probabilistic hadith verification

Does God really laugh? A study of the hadiths on God’s laughter

A review of Livnat Holtzman’s article “Does God Really Laugh? Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology.”1

There are a few hadith narrations that mention the laughter of God, which is something not mentioned in the Quran. One of the best-known hadiths mentioning God’s laughter is the following from Abū Hurayra:

So Allah will bring him near to the gate of Paradise, and when he sees what is in it, he will remain silent as long as Allah will, and then he will say, 'O Lord! Let me enter Paradise.' Allah will say, 'Didn't you promise that you would not ask Me for anything other than that? Woe to you, O son of Adam ! How treacherous you are!' On that, the man will say, 'O Lord! Do not make me the most wretched of Your creation,' and will keep on invoking Allah till Allah will laugh and when Allah will laugh because of him, then He will allow him to enter Paradise, and when he will enter Paradise, he will be addressed, 'Wish from so-and-so.' He will wish till all his wishes will be fulfilled, then Allah will say, All this (i.e. what you have wished for) and as much again therewith are for you.' " Abu Huraira added: That man will be the last of the people of Paradise to enter (Paradise).

Sahih al-Bukhari 6573

As part of my review of Livnat Holtzman’s article, I decided to do a quick survey of the major hadith collections (including the Musnad) for hadiths that mention the word yaḍḥaku (“he laughs”), I then gathered all of the hadiths that use this word in reference to God. Below is the result:

According to my probabilistic hadith verification methodology, here are the reliability indicators of the hadiths:

  • Abū Hurayra 22.7%
  • Abū Hurayra 26.5%
  • Jābir b. ʿAbdallāh 10.88%
  • Abū Razīn 5.85%
  • Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī 1.94%
  • Nuʿaym b. Hammār 4.66%

The strongest hadith is the second one at 26.5% which falls between ḥasan and ṣaḥīḥ in my methodology (ṣaḥīḥ starts at 30%).

We can then do a final step to combine all of these probabilities. Since we are combining different hadiths, each probability is first halved.

1−((1−0.227÷2)(1−0.265÷2)(1−0.1088÷2)(1−0.585÷2)(1−0.0194÷2)(1−0.0466÷2))

= 0.50236594

The result is that all of these hadiths together have a probability of 50.2% that the crux of their meaning is authentic, which is much higher than the 30% necessary for ṣaḥīḥ. So the conclusion is that the support for God’s laughter is quite strong in the hadith literature. Note that this is only a partial survey, a complete survey will likely enhance this probability upwards of 60%.

Interpreting God’s laughter

The Ashʿarite theologians considered it problematic to attribute laughter to God, so they reinterpreted God’s laughter as a reference to His mercy. The traditionalists (the major group of them being the Ḥanbalites), however, considered reinterpretation unacceptable, so they taught that God’s laughter should be interpreted literally even if we do not exactly understand its nature.

Below is a statement of creed (ʿaqīda) attributed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE, after whom the Ḥanbalī school is named) and mentioned by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his Hādī al-arwāḥ (The guide of souls):

We believe that God sits on His throne. However, He is not confined to limitations of space. We believe that God sees and hears and talks and laughs and is joyful.

The hadith scholar Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid (d. 1149 CE), when asked about God’s laughter, said that it is hypocrisy and apostasy to attempt to interpret it.

The Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201 CE) criticized members of his own school for believing that God laughs until His molar “teeth” can be seen (as is narrated in a weak narration). He says that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Quran and Hadith (such as God having “hands” or laughing) were only intended to help new converts to Islam connect with God. Had God been described to them theologically as not being a body, not being in any place, having no dimension, and not moving, the new converts would have become perplexed and unable to relate to Him.

So Ibn al-Jawzī takes a path similar to the Ashʿarites in interpreting God’s laughter metaphorically, as referring to His mercy and grace.

Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation of God’s laughter

The most interesting contribution of Holtzmann’s article is her discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s views on the issue. Whenever we see Ibn Taymiyya apply his vast intellect to a question, we can be sure to hear something original and interesting.

According to Ibn Taymiyya, it is wrong to consider laughter an imperfection in God as the theologians do. A person who laughs is more perfect than a person who cries. And a person who is capable of both love and hatred is more perfect than a person who is only capable of love. Part of perfection is to have the ability to respond to each situation in the most appropriate way possible.

