Secondary (or supplemental) books. What are hadith?
Similar to Judaism which has a core book (the Torah) and secondary oral traditions (the Talmud), Islam has a core book (Qur’an) and a recorded “oral tradition” that we call “ah-Hadith.” The Talmud and Hadith have been both recorded in many hundreds of volumes and both serve to supplement understanding of their respective core books (Torah and Qur’an) and build upon the foundation of religious practice.
The hadith are the “secondary source” after the Qur’an to which Muslims refer in order to supplement their faith, interpret Islamic Shari’ah (stay tuned because I will write about “Shari’ah” very soon) or to form opinions on interpretation of our religion. They are a collection of writings that were passed down person to person by “word of mouth over 200-300 years” until they were compiled and written into central books by various scholars who collected them. These books are commonly named after the scholars that compiled them, such as “Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim or Imam Abu Dawud.” There are collectively hundreds of volumes.
Unlike the Qur’an, the hadith were dictated by a chain of ordinary individuals about the things the Prophet Muhammad supposedly said (qawl), did (fi’l) or approved (taqrir). The Prophet Muhammad “never authorized or saw” these compilations or recordings. They were not preserved with the same integrity of the Qur’an. The hadith have errors, contradictions and are NOT considered “infallible.” The Qur’an is the primary authoritative source of all things in Islam. The hadith are secondary to supplement or clarify the Qur’an and subordinate to it.
Hadith are categorized based on what we call “Isnad” or trustworthiness of the “chain of narrators.” The three categorizations are:
- Sahih (Strong; Narrators were known to be reputable)
- Hasan (Good; Narrators may be questionable)
- Da’if (Weak; Serious problems with narrators or method of transmission)
It is important to note that a “Strong” narration may still have inaccuracies or have different narrations of the same event described in Islamic history. The categorization only speaks to the reputations of the individuals in the “chain” over generations or the method of transmission, where they individuals known to be liars, cheats, abusers or trustworthy people? Also, as we know, even a story told by the most trustworthy people in a chain of many individuals can come out on the other side of the chain a very different story than when it began.
In order to sort these out, we have to study the event in-depth according to hundreds of other hadiths, Qur’an and Islamic history to determine the outcome. There is no room for “clever slogans”, rash interpretations or assumptions that many deviant Muslims or anti-Islam proponents try to assert. It is why we call the study of hadith, “The Science of Hadith.” It takes serious long term study and every hadith that remotely can speak to a situation must be evaluated in light of each other.
Divisions among Muslims have risen over the existence of volumes of hadith, interpretations of hadith and even ascribed authors or recorders of hadith. Entire schools of thought have been formed and draw on some hadith more than others. The Sunni and Shi’a historical divide has been greatly amplified over the existence and interpretations of hadith.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about hadith is that Qur’an is more authoritative. If there is not a direct Qur’anic reference to cross reference and unequivocally confirm the hadith then the hadith holds less authority.
An example of hadith that would hold a great degree of authority in a valid interpretation of Islam can be seen in the Qur’anic verse that tells Muslims to establish formal prayers. The Qur’an does not tell us how to do that.
“Verily, I am Allah: There is no god but I: So serve thou Me (only), and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise.” (Qur’an 20:14)
So, we have to refer to hadiths that directly describes the topic in order to learn how. Qur’an makes the mandate, the hadith explains the mandate.
Article by BrJimC © 2016