Muhammad Asad’s View On The Hadith And Sunnah

Hadith and Sunnah by Muhammad Asad

Many reform proposals have been advanced during the last decades, and many spiritual doctors have tried to devise a patent medicine for the sick body of Islam. But, until now, all has been in vain, because all those clever doctors – at least those who get a hearing today – have invariably forgotten to prescribe, along with their medicines, tonics and elixirs, the natural diet on which the early development of the patient had been based. This diet, the only one which the body of Islam, sound or sick, can positively accept and assimilate, is the Sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad. The Sunnah is the key to the understanding of the Islamic rise more than thirteen centuries ago; and why should it not be a key to the understanding of our present degeneration? Observance of the Sunnah is synonymous with Islamic existence and progress. Neglect of the Sunnah is synonymous with a decomposition and decay of Islam. The Sunnah is the iron framework of the House of Islam; and if you remove the framework of a building, can you be surprised if it breaks down like a house of cards?

This simple truth, almost unanimously accepted by all learned men throughout Islamic history, is – we know well – most unpopular today for reasons connected with the ever-growing influence of Western civilization. But it is a truth, none the less, and, in fact, the only truth which can save us from the chaos and the shame of our present decay.

The term Sunnah is used here in its widest meaning, namely, the example which the Prophet has set before us in his attitudes, actions and sayings. His wonderful life was a living illustration and explanation of the Qur’an, and we can do no greater justice to the Holy Book than by following him who was the means of its revelation.[1]

We have seen that one of the main achievements of Islam, the one which distinguishes it from all other transcendental systems, is the complete harmony between the moral and the material aspects of human life. This was one of the reasons why Islam in its prime had such a triumphant success wherever it appeared. It brought to mankind the new message that the earth need not be despised in order that heaven be gained. This prominent feature of Islam explains why our Prophet, in his mission as an apostolic guide to humanity, was so deeply concerned with human life in its polarity both as a spiritual and a material phenomenon. It does not, therefore, show a very deep understanding of Islam if one discriminates between such injunctions of the Prophet as deal with purely devotional and spiritual matters and others which have to do with questions of society and daily life. The contention that we are obliged to follow the commands belonging to the first group, but not obliged to follow those of the second, is as superficial and, in its spirit, as anti-Islamic as the idea that certain general injunctions of the Qur’an were meant only for the ignorant Arabs at the time of the revelation, and not for the refined gentlemen of the twentieth century. At its root lies a strange underestimation of the true role of the Arabian Prophet.

Just as the life of a Muslim must be directed towards a full and unreserved’ cooperation between his spiritual and his bodily Self, so the leadership of out Prophet embraces life as a compound entity, a sum-total of moral and practical, individual and social manifestations. This is the deepest meaning of the Sunnah. The Qur’an says:

فَلَا وَرَبِّكَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ حَتَّىٰ يُحَكِّمُوكَ فِيمَا شَجَرَ بَيْنَهُمْ ثُمَّ لَا يَجِدُوا۟ فِىٓ أَنفُسِهِمْ حَرَجًۭا مِّمَّا قَضَيْتَ وَيُسَلِّمُوا۟ تَسْلِيمًۭا

“Nay, by thy Sustainer! They do not [really] attain to faith unless they make thee [O Prophet] a judge of all on which they disagree among themselves, and then find in their hearts no bar to an acceptance of thy decision and give themselves up [to it] in utter self-surrender” (Qur’an 4:65). And:

قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ ٱللَّهَ فَٱتَّبِعُونِى يُحْبِبْكُمُ ٱللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌۭ رَّحِيمٌۭ • قُلْ أَطِيعُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلرَّسُولَ ۖ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا۟ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ

“Say [O Prophet]: ‘If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.’ Say: ‘Pay heed unto God and the Apostle!'” (Qur’an 3:31-32).