Here he uses the same technique that he used to overturn Islamic theological orthodoxy and show that a God who acts in time is superior to a God who does not (see my essay Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya). As Jon Hoover shows in his Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, Ibn Taymiyya is dedicated to a juristic agenda whose first principle is to always seek to find ways to think of and describe God in the most perfect way possible.

So according to Ibn Taymiyya, while we should not attempt to exactly understand God’s laughter, we should also avoid the theological mistake of thinking that something that is imperfect in humans is imperfect when applied to God. Laughter can be a perfection for God. It is just one of the numerous ways in which His perfection becomes manifest to humans.

Islam and magic

Salamalaikum, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer the questions posed to you with so much in depth research (my earlier ones included). May Allah reward you. To my questions, what are the signs/indications of magic done on a person or household. And if black magic is something we Muslims believe can happen? If so, is a general dua and asking for Allah's help the prescribed remedy or are there specific surahs? Jazakallah khair

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

The most important hadith we have on magic is the following:

Narrated Aisha:
that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) was affected by magic, so much that he used to think that he had done something which in fact, he did not do, and he invoked his Lord (for a remedy). Then (one day) he said, "O Aisha!) Do you know that Allah has advised me as to the problem I consulted Him about?" Aisha said, "O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! What's that?" He said, "Two men came to me and one of them sat at my head and the other at my feet, and one of them asked his companion, 'What is wrong with this man?' The latter replied, 'He is under the effect of magic.' The former asked, 'Who has worked magic on him?' The latter replied, 'Labid bin Al-A'sam.' The former asked, 'With what did he work the magic?' The latter replied, 'With a comb and the hair, which are stuck to the comb, and the skin of pollen of a date-palm tree.' The former asked, 'Where is that?' The latter replied, 'It is in Dharwan.' Dharwan was a well in the dwelling place of the (tribe of) Bani Zuraiq. Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) went to that well and returned to Aisha, saying, 'By Allah, the water (of the well) was as red as the infusion of Hinna, (1) and the date-palm trees look like the heads of devils.' Aisha added, Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) came to me and informed me about the well. I asked the Prophet, 'O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ), why didn't you take out the skin of pollen?' He said, 'As for me, Allah has cured me and I hated to draw the attention of the people to such evil (which they might learn and harm others with).' " Narrated Hisham's father: Aisha said, "Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) was bewitched, so he invoked Allah repeatedly requesting Him to cure him from that magic)." Hisham then narrated the above narration. (See Hadith No. 658, Vol. 7)

Sahih al-Bukhari 6391

I conducted a study of all existing versions of this hadith. Below is a diagram of the result:

The result is that this hadith has a 28.3% chance of authenticity which makes it fall between ḥasan and ṣaḥīḥ (ṣaḥīḥ starts at 30%) according to my methodology (which I discuss here). So this hadith has a high chance of being true and authentic, although it is far below 85% which is necessary to establish a hadith beyond doubt (making it mutawātir or widely-transmitted).

So my personal opinion is that this hadith is not strong enough to worry about (too much). But it is strong enough to convince us not to completely discard the possibility that magic may befall a person in this way.

The Quran also alludes to the possibility of being harmed by magic in chapter 113:

1. Say, “I take refuge with the Lord of Daybreak.

2. From the evil of what He created.

3. And from the evil of the darkness as it gathers.

4. And from the evil of those who practice sorcery (literally "those who blow on knots.")

5. And from the evil of an envious one when he envies."

As for signs that show that someone has been harmed by magic–I have not been able to find any hadiths that mention it. Muslims should always seek medical help for their illnesses since we can never be sure that an illness has a mystical or natural basis, and since we have no guidance on how to distinguish between the two, and since we do not have many hadiths or Quranic verses about it, this tells us that magic is not something we should worry about as an everyday thing.

As for protection, the best thing would be to recite the Quran daily and strive to be a good Muslim in order to enjoy God’s protection from all harms.

Mathematical Hadith Verification

Islam’s hadith literature (reports about the actions and sayings of the Prophet PBUH) is one of the most problematic aspects of the religion due to the issues concerning the reliability of transmitters. How do we know if a report going back six or seven generations to the Prophet PBUH truly and accurately reports what the Prophet PBUH said or did?

