CONTENT ASSESSMENT OF TRADITIONS
Can you spot the uncut diamond among the stones?
[The Prophet] does not speak out of his own desires, it is but revelation revealed.
—The Koran (53:3-4)
Write it down, for... nothing comes out of my mouth but the truth.
—The Prophet (Darimi)
I regard each Saying from the Prophet’s mouth as a Sacred Verse.
—Master Ahmet Kayhan
If the Prophet of God said it, it must be true.
—Abu Bakr (on the Prophet’s Ascension)
God says in the Koran (speaking in the first-person majestic plural, or “royal we”): “It is We who have sent down the Koran, and it is We who are going to protect it” (15:9). Because the Koran is under divine protection, there can be no doubt therein: “This is a Book wherein is no doubt” (2:2, 10:37, 32:2).
As everyone knows, there are two basic sources in Islam: the Koran and the Prophet’s exalted Way (sunna), which comprises the Prophet’s words (hadith: Sayings or “Traditions”) and deeds. However, the divine protection accorded the Koran does not extend to Traditions. Although the Prophet warned: “Whoever tells lies about me deliberately, let him take his place in Hell,” many Traditions were nevertheless fabricated, for a variety of reasons.
The Sayings of the Prophet began to be collected in written form more than a century after his death. We know that Tradition collectors were sincere and pious Moslems, that they exercised the utmost care, and did their best not to let anything spurious slip through. Nevertheless, they were not infallible, with the result that spurious Traditions are likely to be found even in collections considered authentic (sahih). (This is even more the case with the Prophet’s biographers, who sometimes erred in relating events from his life.)
On the other hand, Traditions which, even if not uttered word for word by the Prophet, convey his meaning faithfully, have been and are still relegated to the category of fabricated Traditions. An example of this is “Seek knowledge, even if it be in China.” Even if this cannot be authenticated with a reliable chain of transmission, there are Verses of the Koran and other authentic Traditions which demonstrate that its meaning is sound: it is correct in spirit if not in letter.
Another example is “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab” which occurs in the Farewell Sermon. Some have regarded this as fabricated, citing supposedly authentic Traditions to prove “the preference of Arabs over others and the preference of some Arabs over other Arabs.” Yet this is in direct contradiction to the Koran, which states: “The best among you in the sight of God is the most righteous” (49:13). It also ignores the fact that the Koran frequently addresses “Humankind” in general, without any preference for a particular group or gender (it refers to Moslem men and women together: muslimin wa muslimat).
Moreover, the original collectors never ruled out other opinions, stating that their own investigations had led them to a particular conclusion, but that others might reach different ones. Indeed, we find that some Traditions are authentic according to some collectors, but are classified differently by others. Similarly, although six collections of Traditions (the kutub al-sitta: Six Books) have been considered most reliable, there are sound Traditions included in other collections that cannot be found in the “Six Books.”
From all this, it can be seen that each Tradition has to be evaluated on an individual, piecemeal basis. And each may be considered a diamond in the rough. At first glance, an uncut diamond is not much different from ordinary stones. It is human attention and care that turn it into a sparkling gem. A sympathetic and analytical study of Traditions may likewise yield results of great value.
This may be a good place to compare the compilation of the Bible with that of Traditions, since the details of both are not generally known. These are topics about which whole books have been written, but we must be content here with the barest outline.
At this point, one’s first impulse may be to compare the Bible with the Koran. But there is really no comparison between the two. In fact, no religious scripture even comes close to the rigorous method by which the Koran was recorded. Various scribes (generally more than 20) wrote down the Sacred Verses as they emerged from the Prophet’s mouth. These were immediately memorized by trained memorizers. In a largely illiterate society, this was the only way anything of importance could be conveyed to future generations. (There are still such memorizers today, not only for the Koran but for Traditions as well, complete with their chains of narrators.)
