Theology, Orthodoxy and the Question of Hadith

Sentiments like, “All hadith were forged to spread and promote orthodox beliefs” gain traction and are accepted by some without critique. Upon closer examination, this sentiment doesn’t seem as coherent as its proponents would like to portray. In this article, I will explain the three principles that can be used to critically analyze such statements against Hadith literature.

Introduction

A common talking point brought up by those who are less enthusiastic about the historicity of hadith than the average Sunni Hadithist, is that hadith – as a whole – were forged to promote some sort of orthodox way of thinking or a set of orthodox practices. This hypothesis especially affects hadith of a theological nature.  Does this mean that a whole genre in hadith – theological hadith – are all forged? Unfortunately, opinions like this have gained traction in some Muslim circles. These circles who are now “enlightened” devalue hadith almost entirely. The fact that a hypothesis like this could gain traction among Muslims is but a testament to a lack in critical thinking skills on their part, where reason is glorified, yet thrown out the window if it means accepting an orthodox Sunni belief. It seems their logic is that so long as idea criticizes orthodox Sunni beliefs or methods it must be rational!  In this article, I propose three principles to critically approach such a hypothesis.

Theological Hadith Aren’t Theological

When referring to the genre of theological hadith, the obvious question to pose is: who decides what genre a hadith falls under? Is it considered to be of a genre simply because a hadith compiler recorded it under a chapter specific to said genre? In my opinion, a more accurate and fair way of determining the genre of a hadith is by considering the most likely intent of the speaker, on the assumption it is authentic, and not simply because it was transmitted or recorded under a certain chapter in a hadith collection.

Taking the previous point into consideration, we move on to our first reason: Many “theological” hadith are only considered as such due to their placement in the theological chapters of the hadith compilations, not because it actually seems like the speaker – the Prophet in this case – actually intended to speak of theology. If this is the case, and it can be shown that the alleged speaker didn’t have theology in mind when they supposedly spoke the words, we would be left without a motivation for forgery!

Does it Really Differ from The Qur’an?

Another point to consider when analyzing theological hadith is to examine their content in light of the Qur’an. Do these hadith reports contain material exclusive to hadith, or can the meaning or wording be found in the Qur’an as well? If we determine that the content of a theological hadith is found in the Qur’an, we must ask ourselves why it would be fabricated. It would be much easier for a theological bigot or apologist to appeal to the Qur’an – its authenticity agreed upon – in order to further their theological biases. Why forge a hadith – a body of lesser authority than the Qur’an – when the same content is found in the Qur’an?

This isn’t to say that hadith reports containing exclusive information should be treated as forgeries, but that if a hadith doesn’t contain exclusive information, it would appear to lack the motivation of forgery.

Is it Controversial?

The last point to consider when examining the contents of these theological hadith reports: is the content subject to a controversy? If the content of the hadith is not controversial, such that a person would need to convince opponents of the content, what would motivate the forger to forge the report?

Indeed, hadith forgery in theology is a motivated act of passion. With that in mind, if we can show that a forger would lack the motivation to forge the hadith reports, or that the claimed motivation isn’t applicable to these hadith reports, the hypothesis collapses upon itself, as it left as a mere conjecture, unsupported by evidence.

Conclusion

While no one denies that hadith have been forged for theological purposes (among others), to generalize this (correct) observation to the totality of hadith and by consequence, reject the historicity of a whole hadith genre – theological hadith in particular – is both unfair and unwarranted. Before a person takes this hypothesis too seriously, they must ask themselves, “What makes a hadith theological and who is to say what genre it belongs to? Does any similar meanings exist in the Qur’an? Is the subject of the hadith controversial or disputed?” Until these questions can be answered, the hypothesis cannot be coherently applied a given hadith of the theological genre.

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