Hadith: The Question Of Authenticity
By Dr Aisha Musa
May 08, 2012
Hadith are such an integral part of traditional Islam in all its variations, that when someone suggests that the Qur’an alone should serve as the source of religious law and guidance for Muslims, the idea is usually met with shock and amazement.
So, those who advocate following the Qur’an alone must address the issue of hadith.
The Arabic word “hadith,” means a story, or saying. Any story, or saying, from anyone. For traditional Muslims, it has come to mean specifically a story or saying told about, or attributed to the prophet Muhammad.
Discussions of hadith have traditionally focused on the question of authenticity. This is true of discussions among those who advocate following hadith and between them and those who advocate following the Qur’an alone.
God willing, we will see how this focus on the question of authenticity has overshadowed other crucial questions about hadith.
For traditional Muslims the focus on authenticity is an attempt to insure that people can judge the veracity and reliability of hadiths, in order to determine which are valid as sources of law and guidance.
Early Muslim scholars took great pains to compile biographical information on the people who allegedly narrated and transmitted the hadiths in order to determine those who were to be considered reliable from those who were not.
Only reports passed on by supposedly trustworthy individuals are to be considered authentic, and hence valid.
The question of whether or not Muslims have always be true to their stated standards is a separate issue that I will not address here. What is important here is the fact that the question of authenticity is of primary importance in their understanding and acceptance of hadith.
Many of those who advocate following the Qur’an also focus on the question of authenticity when debating the use of hadiths.
They do so by challenging the authenticity of all hadiths and thereby, the validity of following them.
Their challenge to the authenticity is of hadith is based primarily on the fact that the first so-called “sahih,” or “sound, authentic” collections of the hadith were written over 200 years after the death of Muhammad.
Encouraged by the work of prominent, non-Muslim western scholars have also questioned the authenticity of hadiths on the same basis, those who advocate following the Qur’an alone assert that hadith should not be followed because they are late fabrications, with no connection to Muhammad.
In response to the original challenge posed by non-Muslim scholarship, Muslim scholars have worked diligently to uncover the earliest possible written sources of hadith and have some which they date to the middle of the second century after hijra, about 100 years before the writing of the so-called sahih collections.
This together with early histories which talk about the first generations of Muslims writing and relating hadiths, leads scholars sympathetic to hadiths to conclude that even without actual physical specimens of written hadiths from those early generations, it is reasonable to accept that hadiths had been transmitted both orally and in writing from the beginning.
The historical record has not provided clear evidence that can prove or disprove the early transmission of hadiths.
So, each side accepts and argues the information that best supports its view; and the authenticity debate rages on.
But is authenticity the real question we should be addressing? Does it deserve to be the central focus in the discussions of hadith? Let us now turn, God willing, to the other questions that are often overshadowed by the question of authenticity.
The Qur’an poses a number of questions related to hadith. By considering them, God willing, we can put the question of authenticity in it’s proper perspective.
Among the questions the Qur’an poses in relation to hadith are:
“In which hadith after this will they believe?” (al-A`araaf :185).
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