The Koran grew organically. Each year, the Prophet reviewed the Koran, putting it in the order we know today. In his final year, when Revelation had been completed, he repeated the process twice. Memorizers, of course, would be duly updated. The written Verses were collected twice, once in the time of Abu Bakr (who was the immediate successor of the Prophet) barely six months after the Prophet’s death, and a second time during the reign of Othman. This became the final, official written version. One person, Zayd ibn Thabit—who also knew the Koran by heart—officiated over both collection committees, and upon completion, the copies were presented to the public for comments by memorizers. The whole community took part in ascertaining that the written version indeed mirrored the original Revelation faithfully. If there were anything other than the original Verses, it could not have survived such intense scrutiny.
By contrast, the Bible was written by various authors, years, decades, and (in the case of the Old Testament) sometimes centuries after the narrated events took place. So the Koran is unique in the history of religious scripture. As one scholar has noted: “That the Qur’an has not collapsed under historical and rational scrutiny, as the Bible has, is not due to inadequate zeal or methodology, but to the Qur’an’s supreme degree of authentication.” (p. 5.)
How Was the Bible Compiled?
We will be concerned here only with the New Testament (NT). There are 27 books in the NT, of which four are the canonical Gospels. The apostle Paul, who never met Jesus in person, exerted an inordinate influence on the development of Christianity, and 14 books in the Bible are in his name—although scholars consider only 7 of these to be truly his, with varying degrees of agreement as to the rest. The remainder belongs to other authors. All authors are considered to have been “divinely inspired” by Christians.
This shows us that the Bible or the Gospels were not dictated by Jesus, like the Koran was by Mohammed. There are two views among Moslems as to the Book (injil, Euangel) revealed to Jesus: either it was revealed by God directly to the heart of Jesus but was never written down, or if there was a written copy, this “Gospel of Jesus” is now lost forever.
While the Bible is the holy book of Christians, it does not really correspond to the Koran. For Moslems, the Koran is the Word of God, whereas for Christians, that title belongs to Jesus, although the Koran also confers the title “a word from God” on him (kalimatin min Allah: 3:39, 3:45, 4:171) and calls him the “good news” (Gospel, Evangel). (According to many Islamic commentators, Jesus is called “word” because he was born without a father.)
Rather, what corresponds to (part of) the Christian Bible is the Traditions (as Wilfred Cantwell Smith also recognized). Just as the four gospels deal with the words and deeds of Jesus, the Traditions deal with the words and deeds of Mohammed.
The first Gospel was written by Mark, around 60 AD according to scholars, although some of Paul’s epistles are dated earlier. Matthew and then Luke followed, with John, the last one, writing around 100 AD.
But these were not the only gospels. In fact, the gospels were so many that attempts have been made to classify them. Nobody knows their exact number—there were over two hundred, according to one source. All of them were rejected, with the exception of the canonical four. Two bases for selection, among other factors, was whether they were traceable to the first generation of Apostles or someone close to them, and whether they conformed with orthodox church doctrine.
The first portions of the New Testament to be recognized were the four gospels, the Acts, and the epistles of Paul. The number of books accepted as canonical gradually increased. Irenaeus mentioned 21 books in 185 AD. After the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), a period of about ten years followed during which “heretical” books were burned. Athanasius first provided the complete listing of the Old and New Testaments as we know them today in 367 AD. Athanasius ordered that all other “unacceptable writings”—as he called them—again be burned. Thus, many of the books were lost from history.
How were the Traditions Compiled?
It is known that some of the Companions of Mohammed actually wrote down Traditions from him with his permission. Traditions survived in oral or written form from generation to generation. One modern scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, Joseph Schacht, found no evidence of legal Traditions before 722 AD—that is, 90 years after the death of the Prophet. In recent times, Harald Motzki has demonstrated that many sayings of the Prophet were in circulation by the end of the first/seventh century. (More importantly, Motzki has successfully overturned the conclusion of Schacht that the majority of even authentic Traditions must be regarded as forgeries.) These began to be compiled by various collectors in the 8th century AD. It is also worth noting that the Prophet’s closest Companions, Abu Bakr, Omar and Ali, were reticent about narrating Traditions, perhaps out of deference to the Koran.
