All Muslims are required to uphold the hadith or sunna of the Prophet, i.e. the so-called Prophetic traditions, as a primary source of law apart from the Quran, according to the teachings of classical jurisprudence. Yet not many, indeed very few, realize that the basis of this jurisprudential theory was promulgated two hundred years after Muhammad's death by the famous jurist Imam Shafi`i (d. 204/820). What have come to be known as the `Six Authentic Books' of hadith of the majority Sunnite `orthodoxy' were compiled, precisely after the promulgation of this theory, by Bukhari (d. 256/870), Muslim (d. 261/875), Abu Daud (d. 275/888), Tirmidhi (d. 279/892), Ibn Maja (d. 273/886), and al-Nasa'i (d. 303/915) during the second half of the second and the beginning of the third centuries of Islam, between 220 and 270 years after the Prophet's death.
The `heterodox' Shi`ite minority sect has its own sets of hadith compiled during the third and fourth centuries, by al-Kulaini (d. 328 or 329), Ibn Babuwayh (d. 381), Jaafar Muhammad al-Tusi (d. 411) and al-Murtada (d. 436), who compiled sayings attributed to Ali.
Based on this Shafi`i theory and on what was later termed as the consensus of scholars, the hadith/sunna was propagated to and accepted by the Muslims as interpreter and complement to the Quran, implying thereby that the Quran needs an interpreter and is not complete in itself. Although the Shi`ites have not accepted the classical Sunnite jurisprudential theory in toto, they do accept the doctrine that the hadith/sunna constitutes a source of law on par with the Quran.
Background to this Study
In accordance with this Sunnite tradition, I also accepted this position when I wrote my book on modern Islamic social theory in 1981-82, although I qualified my acceptance according to Ibn Khaldun's formula, which requires all acceptable traditions to be validated by the Quran and rational criteria. However, this position, though a scientific one, is still not clear enough until in 1985 the works of an outstanding Egyptian Muslim scholar, Dr. Rashad Khalifa, particularly his The Computer Speaks: God's Message to the World, Quran, Hadith and Islam and his superb translation of the Quran have opened for me a way to solve the problem of the hadith. I therefore began to re-examine the hadith: how they came about; the social factors that brought them into existence; a review of the classical criticism; the actual place of the hadith in relation to the Quran; their negative effects on the Muslim community; their connections to the decline and fall of the Muslims; and the way out of this impasse.
I am convinced that the time has come for the Muslim community and their intelligentsia to critically re-evaluate the whole heritage of traditional Islamic thought, including theology and jurisprudence. This is because the traditional formulation was made by the society and intelligentsia of that time in accordance with their knowledge and level of understanding, and conforming to needs of that time. Now the situation has changed tremendously and there is no doubt that the traditional formulation must be reconsidered.
Since the emergence of the modern reformism movement of Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Ridha at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, many studies have been made on the decline and fall of the Muslims. These include the works of thinkers like Iqbal, Malek Bennabi and Fazlur Rahman. However, the condition of the Muslim community has not changed very much and continues to be precarious. In comparison with other communities, especially those in Europe, United States, Russia and Japan, the Muslim community is the most backward, especially in socio-economic, scientific, technological and military fields.
What are the reasons for this backwardness? From the point of view of numbers, the Muslims, now more than a billion, have outnumbered the Christians, and from the point of view of natural resources, Muslim countries are among the richest in the world. Why, with such vast resources and possessing an infallible divine scripture, are the Muslims unable to compete with and surpass other nations?
This situation is exactly the opposite of the situation of their early ancestors who, within a short period of time, climbed the heights of success and created a great world empire and a great world civilization. These early successes which had astounded the world must have had their reasons based on the laws of historical change. What are those reasons? This is the greatest challenge facing Muslim intelligentsia at the close of the twentieth century and on the threshold of the twenty-first: to seek the true causes of Muslim decline and thereby to lay the ground for a new Muslim Renaissance.
As we have said, this study and review of our traditional formulation must encompass classical theology and jurisprudence. The hadith, of course, is at the core of these traditional disciplines.
Our present knowledge point to many factors that contribute to the rise and fall of nations, factors that are ideological, political, economic, social, cultural, historical, psychological, demographic, geographical, scientific, technological and military in nature. But it is also quite certain that within this pluralism of factors, not all play equally important roles. Technology can surmount geographical limitations; military strategy can overcome numbers; political leadership can offset economic weakness, and so on. Turning to the Quran as our infallible guide, we find the following statements that can give us a clue to the understanding of the problem under discussion.
