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Islamic Law and the Use and Abuse of Hadith

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Islamic Law and
the Use and Abuse of Hadith

By : Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

(Draft; feedbacks welcome: June 2006)

Muslims do not have any dispute about the Qur'an, as it is accepted by Muslims as the only preserved and direct revelation from Allah. Such agreement does not exist about hadith. 

At one extreme is the orthodox position, which holds that the Qur'an and hadith are two complementary primary sources of Islamic guidance. There might be problems with hadith as a body of information, with the way it was collected and compiled. However, hadith scholars have been successfully able to separate the presumably authentic (sahih) ones from the ones that are not. Despite any remaining problems, hadith is an indispensable and generally reliable foundational source of Islam. Certain hadith collections as a whole are regarded as generally authentic (sahih), while many other collections are also recognized as sources containing additional authentic hadith, mixed with unauthentic (sahih), weak (da'if) or even spurious (maudu) hadith. The vast and comprehensive body of Islamic laws (fiqh, jurisprudence) critically rests on the hadith literature. Islamic scholars, including the experts in hadith, have gone to a great extent to defend the sanctity of hadith literature and utilize it not just to expound Islamic knowledge, but also to formulate Islamic codes and laws pertaining to the entire gamut of life.

In the preface of his book A Treasury of Ahadith, Dr. Mazhar Kazi, states that "all the sayings, sermons, and utterances of the Prophet were.. divinely inspired. ... all of the actions and deeds of the Prophet were also divinely inspired" [Kazi, pp. 1-2]  The summary of his position is quite typical of the orthodox position of Muslims. 

The sunnah and ahadith are not to be taken as the wise sayings of sages and philosophers or the verdicts of rulers and leaders. One should believe with full conviction that the words and actions of the Prophet represent the will of Allah, and thus one has to follow and obey them in each and every circumstance of life. [p. 2]

At the other extreme are those who reject the hadith literature altogether. They claim that the Prophet Muhammad did not ask or require that his words and actions be preserved as a separate body of knowledge. The collection and preservation of hadith began more than a century after the Prophet. Despite the best of the intention and efforts, the hadith literature became mixed up in terms of authentic and unauthentic reports. Even the collections that are generally regarded as sahih also contain non-sahih hadith. Even in regard to many hadiths that are regarded as sahih, hadith experts differ about those. Many hadiths about the same event or circumstance show significant variations. Many of them are contradictory too. In the name of codes and laws, many unacceptable dogmas and taboos have crept into Islam, based on hadith literature. While the Qur'an is generally egalitarian, many discriminatory or unjust (sometimes harsh or indefensible) laws, codes or customs have been accommodated or validated by Islamic scholars and jurists based on hadith. These rejecters of hadith literature do accept the Qur'an as the primary and only divine source of guidance, and shun the hadith literature altogether.

Both of the extreme positions have serious problems, and the truth lies somewhere in between. Indeed, while the essential position of the hadith rejection movement is untenable and unacceptable, it has been precipitated to some extent by extreme claims and dogmas of the orthodox position. 

While the examination of these two extreme positions can interest some people at the polemical level, the real importance of this issue is that hadith also is the basis for most laws and codes at the detailed level. Some of these laws and codes, often advocated as part of a sacrosanct or immutable Shari'ah (as claimed), are in reality contrary to the intent and spirit of the Qur'an and Islam's fundamental commitment to justice and fairness. The issue is not merely authenticity of hadith/sunnah, but also of how hadith/sunnah is applied in the formulation of laws and codes.  As Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman, the former Rector of International Islamic University in Malaysia, explains:

"The problem of the authenticity of the Sunnah is basically an expression and reflection of the unhappiness on the part of Muslims with the centuries-old jurisprudence." [p. 83]

Before we explore that law and hadith connection, we need to explore some pertinent aspects of hadith. There are some generally misunderstood positions that common Muslims might not be familiar with, because hadith literature is a highly technical body of knowledge and the orthodox position does not tolerate any observation, argument or evidence that attacks or undermine the hadith literature in general.

Common myths about hadith

1. If a hadith quotes the Prophet, we know that's exactly what the Prophet said.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true. "To quote means to repeat the exact words of another with the acknowledgement of the source." Thus, quoting someone usually is recognized as (or it leaves the impression) that that's exactly what the person said. When someone reports "I heard the Prophet saying ..." or "the Prophet said...", without pointing out that it is paraphrased, the readers are left with justifiable impression that it is the "exact word" of the Prophet. However, this is not so in case of hadith. 

In a book, What is Riba?, Allamah Iqbal Ahmad Khan Suhail explains this fact about hadith that is often not known and understood by common Muslims, because our scholars do not adequately and specifically educate us about this aspect. 

Most of the narrations are derivations [i.e., not quotes of actual words], that is, the actual words of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) have not been quoted in the narration and whatever the narrator understood to be the meaning of the Prophet's (pbuh) words, according to his capacity and capability, he narrated with the best of intention as the saying of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Now, everyone knows that besides words even the slightest change of delivery can induce great difference in the meaning. [Suhail, p. 47]

In this context, it is important to understand the distinction between mutawatir and ahad categories of hadith. Mutawatir is category of hadith that means "continuously recurrent" or "a report by an indefinite number of people related in such a way to preclude the possibility of their agreement to perpetuate a lie." [Kamali, p. 93] There are two types of mutawatir: (a) Mutawatir bil lafz ("all the reports must identical on the exact wording of the hadith as they were uttered by the Prophet himself. For example, the hadith which reads: 'Whoever lies about me deliberately must prepare himself for a place in Hell-fire." [Kamali, p. 95 quoting Sunan Abu Dawood, III, 1036,  hadith #3643] However, this type of hadith is extremely rare. (b) Mutawatir bil ma'na (this type is agreed in concept or meaning, not in exact words). Most hadiths are of this type. Many such hadiths are narrated in such a way as if quoting the Prophet. This type of transmission is also known as "conceptual transmission." [Kamali, p. 106]

The following is an example of variation in hadith without quoting the Prophet.

