We study and ponder over aḥādīth to fully benefit from the prophetic knowledge transmitted to the ummah in the form of traditions. Proper investigation in and contemplation on aḥādīth requires that the researchers in this discipline follow certain fundamental principles. If a researcher attempts studying aḥādīth ignoring these principles he will face perplexing questions at every step in this exercise. He would, very likely, lose the straight path. Those intending to steer clear of the danger of losing the true prophetic knowledge will find the following principles helpful in avoiding these dangers. Those taking help from these principles will find the road to understanding aḥādīth quite easy.
There are five fundamental principles of understanding aḥādīth. A detailed discussion on each follows.
3.1 The Qur'ān is the Measure of Truth
The first and the foremost principle is that the Qur'ān is the real measure of truth regarding aḥādīth. In fact, it is the only criterion of truth in all religious matters. While discussing the interrelationship between the Ḥadīth, the Sunnah and the Qur'ān, I have explained that the Qur'ān and Ḥadīth are interrelated as the root is related to its branches or a text is to its explanation. The Qur'ān gives the core guidance forming the religion and the sharī'ah. This Qur'ānic guidance is the basis and foundation of the religion while aḥādīth explain and detail it.
The Qur'ān has many characteristics. It has many names and attributes of which one name, given to it by the Almighty Himself, is mīzān (the criterion/measure). The Qur'ān is the measure of judgment. This means that it works as a judgment over the differences and disputes between the people. It establishes the truth firm and makes it distinct from the untruth. This is the greatest purpose the Qur'ān was revealed to fulfil. It is only the Qur'ān which measures the ideas and views in the divine scale and decides over the validity of what people ascribe to God. It determines what part of the current religious ideas is the truth from God and what part of these is a human addition mixed with the pure divine guidance. The Qur'ān says:
It is God Who has revealed the Book with decisive truth, and the balance (al-mīzān). (Q 42:17)
Certainly We sent our messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the balance (mīzān) that men may conduct themselves with equity. (Q 57:25)
Considering this very quality of the Qur'ān, it has been given the name muhaymin (guardian/criterion). In order to establish justice and equity, we need a balance and a criterion. Almighty God has referred to these two qualities of the Qur'ān in the following verse as well:
And to you we have revealed the Book with the truth, in confirmation of the [prophesies of] the earlier Scriptures, and a criterion (muhayman) over it. So judge between them by that which God has revealed, and do not follow their desires setting aside the truth which has come to you. (Q 5:48)
Everything concerning the religion and the sharī'ah has to be measured by this criterion. This is a general principle which covers all the religious matters and sources. When we find a ḥadīth which goes against the religion and admits of doubt we have to measure it by the Qur'ān, for the Book rules over it.
Someone may consider aḥādīth independent of the measure of the Qur'ān. He may posit that it is not subject to the Qur'ān and it is a judge for itself. He would, however, be forced to adopt as the part of the religion even the narratives which clearly contradict the Qur'ānic teachings. He would be including in the religion that which does not belong to it.
I believe that every such ḥadīth as is proved unsound when measured on the scale of the Qur'ān, is either a fabrication or a distortion. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to keep the religion of God safe from the onslaught of such narratives. It is unperceivable, on the scale of reason as well as revelation, that the Messenger (sws) negates or contradicts the commands of the Almighty God. The scholars of the religious sciences unanimously hold that any ḥadīth that contradicts the Qur'ān is a munkar narrative. It has to be rejected. I quote the leader of the muḥaddithūn and the greatest servant of the Prophetic tradition, Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal in this regard. Faḍl b. Ziyād reports:
I heard Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal respond to a question regarding the traditions which say that the Sunnah overrules the Qur'ān (qāḍiyatan 'alā al-Qur'ān) in the following words: "I do not dare say that. However, the Sunnah explicates the Book, defines and explains it.
This means that, according to him, no ḥadīth can abrogate the Qur'ān. We acknowledge the status of aḥādīth. We do not deny it. However, we hold that the claim that it overrules the Qur'ān is baseless.
3.2 Collating the Narratives on a Single Topic
Just like the Qur'ān, aḥādīth too have an overall order and arrangement. We cannot properly understand and interpret a ḥadīth without considering the overall structure of aḥādīth. The second most important principle of understanding aḥādīth is that every ḥadīth has to be considered a part of the collective system of the narratives. A part, it is clear, has to be in accord with the overall structure of the whole. Every ḥadīth that is not in assonance with the overall structure of aḥādīth should be rejected. In solving the problems of opposing and mutually contradicting aḥādīth, the collective order of aḥādīth will be of immense help to us.
Examples of such isolated inordinations are abundant in the statements of the Sufis. They present their statements as aḥādīth and ascribe them to the Prophet (sws) even though these statements neither correspond to the fundamental teachings of the Qur'ān nor accord with the general prophetic teachings. Such baseless traditions, though limited in number, have found their way into the major ḥadīth works. It is extremely necessary to analyse and separate them from the true prophetic knowledge.
