By Muhammad Asad

The Qur'aan

            In the Holy Qur'aan mankind possesses the true Word of God, revealed through the person of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and preserved in its original version without the least alteration for more than thirteen centuries. We can say without exaggeration that history knows of no other book which has nearly in the same degree influenced the destinies of so large a proportion of humanity for so long a period. Even to-day, when materialism is rampant in the world as it was never before, the Holy Qur'aan is the permanent source of inspiration for many millions of men and women all over the world; it is their spiritual food and drink, their guide through darkness, their helper in distress, and the herald of good cheer. Wherever Muslims live, the words of the Qur'aan form an invisible background of their life.

Qur'aan or the Sunnah

            What is the explanation of this unchanging, enduring power of the Qur'aanic word over the minds of men? There are two answers to this question: a metaphysical and a rationalistic. The metaphysical answer is that God Almighty in His inscrutable wisdom has decreed that this Book be the final guidance for Mankind, the Creator's last word to His creation; and so He protected it from alteration and endowed it with everlasting charm against which no unspoiled mind can remain immune. But this answer will satisfy only those who are already Believers. The other answer, however, is bound to satisfy not only Muslims but every rational being. This answer is: the power behind the Book of God, the dynamic element which has forced innumerable millions of men to submit to the guidance of the Qur'aan, is to be found in the overwhelming personality of the Last Prophet who communicated it to the world. For so great was the spiritual strength of this holy personality that it forced all those who were around him to believe in the truth of the Book because it was he who brought it to the knowledge of Man. The Word of God was, in those earliest days of Islam, an abstract, proposition: but the personality of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) endowed it with real flesh and blood. In the words of 'A'ishah, the Mother of the Faithful:

"His character was the character of the Qur'aan",

that is, the Qur'aanic teaching was perfected in his personality into a reality of life. It is an historical fact that many of the greatest Companions came to believe in the Holy Qur'aan - nay, in God - because they first believed in their Prophet. Thus, the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet - his way of life, his sayings and actions - became for all times the Road to Islam.

Main Source after Qur'aan

            The Sunnah of the Prophet is, therefore, the main source of Islamic ethics and social law next to the Qur'aan. In fact, we must regard the Sunnah as the only valid explanation of the Qur'aanic teachings, the only means of avoiding dissension concerning their interpretation and adaptation for practical use. Many verses of the Holy Qur'aan have an allegorical or metaphorical meaning and could be understood in different ways unless we possess some sure system of interpretation. On the other hand, there are many items of practical importance not explicitly dealt with in the Qur'aan. The spirit prevailing in the Holy Book is, to be sure, uniform throughout; but the deduction of the practical attitude which we have to adopt is not in every case an easy matter. So long as we believe that this Book is the Word of God, perfect in form and purpose, the only logical conclusion is that it was never intended to be used independently of the personal guidance of the Holy Prophet as embodied in the system of his Sunnah. Our reason tells us that there could not possibly be a better arbiter as regards the interpretation of the Qur'aanic teachings than he through whom these teachings have been revealed to humanity. The slogan we sometimes hear today:

"Let us go back to the Qur'aan, but let us not remain slavish followers of the Sunnah,"

merely betrays an ignorance of Islam. Those who speak so resemble the man who wishes to enter a palace, but for some reason or other does not wish to employ the genuine key which alone is fit to open the door.

Sources of Sunnah

            Here comes the very important question as to the reliability of the sources which reveal to us the life and the sayings of the Prophet of Islam. These sources are the Hadis, the Traditions of the sayings and actions of the Holy Prophet reported by his Companions and further transmitted by their successors, and finally collected and critically sifted in the first centuries after the Hijrah. Many "modern" Muslims profess that they would like to follow Sunnah, but they think they cannot rely upon the body of Hadis on which it rests. It has become almost a matter of fashion in our day to deny, in principle, the authenticity of Hadis and, therefore, of the whole structure of Sunnah.

Reliability of Hadis

            Are Hadis reliable? - that is, do they represent genuine account of the sayings and doings of the Prophet, or have they been, partly or wholly, invented during a later period?


