Why are so many hadith so confusing?

Like many of you, my dear parents had a ornate, hardbound collection of Sahih al-Bukhari brought over from Saudi Arabia. Though this collection of hadith – the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – took up an entire row on a bookshelf in my dad’s study, it grew even more ominous and heavy as I entered adulthood.  Ultimately, it would be one of the reasons why I abandoned Islam as a young adult. All the confusing and seemingly contradictory statements attributed to our Prophet (pbuh) proved too much.

Worse, as I began exploring academic philosophy as an undergrad, the exceedingly dogmatic answer that only certain scholars could truly understand the hadith seemed a sad, fallacious appeal to authority never mind those that insisted that my very questioning demonstrating a weak iman.

I mean a multitude of hadith found in Sahih al-Bukhari that are vehemently defended by countless Muslims simply run counter to our Prophet’s (pbuh) perfect, noble character never mind the Quran itself. How could our Prophet (pbuh) be, at once, the embodiment of fairness, kindness and compassion, yet demand that camel thieves have their eyes branded, apostates beheaded, captives abused? More importantly, how could The Messenger of Islam be subject to black magic and other tall tales without calling into question the full scope of revelation? Bear in mind that I’m not doubting the words of our Prophet (pbuh), but whether he made such statements in the first place.  Upon finally returning to Islam some years later I confined most of my knowledge of hadith to a small, beautiful collection. I’ve turned to it innumerable times for well over a decade and still do to this day.

Recently, a somewhat caustic, but vitally important essay on Bukhari led me down a theological rabbit hole for some months. I sought more detailed information regarding the epistemological underpinnings used to gauge the veracity of hadith. More importantly, I was simply fed up and exhausted with all the dogmatic refrains online and elsewhere from fellow Muslims denouncing anyone who dared to question hadith.

A small, seemingly innocuous book written by Islamic Scholar Shayk Atabeck Shukurov entitled Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith has proven invaluable to me in this quest. The book aims to revive the works of Abu Hanifa (681/62 AH), the founder of the Hanafi school of fiqh (jurisprudence). I say revive because, sadly, the Hanafi methodology for gauging the accuracy of hadith is buried beneath an avalanche of Salafi/Wahhabi rhetoric that remains the most prominent, often unfortunate voice of Islamic thought online and elsewhere.

According to Shayk Shukurov, one of the main reasons why Sahih al-Bukhari remains second only to the Quran and is treated as infallible is due to the determined efforts of Ibn Hajar (1372/773 AH). In fact, Ibn Hajar promulgated the notion that only heretics rejected hadith found in the collection – an accusation we now find ubiquitous among Muslims today. Not surprisingly, Ibn Hajar is held in high regard by Salafis/Wahhabis.

To be sure, it is the Shafi’i principles of hadith that have dominated for centuries not Hanafi ones. However, unlike the decidedly more dogmatic approach of the Shafi’i school of thought and the likes of Ibn Hajar regarding hadith, the Hanafi approach strongly advocates critical evaluation and prioritizing the Quran. In fact, as Shukurov explains, Imam Abu Hanifa was actively criticized, ostracized and, ultimately, assassinated for his studied approach:

“They disliked the fact that Imam Abu Hanifa had setup a school which respected rational thought. This is demonstrated by the statement of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (the famous muhaddith), where he said the reason for not accepting the narrations of Imam Abu Hanifa was because ‘he used his intellect too much.’” (Shukurov, 7).

Elsewhere in the book, Shukurov drives home a most compelling point:

“There are many hadith that can leave a person confused or make them feel that they are following a religion that does not make sense. This has sadly resulted in many people leaving Islam…[T]here are issues that need to be tackled such as stoning adulterers, killing apostates, the age of Aisha at marriage and rising violent extremism. Resolutely taking a Salafist or ‘no retreat, no surrender’ line on these questions and tacitly assisting the minority view of Salafi-Wahhabism to become ‘mainstream Islam’ by denouncing classical Islamic scholarship as ‘modernism’ or even worse, heresy, may make people feel better and continue to receive speaking engagements for already well-funded groups and individuals, but it does nothing to answer the genuine concerns of Muslims and others…The time has come…to go back to the past to help deal with the issues of the present, whether it is to combat Islamophobia, draconian rules, theological or philosophical issues.” (Shukurov, 248, 247)

To say I feel some vindication for my early doubts as a young man would be an understatement.  There is also a fair amount of anger in me knowing that so many have abandoned Islam due to the many egregious sayings attributed to the Prophet (pbuh).  While I’m certain Bukhari was a fine, well-intentioned soul, granting him the kind of infallibility we only allow for prophets seems to verge on blasphemy.

