The Nature and Role of Hadith:
An Analysis of a Re-evaluation
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
A highly controversial document is circulating among Muslim intellectuals calling into question the validity of hadith as a source of guidance. This document, an 80-page monograph, entitled Hadith: A Re-Evaluation, was written about 1990 by Kassim Ahmad and was somewhat sanitized in 1997 by Syed Akbar Ali to remove some of its politically and ideologically sensitive baggage.
The present analysis of Kassim Ahmad?s production is divided into four sections: 1) background intelligence analysis, so we know where the author is coming from; 2) purpose and objectives of the author in writing this particular piece, so we know where he is going; 3) major contribution of this piece to the thinking and literature on the subject; and 4) weakness of the author?s arguments.
One approach to any potentially enlightening study is to determine initially where the author is coming from by glancing through the bibliography, footnotes, index, and table of contents, in that order, and only then to consider the text.
My first conclusion from this ?background check? is that this translation has left out some of the original, and that the apparent omissions suggest that the original was prepared before Rashad Khalifa destroyed his credibility in the late 1980s. What is left of the original indicates that Kassim Ahmad was not only familiar with Rashad Khalifa, but used Rashad?s translation of the Qur?an as his favorite (p.77). He also bought into Rashad?s ?Number 19? theory (p. 68), which has been exposed by computerized analysis as a deliberate fake designed to corrupt the words of the Qur?an in order to fit his theory.
As old-timers will remember, Rashad was the most powerful force during the mid- and late 1980s in bringing Euro-American women to Islam, especially the most able, creative, and dynamic of them, such as Karima Omar, who had a fantastic humor column every month in Islamic Horizons. He then built on his asserted discovery of what Kassim Ahmad on page 68 refers to as ?The Miracle of Code 19? to assert further that this revelation to him from Allah proved that he was a prophet. He developed this to assert that he was the fifth most important prophet, right after Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. He then proceeded to introduce new customs, like encouraging women to lead the prayers of both men and women together. As a result he was assassinated. His most promising students hung together for awhile, but some of them then left Islam and most simply disappeared, which was a major tragedy in the history of Islam in America.
In his introduction on page one, Kassim Ahmad writes that his book builds on Ibn Khaldun?s formula of hadith interpretation. This, he says, ?requires all acceptable traditions to be validated by the Qur?an and rational criteria. This position, however, though a scientific one, was still not clear enough until in 1985 the works of an outstanding Egyptian Muslim scholar, Dr. Rashad Khalifa, particularly his The Computer Speaks: God?s Message to the World, Qur?an, Hadith, and Islam, and his superb translation of the Qur?an opened for me a way to solve the problem of the hadith: how they came about; the social factors that brought them into existence; a review of the classical criticism; the actual place of the hadith in relation to the Qur?an; their negative effects on the Muslim community; their connections to the decline and fall of the Muslims; and the way out of this impasse.? This seven-fold task is exceptionally well accomplished.
Nevertheless, this monograph has unnecessary baggage. The most recent of Kassim Ahmad?s forty-four bibliographic entries are in the 1980s, except for two, Mahmud Saedon A. Othman?s Al Sunnah in 1990 and the quite anomalous listing of Lyndon La Rouche? s The Science of Christian Economy, published by his Executive Intelligence Review in 1991. The text that had once referred to Lyndon La Rouche was deleted from the translation, no doubt because La Rouche, although brilliant and exceedingly well informed, was and is a demagogue and a kook. The fact that Kassim Ahmad was taken in by these two brilliant imposters, Rashad Khalifa and Lyndon La Rouche, shows a lack of discriminating judgement. Fortunately, the most compromising parts of the original appear to have been deleted ex post facto in 1997 in the translation, though the above mentioned traces remain.
Purpose and Objectives
The objectives of this monograph are the seven he enumerates on page one, as listed above. These are to ?solve the problem of the hadith [by showing] how they came about; the social factors that brought them into existence; a review of the classical criticism; the actual place of the hadith in relation to the Qur?an; their negative effects on the Muslim community; their connections to the decline and fall of the Muslims; and the way out of this impasse.?
