Next to the Qur’ān itself, the most important Islamic textual material is the Ḥadīth: the body of transmitted actions and sayings of the Prophet and his Companions.
Professor Wilfred C. Smith has made a most perceptive analogy: the Qur’ān is in Islam what Christ is in Christianity, and Muhammad stands in relation to it as the Twelve Apostles to the Logos. The Ḥadīth, the record of how the Revelation occurred, and the Acts of the Apostle, or Messenger, is to Islam then roughly what the New Testament is to Christianity. 1
But here one must understand something which seems at first paradoxical; there are vast numbers of ḥadīths which are admitted by Muslim scholars to be spurious. Even among those accepted by the medieval scholars, there are many which the modernists would reject. No absolute canon of Ḥadīth has ever been established; certain compilers are recognized as more trustworthy than others, and some sects and schools accept ḥadīths not accepted by others. For example, the eponym of the Ḥanbalī law-school, Ahmad ibn Ḥanbal, was a great collector of Ḥadīth, but his standards of criticism were not considered sufficiently rigorous, so his collection has never won full acceptance from the other law-schools.
This situation stems in part from the fact that each
ḥadīth is a separate story handed down with the backing (isnād) of a chain (sanad) of narrators. To be fully sound the ḥadīth must include the name of each human link in the chain between the man who wrote it down and the Prophet.
One of the chief religious sciences of Islam rose to sift the stories thus transmitted and to investigate the veracity of each transmitter. To be sure, a man accepted as trust-worthy by one school might not be accepted by another, and no way could be devised to keep men from manufacturing a "chain"--since all its links were dead men--along with the tradition they transmitted. The number of ḥadīths which could be demonstrated to be above suspicion would thus no doubt prove to be relatively small.
Nevertheless, the Ḥadīth conveys precious information: almost all the early history of Islam and many of the moral precepts of the Prophet. It is indeed precisely the preciousness of the material which led to its being counterfeited.
Moreover, traditions which are themselves false may have a certain historical and moral value for later generations, if they are accepted in the early collections; they reflect the religious opinions of the first generations of pious Muslim scholars, the "Consensus" which has been so vital in the formulation of law and doctrine. Thus they relay values which earlier generations of experts pronounced "Islamic," whether or not they relate a historical event. It follows then that not even ḥadīths of dubious authenticity may be rejected out of hand, much less the Ḥadīth as a whole, as some modernist extremists have wished to do.
It remains to be seen whether a new orthodox school of Ḥadīth criticism can rise in modern times. Certainly the
first condition for it would be a general agreement by responsible people that this is desirable.
59:1 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, "Some Similarities and Differences Between Christianity and Islam," in Kritzeck and Winder, The World of Islam (New York, 1959).