Though Traditions have been classified into many kinds by scholars, categorization based on reliability yields four basic types:
A – Authentic (transmitted through an unbroken chain of narrators, all of whom are of sound character and memory)
B – Good (same as above, only their memory is weak)
C – Weak (e.g. narrator has unsound memory, unsound character, or the chain of narrators is interrupted)
F – Fabricated or forgery
The collectors exercised the utmost caution in accepting Traditions as authentic. For instance, Bukhari, who is one of the two collectors of authentic Traditions, is said to have accepted only 2,000 out of 600 thousand Traditions. (This seemingly large number is due to the fact that a Tradition comprises two parts: the chain of transmission—the shell or “package,” if you will—and the text itself. The same text can come down through different chains of narrators. For example, the first Tradition in the Bukhari collection was narrated through more than 700 different chains.) Bukhari was so careful in accepting Traditions that he traveled for months to obtain a single Tradition, yet refused to accept it from a person upon seeing him deceive a horse.
It has often been noted that the classical collectors ascribed the greatest importance to the existence of an unbroken chain of transmission in the narration of a Saying. There was less scrutiny of the meaning or content of a Saying, except where some logical or other discrepancy was glaringly obvious.
Comparison of the Two
The canonization periods of the two Books do not bear comparison. While the Koran was canonized in the time of Othman, within a mere twenty years after the Prophet’s death, the canonization of the Catholic Bible occurred only with the Council of Trent in 1546, more than fifteen centuries after Jesus, under pressure of the Protestant Reformation.
One of the main points to bear in mind in a comparison is that gospels were rejected wholesale by the Councils and church authorities, whereas Traditions were evaluated one by one on an individual basis. As a result, a very important collection of the Sayings (logia) of Jesus—the Gospel of Thomas, which some have called “the fifth Gospel”—was lost to history, and was rediscovered only with the Nag Hammadi findings in 1945. This points to a problem in methodology. In the wholesale approach, you either throw away the baby with the bathwater, or you keep the baby but the bathwater, too. The advantage of the piecemeal approach is that each Saying is evaluated on its own merits, independently of the rest: it is much more fine-tuned.
Both Origen and his pupil Eusebius—who attended the Council of Nicaea—were thorough collectors and scholars of texts. Jonathan Brown, who has studied the compilation both of Traditions and of the NT in depth, reaches the following conclusion:
The methods that Eusebius and Origen had used to authenticate the writings of the Apostles foreshadowed the Islamic science of Hadith criticism, but the depth and breadth of the ulama’s [Islamic scholars’] accomplishments dwarfed those of the Church Fathers. The endless volumes of Hadith transmitter criticism, of examinations of the chains of transmission for breaks or corroboration had no precedent in scale or complexity in either Christianity o[r] Judaism, o[r] indeed in any heritage. The great canonical Hadith collections of the ninth century stand as monuments… expressions of… resounding commitment to basing both action and belief on the rigorously authenticated precedent of the Prophet.
(Brown, Misquoting Muhammad (2014), p. 176.)
The upshot is what M. Asim Köksal, a renowned Turkish scholar of Islam who had also studied the Bible, once told me: the sayings of Jesus to be found in the Bible correspond to weak Traditions according to the Islamic classification. In other words, the Tradition collections are never less and often more reliable than the Bible. (Update, Jan 9, 2019: In What Jesus Didn't Say (2011), Gerd Lüdemann has identified spurious Jesus-sayings in the New Testament.)
Let us now return to our main line of discussion.
Today, we have this entire corpus of Traditions before us. To sift them is no easy task. Even those with great knowledge of Islam and Arabic have been known to make mistakes, for to err is human. Yet the Prophet’s Traditions are indispensable. We cannot throw away a whole barrel of apples just because a few are, or may be, bad. We must be as reluctant as possible to dispose of any Prophetic Sayings, for as the Master remarked: “I regard each Saying (that comes from) the Prophet’s mouth as a Sacred Verse. Why? Because they both came from his mouth. With Traditions, he fortifies Verses. With Traditions, he provides examples for Verses. So what should we do, shall we throw away a whole sack of rice just because there are a few small stones in it?”
On the other hand, out of several thousand Traditions, there are perhaps no more than a handful that are really problematic—less than 1% of the total—so we should not shrink from examining these. What can we use as “rules of thumb” that will convince us that a certain Saying is probably more authentic than not?
