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Criticism of Hadith

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Criticism of Hadith

The criticism of Hadith refers to critique directed towards canonised reports concerning the deeds and sayings of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad that are known as (the) Hadith. The criticism revolves primarily around the question of the authenticity of hadith reports and whether they are attributable to Muhammad. This criticism also challenges the authority of the hadith to provide rulings on legal and religious matters when the Quran has already declared itself "complete", "clear", "detailed" and "perfect" in numerous verses (e.g. 11:1, 12:1, 6:115, 6:38, 6:114, 16:89). It is argued by these Muslims that using the Quran as the sole axiom, all matters in Islam requiring guidance can be deduced directly from the Quran, while anything that is left outside the Quran is by definition outside the scope of importance and thus requires no ruling. This group therefore rejects the sharia (legal rulings by traditional scholars) which contradicts Quranic verses and considers it as man-made law which challenges the authority of God's law contained in the Quran.

Sunni and Shi'a Muslims accept the authenticity of the majority of the Hadith, though they often disagree over the authenticity of certain hadith or how others might be interpreted, and have different canonical collections. Shi'as also believe that narrations of the Fourteen Infallibles, especially Ali bin Abi Talib, are valid as hadith, whereas Sunnis accept only narrations traceable to Muhammad: Sunnis and Shi'as also have different methods of analysing the chain of transmitters, as Sunnis view all of the Companions of Muhammad to be upright individuals, and their narrations valid and free from defect of malicious intent, whereas Shi'as analyse the life of each Companion separately in determining whether their narrations are authentic. Others, described as Qur'anists, do not consider the hadith to be an integral part of Islam and interpret the Qur'an without reference to them.


It has been suggested that there exists around the Hadith three major sources of corruption: political conflicts, sectarian prejudice, and the desire to translate the underlying meaning, rather than the original words verbatim.[1]

Orthodox Muslims do not deny the existence of false hadith, but believe that through the scholars' work, these false hadith have been largely eliminated.[2]

Muslim critics of the hadith, Quranists, reject the authority of hadith on theological grounds, pointing to verses in the Quran itself: "Nothing have We omitted from the Book",[3] declaring that all necessary instruction can be found within the Quran, without reference to the Hadith. They claim that following the Hadith has led to people straying from the original purpose of God's revelation to Muhammad, adherence to the Quran alone.[4]

Other grounds, on which the criticism of the authenticity of the Hadith rests, include the questionable historicity of such reports and the observed inconsistency of many of these reports with the text of the Quran, scientific findings, and reason. The questionable historicity of the Hadith in turn is attributable to problems related to the chains of narraters (isnad) and the texts conveyed by the narraters in each chain (matn).[5]

Early prohibitions against hadith collection

"Do not write anything from me except the Qur'an. Whoever wrote, must destroy it."

Muhammad, as narrated by Abu Sa'eed al-Khudri[6][7]

Within the Hadith, Muhammad is reported to have forbidden his followers from writing down anything he said, with the exception of the Revelation he received from Angel Jibril, the Quran.[7][8] After Muhammad's death, Umar is also reported to have stated that he had desired to write down a collection of Muhammad's sayings, but refrained for fear of the Muslims choosing to abandon the teachings of the Quran in favour of the Hadith.[9]

Early in Islamic history, there was a school of thought that adhered to the view that the Hadith were incompatible with Islam, but it receded in importance after criticism by al-Shafi'i.

In response to criticism, orthodox Muslims point to hadith that legitimise hadith collection. For example, a man was said to have come to Muhammad and complained about his memory, saying: "We hear many things from you, but most of them slip our minds because we cannot memorize them" and was encouraged to write them down to avoid forgetting them.[10] AbdAllah ibn ‘Amr also said that the Quraysh had forbidden him to write down the words of Muhammad, noting that "the Prophet is human, who speaks while angry and pleased?", but was reassured when Muhammad responded that "nothing emanates from [his mouth] except the truth,”[11] but, again, these accounts are derived from the sources being criticised.

Within the Quran itself, a number of verses mention hadith. The following examples are from the Yusuf Ali translation, with the instances where the word hadith is translated and added in parenthesis which usually seems to referring to Quran:

  • 4:87 Allah, there is no god but He; of a surety He will gather you together against the Day of Judgement, about which there is no doubt. And whose word can be truer than Allah's?
  • 7:185 Do they see nothing in the government of the heavens and the earth and all that Allah hath created? (Do they not see) that it may well be that their terms is nigh drawing to an end? In what message after this will they then believe?
  • 31:6 But there are, among men, those who purchase idle tales, without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a Humiliating Penalty.
  • 39:23 Allah has revealed (from time to time) the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teaching in various aspects)...

