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A Turkish Martin Luther?!
March 2008
The BBC reported on February 26, 2008 that Turkey's Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University's School of Theology to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet. An adviser to the project says some of the sayings can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society (BBC, February 26, 2008).

Turkey, yet again takes the lead in trying to usher the Muslim world into the modern age. However, the challenge ahead is formidable. Accusations of heresy and apostasy will be flying around by Islamist extremists and their political benefactors, especially from the Arab world. The following explains the nature of the controversy and the reasons for my cautious and guarded optimism.
Elevating the Prophet’s way of life (Sunna) to a source of law equal to the Quran
Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, the caliphs were faced with different conditions in the conquered lands of Roman Syria, Iraq, and Egypt and of Persia from what Quranic law has prescribed for the desert Arabians. Of the 6,236 Quranic verses, less than 10% deal with legislative matters, primarily marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The rest deal with theological matters.
By the end of the ninth century the Ulama (religious scholars) succeeded in enshrining the Sunna Traditions of the Prophet, His sayings (Hadith) and actions (Sira) as a source of law equal to God’s word in the infallible Quran; notwithstanding, that the Quran never made the Sunna a source of law and despite God’s attestation that the Quran contains every thing mankind needs to know. The basis for elevating the Sunna was the belief that it was a manifestation of God’s will, a guide on matters on which the Quran was silent. Incorporating the attributed sayings and actions of the Prophet into the Islamic Sharia made the Prophet more than the deliverer of God’s message. He became the exemplar for the Muslim to emulate faithfully. In so doing the coverage of Quranic law was expanded; thrusting the Ulama into the tiniest details of Muslims’ daily lives. For example, Ahmad Bin Hanbal (d. 855), founder of the orthodox Hanbalite School of jurisprudence, “is alleged never to have eaten watermelon because he was not in possession of any Prophetic precedent on the subject” (Coulson, A History of Islamic Law, 1999, 71).

Hundreds of thousands of often contradictory and blatantly partisan traditions in favor or against every imaginable thing affecting the individual, the family, the tribe, the city, the mosque, religious rituals, personal conduct, personal hygiene, business affairs, etc., were put to the mouth of the Prophet by thousands of sometimes dubious transmitters. Each transmitter claimed that he had been told by x, that y had told him, that z had told him, that f had told him, etc., claiming the Prophet had said this or done that.

We are told that leading scholars diligently verified the authenticity of every word of every attribution and the integrity of every attributer into every chain of attributions. Eventually, a few thousand traditions were accepted as authentic, with six collections elevated to canonical rank by Sunni Muslims.

The most revered and authoritative collection is that of Muhammad Bin Ismail Al-Bukhari (d. 870). Al-Bukhari selected out of 600,000 traditions he collected from 1,000 sheikhs in the course of 16 years of travel and labor in Persia, Iraq, Syria, Hijaz and Egypt 7,400 traditions (Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1970, 39). His book, titled Sahih Al-Bukhari (Sahih means correct or sound), is classified according to some 100 subject matters. Al-Bukhari’s collection is considered by most Sunni scholars second only to the Quran in authenticity. A close second in importance is the collection of Muslim Bin Al-Hajjaj (d. 875) of Naysabur, Iran with 7,600 traditions. The other four collections are those of Ibn Maja (d. 886); with 4,300 traditions, Abi Dawood (d. 888); with 5,300 traditions, Al-Tirmithi (d. 892); with 4,000 traditions, and Al-Nasai (d. 915); with 5,800 traditions. Repetitiveness exists in the collections individually and among each other.

The challenge
Notwithstanding the reported integrity of the collectors and the care that they must have taken to ensure the credibility of the thousands of attributers and the authenticity of the hundreds of thousands of Prophetic traditions that grew over more than 200 years, it remains impossible to know with absolute certainty whether every word and comma in every attribution by every memorizer was perfectly authentic and reliable and in the true chronological order in which the Prophet had announced and acted. What is known, however, is that during the first two-and-a-half centuries following the death of the Prophet, the generations of Hadith attributers and collectors were witnesses to momentous doctrinal, legal, and political conflicts. Aside from the great Arab conquests, which established one of the world’s largest empires in a relatively short time, major intra-Muslim conflicts erupted during that era. There were four civil wars, seven state capital cities, and numerous violent political and religious rebellions. These events spilled rivers of blood and divided the nascent Islamic nation into many factions and sects. Under such circumstances, it is fair to say that some attributors, not to mention the collectors, had financial, political, career and other personal interest in the outcome, or they might have simply forgotten what was said or heard.