Surely, God does not change the condition of any people until they themselves change.
That is because God does not change the blessings He had bestowed upon any people, unless they themselves change.
If only the previous generations had some intelligent people who enjoined them from corruption, they would have been saved. But We saved a few of them, while the rest pursued their material things and became sinners. Your Lord never destroys any community unjustly while the people are righteous.
We will surely give victory to our messengers and to those who believe, both in this life and on the day the witnesses are raised.
You shall never waver, nor shall you worry; you are guaranteed victory for as long as you are believers.
All the above Quranic statements point to a people's ideology as the most important component in the determination of their fate. This means that insofar as a people is imbued with a scientific, dynamic and progressive ideology, that far will it climb the ladder of success. Conversely, insofar as a people revert to a previously held anti-scientific, static and regressive ideology, that far will it degenerate. The strong unambiguous statements about victory being granted to believers in both worlds necessarily follow from the definition of believers as those possessing and practicing the true scientific ideology.
Basing ourselves on this premise, we can make the following hypothesis. The rapid rise of the Arab nation from its dark period of paganism prior to Muhammad to become the most powerful and civilized nation in the world then, within a short period of time, is due to the new, inspiring, powerful and dynamic Islamic ideology of monotheism brought by Muhammad. The Arabs, under his and his immediate successors' leadership, discarded their erstwhile polytheism and super-stitions. They united to fight and struggle under the guidance of the Quran and set up a just social order. Because this struggle was based on divine truth and justice as contained in the Quran, it was invincible. It also gave rise to a great social movement, bringing forth with it outstanding political, military and intellectual leaders who helped to create the first scientific-spiritual culture in history.
This hypothesis, in contrast to the modernist or the traditionalist theses, appears to be the most helpful in our effort to understand the history and the decline of the Muslims. The modernist thesis, in brief, states that the Muslims declined because they have remained traditional and have not modernized themselves according to Western secular values. The traditionalist thesis, on the other hand, blame the secularization of Muslim societies and the neglect of orthodox Muslim teachings as the major cause of Muslim decline.
It is obvious that the modernist and the traditionalist theses cancelled each other. Furthermore, the modernists have to explain why the Turkish experiment with Westernized modernization failed. They also have to explain why developed Western societies such as the United States and Europe have been undergoing a multi-faceted crisis since the First World War, and why a new philosophical trend of thought critical of Western-type modernization has developed in Europe and America.
The traditionalists, on the other hand, must explain the failure of their system from the beginning when it was first formulated around the third, fourth and fifth centuries of Islam. Some Arab countries have hardly modernized and had been practicing the traditional system for centuries – why have these not progressed? If they have not progressed, it is idle to expect Muslim countries to progress if they implement the traditional system.
The answer lies in our hypothesis. The early Muslims rose to the pinnacles of success precisely because they were in possession of and practiced the powerful and dynamic Islamic ideology as preached in the Quran. They subjected other knowledge, local and foreign, to the discriminative teachings of the Quran. As long as they did this, they progressed. A time came when other teachings, local and foreign, gained the upper hand and submerged the Quran, as witnessed by the following Quranic prophecy:
The messenger will say, "My Lord, my people have deserted this Quran." We thus appointed for every prophet enemies from among the criminals, and God suffices as Guide and Protector.
After about three hundred years, extraneous harmful teachings not taught by Prophet Muhammad but skillfully attributed to him gradually gained a foothold in the Muslim community and turned them away from the dynamic invincible ideology that initially brought them success. This ideology, as we shall show, is precisely the hadith. This is the main cause of their downfall. It therefore follows that the purging of this harmful ideology, and with it other foreign modern ideologies, from the Muslim community, and their return to the original ideology brought by Muhammad in the Quran is the sine qua non for the regeneration of the Muslim community and for a new Muslim Renaissance.
Age of "Great Disorder"
The time has now arrived for the Muslims to examine their situation more critically and boldly. Actually, this perilous situation is not confined to the Muslims alone; it covers the entire mankind. A number of twentieth century philosophers, historians and social critics have unanimously stated that this century is the most critical century in human history. The late Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, described the century as "Great Disorder under Heaven." The American historical philosopher, P.A. Sorokin, has detailed the crisis of the twentieth century in his able book, The Crisis of Our Age, published in 1941. It is in this century that two terrible world wars occurred, and a third more horrible one might still occur, in spite of the end of the Cold War, to destroy the present civilization.
