Modern hadith studies

Nader asked:

Hi Jessica,

A very nice blog attracting sincere and relevant questions 🙂 Congratulations for this job. I have been reading for a while papers dealing with the authenticity of the hadiths and I must admit I still didn’t find a kind of review that mentions the positions of the different researchers (from schacht to MM Al-A’zami, from Juynboll to Hallaq … ). Do you know any paper or book that could help me getting a clear understanding of the main trends in academia, regarding the hadiths literature and their corresponding arguments ? Could you tell me about the western university groups that are still working on this topic

Ultimately, I would be happy to get an exhaustive review of the different schools of thought among scholars (not only western) who study hadiths. Reading books for each of them (Schacht, MM Azami, Fazlur Rahman, Juynboll, etc) would take me years otherwise … 🙂

Thanks for your answer. I hope it is clearer now.

Happy “Eid al Fitr” for your Muslim readers,

Thanks again for the kind words, Nader!  Unfortunately the reason you haven’t been able to find a work giving summaries of the existing scholarly schools on the hadith and their historicity is because, as far as I’m aware, no such work exists.  I’ll do my best to give some general outlines and suggest some shorter readings for getting a better idea of the state of the field, but unfortunately a full review of the existing scholarship on the subject would easily fill a book, so well beyond the scope of the internet rules for tl;dr.

First, though, a bit of background for the uninitiated: “the hadith” is the general catch-all term for the collections of hadith (pl. ahadith), meaning literally “transmission” or “report,” which are stories of the Prophet (pbuh) and the early community, which often report on how the Prophet (pbuh) practiced his religion – what he did, what he said, how he corrected others, and what he declared permissible and impermissible.  In the Muslim tradition, the hadith are generally understood as expanding the practices laid out in the Qur’an, explaining how ritual actions should be performed and why.  As such, these stories span an incredible range of topics – everything from whether Muslims can or should use toothpicks and the correct order to clean oneself during ablution to when conversion takes place and the nature of Heaven and Hell.

According to Muslim tradition, transmission of the hadith began organically from the early years of Islam, and in particular from the first decades after the death of the Prophet (pbuh) as the community began to expand out of the Arabian peninsula.  As new converts wanted to learn more about how to practice the religion, they naturally turned to members of the community who had known the Prophet (pbuh) personally, asking for clarification on how he had performed certain rites and practices, and these conversations developed into the hadith.  After a few generations, there were thousands of individual ahadith circulating throughout the caliphate, many of which contradicted one another.  As scholarly schools developed in the Abbasid period (starting in the late 8th century), scholars began to analyze critically the various hadith traditions.  They focused particularly on the transmission history of the hadith, studying the sanad (pl. isnad) or chains of transmission (“so-and-so was told by so-and-so who was told by so-and-so who heard that the Prophet (pbuh) did x,y, and z”), essentially developing one of the earliest citation checking systems, arguing that only hadith that were transmitted through people who were actual contemporaries and could actually have spoken to one another should be considered authentic.

The hadith became an integral part of the larger study of Islamic law, as providing guidance for the acceptable forms of ritual practice.  Unsurprisingly, variant traditions emerged between the Sunni and Shi’a, with some hadith transmitters being considered reliable by only one sect or the other.  Similarly, there is evidence to suggest that both the Kharijites (a 7th century sect who rejected both caliphal and Shi’i claims of hereditary authority) and the Mutazilites (a 9th century philosophical movement who supported the use of rational analysis of the Qur’an in order to derive ritual practices) both rejected the use of hadith as authoritative as overemphasizing the Prophet’s role as Prophet (pbuh) over the role of the Qur’an as divine revelation.  However, our knowledge of both of these groups is heavily filtered through works written about them by their opponents, so it’s difficult to know what they believed with any kind of certainty.

The long gap between the initial development of individual hadith and the eventual codification of the traditions has led many modern Western scholars to question the authenticity of the hadith as anything more than an Abbasid creation to codify Islamic practice.  Again, there’s no way I’d be able to offer a full view of every scholarly position, but I’ll try to highlight some of the more influential voices.