Sahih Muslim, Book 006, Number 2511:
This hadith has been narrated from Jarir on the authority of A'mash with the same chain of transmitters and he said (these words with a little bit of variation from the previous hadith): When (fasting) in Ramadan was (made) obligatory, he abandoned it (the practice of observing fast on Ashura).

Now consider the following example where there is a variation in hadiths that does  involve quoting the Prophet.

Sahih Muslim, Book 006, #2405:
This hadith has been narrated by Sulaiman al-Taimi with the same chain of transmitters (but with a slight variation of words) that he (the Holy Prophet) said: The dawn is not like it as it is said; he then gathered his fingers and lowered them. But he said, it is like this (and he placed the index finger upon the other one and spread his hand).

The abovementioned two hadiths are from Sahih Muslim. There are hadiths in Sahih Muslim as well as other respected collections, where some hadiths might not have variation within a collection or even across the collections. Notably, not every hadith collection specifically points out the variation as in Sahih Muslim. Regardless, even when there is no variation reported, and the hadiths are sahih, it does not mean that those hadiths are mutawatir, yielding certainty of knowledge. The issue of certainty of knowledge is discussed later in this essay in greater details.

Of course, when variation in narrations exist (and such variations are all too common), it poses a serious problem as to what was the exact words used by the Prophet. This is important because in Arabic language, even a slight variation of words (and sometimes letters) can lead to divergent meanings. 

[Shafi'i] replied: A word might be omitted from the tradition and thus alter its meaning; or a word might be pronounced differently from the way it was pronounced by the transmitter, thus altering the meaning of the tradition, even though he who pronounced it did not intend to do so. If he who transmits a tradition is ignorant of its meaning, he does not understand the tradition, and we do not accept it. [For] if he transmits what he does not understand, he is of those who do not transmit the tradition word for word; and he seeks to transmit the meaning of the tradition, but he does not understand the meaning at all. [al-Shafi'i's Risala, p. 244, #374]

Should we conclude from the above statement of Imam Shafi'i that unless word for word, transmissions are not acceptable? Ironically, we can't, because he himself does not apply that standard in determining authentication of a hadith, the application of which would be binding from the viewpoint of Islamic fiqh (law). 

2. Sahih collections contain hadith that are indisputable 

Sahih (authentic) hadith can be found in any hadith collection (except the ones that are specifically for unauthentic hadith). Six hadith collections are regarded as canonical. These are collectively known as Sihah Sitta and include: Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Jami at-Tirmidhi, Sunan an-Nasai, and Sunan Ibn Majah

Among these six canonical collections, Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are held in the highest regard. Indeed, some regard al-Bukhari as the most authentic and thus influential book in Islam after the Qur'an. 

It was thus that the sahih, the work of a great traditionist who combined a vast knowledge of traditions and allied subjects with scrupulous piety, strict exactitude, the painstaking accuracy of an expert editor, and the legal acumen of an astute jurist, rapidly attracted the attention of the whole Muslim community, and became accepted as an authority next only to the Qur'an." [Siddiqi, pp. 57-58]

However, let alone other collections, not all the hadiths even in Bukhari are indisputable. "Many scholars criticized Bukhari's work. The criticism concerns about 80 narrators and some 110 ahadith." [Azami, p. 92, quoting Suyuti and Ibn Hajar]

Acknowledging the preeminence of al-Bukhari, Siddiqi points out:

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the sahih is free of defects, or that the Muslim scholars have failed to criticise it in certain respects. Thus it is generally accepted that like other traditionists, al-Bukhari confines his criticism to the narrators of traditions, and their reliability, and pays little attention to the probability or possibility of the truth of the actual material reported by them. In estimating the reliability of the narrators, his judgment has in certain cases been erroneous, and the Muslim traditionists have not failed to point this out." [Siddiqi, p. 58]

For some specific examples of disputable or problematic hadith, please see "Not all the hadith in Bukhari are authentic". Also, there are examples presented later in this essay.

3. There is no contradiction in any hadith

In defense of the sanctity of the Hadith literature, there are bold claims, especially from the orthodoxy, that there are no contradictions in hadith, especially the sahih ones. It is asserted that every anomaly involving sahih hadiths can be explained. Since Bukhari is held in the highest regard, here we will discuss some cases from Bukhari only. 

a. For example, Maulana Mohammad Akram Khan (a well-known Indian scholar; see the link above with detailed reference) cites a hadith from al-Bukhari: 

Bukhari Volume 5, Book 58, Number 230:
Narrated Jabir bin 'Abdullah:
I was present with my two maternal uncles at Al-'Aqaba (where the pledge of allegiance was given). (Ibn 'Uyaina said, "One of the two was Al-Bara' bin Ma'rur.")

The readers will be presented with the Bay'at (allegiance) of Aqabah at the appropriate place. There is a narration about this matter from Jabir Ibn Abdullah in Bukhari. According to that hadith, Jabir was present at that event of Bay'at along with his maternal uncle Bara' ibn Ma'rur. [Bukhari, 15-464], However, it has been definitively established that Bara' is not maternal uncle of Jabir. Anisah, Jabir's mother, had only two brothers: Tha'laba and Amr. They were present during the second Aqabah [Fat-hul Bari, ibid.]. So there is something definitely wrong in this hadith, and some kind of Ta'wil (interpretive artifice) would be necessary to make it right.

b. After pointing out the discrepancy, the author leaves some room for potential interpretive solution to explain it away, as he has identified many such often futile attempts. Can the discrepancy in the above hadith be explained away? Maybe. But there are also hadiths in Bukhari that simply CAN'T be explained away. Consider the following hadith, also offered as an example by Maulana Akram Khan.

Anas, Ayesha and Ibn Abbas is narrating: "Allah sent him (as an Apostle) at the age of forty (and after that) he stayed for ten years in Mecca, and for ten more years in Medina." [Bukhari, 4:747-748; 7:787; also Muslim #5794.]