The author?s underlying or overarching purpose is developed in beautiful prose throughout the monograph, as in a work of literature. He proceeds from appropriate verses of the Qur?an, since his entire theme is that the only authentic source of divine guidance is the Qur?an, and not the hadith, and that failure to appreciate this is the cause of civilizational decline.
His first two chapters are introduced by such verses. The introductory chapter one, entitled ?Why We Raise this Problem,? is introduced in a heading quoting Surah al Zumar, 39:17-18: ?Therefore, congratulate My servants who listen to all views, then follow the best. These are the ones guided by God; these are the intelligent ones.? This sets the tone for the entire monograph.
Kassim Ahmad lists his favorite English translations of the Qur?an and praises the magnificent one by Muhammad Asad. Asad?s comment on the above ayah from Al Zumar reads: ?According to Razi, this describes people who examine every religious proposition (in the widest sense of this term) in the light of their own reason, accepting that which their mind finds to be valid or possible, and rejecting all that does not measure up to the test of reason. In Razi?s words, the above verse expresses ?a praise and commendation of following the evidence supplied by one?s reason (hujjat al?aql), and of reaching one?s conclusions in accordance with [the results of] critical examination (nazar) and logical inference (istidlal)?.?
Chapter Two, entitled ?Refutation of the Traditionists Theory,? is introduced by a heading quoting Surah al Isra? 17:36: ?Do not accept anything that you yourself cannot ascertain. You are given the hearing, the sight, and the mind in order to examine and verify.? Although some commentators restrict the target of this ayah to slander and detraction (humaza and lumaza), Kassim Ahmad prefers to extend its meaning to the entire realm of cognitive psychology, perhaps because of the immediately following ayah, ?And walk not on the earth with haughty self-conceit.? Of course, this interpretation can turn into a double-edged sword, as shown by some later conclusions that could be understood to support the fatal hullucinations of the author?s apparent mentor, Rashad Khalifa.
The author?s overall purpose in writing this monograph, as stated on page 4, is to encourage ?the Muslim community and their intelligentsia to critically re-evaluate the whole heritage of traditional Islamic thought, including theology and jurisprudence, [in order] to seek the true causes of Muslim decline and thereby to lay the ground for a new Muslim Renaissance.? As stated this might appear to be self-serving narcissism by a Muslim seeking to transform his glorious past into a utopian future at the expense of everyone else or at least with indifference toward the ?other.? In fact, the purpose is much broader, namely to correct the errors of both Muslim and European post-Christian thought so that all civilizations can build a better global future through interfaith reliance on the transcendent.
He opposes both modernist and ?traditionalist? theses on how to build a better world, because they both fail to appreciate the wisdom of what he calls ?the first scientific-spiritual culture in history,? namely, classical Islamic thought. He writes on page 5, ?The modernist thesis, in brief, states that the Muslims declined because they remained traditional and have not modernized themselves according to Western secular values. The traditionalist thesis, on the other hand, blames the secularization of Muslim societies and the neglect of orthodox Muslim teachings as the major cause of Muslim decline.? Both of these extremes he refers to as false ideologies. These spread only because the Muslims failed to follow the ?powerful and dynamic Islamic ideology as preached in the Qur?an,? which subjected all knowledge, both local and foreign, to its own discriminative teachings and methodologies in order to gain insights into the justice and mercy inherent in the Will of God.
?The thesis of this book,? he writes on page 8, ?is that mankind, including the Muslims, have deserted the true teachings of God. ? Modern secular rebellious Europe not only turned against its own religious priesthood, in which action it was right, but also against religion altogether, in which action it was wrong. This is the cause of the present Western impasse.? A similar fate befell the Muslims, who abandoned the Qur?an by elevating the ahadith and sunna to a divine source of truth in competition with it in order to support competing political powers and supportive religious movements. ?So it came about,? he writes on page 9, ?that while Europe embraced either liberalism or Marxism, the Muslim world embraced the hadith, with the philosophies of secular humanism infecting the elites of Muslim societies.?
Since this monograph is not a political tract, at least not in its edited version, it is not clear whether Kassim Ahmad here is referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, which under Syed Qutb metamorphosed into a modern political movement patterned after Western secularism, or whether he is referring to the still more radical Wahhabis and Deobandis who carried the logic still further and eventually produced the likes of the pseudo-religious Osama bin Laden who want to save the world by destroying it.