So far the science of hadith has largely limited itself to verifying the authenticity of hadiths by verifying the trustworthiness of each person in a hadith’s chain of narrators. If all the transmitters are trustworthy, the assumption is that the hadith is ṣaḥīḥ (“authentic” or “sound”) unless the hadith reports things that are clearly false or contradictory to other hadith narrations. The problem is that a hadith scholar’s own beliefs and biases can strongly affect whether they consider a strange and rare hadith to be authentic or not. A good example is the following hadith in Imām al-Bukhārīʾs collection:

Narrated Abu 'Amir or Abu Malik Al-Ash'ari that he heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying, "From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, khazz (a type of clothing), the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful. And there will be some people who will stay near the side of a mountain and in the evening their shepherd will come to them with their sheep and ask them for something, but they will say to him, 'Return to us tomorrow.' Allah will destroy them during the night and will let the mountain fall on them, and He will transform the rest of them into monkeys and pigs and they will remain so till the Day of Resurrection."

(Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5590)

A non-scholar who reads this hadith will be greatly troubled by the implication that the use of musical instruments is a characteristic of misguided and impious Muslims. And since the hadith is authentic and present in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, they will face the difficult choice of either believing musical instruments (and hence all music) to be forbidden in Islam, or ignoring the hadith and going with the commonsense and widespread Muslim belief that music is permissible in Islam.

By introducing probability theory into the science of hadith, we gain an extremely powerful tool that enables us to judge just how seriously we should take any particular hadith. This is especially useful in the case of hadiths that seem to be contradicted by other hadiths. For example on the issue of musical instruments we have the following hadith:

Narrated Aisha:

Abu Bakr came to my house while two small Ansari girls were singing beside me the stories of the Ansar concerning the Day of Buath. And they were not singers. Abu Bakr said protestingly, "Musical instruments of Satan in the house of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) !" It happened on the `Id day and Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "O Abu Bakr! There is an `Id for every nation and this is our `Id."

Sahih al-Bukhari 952

An authentic version of this hadith (Sahih Muslim 892 b) tells us that the girls were using the instrument daff (“tambourine”). So here we have the Prophet PBUH approving of the use of musical instruments in his own home, yet the other hadith implies that musical instruments are wicked and unlawful.

Probabilistic hadith criticism helps solve the dilemma of having to choose between two hadiths that are both judged authentic by hadith scholars by telling us which one is stronger.

As it happens, the hadith mentioning the Prophet’s approval of musical instruments is far more “authentic” and believable than the hadith in which he disapproves of them.

In this essay I will use these hadiths on music as an illustration of the probabilistic hadith verification method.

Gathering the hadiths approving of music

The first step in hadith verification is to gather all existing versions of a hadith and their chains and to draw a diagram representing all of its transmitters. Below is a diagram of the version of the “two singing girls” hadiths found in Sahih al-Bukhari:

The blue box is the hadith, and the gray boxes are its transmitters. The first transmitter is Aisha, may God be pleased with her, wife of the Prophet PBUH. The second transmitter is Urwa b. al-Zubayr, her nephew. The third transmitter is Urwa’s son Hisham. The the fourth transmitter is the highly respected hadith scholar Hammad b. Usama b. Zayd. The fifth transmitter is Ubayd b. Ismail, a respected hadith transmitter. This transmitter gave the hadith to Imam al-Bukhari who recorded it.

The second version of the hadith is also in Sahih al-Bukhari:

Narrated Aisha:

That once Abu Bakr came to her on the day of `Id-ul-Fitr or `Id ul Adha while the Prophet (ﷺ) was with her and there were two girl singers with her, singing songs of the Ansar about the day of Buath. Abu Bakr said twice. "Musical instrument of Satan!" But the Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Leave them Abu Bakr, for every nation has an `Id (i.e. festival) and this day is our `Id."