It is an established and agreed upon historical fact that after attaining the Prophethood at the age of forty, he stayed in Mecca for 13 years, not 10 years. However, the above hadith says that he stayed in Meccah for 10 years. Interestingly, this is not a discrepancy between a hadith in Bukhari and other sources for the same information. Rather, this particular discrepancy is within Bukhari collection itself. In Bukhari Volume 5, Book 58, Number 190 and Number 242, it is reported that he lived in Mecca for 13 years. 

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: Allah's Apostle was inspired Divinely at the age of forty. Then he stayed in Mecca for thirteen years, and then was ordered to migrate, and he migrated to Medina and stayed there for ten years and then died. 

Of course, Sahih Muslim, another collection held in regard close to Sahih al-Bukhari, reports in another place that he stayed in Mecca for fifteen years. See Muslim, Book 030, Number 5809: and Muslim, Book 030, Number 5805

So, did the Prophet stay in Mecca (after being the Prophet at forty) for ten, thirteen or fifteen years? This is obviously irreconcilable. If there can be such factually irreconcilable discrepancies, what is the scope of problem with other hadiths that are reports in words, conveying concepts and understanding, often not in exact words of the Prophet, but paraphrasing by the reporters?

c. Another example of such contradictions: Which verse in the Qur'an was revealed last? 

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 67:
Narrated Ibn Abbas:
The last Verse (in the Quran) revealed to the Prophet was the Verse dealing with usury (i.e. Riba).

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 129:
Narrated Al-Bara:
The last Sura that was revealed was Bara'a, and the last Verse that was revealed was: "They ask you for a legal verdict, Say: Allah's directs (thus) about those who leave no descendants or ascendants as heirs." (4.176) 

The same is also mentioned in Sahih Muslim.

Sahih Muslim, Book 011, Number 3939:
Al-Bara' (Allah be pleased with him) reported that the last verse revealed in the Holy Qur'an is:" They ask thee for a religious verdict; say: Allah gives you a religious verdict about Kalala (the person who has neither parents nor children)".

Now please read the verse 4:176:

They ask thee for a legal decision. Say: Allah directs (thus) about those who leave no descendants or ascendants as heirs. If it is a man that dies, leaving a sister but no child, she shall have half the inheritance: If (such a deceased was) a woman, who left no child, Her brother takes her inheritance: If there are two sisters, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance (between them): if there are brothers and sisters, (they share), the male having twice the share of the female. Thus doth Allah make clear to you (His law), lest ye err. And Allah hath knowledge of all things. [4/an-Nisa/176]

Does this verse have anything to do with riba (or usury), as mentioned in the hadith by Ibn Abbas as the last verse revealed?

d. There are many examples of hadith, including those pertaining to riba, that are contradictory.

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 34, Number 344:
Narrated 'Umar bin Al-Khattab: Allah's Apostle said, "The bartering of gold for silver is Riba (usury), except if it is from hand to hand and equal in amount, and wheat grain for wheat grain is usury except if it is form hand to hand and equal in amount, and dates for dates is usury except if it is from hand to hand and equal in amount, and barley for barley is usury except if it is from hand to hand and equal in amount."

According to the above hadith, exchanges involving gold for silver is riba except hand to hand (or spot/cash) transaction and equal in amount. Now let's read the following hadith from al-Bukhari:

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 34, Number 388:
Narrated Abdur-Rahman bin Abu Bakra:
that his father said, "The Prophet forbade the selling of gold for gold and silver for silver except if they are equivalent in weight, and allowed us to sell gold for silver and vice versa as we wished." 

According to the above hadith, exchanges involving gold for silver is riba except if they are equal in amount. There is no mention of spot/cash/hand-to-hand restriction. Now let's read the following hadith from al-Bukhari:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Ibn Shihab from Malik ibn Aus ibn al-Hadathan an-Nasri that one time he asked to exchange 100 dinars. He said, "Talha ibn Ubaydullah called me over and we made a mutual agreement that he would make an exchange for me. He took the gold and turned it about in his hand, and then said, 'I can't do it until my treasurer brings the money to me from al-Ghaba.' Umar ibn al-Khattab was listening and Umar said, 'By Allah! Do not leave him until you have taken it from him!' Then he said, 'The Messenger of Allah, ..., said, "Gold for silver is usury except hand to hand. Wheat for wheat is usury except hand to hand. Dates for dates is usury except hand to hand. Barley for barley is usury except hand to hand." "' [also, Muatta Imam Malik, Kitab al-Buyu, #1321]

According to the above hadith, exchanges involving gold for silver is riba except hand to hand (or spot/cash) transaction. Here no mention of equivalence in weight as a restriction. Now let's read the following hadith from al-Bukhari:

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 34, Number 383:
Narrated Abu Bakra: Allah's Apostle said, "Don't sell gold for gold unless equal in weight, nor silver for silver unless equal in weight, but you could sell gold for silver or silver for gold as you like."

According to the above hadith, when exchanges involve gold for silver or silver for gold, there is no restriction whatsoever. But wait. Let's read the following hadith from Sahih Muslim.

Sahih Muslim, Book 010, Number 3853:
Ubida b. al-Simit (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah's  Messenger (pbuh) as saying: Gold is to be paid for by gold, silver by silver, wheat by wheat, barley by barley, dates by dates, and salt by salt, like for like and equal for equal, payment being made hand to hand. If these classes differ, then sell as you wish if payment is made hand to hand.

According to above hadith, even when the classes differ - gold for silver or silver for gold - we can't do as we wish. It still has to be spot/cash/hand-to-hand transaction. So, which one is it? 

