What We Can Learn from the Islamic Science of Hadith Criticism
Many times when speaking with people I am shocked at the things they think they know. “Facts” are often repeated and stated with the utmost certainty. However, to someone who has studied the field of those “facts,” these statements are often absurd. Yet, this is a trap we all fall in to every once in a while. Since we are all victims of this folly, it is important to note how and why this happens.
We are often afflicted with a severe lack of humility. This lack of humility blinds us from recognizing what we do NOT know. As a result, we begin to think that we know things when in actuality we do not.
Socrates once spoke with a man who many thought to be wise. In the course of the conversation, he realized that this man was no wiser than he and the man became angry when Socrates tried to show him this. In commenting on this scenario, Socrates said, “It seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”1
Another issue is the concept of rigor. Do we really critique the sources from which we are hearing various pieces of information and in doing so, how well do we actually pay attention? Do we remember it as it was told to us? These are all questions that should be thought about and kept in consideration when we are dealing with attaining any type of knowledge. The information that we are bombarded with every day has a great impact on the way we see the world and others around us. Thus, it is vital to fully understand the validity or lack thereof of the information we come across.
We can take an important lesson from the Islamic Science of Hadith2 criticism. During the life of the Prophet ﷺ, early Muslims would base their world view and life decisions on his teachings. However, after the Prophet’s ﷺ death, scholars were put in a very difficult position. Without having his example to follow, people began to narrate stories and statements about the Prophet ﷺ. Faced with this body of narrations3, the Muslim scholars were forced to derive a system of verification. Such a system would later develop into the science of hadith criticism. Ahadith were to consist of two major components. The first was a list of transmitters who the narrator purportedly heard the hadith from. The second was the actual text of the hadith. Each component was subject to a series of conditions and examinations. First, the scholar would analyze the chain of narrators. This chain would have to lead directly to the Prophet ﷺ and each person in the chain would have to be known as being reliable and precise.4 If there was any break in the chain or if anyone in the chain was known to be imprecise or untrustworthy, the narration would be rejected. Second, the scholar would analyze the actual content of the hadith. In this process, there were many factors that could cause a hadith to be rejected.
By applying this process to ourselves and our interaction with information, we should do several things:
- Make sure that we are reliable and precise in the information we give others.
- Know the caliber and precision of the people who we are taking knowledge and information from. If they are lacking in either of these, it should be noted.
- We should think critically about that which we are told to see if it makes sense.
- We should inquire the background source where the person gained their knowledge from on the specific matter they are sharing. Did they hear it or read it themselves? From who or from where?
All of this may seem a bit silly and extreme but the fact of the matter is that a healthy democracy relies on the intelligence of its citizens. Every day we are being fed information that is questionable and it affects the decisions that we take in our lives and our perceptions of others. If you don’t believe me then check out this article, which was the motivation for this post – “16 of the Dumbest Things Americans Believe.”
- Plato, Apology. ↩
- Hadith – the statements, actions, silent approvals, and descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and all the Prophets and Messengers). ↩
- Referred to as “traditions” in the field of Islamic Studies. ↩
- This process arguably led to another sub-branch of the Islamic Sciences known as “Biographical Dictionaries.” ↩
Good article. You should save the html page of the link you gave in the end of the article instead of only giving a link to it. These days they delete the pages from their sites and we don’t leave behind with any evidence of that piece actually once upon a time being there. Just go to the link, save as .mht (complete web page) then link that saved page, before hasbara brigade comes and cleans it up.
Much needed and well written, barek Allahu fikum
I read that some compilers also go to the extent of checking that it’s plausible for one narrator to have heard it from the one he supposedly heard it from – I forget if this was Bukhari or someone else. Like, if Person B only ever lived in one city and Person C never went there, then it’s implausible. Or if Person B was dead before Person C was old enough to have gone to him. Something like that.