3.3 Language of Aḥādīth
The original language of the ḥadīth literature is the standard Classical Arabic even though, unlike the Qur'ān, most of aḥādīth have not been transmitted verbatim; ideas have been transmitted rather than words. Nonetheless, the language of aḥādīth maintains a high standard. The quality of the language of aḥādīth is superior to many other earlier sources. It is extremely important to consider this aspect of the language of the prophetic sayings while pondering over them. By the grace of God, there are many ḥadīth collections. Recorded in an early period of oral tradition, the language of aḥādīth is nearer to that of the prophetic times. Having acknowledged that language keeps changing and evolving, we need to prefer the traditions whose language is more approximate to that of the time of the Prophet (sws) and the Companions (rta).
In the syntactic and morphological analysis of aḥādīth, the judgments of the expert grammarians, lexicographers and acknowledged authorities in the field always prevail. Therefore, while deciding on meanings of difficult words and explaining the complex sentence structures, their interpretations and views have to be preferred over one's personal understanding.
For the serious student of the ḥadīth literature, expertise and competence in the language spoken during the time of the Prophet (sws) and the Companions (rta) as well as a taste and flavour for this language are crucial. This can help him differentiate the language of the prophetic time from that of the later times. If a person, engaged in the ḥadīth study, fails to understand this difference, it is very likely that he confuses non-prophetic statements with aḥādīth of the Prophet (sws). He can even be led to accept the non-Qur'ānic words as the part of the Book of God. A famous ḥadīth ascribed to 'Umar (rta) claims that the Qur'ān once included the verse al-shaykh wa al-shaykhatu idhā zanayā farjumūhumā al-battata (When an old man and old woman commit extramarital sex, stone them to death). The truth of the matter is that, far from being part of a verse of the Qur'ān, these words do not even match the prophetic language. It is, at best, the language of a non-Arab jurist of the later times.
3.4 Specification and Generalization, Situation and Context, and Nature of Address
Understanding aḥādīth requires proper understanding of the instances of specification and generalization, situation and context, and the nature of address. A proper understanding of the instances of specification and generalization requires that, while explaining the ḥadīth narratives, one appreciates where an apparently general statement, actually, deals with a specific case. Similarly, one has to appreciate the points in the text where a seemingly specific command is used in a general sense. Muḥaddithūn have discussed these questions in detail. However, this issue is very delicate and one has to remain alive to these facts.
Likewise, understanding the ḥadīth literature requires that the student is able to fully appreciate the implications of the textual context as well as context of situation. This is extremely important to understand. Failure to appreciate the proper textual context as well as context of situation gives rise to grave and complex questions leading to unending disputes. Take, for example, the famous ḥadīth which says:
Leaders shall be from among the Quraysh. (Musnad Aḥmad, No: 19792)
The majority of the scholars of the third and the later generations committed serious errors in determining the true context of this ḥadīth. Literal interpretation of the narrative led them to believe that only the Quraysh could validly rule the Muslims. Evidently, this view puts Islam and Brahmanism on equal ground as far as the political system is concerned. This view clearly ignores that Islam is the first religion aiming to purify the political systems from the evil of Brahmanism.
The primary cause of this error is that the scholars failed to understand the proper context of this prophetic statement. This ḥadīth does not give a universal directive governing the political system of Islam. It does not establish the political superiority of the Quraysh for all times. It is, on the contrary, a prophetic judgment on a political dispute that was buried in the minds of a group of the Anṣār (helpers) of Madīnah. This group expected that, after the Prophet's (sws) demise, it was they, not the Quraysh, who truly deserved to be the leaders of the Muslim ummah. They based this view on their services to the religion of God. This dispute remained latent in the minds of only a group among the Anṣār during the lifetime of the Prophet (sws). Yet it found expressions in various ways even during his lifetime. The Prophet (sws) feared that, after his demise, the dispute might cause a great divide within the ummah. Sensing this danger, the Prophet (sws) decided to settle the issue during his lifetime. Seen in this light, the prophetic statement means that at that time the people of Arabia would not accept the leadership of any tribe other than the Quraysh. Therefore, immediately after him, the leaders should be elected from the Quraysh. This prophetic decision settled the dispute that arose between the immigrants of Makkah and the Anṣār of Madīnah right after the death of the Prophet (sws). In the famous meeting of the Saqīfah of Banī Sā'idah, the Anṣār put forward this claim.
True nature of the words of the Prophet (sws), therefore, is that it was a decision on an implicit dispute on the question of leadership of the Muslims. The Prophet (sws) gave his verdict before the dispute clearly manifested itself. He based his decision on the established political superiority of the Quraysh. He did not adduce eternal racial superiority of the Quraysh over the other nations of the world as is entailed by the usual interpretations of the narrative.
