15 Islamic articles on: Probabilistic Hadith Verification

The Quranic and hadith evidence for prohibiting touching non-mahrams

Assalamualaikum I came across a hadith on Facebook which says that touching any non- mahram woman is harām. I wanted to ask if that Hadith is authentic, and if it is so, then to what extent does this rule apply in our life. I mean I have female relatives who are quite elder to me( 9 years and more) . Is it allowed to shake hands with them or hug them if in my heart I consider them to be like my mothers and sisters?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

Touching people of the opposite sex whom you can potentially marry (i.e. non-mahrams) is not permitted in Islam unless there is a good reason, as in a doctor touching a person of the opposite sex during a procedure. There is also an exception for shaking hands with a person of the opposite sex in order not to humiliate them by refusing the handshake. When it comes to shaking the hands of the relatives you mentioned or hugging them, it is best to avoid it, but it is not a great issue if you accept these gestures in order to avoid upsetting them, until you find an opportunity to tell them that you wish to avoid these things in the future for religious reasons. As for elders who are at an age where they would no longer consider marriage (perhaps 60 or more), then these rules can be relaxed. But if they are 30 or 40 years old, then the rules would continue to apply even if you are much younger than them.

The most explicit hadith we have on the issue of touching the opposite sex is the following:

لأن يطعن في رأس أحدكم بمخيط من حديد خير له من أن يمس امرأة لا تحل له

It is better for one of you to pierce his head with an iron needle than to touch a woman for whom she is not halal.


This hadith comes to us through Shaddad b. Saeed who is considered trustworthy but unreliable by many scholars, therefore this hadith is not guaranteed to be authentic and is therefore not relevant to this discussion.

The next hadith is one where the Prophet PBUH explicitly states that he does not shake women’s hands:

Muhammad bin Munkadir said that he heard Umaimah bint Ruqaiqah say:
“I came to the Prophet (ﷺ) with some other women, to offer our pledge to him. He said to us: ‘(I accept your pledge) with regard to what you are able to do. But I do not shake hands with women.’”

Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 4, Book 24, Hadith 2874 and others.

Below is the chain diagram for this hadith:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 38.69% according to our probabilistic hadith verification method. This score is rather high, since sahih hadiths start at 30%, meaning that this hadith is very high-quality.

The next hadith on touching non-mahrams is the following:

Aisha the wife of the Prophet, said, "Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) used to examine the believing women who migrated to him in accordance with this Verse: 'O Prophet! When believing women come to you to take the oath of allegiance to you… Verily! Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.' (60.12) `Aisha said, "And if any of the believing women accepted the condition (assigned in the above-mentioned Verse), Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) would say to her. "I have accepted your pledge of allegiance." "He would only say that, for, by Allah, his hand never touched, any lady during that pledge of allegiance. He did not receive their pledge except by saying, "I have accepted your pledge of allegiance for that."

Sahih al-Bukhari Book 65, Hadith 4891; Sahih Muslim 1866 a; other collections

Below is a chain diagram of the hadith:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 27.57%, making it close to the authentic mark of 30%.

The above appears to be all of the explicit evidence we have on the touching of non-mahrams.

Evidence from lowering the gaze

The Quran commands us to “lower our gaze”. The context of the two verses that command this make it clear that it refers to gazing at the opposite sex idly and/or lustfully.

Tell the believing men to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates. That is purer for them. God is cognizant of what they do.

And tell the believing women to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates, and not display their beauty except what is apparent thereof, and to draw their coverings over their breasts, and not expose their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, what their right hands possess, their male attendants who have no sexual desires, or children who are not yet aware of the nakedness of women. And they should not strike their feet to draw attention to their hidden beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, so that you may succeed. (The Quran, verses 24:30-31)

There are also hadiths that mention the same concept, as in the following:

Jarir said I asked the Apostle of Allaah(ﷺ) about an accidental glance (at a woman). He (ﷺ) said “Turn your gaze away.”

Sunan Abi Dawud 2148

Below is the chain diagram for this hadith:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 12.14%, which is not very high. But it is easier to accept such hadiths as authentic due to their uncontroversial contents.

Naturally, if we are commanded to avoid gazing at the opposite sex idly or lustfully, then the same would apply to touching.

Evidence from the hijab

Another highly relevant area of evidence is that which applies to the rules on parts of the body that have to be covered. Naturally, if we are forbidden from looking at a certain part of a person’s body, we would also be forbidden from touching it. For the evidence on the rulings on which parts of the body should be covered see:


From the evidence presented above, it is clear that touching the opposite sex idly or lustfully is not permitted in Islam. The Prophet PBUH avoided shaking women’s hands despite this being a harmless form of greeting, which shows us that the highest Islamic ideal is to always work to minimize contact with the opposite sex. However, the evidence does not prohibit necessary touching, as in a doctor touching a person of the opposite sex during a medical procedure.

The exception on shaking hands

Scholars such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi permit shaking the hands of the opposite sex when meeting non-Muslims in order to prevent humiliating them by refusing the handshake, since in such cases avoiding humiliating the person takes priority over the no-touching rule. Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi mentions that while the Prophet PBUH never shook the hands of women, Umar [ra] did that, and Abu Bakr [ra] shook an old woman’s hands.