The Sunah of the Prophet is, therefore, next to the Qur’an, the second source of Islamic Law. In fact, we must regard the Sunnah as the only binding explanation of the Qur’anic teachings, the only means of avoiding permanent dissensions concerning their interpretation and adaptation to practical use. Many verses of the Our’an have an.allegorical meaning and can be understood in different ways. And there are, furthermore, many questions of practical importance not explicitly dealt with in the Our’an. The spirit prevailing in the Holy Book is, to be sure, uniform throughout; but to deduce from it the practical attitude which we have to adopt is not in every case an easy matter. So long as we believe that this Book is the Word of God, perfect in form and purpose, the only logical conclusion is that it was never intended to be used independently of the personal guidance of the Prophet which is embodied in the system of his Sunnah; and our reason tells us that there could not possibly be a better interpreter of the Qur’anic teachings than he through whom they were revealed to humanity.

And so we come to the very important question as to the authenticity of the sources which reveal the life and the sayings of the Prophet to us. These sources are the ahadith, the Traditions of the sayings and actions of the Prophet reported and transmitted by his Companions and critically collected in the first few centuries of Islam. Many modern Muslims profess that they would be ready to follow the Sunnah if they were convinced that they could rely upon the body of ahadith on which it rests. It has become a matter of fashion in our days to deny, in principle, the authenticity of most of the ahadith and, therefore, of the whole structure of the Sunnah.

Is there any scientific warrant for this attitude? Is there any scientific justification for the rejection of ahadith as a dependable source of Islamic Law? 

We should think that the opponents of orthodox thought would be able to bring forward really convincing arguments which would establish, once and for all, the unreliability of the Traditions ascribed to the Prophet. But this is not the case. In spite of all the efforts which have been employed to challenge the authenticity of hadith as a body, those modern critics, both Eastern and Western, have not been able to back their purely subjective criticism with results of truly scientific research. It would be rather difficult to do so, inasmuch as the compilers of the early hadith collections, and particularly Bukhari and Muslim, have done whatever was humanly possible to put the authenticity of every Tradition to a very rigorous test – a far more rigorous test than Western historians usually apply to any historical document.

It would go far beyond the limits of this book to dwell in detail on the scrupulous method by which the reliability of Traditions was investigated by the early muhaddithun, the learned men devoted to the study of hadith, For our purpose it should suffice to say that a complete science has been evolved, the sole object of which is the research into the meaning, the form and the way of transmission of the Prophet’s ahadith. An historical branch of this science succeeded in establishing an unbroken chain of detailed biographies of all those personalities who have ever been mentioned as narrators of Traditions. The lives of those men and women have been thoroughly investigated from every point of view, and only those have been accepted as reliable whose way of life as well as of receiving and transmitting ahadith perfectly responds to the standards stipulated by the great muhaddithun and believed to be the most exacting that could possibly be conceived. If, therefore, anyone wishes to contest today the authenticity of a particular hadith or of the system as a whole, the burden of proving its inaccuracy falls upon him alone. It is scientifically not in the least justifiable to contest the veracity of an historical source unless one is prepared to prove that this source is defective. If no reasonable, that is, scientific argument can be found against the veracity of the source itself or against one or more of its later transmitters, and if, on the other hand, no other contradictory report about the same matter exists, then we are bound to accept the Tradition as true.

Suppose, for example, someone speaks about the Indian wars of Mahmud of Ghazni and you suddenly get up and say, “I don’t believe that Mahmud ever came to India. It is a legend without any historical foundation.” What would happen in such a case? At once some person well-versed in history would try to correct your mistake and would quote chronicles and histories based on reports of contemporaries of that famous Sultan as a definite proof of the fact that Mahmud had been in India. In that case you would have to accept the proof – or you would be regarded as a crank who for no obvious reason denies solid historical facts. If this is so, one must ask oneself why our modern critics do not extend the same logical fair-mindedness to the problem of hadith as well.

The primary ground for a hadith being false would be a wilful lie on the part of the first source, the Companion concerned, or one or another of the later transmitters. As to the Companions, such a possibility can be ruled out a priori. It requires only some insight into the psychological side of the problem in order to relegate such assumptions to the sphere of pure fantasy. The tremendous impression which the personality of the Prophet made on these men and women is an outstanding fact of human history; and, moreover, it is extremely well documented by history. Is it conceivable that people who were ready to sacrifice themselves and all they possessed at the bidding of the Apostle of God would play tricks with his words? Did not the Prophet say: “Whoever intentionally lies about me will take his place in the Fire”? (Sahih al-Bukhari, Sunan Abi Da’ud, Jami’ at-Tirmidhi, Sunan Ibn Majah, Sunan ad-Darimi, Musnad Ibn Hanbal). This the Companions knew; they believed implicitly in the words of the Prophet, whom they regarded as a spokesman of God; and is it probable, from the psychological point of view, that they disregarded this very definite injunction?

