In Islam, the two main sources of authority are the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Sira or Life of Muhammad is another importance source which is considered the earliest biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq even though it was written about 150 years after Muhammad. This biography was then again edited much later by Ibn Hisham. Islamic scholars and schools of jurisprudence have reiterated the importance of the Hadith as an invaluable source of for the Sunnah, the model and way of Muhammad that is to be imitated by Muslims. In many places the Qur’an points to Muhammad as the model and exemplar to be followed as we see in this passage, “Verily in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example for him who looketh unto Allah and the Last Day, and remembereth Allah much” (Qur’an 33:21; Pickthall). If one does not know what Muhammad said and did in any given situation, how can a Muslim fulfill this passage of the Qur’an?
The Qur’an however only mentions Muhammad by name only 4 times, a strange oddity considering the fact that he is considered the seal of the prophets and the model to be emulated by humanity. Since the Qur’an says next to very little about Muhammad, his birth, his parentage, his early life before the call in A.D. 610, the events of the first call in the cave, the Heijra or migration to Medina in A.D. 622, and his untimely death in A.D. 632 among other things, how can Muslims understand Muhammad and his life? An Islamic website says the following about the Hadith [or Ahadith; plural]:
Therefore, the Ahadith of the Messenger of Allah certainly form the second source for the Sacred Islamic Law – the Shari’ah, as these are the one and only means of gaining information as regards the Messenger of Allah; his commands; his sayings; his actions; his explanations and commentaries on the verses of the Holy Qur’an, all of which are necessary for us to know in order for us to understand the Holy Qur’an.
Now, we quote a few of the many verses from the Holy Qur’an, in which on innumerable occasions we have been commanded to follow in the footsteps of the Messenger of Allah. Thus, making it obligatory upon us to follow his teachings. [source; bold italics mine]
The Hadith as we can see is indispensable to Islam. Although the Qur’an claims to be clear, “A Book whose verses are set clear, and then distinguished, from One All-wise, All-aware” (Qur’an 11:1; Arberry; bold lettering mine), “And We have sent down on thee the Book making clear everything, and as a guidance and a mercy, and as good tidings to those who surrender” (Qur’an 16:89; Arberry; bold lettering mine), most of the Qur’an is in fact, very unclear. Thus the need for the Hadith. The Qur’an by itself is a closed and cryptic book. It needs to be deciphered and interpreted and the Hadith fulfills this function. It is in light of these considerations that I am finding it strange indeed that there is a move to dispense with certain Hadith, particularly those ones which portray an unfavorable picture of Muhammad.
In the video clip above which is taken from a debate I had with Dr. Shabir Ally a few months ago, I make reference to some embarrassing details regarding Muhammad’s call in the cave, how he was aggressively grasped by a spirit being, how he thought he had been possessed by one of the jinn, and how this caused him to have suicidal thoughts to the point that he was going to cast himself from a cliff. This account is recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari 9.111 and also Ibn Ishaq, Sira, p, 106 and in Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk, Vol. VI, p. 68. The “Sahih” reference indicates that this narration is “sound”. I commented on the fact that we have no parallels to this with the biblical prophets. Dr. Ally then made an interesting statement when he noted a number of “academic scholars” do not take the Hadith collections as being authentic even though traditional Muslims do. Dr. Ally explains that one should take a “balanced” view. But what is the criteria to determine a “balanced view” or the middle position?
It seems that the criteria rather, is that when the Hadith casts a bad light on Muhammad it is unauthentic, and when it casts a positive light, it is authentic. Is this an objective and consistent methodology? Or it is an arbitrary, subjective, and ad hoc approach? If the Hadith can be dispensed in this way, what does this say about the Ijma, the consensus of Muslim scholars regarding the Hadith? Is it possible all the Hadith are wrong? If so, can the Qur’an be properly understood? Should Muslims follow Quranism, a movement which holds to the Qur’an only (the Islamic version of sola scriptura) and rejects all the Hadith as late and unreliable forgeries? The move to arbitrarily dispense with the Hadith , even the ones classified as “sahih” (!) should cause many Muslims to pause and consider the consequences.