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.

Amen.

 

An Olive Branch to Ex-Muslims

There’s a fair amount of understandable anger and vitriol among those that have left Islam alongside a dizzying amount of issues to contend with – one’s family, one’s identity, one’s place in the grand scheme of things, etc. I say understandable because it’s a fair reaction to a belief that people often feel or have felt confined and bound by due to their upbringing and, dare I say, misinformation from mullahs to muftis to one’s own relatives. And before that triggers an onslaught of naysayers and ad hominems, hear me out. I was just like you if you can believe it.

In short, I grew up in an Islamic household in small town America that went from fairly normal to fanatical upon moving to Saudi Arabia for a spell. My parents (yes, I still love them dearly!) became obsessed with rules and strictures to the point of absurdity. Many of you know the drill – the most mundane, trivial misstep resulted in perishing in hellfire for all eternity. Worse, I attended a parochial school in Saudi Arabia where teachers habitually slapped students around. For example, if our feet were not perfectly aligned with one another during prayers, a brutal turd of a teacher would sneak up behind us and whip our feet with a rubber hose in the supposed name of Islam. Imagine going from a sweet old lady as one’s grade school teacher to that. I habitually vomited every time I stepped off the bus out of anxiety and fear. Thank God my friends were mostly refugees who taught me to toughen up. Back in the States I could only relate to folks generations before me who had similar stories growing up in Catholic schools.

Upon returning to America three years later, my older brother and I quickly began to shed our religious skin. We grew wild the way preachers’ sons in America grow wild. We lived two very different lives: the one inside our home and the one outside. My brother abandoned God entirely while I simply grew to hate Him. For many former Muslims I sense that same resentment toward Heaven. For some, it’s difficult to shuck the belief in God altogether. Instead, a rueful spite forms. I get that as well.

Later, as an adult I grew even wilder, slowly entering a wilderness of proverbial sin and despair (even if we don’t use the term ‘sin’ I certainly wasn’t making good choices) in part because I inherited all my orphaned father’s unrequited ghosts and because of the inherent sense of dislocation than many sons and daughters of immigrants feel or have felt no matter where they are. Still, I managed to publish my first poem in The Seattle Review around this time. I’d finally captured how I’d felt as a boy on paper, warts and all, regarding faith and loneliness:

A Small, Dark Boy

I thought I could pray
hard beside the schoolyard wall
right before the recess bell
to keep from being this

permanent stranger in the only town
I had known. All the pretty girls
seemed to fall between the spaces
of my open hand. I had to
pray a little more. I thought

I could betray what I knew
to be imminent: for a long while
I would have to be alone.

At this point, I began my academic pursuit of philosophy and literature. This led me to the studying of religious philosophy which led me toward various academic scholars of Islam. Now I say Islamic scholars, but most of them were non-Muslims. I’m not talking about muftis or mullahs. It is supremely ironic and cannot be emphasized enough that it was non-Muslims who allowed me to slowly rediscover Islam. If this is an indictment on the current state of Islam as practiced by many Muslims so be it. The Islam I was learning about from scholars such as Anne Marie Schimmel, Carl Ernst, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, etc., was literally night and day to the Islam I was taught as a boy. Even now, ten or more so years later, I continue to devour their works among so many others. Gone was all the fire and brimstone and obsessing over pork and premarital sex ad infinitum (my folks even had a book entitled, Gelatin)! Certainly the principles were not dismissed nor abandoned, but emphasis was put on the big picture, ideas and humanness toward one another in relation to God rather than rote dogma and an often idiotic zeal for strictures. Did I suddenly stumble back onto the proverbial straight path? Of course not. However, it did manage to pry open the proverbial door to both faith and Islam and, most importantly, a genuine sense of peace and contentment (not always, of course, but more so than I ever could have imagined) after so many years of restlessness, ennui and despair.

Of course, I’m not trying to sell you on Islam or anything else, I’m just suggesting that maybe don’t slam the door on God just yet, even if that means finding another path toward Him. And in doing so, be fair, not only to others, but to yourself. I’ve perused a lot of the posts and comments on /r/exmuslim. Many of you are young, highly intelligent and engaging. However, when I read your comments regarding the Quran or Prophet (pbuh) they seem borne more out of frustration and anger than logic or some careful exegetical analysis.

Many of you are avid readers and understand that reading poetry and literature often requires a high level of comprehension to fully understand or, at least, better understand what is being said. Two telling examples for me in this regard happen to be two of my favorite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. When I read these novels in the 8th grade they were just fun adventures and not much else. However, when I reread them in my late 20’s the breadth and scope of these works seemed, at times, limitless, especially, Huck Finn.

I understand that many of you have deep-seated resentments toward Islam and therefore the Quran and Hadith. As result, it’s become quite common (and easy) to henpeck verses, refuse context or a deeper understanding in order to prove its inadequacy. This is more a disservice to your intellect and humanity than anything else. If you’re venting vent. I get it. However, only the most daft of literalists would argue that Ode to a Nightingale is about Keats’ love of ornithology. The same goes for any scripture or religious text as well. At the very least, respect the nature of discourse lest we devolve into rants akin to FOX news.

This is already decidedly longer in the proverbial tooth than I had hoped and there is so much more to be said regarding notions of identity and whatnot, but I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” – William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences

Be well and take care.  Amen.