Sahih al-Bukhari 3931

Below is a diagram of this hadith’s chain:

You may note that the first three transmitters are the same as those of the previous hadith. So we can join their diagrams into one as follows:

Next is the chain found in Sahih Muslim 892 a:

This chain is exactly the same as the al-Bukhari’s first chain except for the last transmitter. We can therefore join it with the rest as follows:

We now therefore have three chains going back to the same hadith. Imam Muslim mentions two additional chains which we add to the diagram as follows:

We now move on to other collections that mention the same hadith. The first one is a version mentioned in Abu Uwaana’s Mustakhraj, which we add to the diagram as follows:

I have indicated the new chain in green. After further research, I was able to discover a further chain in Sahih al-Bukhari as indicated below:

Al-Bukhari mentions an alternative version of this new chain as indicated below:

The scholar Abu Uwana adds two of his own supporting chains to this version as follows:

We now have a fairly complete picture of all of the different chains of this hadith.

Adding the probabilities

To understand this section, some previous knowledge of probability theory will likely be required.

In order to start, we have to agree on an important assumption. How trustworthy is a single transmitter? This is a matter of intuition. After trying out various probabilities, I have settled on the value of 60%. This means that each trustworthy transmitter in a chain has a 60% chance of truthfully and correctly transmitting the hadith they transmit. This may seem low, but it actually works very well to represent the issues inherent in hadith transmitter verification.

According to probability theory, if you have a witness with 60% probability of truthfulness saying something, and then a second witness also with 60% probability of truthfulness comes along and says the same thing, the probability of both of them saying the truth increases, since we have two witnesses saying the same thing. We calculate this increase by multiplying the falsehood probabilities of the two persons as follows:

Person 1: 60% chance of truth = 40% chance of falsehood

Person 2: 60% chance of truth = 40% chance of falsehood

The chance of falsehood for both = 40% * 40% = 16%

The chance of truth of both = 100% - the chance of falsehood = 100% - 16% = 84%

Below is a diagram of an imaginary chain that represents these facts:

We have two people each of whom say that the Prophet PBUH said something. Each of them has a 60% probability of truthfulness and accuracy, but the two of them together have a 84% probability of truthfulness and accuracy, so the above imaginary hadith has an 84% chance of truthfulness and accuracy.

As we add more transmitters, the probability continually goes up:

Now we have four supporting witnesses, so their probability of truthfulness can be calculated as follows:

Falsehood probabilities: 40% * 40% * 40% * 40% = 2.56%

Truth probability: 100% - 2.56% = 97.44%

What this means is that if you have four Companions transmit the same hadith from the Prophet PBUH, the chance of the hadith being truly and correctly transmitted is 97.44%, which is a very high chance.

In probability theory 1 represents 100% and 0 represents 0. So another way of doing the above calculation is as follows:

0.4 * 0.4 * 0.4 * 0.4 = 0.0256

1 - 0.0256 = 0.9744

The benefits of the 60% assumption will become clear as we go through the verification process of the chains we gathered earlier. We will first deal with the top part of the diagram, which is as follows:

First, we will fill in the original 60% assumption by writing 0.6 in each bubble:

We do not add the 0.6 to the bubbles on the far right because those are written books, so they virtually have a 100% chance of reliability. What concerns us are unwritten, oral transmissions. The first step is to combine the three middle transmitters’ probabilities vertically, as follows:

Falsehood chances: (1-0.6) * (1-0.6) * (1-0.6) = 0.064

Truth chance: 1 - 0.064 = 0.936

Above, each of the three transmitters has a 100% – 60%, or 40% likelihood of falsely transmitting the hadith. But in order to get the probability of all of them falsely transmitting the hadith at the same time, we have to multiply these chances together: 40% * 40% * 40% = 6.4%. So the chance of all of them having falsely transmitted the hadith is only 6.4%, meaning that there is a 93.6% chance of them having truly and accurately transmitted this hadith.

We will call this “vertical combination”. We vertically combine all of the probabilities of the truthfulness and accuracy of the transmitters to get a single number, in this case 93.6%, which represents the authenticity of all them combined together.

We next have to do a horizontal combination. All three transmitters transmit the hadith from Hammad b. Usama, who also has a 0.6 (60%) chance of authenticity.

In the case of horizontal combination, rather than multiplying falsehood probabilities, we multiply truth probabilities. The reason is that as information passes down through a chain of transmitters each of whom have a 60% chance of authenticity, the chance of the information being correctly passed down decreases. There is more chance for error and fabrication. If you hear a Companion say that the Prophet PBUH said something, that is far more trustworthy than another person saying they heard their father say that their grandfather said that a Companion said that the Prophet PBUH said that.

