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Role of the Hadith in Shaping Muslim Identity

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Published: Tue, 09 Jan 2018

Islam is a religion both of the book and of tradition. Both of these avenues are, to some extent, sacred for the Muslim. In this way it is akin to other major religions of the world. For example, in Catholicism, there is a veneration of both their Sacred Scriptures and their Sacred Tradition (though this veneration is equal in Catholicism). For most Muslim traditions, however, the veneration of the Qur’an and the Hadith (the traditions) is not equal, though perhaps it could be justly said that for all Muslims the Hadith is venerated second only to the sacred Scriptures of Islam (i.e., the Qur’an). This is true for all the major branches of Islam: Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi. However, it is not true that the Sunni Muslims have the exact same Hadith as either of the other branches (and vice-versa). The traditions contained within the Hadith are not uniform among the various major branches of Islam. But, owing to this high veneration of the Hadith among all Muslims, the Hadith has been instrumental and important in shaping Muslim identity.

The Nature of the Hadith

But, what is the Hadith, exactly? According to Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, in their recent work on Muslim and Christian agreements and differences, they give the following definition: Hadith: Literally, a story; an oral tradition later written down of what the prophet supposedly said (sunna), did, or approved ofsomething said or done in his presence, (Answering Islam, 338). This seems to be attested-to by other scholars. The Sunnis themselves get their name from its relation to sunna and their being followers of the sunna, (R.C. Zaehner, Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions, 170). It is interesting to note that the Hadith, although it has a pragmatic end in that it further clarifies vast aspects of Islamic life, shows a particularly strong devotion to the Prophet Muhammed. Akbar S. Ahmed notes this too when he writes, So great is the respect and affection the Prophet commands that his very sayings, hadith, are the source of wisdom and social practice in the Muslim world, (Islam Today, 18). In many ways, this links Islam with other major religions of the world wherein the sayings and doings of the founder of a religion are often the most revered content of the religion.

The Hadith as a Source of Great Reverence for the Prophet

The second part of the five-part creed of Islam indicated the orthodox view of Muhammed. That is, he was merely the Prophet of God. He was, to be sure, the greatest prophet who superseded all prior prophets, but he was still a mere man. It used to be common practice even up to the mid-twentieth century for Westerners who were not themselves Muslims to refer to Muslims as Mohammedans. This came to be seen as a very offensive reference, according to Muslims because it tended to draw too strong a parallel to Christians being the followers of Christ, as Mohammedans were the followers of Muhammad. For the Christian, Christ is the God-Man. That is, the early Church long ago defined that the one person of Jesus Christ has two natures: one human and one divine. He is both God and man in one hypostasis (i.e., one person). This is, however, not at all the view held toward Muhammad, who is a mere, though extremely blessed, mortal man.

The Metaphysical Distinction Between God’s Word and the Hadith

However, one must remain clear that the reverence given to the Scriptures (i.e., the Qur’an) must be distinguished from that given to the Hadith. The difference lies in a distinction between the very words of God (which is what sacred scriptures would be, according to all theistic religions) and those writings or oral traditions that, while perhaps protected from error, are nevertheless not the very words of God breathed-out, as it were, upon the pages of the scriptures. For Reform Jews, the Talmud (a collection of writings dealing with moral and legal matters) is to be revered in much the same way as the Hadith is for Muslims (R.C. Zaehner, Encyclopedia, 37). Likewise, the Catholic Church has a Magisterium, which produces official writings from its Church councils and, at times, from its popes. These writings of the Magisterium are to be faithfully held by all Catholics everywhere (R.C. Zaehner, 140-1). They are not tantamount to the divine revelation of Scripture and Tradition together, but they are given a reverence not unlike the Islamic reverence given to the Hadith. As the Muslim scholar Badru D. Kateregga explains the distinction,

The Hadith is not a Holy Book (revelation) as the Qur’an and the previous Scriptures. However, to the Muslims the importance of Hadith ranks only second to the Holy Qur’an. The Hadith is complementary to the Qur’an. It helps to explain and clarify the Holy Qur’an and to present the Qur’an in a more practical form. As Muslims, our knowledge of Islam would be incomplete and shaky if we did not study and follow the Hadith. Similarly an outsider cannot understand Islam if he ignores the Hadith.

This last statement by Kateregga particularly notes the strong similarity to the other major theistic religions of the world. It could equally be said that with having only the Jewish scriptures and without the Talmud one could not properly understand Reform (and perhaps Conservative) Judaism. So too, having only the Bible, without learning any of the teachings that have come out of the major councils of the Catholic Church, one could hardly arrive at, or understand, Catholicism.