The purpose of this monograph is perhaps best developed on page 64, where Kassim Ahmad gives his prognosis for the future of the world. He forecasts: ??Despite the heresy of certain concepts like taqlid or blind imitation that have been dominant since the 12th century, there has always been a strong anti-taqlid movement that has manifested itself through the likes of Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), and Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762). The anti-taqlid movement obtained its strongest impetus from the reform movement of Muhammad Abduh toward the end of the nineteenth century. It is most likely that within a short period of a few decades, the anti-taqlid movement in Islam and the theistic spirit that is growing in Europe will unite and return to the Qur?an in its entirety.?
He cautions that, ?A return to the Qur?an does not mean that we destroy all the books of hadith and all the books of the religious scholars, nor do we mean that we no longer need the religious scholars. It only means that we must refer to the Qur?an alone as infallible guidance.?
He concludes: ?Muslims have three major tasks. Firstly, they must evaluate critically everything that has been inherited from their Islamic tradition, in strict accordance with the bidding of the Qur?an. Secondly, Muslims have to learn to accept things that are from outside their fold but which by themselves are inherently good and therefore originate from God. ? The third and final task is to build the second Islamic civilization that will doubtless be far superior to the first because it will be the combined efforts of all united humanity. All these three tasks are interrelated. Our Muslim thinkers must also seek to reach out to those intellectuals and thinkers in other faiths and cultures, for they also seek to do good in the world. They must cooperate with the followers of other religions, those ?who believe in God and the Last Day and do good?.?
In our effort to elicit the full purpose of this monograph, as written before the death of Rashad Khalifa, we should note portions of the monograph that might be regarded as mutashabiyat, from the root sh-bi-ah (make similar; compare; be doubtful), referring to portions of the Qur?an and of any writings that can have more than one meaning and therefore are doubtful except through interpretation by experts. On page 71, Kassim Ahmad states his preference for the school of thought that such portions of the Qur?an can be known and that ?a class of people, the experts, can have such knowledge by God?s leave.? He cites in proof thereof Surah al Baqara 2:30-34 where God tells us that He ?has endowed man with the ability to know all of His creations, above the knowledge even of His angels.?
Ironically, on page 19, perhaps the key sentence in the entire monograph is Kassim Ahmad?s assertion that, ?This means, on the one hand, that the Qur?an explains itself, and, on the other, that God will, at the proper time, give man the necessary knowledge to understand it.?
Major Contribution to Thought and Literature
Perhaps the single most controversial sentence in this monograph is Kassim Ahmad?s assertion on page 47 that, ?The majority of the hadith in the six [classical] collections cannot be accepted any more.?
The bulk of the monograph is designed to substantiate this conclusion. The evidence has been marshaled many times before, among others by Fazlur Rahman, who thereby became one of America?s most controversial scholars.
Ahmad goes through the standard critiques. The role of the hadith as a source of law was not adopted until Imam Shafi?i did so 200 years after the death of the Prophet and decades after the death of even the last of the taba tabi?in. And the ?Six Authentic Books of Hadith? of the Sunni majority (Bukhari, d. 256; Muslim, d. 261; Abu Da?ud, d. 275; Tirmidhi, d. 279; Ibn Maja, d. 273; and Al-Nasa?i, died 303) were not compiled until after that, mainly from the years 220 to 270; and the four Shi?a collections (Al-Kulaini, d. 328; Ibn Babuwayh, d. 381; Jaafar Muhammad al Tusi, d. 411, and Al-Murtada, d. 436) until a century after that, when it was simply impossible reliably to ascertain the isnad of any hadiths.
Ahmad then does a creditable job in trying to show, as he put it on page 27, that, ?The so-called Prophetic traditions did not originate from the Prophet. They grew from the politico-religious conflicts that arose in the Muslim society then, during the first and second centuries. It constituted a new teaching altogether, seriously deviating from the Qur?an that the Prophet Muhammad brought to them. It was done against his will, but skillfully attributed to him.? He goes into some detail to show that the Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs forbid the collection of any hadiths, and that the justification for doing so came from spurious hadiths invented for this purpose.
