The hadith literature is a body of writings which attempt to accurately reproduce the words spoken by the prophet Muhammad. The value in this endeavour is that, if deemed authoritative, the hadiths can be used to shed light on a number of issues related to Islamic life, including legal proceedings, matters of social conduct, and more.
An example of a hadith is as follows:
‘Abd Allāh bin Yūsuf narrated to me, [he said that] Mālik reported to me from Hishām bin ‘Urwa [who reported] from his father, [who reported] from ‘A’isha the wife of God’s Prophet [that she said,] “Hamza ibn ‘Amr al-Aslamī said to the Prophet: ‘Should I fast while traveling?’ [A’isha states:] He [Hamza] used to fast a lot. The prophet replied ‘If you wish, you may fast, if you wish you may leave off fasting.’”(Bukhārī 30 sawn, 33) Quoted in ‘The Wiley Blackwell Concise Companion to the Hadith‘ (Daniel W. Brown (ed), published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2020), p17
Each hadith contains both an isnād, which is the line of narration going back to the Prophet, and a matn, which is a saying attributed to the Prophet. The isnād is intended to convey sufficient authority in relation to the matn.
There are many different collections containing many thousands of hadith, and it seems that scientific approaches have been developed to help scholars to try to ascertain which hadith can be considered ‘strong’ (authoritative) and which are relatively ‘weak’ (questionable). This is a huge field of study in Islam.
There has been debate, however, since the days of early Islam, concerning whether or not the hadith literature should be used as guidance in addition to the teaching found in the Qur’an. Some of this uncertainty is reflected in the following passage written by scholar of Islam Alfred Guillaume in his book about the hadith literature first published in 1924:
Probably the hadith literature presents us with more contradictory statements on the question as to whether it was permissible to write down traditions of the prophet in the early days of Islam than on any other question. Many express prohibitions can be quoted.
Abu Sa’īd al Khudrī asserts that he asked the prophet’s permission to write down hadith, and it was refused. Abū Huraira is reported to have said: ‘The prophet of God came out to us while we were writing hadith, and said, “What is this that you are writing?” We said, “Hadith which we hear from thee.” Said he, “A book other than the book of God! Do you not know that nothing but the writing of books beside the book of God led astray the peoples that were before you?” We said, “Are we to relate hadith of you, O prophet of God?” He replied, “Relate hadith of me: there is no objection. But he who intentionally speaks falsely on my authority will find a place in hell.”’
In one version Abū Huraira adds that the writings were heaped together and burned. Further Abū Nadhra relates: ‘We said to Abū Sa’īd: Would that you would write down hadith for us, for we cannot remember them.” He answered: “We will not write them, nor will we collect them in books. The prophet of God related them to us orally and we remembered them, so you must do the same.”’
The comment of Ibn ‘Aun (d. 151) on the situation is not without interest. He says: ‘The men of the first century who disapproved of writing held that principle in order that the Muslims might not be kept by other books from the study of the Quran. The ancient scriptures have been forbidden because it is impossible to distinguish what is true in them from what is false and the genuine from the spurious: moreover the Quran renders them superfluous.’Guillaume, Alfred: Traditions of Islam: An Introduction the the Study of the Hadith Literature (Kessinger Publishing 2010, p16-17)
The quotation from the Prophet suggests that writing down hadiths was acceptable to him, though it appears he was extremely cautious about the idea. And note the concern that Ibn ‘Aun expressed; that the authority of the Qur’an is such that it renders other religious books, including pre-Islamic scriptures, ‘superfluous’. Ibn ‘Aun could be alluding to the the Scriptures of the People of the Book (the Christians and Jews) when he says ‘the ancient scriptures have been forbidden’, as the Qur’an says these Scriptures have been corrupted (see, for example, Surah 4:155-159).
In Islam, the Qur’an is the perfect Word of God; a Scripture which ‘makes things clear’. See, for example, Surah 5:19, which says the following:
People of the Book, Our Messenger comes to you now, after a break in the sequence of messengers, to make things clear for you in case you should say, ‘no one has come to give us good news or to warn us.’ So someone has comes to you, to give you good news and warn you: God has the power to do all things.(Surah 5:19)
No hadith writings could ever compete with the status of the Qur’an in terms of authority, because the Qur’an is the direct Word of God, and the sayings of the Prophet are not. It therefore seems wise that if in doubt, a spiritual seeker should go directly to the Qur’an for guidance. Hadith study is a very large field of intellectual scholarship, and delving into the study of this area would take many years and is much too vast an undertaking for me personally at this stage in my life.
I recognise that for some scholars and academics, studying the hadith literature could have practical application, but I am certainly unqualified in this respect. The clarity of the Quranic text is sufficient for me as guidance for my life. For those who seek to further their understanding of the hadith literature, I recommend The Wiley Blackwell Concise Companion to the Hadith (edited by Daniel W. Brown, published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2020) as a good starting point.
Interestingly, a parallel might be drawn between the study of the hadith literature in Islam and New Testament textual criticism in Christianity. Both are fields of study that aim to increase clarity in relation to the way God has spoken. In Islam, the hope is to find clarity through understanding the words and conduct of Muhammad the messenger of God as they have been passed down to us through lines of authoritative narration. In New Testament textual criticism, the aim is to reach a deeper understanding of how God has spoken through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ and those who wrote the New Testament Scriptures.
Despite the good intentions of scholars who work in these fields, such studies can become so intellectual and obscure that there is a danger they could draw people away from true religion, which is relatively simple as I understand it from the teachings found in the Qur’an. We should always be cautious to avoid our religious practice becoming an intellectual enterprise at the expense of practicing what is taught simply and clearly in the sacred Scriptures.
It’s not necessary to study the hadith literature, or New Testament textual criticism, in order to understand God’s commandments to human beings in relation to how we should order our conduct and be in right standing with Him. This is not to belittle these academic fields of study, which certainly have value, but they should be understood as being primarily of use to specialists rather than needing to be studied by every spiritual seeker on Earth. To understand what God requires of us, we need look no further than the clear and direct revelation found in the pages of the Qur’an.
I have written a short book titled Discovering the Qur’an, in which I relay the thoughts I had after reading the Qur’an in its entirety for the first time. The book is free and can be downloaded from these retailers.