In this essay, I will be examining whether the Hadith can be trusted as a historical source. The Hadith contains traditions that Muslims consider to be the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, establishing it as a very important source within Islam. My aim is to show that the Hadith cannot be trusted as a historical source because of what I believe to be two convincing arguments of why it should not. I will do this by first explaining in more detail what the Hadith is. I will then provide two arguments for why the Hadith cannot be trusted as a historical source and why I think these are both plausible arguments. Finally, I will come to a conclusion based on the arguments and findings that I will have presented in this essay.
What is the Hadith?
In Islam, the Hadith is one of their deeply respected texts, second only to that of Islam’s holy book, the Quran (Warraq, 2013). Essentially, the Hadith is a record of what Muslims consider to be the Prophet Muhammad’s life, including his sayings and actions of approval, as well as those of his companions (Warraq, 2013). Additionally, in its typical form, the Hadith is divided into two main parts, known as “isnad” and “matn”. The term “isnad” refers to the selective authoritative chain of transmitters that have communicated and passed down the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad over two centuries (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). While the “matn” refers to the actual content of a report in the Hadith (Warraq, 2013). Furthermore, there is considered to be six authoritative collections that are accepted by the vast majority of Sunni Muslims, such as the compilations of al-Bukhari and al-Nisai (Warraq, 2013). Ultimately, the Hadith is a major source of Islamic law and thus moral guidance, which therefore makes it an essential and respected text within Islam.
The Chain of Transmission
Ever since the Hadith first emerged, people have debated whether it can be trusted as a historical source due to the chain of transmission, known as “isnad”. According to Schacht, the chain of transmission starts with transmitters, where then the alleged sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad gets attributed back to the Prophet through his Successor and Companion (Schacht, 1967). The Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD and a lot of the information regarding his life, thus traditions of the Hadith, did not come out until over one hundred years after his death by Ibn Ishaq in 750 AD (Warraq, 2013). Even then this cannot be entirely trusted because a lot of the work collected by Ishaq was lost and then later reconciled in parts by Ibn Hisham (Warraq, 2013). Therefore, one issue with trusting the Hadith as a historical source is whether we can trust traditions that did not come from first-hand witnesses, but rather by information passed down through generations, which would inevitably be subject to a few concerns.
One sceptic of the Hadith and its chain of transmission is Ignaz Goldziher. Goldziher’s main argument is that a vast number of Hadiths accepted by Muslims are in fact forgeries, which would lead to the conclusion that the isnads supporting them are just completely made up (Warraq, 2013). Simply, Goldziher argues that the Hadith does not contain the words of the Prophet but rather is a forgery as a result of political conflicts after his death (Warraq, 2013). In his book, ‘Why I not a Muslim’, Warraq gives a bit of historical background to try and make sense of Goldziher’s arguments. Essentially, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad was the Umayyad Dynasty who despised the pious and as a result of wanting to keep their religion alive, the pious would invent traditions to trace back to the Prophet that often praised him and his family. In simpler words, Goldziher argues that hadiths are just invented as a result of pious individuals trying to oppose the godless Umayyads (Warraq, 2013). These fabrications of the Hadith grew and became even more controversial under the next dynasty, known as the Abbasid Dynasty. For instance, the Abbasids claimed that the Prophet was made to say that his uncle, Abu Talib, would suffer in hell. However, naturally, this was countered by the pious who, according to Goldziher, fabricated numerous traditions to glorify Abu Talib, all in the name of the Prophet (Warraq, 2013, pp. 71). Therefore, Goldziher would argue that the Hadith cannot be trusted as a historical source because traditions of the Hadith are just lies as a result of political differences between dynasties, mainly the Umayyads and Abbasids, and the pious. I think that Goldziher does make a plausible argument because it is not completely absurd to believe that the Hadith could be the result of political indifference. Even today we see lies spread between political parties so I see no reason to think why false stories about the Prophet could not be completely invented from centuries ago.
One supporter of Goldziher’s view is Joseph Schacht. Schacht’s Common Link Theory shows that the Common Link between the transmitters is responsible for the circulation and thus the fabrication of the Hadith back to the isnads (Schacht, 1964). According to Schacht, the Common Link is the one who would have provided a tradition with an isnad reaching back to an authority, such as the Prophet or one of his companions. In other words, the Common Link distributes the hadith to the transmitters and then back to the Prophet, which Schacht believes results in a complete fabrication (Schacht, 1967) Essentially, he comes to the conclusion that everything before the Common Link, so the chain from the Successor back to the Prophet, is just completely made up which would lead to the conclusion that the Hadith cannot be trusted as a historical source because one cannot give credit to a planned forgery.