Early History of the Hadith: Relation to Shariah Law

Early on in Islamic history, there was a desire to have the law of the lands of Muslims be a law based explicitly on the writings of the Qur’an. However, there were soon found to be many instances wherein the laws contained in the Qur’an did not forthrightly apply to all relevant instances. So, the various Islamic societies had to extend the sources past the Qur’an alone. One of the sources to which Shariah Law extended for a source of itself was to the Hadith. It is difficult to describe exactly what comprises the foundation of the Shariah Law. Geisler and Saleeb delineate four bases of it: the Qur’an, the hadith, ijma’ (consensus of the community), and qiyas, the application of analogical reasoning to the other three sources for the deduction of new rules, (Answering Islam, 84). What this seems to amount to in practice, according to the entry on Law and Society in the Oxford History of Islam is that it is only when the ijma’ supports the independent thinking or juridical opinions of a particular instance does this instance obtain the luxury of being a binding force of a ruling (hukm) of Shariah, (110). This is a clear instance of the importance of the Hadith in shaping Muslim identity, as all Muslim societies, to some extent or another, adopt Shariah Law as either a guiding or binding force upon all those within a given Islamic nation.

The Early Search for Authentic Hadith

Additionally, by the second century after the founding of Islam, there were found in the various Islamic legal schools so much variation between them, as to the Islamic law itself and/or its application, that a search for the authentic Traditions became necessary (Zaehner, Encyclopedia, 171). Soon they were divided into three categories (definitely reliable, questionable, and likely unreliable) and eventually collected into six great collections, which are still in use today. Therefore, a search soon began for all the authentic Traditions of the prophet recorded by his contemporaries, also known as the Companions of the Prophet. These Companions were thought to be eye-witnesses and recorded that which they knew the Prophet Muhammed to have done or said on legal or moral issues not definitively laid out by the Qur’an. Where such Traditions were found to exist, it was held, the rulings they contained, explicitly or implicitly, were decisive and mandatory for all Muslims. The sunna (practice) of the Prophet obviously superseded all other sunnas, and still more any speculative reasoning, (Zaehner, 171).

Some (Perhaps) Uncomfortable Applications of the Hadith in the Modern World

With the rise of the Taliban regime in modern Afghanistan, there was an attempt at a strict application of various passages of the Qur’an and the Hadith. There were many indirect applications based loosely upon the Hadith (e.g., no television-watching, the closing of girl’s schools), but there were also a number of applications based directly on the hudud criminal punishments derived from the Qur’an and Hadith (e.g., amputation for theft, death for murder, stoning for adultery, Oxford History, 660). Another application of clearly affirmed traditions within the Hadith is that of martyrdom – especially within a context of jihad (Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, 133-4). In the Hadith, there are many descriptions of rewards given to those who die for the struggle of Islam.

Reforming the Hadith?

Upon some of these considerations of the application of the Hadith, some have called for a large-scale reform of the Hadith to suit modern ways and understandings. One of the first of these was Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98). He even questioned the historicity and authenticity of many portions of the Hadith. Some more current legal reformers have called for various subtle distinctions as means of arriving at a middle-ground, which would preserve much ancient understanding of Islam, but would also simultaneously make certain applications of the Hadith (and even the Qur’an) as necessarily time-bound and culture-derived. For example, some who have been called revivalists and neomodernists have made a distinction between what might be called the eternal portions of the Qur’an and the Hadith and those that are the result of fallible human understanding of the eternal laws and their subsequent application, known as fiqh (Oxford History, 685). A further distinction along these lines could be broken down according to one’s vertical responsibilities (i.e., with respect to God) being unchanging, yet one’s horizontal responsibilities (i.e., socially with respect to one’s fellow man) being open to change and further refinement. There are even those who call for more extreme reforms in the Muslim faith. A recent example would be found in the journalist Irshad Manji in her recent book The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. In the book, Manji seems to advocate that it is possible for portions of the Qur’an and Hadith to even be in error, particularly those portions that are often used to advocate violence against non-Muslims (or non-perfect Muslims).

Concluding Thoughts
Of course, this type of recent line of thinking along reforms (however large or small) has led some traditionalist Muslims into an even more entrenched position in their, what we might call, fundamentalism their strict adherence to all things ancient in Islam, even the application of the Qur’an and Hadith in Shariah law (a la the Taliban). However, such a reaction from traditionalist is not at all unexpected by anyone, least of all the reformers themselves. However it might end up being resolved and the conflict towards reform, which seems to some extent inevitable, are brought to a close, it is likely that the role of the Hadith in this and future generations will be a moderated one. Of course, just what exactly will moderate it remains to be seen. Will it be reason alone that triumphs? Will it be a rush toward even more modernity in Islam? The world eagerly waits to see.


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