It is in this century also that an array of philosophies, ideologies, theories, systems that includes liberalism, Marxism, pragmatism, logical positivism, existentialism, Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, Ghandhism, Maoism and religious traditionalism collapsed. When dominant existing philosophies and systems cannot solve the problems of human security and welfare, it is a sure sign that a very serious crisis is upon us.
A number of modern writers and poets, such as Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Y.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, had expressed this atmosphere and sense of great crisis in their works. Listen to the loneliness and poignant sorrow of Eliot:
and the deep despair and earnest prayer of Yeats:
This literature of pessimism and absurdity of life beginning in the twenties and thirties and continuing after the Second World War is, of course, a reflection of the great disorder currently existing in the world. This great disorder is evidenced by the great ideological cleavage, the continuous raging of the fires of war, the massive starvation and poverty in the Third World, the steep decline in public morality, world-wide financial and economic crisis and the inability of the United Nations to function effectively.
The Muslims had long lost their intellectual and political leadership of the world. The break-up of their empire in 1258 AD gave way to independent dynasties which continued until they were colonized by European powers beginning in the sixteenth right up to the early twentieth centuries. Then, with the rise of nationalism in Asia and Africa, nearly all of them regained their independence and set up sovereign nation-states.
However, the Muslims had ceased to be creative around the fourteenth century. Their period of intense creativity lasted three centuries from the ninth through to the eleventh. Their last great philosopher was the Arab Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406). Since that time Muslim intellect stagnated and even degenerated and Europe took over to develop dominant philosophies and disciplines along materialist and hedonistic lines.
After more than a century of modern reformism efforts initiated by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, the Muslim world, a world as disunited as any other, have not progressed much. They have not been able to fight off the ideological influence and domination of the world power-blocs. They are not united in their Muslim purpose. Their economies are dependent and backward. Their sciences and technologies are non-existent. Militarily, they are weak and dependent on the big powers.
However, there has been much talk, since the early seventies, of implementing the Shari`a or medieval Muslim law and the setting up of an Islamic state. This is the slogan of the traditionalists who have taken over the reform movement of Muhammad Abduh. The examples of mullah rule in Iran since the great popular anti-Shah revolution and the Islamization programmes in some countries do not give support to the traditionalist alternative.
The main weakness of the Muslims is their disunity. This disunity takes the form in their inability to cooperate for the good of Muslims in individual countries and the whole Muslim world. It also surfaces in the form of conflicts and wars between Muslims, as typified by the Iran-Iraq war and the civil wars in Lebanon.
What is the cause of this disunity? The Muslims claim that they worship one God and follow His one religion. They also declare their religious brotherhood. How then are they so disunited? This is the mystery that we have to unravel. This is the reason for our re-evaluation of the hadith. Our hypothesis is that the hadith — in principle, a false teaching attributed to Prophet Muhammad — is a major factor causing disunity and backwardness among Muslims. Our study is to prove this hypothesis.
Where Have We Gone Wrong?
The time is ripe for Muslims and for mankind as a whole to undertake a fundamental study of this great human crisis. At some point, somewhere, we have gone wrong. Where have we gone wrong? It will be recalled that modern secular Europe emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in rebellion against the Catholic Church in particular and against religion in general to embrace secular humanism of the liberal or Marxist variety. For the last one to three hundred years it experimented with these social philosophies and systems and the experiments have proved a failure. Today the two philosophies and systems are seeking a synthesis. Can the synthesis be achieved? Can it answer mankind's present quest for a new spiritual philosophy?
As for the Muslims, the new and young Muslim society and state set up by Muhammad and his compatriots in seventh century Arabia developed and expanded so rapidly that within a century it had become an empire to comprise also Persia and Byzantium, and within two to three hundred years it had created a great world civilization. But, as quickly as it had arisen, so quickly had it declined and fallen. Today, the Muslim polity, science and civilization, great though they were in their time, are glories and things of the past. There seems to be no bridge linking their great predecessors of the early centuries and present-day Muslims.
