Islamic Tradition and the Muslim Hadith

I WILL begin this article by looking at the early origins of the Hadith and trying to ascertain both how and why Muslims first began to use these texts as part of a complex system of Islamic jurisprudence. It will also be necessary to study how the Hadith were collated, examine their basic structure and, more importantly, concentrate on the manner in which the Hadith relate to Shari’ah law and provide a series of examples which demonstrate how Muslims use them to emulate the life and message of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632CE) to the best of their abilities.

Prior to the arrival of Muhammad himself, Arab tribes had already developed a system by which the heritage of a specific community could be secured and passed on to future generations. This process was known as the sunna, an oral-based tradition which had the ability to provide early Semitic peoples with a wealth of valuable information which had been gleaned from their racial antecedents. When the Prophet related the tale of his mystical encounter with the Archangel Gabriel to his contemporaries, therefore, subsequent generations of the Quraysh clan were inevitably bound to hear of such revelations one way or another. Indeed, despite the scepticism with which Muhammad’s pronouncements were initially met, the emerging creed of Islam was able to exploit the sunna method in order to achieve a sense of permanence, tradition and longevity. If future generations of Muslims were to live in accordance with the demands of Allah, it was necessary to infuse or even override existing oral traditions by scrupulously concentrating upon the comparatively supernatural words and deeds of the Prophet. Whilst the Qur’an was able to provide a certain amount of guidance in its own right, it was simply not enough. Indeed,

there are many matters where guidance for practical living is necessary but about which the Qur’an says nothing. In such cases the obvious thing was to follow custom.[1]

Consequently, the Hadith took its place beside the Qur’an as a key element of Islamic teaching and practice, and those Muslims who had never met Muhammad for themselves now

began to turn to the Companions and those who had been nearest to him, to tell them about the Prophet[2].

The foundations of Arab society began to experience a radical shift and the purely temporal role of the genealogical sunna gradually became absorbed within the theocratic blue-print of the dominant Muslim Hadith. The historical figure of Muhammad eventually began to overshadow the comparatively ordinary men and women who had, up to then, formed the very basis of the collective Arab memory. As H.A.R. Gibb rightly contends, even the Qur’an itself

speaks of the unchanging sunna of Allah and reproaches the Muslims for clinging to the sunna of their fathers.[3]

But whilst this fascination with Muhammad’s life had become the dominant theme in Islamic, not least because all good Muslims were keen to emulate the life of their beloved Prophet, the role of the Hadith was gradually perverted for

once it was recognised that tradition was coming to have a place of authority as a supplement to the Qur’an, every group, every party, every movement developing within the community supplied itself with a selection of traditions which would give Prophetic authority for its particular point of view.[4]

Indeed, some Muslims began to use Hadith for their own ends and

Tradition was being invaded by forgeries on a vast scale, sometimes by editing and supplanting genuine old traditions, more often by simple invention. Partisans winked at the abuse, and even the pious were not averse to giving credence to sayings which emphasised moral or doctrinal points.[5]

In addition,

The name of Muhammad was abused to support all manner of lies and absurdities, or to satisfy the passion, caprice, or arbitrary will of the despots, leaving out of consideration the creation of any standards of test.[6]

The blame for much of this fraudulent activity can be firmly laid at the door of the various dynastic oligarchies and a cursory tour of early Islamic history will reveal that

Omayyads, Abbasids and Alids are to be seen fighting and disrupting, calling to their aid multitudes of Hadith. They are initiated by the dissident sects.[7]

But this abuse of Aran tradition was not confined to the realms of governmental power. On the contrary, at the basic community level we find that

The Hadith is even made to sub serve personal grudges. To revenge himself on a schoolmaster that has chastised his child, a muhaddith will invent traditions depreciating pedagogues.[8]

Incredibly, therefore, we can see how certain Muslims – or at least the bureaucratic or communal tensions beneath which they laboured – were prepared to abuse the Hadith in order to legitimise their own political, social and economic agenda. Needless to say, it became absolutely essential for those who were most loyal to the Prophetic tradition to provide an effective framework to safeguard against this kind of forgery and wholesale deception. In order to regulate the Hadith, therefore, each statement was carefully arranged into a rating system. Firstly, each narrator had to declare his source,

and if that person was not himself an original Companion, the source from which he had received it.[9]

This enabled Islamic scholars to trace these various statements down through a chain of transmission and back to their origins, a process which became known as isnad. Biographical data was divided into generations, beginning with those Muslims who knew Muhammad personally (Companions) and running through the second (Followers-on) and third (Followers of the Followers) generations. Finally, Hadith were put into three distinct categories: sound (sahih), good (hasan) and weak (da’if).

