Wednesday, April 26, 2006

HADITH - A Re-Evaluation
Kassim Ahmad

[Starting today, and twice a week (Wednesdays and Sundays), I will be serializing the English translation of Kassim Ahmad's Hadith Satu Penilaian. MBM]


I am grateful to my friend who has done a masterly translation of my book. I have had the draft of the translation since he finished it in late 1987, one year after the publication of the Malay original. I have had it put into my computer and left it there until recently when I thought that it was time to have it published.

I therefore went over it and made what additions and changes I think necessary after eight years since the book first saw the light of day. So, this is not an exact translation of the Malay original, although the format and the arguments remain the same.

Political considerations had led to the banning of the book a few months after it was published. However, after six years, I published a sequel, entitled Hadis — Jawapan Kepada Pengkritik (Hadith — Answer to the Critics) as my answer to several books that have been published to criticize me. This book, fortunately has not been banned. I have translated Chapter 7 of this book (Scientific Methodology for Understanding the Quran) and include it as Addendum in this translation, because I think it is an important and relevant matter to the topic.

I am also indebted to my friend Dr. Gatut Adisoma for his careful editing of the final draft. Both he and Edip Yuksel provided useful suggestions that I incorporated in this book. Any shortcomings that remain are due to the author.

Bandaraya Tanjung,
Pulau Pinang – Malaysia,
31 August, 1995.


My friend, Dr. Hassan Hanafi, of the Philosophy Department of Cairo University, has graciously consented to write a Foreword to this translation. In his letter to me dated 18 January, 1996, together with his hand-written Foreword, he stated that "I made it critical to initiate general debate. Praising is no good. Making a dialogue with you is better."

Since the publication of the Malay original in 1986, I have never been the one to refuse dialogue, even when the odds were against me. My dialogue with the Malaysian Theologians' Association just before the book was published was not concluded due to the Associations's refusal to continue. My dialogue with the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM) one month after publication failed to produced any positive result because they made a negative unilateral judgement against me and my book in spite of their assurance given to me before the dialogue that no decision would be taken.

It is in the same spirit of wanting to solve this problem through dialogue that I accept Dr. Hassan's very critical Introduction to this translation. My slight surprise is Dr. Hassan's methods of criticism. He has combined arguments from both the traditional and modernist sources: that the Hadith as the second source of Muslim law has been the general consensus and cannot be questioned anymore (traditional argument), and that debating the Hadith is counter-productive as it is irrelevant to the modernization of Muslim society (modernist argument).

I think my book adequately rebuts both these arguments, so I shall not say anything further on that for now.

I do not accept Dr. Hassan's criticism for my using examples from Western cultural development as external and inapplicable. The world has developed to be internationalist since the European voyages of discovery in the 15th Century. In fact, it is truer to say with Iqbal that, with the advent of Muhammad (the first and last prophet sent to the entire world community), the world entered the modern Scientific-Technological Era. What we sometimes call modern Western civilization is, in fact, world civilization, since it contains contributions from all civilizations: Middle-Eastern, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, Indian and Chinese.

Dr. Hassan makes the astonishing assertion that the slogan "Back to the Quran" is common to all Salafi (reform) movements, whether they are reformers, conservatives or modernists. As far as I understand, Muhammad Abduh, the father of this movement, called for the rejection of mazhab and taqlid, and for the reopening of the door of ijtihad and critical assimilation of Western knowledge. His basic references are still the Quran and the Hadith. I have pointed out that herein lies the failure of this movement. The Hadith, and everything else, have to be judged by the Quran.

On this point, Dr. Hassan rightly replies that even the Quran can be criticized, as nothing is exempt from criticism. Dr. Hassan must have meant that men's understanding and interpretation of the Quran can be criticized, for the Quran is God's final revelation to mankind and has from the beginning been under divine protection. However, the true aim of criticism is to expose falsehood and establish the truth. In this sense, the Quran is criticism par excellence. It is therefore above criticism.

On that note, I leave it to the reader to make his own conclusion.

Kassim Ahmad
Bandaraya Tanjung,
Pulau Pinang,
28 January, 1996.


Kassim Ahmad was born on 9 September, 1933 in Kedah, Malaysia. He took his Bachelor of Art's degree in Malay language and literature, but also read widely in political science and Islamic philosophy. He taught Malay language and literature for a time in the London School of Oriental and African Studies and then in a secondary school in Penang where he has been staying with his family since 1966.