So we multiply 0.93 by 0.6 to get 0.558, which means 55.8%. We now update the bubble for Hammad b. Usama to represent this new probability:

Hammad b. Usama’s probability went down from 0.6 to 0.558 because we did not hear the hadith directly from him, but from three people who claim to have heard him. Since those three people have a combined probability of 93% truthfulness and accuracy (rather than 100%), this slightly decreases the probability of the truthfulness and accuracy of the information we get from Hammad b. Usama.

We now move on to al-Bukhari’s second chain, which is as follows:

Using horizontal combination:

0.6 * 0.6 * 0.6 = 0.216

So this second chain has only a 21.6% probability of truthfulness and accuracy. The reason is that we do not have any supporting transmitters. We only have Muhammad b. al-Muthanna’s word for it that Muhammad b. Jaafar said that, and we only have Muhammad b. Jaafar’s word for it that Shu`ba said that. The deeper a chain goes back in time, the lower its probability of authenticity and accuracy becomes.

We next deal with two chains from Sahih Muslim:

Using vertical combination for the middle transmitters, we get a probability of 0.84 or 84%. Multiplying that by 0.6, we get 0.504, meaning that Abu Mu`awiyah has a 50.4% probability of authenticity.

Next we have the more interesting task of combining all the chains we examined above. We have to vertically combine the probabilities of Hammad (0.558), Shu`ba (0.216) and Abu Mu`awiyah (0.504):

Falsehood probabilities: (1-0.558) * (1-0.216) * (1-0.504) = 0.171877888

Truth probability: 1 - 0.171877888 = 0.828122112

So the probability of the truth of the information coming from these three transmitters is 82.8%.

Now we horizontally combine this with Hisham b. Urwa’s 0.6 probability, resulting in 0.496873267

We repeat these same steps for the remaining chains, as follows:

And by vertically combining the left-most probabilities (Hisham b. Urwa’s 49.68% and Muhammad b. Abd al-Rahman’s 21.04%), we get 0.602766552, so the information has a 60.27% probability of authenticity at this stage.

We next multiply this 0.602766552 by Urwa b. al-Zubayr’s 0.6 (horizontal combination), resulting in 0.361659931.

In the final step, we multiply this result by Aisha’s 0.6:

The result is 0.216995959. This means that the hadith with all of its chains has a 21.69% chance of authenticity and accuracy. This seems very low, but it is natural for a hadith that comes from a single Companion, through a single transmitter.

In my methodology, a hadith that reaches 20% or higher is ḥasan, a hadith that reaches 30% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ, a hadith that reaches 60% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ (a degree above ṣaḥīḥ), and a hadith that reaches 85% or higher is mutawātir (“widely transmitted”, a degree above ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ).

Different scholars may prefer different probabilities for what they consider ḥasan or higher. Personally these are the numbers I have settled on that my heart is comfortable with and accepts.

The hadith disapproving of music

We now move on to Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5590, the hadith that says misguided Muslims will approve of musical instruments. Below is a diagram of the hadith’s chain:

The hadith comes from a single chain that does not branch out, meaning it is an extremely questionable chain, which I call a “precarious” chain. To calculate its probability of authenticity, we horizontally combine all the 0.6 probabilities as follows:

Probability of truth = 0.6 * 0.6 * 0.6 *0.6 *0.6 *0.6 = 0.046656

This hadith therefore has a 4.66% chance of authenticity, which is extremely low. In my methodology a hadith between 10% and 20% is munkar (strange and likely to be false), while a hadith below 10% is ḍaʿīf (“weak”, i.e. almost certainly false). As discussed in another article, there is another reason to consider this hadith false: it says misguided Muslims will consider khazz (a type of clothing) lawful. But we know 20 Companions of the Prophet PBUH wore this type of clothing, so this makes the hadith even more dubious.

The verdict

So this hadith in which the Prophet PBUH says misguided Muslims will consider musical instruments lawful has only a 4.66% chance of authenticity, while the hadith in which the Prophet PBUH approves of musical instruments has a 21.69% chance of authenticity. Thus the hadith in which the Prophet PBUH approves of musical instruments is 4.6 times stronger than the hadith in which he disapproves of them (21.69 ÷ 4.66 = 4.65).