In criminal court proceedings the first question facing the judge is cui bono – for whose benefit – the crime could have been committed. This judicial principle, can be applied to the problem of Hadith as well. With the exception of Traditions which directly concern the status of certain individuals or groups, as well as the decidedly spurious and by most of the muhaddithun rejected – Traditions connected with the political claims of the different parties in the first century after the Prophet’s death, there could be no “profitable” reason for any individual to falsify sayings of the Prophet. It was in a just appreciation of the possibility of ahadith being invented for some personal ends that the two foremost authorities among the Traditionists, Bukhari and Muslim, rigorously excluded all Traditions relating to party politics from their compilations. What remained was beyond the suspicion of giving personal advantages to anyone.

There is one argument more on which the authenticity of a Hadith could be challenged. It is conceivable that either the Companion who heard it from the lips of the Prophet or one or another of the later narrators committed, while being subjectively truthful, a mistake due to a misunderstanding of the Prophet’s words, or a lapse of memory, or some other psychological reason. But the internal, that is, psychological, evidence speaks against any great possibility of such mistakes, at least on the part of the Companions. To the people who lived with the Prophet, each’ one of his sayings and actions was of the utmost significance, due not only to the fascination which his personality exerted on them, but also to their firm belief that it was God’s will that they should regulate their lives according to the Prophet’s direction and example. Therefore, they could not take the question of his sayings offhand, but tried to preserve them in their memory even at the cost of great personal discomfort. It is related that the Companions who were immediately associated with the Prophet formed among themselves groups of two men each, one of whom was to be alternately in the vicinity of the Prophet while the other was busy with the pursuit of his livelihood or other matters; and whatever they heard or saw of their Master they communicated to one another: so anxious were they lest some saying or doing of the- Prophet should escape their notice. It is not very probable that, with such an attitude, they could have been negligent as to the exact wording of a Hadith, And if it was possible for hundreds of Companions to preserve in their memory the wording of the whole Qur’an, down to the smallest details of spelling, then it was no doubt equally possible for them and for those who immediately followed them to keep single sayings of the Prophet in their memory without adding to them or omitting anything from them.

Moreover, the Traditionists ascribe perfect authenticity only to those ahadith which are reported in the same form through different, independent chains of narrators. Nor is this all. In order to be sahih (sound), a hadith must be corroborated at every stage of transmission by the independent evidence of at least two, and possibly more, transmitters – so that at no stage the report should hinge on the authority of one person only. This demand for corroboration is so exacting that in a hadith reported through, say, three “generations” of transmitters between the Companion concerned and the final compiler, actually a score or more of such transmitters, distributed over those three “generations”, are involved.

With all this, no Muslim has ever believed that the Traditions of the Prophet could have the undisputed authenticity of the Qur’an. At no time has the critical investigation of ahadith stopped. The fact that there exist numerous spurious ahadith did not in the least escape the attention of the muhaddithun, as non-Muslim and even some Muslim critics naively suppose. On the contrary, the critical science of hadith was initiated because of the necessity of discerning between the authentic and the spurious, and the very imams Bukhari and Muslim, not to mention the lesser Traditionists, are direct products of this critical attitude. The existence, therefore, of false ahadith does not prove anything against the system of hadith as a whole – no more than a fanciful tale from the Arabian Nights could be regarded as an argument against the authenticity of any historical report of the corresponding period.

Until now, no critic has peen able to prove in a systematic way that the body of  hadith regarded as authentic according to the test-standard of the foremost Traditionists is inaccurate. The rejection of authentic Traditions, either as a whole or in part, is a purely emotional matter, and has failed to establish itself as the result of unprejudiced, scientific investigation. But the motive behind such an oppositional attitude among many Muslims of our time can easily be traced. This motive lies in the impossibility of bringing our present, degenerate ways of living and thinking into line with the true spirit of Islam as reflected in the Sunnah of our Prophet. In order to justify their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their environment, these pseudo-critics of hadith try to obviate the necessity of following the Sunnah: because, it this were done, they would be able to interpret all Qur’anic teachings just as they please – that is, everyone according to his own inclinations and turn of mind. And in this way the exceptional position of Islam as a moral and practical, individual and social code would be utterly destroyed.