He has written several books on Malay literature as well as on Islamic subjects.


Hassan Hanafi
Professor of Philosophy
Cairo University

This book, Hadith — A Re-evaluation, of Kassim Ahmad is a real implementation of the Kantian principle evoked in the book, "Dare to Know" against the authority of the Church. In Islam, there is no Church. However, the common knowledge, the established notions and the popular creed play the role of an intellectual and ideological Church which denies freedom of thought and shackles free intellectual development.

The publication of such book in English does not represent any difficulty, either to the author, or to the public. Many authors in the last four centuries tackled the question of authenticity of the scriptures, Old and New Testaments, expressing much doubt about their historical authenticity. The public became accustomed to such critiques of sources applied in Biblical criticism in modern times. It was a big debate behind the Protestant rift, postulating Sola Scriptura. Notions of historical authenticity, narratives, oral tradition, revelation and inspiration became very familiar to the public in religious and literary studies.

The main thesis of the book is that Hadith has been compiled without permission, either from the prophet, or from the four Righteous Caliphs for fear of confusing it with the Quran, the first source of Islam. Because of the power struggles between different political factions, each pretender legitimized his claim by recourse to a saying of Prophet Muhammad in his favor. Pious Muslims such as Bukhari and Muslim tried to collect these sayings after verifying their authenticity. Even then, they were not free from prejudice, in favor of the established authority, the Sunnites. Shi'ite opposition had their Hadith compilations justifying their political claims. Gradually, people forgot the Quran as the first source of Islam in favor of the Hadith, the second source. Since many of Hadith narratives contradict the Quran and even contradict themselves, the necessity to criticize the Hadith emerges as a prerequisite for any socio-political change.

Most of these unauthentic narratives are more stringent, binding and compulsory. The Quran in such topics is more lenient. Al-Shafi`i (d. 204 H.) is responsible for this rigidity by blocking the law and narrowing the Ijtihad by making Hadith a second source of law more binding than the Quran and the Ijma' and minimizing the role of the Ijtihad, the fourth source of law. He initiated this movement of Ahl al-Hadith in opposition to Ahl al-Ra'y.

The Hadith debate is not new. It is already known in Western Orientalism since the last century and in contemporary Islamic thought.

Since Orientalists denied Islamic Revelation, not only the Hadith but also the Quran, and since they have been accustomed to Biblical criticism, they applied the same rules to prophetic narratives in Islam. Western public got used to this criticism since revelation and inspiration are the same. Christ is God, the Apostle is the writer. The ideas are inspired by the Holy Spirit while the words are chosen by the Apostle himself. Words can change according to the language, the education and the culture of the writer, while ideas remain the same. Narratives developed in history as personal witnesses. The narration is not a recording-machine, a simple transmitter of a message, but a living witness. Historical authenticity requiring a concordance in the message between the enunciator and the auditor is a mechanical notion of reporting. In the case of the Gospel, the writer understands, interprets and creates the message. The message becomes better transmitted, understood and communicated. The message is motivated by the intentions of the narrator, expressing his level of education and culture and revealing his loyalty to this or that group in the power struggle among the early disciples before Nicaea-I. Maturation or deviation, creativity or inauthenticity, development or falsification? Judeo-Christian tradition chose the first answer while Islam chose the second. Since Hadith went in a similar way as the Jewish and Christian scriptures, it has been judged as an unauthentic historical deviation.

Modern Arab and Muslim thinkers and reformers such as Syed Qutb have been accused of minimizing the role of the Hadith in favor of the Quran, irrespective of their motives, either similar or different from the Orientalists. Modern thinkers did not deny revelation, but they tried to liberate Muslim societies from dogmatic and rigid adherence to the texts and calling for Ijtihad, based on the spirit of Islam and the universal intentions of the Law. The general guidelines of the Quran help more than the details of the Hadith. The Asl has a more liberating power than the Fard. Many of the harmful laws and superstitious beliefs come from the unauthentic prophetic narratives. The Hadith diverges while the Quran converges.

Ancient scholars were aware of this problem of the historical authenticity or inauthenticity of the narratives. The Quran has been preserved in writing since the moment of its utterance. It has been collected, compared and standardized during the era of Othman, the fourth caliph. The Quran did not go through a period of oral transmission such as the Hadith. Ancient scholars invented a whole discipline, the science of Hadith to put some rules to verify the authenticity of the Hadith in history.

