Lecture 13: Role of Tradition
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Role of Tradition
The eighth lecture is where we explore the doctrine of tradition, the role of tradition in Islam; and hopefully more of the pieces will begin to come together,
as revelation is a huge issue when you talk to Muslims.
I. Great Qur’anic Passage #9: Surah 2:151 “The Cow”
Our next great Qur’anic passage #9 is found in Surah 2 ayah 151. Again, this is an important Surah, known as “The Cow”. Muslims and Hindus believe in the sacredness of the cow, so here we are, the cow. That was a joke, but it wasn’t a very good one.
Surah 2 ayah 151 is a really important passage because this is the passage which they quote as giving them the expanded view of revelation as it extends beyond the Qur’an. At this point, if you talk about revelation in Islam, the only thing that we have really discussed up to this point is the Qur’an, the 114 Surahs. What we will hopefully clearly exposit as time develops is that this is only in practice, one component of several that make up the doctrine of Islamic revelation. More importantly, for practical purposes, this feeds into the Shariah, which is Islamic law. The Islamic law is drawn from three sources, one of which is the Qur’an.
II. Hadith as a Source of Islamic Revelation
Many Muslims consider the Hadith an important source of information for guidance in how to live their lives.
The second one we are now putting into play is the Hadith. We are now beginning to construct a proper view of how Muslims actually view revelation. It is based on this particular passage in Surah 2:151; therefore this is one of the great Qur’anic passages, where it says, “Thus we” – again, this is the majestic plural, this is Allah speaking – “Thus we have sent forth to you an apostle of our own,” who is that? Muhammed of course, “who will recite to you” – what does the word “recite” come from? Qur’an is the word “recite”. So he is going to Qur’an for you, recite for you, “our revelation and purify you of sin.” Listen to this phrase, this is an important one: “who will instruct you in the book and in wisdom.” The language, the reference there referred to the book, which is a reference to the Qur’an; and they believe this reference to wisdom is a reference to the Hadith. So that becomes very important. On one hand you have the clear belief that the Qur’an is without error, it is inerrant. We discussed this earlier. Surah 39:28, “The Qur’an is free from all fault.” The Qur’an is a transcript of the heavenly book, Surah 43:1, etc., etc.
Now we have this second whole revelation that is mentioned here and known as the Hadith, or tradition. This is where we have to explain how this comes about. The Qur’an is certainly the major source. Most Christians, and if you were to talk to Christians on this campus and ask them about Muslim view of revelation, would of course have heard of the Qur’an. They may not have heard of the Hadith. So it raises the whole question, how important is it? What is the relationship of the Hadith to the Qur’an?
The Qur’an obviously is a primary source of authority for Muslims. But, let’s be honest, I hope that by now you have read enough of the Qur’an to know that the Qur’an is seriously lacking in a lot of areas in terms of communal guidance. The Qur’an re-tells a lot of Old Testament stories. You have Muhammed defending himself at several points. A lot of repetition. A lot of themes are repeated. If you take out all the repetitions, the Qur’an is significantly narrowed in its scope. So when you actually look at how much information is in the Qur’an that would actually guide the community, you have to ask yourself, Where is the personal ethics structure in the Qur’an, is there a lot? if you really go through the Qur’an and talk about it and read it just as a book of ethics, personal ethics, what do you come out with in the Qur’an? How about commercial activity? How do you conduct your business affairs? Social conduct. It is a bit stronger in the area of social conduct; there are some regulations about men and women in the Qur’an in some ways. But there are certainly issues that the Qur’an does not codify.
The question arose, How is a true Muslim to behave in a particular situation which it is not specifically addressed in the Qur’an? What do we do? Is there any wisdom for us outside of the Qur’an? Of course, this text is quoted, that Muhammed will instruct you in the book and in wisdom. This is going to be interpreted to mean that Muhammed’s life becomes a source of information and guidance; and yes, let’s just say it, revelation for the Muslim community.
