This is the second installment of a seven part series, examining the challenges, as I see them, and potential solutions, for reforming Islam. I would consider a reform to be meaningful and successful if it resulted in Islam as a personal religion (just a way of relating with God, with no fascist doctrines); if it offered persuasive, comprehensive, and truthful challenges to the version of Islam put forward by the Islamists; and if it became the prevailing view among Muslims.
Challenge: The Hadith. The Hadith (technically, the plural is “Ahadith”) are oral traditions about the sayings and actions of Mohammed. There are thousands of Hadith, organized into collections. Six of these collections (Al-Bukhari, Muslim, At-Tirmidhi, An-Nasai, Ibn Majah, and Abu Dawood) are considered “authentic” in Sunni tradition, and are generally considered synonymous with the “Sunnah”, which means “the way of the Prophet”. About 85% of Muslims are “Sunni”, which word comes from “Sunnah”. The Shia have their Hadith, as well.
The Quran contains no biographical information about Mohammed, although it says the Messenger (Mohammed) is a good example for believers (33:21). Muslims can only find out what Mohammed’s example was through the Hadith and Sira (see Part III). In addition, the Quran gives little or no context for its verses. Again, this context has traditionally been supplied by the Hadith and Sira.
Technically, a Hadith cannot be considered to be authentic if it contradicts the Quran (although many Hadith in the authenticated collections actually do so, such as the ones attributing miracles to Mohammed). However, there are many Hadith that have been used to develop the doctrines of Sharia and Jihad. For example, the Quran has no explicit command to kill apostates, although several verses hint at it. The Hadith, on the other hand, are very explicit on the subject, and have been relied on as source material for that ruling. Here are two examples (there are also others):
Narrated Abu Burda: “….Mu’adh asked, “Who is this (man)?” Abu Muisa said, “He was a Jew and became a Muslim and then reverted back to Judaism.” Then Abu Muisa requested Mu’adh to sit down but Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down till he has been killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Apostle (for such cases) and repeated it thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered that the man be killed, and he was killed….” (Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 84, Number 58)
Narrated ‘Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'” (Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57)
There are many other examples of undesirable behavior sanctioned by the Hadith, including:
“Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab: The Prophet…said: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.” (Abu Dawood, Book 11, Number 2142)
Torture: “Anas reported: Eight men…killed the shepherd and drove away the camels. This (news) reached Allah’s Messenger…and he sent them on their track and they were caught and brought to him (the Holy Prophet). He commanded about them, and (thus) their hands and feet were cut off and their eyes were gouged and then they were thrown in the sun, until they died.” (Muslim, Book 016, Number 4131)
Killing Critics: “It has been narrated on the authority of Jabir that the Messenger of Allah…said: Who will kill Ka’b b. Ashraf? He has maligned Allah, the Exalted, and His Messenger. Muhammad b. Maslama said: Messenger of Allah, do you wish that I should kill him? He said: Yes. He said: Permit me to talk (to him in the way I deem fit). He said: Talk (as you like). So, Muhammad b. Maslama came to Ka’b and talked to him, referred to the old friendship between them….So when [Ka’b] came down and he was holding his cloak under his arm, they said to him: We sense from you a very fine smell. He said: Yes, I have with me a mistress who is the most scented of the women of Arabia. He said: Allow me to smell (the scent on your head). He said: Yes, you may smell. So he caught it and smelt. Then he said: Allow me to do so (once again). He then held his head fast and said to his companions: Do your job. And they killed him.” (Muslim, Book 019, Number 4436)
What can overcome this challenge?
The Hadith would be easier to throw out than the Quran, and some reformers advocate following the Quran only. However, to disavow the Hadith would mean that the Quran has no context, and little or nothing is known about Mohammed. It would seem that to throw out the Hadith and Sira would be to essentially throw out Mohammed, which I’m not personally averse to, although Muslims may be. The other alternative would be to create a new fairy tale about Mohammed, either by picking and choosing from the Hadith or pulling it out of thin air. It seems it would be hard to convincingly present this as more authentic than the current version, however.
For those who do want to throw out the Hadith, analysis of their origins gives supportive evidence. Various scholars have called the authenticity of numerous Hadith into question. Goldziher, for example, has demonstrated that a great number of Hadith were complete fabrications. And, so far as I know, none of the Hadith are conclusively confirmed by non-Muslim sources.
Part III of this series will examine the Sira.