First, the analysis of the terms of the report into five degrees of certitude, from the more certain to the less certain, guarantees the direct testimony as the high degree of witnessing: I heard; He said; He ordered; He ordered us; They did.

Second, the multilateral report , the Mutawatir, is the highest degree of authenticity concerning the chain of reporters. It is the one transmitted by several reporters with four conditions, namely, first, a sufficient number which gives the certitude of authenticity and takes away all doubts; second, the independence of reporters from each other to prevent any possibility of connivance; third, the homogeneity of expression of the report in time through generations without oscillation between the well-known and the unknown; fourth, the concordance of the report with sensory evidence, with reason and with the course of events and the laws of nature to prevent mythological and superstitious infiltrations.

Third, the unilateral report, Wahid, is that one which fails one of the four previous conditions. It is hypothetical in knowledge but apodictic in action, while the multilateral report is apodictic in both knowledge and action. The authenticity of the unilateral report is guaranteed by the analysis of the consciousness of the reporter to verify its neutrality and objectivity, such as justice, unity, maturity, intelligence, good hearing and memory and speech ability, since a report is the passage from hearing to memorizing and finally to communicating. Ancient scholars even invented a side-discipline, criteria to evaluate a reporter's neutrality and objectivity, called Ilm al-Jarh Wa al-Ta'dil, a certain kind of a biographical description of the reporter, his personality, motives, inclinations, loyalties and affiliations.

Fourth, the transmission can be both written and oral, from hand to hand, and from mouth to mouth. The master can permit the disciple to report from this book handed to him (Munawala). The disciple can read from the book and the master agrees (Ijaza). This rule of written transmission excludes any possibility of alteration on falsification of the document.

Fifth, the report is not only the chain of reporters (Sanad) but also the report itself (Matn). The highest degree of certainty is the literal report, the message with the same words. If the message is transmitted in different words, with addition or omission, it becomes hypothetical.

In short, the whole science of Hadith aims to verify the historical authenticity of the narratives. The whole theory is based on a tripartite division of the Hadith: Authentic, Unauthentic and Undecided, on which judgement is suspended.

Ancient scholars, studying the Quran, also conceived the theory of abrogation and considered the development of the text and the historical contexts of the Quran and the Hadith. The later texts cancel the earlier texts as a source of law. The Quran is abrogated by the Quran, the Hadith by the Hadith, but never the Quran by the Hadith, or the Hadith by the Quran. In this case, it is called particularization, Takhsis, exception, Istithna' or restriction, Taqyid.

Ancient scholars also created side-disciplines to maintain the coherence of the judicial system such as the science of opposition and preponderance, Ilm al-Ta`arud wa al-Tarajih, in case of an apparent opposition between two Quranic verses, between Hadith narratives, between a Quranic verse and a Hadith narrative or between a Hadith unilateral narrative and reasoning by analogy or Qiyas. An opposition between a text and consensus, or Ijma', does not occur since Ijma' is based on texts and since it is not binding to future generations.

If this is the work of ancient scholars, what is the need to use Western culture as a system of reference? Is the book intended for Western readers to understand Muslim modernists, publicized in Western mass-media for fame? Western intellectual framework makes the thinker liable to be accused of Westernization and consequently of being uprooted from his own traditional culture. More knowledge of the ancient Hadith discipline and a deeper knowledge of Arabic help the modernist in expressing his case. No modernism is possible without digging deeper into the tradition. Modernism comes from within not from without. That is why the introduction of the book on the crisis of the age is off-target. Which age? Western age or Malaysian-Muslim age? The end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the fifteenth century? Peoples and cultures do not live in the same historical periods.

The constant reference to the Western culture as a frame of reference gives the impression that the main problematic of the book is a Western one. Biblical criticism is very common in the West because the Judeo-Christian scriptures passed through a period of oral transmission. The author refers constantly to Biblical criticism, to Western bibliography more than to Hadith studies and Islamic bibliography. Maybe the lack of knowledge of Arabic is an obstacle to dig in the classical sources and to use accurate Arabic technical vocabulary. The Christian calendar is more used than the Islamic one. The Islamic calendar was only used for the compilers of the Hadith. Only once both calendars were used, i.e. for Imam al-Shafi`i (d. 820 AD/204 H.)