            A definite answer to this question is obviously of utmost importance to the ideological future of Islam; but in spite of its importance no serious attempt was till recently made by Muslims to vindicate the authenticity of Hadis from a modern scientific point of view. On the other side, this authenticity has been repeatedly challenged in the fairly voluminous European literature on this subject; and it cannot be denied that the writings of European Orientalists have to some extent shaken the belief of "educated" Muslims in the reliability of Hadis. But a close scrutiny of those writings reveals the fact that the Western methods of investigation with regard to Hadis do not quite correspond to the idea of historical fairness otherwise so strictly insisted upon by European scholars. The deep-rooted Western bias against Islam, born of the Crusades and perpetuated during the subsequent centuries of politico-cultural hostility between the Western and the Muslim worlds, has found its adequate expression in the Orientalist literature of Europe, and this bias is indirectly reflected in the writings of many modern Muslim "critics" of Hadis who have - consciously or unconsciously - succumbed to the lure of Western civilisation. But in spite of all the efforts that have been employed to challenge the authenticity of Hadis as a system, those modern critics, both Eastern and Western, have not been able to back their purely temperamental criticism with results of scientific research. It would be rather difficult to do so, for the compilers of the early Hadis collections, and particularly Imam Bukhari, have done whatever was humanly possible to put the reliability of every Tradition they investigated to a very rigorous test than European historians usually apply to any source of history.

Meaning of Hadis

            "HADIS" primarily denotes a report or a narrative of events; in the Islamic theological usage it has come to mean the records of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace). It was as much from the Master's example as from the Qur'aan that his Companions derived their belief and their rules of conduct; and for later generations, who had no more the life of the Prophet before their eyes, the exact knowledge of Hadis became an even greater necessity. The prodigious memory of the Arabs, so amply borne out by history, was a great advantage for a faithful preservation of Hadis. Besides, even in the lifetime of the Prophet several Companions (e.g. 'Abdullah Ibn Umar') used to commit these reports to writing. Until the second century after the Hijrah, however, there was no system in these collections. In consequence, much unreliable material got mixed up with the genuine. As a reaction to this the critical investigation of Hadis was taken up and was rapidly developed into a science by the greatest scholars of the period.

Means of Verification

            In the case of historical documents relating to a time anterior to their final compilation the means of verification are:

                (a) the corroboration of historical evidence through records based on independent sources, and

                (b) the investigation of the individual reliability of the authorities concerned.

This principle was applied in the fullest measure to Hadis. Different accounts bearing on the same subject were critically compared, and the line of narrators (called isnaa) was in every single case subjected to a very intensive scrutiny. In order that a Hadis be recognised as "sound" (sahih), all facts concerning the lives of its transmitters, commencing with the Companion, who first reported it, must be historically established. Every transmitter must be known as truthful, pious, just, and as possessing a faultless memory. A transmitter whose life and character are not perfectly well-known is classified as "obscure" (Majhul), and the report in the isnaa' of which he figures is rejected as "weak" (da'uif). If two or more men who could be otherwise regarded as reliable narrate conflicting Hadis, they automatically lose their claim to reliability.

A Complete Science

            It would go far beyond the limits of this article to dwell in detail on the scrupulous method by which the reliability of Hadis was investigated by the early scholars of Islam. For our purpose here it may suffice to say that a complete science was evolved, the only object of which was the research into the meaning, the form and the way of transmission of Hadis. A historical branch of this science had succeeded in establishing an unbroken chain of detailed biographies of all those personalities who may be regarded as reliable transmitters of Hadis. The lives of those men and women have been thoroughly investigated from every point of view, and only those of them have been accepted as "reliable transmitters" whose life and way of transmitting a Hadis perfectly respond to the rigorous test stipulated by the great representatives of this Science. The primary ground for the rejection of a Hadis as unreliable would be the supposition that its first narrator, namely, the Companion concerned or one of the later transmitters, had committed a willful lie. As to the Companions such a possibility can be ruled out from the very beginning. It requires only some insight into the psychological side of the problem in order to relegate such assumptions to the domain or pure fancy. The tremendous impression which the personality of the Prophet created on these men is one of the outstanding facts of Human History, and is too well documented to require a re-statement. Is it conceivable that men who were ever ready to sacrifice themselves and everything they possessed at the bidding of the Apostle of God would play tricks with his words? One of the best authenticated of all sayings of the Prophet, reported by hundreds of this companions, is this:

"Whoso intentionally lies about me, will take his abode in Hell."

(Recorded by Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Darimi, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal.)

            Is it probable, from the psychological point of view, that the Companions, with all their proved love of and devotion to the Prophet, disregarded this very definite injunction?

