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A Layman's Guide to Analyzing Hadith
Hadith & Sunnah
Dr Farhad Shafti


Hadīths are narrated on a regular basis among the community of Muslims. There are those who accept any Hadīth that is narrated to them. There are those who reject any Hadīth that is narrated to them. In between, there are those more rational individuals who value the Hadīth and would like to take benefit of Hadīth, however at the same time are conscious not to accept a suspicious Hadīth or not to interpret and implement the content of a Hadīth in a wrong way. The problem for many of these wise Muslims is that they have no or little knowledge or experience of evaluating Hadīth and at the same time it is not always possible for them to consult a learned scholar about the reliability and the meaning of a Hadīth.

Following is a brief explanation aimed at the layman in the area of Hadīth that may help the person in evaluating a Hadīth and its interpretation when he/she does not have access to a learned scholar to help out:

It is advisable for a person who needs to assess a Hadīth with no or little knowledge, skill and experience in analyzing Hadīth to observe the following simple principles. There are some overlaps between some of these principles but they are detailed them in the following way in a hope that they may be clear:

1. The primary sources of understanding Islam are the Qur’ān and the established Sunnah. Hadīth is a valuable source of information but it is not an independent source of understanding Islam. Therefore no Hadīth, on its own, adds any essential religious beliefs or practices to the corpus of religion.  

2. No understanding of Hadīth can be against the clear statements of the Qur’ān or clear principles that the Almighty has established in the Qur’ān.

3. When the Qur’ān instructs about a religious practice no hadīth can add any compulsory elements to that instruction.

4. No understanding of a Hadīth can be against known facts.

5. No understanding of a Hadīth can change the meaning of a verse of the Qur’ān from its obvious meaning.

Apart from the above principles, in a second level of studying a Hadīth the following considerations need to be in place:

– Is the Hadīth narrated in the more reliable books? 

If not, it is closer to caution to remain with reservations about what the Hadīth suggests.

– Are there more than one versions of the Hadīth?

If yes, then it is worth to read them as well before coming up with any conclusions.

– Is the Hadīth claiming that the prophet (sws) made an important statement to the public, yet it is narrated by very few companions only?

Imām Abū Hanifah very wisely used to question such Hadīths.

– Is the Hadīth about news of the future? Merits of individuals? Reward of some deeds?

I am not suggesting that if the answer is yes then the Hadīth is wrong. However it is worth noticing that the scholars of Hadīth have found that comparing to other subjects, Hadīths related to the above subjects are more prone to weakness because these have always been topics that fabricators of Hadīth and exaggerators or unwise well-wishers have been interested in.

– Is the Hadīth in favour of a particular sect of Islam and is narrated in the sources of that sect of Islam only?

If the answer is yes then it is wise to be cautious as the elements of sectarian bias can always be there.

Almost all that is mentioned above is about the content of Hadīth. Of course studying the narrators is another dimension of studying Hadīth, however since this writing is aimed at the layman no reference has been made towards this aspect of Hadīth evaluation. Having said that, analyzing the context of a Hadīth using the above principles and observations provides a rather safe stance that may not necessarily be provided by analyzing the narrators only. Incidentally there are now a number of books and even online services on internet that can give the opinion of a scholar about the degree of reliability of a Hadīth. These can easily be used by a layman especially if reading Arabic is not a problem. Of course for more educated and experienced students of Islam looking at the original sources of rijāl (narrators) is essential.

The above is for the situation where there is no easy access to a learned scholar. When there is a possibility, consulting an expert is always highly advisable.






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