Ahmad concludes on page 29-30 that, ?Many hadith began to emerge and multiply at the same time as the emergence of divisions in the early Muslim community in three civil wars, beginning under Ali?s rule right up to the end of Mu?awiya?s rule. ? Power struggles giving rise to divisions led to the fabrication of hadith to support each contending group, and the fabrications of hadith further deepened divisions.?
He notes the odd phenomenon of the hadith being elevated to an idol in the form of a source of guidance in competition with the Qur?an (p. 26) and even to a form of ?spirituality ? for Muslim fundamentalism? (p. 62), while the Qur?an itself is undermined by using the hadith to declare the doctrine of abrogation, so that whatever parts of the Qur?an might conflict with one?s favorite hadith are declared to be abrogated by a part or parts that agree with this hadith. Perhaps in observance of the political correctness that governed prior to 911, Ahmad does not point out that the Wahhabi practice in the modern world has been taken to the extreme of abrogating several hundred Qur?anic verses, so that this divine revelation is gutted of all meaning or perverted into a travesty of truth.
The specific conflicts between ahadith and the Qur?an are well documented, such as the lashing of adulterers prescribed in the Qur?an and the stoning invented later in the hadith (p. 48); the Qur?anic provision for freedom of religion and the bizarre hadith in Bukhari and Abu Da?ud, ?If anyone leaves his religion, then kill him? (p. 50); and the five pillars of the aqida in the Qur?an (?Anyone who disbelieves in God, His angels, His scriptures, His messengers, and the Last Day has indeed strayed far away,? which does not include the so-called sixth pillar, Qadr. Ahmad laments that this sixth pillar, which appears in the hadith, has been used for centuries not to recognize that the ultimate planner is Allah but to instill a fatalism that more than anything else has caused the absurd situation today where the followers of the Qur?an are the most despised and oppressed people on earth.
All this is old hat for advanced students of the Qur?an and hadith. Although such critical analysis must always be maintained, this bulk of Ahmad?s monograph, Hadith: A Re-Evaluation, is not really a contribution to the thinking and literature on the subject.
The major contribution of this particular analysis of the nature and role of the hadith is Kassim Ahmad?s emphasis on principles in an iterative process of inductive-deductive-inductive reasoning. This was emphasized by the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ?alayhi wa salam, and by all the classical scholars, who developed the maqasid al shari?ah over the course of many centuries. This great intellectual paradigm of thought culminated in the hierarchy of human responsibilities and rights propounded by Al Shatibi and never again even approached in any other civilization, but now essentially dead.
A corollary of this emphasis on principles is the focus on distinguishing between principles and historically determined forms. Ahmad states on page 23 that, ?Whenever God pleases, He provides us with both the principles and the methods, ? but the punishments of hand-cutting for theft and a hundred lashes for adultery mentioned in the Qur?an are forms, not principles, of punishment. Furthermore, these forms are connected to specific historical circumstances. ? The Qur?anic principles for punishment are two: firstly, that every crime must be punished in accordance with the severity of the crime, i.e. the principle of equivalence; and secondly, the principle of mercy.?
Similarly, the principles of governance, which come under the shari?ah purpose (maqsud or universal principle) known as haqq al hurriya, according to Kassim Ahmad, are ?sovereignty of the people under God?s sovereignty, government based on just laws, complete freedom of religious worship, obedience to God and due obedience to leaders, leadership to be exercised by those who are competent and morally upright, and government through consultation. But methods and institutions vary according to time and circumstances. The [specific] methods and institutions used by the Prophet are not universally and eternally binding.?
Ahmad explains the difference on page 75 in his conclusion that, ?A careful study of the Qur?an would reveal that its contents consist of two types of statements: the universal and the particular. The universal statements refer to absolute truths, while the particular statements refer to relative truths that are limited to certain concrete situations.? He uses the famous command from which the second surah of the Qur?an, Surah al Baqara, gets it name, when the Jews of the time were asked to sacrifice a cow, and they got hung up deliberately on the form of the cow, asking repeatedly about its size, age, and color, in order to avoid the principle.
