Lecture by Dr. Jonathan Brown | Transcribed by Zara T.
[The following is the video and transcript of Dr. Jonathan Brown’s lecture given at Zaytuna College’s First Academic Conference entitled ‘Hadith: Between Muslim Conviction & Western Criticism.‘ The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity].
Dr. Mahan Mirza, Dean of Faculty at Zaytuna College: I’m very excited to introduce our next speaker, Dr. Jonathan Brown, who is a professor at Georgetown University. He received his doctorate in near-eastern languages and civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2006. He specializes in the field of hadith and he has written a number of publication and articles and books. And I had mentioned this about Dr. Jackson once before, but with the emergence of the scholarship in English, we are seeing that just as Farsi, Urdu, Turkish and all of these languages from Muslim countries became great languages of Muslim civilization, now with the works of people like Dr. Brown and Dr. Jackson and others, that English is now a language of Islamic Civilization.
The topic today is: Hadith Between Muslim Conviction and Criticism, and this is a question a lot of us may have, we talk about hadith, we may have our uncles that will talk about hadith in various ways, critically, or we may meet Muslim that have a lot of skepticism and a lot of non Muslims that have a lot of skepticism about the hadith and the hadith sciences. And so inshaAllah he will be talking about how do we navigate the divide between our unshakable convictions and the controversial dilemmas that arise from the western studies and criticism of the prophetic hadith. So without further ado, Dr. Jonathan Brown.
Dr. Jonathan Brown: Asalamulaykum. A’udhu billahi minashaythan nir rajeem, Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem…
I feel bad because I’m fairly confident that I am going to repeat some things that some people have heard me say before and I suppose I should apologize for that. But also, some of the things that I’ll repeat, I think are very important. So I’m not entirely contrite on this issue. Whenever I think about hadith or when I talk about them to students or to audiences, I always try to keep the words of a wise figure in my mind, a wise, not really a person, more of a creature, which is of course Yoda from Star Wars, not the later Star Wars movies where he’s like a psychiatrist, the earlier ones where he’s more dignified. Yoda, if anyone remembers, from the early Star Wars movie, he takes Luke Skywalker to this cave and Luke has to go into the cave as part of his training to become a Jedi knight and Luke Skywalker asks Yoda, “What will I find in the cave?” and Yoda says “Only what you take with you. Only what you take with you.”
It’s a very important point when we think about the past, when we think about history, and when we think about reading texts, when we think about reading things like the Quran or the hadith, or anything, when we look into the past, what we’re really seeing is oftentimes more a reflection of ourselves than something about the text or about the past. We always see what our background program wants us to see. This is very important because if you realize this, you realize that often times the problem we encounter when we’re doing things like reading hadiths or when we hear hadiths, occur because we’ve been programmed to think that there are certain universals that everybody agrees on. Like for example, common sense. How many times have you heard someone say “Well that’s just not common sense,” or “This hadith contradicts common sense”? what is common sense? There is actually no such thing as common sense.
If you imagine a human being who’s raised on a desert island with no culture, this person’s not going to know anything about common sense. If you say “The sky is above you and the earth is below you,” yeah, the human being will know that, but so many other things that we think human beings just all agree on are actually just one particular culture or the conventions of one culture or of one class, or of one part of a society, and often times actually a lot of the biggest disagreements, especially in politics, have to do with conflicting common senses. For example, whether or not the government should cut spending during a financial crisis or not-everyone says it’s common sense, you know, when you’re sitting around your kitchen table if you’re having a financial crisis, well you gotta stop spending so much money. You gotta manage your budget, you gotta cut down your spending. But when it comes to a government most economists say ‘No, the government has to spend more money to stimulate the economy.’ So this is an instance where common sense is actually wrong. Or for example the idea that in order to reduce population growth, you have to improve health care. That’s not really common sense. More people to live longer…that’s going to reduce population growth? Well actually, from the perspective of development and statistics that groups like the Gates Foundation work on, they know very well that if you want to decrease population growth, you actually increase healthcare. I don’t know how that works, it just does. These are instances in which what we think is common sense is actually just our own way of looking at the world and it’s not actually true.
Why is this an important issue when we look at hadith? It’s very important because as the actual topic of this speech phrases it, I didn’t actually pick the topic but I’m very happy that it was chosen this way because it demonstrates very clearly how the issue of hadith is framed. There’s western, objective, rational, critical, neutral, reading of hadith or analysis of hadith, and then there’s the Muslim faith-based fideistic, traditional method of looking at hadith. Muslims accept this, Muslims have kind of integrated this into their own worldview and so they feel that as a Muslim the way you look at hadith is traditional, faith-based, versus the Western way which is rational and critical. But as I mentioned before, these descriptions of how people look at texts really tell you more about the people or their background, their world view, than about the texts themselves.
How is that? well, a lot of times when you think about the Western critical reading of hadiths, we think that Western scholars have these critical tools and ways at looking at sources that Muslim scholars didn’t have-that nowadays we have modern science so we know that certain hadiths aren’t true, we’ve collected lots of different material and we have a modern way of criticizing historical sources and this allows us to approach or analyze the authenticity of hadiths in a way that Muslim scholars didn’t have. This is kind of a big claim, but I think now I’ve seen enough evidence that I‘m prepared to make the claim and if I’m wrong then I’ll adjust it.