You have to see how radical this is. You have to say back to me, “I can’t believe it.” Because this should not happen. Muhammed has viewed himself as a channel, he is a passive channel. He is married, being dictated from Gabriel what Allah is saying. Muhammed has never put himself forward as a source of revelation. If you say, “There is no God but Allah. Muhammed is the prophet of Allah.” All that tells you is that Muhammed is a spokesman for Allah. If you say, “Isaiah is a prophet” acknowledging that Isaiah is receiving revelation from God, we all accept that. Does that mean that we would now say, “Therefore, Isaiah can become a source of revelation?” So if Isaiah ate a certain kind of food, does that become important for us? No, we don’t care about things like that. We separate Isaiah the channel or the recipient of revelation which he gives to us through the Word, and Isaiah as a source of revelation. So this develops in what is known through interesting coincidence of words, the word “Sunna” once again.
Of course, “Sunna” means what is normative. Another translation is, “what is customary.” The word has a very similar meaning there. The custom or the normative practice of Muhammed, the practice of Muhammed. The Arabs in pre-Islamic Arabia already had a concept of Sunna. It meant the customs of your forefathers. What was the normative practice of your forefathers? How did your forefathers do things? Precedent was very, very important in the pre-Islamic world. Mainly this custom was passed down orally. This was an oral tradition. This was very typical of the ancient world. Certain practices they would say, “We know this is done because my father told me this is the way our grandparents did it, this is the way our forefathers did it.” It was all passed down orally.
The adherence to custom or Sunna as a source of guidance definitely pre-dates the advent of Islam. There is a big precedent for this. But applied to the Islamic context after 632, this is a huge development theologically. This was in the year 11AH, 11 years after the Hejira, 632, customs began to be handed down. They would say, “Muhammed said this, Muhammed said that.” If he would have said, “The Qur’an doesn’t address X, doesn’t address what we should do here,” how to do that.” If people asked the question, for example, “When you pray and go before the mosque, we know the Qur’an says to wash your hands to the elbow and wash your feet to the ankles and all that” – we looked at that text in this class and the whole cleansing thing. But it doesn’t tell you which hand to start with. Do you start with the left hand or the right hand? Someone said, “I saw Muhammed pray and I saw him go through the cleansing; and whenever Muhammed did that, he started with the right hand” or whatever. Therefore, these things began to be put into the oral tradition, how Muhammed did everything.
What eventually happened is, the Sunna is the oral tradition. These are oral stories that eventually became little vignettes, little anecdotes like we do to this
day. George Washington and his cherry tree, he said this to his father, “I cannot lie.” Supposedly the whole thing is a lie, didn’t happen. These stories are passed down. What happens eventually is that the Sunna, the oral tradition of the customs or normative practice of Muhammed get codified into written form, like a little periscope is what we would say. A little defined story or defined bit of material, bit of data, which describes what Muhammed did, a little narrative, as it were. Once a Sunna is written down, it becomes known as Hadith. This is the avenue from an oral tradition to written down, the path from Sunna to Hadith.
II. Hadith as a Source of Islamic Revelation
Hadith is a source of Islamic revelation. It begins with Sunna, which is a short narrative oral tradition. Make sure you keep that clear in your mind. The Sunna is always oral. The moment it is written down, it becomes Hadith.
Essentially the Hadith is divided into various kinds of categories. #1 is the Hadith Qudsi. #2 is the Hadith Sharif. Hadith Qudsi is when Muhammed spoke or acted under divine inspiration as an actual representative of Allah. If you accept Hadith Qudsi, that means you are clearly identifying Muhammed as a source of revelation where God, Allah, is using the actions or the comments of Muhammed to convey further revelation that did not appear in the 114 Surahs.
The Hadith Sharif means “noble Hadith.” This means the prophet’s actions and utterances regarding everyday conduct, down to many minute details, even
things like how Muhammed precisely tied his sandals; that is considered to be, not actually obligatory, but informative, worthy of guidance and good for the historical record. So you have that general development of Hadith.
Then you have a further division between what is considered merely obligatory, what is certainly obligatory and what was merely edification or for guidance, but not obligatory. So they begin to divide up the Hadith into various kinds of categories to basically organize.