4. Hadith provides knowledge or information that is certain or definitive

When dealing with certain issues or information to determine whether it is appropriate, credible and applicable from the Islamic viewpoint, beyond the general principles and guidance laid out in the Qur'an, Muslims invariably have to turn to hadith. Many Muslims are simply satisfied, if someone would say that this is from hadith. They won't even bother to ask (and the reporter usually won't bother to offer) as to where in hadith it is said. There are others who would go as far as mentioning the book of hadith (e.g. Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood, etc.). Others would seek or share, as appropriate, more detailed information as to where in such a book the hadith is. Many are thoroughly satisfied just by knowing that a particular position, viewpoint or information is supported by hadith.

Others probe further to find out if the hadith is sahih or authentic. Some major problems arise at this level. First, as we have explained above, even a collection of hadith known as Sahih is not a guarantee that all the hadiths in such collections are authentic. Second, even some of the hadiths that are recognized as sahih or authentic by some or many scholars, there are variant opinions disputing the status of those specific hadiths as authentic. One doesn't have to endorse the works, in part or whole, of Shaikh Nasiruddin al-Albani, but one can read just his work and see so many hadiths, known otherwise as sahih, is classified by him as unauthentic. One doesn't have to cite the works of as controversial as scholar as al-Albani, such divergent opinions about various specific hadiths appear in works of most major hadith scholars. 

Third and the most important problem in this context is whether hadith, even sahih (authentic) ones, gives certainty of knowledge. In discussing this, let's move beyond whether a particular hadith is authentic or not. Suppose a hadith has been determined to be sahih (authentic). Does such a hadith establish certainty of knowledge?

The answer is: not necessarily, AND mostly not. It is generally agreed that only mutawatir hadith provides certainty of knowledge.

Mutawatir: report of a large number of narrators whose agreement upon a lie is inconceivable. This condition must be met in the entire chain from the origin of the report to the very end.

In the view of Muslim scholars any hadith which has been transmitted by tawatur and whose reporters based their reports on direct, unambiguous, perception unmixed with rationalization would produce knowledge with certainty. [Azami, p. 43]

A mutawatir tradition is one which has been transmitted throughout the first three generations of Muslims by such a large number of narrators that the possibility of fabrication must be entirely discarded. [Siddiqi, p. 110]

[T]he mutawatir hadith stands on the same footing as the Qur'an itself." [Kamali, p. 80]  

According to the majority of Ulama, the authority of a mutawatir hadith is equivalent to that of the Qur'an. Universal continuous testimony (tawatur) engenders certainty (yaqin) and the knowledge that it creates is equivalent to knowledge that is acquired through sense-perception. [Kamali, p. 94]

A great majority of Muslim legal theoreticians (usuuliyyun) espoused the view that the mutawatir yields necessary or immediate knowledge (daruri), whereas a minority thought that the information contained in such reports can be known through mediate or acquired knowledge (muktasab or nazari). [Hallaq, p. 79, referring to al-Qarafi]

The hadiths that are not mutawatir are known as ahad (solitary). The latter category, according to the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars, does not yield certainty of knowledge. Also, mutawatir hadiths have two subcategories: mutawatir bil lafz (involves narrations in identical words) and mutawatir bil ma'na (involves narrations that "concur in their purport but differ in wording or in form"). [Kamali, p. 94] Of course, the second category doesn't command the same status as mutawatir bil lafz, which is regarded as "equivalent to that of the Qur'an". 

Now, mutawatir hadiths are sahih, but not all sahih hadiths are mutawatir. So, how many hadith are Mutawatir

Only a few ahadith have been mentioned as Mutawatir by words, meaning all the narrators used the same expression. However, Mutawatir in the sense and meanings are numerous. [Azami, p. 43]

Very few of the traditions received by us belong to this category (i.e., Mutawatir). [Siddiqi, p. 110]

Finally, we turn to the problem of the Mutawatir which engenders certainty. We recall that Ibn al-Salah himself acknowledged that the traditionists' repertoire of hadith does not include this category. But Ibn al-Salah said more. He argued in categorical terms that the Mutawatir is a rarity (**). "He who is asked to produce an example of a hadith that is transmitted in a Mutawatir [fashion] will be exhausted by his search" (**). In his own search for such hadiths, he could cite only one, presumably narrated by more than a hundred Companions: "He who intentionally lies concerning something I [viz., the Prophet] have said will gain a seat in Hellfire" (**). The other hadith which he could find that seemingly met the standards of the Mutawatir was: "Acts are Judged by intentions". However, he acknowledges that although this hadith was reportedly narrated by a Mutawatir number of transmitters, its apodictic manner of transmission occurred in the middle tiers of transmission, not from the outset (**). ... The later legal theoreticians Ansari (1119/1707) and Ibn ' Abd al-Shakur (1225/1810) accepted the general tenor of Ibn al-Salah's argument about the scarcity of tawatur, but seem to think that there are more hadiths of this type in existence. Having enumerated, with what seems to be great difficulty, four such hadiths, they call upon Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 598/1201) who is quoted as saying: "I have tracked down the Mutawatir hadiths and found a number of them." He enumerates six, at least one of which, and probably two, had already been listed by Ansari and Ibn ' Abd al-Shakur (**). Thus, a thorough search by a number of the most eminent traditionists and jurists of Islam could yield no more than eight or nine hadiths of the Mutawatir type. [Hallaq, p. 87, for the fully annotated work of Hallaq please refer to the URL/link in the bibliography; asterisks represent footnotes that have been left out of this excerpt.]

Thus, there are only a few - no more than ten - hadiths that are mutawatir proper. The rest of them are ahad (non-mutawatir). These (ahad) hadiths yield not certain, but probable knowledge. Hallaq analyzes this issue in detail based on the works of major Islamic scholars, especially hadith scholars.

