Monday, May 08, 2006

Hadith: A Re-Evaluation

Where Have We Gone Wrong?

The time is ripe for Muslims and for mankind as a whole to undertake a fundamental study of this great human crisis. At some point, somewhere, we have gone wrong. Where have we gone wrong? It will be recalled that modern secular Europe emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in rebellion against the Catholic Church in particular and against religion in general to embrace secular humanism of the liberal or Marxist variety. For the last one to three hundred years it experimented with these social philosophies and systems and the experiments have proved a failure. Today the two philosophies and systems are seeking a synthesis. Can the synthesis be achieved? Can it answer mankind's present quest for a new spiritual philosophy?

As for the Muslims, the new and young Muslim society and state set up by Muhammad and his compatriots in seventh century Arabia developed and expanded so rapidly that within a century it had become an empire to comprise also Persia and Byzantium, and within two to three hundred years it had created a great world civilization. But, as quickly as it had arisen, so quickly had it declined and fallen. Today, the Muslim polity, science and civilization, great though they were in their time, are glories and things of the past. There seems to be no bridge linking their great predecessors of the early centuries and present-day Muslims.

The great question mark hanging over the Muslims and the entire mankind today is: Why? The short answer to the question, which is the thesis of this book, is that mankind, including the Muslims, have deserted the true teachings of God. The true teachings of God in the era of Muhammad is contained in His final scripture to mankind, the Quran. The People of the Scripture, i.e. believers before Muhammad, especially the Jews and the Christians, rejected Muhammad because they had idolized their own prophets and religious leaders and refused to acknowledge Muhammad's divine message. Modern secular rebellious Europe not only turned against their religious priesthood, in which action it was right, but also against religion altogether, in which action it was wrong. This is the cause of the present Western impasse.

As regards the Muslims, Muhammad brought them the Quran, described by God Himself as an invincible book, but no sooner did Muhammad die and leave them, they contrived to make Muhammad bring two books and, after bitter quarrels, they legislated, two hundred and fifty years later, that Muslims must uphold not only the Quran but also the hadith. However, in truth, since then, they followed the hadith rather than the Quran. This explains God's warning in the Quran that we have quoted earlier. So it came about that while secular Europe embraced either liberalism or Marxism, the Muslim world embraced the hadith, with the philosophies of secular humanism infecting the elites of Muslim societies, thus justifying the Quranic warning.

Avoiding Misunderstanding

Raising such a fundamental issue as this, it is difficult to avoid misunderstanding from both sides. The secular side, being more open-minded and tolerant, will simply dismiss this call to the Quran as antiquated, outmoded and irrelevant. Many secularists will simply not consider it. On the other hand, the traditionalist side, being close-minded and intolerant of dissenting views on matters regarded as their preserves, will raise a hue and cry and throw slanderous accusations into the debate.

One cannot be discouraged by the prospect. It is part of the social struggle to expose falsehood and confirm the truth. The secularists will be worthy opponents since they will be prepared to fight it out in open battles. Open debate is part of their secular tradition. The traditionalists are a different breed. Open debate is not part of their tradition. In fact, they came into being in Muslim society by killing open debate. Authoritarianism is their culture. Thus, slander, threats and falsehood will be their methods.

It will be claimed that the writer is trying to cause confusion and further divide Muslim society. This is far from the truth. The Muslims cannot be further confused and divided than they already have been for a long time. What worse confusion and division can there be than when Muslims fight and kill one another?

My aim is to try to establish the truth. My personal history bears testimony to this tendency. Like other Malays, I was born and brought up in an ordinary orthodox Malay Muslim family. However, my early interest in social philosophy took me on a long spiritual quest, over a period of thirty years, spanning liberal nationalism, Islamic liberalism and socialism, every single one of which each time sat uneasily over traditional Islam. The failure became obvious to me when the coherent integrated social philosophy that I was seeking eluded me. It was in the Islam of the Quran, scientifically understood, that I discovered the framework of such a philosophy.

Looking back, this is only logical, since the Quran contains the sure truth from God, while most of human teachings, as the Quran points out, are mere conjecture. But at that time, the Quran was, so to speak, covered up for me by the fog of hadith.

It will be claimed that calling the people back to the Quran alone will create a new sect, in addition to the sects that already exist. This is standing the argument on its head. Since the Quran is, in the first place, anti-sectarian, not only will it not create a new sect, but it will, on the contrary, eliminate all existing sects and reunite all Muslims. This is precisely what we want to do. History proves that under Muhammad the young Muslim society was completely united and there was no sect whatever. It is ironic that the Ahl'ul-Hadith who talk so much about following the example of the Prophet have completely abandoned this finest of his examples!

It will also be claimed that in rejecting the hadith as a source of law, we shall be rejecting the role of the Prophet. It will further be claimed that this is the first step to the ultimate rejection of the Quran! As for the first part of the claim, it is obvious to anyone that it was only through Muhammad that mankind received the Quran from God Almighty. That was his primary role — God's messenger — indeed his only role, as the Quran stressed several times. Was not this role great enough for Prophet Muhammad? Surely, it was.