The most useful contribution of the entire monograph is the set of rules for Qur?anic interpretation, based on the principle that the Qur?an is not only the best but the only reliable source for its own interpretation. He distinguishes nine principles of Qur?anic interpretation that come from the Qur?an itself. These are:
1) Two types of verses must be distinguished, which establish the principle of distinction between straightforward and metaphorical language (Qur?an 3:7);
2) The principle of unity of the Qur?an?s contents, meaning that its verses are not contradictory, but in perfect harmony (4:82);
3) The congruence of Qur?anic teachings with truth and logic, establishing the principle of truth, and its congruence with science and right reason (41:41-42, 42:24, 23:70-71, 8:7-8, 17:81, and 10:100);
4) The principle of self-explanation, i.e., that Qur?anic verses explain one another (55:1-2 and 75:18-19);
5) The principle of good intention, i.e. that the Qur?an cannot be comprehended by anyone who approaches it with bad intention (41:44, 56:77-79, and 17:45-46);
6) The principle of topical context, i.e., that the meaning of any verse or verses must be understood in the context of the topic under discussion (17:58, 53:3-4, and 59:7);
7) The principle of historical context, i.e., that verses relating to a particular historical condition must be interpreted in the light of that condition (4:25 and 92:4-3);
8) The principle of easy practicability, i.e., that the teachings of the Qur?an are meant to facilitate and not to render things difficult for mankind (22:78, 20:2, 5:6 and 101-2, and 4:28); and
9) The principle of distinction between principle and methodology and putting principle above methodology (22:67 and 2:67-71).
Much of this erudite monograph is devoted to examples of how to apply these principles in practice. Ahmad laments that he needs many years before he can apply such guidelines in detailed evaluation of all the hadith in the major collections, but implies that he is now doing precisely that.
Weakness of the Author?s Arguments
Compared with what Kassim Ahmad offers to the student of Islam, emphasizing his methodological and substantive weaknesses would appear to be merely nit-picking.
The only major fault that I find with his whole approach, and one of which most authors are guilty, is suggested in his statement on page 63: ?In the realms of philosophy, religion, the social sciences, and the arts ? there can only be one optimum form which will maximize the efficiency of all social behavior in human societies.?
The weakness of this approach is its failure to distinguish between human-made systems or realms, in which there can be no ?optimum? form, and divine revelation, in which by definition there is an optimum, even though exactly what this is will always remain beyond human certainty.
Secondly, in his statement lumping philosophy and the social sciences and the arts together with religion, Ahmad fails to distinguish between essence and form. In philosophy, there clearly is a distinction between the essence of positivist relativism, which denies the existence or even possibility of truth, and the essence of what America?s founders called traditionalism, which denies the truth of such relativism. In religion, on the other hand the essence of all religions, regardless of the diversity in outward expression, is awareness of an ultimate reality beyond all forms, which Muslims and Arabic-speaking Christians call Allah and some Christians call Being (which is beyond existence) or even Beyond Being (beyond the trinity). The essence of religion, furthermore, involves recognition that from the Oneness of the ultimate comes ineluctably the coherence of existence, which Muslims call tawhid.
Thirdly, Ahmad?s statement about optimum form seems to contradict his apparent preference for tolerance, diversity, and pluralism, which are three ascending levels of the same thing, namely, a respect for what Allah has created and planned, whether it is in the color of one?s skin or in one?s choice of religion.
The struggle to overcome this mindset of ?optimum form? is beautifully explored in William R. Hutchison?s new book, Religious Pluralism in America: the Contentious History of a Founding Ideal, which will be reviewed, in sha?a Allah, on behalf of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, England, in the next issue of this online journal, www.theamericanmuslim.org Hutchison, who teaches the history of religion at Harvard?s Divinity School, is considered to be the leading authority in the world on the history of religion. His thesis is that America, despite its nominal claims, has not advanced very far up the ladder of progress from tolerance to diversity to pluralism.