Ignaz Goldziher: In addition to being a nominee for the coolest sounding name ever, Goldziher is one of the founders of Western Islamic studies.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he wrote on the life of Muhammad (pbuh) and the hadith, arguing that the content of the latter was better understood in the context of the Abbasid period than that of the early community.  He also tried to argue for the general principles of the hadith and early Islamic law as arising from Roman contract law, an argument largely dismantled by Patricia Crone (may she rest in peace).  Although later scholars, in particular Joseph Schacht and Norman Calder, often cited Goldziher as contradicting Islamic tradition regarding the hadith, I would argue that this is incorrect – Goldziher’s concept of the hadith as coming out of the Abbasid period doesn’t really contradict Islamic tradition because that is the period in which the traditions were codified.  The difference between Goldziher’s concept of the hadith and the Islamic tradition seem to stem, at least to me, by his disregard for the more banal and practical elements of the hadith – it’s easy to see how some of the broader philosophical themes date to the Abbasid period, but it’s a lot harder to argue that the Abbasids had a vested interest in whether Muslims used toothpicks.  The broader themes may have emerged during the process of codification, but that doesn’t mean that the contents were wholly invented in that same process.

Joseph Schacht:  Schacht is responsible, for better or for worse, for shaping much of the Western Islamicist approach to Islamic law.  I include the ‘for worse’ mostly because his writing is also very much a product of early twentieth century academia – it’s very scant on citations, and often uses single examples to make sweeping arguments about the whole of a particular school of Islamic jurisprudence or even the whole of the field (for example, as I’ve discussed before, in the case of the “closing of the doors of ijtihad”).  I would argue that Schacht had a similarly inconsistent conception of the hadith – on the one hand, as I’ve talked about before, he claims to reject entirely an internal source for Islamic law, be it the Qur’an or the hadith.  Yet at the same time, in his analysis of Islamic jurisprudence, he relies heavily on the broader narrative of the formation of the hadith, assuming that legal decisions were made both by qadi (judges) in formal courts and by alim (scholars) in non-binding, but still authoritative, day-to-day conversations.  Again, for me, I find this argument unpersuasive, as it would require the preservation of both the ‘real’ source of Islamic law (whatever that is – Schacht, for his part, echoes Goldziher in arguing for Roman common law) and the hadith traditions, despite them lacking ‘real’ legal authority.

Muhammad al-A’zami: Perhaps the first and probably still the most important criticism of Western analyses of the hadith comes from Muhammad al-A’zami.  Having trained at Darul Uloom Deoband in India and al-Azhar in Egypt before coming to Cambridge, al-A’zami was one of the few early Islamcists to be equally well-versed in traditional Islamic scholarship and Western methodology.  In his book Hadith Methodology and Literature (based on his doctoral thesis at Cambridge, the full text of which is available online), he argued that Western methodology suffered from a limited view of the history of the hadith, which had negatively impacted its interpretation of the tradition.  In particular, he highlighted that according to Islamic tradition, the hadith were not transmitted exclusively orally, but that several scholars did produce written collections before the formalization of the isnad system, but that, indeed, the circulation of these collections is one of the things that fueled the interest in monitoring the accuracy of transmission histories.  However, much of al-A’zami’s work received its own criticism from mainstream Islamic studies, with many scholars arguing that it was, in essence, an apologetic defense of the Muslim tradition.  Moreover, his association with Darul Uloom Deoband brought him further scrutiny, as the university has faced various accusations of extremism in the second half of the twentieth century.  Personally, I think al-A’zami’s work is no more polemic than Schacht’s, and I find his criticism of latter (published as On Schacht’s Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence) to be a very useful methodological analysis.  It is certainly the case that al-A’zami is not ‘unbiased,’ but I’d be hard-pressed to think of any scholar who isn’t actually personally committed to their own work and theories, so I find it a bit hypocritical to discount his work just because his personal commitment comes from a religious or cultural connection to the subject.

Unfortunately, since al-A’zami’s work in the mid-twentieth century, Islamic studies has largely moved away from hadith studies, probably due in large part to the complicated nature of both the source material and the methodologies surrounding it.  Turning to scholars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a number of people have written about the hadith in passing (Patricia Crone and John Wansborough as examples of the source skeptical perspective and Wadad al-Qadi and Gabriel Said Reynolds as examples of the more traditionally-reliant scholarship), and some scholars discuss specific hadith and hadith traditions that are relevant to a larger theme of their studies (Michael Bonner, for example, talks in his research about the hadith traditions regarding warfare and jihad, but it’s this latter topic that’s really the focus of his work), but there are fewer scholars who I would characterize as working on the hadith.

