“May Allah forgive me for saying this, but I cannot believe the Prophet would have said such a thing. I don’t believe in these hadith and that’s that.”
This was the conclusion of a conversation with a sister on social media over the hadith regarding the Hoor al-Ayn promised for believing men in paradise. Two months later, another young woman at an Islamic lecture told me that numerous hadiths were not trustworthy and were used by scholars of a patriarchal mindset to control women, and thus had to be re-evaluated. A few weeks ago, a postgraduate student said she had become much more wary of using hadiths in regards to women’s issues, choosing instead to look for relevant Qur’anic verses wherever possible.
Together, these three incidents make up just a few of several interactions in which narrations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ are viewed as suspect and unsuitable for the 21stcentury.
Scepticism towards hadith is by no means new. Since the time of the Tabi’in – the generation after the companions of the Prophet ﷺ, may Allah be pleased with them – detractors have claimed that certain hadiths were false and not worthy of consideration by the scholars of fiqh. The rich science of hadith was developed in part to counter such claims, and has since developed a rigorous methodology by which various narrations can be categorised and relied upon.
Whilst discussions over the specifics of hadith authentication continue at the scholarly level, the idea of rejecting en masse the second most important source of the Islamic tradition has never been normalised as a legitimate doctrinal opinion. Yet, among segments of young Muslims, the idea of a Qur’an-only approach to Islam is gaining ground.
Hadith and the feminist movement
One of the greatest promoters of rejecting Prophetic narrations has originated from the self-proclaimed Muslim feminist movement. Drawn to the possibility of greater flexibility in Islamic interpretations with regard to women, hadiths are an easy target to claim that centuries of Islamic tradition have been biased against women.
By removing, or at least casting doubt over, one of the primary Islamic sources, the case for self-interpretation of all Islamic texts is also made stronger as expressed by German academic Dina El-Omari, who specialises in feminist exegesis.
“In my view, a Muslim feminist is a woman who engages with her own sources very self-critically – both the Koran and other religious sources. She must critically question the sources with a strong patriarchal tone, interpret them against their historical context and then proceed holistically.”
Additionally, some of today’s most controversial issues surrounding Muslim women – be it dress code, their role in politics, acts of worship during menstruation, or gender segregation – find their details in hadiths. The rejection of this historical corpus allows for the specifics of the rulings to be dismissed, and personal interpretation once again reigns supreme.
Whilst such a discussion was primarily relegated to academic circles, in a world now dominated by identity politics, recent conversations on women in Islam have rendered such theories more commonplace.
This summer, Pakistani-American writer Asma Barlas released her latest book, a revised edition of “Believing Women in Islam”, claiming to translate the Qur’an from “a non-patriarchal” perspective. At an event in London on British Islam unsurprisingly organised by UK counter-extremism outfit New Horizons, Barlas, herself a disbeliever in hadiths, called on fellow, unsuspecting Muslim women to do the same.
“Who authored the hadith in question? If the author lived well after the Prophet’s death, could the hadith nonetheless be traced to a companion? Did the hadith contradict the Qur’an?” she asked.
Claiming that hadiths surfaced only hundreds of years after the Prophet’s ﷺ death and were not in fact mandatory to follow, she went on to misrepresent numerous principles in the Islamic tradition outlining the complimentary relations between genders.
Whilst Barlas’ stance represents an extreme, it is a position increasingly advertised within certain circles, sufficient to at least cause Muslim women to doubt the evidences for previous Islamic stances that they took for granted.
A community-wide impact
“We have to realise that authority belongs to every person, it does not just belong to a select class. Anyone can interpret Islam”, Amina Wadud
Whilst certain figures have pushed the anti-hadith agenda specifically in relation to women and the Islamic tradition, this is by no means the extent of it.
Myths surrounding hadith are frequently cited by ex-Muslims as one of the causes of doubt in their faith, who struggle to reconcile seemingly conflicting hadiths without reference to a teacher or scholar. On the Internet and social media, those with doubts can find dozens of webpages at their disposal, with fragile histories and outright false claims presented to reassure themselves that Islam has been distorted.
Some public figures have also added to the debacle; the popular Muslim speaker Abu Layth from Birmingham, UK caused concern amongst scholars last year when he announced his intention to make a series of YouTube videos intended to disprove Sahih Bukhari.
Several hadiths that seem to present impossible scientific positions are also cited as a means to deny their relevance to Islam as a timeless religion. Critics often take these hadiths at face value, ignoring contextual commentary and the opinions of ulamaa of the past. Despite the superficial nature of the analysis, it allows many to show some form of evidence that the hadiths are contradictory to the layman.
Yet even an introductory knowledge of the hadith methodology is sufficient to understand the objectivity and validity of the rigorous standards set in the early years of Islam. From ascertaining that the chain of narrators was sound, to ensuring it was not contradictory to Quranic statements and were categorised according to how well-known they were, the muhaddithin were meticulous in ensuring the accuracy of their reports.
Protecting the Sunnah… and the Qur’an
Calls for a Qur’an-only approach to Islam have their roots in modernist movements of the 19th century, having at one point found some significant support in British India. More recently, reformists such as Fazlur Rahman developed further the claims of Western historians who had deemed hadiths historically unreliable, calling for the hadith corpus to be re-examined critically.
Yet such calls have nearly always proved to be the first step on a slippery slope to historical critical study of, not only hadiths, but also the Qur’an, reducing it from scriptural canon to merely a set of guidelines open to interpretation. With the context and explanations of the Prophet ﷺ stripped away, the science of tafsir becomes a limited understanding of the literal text only.
The enduring irony is that whilst ‘Quranists’ claim that it is hadiths that have corrupted the word of God, it is the divorce of the Qur’an from its best practitioner, the Prophet ﷺ himself, that distorts its meaning.
In the face of such movements, Muslim communities must equip themselves with the knowledge of how the Islamic intellectual tradition developed after the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Calls for blind faith in a tradition of scholarship is insufficient; where individuals have been exposed to claims of falsification, these must be countered with a deeper understanding of the hadith science.
For those young Muslims who have started to doubt the hadith transmission, it is important to study our tradition from reliable sources. We must also be wary of the movement’s origins; far from being an attempt to bring us as Muslims closer to Allah, hadith critics are often more inclined towards revising the religion to better suit the socio-political norms of our time. Above all we must question how we are able to adequately love and revere the Messenger of Allah and the best of creation, if we shut ourselves off from his speech.
The student asked his shaykh: “What is the best response to those ‘Quran-only’ Muslims who reject hadith?”
The colour drained from the shaykh’s face as he looked away.
“Our response is to weep for those who have deprived themselves of the speech of the Beloved.”
“And as for ourselves, we weep for our heedlessness of that speech despite our claims to be followers of it.”
Islamic Discourse Initiative, In Defence of the Hadith Methodology
J. A. C. Brown, (2007), The Canonization of Al Bukhari and Muslim
Yaqeen Institute, (2019) Give It a Second Thought: Dealing with Apparently Problematic Hadiths
Abdullah Feras, Hadith and the myth of the Telephone Game
Safina Society Podcast: Sunna Rejectors, Quran Only, & The Bizarre Cult of 19
Interview with Dina El-Omari with Qantara