IslamQA: On the authenticity of the hadith “if anything could overcome qadar/God’s decree”

Salam o alaikum. This hadith: "If anything could overcome The Decree then the evil eye would overcome it." Is this an authentic hadith? Thank you

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

The hadith you mentioned comes through two chains, neither of which is very strong. Therefore from my perspective it is not proven that the Prophet PBUH said that.

Ibn 'Abbas reported Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

The influence of an evil eye is a fact; if anything would precede the destiny it would be the influence of an evil eye, and when you are asked to take bath (as a cure) from the influence of an evil eye, you should take bath.

Sahih Muslim 2188

Below is a diagram of the chains of the two hadiths that contain that statement:

Their combined authenticity is 16.5% according to the probabilistic verification method, which is far below the 30% needed for authentic hadiths. The hadith is not strong enough to be considered authentic, and not weak enough to be considered clearly fabricated. In everyday terms, the hadith is not strong enough to take into consideration.

IslamQA: Is it wrong to reject low-quality hadiths in case they are authentic?

Assalamualaikum, I have apprehension in judging the veracity of hadith, (e.g the probability calculator) after reading verse 4:65: "But no, by your Lord, they can have no faith, until they make you judge in all disputes between them, and find in themselves no resistance against your decisions, and accept (them) with full submission" because what if a hadith was accurate although poorly transmitted and I chose not to follow it because in my limited understanding the alternative seemed better?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

The problem is that it can be a matter of life and death. For example, by relying on low-quality hadiths, scholars ignored the text of the Quran and concluded that stoning adulterers was the punishment recommended by the Prophet PBUH, as I discuss here. We also have contradictory hadiths, such as an “authentic” one that says only bad people listen to music, and another “authentic” one where we see the Prophet PBUH listening to music and approving of it. We need a way to judge which of these authentic ones is superior. As it happens, the one approving of music is five times more authentic, as I discuss here.

So our goal in having high standards for which hadiths we accept is that we want to follow the real Prophet PBUH and to avoid following teachings falsely attributed to him, including many teachings that make him look like a bad or cruel person (as in the stoning of adulterers). A person who truly loves the Prophet PBUH will hate to see anything immoral or illogical attributed to him.

In general we have two kinds of scholars, hadith scholars who love to increase the number of authentic hadiths as much as they can (as al-Albani, may God have mercy on him) without too much concern for how these hadiths would affect our understanding and practice of Islam. Then we have fiqh scholars, scholars of Islamic law or jurisprudence, who have the difficult task of making sense of all the contradictory hadiths and finding how they will affect our understanding and practice of Islam. Scholars of fiqh have much higher standards for the hadiths they accept and in their books of legal theory (usul al-fiqh) they have very lengthy discussions on probability theory; the number of chains a hadith needs for a hadith to be considered authentic beyond doubt. Some scholars require four authentic chains (something that’s extremely rare), others say there is no set number of necessary chains, we just have to use our own hunches until our heart is content that a hadith is truly authentic.

So the issue is rather complicated, and personally I have a fiqhi approach to hadith. I see all hadiths as probabilities, not certainties, and I use probability theory to find out which ones are the most authentic.

Also note that great scholars like Imam Malik were happy to reject authentic hadiths when they had additional evidence from non-hadith sources (the opinion of the scholars of Medina, which they had inherited from the Companions without hadiths). Imam al-Shafi`i preferred an authentic hadith on how the athan should be said, which Imam Malik considered ridiculous since the athan had been said differently in Medina since the time of the Prophet PBUH. Imam al-Bukhari himself rejected perfectly authentic hadiths when he considered their contents to be ridiculous, as in a hadith that claimed something would happen within 200 years that never happened. See Dr. Jonathan Brown’s study (PDF): How We Know Early Ḥadīth Critics Did Matn Criticism and Why It’s So Hard to Find.

Women may travel without a mahram for three days and nights: A study of the hadiths

There are numerous authentic hadiths that mention restrictions on women traveling without a mahram (a relative like a husband or father). I was recently asked about the exact nature of the restriction, so I decided to do a thorough hadith study using the probabilistic hadith verification method. For those who want the conclusion immediately: the opinion I prefer is that women should be permitted to travel without a mahram if the journey is under three days and nights (72 hours). Also note that some scholars, such as al-Baji, believe that this restriction only applies to young women, not elders.

But we go into the study, below is a listing of the opinions of some of the great scholars of the past on this issue:

  • Ibn Taymiyyah and his students: If the road is safe, a woman is permitted to perform Hajj alone without a mahram. She is also permitted to engage in any other kind of travel as long as her safety is ensured.
  • Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal: A woman is permitted to perform Hajj without a mahram if she is with a group of women.
  • Ibn Sireen: If she is with other Muslims, then there is no issue with her performing Hajj without a Mahram.
  • Imam Malik: She can perform Hajj with a group of women without a mahram.
  • Imam al-Shafii: She can perform Hajj without a mahram as long as she is accompanied by a trustworthy free female woman.

