Fundamental Principles of Understanding Hadith
Feb 24, 2023 12 Comments
We study and ponder over ahaadith (sayings and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ ) to fully benefit from the prophetic knowledge transmitted to humanity in the form of traditions.
Proper investigation and contemplation on ahaadith require that the researchers in this discipline follow certain fundamental principles. If a researcher attempts studying ahaadith ignoring these principles, he will face perplexing questions at every step in this exercise and would be at risk of arriving at the incorrect conclusion. Those intending to steer clear of the danger of losing true prophetic knowledge will find the following principles helpful in avoiding these dangers. Those taking help from these principles will find the road to understanding ahaadith quite easy.
There are five fundamental principles of understanding ahaadith. A detailed discussion on each follows.
1. The Quran is the Measure of Truth
The first and foremost principle is that the Quran is the real measure of truth regarding ahaadith. In fact, it is the only criterion of truth in all religious matters. The Quran and Hadith (singular of ahaadith) are interrelated as the root is related to its branches or a text is to its explanation. The Quran gives the core guidance forming the religion and the shari’ah. This Quranic guidance is the basis and foundation of the religion, while ahaadith explains and details it.
The Quran has many characteristics. It has many names and attributes, of which one name, given to it by the Almighty Himself, is mizan (the criterion or the measure). The Quran is the measure of judgment. This means that it works as a judgment over the differences and disputes between the people. It establishes the truth firmly and makes it distinct from the untruth.
This is the greatest purpose the Quran was revealed to fulfill. It is only the Quran that measures the ideas and views on the divine scale and decides the validity of what people ascribe to God. It determines what part of the current religious ideas is the truth from God and what part of these is a human addition mixed with pure divine guidance. The Quran says:
It is God Who has revealed the Book with decisive truth and “the balance” (al-mizan). (Q 42:17)
Certainly, We sent our messengers with clear arguments and sent down with them the Book and the balance (mizan) that men may conduct themselves with equity. (Q 57:25)
Considering this very quality of the Quran, it has been given the name muhaymin (guardian). In order to establish justice and equity, we need a balance and a criterion. Almighty God has referred to these two qualities of the Quran in the following verse as well:
And to you, we have revealed the Book with the truth, in confirmation of the [prophesies of] the earlier Scriptures, and a guardian (muhayman) over it. So judge between them by that which God has revealed, and do not follow their desires setting aside the truth which has come to you. (Q 5:48)
Everything concerning religion and the shariah has to be measured by this criterion. This is a general principle that covers all religious matters and sources. When we find a hadith that goes against the religion and admits doubt, we have to measure it by the Quran, for the Book rules over it.
Someone may consider hadith independent of the measure of the Quran. He may assume that it is not subject to the Quran and it is a judge for itself. He would, however, be forced to adopt as part of the religion even the narratives which clearly contradict the Quranic teachings. He would be including in the religion that does not belong to it.
I believe that every such hadith as is proven unsound when measured in light of the Quran is either a fabrication or a distortion. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to keep the religion of God safe from the onslaught of such narratives. It is unperceivable, on the scale of reason as well as revelation, that the Messenger ﷺ negates or contradicts the commands of the Almighty God. The scholars of the religious sciences unanimously hold that any hadith that contradicts the Quran is a false narrative and must be rejected. I quote a leading scholar of the Prophetic tradition, Imam Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, in this regard. Faḍl Ibn Ziyad reports:
I heard Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal respond to a question regarding the traditions which say that the Sunnah overrules the Quran (qaḍiyatan ‘ala al-Quran) in the following words: “I do not dare say that. However, the Sunnah explicates the Book, defines and explains it.”1
This means that, according to him, no hadith can abrogate the Quran. We acknowledge the status of hadith. We do not deny it. However, we hold that the claim that it overrules the Quran is baseless.
2. Collating the Narratives on a Single Topic
Just like the Quran, Hadith to have an overall order and arrangement. We cannot properly understand and interpret a hadith without considering the overall structure of hadith. The second most important principle of understanding hadith is that every hadith has to be considered a part of the collective system of the narratives. A part, it is clear, has to be in accord with the overall structure of the whole. Every hadith that is not in assonance with the overall structure of ahaadith should be rejected. In solving the problems of opposing and mutually contradicting ahaadith, the collective order of ahaadith will be of immense help to us.
Some people present their statements as ahaadith and ascribe them to the Prophet ﷺ even though these statements neither correspond to the fundamental teachings of the Quran nor accord with the general prophetic teachings. Such baseless traditions, though limited in number, have found their way into the major hadith works. It is extremely necessary to analyze and separate them from true prophetic knowledge.
3. Language of Ahaadith
The original language of the hadith literature is the standard Classical Arabic even though, unlike the Quran, most of the ahaadith have not been transmitted verbatim; ideas have been transmitted rather than words. Nonetheless, the language of ahaadith maintains a high standard. The quality of the language of ahaadith is superior to many other earlier sources. It is extremely important to consider this aspect of the language of the prophetic sayings while pondering over them. By the grace of God, there are many hadith collections. Recorded in an early period of oral tradition, the language of ahaadith is nearer to that of the prophetic times. Having acknowledged that language keeps changing and evolving, we need to prefer the traditions whose language is more approximate to that of the time of the Prophet ﷺ and the Companions.