The first Muslim civil war was from 656 to 661 between Ali (the fourth Caliph) and Muawiyah (the fifth Caliph and founder of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus). The second civil war (680-692) was during the reigns of Muawiyha’s four successors against another claimant of the Caliphate, Abdullah Bin Al-Zubair, who in 683 was recognized as a rival Caliph to the Umayyads in parts of Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, until he was killed at Mecca in 692. The third civil war culminated in 750 with the destruction of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus and the advent of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad. The fourth civil war (811-813) was between Al-Amin and Al-Mamoun, the two sons of the famed Caliph, Haroun Al-Rashid (786-809). Eventually, the former was killed and Al-Mamoun reigned from 813 to 833. Additionally, there was the cataclysmic event in 680 that eventually shook the foundations of Islam and caused a permanent split between Shiites and Sunnis to this very day: namely, the rebellion and the resulting killing of Imam Hussain Bin Ali at Karbala, Iraq.

The first capital of the Muslim State was Medina, the Prophet’s adopted city, in which He took refuge to escape the persecution of the Meccans in 622. Medina remained the capital during the rule of the first three Caliphs (632-656). In 656, Ali, the fourth Caliph, made Kufa, Iraq his base. Muawiyah (the fifth Caliph) made Damascus his capital in 661. Damascus remained the capital of the Umayyad dynasty’s fourteen Caliphs until the Abbasids destroyed the Umayyads Caliphate in 750. The Abbasids moved the capital to Iraq, transitionally to Al-Hashimiyyah before Baghdad was built, starting in 762. In 836, the eighth Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu’tasim (833-842), moved the capital to Samarra (a short distance north of Baghdad on the Tigris River). The sixteenth Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu’tadid (892-902), moved the seat of government back to Baghdad in 892. Meanwhile, Cordova became in 756 the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain, rivaling and eventually outlasting the Abbasids in Baghdad.

To uncover the truthfulness of hundreds of thousands of Prophetic sayings and actions, which supposedly had occurred ten generations earlier, must have been a daunting task. The monumental size, the old age, and the great significance of the issues involved raise questions regarding the genuineness of some of the Traditions.

To put this challenge into perspective, the assertion that Al-Bukhari (810-870) examined 600,000 traditions means that, even if he had spent forty years of his sixty-year life exclusively on the one and only task of compiling the Sahih, working 14-hour a day without taking a vacation, a sick day, or working on anything else; be it to earn a living or compose other books, he would have had to investigate an average of more than forty Traditions every single day, or one tradition every 20 minutes. But, Al-Bukhari wrote 21 books in addition to the Sahih. If we take Professor Hitti’s statement that Al-Bukhari spent 16 years of travel and labor in order to produce his Sahih, then he would have had to investigate the provenance of an average of 103 traditions every single day; or, a tradition every 8 minutes. In addition to confirming the exact text of every Hadith, Al-Bukhari had to ensure the personal integrity of the thousands of attributers over ten generations who reported the Prophet’s sayings and actions. Even if the number of the traditions involved were half as many; or one tenth, the likelihood that every tradition in Sahih Al-Bukhari is perfectly authentic requires a great act of faith to accept. Was Al-Bukhari aided by assistants? The answer is unlikely. The nature of the task was such that Al-Bukhari alone could have judged the integrity of the attributer(s).

The volume of traditions attributed to some memorizers is bewildering. “Abu-Huraira, a companion of the Prophet . . . and a most zealous propagator of His words and deeds, reputedly transmitted some 5,374 Hadiths . . . Aisha transmitted 2,210 traditions, Anas Bin Malik; 2,286, and Abdullah, the son the second Caliph, Omar Bin Al-Khattab; 1,630” (Ibid., 394). Other transmitters with large volumes of attributed traditions include: Ibn Abbas; with 1,710, Jabir Bin Abdullah; 1,540, Abu Saiid Al-Khudari; 1170, Ibn Masud; 748, the second Caliph Omar; 537, and the fourth Caliph Ali; 536 (Azami, Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, 1977, 26-27). Some of these figures are in dispute. Less than fifty years earlier, one scholar, Ghundar Bin Jaafar (d. 808) “alleged to have said that Bin Abbas did not hear more than nine traditions from the Prophet, while Yahya Bin Saiid Al-Qattan (d. 813) believed this figure to be ten” (Juynboll, 1983. Muslim tradition. Studies in chronology, provenance and authorship of early Hadith, 1983, 29). Al-Ghazali “maintained that Ibn Abbas heard no more than four traditions from Muhammad” (ibid.). Whether these disputations are true or false, whether the Prophet’s teenager wife Aisha, who when the Prophet died was 18 years of age, possibly 15 years, could have remembered accurately all 2,200 traditions is impossible to tell.