It is narrated in Sahih al-Bukhari that Umar b. al-Khattab permitted the wives of the Prophet PBUH to perform the Hajj without a mahram while being accompanied by Uthman b. Affan and Abd al-Rahman b. Abu Bakr. (Reference for the above scholarly opinions and hadiths: Fatwa from IslamOnline – Arabic PDF)

Note that if there is a restriction on women’s travel, it only applies to traveling. As discussed in this answer, a woman is allowed to go to another city or country to attend university without a mahram going with her if she is able to safely reside there (for example among fellow Muslim women) if there are no great hazards to her religion.

Below is a diagram of the result of my study, which includes all the hadiths I found with their chains:

Below is a listing of the relevant contents of the hadiths, arranged from the most reliable to the least reliable, along with the Companions they came from and the hadiths’ probability of authenticity. Note that all of these hadiths are considered sahih or authentic by hadith scholars despite their divergent contents:

  • Abu Hurayra 36%: No woman should travel more than the distance of a day’s and night’s journey without a mahram. (Muwatta)
  • Abu Saeed al-Khudri 13.82%: No woman should travel “more than three nights” without a mahram. (Bukhari, Muslim, Bayhaqi, Musnad Ahmad)
  • Ibn Abbas 12.96%: Women can only go on hajj if they have a mahram with them. (Bukhari and Musannaf Abu Bakr b. Abi Shayba)
  • Abu Hurayra 9.35%: No woman should travel more than a day without a mahram. (Musnad Ahmad, Sahih Ibn Khuzayma, al-Mustadrak)
  • Abu Saeed al-Khudri 6.48%: No woman should travel without a mahram. (Musnad Ahmad)
  • Abu Hurayra 3.88%: No woman should travel more than the distance of a three-day journey without a mahram. (Musnad Ahmad)
  • Abdullah b. Amr b. al-Aas 3.20%: No woman should travel more than the distance of a journey of three [days and nights] without a mahram. (Musannaf Abd al-Razzaq, al-Mujam al-Awsat)
  • Abu Saeed al-Khudri 2.80%: No woman should travel for more than three days without a mahram. It mentions Ayesha saying “Not all woman have mahrams.” (Sahih Ibn Hibban)
  • Ibn Umar 0.6%: No woman should travel for more than three [days and nights] without a mahram. (Sahih Ibn Hibban)

We can use probability theory to combine these authenticity scores as follows.

1−((1−0.36)×(1−0.1382)×(1−0.1296)×(1−0.935)×(1−0.0648)×(1−0.0388)×(1−0.032)×(1−0.028)×(1−0.006)) = 0.973765972

(0.36+0.1382+0.1296+0.935+0.0648+0.0388+0.032+0.028+0.006)÷9 = 0.192488889

(0.973765972+0.192488889)÷2 = 0.5831

The meaning is that there is a 58.31% probability of authenticity for the principle that there is some sort of restriction on women traveling without mahrams, but we don’t know yet what the restriction is. This is a very high probability because sahih starts at 30%. Anything above 60% is sahih al-sahih, meaning it is many times more authentic than the average sahih hadith you run into, and this score almost reaches that.

We can now combine the probabilities of only those hadiths whose contents the say the same things:

  • Abu Hurayra 36%: No woman should travel the distance of a day’s journey without a mahram.
  • Abu Seed al-Khudri and Ibn Umar: 16.97%: No woman should travel for more than the duration of three days and nights without a mahram.
  • Abu Hurayra 9.35%: No woman should travel for more than the duration of a day (and night?) without a mahram.
  • Abu Hurayra and Abdullah b. Amr 7.02%: No woman should travel more than the distance of a three days’ and nights’ journey without a mahram.
  • Abu Saeed al-Khudri 6.48%: No woman should travel at all without a mahram.

We can ignore Abu Saeed al-Khudri’s 6.48% hadith that says no woman should travel without a mahram because it is contradicted by his own more authentic hadith (13.82%, over twice as authentic) that says a woman shouldn’t travel longer than three nights without a mahram.

Besides hadiths, we also have athars, or sayings of the Companions and Successors, on this issue. Below is a listing of the ones I found:

  • Al-Hasan al-Basri 36%: No woman should travel for more than three [days and nights] without a mahram. (Musannaf Abd al-Razzaq)
  • Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri 36%: Ayesha was told about Abu Saeed al-Khudri’s hadith that says women should only travel with mahrams, and she said “Not all women can find a mahram.” (Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba)
  • Ikrima the freedman of Ibn Abbas 21.6%: A woman should not travel for more than three [days and nights] without a mahram. (Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba)
  • Ibn Umar 18%: No woman should travel for more than three [days and nights] without a mahram. (Musannaf Abd al-Razzaq)

It seems to me that we have two choices now:

  • To rely on one Companion, Abu Hurayra, for his 36% authenticity hadith, which says that no woman should travel the distance of a day’s journey without a mahram.
  • To rely on the three hadiths of Abu Seed al-Khudri and Ibn Umar, with a combined authenticity score of 16.97%, and the non-hadith sayings of al-Hasan al-Basri, Ibn Umar and Ikrima, with a combined authenticity of 42.02%, which say that no woman should travel more than the duration of three days and nights without a mahram.

