say there was a hadith that was borderline as to whether it was authentic or not, meeting almost all the criteria while there was something about it that cast a bit of doubt:

• If one group concluded the hadith was not authentic then they would be more inclined to be skeptical of other hadiths by that source, which means more hadiths could be deemed false.

• If another group concluded the hadith was authentic then they would be more likely to accept other hadiths from that same source since.

And you immediately have divergence between the two groups. While this has in part created the differences between the various Sunni schools (such as Hanbali and Hanafi) I believe acceptance of certain sources and hadiths is a significant factor in the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, though I’ll find out more about that when I read that book about the schism.

And I’m still not done the chapters on hadiths! There’s more work and analysis scholars do, as well as how to analyze hadiths from a single source. I’ll get to that in a later post. [Part 3 is now finished and you can find it here].

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