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Hadith

Note: For better understanding of these notes, please refer to my earlier response about Hadith.
The following is a question from a friend.
A person sent me a message after reading this explanation, asking me to ask for a clarification on 45:6. (They did not feel comfortable asking via this post). They also asked me to ask the following: "We follow the Quran and the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), but Hadith itself, was not delivered from Allah directly nor was any Hadith written by Muhammad (pbuh) himself. Many cases, they were written long after he died, so he did not have a chance to approve or disapprove them. So we are trusting a third party account of things Muhammad said/did."

Response: 

In order to properly respond to the points raised in this question let me start by defining what Hadith is. Hadith is a collection of reports attributed to the Prophet, often through a chain of narration, where the  names of the narrators are cited.

While Hadith could mean more than reports from the Prophet himself (i.e. Hadith Qudusi), I will restrict myself here to the Prophetic Hadith. Hadith in this category refers to the reports where the highest name in the chain of narration is the Prophet. In other words, these are the ahadith (sing. hadith) where one reports that the Prophet said such and such, or did this or that thing, or commented on this event in the following manner.

These hadiths were transmitted orally from the Companions to the Successors and therefrom to the subsequent generations. 

Muslims did recognize early on that someone could fabricate a hadith or a bunch of them. But Muslim scholars also knew how critical these ahadith are for the practice of Islam. To give you just a sense of how critical these ahadith are, think of the prayer, the five daily prayers. These involve many details: time, manner of recitation, the movements of bowing, prostrating and kneeling. These details are nowhere mentioned in the Qur'an. Qur'an simply says: establish prayer: Aqimu al-Salah.

How many in a day, in what form, in what succession, at what parts of the day, what to recite in them, and how to remedy cases of unintended--absent-minded--lapses?

Qur'an says little in details about these aspects. For instance, the closest thing to timing in relevance to prayer in the Qur'an is the verse 17:78.

"Establish regular prayers - at the sun's decline till the darkness of the night, and the morning prayer and reading: for the prayer and reading in the morning carry their testimony."

As you can see, it is hard to establish a clear timing by simply looking at this verse or others of similar nature, such as 11:114.

"And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night: For those things, that are good remove those that are evil: Be that the word of remembrance to those who remember (their Lord)"

Again still not as detailed as our prayers are. 

Without a hadith, such as "pray as you see me pray;" without the careful attention to details on the part of our predecessors; without the strong desire to document, to adhere to, to comprehend and to transmit the Prophet's life as accurately as possible, a few generations after the Prophet would not have known how to pray. Confronted with the order to establish prayer, they would not have known whether to jump, dance, or crawl. Nor would they know for how long or how often.

The same is true, for instance, for how much to pay zakat, when and how. What is true of the details of salah and zakat is true of almost all other rituals.

So, knowingly or unknowingly, every practicing Muslim is already following a hadith--in fact a bunch of them.

Now that we have established, the importance of Hadith, we can now give a glimpse of how the early Muslim scholars dealt with the issue of Hadith.

Of course, a question can be raised as to why Hadith was not documented or compiled earlier, and why its asanid (chains of narration) were not closely examined and critiqued until the generation of giants such as Bukhari and Muslims came to the scene on the . The answer is a complex one. But we know a good deal of it from early reports.

