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.

 

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