In fact, there is no kind of modern criticism of the content of a hadith, there is no type of criticism that I have come across in the modern world of the content of hadith that does not have precedence amongst Muslims. Even Sunni scholars who nowadays are seen as the kind of arch proto-salafis like Shamsadeen ad Dhahabi or Ahmed ibn Hanbal or Bukhari, these scholars who are often seen as the archetypal or kind of, I don’t want to say..brainless hadith scholar, these were actually often times the most critical of the content of hadith.
So there’s one hadith, its actually in the Sunan of aTirmidhi where one of the companions describes the Prophet , that one day he came out of his house and he had two books, one in each hand and in these books was written all the names of all the people, all the human beings from the beginning of time till the end of time, what tribe they’re from, where they lived, and whether they’re going to heaven or hell. So what does Ad Dhahabi – and anybody who knows anything about the famous scholar Shamsadin ad Dhahabi knows he hates logic, he hates philosophy, he hates these Asharis with their kalam, he hates anybody who’s trying to use their brain too much..he doesn’t like them – what does he say about this hadith?
He says this is impossible because these books would be so big that no human being could possibly carry them. He’d have to have like donkeys, mule train or something to carry these books with you. So he rejects the hadith. But why is it that then it’s very rare that we see classical Muslim scholars engaging in that kind of criticism?
They might find a problem with a hadith, like the hadith of the sun prostrating before the throne of God. They might look at it and say hmm, I don’t understand this, it seems to be problematic to me. Why is it that they don’t just throw it out like a lot of modern people do? Because their worldview, they place they came from was a world view of humility, of deference to God, of acceptance of prophecy and acceptance of the presence of a prophetic message in the world. What’s very interesting about Muslim scholars in the pre-modern period is that they wanted to believe hadiths, they wanted to believe hadiths. If you could come up with any decent argument why this hadith was reliable, they wanted to accept it. They wanted more information that might be traceable back to the Prophet. They wanted more connections to the Prophet.
Whereas today, Muslims, they’re reacting to the world around them, they’re reacting to the environment around them and it’s an environment that wants the world to be disenchanted, wants a disenchanted world, wants a world that’s emptied of God, wants a world where if you believe in God, you just believe that He created the world and it runs like a watch and there’s no miracles, there’s nothing that can ever change in the world it’s just totally material.
They don’t want the Prophetic presence interfering in their lives. They don’t want to find a statement from the Prophet that can give them guidance, that might have wisdom for them. and you see this so often, especially with hadiths dealing with gender, and I know this is a controversial topic.
One of the things that I was doing research on for this book that I’m almost done with now, is you know these hadiths that talk about whether or not that there’s more women in hellfire than men, do you know that actually in the chapter of Sahih Muslim that deals with this issue, the first report in that chapter is an opinion of Abu Hurayrah , it’s not a Prophetic hadith, it’s an opinion of Abu Hurayrah.
A group of muslims in Madinah, this is after the death of the Prophet , a group of muslims in Madinah are debating whether or not there’s more women or men in heaven. They come to him [Abu Hurayrah] and ask him what his opinion is and he thinks and he says there’s more women in heaven. Why? Because the Prophet said that this group of people who enter heaven, each man will have two wives. Therefore there are more women than men in heaven. And then you see but there’s other hadiths where the prophet says that the women are the smallest number of people in heaven, men are the greater number.
And this is very interesting, what does a great scholar like Ibn Hajr al Asqalaani, who’s a famous, probably the most famous kind of medieval hadith scholar -he’s from Cairo, he died in 1449- he says this person narrating this hadith probably made a mistake because this person thinks that if there is more women in hell, there have to be less women in heaven whereas if women are the majority of mankind. Ibn Hajr says, if women are the majority of mankind then even if you have exactly half of all men going to hell and exactly half of all men going to heaven and exactly half of all women going to hell and exactly half of all women going to heaven, you still have more women in both heaven and hell. He says this is my explanation for these hadiths.
