“Why Reforming the Hadith is so Difficult,” Elie Elhadj

This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but... it's changing the theological foundations of the religion Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert, Chatham House

A Turkish Martin Luther: Can Hadith be Revised?
By Elie Elhadj – July 3, 2010

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. 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 is taking the lead in trying to usher the Muslim world into the modern age. However, the challenge is formidable. Islamists will undoubtedly accuse the reformers of heresy and apostasy; this will be especially true in the Arab world. Arabs act as guardians of Isalm by virtue of their Arabic tongue. The Quran states that they are the “best people evolved to mankind” (3:110). What is more, the Prophet, His companions, the Quran, and the Sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are all Arab.

To open the door of Hadith revision is to step into a swamp, where claims of truthfulness and authenticity are hard to substantiate.

Following the death of the Prophet in 632, the caliphs were faced with conditions in the conquered lands of Roman Syria, Iraq, and Egypt and of Persia that were very different from those of the desert peninsula where the Quran and its laws emerged. 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 succeeded in enshrining the Sunna traditions as a source of law equal to the Quran; notwithstanding, that the Quran never made the Sunna a source of law. 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. As an 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 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 into 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, 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.

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 and Muawiyah. 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 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 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 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 caliph Omar; 537, and the 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). Shi’ites do not consider Abu Bakr, Omar, or Uthman, along with the Prophet’s companions who supported these caliphs, as reliable transmitters of traditions.

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” (Goldziher, Muslim Studies, 1890, Vol. II., 44). 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).

Comments (109)

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101. Husam said:

Elie said:

“Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi demanded in 1978 that the Hadith “be cast aside as superfluous to the message of the fundamental Quran.”

You are quoting a tyrant, a womanizer, a psycho, and a disgrace to Arabs – Qaddafi! Why would you do that? Afterall, you know his “resume”. Are you advocating that we should “cast aside as superfluous” referring to the hadith? You are aligning your thoughts with Qaddafi. If that is not what the intention is, then please clarify, as thus far I have not been impressed Elie.

We all know that the Quran is the supreme actual word of God, and if there is contradiction between scriptures, the Quran supersedes the Hadith. I have said that already, twice. It doesn’t matter what one Sheikh thinks, what matters is the consensus, like what is happening in Turkey (I am assuming it won’t be corrupted).

Why don’t you comment on the BBC piece you pasted? Did you know it was tainted?

Why don’t you save us the trouble, and come out of the closet..are you a “submitter” or follower of “Richard Kalif”?

Your popping in every now and then to remind us that we are not “worthy” is arrogance-to-the-max. Many interesting points, responses, and proofs were raised by people who disagreed with you, but you ONLY responded to those who agreed with YOU! Instead, you resorted to name calling people who disagreed with you as Islamists, and now you have added Salafists. I am a Sunni BTW.

Averroes: This is for you, read 71, and your response @82.

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July 8th, 2010, 8:20 am


102. Henry said:

“We all know that the Quran is the supreme actual word of God”

We all? You must be excluding the many the Christians and Jews who read this site. Not to mention most of the world… What arrogance!

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July 8th, 2010, 8:34 am


103. Husam said:


🙂 Welcome to the thread.

I was responding to Elhadj who is referring to us “we” Islamists. Are you an Islamists? So, you don’t believe the Quran to be the actual word of God. That is why you are Christian / Jew / Athiest. Otherwise, you would convert. I hear you in the background sayin’: Meee, Neverrrr!

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July 8th, 2010, 4:08 pm


104. Husam said:


I unsuccefully searched and asked everywhere for some hard evidence about the number of Ahadith that Albukhari, as you suggested, analyzed (as you stated hundreds of thousands). All the figures are based on off the wall estimates which seem like exaggerations (allahu ‘alam).

Also, there is no evidence that he did NOT have help from the many scribes/students that followed him.

So, can you kindly tell me where you found your numbers and how you came to the conclusion that it was “highly unlikely” that he had any help?

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July 19th, 2010, 10:05 pm


105. almasri said:


The whole thesis upon which this argument of analyzing hadith (i.e. one by one or word for word) is false because it is based on false assumptions.