First, what did Muhammed say, can we verify that he actually said it? That is something we will look at in a moment. Once we verify what he said, then we
have to begin to decide, “Is this something that is binding on every Muslim everywhere; or is this something that is just worthy of emulation, but is not
required or mandated? Or is it something which is just good to know about, interesting, helpful, maybe inspirational, but is not really part of Muslim
practice?” So that is essentially what happened. The Hadith begins to develop as a way of guiding the community on two levels: Guiding the community in a revelatory way, where new revelation is now emerging outside of the 114 Surahs; and other information which is for guidance for the community, which may not be considered revelatory.
There are many other texts that talk about wisdom or Hadith. I won’t go into all of those; but essentially you can imagine, as the Islamic community grew and developed, then it became quite tempting, if you had a particular group that had a particular question in hand and there was no ready answer in the Qur’an, to invent a Hadith to provide the guidance you needed. So what happened was – and this is not a scandalizing thing I’m telling you – Muslims themselves acknowledged in the early days, Hadiths were invented to support various positions. This is where you finally get, as Christians often ask me, what about textual criticism in Islam? They know that Uthman burned all the variants and the Qur’an is unassailable and all of that. They say, “Do Muslims even have textual criticism?” In fact, they do have a huge school on textual criticism. The problem is, it just does not work on the Qur’an, it works on the Hadith. So, this is where a whole side of what we would call “textual criticism” emerges in the Muslim community. That is analyzing the Hadith and determining which of these is authentic and which if these is not authentic.
For awhile, the supply of Hadiths always seemed to meet the demand. This is no joke, this is not a stretch, this is a matter of the record now, you had legal
maxims, Jewish and Christian material, that suddenly finds itself in the mouth of Muhammed. You even have aphorisms from Greek philosophy that suddenly emerge from Muhammed’s mouth. So eventually, due to the Hadiths, they were openly embarrassed about just flat-out contradictions in the Hadith and the fact that the Hadith often clearly had a source which had no connection whatsoever to Muhammed historically.
III. Development of Isnad
The Muslims themselves believed that the tradition of Islam was being invaded by forgeries on a vast scale, sometimes by editing genuine traditions, sometimes by supplanting completely foreign material and then inventing material into it. The result is the development of Isnad. Isnad is very, very important. This is the way the Muslims control and verify a genuine Hadith from a spurious forgery, invention or alteration of some kind. What happened is, if you have a Hadith which is a written narrative, it records something the prophet said or did. It records the Sunna or the example of the prophet.
In order for this to be accepted, you must include with the Hadith the Isnad, which is the chain of transmission. That is what Isnad means; Isnad means the
chain of transmission or the chain of transmitter. It is like your pedigree, where you trace the source of the Hadith back to the original companions of the
prophet. For example, a very important one would be a typical well-attested Hadith, which would be Aisha as source A. Muhammed told Aisha, his wife, this Hadith; she told it to B, who then told it to C. So you have a tracing. Here is the Hadith and the character is well-established, so you have a link from Muhammed to the written Hadith. So you are verifying the oral tradition, the Sunna. We will explain how they verify this because this is where the whole textual criticism comes into play, in the Isnad.
The way they determine the reliability of the chain of authority is through two main considerations. One is the character of the transmitter and the other is the closeness of the transmitter to Muhammed. So, can we trust B? If C has a great reputation in the Muslim community, he says, “Listen, Abu Bakr told me this.” Okay, if you are a well-received person with a good reputation, you have been faithful to the Muslim community, and you say, “Abu Bakr told me this,” of course Abu Bakr cannot be contradicted. He is the caliph, and if he says Muhammed said this, or he saw Muhammed do this, then that is an Isnad, that is unassailable. This is the idea behind this.
So there are three terms to describe different kinds of Isnad, only two of which are significant for the ongoing work of this. You can give the translation behind each of the words.
A. Sahih means “sound tradition,” Sahih Hadith, sound tradition.
B. Hasan Hadith is “good tradition.”
C. Da’if Hadith is “weak tradition.”
So these words refer to sound, good or weak. What constitutes each of these?