In the syntactic and morphological analysis of ahaadith, the judgments of the expert grammarians, lexicographers, and acknowledged authorities in the field always prevail. Therefore, while deciding on the meanings of difficult words and explaining the complex sentence structures, their interpretations and views have to be preferred over one’s personal understanding.
For the serious student of the hadith literature, expertise and competence in the language spoken during the time of the Prophet ﷺ and Companions, as well as a taste and flavor for this language, are crucial. This can help him differentiate the language of the prophetic time from that of the later times. If a person engaged in the hadith study fails to understand this difference, it is very likely that he confuses non-prophetic statements with the ahaadith of the Prophet ﷺ.
He can even be led to accept the non-Quranic words as part of the Book of God. A famous hadith ascribed to ‘Umar رَضِيَ ٱللَّٰهُ عَنْهُ claims that the Quran once included the verse al-shaykh wa al-shaykhatu idha zanaya farjumuhuma al-battata (When an old man and old woman commit extramarital sex, stone them to death). The truth of the matter is that, far from being part of a verse of the Quran, these words do not even match the prophetic language. It is, at best, the language of the non-Arab jurist of the later times.
4. Specification and Generalization, Situation and Context, and Nature of Address
Understanding ahaadith requires proper understanding of the instances of specification and generalization, situation and context, and the nature of the address. A proper understanding of the instances of specification and generalization requires that, while explaining the hadith narratives, one appreciates that an apparently general statement can actually deal with a specific case. Similarly, one has to appreciate the points in the text where a seemingly specific command is used in a general sense. Muḥaddithun (scholars of ahaadith) have discussed these questions in detail. However, this issue is very delicate, and one has to remain alert to these facts.
Likewise, understanding the hadith literature requires that the student is able to fully appreciate the implications of the textual context as well as the context of the situation. This is extremely important to understand. Failure to appreciate the proper textual context as well as the context of the situation gives rise to grave and complex questions leading to unending disputes. Take, for example, the famous hadith which says:
Rulers shall be from among the Quraysh. (Musnad Aḥmad, No: 19792)
The majority of the scholars of the third and the later generations committed serious errors in determining the true context of this hadith. The literal interpretation of the narrative led them to believe that only the Quraysh could validly rule the Muslims. Evidently, this view puts Islam and Brahmanism on equal ground as far as the political system is concerned. This view clearly ignores that Islam is the first religion aiming to purify the political systems from the evil of Brahmanism.
The primary cause of this error is that the scholars failed to understand the proper context of this prophetic statement. This hadith does not give a universal directive governing the political system of Islam. It does not establish the political superiority of the Quraysh for all times. It is, on the contrary, a prophetic judgment on a political dispute that was buried in the minds of a group of the Anṣar (helpers) of Madinah. This group expected that, after the Prophet’s ﷺ demise, it was they, not the Quraysh, who truly deserved to be the rulers of the Muslim ummah.
They based this view on their services to the religion of God. This dispute remained latent in the minds of only a group among the Anṣar during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ. Yet it found expressions in various ways even during his lifetime. The Prophet ﷺ feared that, after his demise, the dispute might cause a great divide within the ummah. Sensing this danger, the Prophet ﷺ decided to settle the issue during his lifetime. Seen in this light, the prophetic statement means that at that time, the people of Arabia would not accept the leadership of any tribe other than the Quraysh. Therefore, immediately after him, the rulers should be elected from the Quraysh. This prophetic decision settled the dispute that arose between the immigrants of Makkah and the Anṣar of Madinah right after the death of the Prophet ﷺ. In the famous meeting of the Saqifah of Bani Sa’idah, the Anṣar put forward this claim.
The true nature of the words of the Prophet ﷺ, therefore, is that it was a decision on an implicit dispute on the question of the political leadership of the Muslims. The Prophet ﷺ gave his verdict before the dispute clearly manifested itself. He based his decision on the established political superiority of the Quraysh. He did not adduce eternal racial superiority of the Quraysh over the other nations of the world as is entailed by the usual interpretations of the narrative.