"The contents of the former (i.e., ahad) are known only with probability. ... When a person hears a hadith narrated by one transmitter [i.e. ahad], he is presumed to have gained only probable knowledge of its contents, and thus of its authenticity. [pp. 78-79]

In understanding this classification of mutawatir and ahad in perspective, let's learn about two views. The first is represented, for example, by an eminent Islamic scholar Ibn al-Salah (d. 643/1245), "one of the most distinguished traditionists of the muta'akhkhirun". [Hallaq, p. 84] Ibn al-Salah's work in the field of hadith "was so comprehensive in its excellent treatment of the subject that it came to be the standard reference for thousands of scholars and students of Hadith to come, over many centuries until the present day." His major work 'Ulum al- Hadith (commonly known as Muqaddimah Ibn al-Salah) was used by many eminent scholars of later generations. Among such major scholars who have benefited from Ibn al-Salah's works are: al-Nawawi, al-Suyuti, Ibn Kathir, Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, et al. [Hasan, see the segment An Introduction To The Science Of Hadith]

Ibn al-Salah "... explicitly states that in the traditionists' discourse the taxonomy of the mutawatir is nowhere to be found; and this, he says, is due to the fact that such hadiths do not constitute part of their riwaya." [Hallaq, p. 84] 

Because mutawatir type hadith is rare, Ibn al-Salah has argued that for much of Islamic praxis, certainty of knowledge is neither feasible nor required. Rather, probable or reasonable knowledge is adequate for determining the gamut of Islamic practices. 

If the Mutawatir was not part of the traditionists' repertoire of hadith, then what they handled were hadiths of the ahad type, or those even of a weaker sort. The sources, as is well-known. make it quite clear that the traditionists set forth a classical taxonomy which distinguishes between three main types: the sahih (sound), the hasan (good), and the da'if (weak) (** ). [Hallaq, p. 84]

Thus, a separate taxonomy that includes sahih came about as a result of the  recognition that hadiths that yield certainty of knowledge are rare. However, Ibn al-Salah and many other scholars saw no problem with this. Instead, they have attempted to argue that the category sahih itself yields certainty of knowledge. 

"The ahad, or solitary, hadith ... is a hadith which is reported by a single person or by odd individuals from the Prophet. ... [Such] hadith fails to fulfil the requirement of either the mutawatir or the mashur. It is a hadith which does not impart positive knowledge on its own unless supported by extraneous or circumstantial evidence. This is the view of the majority, but according to Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and others, ahad can engender positive knowledge. Some ulama have rejected it on the basis of an analogy they have drawn with a provision of the law of evidence, namely that the testimony of one witness falls short of legal proof. Those who unquestioningly accept the authority of ahad, such as the Zahiri school, maintain that when the Prophet wanted to deliver a ruling in regard to a particular matter, he did not invite all the citizens of Medina to attend." [Kamali, p. 97]

Majority of orthodox ulama recognizes the reliability of ahad hadiths, subject to some conditions. "According to the majority of the ulama of the four Sunni schools, acting upon ahad is obligatory even if ahad fails to engender positive knowledge. Thus, in practical legal matters, a preferable zann [meaning, speculative] is sufficient as a basis of obligation. It is only in matters of belief where conjecture 'avails nothing against the truth'. Having said this, however, ahad may only form the basis of obligation if it fulfils" six conditions. [Kamali, p. 98]

As usual, there is no unanimity among various schools regarding these conditions. [See Kamali, pp. 101-106] However, the above statement - acting upon ahad is obligatory even if ahad fails to engender positive knowledge - is contradicted by other ulama, who believe that acting upon ahad is preferable only, because it engenders only speculative knowledge. 

"The majority of jurists, however, agree that ahad may establish a rule of law provided that it is related by a reliable narrator and the contents of the report are not repugnant to reason. Many ulama have held that ahad engenders speculative knowledge, acting upon which is preferable only. In the event where other supportive evidence can be found in its favour, or when there is nothing to oppose its contents, then acting upon ahad is obligatory. But ahad may not, according to the majority of ulama, be relied upon as the basis of belief (aqidah)." [Kamali, p. 97]

It must be noted that this dictum - ahad cannot be relied upon as the basis of belief - is merely a pious statement. Any Muslim can read any book of aqidah, such as Kitab at-Tawhid by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, or Al-Wala' Wa'l-Bara by Muhammad Saeed al-Qahtaani, and see how these lengthy treatises could have been written without resorting to ahad hadiths. 

In reality, since almost all hadiths are ahad (non-mutawatir) that do not yield certainty of knowledge, the scholars had to stake their claim that ahad hadiths also yield certainty of knowledge. Such claim is like having the cake and eat it too. One of the reasons why Muslims regard the entire Qur'an as based on certainty of knowledge, because each verse is mutawatir. "According to the majority of Ulama, the authority of a mutawatir hadith is equivalent to that of the Qur'an." [Kamali, p. 94] The authenticity of the Qur'an is based on this premise that mutawatir transmission yields certainty of knowledge, and since each verse of the Qur'an is mutawatir, the Qur'an as a book is regarded by Muslims as positive knowledge. If ahad or solitary transmissions also yield the same level of positive knowledge, then basically that would amount to claiming that positive knowledge can be achieved by either mutawatir or ahad transmission. Such a claim or premise, indirectly, undermines the weightiness of using the special status of mutawatir transmission. 

Therefore, whether ahad hadith can be used for deriving or establishing laws or codes is a different issue, but, unless Muslims are willing to reconcile with undermining the basis of the Qur'an, the claim that ahad hadith also can yield certainty of knowledge has to be firmly rejected.

Indeed, there are prominent Ulama, such as Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277) opposes Ibn al-Salah's view in this regard, and vehemently challenges such untenable claim about ahad hadith yielding certainty of knowledge.. 

Nawawi (d. 676/1277) and Ibn al-Salah seem to have spearheaded the two opposing campaigns. Nawawi unequivocally states that the sahih means just that, sahih, and does not mean that it is certain." (**). He vehemently argued that the majority of Muslim scholars and leading authorities (al-muhaqqiqun wal-akthartun) held that unless the sahih is of the mutawatir category, it shall remain probable and can never attain the level of certainty (**). [Hallaq, p. 85]

The above exposition should make abundantly clear the weakness of Ibn al-Salah's position that sahih-type yields certainty as well. In this regard, Imam Nawawi's position is sound and self-evident that only mutawatir-type yields certainty of knowledge. Thus, as long as we are satisfied with the probabilistic basis of ahad or non-mutawatir-type hadith in establishing our dogmas or practices, then that's a different matter.

The crux of the issue here that connects hadith and Islamic law is that Islamic laws and codes are essentially based on mostly non-Mutawatir or ahad hadiths that are at best probabilistic.

The legal theoreticians' classification of the hadith into Mutawatir and ahad leaves us with a colossal number of the latter, merely probable type, and less than a dozen of the former, reportedly apodictic, variety. The ahad, including the hasan, were universally acknowledged to have constituted the bulk of hadith with which the traditionists dealt, and on the basis of which the Jurists derived the law (**). [Hallaq,  p. 88]

Earlier mutawatir bil-ma'na was explained and that type of hadith conveys what the Prophet said in the narrator's own words. In other words, these are "conceptual transmissions." The reality is that even in case of ahad hadiths, the scholars do not require verbatim transmission, yet insist that laws and codes derived from ahad hadith can still be binding. 

"The majority of ulama do not insist that the ahad should consist of a verbatim transmission of what the narrator heard in the first place, although this is the most authoritative form of transmission in any kind of hadith. They would instead accept the conceptual transmission of an ahad, on condition, however, that the narrator understands the language and purport of the hadith in full. ...

Some ulama of the Hanafi and other schools have held that conceptual transmission is totally forbidden, a view which is refused by the majority, who say that the Companions often transmitted one and the same hadith in varying words, and no-one can deny this. .. Having said this, however, accuracy in the transmission of hadith and retaining it in its original version is highly recommended." [Kamali, pp. 105-106]

Majority of the Islamic scholars holds the view that ahad hadith can be used to derive laws or codes that are binding. However, no matter of creeds (aqidah) can be established by ahad hadith. However, as I have pointed out, in practice, the domain of creeds has not been immune to ahad hadith. As has been explained above, the claim of many scholars - it is not only alright to use ahad hadith to formulate laws, but also, subject to some conditions about which there is no agreement, such laws are also binding - is a rather weak position and needs serious scrutiny. 

Indeed, even the best and the noblest of our scholars have shown remarkable anomalies in their thoughts and practices in this context. Imam al-Shafi'i writes in his famous Risala:

It is the duty of those who have [legal] knowledge never to express an opinion unless it is based on certainty. There are cases where men have discussed matters relating to [legal] knowledge when, if only they had abstained from so doing, abstention would have been more appropriate and safe, I trust. [p. 80, #28]

One is then left to wonder, if we are duty-bound not to express an opinion unless it is based on certainty, then how do we build much of the Islamic legal edifice on the basis of hadiths that generally yield only probabilistic knowledge and does not yield 'certainty'?

Thus, as anomalous as it is, obviously, the majority of scholars and jurists have held the position that a hadith being ahad does not mean that it can't or should not be used as a source of guidance. Indeed, the majority of them even regard the injunctions of such hadith as binding. 

However, the Ummah - the adherents of Islam - would be better served if it is duly acknowledged that ahad hadiths - that is, most of the hadiths - are probabilistic in terms of reliability, and additional circumspection is a must in utilizing these hadiths for formulating laws, codes and dogmas. Even greater circumspection is a must in formulating and enacting laws or codes that have major ramification for the life, honor and property of people.

Use/abuse of hadith in formulation and validation of Islamic laws

Over the centuries since the time of the Prophet, Muslim society has developed a tendency toward legalism, where everything tends to be reduced to black and white, right and wrong, permissible and impermissible. While the emergence of various madhabs (schools of jurisprudence), arguably, have beneficial aspects, one important consequence of such legalism was to have the Muslim society splintered into many schools (madhabs) and other offshoot groups (firqah) that sometime even engage in takfir (religious denunciations) against each other. [Farooq, 2005]

The second and more important consequence relates to many laws in the name of Islam that show a clear gender-bias and other unfair tendencies, inconsistent with Islamic principles of equity and fairness. In this context, it is important to note that orthodox Islamic positions are generally a male-exclusive domain, where women are absent in deliberation and formulation of those laws, codes and norms. The examples or observations cited below are basically orthodox positions. Of course, there is no monolithic position on most of these matters, and readers should note that due to pressures of modernity and other factors, Muslim societies are in a flux. However, the books of fiqh are often untouched by such forces and remain as orthodox as ever. Lest it is misunderstood, let me state it unambiguously, by the word "abuse" I don't mean or imply that our scholars or jurisprudent had any ill intent. Rather, here abuse refers to excessive, improper or unwarranted use of hadith. Let us consider a few examples.

1. Women are discouraged from participation in mosques.

In most Muslim countries, if women are not seen in large numbers participating in prayer (salat) in mosque (congregation), it is because they are heavily discouraged from participating. In some countries, Tajikistan for example, they are even banned. [Sharifi, 2004] Even in North America, despite many mosques' attempt to be more flexible, there are so many mosques that simply don't want women to come to mosque, or even if they have to "tolerate" women's presence and participation, it is made quite difficult and uncomfortable for women. Many Islam-loving women are fuming and turning rebellious. Read what one such orthodox position in response to the question "Why is it better to pray at home for women?".  