Careful Precautions

            As to the later transmitters of Hadis, we have already pointed out above what extremely careful precautions were taken by the early scholars of Islam in order to prevent a mixing up of unreliable Hadis with the reliable ones. To this the following may be added: in criminal court proceedings the first question facing the judge is, cui bono - for whose benefit the crime possibly was committed. This judicial principle can as well be applied to the problem of Hadis. With the exception of Hadis which could directly concern the status of certain persons or groups, e.g., the decidedly spurious - and by almost all scholars rejected - Hadis connected with the political claims of the different factions in the first century after the Prophet's death, there could have been no "profitable" reason for any individual to falsify sayings of the Prophet. It was with the just appreciation of the possibility of such Hadis being invented with a view to serving some personal ends that the two foremost authorities in this domain, the Imams Bukhari and Muslim, have rigorously excluded from their compilations every Hadis relating to party politics; and what remained was fairly above the suspicion of giving personal advantages to anyone. As regards Hadis relating to other subjects, the original tests of authenticity were quite sufficient to discern between the genuine and the spurious.

Possibility of Mistake

            But there is still another argument on which the authenticity of Hadis could be challenged. It is said that either the Companion who heard the saying from the lips of the Prophet or witnessed the event concerned, or one of the later narrators, might have committed - while being subjectively truthful - a mistake due to a misunderstanding or a lapse of memory or some other psychological reason. But the internal, that is, psychological, evidence speaks against any great possibility of such mistakes, at least on the part of the Companions. For people who lived with the Holy Prophet, every one of his sayings and actions was of the greatest weight - not only owing to the fascination which his personality exerted on them, but also on account of their firm belief that if was God's Will and Command that they should regulate their life down to the minutest details, according to the example and the direction of the Prophet. Therefore the Companions could not take the question of his actions and utterances off-hand, but tried to learn and to preserve them in their memory even at the cost of great personal discomforts. It is a well-known fact that the Companions who were directly associated with the Prophet - i.e., those who have figured as narrators of Hadis - arranged themselves in groups of two men each, one of whom was to be alternately in the vicinity of the Prophet while the other was busy with the pursuit of his livelihood or other duties; and whatever they heard or saw of their Master they communicated to each other. It is not at all probable that men who were thus anxious lest some saying or doing of the Prophet should escape their notice were negligent as to the exact wording of a Hadis. And if it was possible for hundreds of Companions to preserve in their memory the exact wording of the Holy Qur'aan, even in its smallest details of spelling, then it was, no doubt, equally possible for them and for those who immediately followed them to keep single sayings of the Prophet in their memory without adding or subtracting anything. And in order to safeguard themselves against any lapse of memory on the part of any later transmitters, the early Muslim scholars ascribe perfect authenticity to those Hadis only which are reported in the same form through different, independent chains of transmitters.

Sahih al-Bukhari

            Of all compilations of Hadis none has ever attained to the extraordinary esteem in which the work of Al-Bukhari is held throughout the world of Islam. None of the scholars before or after him has ever succeeded in reaching that critical insight into the problem of Hadis which has made Imam Bukhari the highest authority wherever and whenever Hadis is discussed. His work is, in the consensus of all Muslim scholars, the most perfect book after the Holy Qur'aan. From his childhood to his death he had one aim only: to collect the authentic records of the Holy Prophet's sayings and doings, to sift them with all the faculties of his great intellect, and to leave to posterity as faultless an account of the life and the teachings of the Greatest Man. The severity of Bukhari's judgment may be seen in the fact that he collected nearly 600,000 Hadis during his lifetime, but deemed only about 7,300 fit to be regarded as 'sound' (sahih): and it must be borne in mind that many Hadis included in the above number are repeated - albeit with different chains of narrators - in various places of his work, so that the total number of independent Hadis contained in the Sahih-al-Bukhari does not exceed about 3,000. During his extensive travels Imam Bukhari met 1,080 transmitters of Hadis in Balkh, Merv, Nisha-pur, Ray, Baghdad, Basrah, Kufah, Makkah, Madinah, Wasit, Cairo, Damascus, Qaysariyyah, Asqalan, and Hims. About 70,000 students listened to his lectures in Makkah and Bukhara and many a man who later became famous himself as a scholar of Hadis prided himself in having been a disciple of Imam Bukhari.

The Holy Prophet's Life

            It is now for every educated Muslim, man and woman, to study the Holy Prophet's life from the original and most trustworthy sources, and to acquaint oneself with every phase of that greatest event of history, the Birth of Islam. If Muslim culture is ever to regain its former strength and glory, it must be rebuilt on its original foundations - the teachings and the personality of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Every educated Muslim has now an opportunity to contribute his share to the revival of Islam by gaining and spreading the knowledge of the Holy Prophet's life, and thus to elevate to a reality the words of the Qur'aan:

"Verily in the Apostle of God ye have the best example." (XXXIII - 21).






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