As for the second part, it is too ridiculous to even think of it. But since the die-hard traditionists would stop at nothing to slander their opponents, one would lose nothing to spend a few lines exposing them. How can anyone, after calling the people back to the Quran, then reject the Quran? Even if he does, and this means reverting to disbelief after belief, how can that benefit him? He would lose everything, while the people, on the contrary, would benefit greatly by going back to the Quran.

The Muslims must re-possess critical consciousness and discard prejudice and group fanaticism. We must avoid throwing slanderous accusations at what we may not like at first. God Himself has taught us to verify things before we accept or reject them. No less an intelligent man than Sayyed Hossein Nasr who has said the following about those who deny the authority of the hadith:

It is against this basic aspect of the whole structure of Islam that a severe attack has been made in recent years by an influential school of Western Orientalists. No more of a vicious and insidious attack could be made against Islam than this one, which undercuts its very foundations and whose effect is more dangerous than if a physical attack were made against Islam.

How can this scholar, who has quoted a blasphemous hadith in the same book, spout this slander? Why should we Muslims, in possession of an invincible scripture from God Almighty, be afraid of the criticisms and even attacks of Orientalists? Such fear, in fact, reflects our own weakness. It shows that we are not sure of our own selves. The Quranic methodology should be a lesson for us. The Quran incessantly reproduces the false arguments of idol-worshippers and hypocrites and rebuts them with proofs and with better arguments. We should do the same to expose falsehoods and confirm the truth. The methods of suppression and slander are alien to the methods of truth.

Rejecting the authority of the hadith does not mean denying its existence. Some true reports of what the Prophet said and did outside the Quran as leader of his community and as an ordinary man must have been preserved. Such reports deserve to be treated as any other historical account whose authenticity must be judged against other historical accounts, against the higher authority of the Quran, and against rational criteria. While Quranic pronouncements are divine and are eternally binding on believers, those of Muhammad in his capacity as leader must be treated in accordance with the Quranic injunction regarding politico-social authority, i.e. that they are only conditionally binding. The conditions are that they do not contradict the Quran, they are binding only for the community of that time, and that for other communities of other times they only constitute as precedents to be followed or bypassed as and when deemed useful.

It should also be well understood that this re-evaluation of the hadith is in no way a slur upon our classical scholars. They understood and reacted to their problems as best they could. We who come after them are not bound by their solutions. As Muhammad Abduh has well said, "They are human and we are human. We learn from them but we do not [blindly] follow them." No doubt our re-examination constitutes a criticism. But this is normal scientific procedure. It has been done by all our great philosophers and scholars from the beginning, by Ibn Sina, al-Ghazzali, Ibn Rush, Ibn Taimiya, Shah Waliyullah, Muhammad Abduh and scores of others. We owe it to them and to ourselves to constantly practice this method. For how else can knowledge develop and society progress unless they continually be purged of errors. This accounts for the very important Quranic directive, repeated many times, to believers:

Let there be a community among you who preach goodness, advocate righteousness and forbid evil. These are the winners.

It must also be pointed out that this criticism and re-evaluation of the hadith that we are making is nothing new. Imam Shafi`i who first stipulated that the hadith should be accepted as a source of law had opponents that he himself described in his book. In recent times there were such proponents in Egypt, India and Indonesia. It may be that our treatment, thanks to recent developments in Quranic and hadith studies, is more systematic than previous efforts.

In this study we have adopted what may be termed as Islamic scientific methodology. In is unfortunate that today we associate scientific methodology to the Western empirical and rational methods, when, in fact, it was Islam that introduced this methodology to the West. The words of the English historian Robert Briffault deserve to be quoted in full:

"... It was under their successors at the Oxford school that Roger Bacon learned Arabic and Arabic science. Neither Roger Bacon nor his later namesake has any title to be credited with having introduced the experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than one of the apostles of Muslim science and method to Christian Europe; and he never wearied of declaring that knowledge of Arabic and Arabic science was for his contemporaries the only way to true knowledge. Discussions as to who was the originator of the experimental method ... are part of the colossal misrepresentation of the origins of European civilization. The experimental method of [the] Arabs was by Bacon's time widespread and eagerly cultivated throughout Europe..."

However, the scientific methodology of Europe sought to bar supra-rational and supra-sensory knowledge from science. It is now admitted that this is inadequate to conform to the truly Islamic scientific methodology of combining sensory, rational and supra-rational knowledge to produce true integrated knowledge. Using this methodology, we take the Quran as our basis and starting point and subject all the evidence of the hadith, i.e. the hadith itself, the major classical writings on them and modern European and Muslim criticisms, to Quranic and rational judgements. We may, of course, take ten years to do this and produce five volumes that few will have the time and the stamina to read. Our purpose is different. Ours is to write a readable book for the general reader with enough matter for him to think and draw conclusions.

It is hardly necessary to state that this is a view offered to the reader for his consideration. God Almighty Himself has ordered us to read in His name, for doing that we cannot fail to develop our mind and increase our knowledge. A good book will do that positively; a bad one, negatively. Reading in His name, therefore, cannot but produce good results. Yet, the Muslims today are very bad readers. Centuries of subservience to bigoted religious authorities have shackled their minds. This subservience plus their deplorable ignorance of the contents of the Quran combine to make what they are today — a weak, backward and humiliated people. The time has come for us to break out of this prison. It is for this purpose that this study is undertaken.


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