In these days, when the influence of Western civilization makes itself more and more felt in Muslim countries, still another motive is added to the negative attitude of the so-called “Muslim intelligentsia” in this matter. It is impossible to live according to the Sunnah of our Prophet and to follow the Western mode of life at one and the same time. But many among the present generation of Muslims are ready to adore everything that is Western, to worship the foreign civilization simply because it is foreign, powerful and materially imposing. This “Westernization” is the strongest reason why the Traditions of our Prophet and, along with them, the whole structure of the Sunnah have become so unpopular today. The Sunnah is so obviously opposed to the fundamental ideas underlying Western civilization, that those who are fascinated by the latter see no way out of the tangle but to describe the Sunnah as an irrelevant, and therefore not compulsory, aspect of Islam – because it is “based on unreliable Traditions”. After that, it becomes easier to twist the teachings of the Qur’an in such a way that they might appear to suit the spirit of Western civilization.

Almost as important as the formal, so to say “legal”, justification of the Sunnah through the establishment of the historical dependability of hadith is the question as to its inner, spiritual justification. Why should an observance of the Sunnah be regarded as indispensable for a life in the true Islamic sense? Is there no other way to the reality of Islam than through an observance of that large system of actions and customs, of orders and prohibitions derived from the life-example of the Prophet? No doubt, he was the greatest of men; but is not the necessity to imitate his life in all its aspects an infringement on the individual freedom of the human personality? It is an old objection which unfriendly critics of Islam put forward that the necessity of strictly following the Sunnah was one of the main causes of the subsequent decay of the Islamic world, for such an attitude is supposed to encroach, in the long run, on the liberty of human action and the natural development of society. It is of the greatest. importance for the future of Islam whether we are able to meet this objection or not. Our attitude towards the problem of the Sunnah will determine our future attitude towards Islam.

We are proud, and justly so, of the fact that Islam, as a religion, is not based on mystic dogmatism but is always open to the critical inquiry of reason. We have, therefore, the right not only to know that the observance of the Sunnah has been imposed upon us but also to understand the inherent reason for its imposition.

Islam leads man to a unification of all aspects of his life. Being a means to that goal, this religion represents in itself a totality of conceptions to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be subtracted. There is no room for eclecticism in Islam. Wherever its teachings are recognized as having been really pronounced by the Qur’an or the Prophet, we must accept them in their completeness; otherwise they lose their value. It is a fundamental misunderstanding to think that Islam, being a religion of reason, leaves its teachings open to individual selection – a claim made possible by a popular misconception of “rationalism”. There is a wide – and by the philosophies of all ages sufficiently recognized – gulf between reason and “rationalism” as it is commonly understood today. The function of reason in regard to religious teaching is of a controlling character; its duty is to see to it that nothing is imposed on the human mind which it cannot easily bear, that is, without the aid of mental jugglery. So far as Islam is concerned, unprejudiced reason has, time and again, given it its unreserved vote of confidence. That does not mean that everyone who comes into contact with the Qur’an will necessarily accept its teachings; this is a matter of temperament, environment, and – last but not least – of spiritual illumination. But surely no unbiased person would contend that there is anything in the Qur’an contrary to reason. No doubt, there are concepts in it beyond the present limits of our understanding; but nothing which offends against man’s intelligence as such.

The role of reason in religious matters is, as we have seen, in the nature of a control – a registration apparatus saying “yes” or “no”, as the case may be. But this is not quite true of so-called “rationalism”. It does not content itself with registration and control, but jumps into the field of speculation; it is not receptive and detached like pure reason, but extremely subjective and temperamental. Reason . knows its own limits; but superficial “rationalism” is preposterous in its claim to encompass the world and all mysteries within its own individual circle. In religious matters it hardly even concedes the possibility of certain things being, temporarily or permanently, beyond human understanding; but it is, at the same time, illogical enough to concede this possibility to science – and so to itself.