To me personally the second option is far more attractive, due to it relying on two Companions and two highly respected successors (al-Hasan al-Basri and Ikrima, the most respected freedman of Ibn Abbas), and due to it making life easier. Since everything we are dealing with here is authentic, we might as well choose the easier authentic option that comes from many respected individuals.


It appears that if there are any doubts about a woman’s safety during travel, then she shouldn’t travel alone for more than three days without a mahram. But if her safety is ensured, for example by being accompanied by trustworthy individuals, then she is permitted to travel without a mahram without any time restriction.

IslamQA: On my hadith probability calculation method

AO, I'm not trying to sound critical but is it sound to follow a hadith probability calculator made by yourself with no scholarly consensus supporting it?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

That’s how Islamic scholarship works. Someone comes up with an idea and others either accept it or reject it. Sometimes a good idea is ignored for centuries. Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwas on divorce were ignored for 5 centuries until they were implemented in the 20th century by some Islamic governments.

People are of course free to accept or reject my ideas. But as scholars we are required to do our own thinking, and if we consider something to be true despite it not being widely accepted, it is sinful for us to ignore it and go by the accepted opinion.

I consider my views on hadith to be the correct opinion, and it is my duty to publicize and defend these views. We are sorely in need of a way to rank authentic hadiths by their degree of reliability. Some hadiths in al-Bukhari are ten times more authentic than others, but no one knows this when they simply assume they have to take everything in it as if it is as authentic as the Quran. It is extremely harmful that this information is hidden from people, with everything hidden behind the “sahih” label. My method simply brings their authenticity level out in the open so that people can judge for themselves.

Weak hadith: “women who are dressed yet naked”, “heads like camel humps”

Below is a hadith found in Sahih Muslim, Ahmad, al-Tabarani and elsewhere:

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) having said this:

Two are the types of the denizens of Hell whom I did not see: people having flogs like the tails of the ox with them and they would be beating people, and the women who would be dressed but appear to be naked, who would be inclined (to evil) and make their husbands incline towards it. Their heads would be like the humps of the bukht camel inclined to one side. They will not enter Paradise and they would not smell its odor whereas its odor would be smelt from such and such distance.

Sahih Muslim 2128

A person familiar with the study of hadith will immediately sense this hadith to be fabricated; it has the grotesqueness and vagueness that is often found in fabricated hadiths and never found in the highest quality hadiths. And a study of the hadith’s chains of transmitters supports such an impression. Below is a diagram of the hadith’s chains of narrators:

Using probabilistic hadith verification, this hadith receives an authenticity score of 6.72%, which puts it in the inauthentic/weak (ḍaʿīf) category despite being in Sahih Muslim. The main reason is that the hadith comes through the transmitter Suhayl b. Dhakwan, who is a non-hujja, meaning nothing he says can be trusted unless it is backed up by other evidence. But the only authentic evidence we have actually contradicts this hadith, because we have the following in Imam Malik’s hadith collection al-Muwaṭṭaʾ:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Muslim ibn Abi Maryam from Abu Salih that Abu Hurayra said, "Women who are naked even though they are wearing clothes, go astray and make others go astray, and they will not enter the Garden and they will not find its scent, and its scent is experienced from as far as the distance traveled in five hundred years."

Book 48, Hadith 7

Notice that the above hadith is not attributed to the Prophet PBUH, but to Abu Hurayra himself. This hadith is authentic due to having an authenticity score above 30% (36%).

As far as we can tell, this was a statement made by Abu Hurayra that was modified and falsely attributed to the Prophet PBUH. Note that it does not mention flogs or camel humps.

The stoning of adulterers in Islam: No strong hadith shows it happened after Surat al-Nur

There are numerous hadiths that tell us the Prophet Muhammad PBUH stoned a number of married adulterers. The most important hadith might be one where the Jews of Medina bring a cause of married adultery before the Prophet PBUH. The Prophet PBUH wants to deal with the adulterers according to Jewish law (probably because no Quranic verse had been revealed regarding the issue). The Jews try to ward off the punishment by saying there is nothing in the Torah about stoning adulterers. But Abdullah b. Salam, a Jewish scholar who converted to Islam, forces them to tell the truth:

Malik related to me from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar said, "The Jews came to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and mentioned to him that a man and woman from among them had committed adultery. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, asked them, 'What do you find in the Torah about stoning?' They said, 'We make their wrong action known and flog them.' Abdullah ibn Salam said, 'You have lied! It has stoning for it, so bring the Torah.' They spread it out and one of them placed his hand over the ayat of stoning. Then he read what was before it and what was after it. Abdullah ibn Salam told him to lift his hand. He lifted his hand and there was the ayat of stoning. They said, 'He has spoken the truth, Muhammad. The ayat of stoning is in it.' So the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, gave the order and they were stoned.

Muwatta Book 41, Hadith 1. Also in al-Bukhari, Muslim and others.