Fortunately, we have Sayings of the Prophet (spurious or not!) that can guide us in evaluating Traditions:
The latter Tradition sounds a bit subjective. How are we to understand it? Here it is: The Prophet of God was the archetypal Perfect Human Being. This means he had heavenly ethics. Any Saying or anecdote that casts doubt on this is itself cast in doubt.
This is where we go beyond the approach of classical Tradition scholars. More than everything else, the Prophet was sent as a perfect example of ethics. Anything out of keeping with this crucial requirement cannot be countenanced, no matter how reliable it may appear to be.
Mohammed is human, but not like other men;
He is a gem, while others are like stones.
—Hassan Ibn Thabit (attr.)
These are all cases where the pure stream of Prophetic eloquence somehow became sullied. We stand to lose little and gain much by recognizing them for what they are.
What About Polygamy?
Once we know that the Prophet is the role model for superior ethics, we also know how to deal with shameless insinuations about his polygamy. The Prophet had no dealings with women in his youth, he was celibate during what are considered the “hottest” years. He married Khadija when he was 25 years old. When his opponents tried to buy him off with women, he said to his uncle, “One woman is enough for me.” He remained monogamous until her death, when he was 51. He waited 3 years before consummating his marriage with Aisha (who was likely between 17 and 19 at the time, not 9). Those were the two women he really loved. All the others he married long after the flame of youth had passed, out of pity for women whose husbands had died in battle, or were in dire straits, or for the sake of alliances. As Laura Veccia Vaglieri observed:
Each of these marriages had a social or a political reason, for he wanted through the women he married to honour
pious women, or to establish marriage relations with other clans and tribes for the purpose of opening the way for
the propagation of Islam. With the sole exception of Ayesha, he married women who were neither virgins, nor
young nor beautiful. Was this sensuality? ... Without too many resources, he took upon his shoulders the heavy burden of maintaining a large family, but
always, in spite of the number of his wives, he observed a perfect equality towards all of them, nor did he ever
use in respect of anyone of them the right of separation. He acted under the sanction of revered ancient patriarchs
like Moses and others [e.g. Abraham, David, Solomon], to whose plural marriages nobody seems to take exception.
(An Interpretation of Islam, p. 74.)
So it’s OK for the Patriarchs to do it, but not for the Prophet? Talk about double standards.
To invert the Prophet’s compassion, to insinuate (except for alliances) motives other than a desire to help—to extend the protection of marriage to those in need—tells us more about those who make such claims than about the Prophet himself. This is the ultimate Rorschach test—we read into the Prophet’s thinking what we ourselves would think in similar circumstances. This projection in itself automatically disqualifies us from the realm of ethics.
Can this be otherwise? In Genesis 19:30-38, it is related that the daughters of the prophet Lot plied him with booze, after which they had incest with him. If my book tells me this is even possible, when all prophets are paragons of chastity and purity, then naturally I’m going to be less than charitable in thinking about the prophet of another religion.
Finally, the Master gave the following rule of thumb regarding dubious Traditions:
As the Master said, we can choose whichever we like regarding a specific Tradition.
Communication and Information Theory
Shannon-Weaver Model (1949)
In 1948, research mathematician Claude Shannon published a paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which laid the foundations of modern Information Theory—that is, the groundwork of all our digital technology. Starting from the dot-dash encoding in telegraphy, his theory encoded information by applying a value to it, in terms of either a 0 or a 1. As one source summarizes it:
His ground-breaking approach introduced a simple abstraction of human communication, called the channel. Shannon’s communication channel consisted of a sender (a source of information), a transmission medium (with noise and distortion), and a receiver (whose goal is to reconstruct the sender’s messages).
In order to quantitatively analyze transmission through the channel he also introduced a measure of the amount of information in a message. To Shannon the amount of information is a measure of surprise and is closely related to the chance of one of several messages being transmitted. For Shannon a message is very informative if the chance of its occurrence is small. If, in contrast, a message is very predictable, then it has a small amount of information—one is not surprised to receive it.
To complete his quantitative analysis of the communication channel, Shannon introduced … a measure of the information carrying capacity, called the communication channel capacity.