One example of errors resulting from incorrect identification of the context of this prophetic saying follows. The leader of a contemporary Islamic movement, on the basis of this hadith, issued a legal opinion (fatwa) to the effect that an inexpedient shariah directive can be altered and suspended. In the support of this view, he cited the hadith mentioned above. He held that though Islam affirms equality as an established moral principle yet, in the case of the candidacy for the caliphate, the Prophet ﷺ found this principle inexpedient. He canceled this principle and declared that rulers shall be from among the Quraysh.2
Take still another example. Some traditions contain the following words of the Prophet ﷺ:
I have been commanded to fight the people until they profess there is no God but Allah. (Bukhari, No: 385)
The apparent and literal meaning of the narrative, disregarding its true context, validates the Orientalists’ view that Islam was spread by the sword. It also entails that the war against unbelief that the Prophet ﷺ started has to go on till the whole of mankind embraces Islam and declares Allah to be the only deity. This is plainly wrong. History falsifies this interpretation. We know that the Prophet ﷺ accepted jizyah from the People of the Book as well as the Magians (al-majus). He did not force them to say that there is no God but Allah. Similarly, all such people who contracted treaties with Muslims before their subjugation (mu’ahid/ahl al-ṣulḥ) were allowed to follow their religion. They, too, were not forced to convert. We must, therefore, try to discover the true meaning of this narrative. If we consider the word “the people” in the narrative specifically referring to the children of Isma’il, based on obvious textual indications, the ḥadith narrative conforms to the teachings of the Quran.
I have explained in my commentary on the Quran the Divine law regarding the Messengers (rusul) and their direct addressees. I have explained that sometimes God sends a Prophet (nabi) as a Messenger (rasul) to a nation. The Messenger makes his message plain. He establishes his claim by a number of portents and removes all possible doubts on his claim to be a Divine Messenger. If his addressees reject him and his message even after the itmam al-ḥujjah (making the truth obvious in a conclusive manner), the rejecters are either struck by God’s cosmic punishment and destroyed or, otherwise, punished at the hands of the believers.
It is this way (sunnah) of God that this hadith explains. It is a historical fact that the Prophet ﷺ was primarily sent to the Children of Isma’il, who were his direct addressees. Therefore, after the itmam al-ḥujjah was accomplished by the Prophet ﷺ, they were left to choose between death and faith. They were not held in bondage, nor were they offered to pay jizyah and follow their religion.
Similar problematic narratives bearing upon issues of great importance abound in the hadith literature. It is, therefore, very important to learn the context of the situation of the reported acts and statements of the Prophet ﷺ. Failure to understand the true context of such narratives has perplexed most of our renowned scholars who badly failed to explain such problematic narratives. They either adopted an apologetic attitude with regard to these narratives or came to hold clearly unfounded views.
5. Mutual Harmony of Religion, Human Nature, and Reason
The fifth and the last guiding principle in this regard is that religion does not contradict the dictates of reason and fiṭrah (human nature). God has indeed based the teachings of religion on the dictates of fiṭrah (human nature).
Fiṭrah of God upon which He has modeled the humans. (Q 30:30)
Religion highlights the dictates of reason and fiṭrah, shapes them in the form of principles, and bases the entire system of human life on it. Hence, it cannot contradict fiṭrah. It follows from this that everything that is against reason and fiṭrah would definitely contradict the religion.
Just as the entire call of the Quran is based on reason and intellect, and the Book pleads to it in the support of its claims; similarly, ahaadith penetrates our hearts through reason and fiṭrah. It does not contain something opposed to reason and fiṭrah. If we find any such hadith we must investigate and ponder over it in more depth. We shall either appreciate that, previously, we were misinterpreting the hadith or learn that the narrative is not sound.
We must also appreciate that, at times, we fail to grasp all aspects of a stated fact. If we fail to fully understand a prophetic statement and we realize that the reason for our failure lies in the limitations of the human intellect, we should not hastily brand the narrative as against reason and fiṭrah. It entails that if we see that a statement contradicts reason and fiṭrah, we should continue contemplating it till we are able to grasp its meaning or conclude that it lies out of the scope of the human mind. If, however, repeated investigation proves that the narrative contradicts reason and fiṭrah and there is no way we can reconcile between the two, then it must be boldly rejected.
I also want to emphasize that, in this discussion, I do not mean to refer to the understanding and reasoning of those who do not use intellect and reason properly. Nor do I refer to those who make their reason hostage to the desires of their flesh. Their issue should be referred to God for judgment.
Religion and the shariah are not trivial affairs. They command serious consideration. The prophetic sayings form part of the religion of God. To declare that a particular statement is a genuine prophetic saying is a grave judgment. It is a matter of great responsibility. Not everyone is able to discharge this duty. There are no doubt other principles of hadith investigation. They, too, are important to us. However, the ones which I have mentioned above are fundamental. They provide firm and foundational rules to guide the student. It is not possible for one to properly understand and explain ahaadith without taking them into consideration.
Translated from Mabadi Tadabbur-i Hadith by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi. Amin Ahsan Islahi (1904 – 1997) was an Islamic scholar from the Indian Sub Continent. He is widely known for his Quranic commentary “Tadabbur-i-Qur’an”
1. Khaṭib Baghdadi, al-Kifayah fi ‘Ilm al-Riwayah (Haiderabad Deccan: Da’irah al-Ma’arif al-‘Uthmaniyah, 1938), 15.
2. The author refers to the viewpoint of Abu al-Aa’la Mawdudi. See Abu al-A’la Mawdudi, Rasa’il-o Masa’il, 22nd ed., vol. 1 (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1990), 64-68.