I think that we can see how Goldziher and Schacht both provide a fair argument of why we should not trust the Hadith as a historical source by comparing it to the game of Chinese Whispers. This is a game where one word is whispered from one person to another and typically the word slightly changes each time it reaches the next person (Merriam-Webster, 2020). The way that the chain of transmission works is essentially someone heard something from James, who heard it from Tom who heard it from the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, if we compare the chain of transmission to the game of Chinese whispers, we can see how this might undermine the authenticity of the Hadith as a historical source because it is easy for information to be misremembered and misinterpreted as it is passed down through numerous people. However, unlike Goldziher and Schacht, I do not think that it is necessarily the case that the stories of Muhammad’s life could be completely made up but instead just be slightly mistold. Nevertheless, we can still question the Hadith as a historical source if the traditions are not completely true as it is difficult to know what we should and should not believe.
A Bad Image of Prophet Muhammad
Another reason to question the trustworthiness of the Hadith as a historical source is the fact that it does display the Prophet Muhammad in the most glorious of ways. Surely, if Muhammad is meant to be this perfect exemplar of Islam, then we should not believe what the Hadith says because it contradicts this. Ultimately, we should either reject the Hadith to save a morally good Muhammad or we are to accept the Hadith and just admit that Muhammad was not this great moral exemplar. However, I believe the latter would be harder to accept.
In the article, ‘Historical Muhammad: The Good, Bad, Downright Ugly’, David Wood makes an analogy between the western film and that of the Historical Muhammad (Wood, 2016). He argues that we uncover a very different Muhammad when we conduct a historical investigation. He claims that since the Quran does not really tell us anything about the life of Muhammad, we must turn to the Hadith to do so. Nevertheless, he does recognise that since information about the life of Muhammad was not uncovered until two hundred years after his death, this does call much of his life into question, however, Wood does not want to be as sceptical as this (Wood, 2016). His main argument is that there is in fact a lot of evidence within the Hadith that highlights a number of questionable qualities about the Prophet Muhammad that would show him to not be morally perfect. For instance, in regards to some examples that I have found, in Sahih al-Bukhari 6982, we are told of a story where Muhammad had attempted to commit suicide, stating “the Prophet (ﷺ) became so sad as we have heard that he intended
several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains” (Sunnah, n.d). Surely, this contradicts Islamic teachings as Islam feels very strongly against suicide as all life is sacred and belongs to Allah (BBC, 2012). Other unadmirable qualities include him allowing his followers to rape widows, having nine wives and him marrying and having sex with an underage girl named Aisha (Boucher, 2014)
I think Wood makes a plausible point because, for myself, it does not make sense how we can trust the Hadith if the history of Muhammad’s life shows him to contradict key Islamic teachings and beliefs that followers of the religion should obey. Ultimately, Wood argues that, unlike other religions, history is a huge problem for Islam because it exposes things about Muhammad that Muslims just do not want to accept. Therefore, I agree with Wood that we can question the Hadith as a historical source because the Muhammad of history is shown to contradict the Muhammad of faith throughout numerous parts of the Hadith (Wood, 2016). If Muhammad is meant to be this perfect moral exemplar of Islam, yet the history of Hadith shows different, then we should not trust the Hadith as a historical source because we should want to keep this perfect image of the Prophet Muhammad.
In this essay, I have explained what the Hadith is, provided two arguments for why we should not trust the Hadith as a historical source and whether I think these are plausible arguments. The Hadith is of great importance within Islam and it is therefore easy to see why its authenticity as a historical source is of great debate. From examining its chain of transmission I can understand how a story narrated through generations can impose great difficulties in trusting the hadith as a historical source. Just like words can get misinterpreted in a game of Chinese Whispers, the same could have also happened with stories of the Prophet Muhammad being passed on from one person to another. Ultimately, the stories of Prophet Muhammad, including his sayings and doings, are the main essence of the Hadith and if we can question if these are true then we should undoubtedly question whether the Hadith can be trusted as a historical source. Furthermore, as Wood argues, the Hadith cannot be trusted if one wants to still accept Muhammad as a moral exemplar because the Muhammad of history uncovered is very different from this Muhammad of faith. Essentially, we cannot have both a true acceptance of the Hadith and a morally perfect Muhammad, so the simple solution would be to reject the Hadith as a historical source because we cannot trust whether this would allow for the true Muhammad that Muslims want to be portrayed.