The author refers to the Judeo-Christian tradition: Jewish oral and written tradition in the 5th century BC; the Jewish scholar O. Goldin, deviations of Christian fathers after Christ as a model of Muslim deviants after Mohammed, Christ seen as God by the Christians. Western cultural developments appear visibly in the book: the birth of modern secularism in Europe and its failure; European awareness of the importance of freedom of thought following the Arabs and their struggle for it, a model for the Muslims nowadays to follow; European success in pioneering science and technology; the opposition between religion and science in the 19th century as a model of the opposition between Hadith and science; European liberation from the authority of the Church and the establishment of Kantian principle, "Dare to Know," Western skepticism concerning the authenticity of the scripture, etc.

The author refers to many proper names, sociologists, such as Sorokin, and his book The Crisis of Our Age; doctors, like Maurice Bucaille, the French physician, member of the French academy of science, poets such as Yeats and T.S. Eliot, with quotations from their poems, and novelists, such as Dostoyevsky, Camus and Sartre.

Technically speaking, from within the science of Hadith, taking Islamic culture as a frame of reference, the following points can be made:

1. There is no general stand, accepting Hadith or rejecting it. There is only such stand concerning certain Hadith oscillating between authenticity and inauthenticity. The authentic Hadith is accepted, while the unauthentic is rejected, according to the tripartite division of Hadith.

2. There is no general acceptance or rejection of the whole Hadith, but of special hadiths concerning certain topics contrary to the Quran or to Hadith itself. Other hadiths are well-taken such as "No testament for the inheritor," "There is zakat in the sheep in pasture."

3. The Hadith is not only of two kind: authentic and unauthentic but it has different degrees of authenticity concerning the report (Matn) and the chain (Sanad). The literal report is more authentic than the free quotation. The multilateral is more authentic than the unilateral. The well-known, Mashhur, the discontinuous from the middle, Maktu', or from the end, Mursal, is less authentic.

4. The inference is based on the generalization of judgement from the part to the whole. The whole Hadith is discredited because of one discredited hadith. A better inference is the rejection of an unauthentic hadith because it is unauthentic, case by case, not as a whole.

5. The authentic hadith cannot be rejected. The probable hadith can be accommodated with the authentic hadith and the Quran by many devices: abrogation, particularization, exception, restriction, interpretation, etc.

6. The critique of the Hadith is one thing and its rejection is something else. Ancient and modern scholars criticized the Hadith in order to purify it from the unauthentic narratives. No one, Shi'ite or Sunnite, rejected it as a second source of law.

7. The critique of the Hadith can be made internally, according to the same rules put forward by ancient scholars — they were behind the birth of modern Biblical criticism, as Renan confessed — applying the rules of the Hadith to scrutinize the narratives of the Old and New Testaments in his volumes "Origin of Christianity" and "History of the People of Israel," The four conditions of the multilateral report, Mutawatir, are sufficient to guarantee the concordance of the report with reason and sensory evidence, called by the author logic, history and science. The author could have readjusted the old rules of criticism making them more rigorous rather than rejecting the hadith. No critics were more scrupulous than the ancient scholars. What the author offered in criticism is much less than what the ancient scholars created in laying the ground for modern criticism. Moreover, the book contains many generalities and some sweeping judgements which sometimes contradict historical facts or need more precise explanations, such as:

1. Muslims do not follow the Hadith and abandon the Quran, as the author says. No Muslim can be accused of abandoning the first source of law in favor of the second.

2. The opposition between the Quran and the Hadith does not exist, as the author says. No one says that minimizing the role of Hadith is a blasphemy, Kufr.

3. The Hadith is not a false teaching attributed to the prophet, as the author says. Only the unauthentic hadith is, not the authentic.

4. The prayers that Muslim are doing were not given, according to the author, during the Night Journey, al-Mi'raj, is a free and gratuitous judgement and have little impact on Hadith criticism, and goes against the general consensus.

5. The law of inheritance giving the female the half of the male is mentioned in the Quran before the Hadith. It is not misogynic since the female had no right to own or to inherit at all. Islamic law tried to change her status gradually. Besides, the unity of analysis is the household. Each has equal share, one and half.

6. Obeying the husband in optional fasting is not downgrading for the wife, but to solve the conflict of loyalty between performing an optional ritual, fasting, and a compulsory duty, the obedience to the husband.

7. The errors of al-Shafi`i, in case that there are, do not justify doubts in the Hadith, but the correction of his errors. Al-Shafi`i wanted to codify the legal system, not to obstruct the Quran or block Ijtihad.

