A common misconception among many people is that they believe the texts of the Qur’an and Hadith are intended for all of mankind and are so clear that anyone fairly literate should be able to read them and understand what they mean. The first part of this idea is correct – the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ are intended for everyone. However, the idea that anyone reading the texts will be able to fully understand each and every intended meaning regardless of their background knowledge is very wrong.
Let’s take a practical example in order to demonstrate the truth of this claim. If someone were to open up Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, which is one of the very famous early collections of narrations [Ahӑdith], they might come across the following:
Hannӑd and Mahmud ibn Ghaylӑn informed us that Waki’ informed us on the authority of Sufyӑn on the authority of Abi Qays on the authority of Huzayl ibn Sharhabil on the authority of Al-Mughira ibn Shu’ba who said: “The Prophet ﷺ made ablution [wudu] and wiped over his socks and sandals.” Abu Isa [At-Tirmidhi] said: “This narration is authentic [hasan sahih].”
Whether this was read in Arabic or in English you might conclude from it that you can wipe over your feet when making wudu without having to take off your socks or sandals. You might naturally go even further and consider it ridiculous that anyone could have a doubt about this since it is so clear. The Prophet ﷺ did it and the narration is authentic so we can do it too.
However, a major problem arises when we look into Islamic history. We realize that virtually none of the scholars of Islamic Law came to the same conclusion based upon this narration. This means two things:
- No scholar worthy of the name opened up a book like Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, read this hadith, and then made a conclusion based upon what he read.
- No scholar came to the conclusion that anyone can unconditionally wipe over their socks and sandals because the Prophet ﷺ did it and the narration is authentic.
The first point has to do with methodology. The Prophet ﷺ said, “When someone in authority makes ijtihad [decrees a ruling regarding Islamic Law] and is correct then he receives two rewards. However, if he is wrong he only receives one reward.” In Islam, anyone who makes ijtihad and is qualified to do so will be rewarded even if he is wrong. The important thing is that he used the correct methodology. On the other hand, anyone who undertakes ijtihad without being qualified and knowing the correct methodology will get no reward. In fact, it is feared that he may even be held accountable for doing so. This is demonstrated by an incident where a group of people were asked a question and gave the wrong answer which resulted in the death of the questioner. Later, the Prophet ﷺ was informed about what had happened and he exclaimed in contempt, “They killed him! If they don’t know, why don’t they ask?! Asking is the cure for ignorance.”
The second point has to do with putting history into perspective. If most scholars didn’t come to the same conclusion as the one who read this hadith then it might be concluded that they have never come across this hadith before. Maybe they didn’t have a copy of Sunan Al-Tirmidhi. Maybe they didn’t read the part about it being authentic. This conclusion would result in a very negative view of Islamic history. Now that we use the printing press, books like Imam Tirmidhi’s can be printed and distributed for everyone to read in order to supposedly correct the mistakes of all of those scholars of the past.
Let us look at the issue in detail in order to clear up these misconceptions. First, we will look at the authenticity of the narration and then we will take up what it implies.
Authenticating a Narration
After the death of the Prophet ﷺ, Muslim scholars came up with the most rigorous and ingenious method of authenticating history ever known. This was in order to properly preserve the statements of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ.
The casual reader might notice that Abu Isa Al-Tirmidhi graded the narration in question as authentic. However, we must also see what other scholars had to say about the same narration since Al-Tirmidhi is not the only authority in the field of hadith criticism.
Imam Abu Daud said, “Abdur Rahman ibn Mahdi used to refrain from narrating this hadith because it is well known that Mughira reported that the Prophet ﷺ wiped over his leather socks [khuffayn].” One of the most knowledgeable early hadith scholars of his time, Imam ibn Mahdi, was very well aware of this hadith, and had it memorized as well, but refused to narrate it to others because he considered it to be unauthentic. The vast majority of scholars agreed with him, among them: Sufyan Al-Thawri, Yahya ibn Ma’in, Ali ibn Al-Madini, Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Daud, Ahmad ibn Hambal, Al-Nasai, Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar, and Ibn Al-Qaiyyim.
The question might arise then, on what basis did scholars like Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Hibban as well as contemporary scholars like Al-Albani authenticate this hadith? In order to understand this phenomenon we must first understand that there are five tests that a hadith must go through before being declared authentic:
- Ittisal – The chain of narration must be uninterrupted. For example, assume Imam Al-Bukhari is relating a statement of the Prophet ﷺ and there are three people between him and the Prophet ﷺ (i.e. I heard from X who heard from Y who heard from Z who heard the Prophet ﷺ say…). If Imam Bukhari happened to mention in his book person Y by his nickname which was unknown to other people then this hadith would automatically be deemed unauthentic because person Y would be considered as missing from the chain of narrators since we are unable to find out anything about him.
