I’m very happy to announce that this blog has just passed its one month birthday, and has already had a little over four hundred hits. Now, I recognize that, by the standards of the internets, that’s a drop in the bucket, but I never intended to compete with slow lorises holding umbrellas or girls singing about the days of the week, and frankly, it’s a heck of a lot better than the five hits from people I know personally I was expecting. So thanks, everyone!
Okay, /end self-aggrandizement.
Today’s question comes from Uzza: Supposedly, whatever Muhammed (sp?) said as a direct quote of Allah/Jibreel was recorded in the Quran, while whatever he said in his own words went into the Hadith. But it seems to me there is overlap in both directions, which I assume is due to political machinations back in the day. Can you clarify this issue?
Obviously in the Muslim tradition, the big difference between the Qur’an and the hadith is the issue of divine intervention – as you rightly note, the Qur’an is understood by Muslims as the direct words of God, which were recited to the early community of believers by Muhammad. The hadith (pl. ahadith) are the collections of the stories, saying and admonitions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), which were collated after his death, and which are understood to have no more religious power than the authority of the Prophet himself (s’lm) as having been chosen as God’s Messenger.
There is quite definitely overlap between the Qur’an and the hadith, but this is intentional and accepted within the Muslim tradition. It sort of like the hadith is the operator’s manual to the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a series of stories mixed with direct commands and apocalyptic overtones, often worded as God speaking to His creation, but unlike the Christian or Hebrew Bible, there’s no overarching narrative to lead the reader through it. This fact is further complicated by the fact that the Qur’an was not revealed to Muhammad (s’lm) in the order it now appears, and verses were often amended or even abrogated by later revelations. The first complete written version of the Qur’an was assembled by the second Rightly-Guided Caliph to lead the community after Muhammad’s death (s’lm), ‘Umar, but before and after the codification of the Qur’an, when faced with questions about how the commands of the Qur’an should be followed, believers often looked to Muhammad (s’lm), either asking him directly, or deriving the answer from how they had seen him practice.
After the death of the Prophet (s’lm), the expanding community of believers continued this tradition, going to the first converts who had been close to Muhammad (s’lm) and asking them how they had seen him practice. Eventually, these stories were collected and codified. Hadith normally start with an isnad, a chain of transmission (“I heard from so-and-so, who heard from so-and-so,” etc), and during the period of codification, starting around a century and a half after the death of the Prophet (s’lm), contradictory stories were compared against each other, and the isnad were studied to see if the supposed transmitters could ever have actually seen or communicated with one another.
The collections of hadith as we have them today thus span a whole range of subjects and material, most of which is attributed in the final instance back to Muhammad (s’lm), but some of which goes back to the early companions. In particular, the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs and the wives of Muhammad (s’lm) are often used as ending points for hadith, as they would have practiced alongside Muhammad (s’lm). These stories explain how to perform the rituals and observances commanded by the Qur’an (everything from how to perform the raka’, the bowing and prostration in prayers, to the day-long rituals of the Hajj), as well as lots of stuff that doesn’t directly related to passages from the Qur’an, but about which the community still sought guidance. (Personally, I was always amazed how many hadith there are over the question of whether or not believers can use toothpicks. Evidentially this was a serious debate in the first few centuries of Islam!)
In terms of how we know what is what, there are some clear differences between the Qur’an and the hadith in terms of style – the Qur’an often speaks directly as God, and was written in rhythmic verse in a very high style of Arabic. According to Islamic tradition, the community would know when Muhammad (s’lm) as about to receive a new prophecy, as he would have a mild seizure and awaken with the new verses. By comparison, the hadith are generally written in very easy, formulaic Arabic, always with the isnad at the beginning, and are often marked by set phrases like ‘it was good’ or ‘it was acceptable’.
Hope that helps!
 It’s probably worth pointing out that the use of the hadith for reference seems to be going out of style among many modern Muslim communities, but even this movement is more just a general moving away from the hadith, not an outright rejection of it.