Masood N. Khan M.D.
After Quran the holy scripture of Muslims, the voluminous collections of Hadith – the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet – have served as the most revered and consulted source for Muslims in religion.
Meticulous work that underscores the encyclopedic compilations of Hadiths is indeed commendable but the real question is not of the availability of these books that supposedly contain authentic Hadiths but of the proper understanding and application of what they contain in today’s life. Ultimately that is what makes a Hadith capable of bringing a morally positive change in human conduct and therefore will determine its value and strength.
For centuries, abuse of Hadiths by Muslims has been a serious problem that has given rise to a psychotic interpretation of religion. It has reflected negatively in their social conduct and has caused hostile sectarianism, narrow-minded and meaningless ritualism, violent extremism and a mindset with shallow and immature approach to religion in general. Naturally, these detriments are highly disconcerting for a modern, educated and practical Muslim desirous of seeking guidance from the life-model of the Prophet.
Abuse may come from many directions but essentially from two very notorious sources,
1. Availability of fabricated Hadiths in the recognized books of collection and their irresponsible use.
2. A literalist understading of any Hadith with no insight into its implied meaning.
Besides causing severe damage to the very essence of the message, the above phenomena which are interconnected, have misrepresented a great Prophet and have done disservice to him. Perhaps Muslims have misrepresented their own Prophet more effectively than the non-Muslim critics of his personality. It is well documented that the Prophet had advised Muslims not to write down his words and that all the scribes in unison, reponding to his order, gathered their recorded collections and burned them in Madinah. it seems Prophet’s futuristic acumen sensed clearly an advent corruption of his words at the hands of Muslims in the years to follow.
Let us first deal with the Fabrication factor and understand its fabric. In the free marketing of countless Hadiths, one needs to question, if each and every Hadith in so called authentic books is authentic beyond doubt and none could have been just falsely attributed to the Prophet or misreported from him? Muslims have defended the authenticity of a given Hadith taken from any of the authentic books, solely on the soundness of its transmission, for it is widely believed that the oral transmission of spoken words and witnessed actions was the predominant, if not the only means of communication available during the Prophet’s period. In this oral culture, word of mouth was believed to be more reliable and authentic than the written one in contradistinction to our believing in the opposite today. This may be so, but to think that books containing thousands of his sayings as totally immune to fabrication or erroneous reporting by even a single person in the chain of transmission, is to make them holy reliquaries. Such a state of unquestioned authenticity, one would think is just humanly implausible. Muslims have been given to engrain in their very psyche that authentic books like Bukhari and Muslim, do not contain any false Hadith. So if any Hadith is quoted from them, one should be rest assured of its accuracy and precision. The belief in its unadulterated transmission has thus demanded a refrain from its paraphrasing or its contextual interpretation, leading to a literalist understanding.
To compound the problem, the total immunity that has been awarded to the so called authentic books of Hadith has been counterproductive in another sense; it has given unchecked freedom to the user of a Hadith to fit it in any circumstance or situation he likes with no insight, and also to throw it on any audience attended by thousands of spellbound listeners ready to internalize it with a wrong understanding of its meaning and applicability.
There is an immediate need to deal with this issue that has already done lot of damage.
The solution possibly lies in the critical assessment of the prevalent methodology that is being followed in determining the strength and value of a given Hadith. Muslim religious scholarship has always classified a Hadith as strong or weak based solely upon its authenticity which in turn is determined by soundness of its transmission, vertically as well as horizauntally. The latter is called “thawathur” which means the Hadith in focus, is also transmitted parallely through more than one chain of transmission, thus enhancing its authenticity. There are six books of compiled Hadiths out of the many, considered to be quite authentic. They are called ‘Sahah Sittah’ (the Correct Six) .They are crowned with authentic collections of Hadiths supported by sound chains of transmission. Notable among them are the famous Bukhari and Muslim. Such a classification that is transmission-based, is certainly of great academic value for research and investigation and in some instances in the formulation of jurisprudential edicts. But it has zero value in the right interpretation of Prophet’s words that will provide for a common man, meaningful guideposts to a righteous life.
On the contrary such classification of a Hadith has perversely ignored the following seriously countervailing effects.
1. It has given license to any person to quote a Hadith in callously irresponsible way because of its presumed authenticity, quite oblivious to how it will be taken and applied by the recipient.
2. It has encouraged a tendency among Muslims to understand Hadith literally, disregarding its contextually implied
meaning drawn by an insightful interpretation. This has resulted in loss of a receptive sense to get to the essence of the message Prophet had given. The absent capcity of decryption required to elucidate his words is no more obvious than in the case of allegories that were given by him to make people understand something metphysical and incomprehensible.
3. It has given absolute and permanent credulity to every Hadith, whereas many Hadiths have an applicability that is time- bound being applicable only to the time of the Prophet; situation-bound being applicable only in an identical situation with identical effects; and culture-bound, being applicable only to the acceptable norms of behavior existent in the culture that was prevalent at the time of the Prophet, for example in this category, will fall all Hadiths related to physical acts of dress, food, habitation and environmental demands etc. Such Hadiths therefore cannot be applicable today especially if they have no corrective value to the flaws of today’s acceptable cutural norms.
4. Loss of meaningful applicability due to linguistic variance that has evolved over centuries, giving a different meaning to a word today than how it was understood at the time of the Prophet. So the understanding of the message conveyed in the Hadith could possibly have changed and become different than what it was originally intended to be.
