In your section on “Sources of Islam” you stated that your position on hadith is that even the sahih canonical collections can contain flaws and errors because the compilation, no matter how scrupulous, was done by imperfect human beings. What is your opinion on the entirely separate body of Hadith, which the Shiites follow? Was their science of compiling and classifying hadith similar to the method used by Bukhari, Muslim, etc? Also, when it comes to sahih hadith, such as Bukhari, one is sometimes forced to rely on them to provide details (i.e. Muhammad’s first revelation at the cave of Hira and his reaction to it). Yet if one acknowledges that there could be errors in even sahih hadith, an outsider can easily accuse you of referring to an unreliable source, so what is one to do when the details of an incident are provided only in hadith reports? Also, in your opinion, is the science of clasifying hadith really as reliable and accurate as many Muslim scholars make it to be?
The reason of the vulnerability of the information received through Hadith, in my opinion lies in the fact that it is, in fact, the transmission of the “understanding” and “perception” of each narrator to his subsequent narrator. We can never be certain about the correctness of this transmission. Thus, it is not possible to be certain about the correctness of the ascription of a saying or an action to the Prophet (pbuh). The same holds true for Shiite principles. The transmission of hadith is equally dependent on human understanding and narration in both (Shiite or Sunni) principles.
I fully agree that Hadith is probably the only source of the life and times of the Prophet (pbuh). This really implies that hadith is the only source of Seerah. I have no problems in accepting this fact. All histories are, in fact, based on the narration of people. We will have to accept a source with lesser degree of reliability (hadith) as a source of history. My problem is only in accepting Hadith as a primary and and independent source of the Shari`ah. In case of the Shari`ah (unlike historical accounts) a source with lower reliability cannot and should not be accepted as ‘primary’ or ‘independent’.
To further understand the issue, consider the example that you have cited. The facts that the Prophet (pbuh) received his first revelation in the Cave of Hiraa or that he reacted to it in a particular manner or even that it was a few initial verses of Surah Al-Alaq1, which were revealed in the first revelation, are all historical facts. They have absolutely no bearing on the Shari`ah. In such a case, these points may be accepted on the basis of Hadith, unless there is something contrary to the Qur’an, the Sunnah or to any of the established and acknowledged historical or scientific facts entailed in these narratives.
Yet if one acknowledges that there could be errors in even sahih hadith, an outsider can easily accuse you of referring to an unreliable source, so what is one to do when the details of an incident are provided only in hadith reports?
The point is not that Hadith is an unreliable source of information. On the contrary, Hadith lacks the level of reliability which is entailed in the basic sources of the Shari`ah. In other words, it is only when compared to the Qur’an and the Sunnah that Hadith seems wanting in reliability. Nevertheless, if one were to compare Hadith with, for instance, sources of other histories, it would easily surpass the reliability of the sources of other histories on all accounts. This is only due to the strenuous work done by the scholars of Hadith in this field of study.
The point to appreciate is that even though the reliability of Hadith is far greater than the reliability of the sources of other histories, yet it is still far less than the reliability of the basic and the primary sources of the Islamic Shari`ah.
Thus, I really do not think that any “outsider”, who is intellectually aware of the ‘reliability’ of the sources of his own history, can make the stated accusation. For in doing so, he should first show that the reliability of the sources of his own history can even come close to match the reliability of Hadith.
I hope this helps.
March 29, 2001
- as is generally believed to be the case. [↩]