Quran and hadiths: the full picture and how it makes sense

December 22, 2009 at 9:38 pm (Islam, why I didn't convert to Islam)

The discrepancy between the contents of the Quran and the hadith literature was always a bit of a puzzle. Sure, the hadiths are less accurately preserved, but overall the picture they paint is probably pretty accurate. It doesn’t seem possible that women could not have ceased worship during menstruation, for example. That cannot all be fabricated.

I couldn’t come up with an explanation for why Muhammad would add to the words of God, or even apparently override them (e.g. wiping socks instead of washing feet in wudu). The best I could come up with was that the non-Quranic things were pre-existing customs that were allowed to continue.

Another thing that struck me was how different the two are in emphasis: the Quran is more philosophical and the hadiths are more legal.

Having accepted that Muhammad was not a prophet, it has all fallen into place in my mind. The Quran was not central to everything, but was just one part of the authority that Muhammad had. It contained those matters about which external verification was needed: it let other parties know where they stood with the Muslims and with Allah. It didn’t need to contain much law, or ritual, because the followers of Muhammad accepted this direction straight from him. There was no need for it to come from the mouth of God. In a way maybe the Quran was more often for non-believers than for believers. It was poetic and persuasive and tried to win them over.

I also no longer need to believe that Muhammad was always consistent, and so contradictions between the Quran and hadiths – and between hadiths – do not need to be explained away as “inaccuracies in preservation and transmission” (although I’ve no doubt that is one cause of inconsistency too).

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8 Comments

  1. Zuhura said,

    I do believe that Muhammad was a prophet, but I agree with you that he was not always consistent. My personal belief is that the Qur’an is the word of God but that when people had questions about how to put it into practice in their daily lives they turned to Muhammad (and later to other religious leaders) and he (as a human being) gave them answers that were specific to the time/place/culture in which he was living. (And thus many I don’t believe need to be followed today.)

    • Sarah said,

      Interesting! So presumably in this day and age there might not need to be an authority figure giving such answers, now that we are more confident about our own understanding?

  2. aynur said,

    I know this is an old post … but it showed up in my news feed. 😀
    I dunno, for me I just CANNOT fathom how the hadiths were transmitted without error for 200+ years before compilation and sorting through numerous fake hadiths, and collected by non-Arabs. It just is not logical. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but at this moment I can’t believe in them. It’s one thing I feel so strongly about … anyway, I like the idea that maybe many were ‘pre-existing customs that were allowed to continue’. That seems okay. 😉

    • Sarah said,

      Yes, I can’t believe they could all be accurate either. It is known that there were fabrications, and it is easy to imagine what would motivate someone to fabricate hadiths… I think the collectors did a good job of sorting them out but it can’t possibly be completely reliable.

      I think the arguments between for example Aisha and Abu Hurayra show that there was not consensus on what had been said, even at the beginning. But I think the preservation of these sayings and arguments is quite impressive! I think it’s realistic that these arguments did actually happen.

      So I would probably take any individual hadith with a healthy skepticism, but I can’t believe they’re all completely made up, for example, I believe Muhammad probably did teach people in detail how to do the rituals and mentioned things that would make them invalid. I can’t see how people could get away with making *all* of those hadiths up if he never said anything of that nature… or why they would even want to.

      • aynur said,

        I don’t see it as much as thinking they’re completely made up … but just the fact that something told to someone else can be distorted easily, unintentionally … and we’re talking about 200-300 years later! That’s like trying to find out what my great great grandparents said back after the Civil War!
        I think that the compilers did the best job they could, but they did not hear what they were recording from the sources themselves.
        Plus, why didn’t the companions or the 4 caliphs compile them if they were so important for us to have??
        The explanation I’ve gotten is that people were so religious that they had perfect memory so nothing could be transmitted wrongly. That just doesn’t make sense to me, I do believe there are some people who have exceptionally good memory but it’s a very small percentage.
        I think I would trust the mutawattir hadiths, more so than the others. The problem is so many Muslims believe in weak hadiths, and hold them up as being unquestionable.

        • Sarah said,

          Maybe oral traditions were just more prominent back then rather than the written forms that we rely on and take for granted today. It must have been a good 10 or 20 years after Muhammad’s death before even the Quran was compiled. I do think the words and actions of Muhammad were very important to people even though they were passed orally, as they seem to have noted and passed on a phenomenal level of detail! So I can only imagine he must have had a certain authority.

          I wouldn’t trust all the details of the hadiths – I agree with you that they could easily have been distorted – but I find it hard to believe he never actually gave the kind of instructions that he is described as giving. I’m sure the content of the recorded instructions probably got changed over time, but I feel the sense of him having the authority to dictate stuff must go back to a real origin. I always wanted to believe he would never have said “X, Y and Z make a prayer invalid” but I found it hard to see how there could be so many hadiths like that if he never said things like that. I’m open to changing my view though, and I find this stuff really interesting 🙂

          • aynur said,

            It looks like you’re approaching the topic a bit differently than me … and it’s an interesting angle.
            I think I’m at a mental roadblock at the moment, because even the last sermon has at least 3 different versions while I was taught there is only one (the part about #1 leaving the Qur’an and the Sunnah, or #2 the Qur’an and his family, or #3 the Qur’an). And there were a lot of people who witnessed that farewell sermon.
            True, the Qur’an wasn’t compiled right away … but it was still compiled relatively quickly.

            • Sarah said,

              Exactly, so something must have got changed there. We know there was probably a farewell sermon and that he probably said something about what he was leaving them, but what exactly he said is unclear.

              I’m sort of trying to work out how much authority the Messenger had, and I do feel some verses in the Quran seem to support the view that he had quite a lot of authority in matters of faith. But should Muslims follow hadiths, I basically agree with you that they aren’t reliable enough to be followed!

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