Many of the controversies about Islam that arise today stem from forged or weak hadiths. Let me share with you the impact of these hadiths and give you examples of hadiths which are graded authentic or good but a) contradict each other on basic Islamic practices or b) contract the Quranic message.
When we talk about Islamic practice, we expect that we should have hadiths that guide us precisely what we are to do. But despite the best efforts of Muslim scholars in the past, they could not always recover the precise teachings left to us by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The call to prayer is one of the most popular features of Islamic culture, such that if you are watching a movie and the camera turns towards a Muslim-majority country, the first thing you hear is the call to prayer. It makes sense that everybody in the Muslim society would know the wording of the call to prayer, because it's called five times a day publicly. The call to prayer comprises several stanzas that are repeated. Yet there are different narratives telling us one stanza is repeated four times or two times.
Let's say the call to prayer is being made and people are busy going about their work or hurriedly trying to finish up what they're doing. They know it's a call to prayer, but they're not listening to the wording so carefully. That explains perhaps why they don't remember the wording exactly or the number of times a certain phrase is repeated.
But then they come to the mosque and everybody is lined up and they are waiting for the prayer to start. And now a second call, the iqamah, is given within the mosque and everybody is totally attentive now. And here too the number of lines is different from one narrative to another. So how does that come about? It’s because people could not remember exactly. We are dealing with hadiths which are graded authentic, but they give different reports about this basic Islamic practice. And it's a practice that should have been known to all and sundry. This is what children grow up hearing, and what they've always known, to the extent that now, if you go to a mosque where people are accustomed to hearing, let's say, 11 lines of that call, and you recite a 12th line, everyone would notice and object. So how did it happen that one narrative says this many lines and the other narrative says this other number of lines? It must be that somebody forgot the number of lines. And though the narrative itself is graded to be authentic, it’s only as authentic as we could find. And authentic as we could find does not necessarily mean precisely what the Prophet peace be upon him taught. We need to be aware of that.
But there are other hadiths that are much more problematic. There are several hadiths which are collected in the main hadith collections: they’re widely known among Muslims. Hence, they have a tremendous impact on the way in which Muslim women are treated in various parts of the world. There’s a hadith that says that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "if I were to order anyone to prostrate before someone else, I would have ordered women to prostrate before their husbands, due to the rights that the husbands have over the wives." This sets up a hierarchy here which is hard to fathom. Of course, the hadith is not prescribing that women should prostrate before their husbands. That would be immediately recognized as faulty; Muslims prostrate to none but God. But conceptually, to think that husbands could have such importance that women could be ordered to prostrate towards them does not seem like something that the Prophet (peace be upon him) would have said.
How can we tell if we’re rejecting an actual saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) because it doesn’t sit right to us? First of all, if it doesn't feel right to us we could actually set it aside. Hadiths by their very nature are said to be dhunni (possible) in terms of their accuracy, whereas the Quran is said to be qat’i (absolute). When we say the Quran says this, Muslims have no doubt that this is the Word of God. But when we say the Prophet (peace be upon him) said this, it's possible that he said it and possible that he didn’t. This concept is widely known and accepted, though the common folks don't know it. Common folks hear the hadiths presented to them in such a way that they think that the Prophet (peace be upon him) definitely said it. But scholars know that when we say the Prophet (peace be upon him) said something, we only mean that he probably said it. So if the hadith doesn't feel right, scholars generally leave that aside. They don’t present the hadith in their sermons.
We would reject a hadith, not because it doesn't feel right, but because we evaluate it against the Quran itself and find it wanting. The Quran sets up a different way in which men and women are to relate to each other. Yes, one might be able to argue on the basis of 4:34 that men have a degree of authority over women, and on the basis of the second chapter of the Quran, where it says, "they have equal rights as to their responsibilities," that, “men have a degree over them." One could make that argument. I wouldn't agree with that argument necessarily, but in any case, none of these verses suggests that the man is so far above the woman that if the Prophet (peace be upon him) were to order prostration, he would order the woman to prostrate before her husband. In fact, in the Quran, among human beings, after the Prophet (peace be upon him), the ones who deserve our utmost respect are our parents. The Bible says in the fifth commandment, "honor your father and your mother,” whereas the Quran makes this second. The first commandment is to have no other for god but the one true God. The second commandment is to honor your parents. If the duty to the husband is so weighty that a woman conceivably could have been ordered to prostrate before her husband, at least theoretically, then what about her parents? How much more would the woman have to do for her parents? And is that even conceivable? So the hadith is setting up a paradigm which is very different from the Quranic paradigm.
Hadith scholars didn't recognize it at the time because they lived in milieu in which it was natural for them to think that the husband ranked above his wife. So the hadith didn’t set off a red flag. We respect all of the work that they did. And we respect the fact that they were good Muslims and they were trying their best to please God. Our great scholars in the past did the best that they could have done.
Now the question is, are we going to do the best that we can do? And the best we can do now is to investigate further. We shouldn't reject something either in the Quran or in a hadith just because we don't like it. That would be following our own desires, and we're not allowed to do that. The Quran warns us against following our own desires and making our own desires our God. Our God is God. And we're going to listen to His commandments. He sent the Prophet to teach us, and we're going to listen to his teachings. But we don't have his teachings coming to us directly from him. It comes through a chain of narrators. Because there are so many persons in the chain, one telling another who told another who told the other, any one of them could have made a mistake along the way. And because of this possibility of a mistake at so many different junctures, being alert now to a problem here, we have to say let's leave this hadith aside. Let's not make it definitive of our faith and practice.
Coming up soon! Orientalist and academic critiques of the hadith sciences.