Why We Must Study Hadith Once Again?
Why should we worry about au- au thenticating the Hadith literature any more—given that we have the impeccable collections of sound traditions of the Prophet صلى اله عليه وسلم in Bukhâri and Muslim, among others? Well, because in the light of new and increasingly damaging attacks against Islam from its enemies and critics, in addition to the efforts by world powers to rewrite Islam in accordance with their interests, it is essential that believing Muslims— who love Allah and His Din—also girdle up their defenses. Some of the most vehement attacks against the Din of Allah have been on the issue of authenticity of the Sunnah of the Prophet — which has been preserved in the form of a hadith (Prophetic reports).
Why are Ahadith Attacked?
There is a reason why the Hadith literature is often attacked both by the enemies of Islam as well as by those Muslims who are enchanted by other ideals and are trying to reinterpret Islam to fit their vision. To challenge the pure monotheism of Islam or its irrefutable appeal to good human nature is a lost cause; and the enemies of Islam know this well. To challenge the authenticity of the final Book of Allah—the Quran—is also hopeless for any reasonable person, even though attempts are now being made by some desperate enemies. The only option left is to reinterpret the Message of Allah—by assigning its words arbitrary, self-serving meanings. This becomes possible especially if the Quran is reduced to a book in a vacuum, by attacking and making suspicious the entire corpus of Hadith literature that tells us when, how, and why the various Qur’anic passages were revealed. Of course, the Quran explicitly demands that we follow the additional and independent legislation and instruction of the Final Messenger. If you detach the words of the Quran from the person of the truthful Messenger of Allah—from his example and his explanations—and suspend them in a vacuum—then of course a million interpretations of each verse are possible. Any word can have any number of meanings, so long as you can change its entry in your dictionary. Without the guidance of authentic Sunnah, the verses of the Quran are no longer real, alive and concrete words that were understood, applied and explained by a real, living human being—known to us through richly documented history— history and understood correctly by an entire community—a community, that, as a sign of God’s approval and blessing, soon became the world’s greatest power and civilization. Rather, they become reduced to enigmatic allusions whose meaning is anybody’s guess. In other words, they become like words of the Bible and other scriptures whose original texts were lost or utterly disfigured.
The Rise of Western Scholarship of Islam and its Implications
For the last two centuries, while the best and most dedicated minds among the Muslims have been busy learning engineering and medicine from the West, thousands of Western scholars have been engaged in studying, evaluating, reinterpreting and questioning the entire corpus of Islamic sciences. Not all non-Muslim scholars are malicious towards Islam, and a good number of studies coming out of Western universities invite Muslims to rethink a lot of what they have been taking for granted and a lot of what they have by now forgotten. However, and to no one’s surprise, most of these studies serve to cut at the roots of Islamic belief. A brief history is in order. Since the nineteenth century, as the Muslim world encountered Western modernity and as Western scholars began to critically study Islamic sources based on the methods of textual study (philology) which they had developed in their Biblical studies, questions were raised about the authenticity of Islamic sources, especially about the Quran and the Hadith literature. These Western scholars of Islam, called Orientalists, were influenced by the 19th century trends in a secularizing Europe where religion was fleeing from the intellectual and public sphere and religious texts were being, for the first time in Christian history, studied critically and historically. These philological scholars found plenty of evidence that these Biblical texts were written a few centuries after the actual events they describe took place, and were distorted by political and other considerations that surrounded the writers. These biblical studies devastated claims of the Christian Church for all practical purposes, so that Christianity was to become a religion of the laymen or of those who could have faith against all evidence. It could not be a faith of reason or history any more. As the West colonized the Muslim Muslimworld world and came across Islam—a religion that the religious West had thus far feared and hated—the new kind of Western scholar, mostly secular and post-Christian, started to study Islam with a new interest, and for their own specific purposes. Those sympathetic to Christianity, like the famed Max Weber, wanted to show the superiority of their religion to Islam and give reasons why Islamic societies could not develop and modernize while the Christian ones could. Others wanted to study Islam for colonial purposes— to rule the Muslims better. Still others wanted to prove their atheistic theories about religion being a figment of human imagination and not based on God-sent message, and so attempted to show that Islam too, like Christianity, was a human product. To them, the Prophet was an intelligent man— someone who told brilliant lies to humanity for good intentions. This viewpoint is still widely embraced by Western scholars and writers today. Some others, who simply wanted attention perhaps, made claims that were laughable even to other Westerners, such as that Islam was created by the Arab imperialists to justify their rule. At the heart of all these claims about the human origin of Islam lay the basic Orientalist bias: just as the Christian texts were ‘invented’ a few centuries after the appearance of Jesus, so must Islamic texts be shown to have originated a few centuries after Muhammad. Most of the attempts to discredit Islamic texts, however, have been frustrated, sometimes by other Western scholars who have pointed out serious problems with these kinds of claims. These days, the heat against Islam is once again back on, and on high, and so are attempts to ‘reform’ Islam in the image of the Western religions and to show that the Islamic texts, particularly the Hadith literature, are not authentic. The Muslim response, for the most part, has been to wait for some revivalist, some scholar, or some miracle that would prove to the world, and the coming generations of Muslims, that all the propaganda is baseless, fabricated, and incoherent. While there have been efforts by some scholars to engage the modern critics with reason, argument and historical research—and one brilliant example of that is Dr. Hamidullah’s work on ‘the Sahifah of Hammâm’—generally, our response has been to ignore and neglect the challenge.