Thus far, we have seen how important it was for Muslims to safeguard their religious heritage by superseding the oral and genealogical traditions of their forefathers. This process was finally achieved by organising a mass collection of all information relating to Muhammad’s personal statements. Indeed, whilst the Hadith are contained in six main canonical volumes – the Sahih of Al-Bukhari (c.870CE), the Sahih of Muslim (c.875CE), the Sunan of Ibn Maja (c.887CE), the Sunan of Abu Dawud (c.888CE), the Jami of at-Tirmidhi (c.892CE) and the Sunan of an-Nasa’i (c.915CE) – such a task fell mainly to Imran Bukhari, who, during the final third of the ninth century CE, is said to have

traveled to many places gathering the precious gems that fell from the lips of the noble Prophet Muhammad.[10]

In fact Bakhari collected over 300,000 Hadith and memorised over 200,000 of them himself, finally arriving at the conclusion that just 7,275 were truly authentic. The Sahih al-Bakhari is comprised of 97 different sections and sub-divided into a total of 3,450 chapters (bab). Each section is devoted to a particular aspect of Islamic life, systematically incorporating the general tenets of prayer, fasting, alms, testimony, buying and selling, surety, marriage and divorce. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, within the Hadith one can read what Muhammad said

at times of distress, in receiving an ambassador, in treating a prisoner, in dealing with the family, and in nearly every other situation which touches upon the domestic, economic, social and political life of man.[11]

Bukhari’s overall purpose, of course, was

to furnish the canon lawyers and theologians with the most carefully scrutinised and authenticated traditions on all matters of faith and conduct, arranged for ready reference[12].

In a more practical sense, H. A. R. Gibb believes that the Sahih al-Bukhari

gave formal approval to the results achieved by the scholars of the second century in asserting what was felt to be the genuinely Islamic standpoint against deviating tendencies in law and doctrine, and anchored them securely to the device of ascribing them to Muhammad himself.[13]

Indeed, whilst I will turn to the practical application of the Hadith in due course, there is little doubt that Muslims owe a great deal to Bukhari’s painstaking efforts to create an administrative bedrock of enduring Islamic tradition.

One form of Islamic tradition not included in the six canonical works mentioned above, is that of the Hadith Qudsi (Divine Saying). These are a distinct breed of statements relating to the various occasions when Muhammad transmitted the word of Allah directly. On the other hand, whilst Muslims widely acknowledge that the Hadith Qudsi represent a genuine form of divine authority in their own right, they have never been incorporated within the text of the Qur’an or used in ritual prayer and those “contesting their authenticity would not thereby incur the stigma of infidelity”[14]. But although Muslims have never quite resolved where the Hadith Qudsi truly stand in relation to the Qur’an and the Hadith, William A. Graham is of the opinion that

not even the most recent Muslim writers would deny that the Divine Saying occupies a special place between Qur’an and Hadith proper as both divine and prophetic utterance.[15]

Furthermore, it remains a fact that the very nature of Sufism – the deeply mystical arm of Islam – is actually

based on these sayings and many a Sufi knows them by heart and lives in constant remembrance of their message.[16]

For Sufis, therefore, apart from the Qur’an the Hadith Qudsi are perceived to be the most direct form of communication between Allah and his worshippers.

Returning to the most common form of Hadith, whenever Muslims originally sought to emulate the exemplary deeds of the Prophet they realised that in order to practice their creed within an atmosphere of communal obedience it was necessary to develop an effective judicial framework. With the demise of the Umayyads, many Muslims in the West refused to give their allegiance to the incoming Abbasid caliphate and

there was a sudden burst of activity for the purification of political and social practices and the codification of the Divine Law as established in the Qur’an and Hadith.[17]

The third school of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), itself an extension of Shari’ah law, argued that Hadith lay at the very root of Shari’ah law itself. Following hard on the heels of his legal predecessors, Ibn Hanbal discounted the interrelated concepts of consensus (ijma) and analogical reasoning (qiyas) and soon came to regard the Hadith as second only to the Qur’an.