He showed that if … the amount of information you wish to transmit, exceeds the channel capacity, then there were unavoidable and uncorrectable errors in the transmission. This is intuitive enough. What was truly surprising, though, is that he also showed that if the sender’s rate is below the channel capacity, then there is a way to encode the information so that it can be received without errors. This is true even if the channel distorts the message during transmission.
Shannon adapted his theory to analyze ordinary human (written) language. He showed that it is quite redundant, using more symbols and words than necessary to convey messages. Presumably, this redundancy is used by us to improve our ability to recognize messages reliably and to communicate different types of information.
Applying these insights to the transmission of Prophetic Traditions, we can see that the compendium of collections represent a communication channel—or rather, several in parallel. Thus, we have a multichannel transmission. Errors and distortions are inevitable in any transmission of information, but errors in one channel can normally be compensated for by any combination of other channels, which have a low probability of simultaneously erring at the same point. Thus, the transmission of Traditions introduces sufficient built-in redundancy to allow for error correction. Once the “erroneous messages” are weeded out, what remains is a highly reliable reproduction of the information content at the origin. This allows us to make use of the information at hand with the minimal amount of loss or distortion. Perhaps this information-theoretic approach to Traditions will give rise to novel, artificial intelligence (AI)-based analyses in the future, finally consigning the chain-of-narrators approach to history, where it properly belongs.
Let me repeat that these rules of thumb are not intended to prove a Tradition authentic or spurious. They merely help us to ascertain whether or not a Saying is probably true. In science, too, beyond well-established facts, phenomena or hypotheses (even well-known theories) are open to falsifiability tomorrow. A new discovery may lead to a radical revision even of entire scientific paradigms. So, until Certainty (yaqin) arrives, we have to use the methods of reason, and the results are always open to modification or revision. In our human condition, this is the best we can achieve.
Appendix: Orientalist Research
While on this subject, and having evaluated the work of Islamic scholars, I can’t end without saying a few words about Western scholars of Islam (“orientalists”). In my research, I was struck by the incredible sloppiness displayed by some (certainly not all) of these in their scramble to discredit the bulk of Prophetic Traditions. Here is how this usually works:
At least, this is the appearance they present to an outside observer. (As Peter Berger has explained in a different context , logicians call this the fallacy of pars pro toto—taking the part for the whole.) It is nothing but circular reasoning, justifying their own assumptions/prejudices. As Motzki has rightly suggested, such shoddy methodology is indefensible. The findings are (maybe) valid only for the data that have been scrutinized. Why should we have to assume that the people around the Prophet did not convey Traditions from him to their children and to posterity, that these were all made up by later generations, and then “back-projected” to the Prophet? Did the Prophet never speak a word to anyone? Is there any need for such assumptions? Not unless you’ve made up your mind to grasp at straws in your endeavor to cast doubt on Islam by any means possible. Unfortunately, they only end up by casting doubt on their own research. Their bias—whether conscious or unconscious—is clearly laid bare: they do not deserve anything more than this brief footnote.
About half a century ago, Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote:
Altogether, after the Quran, the Hadith and the prophetic Sunnah of which it is a part are the most precious source of guidance which Islamic society possesses, and along with the Quran they are the fountainhead of Islamic life and thought.
It is against this basic aspect of the whole structure of Islam that a severe attack has been made in recent decades by an influential school of Western orientalists. No more of a vicious and insidious attack could be made against Islam than this one, which undercuts its very foundations and whose effect is more dangerous than if a physical attack were made against Islam.
Purporting to be scientific and applying the famous—or rather should one say the infamous—historical method which reduces all religious truths to historical facts, the critics of Hadith have come to the conclusion that this literature is not from the Prophet but was “forged” by later generations. What lies behind the scientific façade presented in most of these attacks is the a priori assumption that Islam is not a Divine revelation. If it is not a Divine revelation, then it must be explained away in terms of factors present in seventh century Arabian society...