One example of errors resulting from incorrect identification of the context of this prophetic saying follows. The leader of a contemporary Islamic movement, on the basis of this ḥadīth, issued a legal opinion (fatwā) to the effect that a sharī'ah directive can be altered and suspended. In the support of this view he cited the ḥadīth above mentioned. He held that though Islam affirms equality as an established moral principle, yet, in the case of the candidacy for caliphate, the Prophet (sws) found this principle inexpedient. He cancelled this principle and declared that leaders shall be from among the Quraysh.
Take still another example. Some tradition contain following words of the Prophet (sws):
I have been commanded to fight the people until they profess there is no God but Allah. (Bukhārī, No: 385)
Apparent and literal meaning of the narrative, disregarding its true context, validates the Orientalists' view that Islam was spread by the sword. It also entails that the war against unbelief that the Prophet (sws) started has to go on till the whole mankind embraces Islam and declares Allah to be the only deity. This is plainly wrong. History falsifies this interpretation. We know that the Prophet (sws) accepted jizyah from the People of the Book as well as the Magians (al-majūs). He did not force them to say that there is no God but Allah. Similarly all such people who contracted treaties with Muslims, before their subjugation (mu'āhid/ahl al-ṣulḥ), were allowed to follow their religion. They too were not forced to convert. We must, therefore, try to discover the true meaning of this narrative. If we consider the word "the people" in the narrative specifically referring to the children of Ismā'īl, based on obvious textual indications, the ḥadīth narrative conforms to the teachings of the Qur'ān.
I have explained in my commentary on the Qur'ān the Divine law regarding the Messengers (rusul) and their direct addressees. I have explained that sometimes God sends a Prophet (nabī) as a Messenger (rasūl) to a nation. The Messenger makes his message plain. He establishes his claim by a number of portents and removes all possible doubts on his claim to be a Divine Messenger. If his addressees reject him and his message even after the itmām-i ḥujjah (making the truth obvious in a conclusive manner), the rejecters are either struck by God's cosmic punishment and destroyed or, otherwise, punished at the hands of the believers.
It is this way (sunnah) of God which this ḥadīth explains. It is a historical fact that the Prophet (sws) was primarily sent to the Children of Ismā'īl, who were his direct addressees. Therefore, after itmām-i ḥujjah was accomplished by the Prophet (sws), they were left to choose between death and faith. They were not held in bondage nor were they offered to pay jizyah and follow their religion.
Similar problematic narratives bearing upon issues of great importance abound in the ḥadīth literature. It is, therefore, very important to learn the context of situation of the reported acts and statements of the Prophet (sws). Failure to understand the true context of such narratives has perplexed most of our renowned scholars who badly failed to explain such problematic narratives. They either adopted apologetic attitude with regard to these narratives or came to hold clearly unfoundedviews.
3.5 Mutual Harmony of Religion, Human Nature and Reason
The fifth and the last guiding principle in this regard is that the religion does not contradict the dictates of reason and fiṭrah (human nature). God has indeed based the teachings of religion on the dictates of fiṭrah.
Fiṭrahof God upon which He has modelled the humans. (Q 30:30)
The religion highlights the dictates of reason and fiṭrah, shapes them in the form of principles and bases the entire system of human life on it. Hence, it cannot contradict fiṭrah. It follows from this that everything that is against reason and fiṭrah would definitely contradict the religion.
The entire call of the Qur'ān is based on reason and intellect. The Book pleads to it in the support of its claims. Similarly, aḥādīth penetrate our hearts through reason and fiṭrah. It does not contain something opposed to reason and fiṭrah. If we find any such ḥadīth we must investigate and ponder over it in more depth. We shall either appreciate that, previously, we were misinterpreting the ḥadīth or learn that the narrative is not sound.
We must also appreciate that, at times, we fail to grasp all aspects of a stated fact. If we fail to fully understand a prophetic statement and we realise that the reason of our failure lies in the limitations of human intellect, we should not hastily brand the narrative as against reason and fiṭrah. It entails that if we see that a statement contradicts reason and fiṭrah, we should continue contemplating on it till we are able to grasp its meaning or conclude that it lies out of the scope of human mind. If, however, repeated investigation proves that the narrative contradicts reason and fiṭrah and there is no way we can reconcile between the two then it must be boldly rejected.
I also want to emphasize that, in this discussion, I do not mean to refer to the understanding and reasoning of those who do not use intellect and reason properly. Nor do I refer to those who make their reason hostage to the desires of their flesh. Their issue should be referred to God for judgment.
The religion and the sharī'ah are not trivial affairs. They command serious consideration. The prophetic sayings form part of the religion of God. To declare that a particular statement is a genuine prophetic saying is a grave judgment. It is a matter of great responsibility. Not everyone is able to discharge this duty. There are no doubt other principles of ḥadīth investigation. They too are important for us. However, the ones which I have mentioned above are fundamental. They provide firm and foundational rules to guide the student. It is not possible for one to properly understand and explain aḥādīth without taking them into consideration.