Hadith: Its meaning & authority

Q245 :You often speak of the importance of Hadith and Sunnah. It is well known that the best compilations of Hadith are those made by the six famous scholars. However, I have read in some of these books reports of the type that the Prophet and his wife, Aisha, used to take a bath together and pour water on each other. There are many similar narratives which set you thinking if they could ever be true. They are repulsive to human dignity, sensibility and logical thought. I refuse to accept them. If some of these Hadiths, or even one, is untrue or doubtful, how are people like myself expected to believe in the rest? How is a normal Muslim, with average knowledge, expected to sort the true from the false in thousands of these Hadith? If this is not possible, then what other sources of Hadith and Sunnah remain?

A245 : Professor Moustafa Azami has written a short but invaluable book entitled Studies in Hadiths Methodology and Literature which is published by the American Trust Publications, 7216 Madison Avenue, Suite 8, Indiana, U.S.A. I recommend you to read this book because it throws ample light on Hadith and how it was documented. In giving an answer to your question within the limitation of this column, I begin with a brief summary of the first chapter in this book before I discuss the report you have quoted. The Arabic word Hadith literally means "communication, story, conversation; Religious or secular, historical or recent." Whenever used as an adjective, it means "new;" it occurs 23 times in the Qur'an in the sense of story or communication. According to scholars of Hadith, it stands for "what was transmitted on the authority of the Prophet, his deeds, sayings or tacit approval". Thus, Hadith literature means the literature which consists of the narration of the life of the Prophet and the things approved by him. However, the term was used sometimes in a much wider sense covering the narration about the Prophet's companions and their successors. Sunnah, according to Arabic lexicographers, means: "a way, course, rule, mode, or manner, of acting or conduct of life." In the Qur'an the word Sunnah and its plural have been used 16 times in the sense of an established course of rule, mode of life, and line of conduct. In Islamic history, the Arabic definite article "Al" was affixed to the word Sunnah in order to denote the Sunnah of the Prophet, while the general use of the word continued, though decreasing day by day. At the end of the second century, the word began to be used almost exclusively in the legal books to denote the norms set by the Prophet or the norms deduced from the Prophet's norm. The two words, Hadith and Sunnah soon began to be used interchangeably, though there is a slight difference between them. The science of Hadith was developed to evaluate every single statement ascribed to the Prophet. The aim of this branch of Islamic study is to make clear which Hadith is authentic and which is not. The scholars are unanimous that the authority of the Qur'an is binding on all Muslims. The authority of the Prophet comes next only to the Qur'an. His authority is not derived through the community's acceptance of the Prophet. It is Allah who has outlined the Prophet's position and his authority. It is expressed through divine will. Allah states in the Qur'an that He has sent down His revelations to the Prophet that he "may explain to mankind what has been revealed for them." Thus, the Prophet's task is to expound and explain the Qur'an to people. To give one example, the Qur'an commands us to attend regularly to our prayers, but does not tell us how to pray. It was the Prophet's task to demonstrate the form of prayer in word and practice. The Prophet also has been given a position with legislative powers. Allah describes him in the Qur'an in these words: "He (meaning the Prophet) will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit only foul things. He will relieve them of their burden and the fetters which had encumbered them." There are several examples of actions or practices initiated by the Prophet and later sanctioned by Allah. In his actions and practices, the Prophet provides a model to be followed by the Muslim community. All Muslims have to follow the Prophet's example in every way, particularly since they have been specifically commanded by Allah to do so. Allah states in the Qur'an that obedience to the Prophet is a duty required by all people. Numerous are the Qur'anic statements which require us to obey Allah and His messenger: "Believers, obey Allah and obey the messenger and those in authority among you." (4;59) Also: "Whatever the messenger gives you, take it; and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it." (59; 7) From these Qur'anic references we conclude that the Prophet's authority does not rest on acceptance by the community or on the opinion of certain lawyers or scholars, or the founders of the schools of thoughts. This point has been made absolutely clear in the Qur'an. For this reason, the Muslim community has accepted the authority of the Prophet from the beginning of his mission and has accepted all his verbal commands, deeds, tacit approval as the way of life, a binding duty and a model to be followed. All the Prophet's activities have been covered by the Sunnah which remains one of the main sources of Islamic law, second only to the Qur'an. From this summary of what Professor Azami has written, it is clear that following the Sunnah is part of our religion of Islam which cannot be disregarded. It is simply not possible for a Muslim to deny the Prophet's Sunnah and hope to win acceptance by Allah. That is because such disregard of the Sunnah flies in the face of clear and decisive Qur'anic orders requiring us to implement the Prophet's Sunnah. As Hadith and Sunnah were reported from one generation to another, there was bound to be some inaccuracies of reporting. In addition, people hostile to Islam started to fabricate statements and attribute them to the Prophet. Hence, scholars recognized that it was their duty to sort out the true from false in what is attributed to the Prophet. This has led to the establishment of the science of Hadith, which is a unique branch of Islamic study that has won the admiration of scholars throughout the world. Muslim scholars of Hadith studied the character and history of every person that has been known to report even a single Hadith and established whether he was a man of trust and honesty or not. If they found him trustworthy, truthful, accurate in his reporting, God-fearing, then they accepted what he has reported, provided that he had heard it from a similar trustworthy person. Thus we have a chain of transmitters for every Hadith. Each one of them must be of the highest caliber. Otherwise, the reported Hadith would be classified as weak, doubtful or false. Among those scholars of Hadith, Al-Bukhari and Muslim stand out as the most reliable and perfectionist in their work. The other four, At-Tirmithi, Abu Dawood, An-Nassaie and Ibn Majah occupy a position close to that of Al-Bukhari and Muslim. Hence, the compilations made by these six have acquired a higher status, since they include Hadiths of the highest authorities. However, there are many other scholars, some of whom lived earlier than these six , most notably Al-Shaf'ie, Malik and Ahmad ibn Hanbal who were also scholars of Hadith in addition to their eminencies as scholars of Fiqh or Islamic law. The last of these three, Imam Ahmad, was one of the greatest authorities on Hadith. You have mentioned that some of the Hadiths you have read in these books are not acceptable. You have used descriptions which suggest that you are a very strict person with a very keen and restrictive sense of propriety. This is commendable when it comes to matters of religion, provided that it does not exceed the proper limits. When you use such words to describe a practice attributed to the Prophet by highly renowned scholars of Hadith, then you have actually overstepped your limits. You have to ask first how is it possible that the Prophet is reported to have done so and so? Is such a practice to be judged in such a strict light? The story which you have referred to is a very simple one. What you have to remember is that we have learned many of the very intimate aspects of the life of the Prophet because his life served as a model or us to follow. When he is reported to have done something, then that very report indicates very clearly that such a practice is permissible. Hence, no one with an exaggerated sense of propriety can tell us that it is not permissible. Therefore, if a man and his wife take a bath together in the privacy of their own home, when no one else sees them, and they pour water on each other's heads, no one can tell them not to do so. If they derive pleasure from that, they are welcome to it. The Prophet and his wife did it. Who, then, can suggest that such a practice is unacceptable? If we know certain practices of the intimate life of the Prophet, then we have to thank Allah for that, because such knowledge tells us how far we can go without contravening Islamic teachings.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )