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What are hadiths?
Hadith in the singular may refer to just one anecdote in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It's a short report telling us about a) something he did, b) something he said or c) something that may have happened in his presence and he didn't object to it. These reports became the source of information about what's justifiable or acceptable in Islamic law.
How did hadiths develop?
Imagine the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on the ground as the revelation of the Quran enters his mind. He recites the Quran to people. They find that the Quran gives instructions in a very general way and they want more specific instructions. So they follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Quran in fact directs Muslims to to follow the Prophet (peace be upon him). So they copied the Prophet (peace be upon him) in his prayer, and they relayed this information to other people: “We were with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and this is how he prayed.” This report about how he prayed is a hadith. All of these reports about the Prophet (peace be upon him) were passed on by word of mouth from one generation to another until eventually they were put into the written collections that are now popular.
How long were hadiths transmitted orally before being written down?
A German scholar Gregor Schoeler argued that the earliest Muslims may have had written notes, but they weren’t intended for publication or to pass on to others; they were used as memory aids. Using the notes, they might have had sessions within which they related hadiths to others. But some of the more popular collections that we have now start with Imam Malik. He was born in the year 93 of the hijrah, some 82 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). A few generations had passed between him and the Prophet (peace be upon him). He produced a collection which is known as the Muwatta of Imam Malik. Subsequent to this, a couple of centuries later, we have the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who died in the year 241. And then eventually the more popular collections were that of Imam Bukhari, who died in the year 256, and then Imam Muslim, his student, a few years later. And Tirmidhi, in 275, and Abu Dawud around the same period. And Nasai, in 303, getting now into the beginning of the fourth century.
What role have hadiths serve in Muslims lives?
Hadiths cover the broad spectrum of Muslim activity, including devotions, personal conduct, rights and responsibilities, economics, even politics. As mentioned earlier, the Quran directed Muslims to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). So Muslims wanted to follow him. They may have gone beyond the Quranic dictate, because the Quran may have meant this in a very general way, as in take his general directives. But Muslims wanted to do more than this. Some Muslims wanted to comb their hair the way of the Prophet (peace be upon him) combed his hair. So they followed him in very minute details and they paid careful attention to these details and reported these to others. These became hadiths of interest to people; they were collected in these massive collections as well.
The Quran is compact and includes a set of instructions that is easy to assimilate and learn. It’s a memorizable book. If the Quran had included all of these details, it would have been a massive tome. The Quran may tell stories that pick up somewhere in the middle. It may allude to something or mention the name of the individual and you’d need to find out the rest of the information outside the Quran.
How important are Hadith for the formation of Islamic rulings and Islamic law?
Hadiths have played a pivotal role in the formation of Islamic law. Muslims wanted to know what God wanted them to do on a certain location or circumstance. The specifics came from the life example of the Prophet (peace be upon him). And in fact, this life example of the Prophet (peace be upon him_ is said in the Quran itself to be an explication of the Quran. In 16:44, God says to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): "We have revealed the reminder to you so that you may make plain to humankind that which has been revealed to them." So while the Quran may have seemed vague on some issues, when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) explained and elaborated, then his words or his instructions became the deciding factor for Muslims. And of course, theoretically, one would feel that the explanation already includes that core of what the Quran says. So if the Quran says something in brief and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) explicates it and elaborates upon it, then that elaboration captures what the Quran says as well. So in a way, one might even run away with the hadiths thinking that now we don't need to know what specifically the Quran says because we have the hadiths which are the full elaboration. So eventually hadiths took on a life of its own.
Next up in the series: Rise of Hadith Forgery and the Scholarly Response