The fact that the Prophet PBUH ordered the stoning of some adulterers is uncontroversial. But the most important thing we need to know is whether he ever ordered stoning after Surat al-Nur was revealed, the chapter of the Quran where the issue of adultery is dealt with in some detail. The Quran does not mention stoning of adulterers anywhere, and if we only had the Quran to follow, it would have been clear that adulterers are only to be punished with flogging rather than stoning.

The great 20th century scholar of Islamic law Muhammad Abu Zahra found stoning so repulsive that he considered it impossible that Prophet Muhammad PBUH, sent as a “mercy to mankind”, would instate such a barbaric punishment in his law. (See my essay about his view).

To clarify the matter, I decided to collect all hadiths that mention stoning happening after the Islamic law on the issue was revealed in Surat al-Nur. As it happens, the strongest hadith we have actually tells us that a Companion was unsure whether stoning ever took place after Surat al-Nur was revealed.

Hadith 1

Narrated Ash-Shaibani:

I asked Abdullah bin Abi Aufa about the Rajam (stoning somebody to death for committing illegal sexual intercourse). He replied, "The Prophet (ﷺ) carried out the penalty of Rajam," I asked, "Was that before or after the revelation of Surat-an-Nur?" He replied, "I do not know."

Sahih al-Bukhari 6840, also in Muslim and Mustakhraj Abi Uwana.

Below is a diagram of the chains of this hadith:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 30.2%, which makes it authentic according to probabilistic hadith verification (which has much more stringent criteria compared to the criteria used by al-Bukhari and other scholars, see my essay about it).

Hadith 2

The following hadith is the strongest hadith we have that states that stoning was carried out after the revelation of Surat al-Nur. In it Umar b. al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him) defends stoning.

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

Umar said, "I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, "We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book," and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession." Sufyan added, "I have memorized this narration in this way."Umar added, "Surely Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him."

Sahih al-Bukhari 6829, also in Muslim, Ibn Maja, al-Humaydi, Abu Uwana, Musnad Ahmad, Ibn Hibban, Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq and al-Nasa'i.

Below is the hadith’s chain diagram:

This hadith receives an authenticity score of 27.79%, below the 30% needed for judging it authentic.

Hadith 3

The following is the second and last hadith we have that states stoning was carried out after Surat al-Nur:

Narrated Ash-Sha`bi:

From Ali when the latter stoned a lady to death on a Friday. Ali said, "I have stoned her according to the tradition of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)."

Sahih al-Bukhari 6812

Below is the hadith’s chain diagram:

This hadith’s fatal weakness is that al-Shaʿbī, according to the hadith scholars al-Ḥākim, Ibn al-Jawzī and Ibn Ḥazm, never heard anything from Ali, therefore there is at least one hidden transmitter before al-Shaʿbī. This makes the hadith receive an authenticity score of 11.08%, making it rather weak, since unknown transmitters are given half the authenticity score of known transmitters in the probabilistic method. But even if we assume the unknown transmitter is entirely trustworthy, the hadith’s score only increases to 22.16%, still below the needed 30%.

Putting Islamic law’s fate in the hands of two men

All of the chains of Hadith 2 above come to us through a single transmitter, Ubaydullah b. Abdullah (it has an alternative chain that is so weak as to be unworthy of consideration). As for Hadith 3, it too comes to us through a single, unknown transmitter.

What this means is that in order to decide whether Islamic law requires the stoning of married adulterers or not, we have to place our entire trust in two men, one of whom is unknown. The law of the Quran (which does not include stoning) has to be ignored because two men tell us, through relatively low-quality hadiths, that stoning took place after Surat al-Nur.

I believe we should require evidence that receives an authenticity score of at least 60% before we can consider anything controversial to be proven beyond doubt. Putting the fate of Islamic law in the hands of two men, and ignoring the Quran for their sake, seems extremely irresponsible to me.

Another piece of evidence in favor of stoning adulterers is Maliki law, which is not entirely derived from hadith, but also from the practice of the people of Medina at the time of Imam Malik (ʿamal ahl al-madīna, or ʿamal for short, which Shaykh Umar Faruq Adullah translates as “Medinan praxis”). But this can be explained as follows: Perhaps after Surat al-Nur was revealed, there were no more cases of adultery brought before the Prophet PBUH. And after he died, since people only remembered the cases where he had stoned adulterers, people assumed this was the right thing to do in such cases. The issue never received much analysis because of the extreme rarity of adultery cases. Islam requires four witnesses to the act, which makes it almost practically impossible to prove a case of adultery. People only remembered the fact that the Prophet PBUH stoned some adulterers, without worrying about whether these cases took place before or after Surat al-Nur. And since there were no cases of adultery judged according to Surat al-Nur in the present or the past, and since all cases of adultery before had been judged according to Jewish law, it was Jewish law that was accepted as the tradition of the Prophet PBUH.

Since stoning is a matter of life and death, and since the Quran’s various verses on the punishment of adulterers contradicts it (slave-women get “half” the punishment of free women in the Quran. How can stoning to death be halved?), I believe we are well-justified in considering stoning an unproven punishment, and well-justified in only carrying out the Quranic punishment.