In conclusion seven other points can be made:

1. Putting the Quran forward and the Hadith backward is a certain kind of higher bid that nobody would object. But why holding the Quran requires necessarily releasing the Hadith? Back to the Quran is a Salafi slogan uttered by all reformers, conservationists as well as modernists. The problem is in whose benefit. The same Quran can also be criticized on grounds of how it was written and compiled and on its interpretation. Nothing is exempt from criticism. Because of the higher bid, the Addendum "A Scientific Methodology for Understanding the Quran" is somehow outside the mainstream of analysis. It relates to another discipline, the Tafsir, not the Hadith.

2. Neglecting the Quran and substituting it for the Hadith as the reason for Muslim decline is common rhetoric. The decline cannot be due to one simple factor; there are socio-political and historical factors to be taken into consideration. The renaissance is not that simple, to be achieved by just coming back to the Quran and abandoning the Hadith. It has to be achieved by changing the socio-political conditions in the Muslim world. Back to the Quran is a double-edged weapon used by conservatism and modernism alike for social stability as well as for social mobility. Ethical and religious imperatives express the ought and not the is. Sweeping statements about the death of Muslim creativity after Ibn Khaldun is against historical evidence from Muslim creativity in astronomy, mathematics and philosophy from the 9th till the 12th centuries.

3. The theme is exciting, although not new. In this era of Islamic resurgence, doubting the authenticity of the Hadith comes at the front page in big headlines. It is a good chance for every modernist to hang upon and become famous, especially in Africa and Asia, in non-Arab-speaking Muslim world. Making a case, a hypothetical one, without any practical implications on the socio-political level is gratuitous. It is harmful more than useful. It generates dissent in society, splitting it to pros and cons in a time calling for national unity. It incites traditional Islam to defend itself against modernist thinkers. Since traditional Islam is the majority and modernist Islam is in minority, the modernist case will always be the loser. Modernism, instead of pushing society to more progress, generates a reaction against it. The modernist will be excluded, excommunicated and may be exterminated. In traditional societies, progress cannot be implemented with the denial of Usul. The challenge of modernism is not how to pray in the space shuttle because Muslims on earth have not yet solved the problems of their basic needs. Hypothetical fiqh was one of the reasons and expressions of decline.

4. The lack of Arabic technical terms, substituted then by inadequate English terms makes for a lot of misunderstanding. For instance, decisive and allegorical dichotomy does not correspond to Haqiqa and Majaz, Zahir and Mu`awal, Muhkam and Mutashabihat, Mugmal and Mubayyan, etc. Many other problems emerge from reading the Quran in English translation; for instance, `touching women' does not mean the literal touching, but of having sexual intercourse.

5. The author uses a lot of textual arguments to prove his case in spite of the limits of such arguments, which depend on language, historical context, counter-textual arguments, etc. Textual argumentation is a Salafi position, selective and double-edged. Many other problems are debated in theology and not in Hadith, such as freedom and predestination, the miracles of the prophets, the eschatological signs and the Messiah, faith and action, etc.

6. After all this debate and the division of the community into pro-Hadith and anti-Hadith groups, the simple very traditional conclusion is accepted by all. The Hadith cannot be rejected as a second source of law provided that it will not contradict the Quran! This is a unanimous conclusion. Why, then, the whole debate between the pro-Hadith and the contra?

7. In spite of all these remarks, the author was able to revive an old problematic with new courage. He put forward the importance of the multilateral report Mutawatir, the few number of verses containing the law (14 verses), the exemption of the law from all kinds of figurative speech, the necessity of a new kind of criticism of Hadith, not only of the chain of reporters, Sanad, but of the report itself, Matn, the importance of re-classification of the Hadith topically according to priority value-scale, putting social relations before the rituals, putting forward the contribution of ancient scholars in laying the grounds for Hadith criticism, the role of political disputes in the compilation of Hadith and even in formulating the wording.

8. The author, the former head of the Malaysian people's socialist party can concentrate more on the socio-political condition of Malaysia and fight for freedom and social justice. He can be more beneficial, more efficient and more able to forge unity for all the people in Malaysia, instead of splitting the nation on pure academic debate.

Cairo – Egypt,
18 January, 1996.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear mr Ahmad,
I have a dilemma with verse 4:34 in the quran. I believe that women are not supposed to obey women and that this interpretation of the verse is based on hadith. Please clarify as I do not want to err. I have followed your nine principles and I am sure that women are not meant to obey their husbands. You can email me on . Thanks