Criticism of the Hadith by Muslims

Early criticism of the Hadith predates the time of Al-Shafii (d. 204 AH/820 CE) and is found in a text that Muslim tradition holds to be a letter from the Kharijite Abd Allah Ibn Ibad to the Caliph Abd al-Malik in 76/695. Though the authorship and dating of this letter are in some dispute, it still predates al-Shafii and its importance as a challenge to the authority of the Hadith remains undented. A key passage of this letter criticizes the Kufans for taking “Hadiths” for their religion abandoning the Quran. “They believed in a book which was not from God, written by the hands of men; they then attributed it to the Messenger of God.”[12] A group referred to as Ahl al-Kalam, who lived during the time of Al-Shafii and mentioned in his Kitab Jima al-Ilm rejected the Hadith on theological grounds. Their basic argument was that the Quran was an explanation of everything (16:89). They contended that obedience to the Prophet was contained in obeying only the Qur'an that God has sent down to him, and that when the Qur’an mentioned the Book together with Wisdom, the Wisdom was the specific rulings of the Book.”[13] Daniel Brown notes that the principal argument of Ahl al-Kalam was that the Hadith does not accurately reflect the Prophetic example, as the transmission of Hadith reports was not reliable. The Prophetic example, they argued, “has to be found elsewhere – first and foremost in following the Qur’an.” And according to them, “the corpus of Hadith is filled with contradictory, blasphemous, and absurd traditions.”[14]

Mutazilites, who represented one of the earliest rationalist Muslim theological schools, and are the later Ahl al-Kalam, also viewed the transmission of the Prophetic sunnah as not sufficiently reliable. The Hadith, according to them, was mere “guesswork and conjecture [… and] the Quran was complete and perfect, and did not require the Hadith or any other book to supplement or complement it.”[15]

Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) is often considered the founder of the first movement to begin challenging the traditional schools of thought within Islam seriously and systematically. He is noted for his application of "rational science" to the Quran and Hadith and his conclusion that the Hadith were not legally binding on Muslims.[16] He “questioned the historicity and authenticity of many, if not most, traditions, much as the noted scholars Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht would later do.”[17] He doubted Hadith compilers’ capacity to judge the character of Hadith transmitters of several past generations involved in oral Hadith transmission, and notes, “it is difficult enough to judge the character of living people, let alone long dead. The muhaddithun [Hadith scholars/transmitters] did the best they could, but their task was almost impossible.”[18] His student, Chiragh ‘Ali, went further, suggesting nearly all the Hadith were fabrications.[16]

At the turn of the twentieth century, Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi (d. 1920) of Egypt wrote an article titled ‘al-Islam huwa ul-Qur’an Wahdahu’ (‘Islam is the Qur’an Alone’ that appeared in the Egyptian journal al-Manar, which argues that the Quran is sufficient as guidance: “what is obligatory for man does not go beyond God’s Book. [...] If anything other than the Qur’an had been necessary for religion,” Sidqi notes, “the Prophet would have commanded its registration in writing, and God would have guaranteed its preservation.”[19] "Sidqi held that nothing of the Hadith was recorded until after enough time had elapsed to allow the infiltration of numerous absurd or corrupt traditions.”[20]

Tolu-e-Islam continues to expand the base of his ideas. His seminal work, Maqam-e Hadith argued that the Hadith were composed of "the garbled words of previous centuries", but suggests that he is not against the idea of collected sayings of Muhammad, only that he would consider any hadith that goes against the teachings of Quran to have been falsely attributed to Muhammad.[24] He was also against mystical interpretations of Islam which relegated Islam to the private sphere, as he believed Islam was not actually a "religion" to be practiced individually and based in a dogmatic blind faith. Pervez argued that since God requires certainty from believers and certainty can only be achieved by reason, therefore true Islam is actually inherently opposed to Religion, an argument he elaborated in his scholarly work "Islam: A Challenge to Religion".[25]


The 1986 Malaysian book Hadith: A Re-evaluation by Kassim Ahmad is a notable critique of the Hadith literature. It rejects the Hadith as a basis for theology and law, and states that "the Hadith are 'sectarian, anti-science, anti-reason and anti-women'.[16][29]Traditional Malaysian scholars declared Kassim Ahmad an apostate from Islam, and his book was proscribed by the Malaysian government for these views.