Based on this, we can confidently say that the evidence in support of the lawfulness of musical instruments is far stronger. Therefore approval of musical instruments is a vastly better representation of the Prophet’s sunna (tradition) than disapproval of them.

Defending the assumptions

The assumption that each transmitter has a 60% chance of accurately and truthfully transmitting the information needs to be defended. This assumption makes most ṣaḥīḥ narrations get an authenticity around 30%. If we treat these numbers empirically, it would mean that most authentic narrations are more likely to be false than true. For this reason I have chosen to treat all hadiths that reach 30% or higher as ṣaḥīḥ / authentic despite the fact that empirically they fall beneath the truth threshold of 50%.

My reasoning is that by choosing these assumptions, we create an interface between the empirical research world and the classical hadith studies world. A non-Muslim scholar may choose the 30% verdict on an authentic narration as a cause for skepticism, while a Muslim scholar can continue to make use of probability theory while adopting the traditional view of considering individual, low-truth-probability hadiths as authentic.

Another reason for the 60% assumption is that it gives us a very wide range of results. Some hadiths will reach close to 100%, many others will hover between 50% and 20%. This allows for representing a scholar’s empirical intuitions about these transmitted pieces of information, while also allowing them to remain in the classical hadith criticism world if they wish by choosing lower numbers, such as 30%, to represent full authenticity.

The study of Islam works on the basis of the autonomous consensus of the researchers, a concept I have defended elsewhere.1 Therefore introducing probability theory into hadith criticism will require the involvement of many researchers until a consensus emerges on the best assumptions to be chosen. Therefore my assumptions in this article are merely preliminary suggestions intended to illustrate what a probabilistic study of hadith would look like.

Conclusion

Combining probability theory and hadith criticism can greatly help in resolving issues surrounding contradictory hadith narrations by making it clear which hadiths are superior to which ones. It would be extremely helpful if we could build a new hadith collection that shows the probability of authenticity of each hadith rather than merely saying whether it is authentic or not. But such a work would require many years of work.

There is also the issue of sub-par transmitters. While I have chosen a probability 60% for reliable transmitters, for transmitters who are mudallis, non-qawī, non-ḥujja, or considered weak by some scholars and not others, lower probabilities will have to be used where necessary.

There are also different levels of weak transmitters. Some are considered weak for ideological reasons (because they held beliefs that hadith scholars considered unacceptable), while others are considered weak because they were caught lying or fabricating hadiths. Different probabilities will have to be used for different levels of weakness.

Further applications of the probabilistic method

Below is a list of studies I have conducted on certain topics of hadith criticism where I use the methodology developed in this article:

Ikram Hawramani, “Islam and magic”, The Hawramani Institute, http://hawramani.com/islam-and-magic/, Apr 02, 2019, retrieved April 22, 2019.

Ikram Hawramani, “Is ruqya part of Islam? A study of the hadiths on ruqya using probability theory”, The Hawramani Institute, http://hawramani.com/is-ruqya-part-of-islam-a-study-of-the-hadiths-on-ruqya-using-probability-theory/, Mar 24, 2019, retrieved April 22, 2019.

Ikram Hawramani, “A study of “the majority of people in Hell are women” hadith”, The Hawramani Institute, http://hawramani.com/a-study-of-the-majority-of-people-in-hell-are-women-hadith/, Mar 26, 2019, retrieved April 22, 2019.

A study of “the majority of people in Hell are women” hadith

A famous hadith of the Prophet PBUH states:

I looked into Paradise and I saw that the most of its people were the poor; and I looked into the Fire and I saw that most of its people were women.

Sahih al-Bukhari 3241

Note that this hadith does not actually say that the majority of women in Hell are women. It may just mean that the part of Hell that the Prophet PBUH was shown contained many women. None of the versions of the hadith say “the majority of people in Hell are women”. They all mention that when the Prophet saw Hell, he saw that the majority of the people (of the part he saw) were women. It is clear that the Prophet PBUH interpreted this vision as meaning that the majority are women. But since nothing in the Quran or hadith tells us that explicitly, we may consider it to be the Prophet’s own personal conclusion from what he saw.