A good general primer on the state of the field, including its relative indifference to the hadith, can be found in Gabriel Said Reynolds’ introduction to The Qur’an in its Historical Context (2007) or Andrea Neuwirth’s and Nicolai Sinai’s introduction in Qur’an in Context (2011).

Fred Donner: One of the more recent attempts to find common ground between the increasingly skeptical Western approach to Islamic studies and the Muslim tradition is Fred Donner, who has published predominately on the development of historiography and identity formation in the early Islamic community (and, since we’re talking about bias, was also my mentor).  Although he still is not really a hadith scholar, his work on the early Islamic community has reasserted some of the same arguments made by al-A’zami, in particular arguing for an early date for the initial circulation of individual hadith and noting the existence of a concurrent written tradition.  His work Narratives of Islamic Origins (1998) opens with what I think is an excellent breakdown of how and why Western methodology has rejected the hadith tradition, and how and why that’s negatively impacted our research.

Wael Hallaq:  I’ve talked about Wael Hallaq before, as well – it’s hard to talk about Schacht and not discuss Hallaq, as well.  Again, he’s not really a hadith scholar, but since his research focuses on Islamic law, he definitely engages more directly with both individual hadith and the broader hadith tradition than most modern Islamicists.  Hallaq is also definitely a post-Orientalist scholar, in that he engages both with modern Islamic studies and with what he sees as the lasting effects of Orientalism on the field (a methodology which, I should say, I generally agree with, but one that has opened him up to accusations of bias not dissimilar to those against al-A’zami).  Although his most recent book (The Impossible State, 2014) is really about Islamic law in the modern context, his earlier works are more about the development of Islamic law in the Middle Ages, and here he deals more with the hadith (his Introduction to Islamic Law (2009) is particularly good for the uninitiated).  He gives less of a direct response to Western source skepticism than al-A’zami, but in his use of the hadith tradition, lays out what I think is a compelling example of how these sources could be used by modern scholars, noting individual cases of transmission errors or conflicting reports while accepting in broad strokes the traditional Muslim account of the codification of the hadith tradition and Islamic law.

Wilfred Madelung: Along with being another nominee for the most awesome sounding name award, Madelung is also one of the few well-known Islamcists from the late twentieth century I can think of who I would actually call a hadith scholar, in that analysis of the hadith makes up a sizable portion of his published work.  Even here, though, it’s a bit misleading – the word “hadith” doesn’t appear in the titles of any of his books.  His work is focused, first and foremost, on the history of Islamic sectarianism, particularly in the emergence of the Shi’a and the Isma’ili.  In following the limited source material about the sects, however, Madelung revisited much of the hadith tradition, and in doing so, argued for the rehabilitation of the tradition, particularly if it could be analyzed through the lens of sectarianism and the early conflicts over authority.  In his work The Succession of Muhammad (1998), Madelung argued that whereas Western scholars have approached individual Muslim sources with skepticism, they have accepted largely uncritically the idea that Muhammad (pbuh) always intended to be succeeded by Abu Bakr (pbuh), and that the idea of dynastic inheritance through ‘Ali (pbuh) was a later invention by Shi’i jurists.  In order to interrogate these ideas, Madelung analyzed a number of hadith, not only arguing for their essential authenticity, but further arguing that the hadith offer scholars a more complete picture of the struggle for authority after the death of the Prophet (pbuh).  As someone who works mostly on Islamic theology and the emergence of Islamic religious identity, I find Madelung’s work very convincing, as authority remains a central tenant of early Islamic theology, as well.  However, his work was met with a varied reception, in part because of its ‘optimistic’ (in the words of the Journal of the American Oriental Society) approach to Islamic sources.

So there’s a very quick overview.  As I said, in general, I feel like Islamic studies has taken a big step back from even engaging with the hadith, which I would argue does us a disservice, both because we’re intentionally cutting ourselves off from relevant sources and because we do still sometimes talk about individual hadith or hadith traditions, but do so in a way that lacks any larger critical apparatus.  However, in order for hadith studies to be integrated into Islamic studies, we would need to create that critical apparatus, both in the form of critical editions and in the form of historical commentaries, so people can trace the various versions of a tradition in order to understand how it could have changed over time.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen little interest in doing so – it seems like the availability of digital resources should make this easier, but if there’s anything similar in the works at any university, I haven’t heard about it.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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One Response to Modern hadith studies

  1. Bashir Muhammad says:

    thanks for your greatness effort towards this field study of modern hadith

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