What is the Hadith

By Danny Stoker

When I first began studying the Islamic world, I was quite ignorant of the world’s second largest religion. I tended to view both the Sunni and Shi’a as somewhat monolithic strains of the faith. I had little knowledge of the nuance and complexity in Islamic texts and interpretation of those texts. Most people are relatively familiar with the Qur’an, the series of revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad beginning 610 CE and continuing until his death 23 years later. However, most non-Muslims have little knowledge of Islam's second most authoritative text, the Hadith.

The hadith or huwadith (Arabic plural) are the saying and actions of the prophet Muhammad collected by his associates during this lifetime and later orally passed down through the ages helping Muslims to better follow Muhammad’s example. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World describes the hadith and how it was preserved as follows:

“These reports, or hadith, take the form of usually short, unconnected pieces, each of which is preceded by a list of its authoritative transmitters. Although the reports were originally transmitted orally, some transmitters began early to record them in writing. The compilers were careful not to tamper with the texts as they received them from recognized specialists in hadith transmission, and the collections reflect their spoken origins. The language is direct, conversational, active, often repetitive, with a characteristic use of formulaic expression.”

The hadith was not compiled until the ninth century, roughly 200 years after Muhammad’s death. The ninth century gave birth to six massive collections of hadith identified by the last name of their collector. Perhaps the most widely known and respected is the collection of al-Bukhari. The other famous collectors include Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Abu Da’ud al-Sijistani, Ibn Majah al-Qazwini, Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi, and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Nasa’i. In the Sunni world the hadith is considered Islam’s second most authoritative text and many important Islamic tenets, such as the duty to pray five times each day, are found in the hadith rather than the Qur’an.

Unlike the Qur’an, not all hadiths are weighed equally and they are more open to interpretation. Islamic scholars have created three categories gauging a hadith’s authenticity. A hadith may be classified as sahih (sound or authentic), da’if (weak), and mawdu’ (fabricated). There is no general agreement by Islamic scholars on which hadiths fall into these categories and many of the divergent philosophies in Sunni Islam can be found in how the hadith is interpreted and classified.

While the hadith provides an important companion text qualifying and contextualizing passages of the Qur’an, it is more open to interpretation and its authenticity is disputed.  Muslim reformers have from time to time taken issue with how the Muslim community has viewed the hadith. Some of these reformers include prominent scholars like Muhammad Abdu, Rashid Rida, and Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Recently in Egypt, the Islamic scholar, Islam Behery was arrested after criticized the hadith. Throughout history some Sunni Muslims have also rejected the hadith entirely relying on the Qur’an alone for religious authority. In spite of such movements, the vast majority view the hadith as having some legal and religious authority in the community.

The varying levels of authority granted to the hadith in general and to individual hadiths in particular shape how Islam is practiced and conceptualized through the Islamic world. Thus the hadith can at once be both a tool of violent extremism and peaceful moderation. The vastness of the hadith ensures both redundancy and contradiction while also providing a rich source of material to Islamic theologians and historians in their effort to piece together the life of the Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam. It is also one of the primary sources of Islamic law. This also leads to an important point often glossed over in the Western media’s discussion of Shari’a or Islamic law. Islamic law is not monolithic, there is not single codified version of Islam that is universally agreed upon. Just as there are disputes concerning the authenticity of certain hadiths there are different schools of thought for studying, interpreting, and applying Islamic law.

The lack of a single authoritative interpretation on the hadith contributes to the fractures within the Islamic world. Muslims of varying degrees of learning and understanding are able to cherry pick hadiths that they feel best represents their interpretation of Islam and exclaim: “This is Islam!” The hadith can support both ends of debates ranging from ‘how Muslims should dress’ to ‘the true meaning of jihad.’

Additional Reading:

  • Speight, R. Marston. "Hadith," The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World