Echoing the likes of Abu Hanifa and Shayk Shukurov, we simply cannot abandon our critical faculties and yield to rote dogma out of fear or lassitude regarding hadith not to mention all other aspects of faith. We must face such theological challenges with courage, resolve and sharp minds. Otherwise, we are not only doing a disservice to ourselves, we are doing a disservice to Islam.




12 thoughts on “Why are so many hadith so confusing?

  1. I think the big problem is that the average Muslim is purchasing and reading Bukhari and Muslim’s work in the first place. These works aren’t for the laymen, but for the trained scholars of hadith or fiqh to go through and utilized in either educating young Muslims in the faith or ensuring that the courts and laws follow the law and spirit of Islam.

    1. I have to disagree. Islam is meant to be simple, profoundly simple, but simple nonetheless. We often forget that there was great import in the Prophet (pbuh) being illiterate. Not only did it indicate that the Quran was a revelation but also that such doctrinal labyrinths that exist today and throughout history were not in keeping with the initial aspects of Islam. Regardless, the piece echoes two noteworthy scholars in the forms of Abu Hanifa and Shayk Shukurov. Also, scholars are not above anyone else in terms of stature before God. Certainly, countless scholars were informed more by what is/was most politically expedient than what was theologically sound.

      1. The point is that these hadith collections aren’t here for laymen, they’re for all intents and purposes irrelevant.

        They’re here for either students of theology and philosophy who want to attain a higher level of understanding of their faith or for those who are in the fields of law, jurisprudence, ethics, governance, and others that are concerned with the organization of human affairs.

        There are several hadith collections talking about war and conflict. What the heck am I to do with those? Nothing, because they’re there for the sake of rulers and those in charge of the armed forces. Hadith detailing economic and trade transactions? I don’t trade and thus irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, but for the people in charge for managing the state’s trade policies or internal tax systems that’s of great importance to ensuring the system runs in accordance with Islamic norms.

        I also want to point out that these works, most notably their online counterparts (sunnah.com) don’t inform us of the context of each hadith and what commentaries the scholars have brought forth to the table to help explain or illuminate certain aspects of this or that hadith.

      2. In those contexts I agree. However there are now innumerable hadith being bandied about by both Islamophobes and extremists – death to apostates, age of consent for Aisha, black magic, etc. – that defy further explanation or contextual analysis. They simply ring false within the greater context of the Quran and Sunnah. Also, did you read the piece in full. Forget about the opening paragraph, I went on to extrapolate this very point referencing a scholarly work.

  2. War is for ‘the leaders and heads of the armed forces’?!

    And what are we, their chess pieces?!

    Have you noticed that those are the two groups who NEVER end up fighting or getting killed in wars – its only ever ‘ordinary’ people who suffer due to this ‘hidden knowledge’.

    Anyway, Muhaditheen used to disseminate this stuff to the public at large, they are well known for that, as well as for having close ties to the ruling elites.

  3. Hi! Thank you for this post — it touches on a lot of concerns that I have, too. (Namely, that a majority of Muslims consider Bukhari’s work to be of the utmost importance (without ever having read it, perhaps) when, in fact, a lot of his hadith severely impugn the character of the Prophet (PBUH). It makes me question my religion for the reason Shukurov explains in your quote.) I would love to hear more — new post, haha? — (logical, well thought-out) rebuttals to the notion of Bukhari’s disconcerting ahadith being “infallible” if you have any from your readings/studies!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed your piece and I’m so glad that I came across this website. I agree that we should be critical when it comes to using and selecting hadiths but how does one go about in a non-biased way with out dismissing hadiths based on their own agenda?

    1. Thanks for the kind words :). It’s imperative that we use the Quran as the final arbiter in gauging the veracity of hadith. Though the following image is a bit of a simplification, it does illustrate my point: http://quransmessage.com/charts%20and%20illustrations/quran%20filter/filter%20copyright.jpg

      Also, you may find the following essay of interest as well: https://thecrookedmuslim.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/stoning-and-lost-verses-in-the-quran/

  5. Insightful article…definitely needed so much now when God’s gift of reason to us and our responsibility to use it is attacked….thank you.

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