Tolerance, by my own definition, is what the Soviet Communists used to call ?peaceful coexistence,? which is a codeword and in Soviet jurisprudential literature a well-defined legal term meaning a tactical truce in a strategic war finally to liquidate the enemy. This contrasts with recognition of diversity as a simple fact of life. This, in turn, contrasts with pluralism, which recognizes the pluralism in the universe, ranging from atoms to trees to clusters of galaxies and on to religious traditions as part of the divine plan as an essential means to recognize the Oneness of God.
Rashad Khalifa may claim secret knowledge of the ?ultimate form,? but the Qur?an warns us not even to discuss anything about which in this life we can have no knowledge.
Another perhaps related weakness is Kassim Ahmad?s penchant for categorical statements about the realm of the ghraib. He appears to contradict his own maxims when he makes the categorical statement on page 65 that, ?There will be no Second Coming of Christ and neither will there be any superhuman savior to save the world. Our salvation lies in our own hands and through applying the teachings of the Qur?an creatively and scientifically.? He adds on page 37, ?Encouraging the Muslims to hang their hopes on something called the Mahdi is actually a subtle attempt to make defeatists and pessimists of them. The suffocating belief in fate: to make the Muslims submissive to other than God and to wait for someone to come along to save them. The truth is that no one will help us unless we help ourselves first.?
Yet, on page 69 he accepts the ?coming of Gog and Magog and the Anti-Christ toward the Last Day,? and states, ?We are required to believe in them, but we are to leave them to be interpreted by God and those who are experts in this field.? The details of both the Mahdi and the Anti-Christ come from the hadith. His rejection of the Mahdi because he does not like the possible effect of a messiah on Muslim dynamism, and his acceptance of the Anti-Christ apparently because he sees no harmful effect of such a belief, seem to exemplify subjective selection of what Muslims should and should not believe.
His failure to consider alternative interpretations of the Qur?an is exemplified by his categorical statement on page 71 that the word mutawaffika (from the root wa fa ah, to complete, perfect, fulfill) ?cannot mean other than what it says, that is, that Jesus died, though not on the Cross.? He dismisses Marmaduke Pickthall?s translation of this passage, ?And remember when Allah said, ?O Jesus! Lo! I am gathering thee and causing thee to ascend to me, and cleansing thee of those who disbelieve?,? and counters it with Rashad Khalifa?s translation, ?Thus God said, ?O Jesus, I am terminating your life on earth, raising you up to me, and ridding you of disbelievers?.?
There has always been a minority position among the shuyukh of Azhar that the Qur?anic statement that Jesus did not die on the cross, although he appeared to do so, means that spiritually he did not die. Denial of Jesus? death undermines the entire basis of Pauline Christianity, which is based on the belief that original sin requires the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus?s death on the cross for any person to go to heaven. This indeed is one of the passages of the Qur?an that appear to be muhkamat or ?clear and decisive,? based on the root mah ka ma for ?exact and firm,? but, in fact, may be among the mutashabihat or unclear passages and therefore not subject to categorical statements.
Entire sections of this monograph are simply weak in their arguments. The most egregious would seem to be his contention on page 19-20 that, ?We do not learn to pray from the hadith?; that, ?The salat prayers today were not originally given to Muhammad during the Night Journey?; and that neither the Qur?an nor the hadith are needed to teach us how to pray, because ?The Qur?an clearly states that the obligatory prayers and all other religious observances of Islam were originally taught to Abraham.?
From this he concludes on page 54 that the forms of prayer do not have to come from the hadith but have been inherited one generation after another from Abraham. This may be Rashad Khalifa?s basis for innovating in the form of prayer by encouraging women to be imams. This free-wheeling approach to the forms of prayer seems to conflict with his statement on page 76 that the ordinary forms of prayer are required in principle, but that ?only under normal circumstances are we required to perform these prayers in the usual way.? This leaves the way open to define subjectively what is normal and abnormal.
The reader will find many such surprising views, but the most surprising and suspect is his contention on page 72 that, ?God puts the believers and the Prophet on the same level.? This is meant to counter the idolization of Muhammad, but it can be interpreted to permit reverence for someone living today as a prophet.
In summary, we might say that this monograph by Kassim Ahmad carries a lot of baggage, but that its overall message and most of the analysis is needed today more than ever to help Muslims understand their own religion better so that they can explain it to well-meaning non-Muslims who are willing to learn.