Additionally, the six canonical collectors lived under Abbasid rule during the turbulent decades of the 800s. The Abbasid Hadith transmitters, upon whom the six collectors relied, were in turn reliant on transmitters who had lived for almost one hundred years under the rule the Abbasids’ great nemesis, the Umayyads (661-750). Abbasid politics and fervent hatred of the Umayyads could have played a role in choosing or ignoring attributers, as well as altering certain attributions considered pro-Umayyad.  

To add to the controversy, Shi’a Muslims disregard the Sunni Hadith collections. They have their own. Shi’a collections differ from the Sunni collections in that they emphasize the Prophet’s naming of Ali as his first successor, a claim disputed by the Sunnis. Also, while the Sunnis record the sayings and actions of the Prophet, the Twelver Shiites, the great majority of the Shiites today, record the sayings and actions of not only the Prophet but also those of the twelve Imams. Additionally, for a tradition to be credible it must be transmitted through one of the Imams. Shi’a Muslims denounce the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr (632-634), Omar (634-644), and Uthman (644-656) as usurpers of the caliphate from Ali (656-661). Shiites do not consider Abu Bakr, Omar, or Uthman, along with the Prophet’s companions who supported these Caliphs, as reliable transmitters of traditions. Sunnis, on the other hand, revere the first three Caliphs and their supporters, as well as Ali.

The Indian Islamic thinker Muhammad Ashraf observed that it is curious that no caliph or companion found the need to collect and write down the Hadith traditions for more than two centuries after the death of the Prophet (Guillaume, Islam, 1990, 165). Ignaz Goldziher concludes “it is not surprising that, among the hotly debated controversial issues of Islam, whether political or doctrinal, there is none in which the champions of the various views are unable to cite a number of traditions, all equipped with imposing Isnads” [supporting references] (Goldziher, Muslim Studies, 1890, Vol. II., 44). As John Burton observes, “the ascription of mutually irreconcilable sayings to several contemporaries of the Prophet, or of wholly incompatible declarations to one and the same contemporary, together strain the belief of the modern reader in the authenticity of the reports as a whole” (Burton, An introduction to the Hadith, 1994, xi). Leaders of Turkey’s Hadith project say successive generations have embellished the text, attributing their political aims to the Prophet Muhammad (BBC, February 26, 2008).

The prospects for success
Is Turkey’s undertaking likely to succeed? Among moderate Muslims, the answer is in the affirmative. However, among the orthodox, especially among the Arab orthodox, the answer is negative. Arabs feel that they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. The Quran describes the Arab peoples as the “best people evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet, His companions, the Quran, and the Sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are all Arabic.

In the early 1920s, while the Turks acted as if the long decline and the destruction of their empire in the aftermath of the First World War could be blamed on a rigid Islam in a world of secular European modernity, the Arabs acted as if Islam would be their path back to greatness. While Kemal Ataturk was energetically engaged in secularizing the Turkey state, Egyptians responded by establishing in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and Wahhabism succeeded in ruling Saudi Arabia. Since that time, political frustrations at home and from abroad, particularly Israel’s occupation and humiliation plus U.S. support of Israel and Arab tyrants have had the effect of drawing the Arab masses closer to Islam, turning many among the moderates into orthodoxy.

Arab rulers too would undermine Turkey’s attempt at revising the Hadith or allowing reason into religious dogma. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism rules in the name of seventh-century Islam. In other Arab monarchies and republics, Islam prolongs the hold of Arab kings and presidents on power. Reforming Islam, the rulers fear, would lead to representative governance and accountability. Keeping the masses intoxicated with age-old religious dogma, on the other hand, means obedience to non-representative despots. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” The Prophet has also reportedly said: “Hear and obey the emir, even if your back is whipped and your property is taken; hear and obey.” Pandering Ulama to Arab kings and presidents preach that obedience to Muslim rulers is a form of piety. Belief in predestination helps the Ulama's indoctrination along. It makes tyrannical rulers seem as if they were ordained by God’s will. Armed with Prophetic attributions against innovation, the Ulama condemn any attempt that might compromise the reign of their benefactors as sinful heretical innovation. The Prophet reportedly said: “Beware of innovation, for every innovation is heresy, and every heresy leads to hell.”