Everybody knows controversial hadiths, you know, what about the hadith that says you know, the hadith of the fly, pushing it into your drink..and there’s the hadith of the sun going beneath the Earth and prostrating before the throne of God and asking to rise again, everyone has heard these hadiths and people always talk about them and they get in debates over them over Eid dinner or whatever the Muslim equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner is. There’s not one controversial hadith today that was not also controversial a thousand years ago and then Muslim scholars didn’t actually identify the exact same question a thousand years ago and find some satisfactory answer to it.
I want to repeat that because I’m not sure I’m making as much sense as I want. There’s no controversial hadith that you hear about that has not already been, whether its 500 years ago or a thousand years ago, or 1300 years ago, has not been looked at by Muslim scholars and they found exactly the same thing that bothers you.
Why is this important? Because what’s the difference then between let’s say me when I think a hadith is controversial and I don’t like it and I refuse to accept it and I say, “This is nonsense, I can’t accept this, I don’t want this to be a part of my religion.” What’s the difference between me and that scholar 1,000 years ago? It’s not about something in the hadith or some critical faculty that I have that this classical Muslim scholar didn’t have..we both found exactly the same problems. The issue is what we do with that understanding. That’s the difference. It’s how we react to it.
The big difference between the reaction that Muslims today have to controversial hadiths and the reaction that classical Muslim scholars had is the difference in our world views, the difference in what we expect from religion, how we think religion should look and smell and feel, and guess where those differences come from? They don’t come from Islamic tradition. They come from the fact that as communities that live in the west or maybe came from areas that lived under western colonization or western educational systems, we’ve actually adopted many ideas into our own understanding of the religion that have no original existence in the Islamic tradition. So for example, when I tell you a hadith, this is in Sahih Bukhari and other books, where the Prophet says to Abu Dharr, his companion:
Do you know where the sun goes after it sets, Oh Abu Dharr? and Abu Dharr says, God and His Prophet are more knowledgeable. Tell me, and the Prophet says The sun goes goes down and it prostrates before the throne of God…it prostrates before the throne of Ar Rahman and it asks His permission to rise again and one day it will rise from the West.
Now it’s very interesting, you see in the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars who were kind of modernist scholars start reacting very strongly to this hadith. They said it contradicts astronomy and this hadith contradicts the certainties of modern science because nowadays we know that the Earth actually goes around the Sun and not vice versa and classical Muslims didn’t know that and that’s why they accepted this hadith so we need to go back through the hadiths and analyze them to see which ones are scientifically impossible and which ones are acceptable. This was a big debate and we still have this debate today.
Guess what? Classical muslim scholars, going back to the ten hundreds, said exactly the same thing. Because if you’re a muslim scholar, one of the things you do before you had clocks on your phone and everything is to calculate prayer times and living in a place, I need to tell people what time the prayers are. And what they found very quickly is that prayer times differ based on latitude, longitude..and they knew that the sun was always up in certain places. You can go to certain parts of the earth where the sun never sets.
So they looked at this hadith and they said how do we understand it then? Oh, it must mean that the sun prostrates to God metaphorically like in Surah Rahman Najmu washajaru yas judaan..the stars and the trees prostrate to God.
It doesn’t mean literally the star is doing little sujud up in the sky. It means it’s surrendering to God’s will, it follows God’s will. So they had no problem, they just said this hadith is obviously figurative. And that was exactly the same criticism that these modern Muslim scholars are making, exactly the same. They identified the fact that the sun does not actually go under the earth and disappear. It’s always above the earth somewhere. So what’s the difference then between this modern Muslim scholar and classical ones? It’s not about whether or not they’re critical or whether or not they’re scientific, whether or not they’re willing to question hadiths. They all are.
All classical Muslim scholars were always very happy to question hadiths. It’s how much weight they gave to notions of truth outside of their religion, outside of the texts, scripture of their religion. S
o in modern period, part of modernity is the idea that truth doesn’t exist within a religious tradition. Religions don’t have monopoly on truth. Any one religion doesn’t have a monopoly on truth. There’s no scripture that contains truth. Rather, the modern approach in the west is that scriptures are all actually doctored. They’re all the product of kind of conspiracies to attribute certain human writings to a divine source. So once in the western tradition, once people came up with that conclusion, they immediately became suspect of things like the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and any time they saw anything in those texts that seemed to contradict new scientific discoveries or anything like that, they immediately considered this to be a fault in the text or the scripture for them. They immediately considered this to be another piece of evidence that their scripture was actually manufactured by human hands and was not really suitable to be the carrier of truth for a civilization.
The difference between that approach and a classical Islamic approach was that classical Muslim scholars, they believed that the Quran contained the truth. They believed that the message of the Prophet , if it’s preserved accurately, it also contains truth. And that anything outside the scriptures that’s true, can be reconciled with the Quran and the authentic sunnah.
I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a single example of a Muslim scholar before lets say 1890 who ever got into any trouble for scientific discoveries, that I can think of. They got in trouble for being philosophers, for having mystical ideas that other ‘ulema considered to be problematic but they never ever ever got in trouble for scientific discoveries, because it was assumed that anything you discovered empirically around you in the world had to be congruent with the truth of scripture, there had to be some way to understand them.
So if you discover that the sun actually doesn’t go below the earth and disappear from human sight, that it’s actually always up somewhere in the world, then what do you do with that hadith I just told you about? You just interpret it figuratively, just interpret it figuratively. When I said before that Muslim scholars were always willing to be critical hadiths, a lot of Muslims are surprised by this. They think that the hadith tradition is kind of this gullible, fideistic, uncritical approach to scripture where Muslim scholars just look at who’s in the isnaad of the hadith and what’s the train of transmission for the hadith and they don’t want to use their brains, they don’t want to look critically at the context of the hadith, that’s not true at all.