Various versions of this statement are to be found in all of major hadith collections. I decided to conduct a study of all existing authentic versions of this hadith to find out just how reliable they are.

Below is the version from the Companion ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn [ra]:

All of the versions come through the single transmitter Abū Rajāʾ.

Next are the versions coming from the Companion Ibn Abbas [ra]:

The strongest chain comes again through the aforementioned transmitter Abū Rajāʾ. There is however an additional chain (the top one) coming through ʿAṭāʾ b. Yasār, through Zayd b. Aslam.

Next are the other chains coming from four other Companions:

None of these latter four chains are very strong because each comes through a single transmitter, through another single transmitter, before other witnesses come along.

In order to prove a point with reasonable certainty, a hadith should come from a binary tree chain, as follows:

The current hadith falls short of this standard as follows, with the red boxes indicating missing transmitters:

Besides the missing transmitters, the hadith also has the issue of having a duplicate witness (the yellow boxes). So in reality we only have two transmitters’ words for it that the two Companions said that.

However, the four additional chains are supporting evidence in favor of the hadith and cannot be ignored. Using a hadith verification methodology I have developed that uses probability theory to combine the reliability of each transmitter and chain to reach a single number that represents the chance of the hadith being true (see my essay about it), we perform the following calculation to combine all of the probabilities:

(1-(1−0.34)×(1−0.39015)×(1−0.0207)×(1−0.1076)×(1−0.0776)×(1−0.1716)) = 0.7312

So the verdict is that this hadith has a 73.12% probability of being truly from the Prophet PBUH, which is a very high probability for a hadith. In my highly stringent verification methodology, a hadith that reaches 60% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ (a degree above ṣaḥīḥ)

In conclusion, the Prophet PBUH almost certainly said that the majority of the people he saw in Hell were women. Whether this really means the majority are women, or whether only the part that he saw had a lot of women, we cannot say. So the hadith should not be used to imply that women are less pious or more evil than men.

Is ruqya part of Islam? A study of the hadiths on ruqya using probability theory

There are numerous narrations that mention ruqya (the use of certain words, prayers or Quran recitations as charms or spells to heal or protect a person). I decided to to conduct a search of all major hadith collections and some minor ones to find all the hadiths that mention ruqya in order to find out just how authentic they are. I then used my own mathematical method of calculating hadith authenticity which combines probability theory with the science of hadith transmitter criticism (al-jarḥ wa-l-taʿdīl). The method (see my essay about it) is useful in judging between contradictory hadith narrations because it produces a single percentage for each hadith that reflects its chance of authenticity. We can then compare the chance of the authenticity of different hadiths to find out which one is most likely to be truly from the Prophet PBUH.

Summary

The hadith against ruqya has a 64.1% chance of authenticity, which makes it ṣaḥīḥ. The hadiths that support ruqya, however, are much lower in quality, the strongest having only a 20.78% chance of authenticity. But by combining the chance of the authenticity of all the ruqya-supporting hadiths, we reach a probability of 49.69%, which means that the crux of the meaning of the hadiths is likely to be true. It is strange, however, that the most authentic hadith in support of ruqya says that it is only to be used against the evil eye and scorpion stings.

In conclusion and considering all of the hadiths together, it appears that the Prophet PBUH forbade the use of ruqya in the pre-Islamic sense of casting a spell. But he permitted the use of the recitation of the Quran as a means of hopefully bringing about healing and protection. While some Muslims think that ruqya has an almost magical power that is guaranteed to bring about results, it is probably more correct to think of it as the same as prayer. It is merely the use of God’s words in the hope of attaining His blessings.

The traditional understanding of ruqya as casting spells is therefore highly doubtful and appears to be an importation of pre-Islamic Arab beliefs into Islam. The Prophet PBUH himself appears to have strongly disliked the spell-casting aspect of ruqya, which is why the most authentic narration speaks against it and mentions it along with other pre-Islamic practices. However, he appears to have tolerated the use of Quran recitation as a substitute for pre-Islamic forms of ruqya while allowing it to be called ruqya.

I am therefore fairly confident that we should reject the understanding of ruqya as spell-casting and instead think of it as similar to prayer and no more likely than prayer to be effective.