Recent critics of Hadith consider it as the main ingredient that forms the follower-followed relationship between the ordinary Muslim—for whom thorough study of the large literature of Hadith is beyond their available time and budget—and the minority of Hadith experts or scholars.[30] Quran warns about the follower-followed relationship in its general form:

  • When those who have been followed disassociate themselves from those who followed [them], and they [all] see the punishment, and cut off from them are the ties [of relationship],[31]

Considering Hadith as an essential part of Islam results into the modern follower-followed relationship where the common Muslim trusts the expertise and honesty of the minority of Hadith experts and blindly follow their judgment of what is right and wrong (which supposedly stems from the Hadith literature that common Muslim does not have the time and resources to investigate).[32]

Western criticism

John Esposito notes that "Modern Western scholarship has seriously questioned the historicity and authenticity of the hadith", maintaining that "the bulk of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad were actually written much later." He mentions Joseph Schacht, considered the father of the revisionist movement, as one scholar who argues this, claiming that Schacht "found no evidence of legal traditions before 722," from which Schacht concluded that "the Sunna of the Prophet is not the words and deeds of the Prophet, but apocryphal material" dating from later.[33] Henry Preserved Smith and Ignác Goldziher also challenged the reliability of the hadith.[34][35] Other scholars, however, such as Wilferd Madelung, have argued that "wholesale rejection as late fiction is unjustified".[36]

Sam Harris said that "[a]ccording to a literalist reading of the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and the actions of the Prophet) if a Muslim decides that he no longer wants to be a Muslim, he should be put to death. If anyone ventures the opinion that the Koran is a mediocre book of religious fiction or that Muhammad was a schizophrenic, he should also be killed. It should go without saying that a desire to kill people for imaginary crimes like apostasy and blasphemy is not an expression of religious moderation."[37]

Impact of the Hadith

"So far from the Quran alone being the sole rule of faith and practice to Muslims, there is not one single sect amongst them whose faith and practice are based on it alone".

Edward Sell, 1880[38]

Some Muslims, such as Kassim Ahmad, have suggested that the original prohibition against Hadith led to the Golden Age of Islam, as the Quran was able to stand up to critical thinking and questioning; and Muslims were thus schooled to be inquisitive and seek answers to every quandary. They posit that the increased reliance on Hadith, which was allegedly illogical and required the suspension of disbelief, led to the eventual downfall of scholastic pursuits in the religion.[29]

In 1878, Cyrus Hamlin wrote that "Tradition, rather than the Quran, has formed both law and religion for the Moslems".[39] In the early 20th century, a book was written in defence of the Hadith stating "Anyone who denies the role of Abu Hurairah denies half of the canonical law, for half of the hadith on which judgments were based had their origin in Abu Hurairah".[40]