There are many hadiths that clearly establish that the Prophet categorically instructed Muslims not to prevent women from participating in mosques and women did participate regularly and unhindered. However, among the hadiths that are most commonly invoked to discourage or even prevent women are as following:

Abdullah ibn Mas'ud:  the Prophet (s) said: It is more excellent for a woman to pray in her house than in her courtyard, and more excellent for her to pray in her private chamber than in her house. [Sunan Abu Dawood, Vol. I, #570]

Narrated 'Aisha: Had Allah's Apostle known what the women were doing, he would have forbidden them from going to the mosque as the women of Bani Israel had been forbidden. Yahya bin Said (a sub-narrator) asked 'Amra (another sub-narrator), "Were the women of Bani Israel forbidden?" She replied "Yes." 
sahih al-Bukhari,
Volume 1, Book 12, Number 828

Note that the first report of Abdullah ibn Mas'ud is not a mutawatir. Even if it is a sahih hadith (but not mutawatir), it doesn't yield certainty of knowledge that that's exactly what the Prophet said or that the Prophet said it at all. Contradicting this hadith, there are numerous hadiths/reports that women used to participate in mosques regularly and in large numbers. Therefore, either those participating women didn't care about what the Prophet told them (even in his own presence), or they understood this hadith differently, or else

As far as the second hadith, note that even though it appears in Sahih al-Bukhari, it is not a statement from the Prophet. It is merely an opinion of a companion (a great and closest companion and wife of the Prophet, to be specific). However, even though she is highly respected and revered, quite deservingly, among Muslims as a companion, narrator of hadith and wife of the Prophet, it is still only a lone opinion. What is interesting is that there is ABSOLUTELY no corroborating information, statement or report from anyone else from the same period that women were doing or discussing such egregious things in the mosques that had the Prophet known, he would have prevented them from coming to mosques. Yet, hadith like this not only had profound effect on the culture of restricting women from attending mosques, but also that hadith like this is still used and invoked by traditionalist orthodoxy to drive a wedge between women and mosques.

2. Women are barred from leadership

Let alone being mutawatir, a solitary (ahad) report from Abu Bakra (not the first Khalifa Abu Bakr, see below), orthodox position has basically banned women from leadership in general. Some have limited the ban at the level of Khalifa or the head of a state. Others basically have the position against women assuming any role of leadership, except among women or all-women structures (organizations, institutions). 

Narrated Abu Bakra: During the battle of Al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a Word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet heard the news that the people of the Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen (ruler), he said, "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler." Volume 9, Book 88, Number 219

Not only there are problems of internal consistency in terms of the historical reference in this hadith [see Siddique, pp. 56-59], the individual, Abu Bakra, has been known for receiving punishment for false testimony. [Mernissi, pp. 49-61] According to the standards of determining the authenticity (sahih), this hadith does not meet the standard set by al-Bukhari himself, even though he has included it in his collection. Even if Mernissi's analysis and research about flogging of Abu Bakra are disputed [Haddad 2005], as far reaching a code as forbidding women from leadership can't be deduced from such solitary reports of dubious of disputed authenticity.

3. Right of guardianship in giving minors into marriage

While the orthodox Islamic law allows marriage of minors (even of infants), the practice was merely inherited from the prevailing customs in Arabia from the days even before the Prophet Muhammad. However, the marriage of the minor is in fundamental contradiction with the liberty and human dignity of each individual, where a person is denied his own choice as an adult about one of the foremost decisions in anyone's life. Assuming that marriage of minors is allowed, with which as a Muslim and a human being I can't reconcile, let's try to understand the orthodox position regarding the right of guardianship in giving a minor boy or girl into marriage. Here is the order of hierarchy specified by at least one of the orthodox schools:

  • 1. Father
  • 2. Grandparents and above
  • 3. Brother
  • 4. Step-brother
  • 5. Nephew
  • 6. Step-nephew
  • 7. Uncle
  • 8. Step-uncle
  • 9. Cousin
  • 10. Step-cousins and similar relatives (from the side of the father in priority according to inheritance law)
  • 11. Mother
  • 12. Son's daughter
  • 13. Daughter's daughter
  • 14. Grandson's daughter
  • 15. Daughter's granddaughter
  • 16. Sister
  • 17. Step-sister
  • 18. Step-brother
  • 19. Other relatives from the mother's side in accordance with the inheritance law
  • 20. Ruler/judge

[Bidhibadhdha Islami Ain, Islamic Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2004, p. 149]

Although the above list may vary somewhat depending on the madhab, in Bangladesh as well as South Asia, Hanafi Fiqh is predominant, and it lists the hierarchy as above. It is taken from Bidhibadhdha Islami Ain, a well known  compendium of Fiqhi answers based on authoritative Hanafi sources and published by Islamic Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2004. One can also find it in the well known book "Bahishti Zewar" by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi. [It is available online. Please see here.]

Please note the position of mother in priority of guardianship. She is #11, after nine male relatives (including step-relations): paternal grandparent, brother, step-brother, nephew, step-nephew, uncle, step-uncle, cousin, step-cousins and similar relations.

Imagine, mother's RIGHT to guardianship in giving marriage is #11th in hierarchy!!! Is there any Islamic justification for this or basis in the Qur'an and Sunnah? A good question. Isn't it?

Now, consider the hierarchy from a different angle. For blood-related, mahram family members, according to orthodox Islamic law, on whom the responsibility of maintenance is assigned in order of priority?

(in Bangla language: jahader upor bhoron-poshoner dayitto bortay porjaykrome)
a. on husband
b. on father
c. on mother
d. jointly on paternal or maternal grandparents and grandchildren
e. on son, and
f. on blood-relations.

[Bidhibadhdha Islami Ain, Islamic Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2004, p. 166]

Compare the hierarchy of DUTY of maintenance. Mother is ranked very high - immediately after husband and father. Is this based on justice or reciprocity (in duty and right)? Why mothers would rank #11 in the hierarchy in regard to their own children, but rank #3 in regard to the duty of maintenance?

One can find the importance of paternal kindred in hierarchy in one of the most authoritative Hanafi collections, Hedaya. A hadith is quoted there (without any reference). 

the Prophet having declared "Marriage is committed to the paternal kindred. . . ." [Marghinani, p. 107]

While Hedaya cites this hadith without any reference, it wasn't traceable to any of the hadith collections. [Note: If anyone has information to the contrary, please contact me.] Thanks to Dr. Muhammad al-Faruque, Middle Eastern Studies Librarian and Associate Professor of Library Administration in the Asian Library at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who assisted to trace this hadith to the work of one of the earliest and leading Hanafi scholar al-Sarakhsi (d. 490 AH/1096 AD), Mabsut [p. 219] The Arabic text is as following.