- Adl – All of the narrators must be upright. This means that they must be good Muslims, honest, have good behavior [akhlaq], etc.
- Dabt – All of the narrators must be precise. This means that they only narrate after knowing the general context and implication of the narration and are familiar with the various wording that was used.
- Shudhudh – The narration should not contradict another narration about the same incident which is established. The narration in Sunan Al-Tirmidhi about wiping over socks suffers from this defect as will be shown.
- Illa – The narration should be free from any other major defect that is usually found after researching all the narrations on the same topic.
Once we understand these principles we begin to understand why ibn Mahdi refused to narrate this hadith. He realized that Al-Mughira ibn Shu’ba saw the Prophet ﷺ wiping over his leather socks [khuffayn] and that this is established by several authentic narrations. However, the narrators Abu Qays and Huzayl made a mistake by narrating that Al-Mughira said “socks” [jawrabayn] instead of “leather socks” [khuffayn]. Since the difference between the two words makes a very significant difference, the narration of Abu Qays and Huzayl have been declared unacceptable.
The Implication of a Statement
Let us assume that the hadith in question is indeed authentic. Is the assumption that “anyone can wipe over their socks and sandals because the Prophet ﷺ did it” correct?
If we look at what the scholars had to say on the subject, we will not find even one that unconditionally allowed wiping over the unqualified term “socks.” Rather, they stipulated certain conditions which must be met and defined what types of socks are allowed to be wiped over.
Every scholar began by looking at the Qur’an, since that is the undisputed word of God. What does it have to say about this subject? “O you who believe, when you stand for prayer wash your faces, your arms up to the elbows, wipe a part of your heads, and wash your feet up to the ankles.” (5:6) This verse clearly states that you mush wash your feet up to the ankles when performing ablution. However, the Qur’an also says, “Take whatever the Messenger gives you and refrain from whatever he forbids you. (59:7)” Therefore, if it can be established that the Messenger ﷺ taught his followers any exception to the rule then it may be taken as a concession.
The scholar then looked at all of the narrations on the same topic. Imam Abu Hanifa’s statement clarifies this important principle, “I did not pass a judgment about wiping over socks until the overwhelming narrations proving its validity became manifest to me like daylight.” What he meant was that he did not consider wiping to be an established exception to the rule until he collected several authentic reports. His reasoning was this:
- the Qur’an is the word of God and its authenticity is undisputed;
- any single narration, even after passing the five tests of authentication, still has a possibility of being wrong due to the human element of the narration;
- no report should be allowed to be used as an exception to the rule until its authenticity is such that it leaves no room for any reasonable doubt.
After it became clear to him that several of the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ had narrated regarding wiping over socks he went further and said, “I fear that whoever denies wiping over socks has almost left Islam because the narrations regarding it have almost reached the level of tawatur.” Ibn Hajar verifies this by saying, “The experts of hadith have confirmed that the narrations which establish the permissibility of wiping over socks have reached the status of tawatur.”
After checking all of the narrations on the topic the scholar noticed the following:
- The Prophet ﷺ was not only seen wiping over his socks but he also instructed some of his companions to do so as well;
- He set a time limit as to how long anyone may wipe over their socks before having to take them off;
- He set a prerequisite that they must be worn in a state of purity before they may be wiped over;
- He wiped over the top of the sock rather than the bottom.
None of the preceding points apply to the narration of Abu Qays and Huzayl mentioned by Al-Tirmidhi and all of the narrations are unanimous that the socks mentioned were khuffayn and not jawrabayn.
The purpose of this discussion was not to deny that wiping is only restricted to leather socks (it is definitely not) but rather to correct the false assumption that reading a single verse or a single narration can qualify as evidence for a ruling on any issue. From this example, we should learn the following lessons:
- Some texts of the Qur’an and the Prophetic narrations require more than just a casual reading in order to understand their context and true import.
- No one should assume that they have fully understood any Qur’anic verse or Prophetic statement and then make judgment upon others unless they are familiar with all of the evidence on the topic.
- To properly understand Islam one should study on an issue by issue basis rather than a text by text basis.
- Sincerity, without knowledge, does not justify ignorance.
Does this mean that we should not read the Qur’an or hadith? Absolutely not. In fact, this should be an encouragement to read even more. The more knowledge you acquire the more things will begin to fit into place. One of the beautiful things about Islam is that there are no Divinely appointed clergy or priests. Anyone can study, increase in knowledge, and understand the Qur’an and Sunnah for themselves. If you only read this article with the hope of knowing whether or not you can wipe over the socks that you are wearing then go ask your local scholar rather than reading a collection of hadith. If that idea bothers you, then set out on the path of knowledge, the Muslim community is in need of more knowledgeable people.