There is of course no doubt that there are many Hadiths which are spurious. Traditional Islamic scholars themselves developed an elaborate science to examine the text of the Hadith (ilm al-jarh) and the validity of the chains of prophetic transmission (ilm al-dirayah) as well as the circumstances under which it was spoken. They examined the chains of transmission and sifted the sayings and compared them with detailed knowledge of the factors involved in a manner which no modern scholar can hope to match. In this manner certain sayings were accepted and other rejected as being either of dubious origin or completely unauthentic. Those who collected Hadith were in fact the most pious and devout of men who often travelled from Central Asia to Medina or Iraq or Syria in search of Hadith. Throughout Islamic history the most devout and ascetic of the religious scholars have been the scholars of Hadith, (the muhaddithun) and because of the degree of piety and trust of the community that is necessary before a person is recognized as an authority in this field, they have always constituted the smallest number among all the different classes of religious scholars...
As to the statement made by critics of Hadith that the forged sayings came into being in the second century and were honestly believed to be prophetic sayings by the collectors of the third century, the same answer can be given. The Sunnah of the Prophet and his sayings had left such a profound imprint upon the first generation and those that came immediately afterwards that a forging of new sayings, and, therefore, also new ways of action and procedure in religious questions that already possessed precedence would have been immediately opposed by the community. It would have meant a break in the continuity of the whole religious life and pattern of Islam which, in fact, is not discernible...
The danger inherent in this criticism of the Hadith lies in decreasing its value in the eyes of those Muslims who, having come under the sway of its arguments, accept the fatally dangerous conclusion that the body of Hadith is not the sayings of the Prophet and therefore does not carry his authority. In this way one of the foundations of Divine Law and a vital source of guidance for the spiritual life is destroyed. It is as if the whole foundation were pulled from underneath the structure of Islam. What would be left in such a case would be the Quran, which, being the Word of God, is too sublime to interpret and decipher without the aid of the Prophet. Left by themselves, men would in most cases read their own limitations into the Holy Book and the whole homogeneity of Muslim society and the harmony existing between the Quran and the religious life of Islam would be disrupted. There are few problems that call for as immediate action on the part of the Muslim community as a response by qualified, traditional Muslim authorities in scientific—but not necessarily “scientistic”—terms to the charges brought against Hadith literature by modern Western critics, who have now also found a few disciples among Muslims. They have found a few followers of Muslim background who have left the traditional point of view and have become enamored by the apparently scientific method of the critics which only hides an a priori presumption no Muslim can accept, namely the negation of the heavenly origin of the Quranic revelation and the actual prophetic power and function of the Prophet.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, Chicago, IL: Kazi Publications, 2000 , pp. 71-74. Emphasis added.)
It is a pleasure to note that half a century after Nasr wrote this, the assumptions underlying this sort of criticism have been recognized even by fairminded Western scholars. It is not at all the disinterested study of facts that we have been led to believe it is. The proponents of the view that all or most Traditions were forged have been so strident in their claims that research is needed to scrutinize their work much more closely in order to ascertain the extent of their bias. As Kevin Reinhart has noted, it requires a real investment of belief “to suppose that the entire enterprise of hadith was built on bad faith, subterfuge, and dishonesty.” (p. 439) At least Moslem scholars were quite careful in their selections and candid about acknowledging a forgery when they saw one. The classical collectors, who painstakingly researched every single Tradition on an individual basis, at least deserve a return of the favor.
However, Harald Motzki concludes a survey of 150 years’ scholarly efforts to date Moslem Traditions as follows:
Dating traditions is not possible without having recourse to assumptions. ... but these assumptions will always be generalisations based on a limited number of particular facts. Depending on which facts we generalise, the views on the cultural history of early Islam can be very different. Therefore, whether the dating of a tradition is considered reliable or not, depends not only on the dating methods applied, but also on our preconceptions...
(Harald Motzki, “Dating Muslim Traditions: a Survey,” Arabica vol. 52, no. 2 (2005) pp. 204-53.)
This means that at this late date, no completely objective dating of Traditions is any longer possible. It also means that Western Hadith studies are, at least in part, a “mythology” of the sort they accuse the pious position of being. We will all be much better served by concentrating our efforts on learning from the ethical exemplar of the Prophet, rather than making pseudoscientific claims that are doomed to remain questionable.
*Recently, scholars Ali Gomaa and Yusuf Qaradawi have suggested a workaround by accepting that treason or transgression is involved in addition to apostasy. See the discussion in Brown, pp. 186-9.