Due to the fact that Islam was gradually being exported to those lands on the very fringes of the Empire, Muslims knew that it was necessary to unite the expanding ummah by assuming a decidedly internationalist mentality. Consequently, it remains a fact “that the Hadith collections became the vital source for all decisions in the Arab world.”[18]

Shari’ah law may seem rather antiquated or authoritarian to the twenty-first century mindset, even more so in an age of rampant liberalism, but the fact that it systematically controls all aspects of Islamic life means that it undoubtedly accords with Muhammad’s own inimitable methods of spiritual leadership. The Qur’an leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that the Prophet was “a good example”[19] and, as Merlin L. Swartz explains, during his lifetime

[It] was he who decided matters of law, established taxes, and answered questions relating to ceremony and liturgy, etc. Thus from the beginning there stood, beside the Word of God, the living example of the Prophet.[20]

The fact that Muhammad is no longer able to lead his followers personally should not prevent subsequent Muslim generations from observing the precepts which, through the divine intervention of Allah, he himself had devised. So what can a broad overview of the Hadith tell us about the way Muslims actually depend on the documents themselves?

Marriage, which is covered extensively in the Qur’an, is a vital aspect of the Hadith and in one particular example we find that it represents a form of chastity and self-discipline:

He who is able to marry should marry, for it keeps the eye cast down and keeps a man chaste; and he who cannot, should take to fasting, for it will have a castrating effect upon him. (B30:10)

Elsewhere, the Hadith reveal that marriage is a contract between equals (IM 9:46), a time for exchanging gifts (B 67:65), of rejecting contraception (B 67:97) and increasing the ummah by engaging in procreational activity (Tr-Msh 19:3).

We also find that although “[w]ith Allah, the most detestable of all things is divorce” (AD 13:3), Muslims can effectively bring their marriages to an end providing the female partner is not currently menstruating (B 65:65) and the divorce is pronounced in the presence of witnesses (IM 10:5). Divorce is also permitted when a husband accuses his wife of adultery but can find no evidence to support his claim (B 68:27).

The Hadith are also important for the contribution they make to prayer. Indeed, whilst much of the Qur’an is concentrated upon the importance of this devotional activity, none but the Hadith can lead the way in a practical sense by revealing the actual form this kind of activity must take.

To conclude, Muslims can rely on the Hadith to clarify that which has not been made absolutely clear in the Qur’an. In other words, whilst it unquestionably represents the spiritual mainstay of the Islamic religion itself, the Qur’an is somewhat inadequate in that it still fails to satisfy the more inquisitive demands of its adherents. In terms of their great relevance for those wishing to imitate the life of the Prophet, the Hadith serve a very similar purpose to that played by the Christian Gospels of the New Testament. Whilst Christians are able to study both the word of God and the deeds of Christ within a single collected volume, Muslims are forced to refer to the Hadith in order to further elaborate upon the divine revelations of the Qur’an.

A cynic would argue, perhaps, that Islam could only become a fitting rival to Christianity once it had developed an etymological form of its own. A Muslim, on the other hand, may respond by suggesting that although it had developed several centuries later than its theological counterpart, Islam had an advantage over Christianity due to the fact that Muhammad is regarded as the Last Prophet and therefore his followers have been provided with the final piece in the proverbial jigsaw.

The Hadith have since become the crowning glory of a religion which prides itself on the concepts of obedience, discipline and, ultimately, willing submission. More importantly, the Hadith serve also as a mirror in which the growth and development of Islam as a way of life and of the larger Islamic community are most truly reflected.[21]


1. Arthur Jeffery (ed.), A Reader on Islam (Arno Press, 1980), p.7.

2. Ibid.

3. H. A. R. Gibb, Mohammedanism (Oxford University Press, 1969), p.50.

4. Jeffery, op. cit.

5. H. A. R. Gibb, op. cit., p.51.

6. Moulavi Cheragh Ali, The Proposed Political Reforms in the Ottoman Empire and Other Mohammedan States as quoted by Alfred Guillaume in The Traditions of Islam (Oxford University Press, 1924), p.29.

7. H. Lammens, Islam: Beliefs and Institutions (Frank Cass & Co., 1968), p.71.

8. Ibid.

9. H. A. R. Gibb, op. cit., pp.51-2.

10. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (trans.), The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari: Volume One (Kitab Bhavan, 1984), p.xvi.

11. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam (George Allen & Unwin, 1988), p.79.

12. H. A. R. Gibb, op. cit., p.54.

13. Ibid., p.57.

14. H. Lammens, op.cit., p.81.

15. William A. Graham, Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam (Mouton, 1977), p.66.

16. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, op.cit., p.83.

17. Ibid., p.103.

18. David Pearl, A Textbook on Muslim Personal Law (Croom Helm, 1987), p.5.

19. Qur’an, 33:21.

20. Merlin L. Swartz, Studies on Islam (Oxford University Press, 1981), p.100.

21. H. A. R. Gibb, op. cit., p.58.


Maulana Muhammad Ali, A Manual of Hadith (Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat Islam, undated).

Abdul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Saviours of Islamic Spirit: Volume One (Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, 1970).

David Waines, An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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