5. It has at times made a Hadith incompatible with the message of Quran.
In a nutshell, the understanding of Hadith should transcend time, place, situation and cultural norms and should contain everlasting moral value that is not incompatible with Quran. And this should determine the strength of a Hadith, not simply the authenticity of its transmission. In other words the strength of a Hadith lies in its proper and compendious understanding and its right applicability resulting from such understanding. Let us call this “COMPREHENSIVE INTERPRETATION” of Hadith.
To give such ‘comprehensive interpretation’ to a Hadith, one will have to understand that the sayings of the Prophet essentially are:
– Those that contain complementary explanation, elaboration or practical demonstration of the belief structure enjoined in Quran.
– Those that contain pronouncing of edicts in the formulation of Islamic Laws.
– Those that contain guidelines for the human struggle to establish justice, equality, freedom and dignity of human being on this earth.
– Those that contain moral guidance to promote good conduct that inculcates kindness, politeness, modesty, humility, courage, truthfulness, generosity and etiquette of good manners etc delivered not only through his words but actions as well.
An essential element or basic ingredient of all the above categories is the compatibility with the message of guidance given in Quran.
When a Hadith belonging to the above categories, delivers the respective message and advice endowed with words that have a Prophetic effect, it has the potential to change the human behavior and thereby change the moral, social, economical and political status of the society to the betterment of humanity. Comprehensive interpretation of his sayings or actions, examines deeply the presence of this value. Its absence indicates either fabrication or gross misinterpretation that is not infrequently aided by a literalist understanding. In addition, comprehensive interpretation is also a way to prevent destructive abuse of Hadith. However, it is realized that such interpretation may require an added element of wisdom to scholarship, practicality to knowledge and a sense of healthy psitivity to the unavoidable change occuring with time: They are not commonly present in every individual. This handicap especially for a non-scholar and secularly educated Muslim then needs to be resolved. This can be done to a great extent by drawing parameters against which any Hadith could be examined and its comprehensively- interpreted and value-based strength could then be determined. In this way the requirements to determine the strength of a Hadith, in a new light, could be fulfilled logically and systematically.
The proposed parameters for a new system of classification therefore are:
1. A Hadith should have transcendental potential, meaning a strong and ever- valid moral message that transcends time, situation and culture. Such a Hadith will possess permanent applicability and will be considered strong. Checked by this parameter if any Hadith’s applicability is time-bound, situation-bound or culture-bound etc it has to be considered weak or non-compelling.
2. A Hadith should not lead to a misleading message if understood literally or otherwise. It should not give a message that is not compatible with Prophet’s personality and the good principles he has emphasized. It should not suffer a need to justify its content with some kind of defensive rationalization. Such Hadith regardless of its reported authenticity, should be considered weak
or rather fabricated.
3. Should not give minute details with allegories pertaining to life hereafter (mutashabihat), or predictions of future etc. Hadiths that are full of such details may have some indirect relevance to moral well being but mostly give no useful guidelines to lead a moral life in the challenges faced today. As human mind is given to vivid and graphic imagination, descriptions of heaven and hell and events of the hereafter, if taken literally will give rise to a constricted scope of intellect and understanding at the expense of the real message hidden in it. Such a Hadith should be considered weak based upon its feeble utility and adverse effect as mentioned above.
4. A Hadith should not be incompatible with the message of divine guidance in Quran. Any Hadith which is not compatible with Quran should be considered not only weak but fabricated.
The presence of the above characterstics in a Hadith as explained under each parameter above will be sufficient to make that Hadith weak or even fabricated. All four parameters will have to be simultaneously looked into while making a comprehensive interpretation of a Hadith. To summarize, any Hadith that does not fail the screening criteria set in any of the above parameters, passing all of them, has undoubtedly the potential to bring positive change in human life in all aspects of living. Such a Hadith then shall be categorized as STRONG and the rest either weak, unacceptable or even fabricated.
In the end, in spite of being comprehensively interpreted this way, attaching the labels ‘fabricated’ ‘unacceptable’ or ‘weak’ to any so called authentic Hadith, could generate strong emotional reaction especially in people who are immature and impulsive. They would very likely jump to the conclusion that this represents disrespect to the Prophet. Little they understand that a Hadith that is misinterpreted and misapplied does in actuality shows disrespect to the Prophet by misrepresenting him and thus doing great
disservice to him. The comprehensive interpretation indeed will protect his personality from prejudice due to misperception, thereby will represent extreme degree of respect for him.
There is a strong need to reclassify Hadiths as strong or weak, applying the ‘Comprehensive Interpretation’ based upon the defined parameters as elucidated above. Thanks to the great compilers of Hadith, we are fortunate to have books containing Hadiths whose authenticity of transmission is already established to the best possible extent. So a compendium of Hadiths with data about the chain of transmission is available to serve as the substrate. Each Hadith from these collections needs to be subjected to comprehensive interpretation and accordingly classifiied as ‘WEAK’ or ‘STRONG.’ This could present a humongous task, yet a great contribution to Hadith literature. If such a value- oriented classification is emphasized, made more common and brought up to replace the old system which is based upon purely the authenticity of transmission, the understanding of Deen by Muslims will unfold into new dimensions that will have the Prophet as the shining light to guide them at every step.