It may be prudent to add that I believe Islamic law should only be applied when people freely choose to live under it. The question of forcing Sharia law on people should never arise among civilized Muslims.

The istikhara prayer is not a well-established part of Islam

A famous hadith of the Prophet PBUH teaches us about the istikhāra prayer, which is a prayer performed to request for God’s guidance in an important matter that a person is uncertain about. What is surprising is that this hadith comes to us from a rather low-quality chain of transmitters:

Narrated Jabir bin `Abdullah:

Jabir (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:
Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to teach us the Istikharah (seeking guidance from Allah) in all matters as he would teach us a Surah of the Qur'an. He used to say: "When one of you contemplates entering upon an enterprise, let him perform two Rak'ah of optional prayer other than Fard prayers and then supplicate: "Allahumma inni astakhiruka bi 'ilmika, wa astaqdiruka bi qudratika, wa as-'aluka min fadlikal-'azim. Fainnaka taqdiru wa la aqdiru, wa ta'lamu wa la a'lamu, wa Anta 'allamul- ghuyub. Allahumma in kunta ta'lamu anna hadhal-'amra (and name what you want to do) khairun li fi dini wa ma'ashi wa 'aqibati amri, (or he said) 'ajili amri ajilihi, faqdurhu li wa yassirhu li, thumma barik li fihi. Wa in kunta ta'lamu anna hadhal 'amra (and name what you want to do) sharrun li fi dini wa ma'ashi wa 'aqibati amri, (or he said) wa 'ajili amri wa ajilihi, fasrifhu 'anni, wasrifni 'anhu, waqdur liyal- khaira haithu kana, thumma ardini bihi." (O Allah, I consult You through Your Knowledge, and I seek strength through Your Power, and ask of Your Great Bounty; for You are Capable whereas I am not and, You know and I do not, and You are the Knower of hidden things. O Allah, if You know that this matter (and name it) is good for me in respect of my Deen, my livelihood and the consequences of my affairs, (or he said), the sooner or the later of my affairs then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless it for me. But if You know this matter (and name it) to be bad for my Deen, my livelihood or the consequences of my affairs, (or he said) the sooner or the later of my affairs then turn it away from me, and turn me away from it, and grant me power to do good whatever it may be, and cause me to be contented with it). And let the supplicant specify the object."

Sahih al-Bukhari 1166

This hadith is the strongest existing hadith that mentions istikhāra. There are a few other hadiths but they are either weak or so low-quality as not to be worth considering. Below is a diagram of most existing chains of transmitters for this hadith:

I used probabilistic hadith criticism to judge the strength of this chain, and the result is that this hadith gets a score of 21.3% probability of authenticity, which is below the 30% needed for a hadith to be judged ṣaḥīḥ (authentic).

The instincts of hadith scholars are seldom wrong, and this hadith raised red flags among them due to coming to us through a single transmitter (ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Abī al-Mawālī), who is the person in the above diagram from whom all the chains branch out. Al-Tirmidhī and al-Dāraquṭnī considered the hadith gharīb (strange/unusual), while Imam Aḥmad considered it munkar (unusual and basically not worth taking too seriously).

Based on these facts, we can determine that the istikhāra prayer is not a strongly-supported part of Islam, as I have always suspected.

Now, there is no issue with praying to God for guidance. But doing it in this ritualistic way, as if it is some sort of magic spell designed to bring out assured results, has never felt very “Islamic” to me and goes against my Quran-taught instincts. Ideally we should pray for guidance constantly, and any practicing Muslim will pray for guidance at least 17 times a day during the ṣalāh as they recite Surat al-Fātiḥa (“Guide us to the Straight Path” is in verse 6). But performing the istikhāra seems to be an unnecessary and possibly fabricated addition to Islam.

However, since the hadith has a score of 21.3%, it is still a ḥasan (possibly authentic) rather than a ḍaʿīf (weak/unsound) hadith. So there is no justification for criticizing people who perform this prayer.

Was the salah originally 50 prayers?

A famous part of the Prophet’s Night Journey PBUH is the story of God making 50 daily prayers obligatory on Muslims. Below is an excerpt from a hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari that mentions this:

Among the things which Allah revealed to him then, was: "Fifty prayers were enjoined on his followers in a day and a night." Then the Prophet (ﷺ) descended till he met Moses, and then Moses stopped him and asked, "O Muhammad ! What did your Lord en join upon you?" The Prophet (ﷺ) replied," He enjoined upon me to perform fifty prayers in a day and a night." Moses said, "Your followers cannot do that; Go back so that your Lord may reduce it for you and for them."

Sahih al-Bukhari 7517

There are many strange aspects to this story: The idea that God prescribed 50 daily prayers, the idea that Prophet Muhammad PBUH did not complain, the idea that Prophet Moses had to speak up on behalf of the Muslims and lecture Prophet Muhammad on the number of daily prayers humans can handle, and the idea of the Prophet PBUH going back and forth between God and Moses to adjust the number of the prayers.

