The Fallibility of the Islamic Hadith Literature

Most Muslims cannot make sense of the Qur’an. So after a few hundred years there emerged a whole body of commentary to try to make sense of the confusion their holy book generated. These commentaries are collectively called the Hadith literature. Below I have reproduced a section of my essay on the history of Mecca to show you the problems generated when you write a history of something two to three centuries later, in a foreign country, relying only on 5th to 8th generation oral history…

The Hadith literature are the official commentaries that provide us with the words, actions and approvals of Muhammad. They rank second only to the Qur’an in Islamic theological and political authority. They encompass a vast amount of clarification and traditional history interpreting the Qur’an, Muhammad’s life and the origins of Islam. It is the Hadith that creates and then makes sense of the utterances of Muhammad. It is the Hadith that most people rely on as authentic history about early Islam and the history of Mecca. It is the Hadith that tries to bring logic to the utter confusion most people are left with after reading the Qur’an on its own. Because of this confusion the Hadith is the de facto primary source of authority in the religion of Islam.

But like the Sira biographies, the Hadith commentaries were also written two to three centuries after the facts, and once again largely by Abbasid scholars over in Persia. It’s like penning the very first history of the American War of Independence from 2018 through to the year 2100AD, relying only on fifth to tenth generation oral memory. This gave the Abbasids more than plenty of time for mythologising of the type we saw above.

Anybody within Islam could write a Hadith in those restive first two to three centuries, and write they did. They could tell the world what they recalled from a trusted chain of oral authorities, the famous Isnad sources, about the words, actions and life of Muhammad. In the process it turned out that the vast majority were only written to justify factional rivalries and disputes. It didn’t matter if the Hadiths contradicted each other. It mattered more that the chain of Isnad was pure. They eventually became a laughing stock, the original fake news. They contradicted each other to the point that one dedicated scholar, Muhammad al-Bakhari, another Abbasid scholar from Iraq (d. 870AD), decided to find as many as he could, ditch the fakes and compile a trusted history of the past. He aspired to creating an authentic exegesis of the Qur’an, Muhammad and Mecca. He travelled far and wide, collected some 600,000 alleged sayings of the prophet, and then ditched all but 7,225 that he believed could be trusted. He is today revered as the most trustworthy source of Islamic history, and therefore the history of Mecca. Five other collectors of Hadith are also canonised along with him, including his disciple Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj who collected hundreds of thousands more Hadiths and discarded all but around 4,000. However, we have a problem with finding original copies of these two scholar’s writings. The oldest surviving copy of any piece of al-Bakhari’s works is from hundreds of years after he performed the great cull.

With the recent application of the tools of secular higher criticism to the story of Islam, more and more scholars are delivering body blows to the credibility of the Hadith writings. New discoveries and cold hard theological objectivity has allowed a much more rigorous search for fakes than al-Bakhari religious sensitivities allowed for. The towering 20th Century academic, Joseph Schacht, called the Hadith literature a fiction perhaps unequalled in the history of human thought. Ouch!  Schacht also argued that the fabrication of the Hadith came from a literary convention, which found particular favor in Iraq, whereby Abbasid authors/scholars would put their own doctrine or work under the aegis of an ancient authority. The ultimate prestigious ancient authority in this context was Muhammad and around 750AD scholars in Kufa, followed in a few years by the Medinese began falsely ascribing their new doctrines back to earlier jurists, and over time extended them back to Muhammad. In other words they invented all the words, life and actions of Muhammad to justify their own agenda.

The fabrications are relatively easy to spot. The amazing detail in the Hadith, the exact words spoken, the time of day, what they ate, how they travelled, who was present, the theological disputes they were defending and much more, all combine to give the Hadith too much authenticity. They are too precise, lacking in context and contradictory. What mattered most was the air of authenticity given by the alleged chain of oral authorities. The motivation was simple. They were written by very clever legal scholars living hundreds of years after the facts, who were designing a chain of historical transmission that, in the words of Dr Umar Bashear, grow backwards to justify a new legal code for a brand new empire, and one that would wrestle power from their political masters, the Caliphs (Abraham’s Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues p. 277). Their creation of a religious prophet, a religious city, a religious text, a religious holy language a religious history and a religious destiny gave them the upper hand in the endless power struggle that was Middle Eastern politics. Supreme power within the realm of Islam would from then on rest with them, the religious scholars, not their political masters. The evidence and legacy of their work can be seen in the modern call to Jihad, and the fear of it within the political class of most Islamic countries.

It is these clever writers of the Hadith that I will now summarise to demonstrate that they did not write an authentic history of the Qur’an or Mecca. I will use Crone’s excellent examination of the various Hadith explanations of surah 106, a surah that the Hadith literature claims to talk about Mecca.

Surah 106

For the accustomed security of the Quraysh

Their accustomed security [in] the caravan of winter and summer

Let them worship the Lord of this House

Who has fed them, [saving them] from hunger and made them safe, [saving them] from fear.

Note: To demonstrate how much the English version of the Qur’an is influenced by the stories that the Hadith commentaries created and not the other way around, the term accustomed security in line one above is a Hadith interpretation of the word ilaf, which has no known meaning. The Hadith writers had to give it a meaning or the surah would be utter confusion. In addition, all words in brackets are also extra to the original Arabic Qur’an.

Now, what do the different Hadith writers say about this surah. The following is what Patricia Crone found out…

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi says the journeys are both pilgrimages to Mecca (Mafaith, VIII, 512). However, Ibn Abbas says the journeys are to Ta’if in summer and Mecca in winter (Jami, XXX, 171). Most other commentators treat them as trading journeys to Syria, or Yemen, or Rum, or Iraq, or even Ethiopia. Ibn Habib and others say the surah is about a pre-Islamic famine (Munammaq, pp. 263)

Baydawi says they are being told to worship because they were blessed in their journeys (Anwar, II 620). But Ibn Qutayba says they worship because the Ethiopians did not harass them or Mecca on their journeys (Musbkil al-qur’an, pp. 319). Al- Tabari says they are being told to worship God as much as they travel (Jami, XXX, 199). Muqatil and Qummi both say they were being told to worship because Allah put an end to these journeys, with Ethiopians or others having taken over the provisioning of Mecca (Tasfir, fol. 253a, Tasfir, II, 444).

Ibn al-Kalbi says the fear referred to was a fear of the road. Bakkar says it was fear of the Ethiopians (Bakkar in Sutuyi, Durr, VI 398). Traditions from Tabari say it was a fear of leprosy (Jami, XXX, 200). Razi says it was fear that the Caliphate might pass from the Quraysh tribe (Mafitab, VIII, 513)

This is the type of “history” you must wade through when reading all the Hadith literature. It is clear, just from this tiny snippet that we are not dealing with historians, but story tellers desperately trying to make sense of an opaque script. This is confirmed by the fact that the later the Hadith was written, the more details of the story are presented and the more clear the chain of oral transmission. This is the opposite of normal historical manuscripts and looks more like a giant game of Chinese Whispers than of total recall. The prolific scholar of Islam, Ibn Warraq, correctly says that large parts of the Sira and Hadith were invented to account for the difficulties and obscurities found in the Qur’an (The Hidden Origins of Islam, p. 247).

Clearly then we cannot trust both the Sira or the Hadith literature as a source of accurate information about Mecca. This leads us back to the oldest book of Islam, the Qur’an. Can it finally tell us the truth about Mecca?

To read more click here.

Kevin Davis

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