IV. Categorization of Sahih, Hasan, Da’if
A sound tradition means that the Isnad is carried back to the prophet without any interruption and has to go back to an immediate companion of the prophet. Every person in the Isnad is a person of sound character and eventually goes back to immediate companion which satisfies the closeness criteria.
Hasan, it is important to note what this means. If you have A, B, C, D, we will say you have a four-link Isnad. The first thing in the Sahih, the sound tradition, there can be no breaks in this link. In the Hasan you can have one weak link; but please hear the whole thing before you mark this down because this is a point of some confusion. You cannot have a weak link just as a weak link, and that allows one exception. Obviously, if you have one weak link in a chain, it throws the whole thing off. But they allow one weak link if that leak can be verified through another Hadith, another isnad. For example, if you have A told B this, B told C this, C told D this and the C is a weak link; but you have another Hadith with G, H, I and J, and the G and H are weak and the I and J are weak; but by George, the H and I are very strong links and this can be determined, this actually is the same Hadith as this one. By the way, there are tons of repetitions in these Hadiths. But if you can verify it through another Isnad, which may have all kinds of other problems, but that particular link is a sound one, then this link can help shore up one link – no more than that – the one weak link. You can imagine how all of this flows into the whole textual criticism thing, because you actually spend a ton of time verifying these links to prove the particular Hadith that is there. You can see what happens to the Hadiths that are verified as sound Hadiths or as the good Hadiths, with the other tradition that supports the one weak link.
The Da’if is just out of the picture. It is rejected as a weak link. You can see that both the Sahih and the Hasan, once you get into that category, this is considered in a sense a Hadith, Muhammed actually said this or he actually did this. That is divided into three categories:
A. What Muhammed did (sunnat-el-fa’il) : The example of Muhammed.
B. What Muhammed commanded (sunnat-el-kaul): The precepts of Muhammed,
what Muhammed said, more literally.
C. What Muhammed allowed (sunnat et-takrir): The license or the allowance.
This begins to categorize the Hadith into different categories of something Muhammed did, said or permitted. “We saw Muhammed do this thing, and he
didn’t say a word, but we watched him do this;” and that becomes a whole bunch of Hadiths. Or, “He commanded this” or “He permitted this.” Once you establish whether it is something he did, commanded or allowed, then you go back to my original distinction between sacred and noble, whether or not it is something that is binding on the community, or whether it is non-binding or non-obligatory on the community.
It is a pretty elaborate structure in order to determine the Hadith and how it works. Let me give you some examples. According to the Ali tradition, the Shi’a
tradition, they have a proved, verified Isnad that says that Muhammed said these words: “Muhammed sent Abu Bakr to read to the people and said, ‘Let the Angel Gabriel give it to Ali to read. Do not let it be performed by anyone other than you or someone from your family on your behalf.’” So this whole link, Muhammed supposedly said, “Oh Allah, be thou the supporter of whoever supports Ali.” If Muhammed said, “Be thou the supporter, Allah, of whoever supports Ali,” that is obviously a very important Isnad to verify.
What happened is, you have collections of Hadith, but they largely break down over sectarian lines. The Sunni tradition accepts six major collections of Hadiths, which are considered to be accepted as major collections of Hadith. The Shi’a traditions accepts five traditions of Hadith; these are different collections altogether. The oldest and most important of all of these is the one by Al Bukhari. That is a work divided into 97 books, 3,450 chapters, 7,300 Hadiths. These tell you everything from how Muhammed prayed to personal habits. Really, everything imaginable. Where he used the bathroom, where he ate, what he ate, when he ate it, how he ate it, what direction he looked when he prayed or did not pray, every conceivable thing. Muhammed’s life is mapped out in the Hadith. A lot of these come across as trivial, you may think. That is why the structure is so important because they can verify how Muhammed handled his toiletry in a certain way. It does not mean that every Muslim is commanded to do that. It is just that it is a verifiable thing. Therefore, anything Muhammed did is subject to Hadith. So you have to be careful to recognize how that operates. It does not necessarily mean that it is commanded; it is just something that Muhammed did, and therefore it is to be inspirational.