I decided to do a study of all existing chains of all hadiths that mention this “50 daily prayers” theme in order to find out just how strong their chains are. Below is a diagram of the result:

I used probabilistic hadith verification to calculate the strength of the chains. This method uses probability theory to bring out the hidden weaknesses in chains of transmitters. The result was as I expected: the hadiths all have very low-quality chains of transmitters. None of them reach the 30% probability of authenticity that is necessary for judging a hadith ṣaḥīḥ (“authentic”) using this method. In fact none of them even reach 20%:

  • First hadith: 4%
  • Second hadith: 17.9%
  • Third hadith: 11.64%
  • Fourth hadith: 18.14%

The first hadith is so low-quality that it is actually undeserving of being in Sahih al-Bukhari (where it is found).

We can take a final step to combine all of these hadiths’ probabilities together. The result is 27.95% probability of authenticity. (See the linked essay for the details of how these calculations are done).

The verdict is that the supporting hadiths for the story are not strong enough for us to consider it proven that it happened. Therefore skeptical Muslims who find the story strange have the right to be skeptical about it, but I recommend that we keep open minds about it since there is still sufficient support for it that we cannot say with certainty that it is fabricated. (I understand that folks who like to see things in simple black and white terms will find this discussion rather useless, but the science of hadith is all about probabilities, not certainties, and it is important to remember this fact.)

Are the Prophet’s parents in the Hellfire?

I went on Islamq&a, and it lists a hadith where the gist of it was that the Prophet (ﷺ)'s parents will be in the hellfire, is it true?

That hadith is a matter of controversy among scholars. Among scholars who refused to take that hadith literally and believed that the Prophet’s parents PBUH are not in the Hellfire are Abu Ḥanīfa, al-Rāzī, Ibn al-ʿArabi al-Mālikī, al-Qurṭubī, Ibn al-Jawzī, al-Alūsī, Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī, Malā ʿAlī al-Qārī and Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalāni.

The Egyptian Fatwa Authority issued a fatwa saying that believing the Prophet’s parents to be in Paradise is the stronger opinion. Hadith critics also considered this hadith to be shādhdh (strange and unusual) and therefore refused to take it seriously.

I conducted a study of all of the existing chains of the hadith, which is shown below:

According to the mathematical hadith verification method (see my essay here), this hadith has an authenticity score of 20.5%, which is below the 30% needed for considering it ṣaḥīḥ (authentic). Any hadith that falls below 30% is not strong enough to be used as proof, especially in matters of controversy.

Therefore the verdict is that the view that the Prophet’s parents PBUH are in the Hellfire is not a strongly-supported view and should not be believed in, especially since it goes against important principles of Islamic theology (that those who do not receive revelation are not held accountable), and since many important scholars rejected the view.


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)(1−0.265)(1−0.1088)(1−0.585)(1−0.0194)(1−0.0466)) = 0.803547688

(0.227+0.265+0.1088+0.585+0.0194+0.0466)÷6 = 0.208633333

(0.803547688+0.208633333)÷2 = 0.5061

The result is that all of these hadiths together have a probability of 50.6% 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.

IslamQA: 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.

Probablistic Hadith Verification: Combining the Science of Hadith with Legal Theory

A Quick Preview

Let us say we are faced with two hypothetical authentic (i.e. ṣaḥīḥ) hadiths from a respected collection such as Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, with the following chain diagrams, and we are trying to decide which hadith is stronger and better attested. The first hadith below has four transmitters (the four on the right), all of whom narrate from a single transmitter, who narrates from a Companion:

The second hadith has six transmitters, who transmit their hadiths from different chains going back to two Companions:

(For the sake of the example, we are assuming all of the transmitters are of the same quality, though the method can account for transmitters of varying qualities too).

When faced with comparing two such hadiths, it can be very difficult to decide which hadith is higher in quality when it comes to its isnād. The first hadith has “only” four chains, but the transmitters are only one generation removed from the Companions. Meanwhile, the second hadith has six chains, but the hadith’s transmitters are either two generations or three generations removed.

The second hadith goes back to two Companions, which seems to make it more trustworthy than the first hadith, which goes back to only one Companion. Yet the first hadith’s transmitters are only one generation removed from a Companion, compared to the second hadith’s two or three generation remove. How do we make sense of this situation so that we can decide which hadith is actually stronger?

The method described in this essay provides a mathematical method to precisely combine the strength of all of the chains of a particular hadith in order to assign it a single number that tells what strength all those differing chains amount to. The method does not introduce any new information to the science of hadith, it is merely a convenient “calculator” that hadith scholars (and other researchers) can use that can be replicated by others, making the act of judging hadiths a matter of measurement and replication, rather than a matter for hunches and appeals to the fame and authority of this or that person.

As it happens, in the above example the first hadith is somewhat stronger, having a score of 35%, compared with the second hadith’s score of 30%. As will be shown, relatively few hadiths, including ṣaḥīḥ ones, reach above 30% in their scores, so both of the hadiths are reasonably strong and well worth using in legal judgments.


