HADITH: THE QUESTION OF AUTHENTICITY
HADITH: THE QUESTION OF AUTHENTICITY
By Aisha Musa
Hadith are such an integral part of traditional Islam in all its variations, that when someone suggests that the Qur’an alone should serve as the source of religious law and guidance for Muslims, the idea is usually met with shock and amazement. So, those who advocate following the Qur’an alone must address the issue of hadith.
The Arabic word "hadith," means a story, or saying. Any story, or saying, from anyone. For traditional Muslims, it has come to mean specifically a story or saying told about, or attributed to the prophet Muhammad.
Discussions of hadith have traditionally focused on the question of authenticity. This is true of discussions among those who advocate following hadith and between them and those who advocate following the Qur’an alone. God willing, we will see how this focus on the question of authenticity has overshadowed other crucial questions about hadith.
For traditional Muslims the focus on authenticity is an attempt to insure that people can judge the veracity and reliability of hadiths, in order to determine which are valid as sources of law and guidance.
Early Muslim scholars took great pains to compile biographical information on the people who allegedly narrated and transmitted the hadiths in order to determine those who were to be considered reliable from those who were not. Only reports passed on by supposedly trustworthy individuals are to be considered authentic, and hence valid. The question of whether or not Muslims have always be true to their stated standards is a separate issue that I will not address here. What is important here is the fact that the question of authenticity is of primary importance in their understanding and acceptance of hadith.
Many of those who advocate following the Qur’an also focus on the question of authenticity when debating the use of hadiths. They do so by challenging the authenticity of all hadiths and thereby, the validity of following them. Their challenge to the authenticity is of hadith is based primarily on the fact that the first so-called "sahih," or "sound, authentic" collections of the hadith were written over 200 years after the death of Muhammad. Encouraged by the work of prominent, non-Muslim western scholars have also questioned the authenticity of hadiths on the same basis, those who advocate following the Qur’an alone assert that hadith should not be followed because they are late fabrications, with no connection to Muhammad.
In response to the original challenge posed by non-Muslim scholarship, Muslim scholars have worked diligently to uncover the earliest possible written sources of hadith and have some which they date to the middle of the second century after hijra, about 100 years before the writing of the so-called sahih collections. This together with early histories which talk about the first generations of Muslims writing and relating hadiths, leads scholars sympathetic to hadiths to conclude that even without actual physical specimens of written hadiths from those early generations, it is reasonable to accept that hadiths had been transmitted both orally and in writing from the beginning.
The historical record has not provided clear evidence that can prove or disprove the early transmission of hadiths. So, each side accepts and argues the information that best supports its view; and the authenticity debate rages on.
But is authenticity the real question we should be addressing? Does it deserve to be the central focus in the discussions of hadith? Let us now turn, God willing, to the other questions that are often overshadowed by the question of authenticity.
The Qur’an poses a number of questions related to hadith. By considering them, God willing, we can put the question of authenticity in it’s proper perspective.
Among the questions the Qur’an poses in relation to hadith are:
"In which hadith after this will they believe?" (al-A`araaf :185).
"These are God’s revelations we recite to you in truth. Then, in which hadith after God and His revelations will they believe?" (al-Jatheya :6).We understand the import of these questions from yet another question posed in the Qur’an:
"Shall I seek other than God as a source of law and judgment when He is the One who has sent down the Book to you in detail?" (al-An`am :114).
"What is wrong with you? How do you judge? Do you have another book which you study?" (al-Qalam :35-36).
These are the real questions that deserve to be the central focus in the discussions about hadith. If we answer these questions in the negative (i.e. "No, I shall not." and "None."), then we see that the question of authenticity does not merely become secondary-it becomes moot.
If we seek only God and His revelations as a source of law and guidance, and do not believe in any hadith other than God’s revelations, it makes no difference if a hadith is authentic, or not. The Qur’an does not ask if hadith is authentic. The Qur’an asks if it is "other than God and His revelations." Even if we have absolute proof that a hadith came from the messenger, even if we may have heard it directly from the lips of the messenger, with our own ears, it is still "other than God and His revelations." Therefore, in light of 6:114 and 45:6 it is invalid as a source of law and guidance.
Not only are hadith, even authentic hadith, invalid as a source of law and guidance, they can be a source of misguidance. It is obvious that hadith with negative content, such as those that call for stoning adulterers, are a source of misguidance. But what about hadith with positive content?
Mainstream Muslims of all schools of thought insist that hadith are necessary for a number of reasons. Among the most important reasons, is that without hadith we cannot properly understand the Qur’an. Hadith, they say, shed light on the Qur’an. But God tells us that the Qur’an is light (4:174, 42:52). Can the hadith shed light on the Qur’an which is light?
Can the moon shed light on the sun? No, for the moon only reflects the light cast by the sun. Likewise, any light in found in any hadith from the messenger is no more than a reflection of the light in the Qur’an.
The moon is only visible when our side of the earth is turned away from the sun. When the sun is above us, the moon is no longer visible. But if the moon moves between us and the sun, we find ourselves in the darkness of an eclipse. During an eclipse, the moon which reflects the light of the sun when we are turned away from the sun, now cuts us off from the light of the sun.
For a believer, the Qur’an is as the sun which never sets. Hadith, any and all hadith, are as the moon. If we turn toward the hadith, we turn away from the Qur’an. If we let the hadith come between us and the Qur’an, we will find ourselves in the darkness of a spiritual eclipse, cut off from the light of the Qur’an.