An over-estimation of this kind of unimaginative rationalism is one of the causes why so many modern Muslims refuse to surrender themselves to the guidance Of the Prophet. But it does not need a Kant today to prove that human understanding is strictly limited in its possibilities. Our mind is unable, by virtue of its nature, to understand the idea of totality: we can grasp, of all things, their details only . We do not know what infinity or eternity mean; we do not even know what life is. In problems of a religion resting on transcendental foundations we therefore need a guide whose mind possesses something more than the normal reasoning qualities and the subjective rationalism common to all of us; we need someone who is inspired – in a word, a Prophet. If we believe that the Qur’an is the Word of God, and that Muhammad was God’s Apostle, we are not only morally but also intellectually bound to follow his guidance implicitly. This does not mean that we should exclude our powers of reasoning. On the contrary, we have to make use of those powers to the best of our ability and knowledge; we have to discover the inherent meaning and purpose of the commands transmitted to us by the Prophet. But in any case – whether we are able to understand its ultimate purpose or not – we must obey the order. I should like to illustrate this by the example of a soldier who has been ordered by his general to occupy a certain strategic position. The good soldier will follow and execute the order immediately. If, while doing so, he is able to explain to himself the ultimate strategic purpose which the general has in view, the better for him and for his career; but if the deeper aim which underlies the general’s command does not reveal itself to him at once, he is nevertheless not entitled to give up or even to postpone its execution. We Muslims rely upon our Prophet’s being the best commander mankind could ever have. We naturally believe that he knew the domain of religion both in its spiritual and its social aspects far better than we ever could. In enjoining us to do this or to avoid that, he always had some “strategic” objectives in view which he thought to be indispensable for the spiritual or social welfare of man. Sometimes this object is clearly discernible, and sometimes it is more or less hidden from the untrained eyes of the average person; sometimes we can understand the deepest aim of the Prophet’s injunction, and sometimes only its immediate purpose. Whatever the case may be, we are bound to follow the Prophet’s commands, provided that their authenticity and their context are fully established.[2] Nothing else matters. Of course, there are commands of the Prophet which are obviously of paramount importance and others which are less important, and we have to give the more important precedence over the others. But never have we the right to disregard anyone of them because they appear to us “unessential” – for it is said in the Qur’an of the Prophet: 

وَمَا يَنطِقُ عَنِ ٱلْهَوَىٰٓ 

“He does not speak out of his own desire” (Qur’an 53:3). That is, he speaks only when an objective necessity arises; and he does it because God has inspired him to do so. And for this reason we are obliged to follow the Prophet’s Sunnah in spirit and in form, if we wish to be true to Islam. We do not regard its ideology as one way among others, but as the way; and the man who conveyed this ideology to us is not just one guide among others, but the guide. To follow him in all that he commanded is to follow Islam; to discard his Sunnah is to discard the reality of Islam.

[Islam at the Crossroads by Muhammad Asad, p. 82-97]


[1] I should like to stress here that the concept of the Prophet’s Sunnah has been unwarrantably enlarged by scholars of the post-classical period of Islam. In its only valid, fundamental connotation this term signifies “the way of life” of the Apostle of God. In the first instance, it comprises the moral and ethical attitudes which he adopted towards various human problems – both individual and social- of a permanent nature. Secondly, the Sunnah embraces such of the Prophet’s injunctions – both commands and prohibitions – as relate to unchanging circumstances of social life and human behaviour: that is to say, it does not, by itself, embrace injunctions which the Apostle of God issued with a view to a particular historical occasion or a time-bound situation. Thirdly, the Sunnah comprises such of the Prophet’s outspoken moral valuations – “this is good” or “this is bad” – as are anchored in the human situation as such, and are therefore immune to the changes of time or circumstance. Unless we keep strictly to this threefold definition of the Prophet’s Sunnah, we will always be in danger of obscuring the principle that it is valid for all times and thus of losing sight of its God-willed character as the second source, next to the Qur’an, of Islamic Law.

[2] In addition to what has been said in that note, one should always remember that many individual ahadith, even some of the most authentic ones, have been transmitted to us as fragments, without a clear reference to the context. In such cases, only the most meticulous scholarship can reconstruct the circumstances to which the hadith in question refers, and thus establish the permanent character, if any, envisaged by the Apostle of God in the relevant injunction.

Previous articleHow Can God Allow Bad Things To Happen?
Next articleThe Inevitable: Reflections on Death and Beyond by Dr. Aid al-Qarni