The proper way to approach hadith with its many contradictory and pseudo-scientific claims

I hope you are doing well. I have a question regarding hadith. When it comes to Quran we know the verse is true however there might be a different interpretation, this is difficult to know the most true interpretation. When it comes to hadith it’s even harder. The majority says go for sahih but even with sahih you find contradictions and pseudo-scientific claims. How should we do to read hadiths?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

When dealing with hadith you have to take what is known as epistemological grading into account. All hadith narrations are dhanni al-dalalah, meaning that they are of doubtful reliability when it comes to establishing any fact of law or ritual in Islam. It is only when you combine authentic narrations from various sources that you reach something that approaches certainty.

What this means is that when it comes to the vast majority of (authentic) hadith, it is the practice of scholars to not treat them as established fact, but as probable pointers to the truth. When you hear a hadith that sounds ridiculous and unreasonable, you are not required to believe in it, you can withhold judgment and study the matter more deeply and you will often find other hadith narrations that go against it.

My solution to this confusion of sources and opinions is what I call Quran-focused Islam. For any topic under discussion, we build a Quran model for it (a view of the topic that solely derived from the Quran), then we build a hadith model (a view of the topic derived from hadith), then we compare the two, and in cases of conflict and contradiction, we give preference to the Quran’s opinion over the opinion of hadith.

The above process effortlessly solves almost everything that is wrong with Islamic thinking today. Some hadith narrations seem to recommend killing people who leave Islam, while the Quran guarantees religious freedom. So we give preference to the Quran. Hadith narrations support slavery, but the Quran is neutral on the matter and gives us the freedom to ban it, so we do so. Hadith narrations consider Christians and Jews “infidels” who will go to Hell, but the Quran says they will go to Paradise, therefore we give preference to the Quran’s view. I explain these issues in detail in my essay Quran-Focused Islam: A Rationalist, Always-Modern and Orthodox Alternative to Salafism.

And if a hadith says something that is clearly against science, feel free to reject that hadith. An important issue with the science of hadith is that the criteria used for judging the authenticity of hadtih narrations are very strict for legal hadith narrations (hadiths that have something to do with the practice of Islamic law), while they are lax when dealing with non-legal narrations. This means that a law-related “authentic” narration is generally far more “authentic” than a non-legal “authentic” hadith narration.

For more details on these issues please see Jonathan Brown’s book Misquoting Muhammad.  And if you have the time and energy to read it, his other book The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim explains in detail how at the beginning it was common to question the collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim until the collections were slowly canonized so that skepticism toward them was made politically incorrect.

Another interesting read is professor Yasin Dutton’s The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qur’an, the Muwatta and Madinan Amal where he explains in detail how Imam Malik reserved the right to question and even reject authentic hadith narrations in his legal reasoning. An even better read is Shaykh Umar Faruq Abdullah’s Malik and Medina if you have $269 to spend on a book.

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