First, you are right. Al-Bukhari did not start from the void. There were already people of hadith who have made their own individual collections and in writing. They either witnessed the Prophet during his life time or were one generation away (such as malik who already compiled his Muwattaa). Al-Bukahri only needed to access those collections to start.

Second, if you know the Qura’n which Bukhari did know for sure, you do not need to spend much effort to strike off thousands of hadiths at a glance – i.e. anything contradicting the Qur’an. Once you gain the experience through identifying the narrators of those false hadiths, your task becomes even much easier – that is, any so-called hadith narrated by those suspects is stricken off the record without even looking at it.

Third, your original comment about the power of memory is overlooked by most if not all modern critics. We are used nowadays to search for information we need in the usual places such as particular online storage locations or in printed forms. In most instances, we do not bother to commit that information to memory. Today most information is stored in our ‘RAM’ and it is gone the moment we are done with it. It wasn’t so in those days. People did make use of their memories and if the information is available in your head analyzing it will only take a flash of a second. Al-Bukhari’s exceptional talent was in identifying those companions who had this particular gift and there were quite few of them.

That’s as much as I can say about this.

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July 19th, 2010, 10:59 pm


106. Husam said:


Your insights and comments are without question valid. Of course, Al Bukhari did not start from nil. My issue from the very beginning is this: why was everyone defending Elhadj knowing the falacy of his Essay? I mean, I myself don’t know more than a drop in the ocean regarding Islam, and yet, I saw clearly that there was distortions from the beginning.

Questions are welcome, bring them on. But when Elhadj passes B.S. and doesn’t check the validity of his statements and the sham BBC article, it pisses me off. He then refuses to back up or answer anyone who disagrees with him stating that we are too low for him, and gets further applaud and hoorays from the participants. I began to question the readership here. It is puzzling to me…really.

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July 20th, 2010, 12:18 am


107. almasri said:


I do not see that many people agreed with elhadge. In fact, I believe his post has been exposed as sham. You were right in one comment in which you pointed out his failures such as he only thanked those who agreed with him and tried character assassination with others. That is enough to dissmiss his post as irrelevant. You also pointed out the BBC contradiction of his claim which was more than a clear rebuttal of his sensationalism.

I realize there were some who used the sensational nature of the post to vent off their frustrations with current status. Some also had certain agendas and you may have seen that coming up recently in a form like ‘my way or the highway’. We do not need to worry about these because they have predetermined minds. It is useless to argue with them.


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July 20th, 2010, 12:53 am


108. Mushtaq said:

اسلام علیکم
I endorse the views of Elie Elhadj except that instead of wasting our energies in proving the veracity of احادیث which has been deliberated upon by many scholars in the past and is available, to resolve any issue, we should first refer to Quran ( and this is in line with Ahadiths). Seldom, you will find an issue or matter, for which basic guidance is not there in Quran. And this is the only book which can eradicate the menace of تفرقہ بازی and فرقہ بازی because all the firqas draw their essence from علم الحدیث، روایہ اور تاریخ. Only this book can unite the مسلم امہ if they stop interpreting and translating the Quran with their preconceived theologies. وللہ علم

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March 12th, 2011, 11:24 pm


109. Maverick said:

This article is a great example of ignorant people spouting garbage don’t know jack about. it makes the assumption that each and every one of the 600,000 narrations were exclusive and individually distinct narrations, completely different than the next.

But the fact is, one narration can have the exact same words reported down through five narrators – and that counts as five separate narrations, because the transmission chain is also part of the narration.

Secondly, as often was the case, there were multiple witnesses to whatever the Prophet did or said. If there were 10 witnesses to a speech he made, and each witness told 10 other distinct people, you now have 100 (one hundred) narrations that, in the sciences of hadith reporting, constitute ONE HUNDRED SEPARATE AND INDIVIDUAL REPORTS.

Seriously, what happened to the days and times when people actually cared about integrity and accuracy in their writings?

(OH WAIT. Those were the days of men like Bukhari. DUH)

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September 21st, 2011, 5:41 pm


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