He’s very flexible and in fact Muslim scholars were always very flexible when they were dealing with these issues because they knew they were dealing with the realm of the unseen, the afterlife, which none of us can ever possibly understand. That’s why they’d always use the famous saying of the companion Ibn Abbas, There’s nothing in this world that’s in the next world except names. The only thing we know in common is names. We can’t possibly understand the details or the exact nature of the afterlife. But why is this important? Because this is the kind of things that Muslims become obsessed with when they find these hadiths. “oh this is a misogynist hadith, this is a sexist hadith,” No, it’s not because the very people, not only the companions of the prophets but generations and generations of Muslim scholars after them never thought this was saying that actually there are more women in hellfire than men. They never interpreted like that. As I said most of them actually believe that there are more women in heaven than men. What were they interested in? They were interested in the wisdom that the second part of all these hadiths, no one ever talks about the second parts of the hadiths where the prophet says to the women he’s talking to, he’s trying to give them lessons to help them improve their lives. So he says you women you’re cursing a lot and you’re being ungrateful to your husbands. And he continues and he says..what is ungrateful? It means your husband is always good to you but one day he doesn’t do something good for you and you say to him “I’ve never seen anything good from you.”
And this is a very interesting phrase. I think maybe people in the room have heard the phrase before. Very good advice the prophet is giving these women. He’s saying: be grateful when you have a good husband. And then in other hadiths he gives advice to men and yet we still are obsessed because of the world view from which we come, we’re obsessed with reading these hadiths through this kind of sometimes what people call a hermeneutic of suspicion. We look at these hadiths and we’re suspicious of them, these are sexist hadiths, like the famous hadith that says that women was created from a bent rib and if you try to straighten her out you’ll break her. So you have to enjoy her as she is, if you try to straighten her out and break her you’ll be divorced from her. People look at this.. “oh this is sexist.” But why is it that we jump to that conclusion? We should actually just look at the meaning of the hadith first.
And the reason I thought about this was because before I got married I was reading Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus book that everyone was telling me I had to read and what was it saying? It was saying don’t try to solve your wife’s problems for her, don’t expect her to be like you, you have to accept her for as she is. Don’t expect her to change, you just have to be there for her and sometimes she’s going to do things that don’t make sense, you have to accept that. This is because men are from Mars and women are from Venus. And then I realized when I read this hadith, this is exactly the same message. Here it’s talking to men. It’s saying men, and I guarantee you, if you get all the men in this conference in one room they’ll all start talking about how I wish my wife was more reasonable, why doesn’t she just think like I do, why doesn’t she just see it this way. If men sit around like this all the time, they’re going to be miserable and they’re going to end up with miserable marriages because you’re never going to get your spouse to be exactly like you. You’re never going to be able to straighten her out to be with you. You have to accept her for the person she is and then if you do that, you can have a happy life together.
So the reason I thought of this when I was reading this book on Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, I realized this is the same message in the hadith. when you see on discussion lists or when Muslims get together or when there’s a conference and some speaker comes and talks about hadith, there’s always someone who gets up in the audience and says, “But you know brother, what about the hadith of the crooked rib and isn’t this sexist?” Why is it that we always jump on that bandwagon? Why don’t we stop and say maybe the Prophet actually has teachings, has wisdom to offer us? And maybe it’s actually talking to men in this case and telling men that they have to change the way that they look at their marriages and their relationships.
When we are confronted with issues about hadith, and we often are, Muslims are always confronted with hadith that seem bizarre or unusual or that they reject or that they can’t accept as part of their religion or that seems stupid or vulgar, right. But ask yourself: Where’s the problem here? Is the problem really in hadith or is the problem with me? Why am I jumping to the conclusion I do? Why am I reading the hadith in the way I do? Why aren’t I willing to look at other interpretations that might actually find something valuable in this hadith? I think often times when Muslims have a skeptical or suspicious approach to hadith it’s because they’ve adopted a skeptical and suspicious approach to religion really and they need to look in their hearts and ask themselves whether they really want a world that’s filled with God, a world with a prophetic presence in it.
Because if you do, if you want to look for the wisdom in the prophet’s legacy then you’ll take on more of the mindset of those classical Muslim scholars and it’s not uncritical, it’s not irrational, its not fideistic or simplistic. Those classical Muslim scholars were just as smart, just as critical, often times just as scientifically aware as we are today. So when you look at these things, remember the words of Yoda, “Often times what you’re finding there and what you’re objecting to is really what you’ve taken with you.”
Thank you very much, Assalamu ‘alaykum.