Recently, the Pakistani judiciary has played down the importance of the Hadith compared to the Quran in its court rulings, pointing to theological reasons.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b Brown, Daniel W. "Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought", 1999. p. 113 & 134
  2. ^ Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. "Shi'ism", 1988. p. 35.
  3. ^ Quran, Chapter 6. The Cattle: 38
  4. ^ Donmez, Amber C. "The Difference Between Quran-Based Islam and Hadith-Based Islam"
  5. ^ Rab, Abdur, "Does the Hadith have a Solid Historical Basis?," available at
  6. ^ Sahih Ahmed, Volume I, page 171.
  7. ^ a b Sahih Muslim, Zuhd, 72
  8. ^ Ibn Hanbal, "The messenger of God ordered us never to write anything of his Hadith."
  9. ^ Jami' Al-Bayan 1/67, "I wanted to write the Sun'an, and I remembered a people who were before you, they wrote other books to follow and abandoned the book of God. And I will never, I swear, replace God's book with anything'"
  10. ^ Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 12.
  11. ^ Collected in the Musnad of Ahmad (10\15-6\ 6510 and also nos. 6930, 7017 and 1720), Sunan Abu Dawud (Mukhtasar Sunan Abi Dawud (5\246\3499) and elsewhere.
  12. ^ Michael Cook, Muslim Dogma, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 9; cited in Aisha Y. Musa, Hadith As Scripture: Discussions On The Authority Of Prophetic Traditions In Islam, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 38; taken from Abdur Rab, Rediscovering Genuine Islam: The Case for a Quran-Only Understanding, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014, p. 198.
  13. ^ Musa, ibid, pp. 36-37; taken from Abdur Rab, ibid, p. 199.
  14. ^ Brown, Daniel W., Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (Paperback 1999), pp. 15-16; excerpted from Abdur Rab, ibid, pp. 199-200.
  15. ^ Azami, M. A., Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, 92; cited in Akbarally Meherally, Myths and Realities of Hadith – A Critical Study, (published by Publishers), Burnaby, BC, Canada, 6; available at excerpted from Abdur Rab, ibid, p. 200.
  16. ^ a b c Latif, Abu Ruqayyah Farasat. The Quraniyun of the Twentieth Century, Masters Assertion, September 2006.
  17. ^ Esposito, John L, Islam – The Straight Path, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 134.
  18. ^ Khan, Sayyid Ahmad, Maqalat, I, pp. 27-28; cited in Brown, op. cit., p. 97.
  19. ^ Musa, Aisha Y., Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008, p.6.
  20. ^ Sidqi, Muhammad Tawfiq, “al-Islam huwa al-Qur’an wahdahu,” al-Manar 9 (1906), 515; cited in Daniel Brown, 1996, op. cit., 88-89
  21. ^ Rippin, Andrew, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs And Practices vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 1990), 74; cited in Hadith Authenticity: A Survey Of Perspectives (By Anonymous Author), at website: cited in Abdur Rab, 2014, op. cit, p. 202.
  22. ^ Parwez, Ghulam Ahmed, Salim ke nam khutut, Karachi, 1953, Vol. 1, 43; cited in Daniel Brown, 1996, op. cit., p. 54; cited in Abdur Rab, op.cit, p. 202.
  23. ^ Ahmad, Aziz (1967). Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857 -1964. London: Oxford University Press.  
  24. ^ Pervez, Ghulam Ahmed. Maqam-e Hadith, Urdu version
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Iqbal, Muhammad, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, edited by M. Saeed Sheikh, Adam Publishers and Distributors, Delhi, 1997 (also published earlier (in 1934) by the Oxford University Press), p. 137, cited in Abdur Rab, 2014, op. cit, p. 222.
  28. ^ Al-Shibli, Sirat al-Numan, Lahore, n. d. Trans. Muhammad Tayyab Bakhsh Badauni as Method of Sifting Prophetic Tradition, Karachi, 1966. 179; cited in Brown, op. cit., 114; cited in Abdur Rab, 2014, op. cit., p. 222.
  29. ^ a b Ahmad, Kassim. Hadith: A Re-evaluation, 1986. English translation (1997).
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ Esposito, John (1998). Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press. p. 67.  
  34. ^ "In truth the Hadith must be regarded with marked scepticism, so far as it is used as a source for the life of Mohammed. The forgery or invention of traditions began very early. The Companions were not always too scrupulous to clothe their own opinions in the form of anecdotes...These natural tendencies were magnified by the party spirit which early became rife in Islam. Each party counted among its adherents immediate followers of Mohammed. Each was anxious to justify itself by an appeal to his words and deeds. It is only the natural result that traditions with a notoriously party bias were circulated at an early day. A traditionist of the first rank admits that pious men were inclined to no sort of fraud so much as to the invention of traditions...From our point of view, therefore, many traditions, even if well authenticated to external appearance, bear internal evidence of forgery." Smith, H. P. (1897). The Bible and Islam, or, the Influence of the Old and New Testaments on the Religion of Mohammed: Being the Ely Lectures for 1897 (pp. 32–33). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  35. ^ "...European critics hold that only a very small part of the ḥadith can be regarded as an actual record of Islam during the time of Mohammed and his immediate followers. It is rather a succession of testimonies, often self contradictory, as to the aims, currents of thought, opinions, and decisions which came into existence during the first two centuries of the growth of Islam. In order to give them greater authority they are referred to the prophet and his companions. The study of the ḥadith is consequently of the greater importance because it discloses the successive stages and controlling ideas in the growth of the religious system of Islam." Ignác Goldziher, article on "ḤADITH", in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Singer, I. (Ed.). (1901–1906). 12 Volumes. New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls.
  36. ^ Madelung, Wilferd (1997). The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge University Press. p. xi.  
  37. ^ Sam Harris "Who Are the Moderate Muslims?," The Huffington Post, February 16, 2006 (accessed 11/16/2013)
  38. ^ Sell, Rev. Edward. "The Faith of Islam", 1880.
  39. ^ Hamlin, Cyrus. "Among the Turks", 1878. p. 82
  40. ^ Iþýk, Hüseyin Hilmi. Saadeti Ebediye-Tam Ýlmihal
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