The great question mark hanging over the Muslims and the entire mankind today is: Why? The short answer to the question, which is the thesis of this book, is that mankind, including the Muslims, have deserted the true teachings of God. The true teachings of God in the era of Muhammad is contained in His final scripture to mankind, the Quran. The People of the Scripture, i.e. believers before Muhammad, especially the Jews and the Christians, rejected Muhammad because they had idolized their own prophets and religious leaders and refused to acknowledge Muhammad's divine message. Modern secular rebellious Europe not only turned against their religious priesthood, in which action it was right, but also against religion altogether, in which action it was wrong. This is the cause of the present Western impasse.
As regards the Muslims, Muhammad brought them the Quran, described by God Himself as an invincible book, but no sooner did Muhammad die and leave them, they contrived to make Muhammad bring two books and, after bitter quarrels, they legislated, two hundred and fifty years later, that Muslims must uphold not only the Quran but also the hadith. However, in truth, since then, they followed the hadith rather than the Quran. This explains God's warning in the Quran that we have quoted earlier. So it came about that while secular Europe embraced either liberalism or Marxism, the Muslim world embraced the hadith, with the philosophies of secular humanism infecting the elites of Muslim societies, thus justifying the Quranic warning.
Raising such a fundamental issue as this, it is difficult to avoid misunderstanding from both sides. The secular side, being more open-minded and tolerant, will simply dismiss this call to the Quran as antiquated, outmoded and irrelevant. Many secularists will simply not consider it. On the other hand, the traditionalist side, being close-minded and intolerant of dissenting views on matters regarded as their preserves, will raise a hue and cry and throw slanderous accusations into the debate.
One cannot be discouraged by the prospect. It is part of the social struggle to expose falsehood and confirm the truth. The secularists will be worthy opponents since they will be prepared to fight it out in open battles. Open debate is part of their secular tradition. The traditionalists are a different breed. Open debate is not part of their tradition. In fact, they came into being in Muslim society by killing open debate. Authoritarianism is their culture. Thus, slander, threats and falsehood will be their methods.
It will be claimed that the writer is trying to cause confusion and further divide Muslim society. This is far from the truth. The Muslims cannot be further confused and divided than they already have been for a long time. What worse confusion and division can there be than when Muslims fight and kill one another?
My aim is to try to establish the truth. My personal history bears testimony to this tendency. Like other Malays, I was born and brought up in an ordinary orthodox Malay Muslim family. However, my early interest in social philosophy took me on a long spiritual quest, over a period of thirty years, spanning liberal nationalism, Islamic liberalism and socialism, every single one of which each time sat uneasily over traditional Islam. The failure became obvious to me when the coherent integrated social philosophy that I was seeking eluded me. It was in the Islam of the Quran, scientifically understood, that I discovered the framework of such a philosophy.
Looking back, this is only logical, since the Quran contains the sure truth from God, while most of human teachings, as the Quran points out, are mere conjecture. But at that time, the Quran was, so to speak, covered up for me by the fog of hadith.
It will be claimed that calling the people back to the Quran alone will create a new sect, in addition to the sects that already exist. This is standing the argument on its head. Since the Quran is, in the first place, anti-sectarian, not only will it not create a new sect, but it will, on the contrary, eliminate all existing sects and reunite all Muslims. This is precisely what we want to do. History proves that under Muhammad the young Muslim society was completely united and there was no sect whatever. It is ironic that the Ahl'ul-Hadith who talk so much about following the example of the Prophet have completely abandoned this finest of his examples!
It will also be claimed that in rejecting the hadith as a source of law, we shall be rejecting the role of the Prophet. It will further be claimed that this is the first step to the ultimate rejection of the Quran! As for the first part of the claim, it is obvious to anyone that it was only through Muhammad that mankind received the Quran from God Almighty. That was his primary role — God's messenger — indeed his only role, as the Quran stressed several times. Was not this role great enough for Prophet Muhammad? Surely, it was.
As for the second part, it is too ridiculous to even think of it. But since the die-hard traditionists would stop at nothing to slander their opponents, one would lose nothing to spend a few lines exposing them. How can anyone, after calling the people back to the Quran, then reject the Quran? Even if he does, and this means reverting to disbelief after belief, how can that benefit him? He would lose everything, while the people, on the contrary, would benefit greatly by going back to the Quran.