The study of hadith has been by and large restricted to hadith scholars. In this essay I present a fundamentally new approach to the study of hadith that combines the disciplines of traditional hadith criticism with uṣul al-fiqh (legal theory). For over a millennium, scholars of legal theory have discussed what makes certain hadiths mutawātir, or true beyond doubt, but these discussions have unfortunately been almost entirely ignored by hadith scholars. By combining legal theory with hadith criticism, we gain a powerful new empirical tool for judging the authenticity of hadiths that enables fiqh scholars to tap the vast resources of the science of hadith while implementing the long-neglected field of legal theory in the way hadiths are handled.

Counting the number of chains that a hadith possesses has been a traditional method of determining the strength of one hadith compared to another. Another method has been to determine the length of a chain. Hadiths with shorter chains were highly prized due to their higher authenticity. This method integrates both of these concepts: Hadiths with more chains and shorter chains receive higher percentage rankings than hadiths with fewer chains or shorter chains.

From binary to analog

It is rarely mentioned in scholarly circles and among the rest of the Muslim community that the categories that hadiths are placed into by hadith scholars, such as ṣaḥīḥ, are artificial, made-up categories. Some ṣaḥīḥ hadiths are vastly superior in their authenticity compared to other ṣaḥīḥ hadiths, and hadith scholars are well aware of this.

It was natural and convenient for hadith scholars of the early and classical periods to view hadiths as being either ṣaḥīḥ or not-ṣaḥīḥ (ḥasan, ḍaʿīf, etc.). This is what I call binary thinking. It divides the world of hadith into two parts, one of which, ṣaḥīḥ, is assumed to be practically perfectly reliable despite the awareness that no two ṣaḥīḥ hadiths are ever equally reliable. It’s similar to dividing one’s friends and acquaintances into two categories, “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy”, despite the fact that we know the real world is much more complicated than that and that people, in reality, are on a spectrum of trustworthiness from most trustworthy to least trustworthy.

The essential innovation that my verification method introduces is that it supersedes the artificial, binary thinking of traditional hadith science by introducing an analog method of categorizing hadiths, suggested to me not by hadith scholars but by scholars of legal theory in their discussions of the reliability of hadiths, that better represents reality. In the traditional method a hadith can either be ṣaḥīḥ or not-ṣaḥīḥ, while in my method a hadith can be 20% likely to be authentic, or 30%, or 90%. The method has room for representing all the various shades of authenticity that are hidden to ordinary Muslims when they read that a particular hadith is authentic.

This method helps free the great treasures of the science of hadith criticism that have so far been locked away in hadith collections and the works of hadith transmitter criticism (ʿilm al-rijāl) so that every Muslim can benefit from them by having that knowledge translated into an easy-to-understand mathematical ranking system.

Hadith and probability theory

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.

This 60% is not a judgment on the transmitter’s character. It is a judgment on this specific piece of information in this specific place in the chain. It does not mean that a transmitter is 60% likely to be trustworthy. Rather, it is based on the uṣūl al-fiqh (Islamic legal theory) discussions on the number of witnesses needed for a certain piece of information to be considered mutawātir or true beyond doubt (see Wael B. Hallaq in Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh). It is general knowledge among scholars of legal theory that a single witness, no matter how trustworthy, can never impart certain knowledge. This is why Islamic law requires multiple witnesses in various legal cases. This requirement for multiple witnesses is not a judgment on the character of individual witnesses. It is a guarantee against various forms of error and uncertainty. According to the 60% assumption, four trustworthy witnesses mentioning the same piece of information side-by-side have a 97.44% chance of imparting it truthfully and correctly, while eight witnesses have a 99.93% chance, making a piece of information practically mutawātir, or widely-transmitted.

The 60% assumption takes into account the concept of signal decay. While a trustworthy witness who heard a piece of information today may have a 100% chance of imparting it correctly today, hadiths are transmitted between witnesses who may have held onto the information for decades. A hadith with four transmitters in its chain may in fact represent information passed down over four generations. There is an inherent signal decay in this multi-generational process, and the 60% assumption helps simulate this decay by requiring multiple transmitters at each point of the chain to maintain signal integrity.

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).

Note that the method can easily be tweaked so that ṣaḥīḥ would start at 50% instead of 30%.. Instead of giving a transmitter in a chain a probability of 60%, we can give them a probability of 80%, which would increase the results arrived it. Note that it makes no difference what assumption we choose, as I have chosen 60%, for an individual transmitter, because the end result is always relative to other hadiths. Regardless of what assumption we choose, it is the case that a hadith with a stronger chain will receive a higher rank than a hadith with a weaker chain.

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 thinking 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 questionable: 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

The 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.


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

See the articles on the Probabilistic Hadith Verification page for many studies by me in which I use the methodology developed in this article to verify hadiths on various important issues.

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.


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.


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)×(1−0.077)×(1−0.1567)×(1−0.07278)×(1−0.1429)×(1−0.012)×(1−0.1127)×(1−0.2078)×(1−0.1489)×(1−0.058)×(1−0.0388) = 0.704960078

(0.1088+0.077+0.1567+0.07278+0.1429+0.012+0.1127+0.2078+0.1489+0.058+0.0388)÷11 = 0.1033

(0.704960078+0.1033)÷2 = 0.4041

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 40.41% 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 meaning of the hadiths together can be considered authentic.