Let alone being any mutawatir or mashhur (well known) hadith, this is from a source outside the hadith collections. Curiously, Haskafi' Durr-ul-Mukhtar, a Hanafi legal compendium of a much later period, and written in the footstep of previous works, such as Hedaya, omits this hadith in discussing the relevant segment [p. 43]. Also, Dr. Faruque informed [in an email] "the super-gloss (hashiyah) of Ibn 'Abidin (d. 1836), entitled Radd al-muhtar 'ala Durr al-mukhtar, that summarizes all Hanafi views up to his time, does not include this hadith." [Note: Dr. Faruque's comments only pertain to tracing of the hadith; he doesn't necessarily share the opinions, views or analysis shared in this essay.]

The context and significance of this hadith are not clear either. Based on a hadith from sources outside the hadith collections, such outlandish restrictions on women or minors have been imposed in regard to their guardianship in marriage. Yet, in terms of responsibility of maintenance, the mother is right where she should be: next to husband/father. 


The cases of misapplications of hadith cited above are merely for illustrative purpose. Many conscientious Muslims would have problem with such use of Hadith in coming up with some of the overstretching reach of the laws in Islam - laws that are often presented as based on divine Shari'ah, while most of these laws [fiqh] are merely fallible human interpretation. 

Even though wrong, it is understandable that some people would go to the extreme and based on inappropriate use of hadith for such unacceptable stretch of laws and codes would attack or reject hadith literature in general. Indeed, there is now a breed that claims to be followers of "Qur'an Only". One such group and its founder, late Rashad Khalifa, not only rejected hadith, but Khalifa ended up claiming messengership (risalat) for himself. "Few years before his death, Dr. Khalifa declared that he is the Messenger of the Covenant, prophesied in the Quran in 3:81." [1] That, of course, understandably, earned discredit and repudiation from the Muslims in general. However, not all rejecters of hadith are of the extreme types that belong to groups bearing the false creed of new divine messengers after the Prophet Muhammad. Such false creeds need to be rejected and repudiated, but not necessarily by  indulging in Takfir, whereby even mainstream and orthodox Muslims have turned against and disclaiming each other. [Farooq 2005]

As I have mentioned earlier, the truth and reality in regard to hadith might lie somewhere in between. Hadith is our precious and indispensable source to know in great detail about the life of the Prophet in terms of what he said and did, as observed and attested by his noble Companions. The Prophet is also the Qur'anic guidance in action. Therefore, the Qur'an Only approach is fundamentally wrong and misguided. However, given the fact that except a few (less than a dozen) hadith that are mutawatir (yielding certainty of knowledge), almost all hadiths, including the sahih ones, are probabilistic in yielding knowledge. Hence, it is much desired that hadith is used more as a source of information as well as moral inspiration and wisdom than as an all-encompassing and sacrosanct basis for formulation of laws and codes. As Muslims are also social beings, they must have laws, and the Qur'an and the Sunnah naturally would serve as source of wisdom and guidance in formulating pertinent laws and codes. However, given the probabilistic nature of hadith in general, Muslims need to be more humble in this regard. Much more restrained approach needs to be taken, where hadith is used to arrive at laws or codes that have direct and serious implication for the life, honor and property of people. Such restraint would also be relevant in regard to any law or code that might be discriminatory or unjust. Also, it is important that in deriving laws and codes, whenever appropriate and relevant, a problem should be duly studied from an empirical perspective to better understand the problems and conditions that the Islamic laws and codes are to address. [Farooq_2]


1. From the website of the followers of Rashad Khalifa. 


AbdulHamid A. AbuSulayman. The Islamic Theory of International Relations: New Directions for Islamic Methodology and Thought [Herndon, VA: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1987]

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Ahmad as-Sarakhsi, Kitab al-Mabsut [Beirut: Dar al-Ma'rifa, 1993, vol. 4]

Al-Shafi'i. Al-Shafi'i's Risala: Treatise on the Foundations of Islamic  Jurisprudence [translated by Majid Khadduri; Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 2nd Edition, 1987]

M. M. Azami. Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature [Indiana: American Trust Publications, 1977]

Mohammad Omar Farooq_1. "Religious denunciations and Takfir: Isn't there enough to go around?" [November 2005; unpublished]

Mohammad Omar Farooq_2. "Islamic Fiqh (Law) and the Neglected Empirical Foundation" [Unpublished, July 2006]

G. F. Haddad. "Abu Bakrah and the Feminists" [January, 2005; online]

Wael Hallaq. "The Authenticity of Prophetic Hadith: A Pseudo-problem," Studia Islamica 99 (1999), pp. 75-90 

Suhaib Hasan. An Introduction To The Science Of Hadith [London: Al-Qur'an Society, 1994]

Mohammad Hashim Kamali. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence [Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2003]

Mazhar  Kazi, A Treasury of Ahadith [Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Abul-Qasim Publishing House, 1992]

Burhan al-Din al-Marghinani, Al-Hidāya (2nd ed.; London, 1870), translated by Charles Hamilton (Karachi, 1989).

Maliha Masood. "Untangling  the  Complex  Web  of  Islamic  Law:  Revolutionizing  the  Sharia," Al Nakhlah - The Fletcher School/Tufts University Online Journal, Fall 2003, #4. 

Fatima Mernissi. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam [Reading, Mass.; Perseus Books, 1987]

Akbar Sharifi. "Tajikistan: Women Challenge Mosque Ban," IWPR, October 6, 2004. 

Kaukab Siddique. The Struggle of Muslim Women [Singapore: Thinkers Library,  1983]

Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi. Hadith Literature: Its Origin, Development & Special Features [Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1993]

Iqbal Ahmad Khan Suhail. What is Riba? [New Delhi, India: Pharos, 1999]

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