The Muslims must re-possess critical consciousness and discard prejudice and group fanaticism. We must avoid throwing slanderous accusations at what we may not like at first. God Himself has taught us to verify things before we accept or reject them. No less an intelligent man than Sayyed Hossein Nasr who has said the following about those who deny the authority of the hadith:
It is against this basic aspect of the whole structure of Islam that a severe attack has been made in recent years by an influential school of Western Orientalists. No more of a vicious and insidious attack could be made against Islam than this one, which undercuts its very foundations and whose effect is more dangerous than if a physical attack were made against Islam.
How can this scholar, who has quoted a blasphemous hadith in the same book, spout this slander? Why should we Muslims, in possession of an invincible scripture from God Almighty, be afraid of the criticisms and even attacks of Orientalists? Such fear, in fact, reflects our own weakness. It shows that we are not sure of our own selves. The Quranic methodology should be a lesson for us. The Quran incessantly reproduces the false arguments of idol-worshippers and hypocrites and rebuts them with proofs and with better arguments. We should do the same to expose falsehoods and confirm the truth. The methods of suppression and slander are alien to the methods of truth.
Rejecting the authority of the hadith does not mean denying its existence. Some true reports of what the Prophet said and did outside the Quran as leader of his community and as an ordinary man must have been preserved. Such reports deserve to be treated as any other historical account whose authenticity must be judged against other historical accounts, against the higher authority of the Quran, and against rational criteria. While Quranic pronouncements are divine and are eternally binding on believers, those of Muhammad in his capacity as leader must be treated in accordance with the Quranic injunction regarding politico-social authority, i.e. that they are only conditionally binding. The conditions are that they do not contradict the Quran, they are binding only for the community of that time, and that for other communities of other times they only constitute as precedents to be followed or bypassed as and when deemed useful.
It should also be well understood that this re-evaluation of the hadith is in no way a slur upon our classical scholars. They understood and reacted to their problems as best they could. We who come after them are not bound by their solutions. As Muhammad Abduh has well said, "They are human and we are human. We learn from them but we do not [blindly] follow them." No doubt our re-examination constitutes a criticism. But this is normal scientific procedure. It has been done by all our great philosophers and scholars from the beginning, by Ibn Sina, al-Ghazzali, Ibn Rush, Ibn Taimiya, Shah Waliyullah, Muhammad Abduh and scores of others. We owe it to them and to ourselves to constantly practice this method. For how else can knowledge develop and society progress unless they continually be purged of errors. This accounts for the very important Quranic directive, repeated many times, to believers:
Let there be a community among you who preach goodness, advocate righteousness and forbid evil. These are the winners.
It must also be pointed out that this criticism and re-evaluation of the hadith that we are making is nothing new. Imam Shafi`i who first stipulated that the hadith should be accepted as a source of law had opponents that he himself described in his book. In recent times there were such proponents in Egypt, India and Indonesia. It may be that our treatment, thanks to recent developments in Quranic and hadith studies, is more systematic than previous efforts.
In this study we have adopted what may be termed as Islamic scientific methodology. In is unfortunate that today we associate scientific methodology to the Western empirical and rational methods, when, in fact, it was Islam that introduced this methodology to the West. The words of the English historian Robert Briffault deserve to be quoted in full:
"... It was under their successors at the Oxford school that Roger Bacon learned Arabic and Arabic science. Neither Roger Bacon nor his later namesake has any title to be credited with having introduced the experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than one of the apostles of Muslim science and method to Christian Europe; and he never wearied of declaring that knowledge of Arabic and Arabic science was for his contemporaries the only way to true knowledge. Discussions as to who was the originator of the experimental method ... are part of the colossal misrepresentation of the origins of European civilization. The experimental method of [the] Arabs was by Bacon's time widespread and eagerly cultivated throughout Europe..."
However, the scientific methodology of Europe sought to bar supra-rational and supra-sensory knowledge from science. It is now admitted that this is inadequate to conform to the truly Islamic scientific methodology of combining sensory, rational and supra-rational knowledge to produce true integrated knowledge. Using this methodology, we take the Quran as our basis and starting point and subject all the evidence of the hadith, i.e. the hadith itself, the major classical writings on them and modern European and Muslim criticisms, to Quranic and rational judgements. We may, of course, take ten years to do this and produce five volumes that few will have the time and the stamina to read. Our purpose is different. Ours is to write a readable book for the general reader with enough matter for him to think and draw conclusions.