Technical details

The hadith against ruqya

It is interesting to note that the most authentic narration on ruqya actually says good Muslims will not use it:

Verily the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Seventy thousand men of my Ummah would enter Paradise without rendering account. They (the companions of the Holy Prophet) said: Who would be those, Messenger of Allah? He (the Holy Prophet) said: They would be those who neither practise charm (ruqya), not take omens, nor do they cauterise, but they repose their trust in their Lord.

Sahih Muslim 218 b

This hadith comes to us through three Companions (ignoring unauthentic chains). I decided to gather all of its versions from the major hadith collections to find out just how strong its chains are.

Below is a diagram of the chains coming through Ibn Abbas:

The numbers indicate probability of authenticity. Thus this chain has a 24% probability of being truly from Ibn Abbas (according to my methodology).

Below are the chains from Imran b. Husayn:

This chain is stronger and has a 45.7% probability of authenticity.

The last chain is from Ibn Masud and has a 12.85% chance of authenticity.

We use the following equation to combine all of these probabilities into one probability:

probability of authenticity = 1 - (1 - probability of authenticity of first chain) × (1 - probability of authenticity of second chain) × (1 - probability of authenticity of third chain chain) and so on.

Thus:

1-((1−0.241)×(1−0.4579)×(1−0.12855)) = 0.641438499

The result is that this hadith has a 64.1% probability of authenticity. Any hadith that has a 60% probability of authenticity or higher is ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ (a degree above ṣaḥīḥ) in my methodology, so this hadith is extremely authentic.

The hadiths in favor of ruqya

Narrated Al-Aswad:

I asked `Aisha about treating poisonous stings (a snake-bite or a scorpion sting) with a Ruqya. She said, "The Prophet (ﷺ) allowed the treatment of poisonous sting with Ruqya."

Sahih al-Bukhari 5741

It was narrated that Jabir said:
“There was a family among the Ansar, called Al ‘Amr bin Hazm, who used to recite Ruqyah for the scorpion sting, but the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) forbade Ruqyah. They came to him and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! You have forbidden Ruqyah, but we recite Ruqyah against the scorpion’s sting.’ He said to them: ‘Recite it to me.’ So they recited it to him, and he said: ‘There is nothing wrong with this, this is confirmed.’”

Ibn Maja (authentic) Vol. 4, Book 31, Hadith 3515

The below diagram is the result of my search of all hadiths mentioning ruqya (click to enlarge it):

Below is a summary of the authenticity probabilities of the hadiths:

  • Aisha 10.88%
  • Aisha 7.77%
  • Aisha 15.67%
  • Aisha 7.278%
  • Anas 14.29%
  • Jabir’s uncle 1.2%
  • Abu Saeed al-Khudri 11.27%
  • Anas + Buryada + Imran 20.78%
  • Jabir + Asmaa’ b. Umays 14.89%
  • Awf b. Malik 5.8%
  • Shifaa’ b. Abdullah 3.88%

The strongest hadith is the one coming from the Companions Anas, Burayda and Imran, and it is as follows:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said: No spell (ruqya) is to be used except for the evil eye or a scorpion sting.

Sunan Abi Dawud 3884, Ibn Maja Vol. 4, Book 31, Hadith 3513, al-Tirmidhi Vol. 4, Book 2, Hadith 2057, etc.

The hadith, however, has only a 20.78% chance of authenticity, which is far below the 64.1% authenticity of the anti-ruqya hadith mentioned at the beginning.

There is one final step we can take by combining the authenticity probabilities of all the separate pro-ruqya hadiths, as follows:

1-((1−0.1088÷2)×(1−0.077÷2)×(1−0.1567÷2)×(1−0.07278÷2)×(1−0.1429÷2)×(1−0.012÷2)×(1−0.1127÷2)×(1−0.2078÷2)×(1−0.1489÷2)×(1−0.058÷2)×(1−0.0388÷2)) = 0.444614954

Before merging the probabilities we divide each of them by two. This reflects the fact that we are combining entirely different hadiths together. It is easier to fabricate entirely new hadiths and chains than to fabricate supporting chains for the same hadith. So the probability of all the separate hadiths being true is lower than the probability of all the chains of the same hadith being true.

So the result is that there is a 44.4% chance that the crux of the meaning of the hadiths is true. In my methodology a hadith that reaches 30% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ. So the combined hadiths together can be considered authentic.