On the one hand, the prophetic injunction not to write hadith discouraged the companions and some of the Tabi'un from compiling hadith. On the other hand, the companions who had lived the faith in a practical sense, as an embodied form of knowledge, had no need to document it. It was only in rare cases that some companions appeared to have narrations that other companions did not know of. These were generally accepted by other companions because 1) there was no strife over the interpretation of the faith for sectarian, factional or ideological motives; 2) much of these touch on grounds that are not too central to the dogma, and the companions were too focused on furthering the interests of the community to engage in a philosophically rich, but practically hollow rhetoric.
In the era of the tabi'un, people started to write Hadith and to narrate it with some Isnad but again the community's trust in prominent scholars of Tabi'un made the requirement for isnad a matter of formality. But because of the partisanship that had begun to intensify, and the cacophony of voices which the expansion of the nation brought, people started to demand more proof in the Isnad.
In that environment rose the interest in a more critical study of hadith. But the general ideas of a science of hadith, which I will explain in a little bit, have been in gestation for sometime.
But before talking about the scientifically minded and intellectually sober approach which Muslim scholars espoused as they sifted through hadith, let me point out something about the chronology of hadith compilation, which might surprise you.
Often people say, as if it is an established fact, that it was not until three hundred years after the Prophet that hadith was documented. But history of hadith compilation tells us otherwise.
It would seem that the first person to collect hadith in a systematic manner, with the interest of preserving, not critiquing, the content, was the Qadi of Madina, Abu Bakr Ibn Hazm (d. 738), just over a century after the passing away of the Prophet. The efforts of his younger contemporary Abu Shihab al-Zuhri (d.740) were more extensive and more reported. Zuhri met and reported from at least 10 companions of the Prophet. These include Ibn Umar, Sahl Ibn Sa'ad and Anas Ibn Malik. So as you can see the source is very near.
Subsequently, we would see the emerge of books such as the famous muwata' of Malik Ibn Anas (d. 795), the Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq Al-San'ani 826 AD and Musnad of Ibn Abi Shayba (d.849), just to mention a few of the early collections.
Sifting through Hadith:
Are we trusting a third party about the Prophet?
We always trust third parties, scientists reporting about their experiments, journalists delivering news, school bulletins about what transpires inside their walls. We are seldom at the point where we are directly confronted by primary sources; even the term itself is a convenient academic phrase that needs--when defined-- a long commentary and series of caveats.
But how did Muslims deal with the issue of hadith reported to them?
The first remarkable thing about our community is the pragmatic skepticism. I use these two words in the following sense. Pragmatic in the sense of understanding that in this life no one will ever have a source that is unquestionable in the sense of its source and at the same time unquestionable in the sense of its intended meaning. The best one could hope for is a belief in one and a pragmatic acceptance of the other, by way of overwhelming evidence/preponderance.
So often instead of mathematical certitude--which never actually exist--we see a ghalabat al-zan.
There will always remain a margin of doubt about any text, any statement, in fact about any observable physical phenomenon or chemical reaction. Knowledge always comes through one or several layers of intermediaries. But when you narrow the margin to a minimum, you must cultivate in your mind an acceptance of outcome. Otherwise, you cultivate in your heart a doctrine of exception, a contagious disease of suspicion, which ironically means a blind belief, albeit a disguised one, in a state of disbelief. This is the area where atheists have, by and large, relegated themselves. And one from which one could only come out with the intervention of a major miracle.
Back to hadith. Muslims knew hadiths could be fabricated and therefore their scholars devised means to vet hadith and hadith transmitters.
One way is to look at content/matn. A scholar would look at whether a hadith has a strange meaning; that is semantically odd: for example, in contradiction with the overall message of Islam, or completely meaningless.
One must also look at whether it is syntactically good. If replete with grammatical errors, then that is indeed a hadith you want to toss out of the window.
Another way is to look at the Isnad. And in this direction Muslim scholar created an entire branch of knowledge, a complete science to checked who said what and to whom.
Out of that science emerged a unique genre of literature, not known in other cultures, called biographical dictionaries. These large collections of transmitters of hadith contain almost everything pertaining to these individuals; their temperaments, their intellectual habits, partisan inclinations, capacity of memory, teachers, students and even family affairs.
The close examination of Isnad included extensive reports on whether someone has met the people whom he claims to have met, whether he is truthful person, dedicated to knowledge, whether he has dementia or other mental illnesses, whether he seeks worldly gains that might leads him to embellish...and so on.
Out of these critical examination of hadith, sunni scholars have a accepted a few collections, considering two (Bukhari and Muslims) to be la crème de la crème for their rigor and hard criteria of inclusion.
Of course, a hadith status is not just about good transmitters, but also about how many transmitted it. If one hadith comes only from one source or two sources or even three, but no more corroborated reports, then it assumes an inferior status to those which have come through various narrations, or achieving tawatur.
Unlike the insinuation that al-Bukhari and Muslim just compiled some random books and the Sunnis uncritically accepted them, as cannons, the premise was the opposite: because of their rigor, because of the meticulous care to personal defects and shortcomings in hadith reporters, these works were respected.
So Sunnis pragmatically (that is with healthy skepticism) consider hadiths in these to be authentic, by way of preponderance.
What I have hoped to convey here is that earlier generations of Muslims did look skeptically at hadith... and gone to a great extent to verify the authenticity of these ahadith. But once they have found out that the evidence is in favor of a hadith, they hastened to accept it. They saw no problem in doing so. After all the goal was to know how the prophet interpreted the message through his commands and actions.
With that goal in minds, they did not understand why would someone simply dismiss a hadith, where there is a preponderant evidence that it is authentic, or very likely to be so. That is a risk, or a habit of mind they did not want to cultivate, for the subtle risk, for what it nurtures at the level of minds and hearts: the blindness which accrues from sin to doubt or from doubt to sin.
45:32
"And when it was said that the promise of Allah was true, and that the Hour- there was no doubt about its (coming), ye used to say, 'We know not what is the hour: we only think it is an idea, and we have no firm assurance.'"

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