Downgrading the Hadith

HadithThe arrest of a dozen men in the UK last week allegedly plotting to “blow up Manchester,” serves to highlight, if true, the continued danger posed to the west by militant Islam.

It’s a depressing story. A few moderate Muslim voices give hope, however, a liberal call to prayer over a fundamentalist wilderness. One such voice belongs to Taj Hargey, chair of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford and the Imam of the Summertown Islamic Congregration. Writing in the Times, he offers a cause for the poison in British Islam and suggests a cure.

The cause is simple: there is no British Islam. Instead, Muslims in Britain imbibe the milk of exported Saudi wahhabism, wetnursed by fundamentalist imams from Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Islam in Britain has been taken over by the followers of a warped manifestation of the faith. The Muslim Council of Britain, the main Muslim newspapers and many of the big mosques are dominated by men who subscribe to a virulent and backward-looking brand of Islam that has been exported from the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.

According to Hargey, this is an Islam which fetishises the hadith to the exclusion of the Qur’an. The cure, then, is also simple: downgrade the hadith and return to the Qur’an.

We need a reformation that saves Islam from foreign-inspired zealots. That reformation is already under way, with Muslims going back to the pristine teaching of the transcendent Koran, not taking on trust the hadith (a compilation of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad recorded some 250 years after his death by non-Arabs) or the corpus of medieval man-made Sharia (religious law).

Hargey believes that this extra-Qur’anic layer of authority is responsible for many of the ills that plague Islam, offering to fundamentalist imams religious support for many of the extreme Arabian mores which many Muslims believe come from God. For example:

The rampant oppression of women in Muslim society does not stem from the Koran but is chiefly the product of misogynistic hadith. For example, a famous “authentic” hadith declares that there will be a preponderance of women in Hell. But the facts here on earth suggest otherwise – male criminality far exceeds that of females.

Hargey seems to imply that many of the hadith are fabricated justifications for post-Muhammadan practices given the sheen of authority by being ascribed to the Prophet. They should not be treated as a sacrosanct source for Islamic jurisprudence and should be rejected whenever they contradict the Qur’an.

Whether this call for a return to the foundational text will make Hargey a latter-day Muslim Martin Luther remains to be seen. (I am skeptical and also a little worried: religious reformations are rarely bloodless affairs.)


A ready Christian parallel is not easy to imagine, as the New Testament is itself akin in some ways to a more reliable hadith. Mormonism perhaps comes closer, with its canonical (but unlike the Qur’an, not infallible) Doctrine and Covenants and attendant reports — some trustworthy, others not — of Joseph Smith’s life and teachings. I wonder if modern portrayals of Smith and early Mormonism are creating a Mormon hadith which have the potential to distract from the scriptural texts he revealed, or are Mormons able to separate the two?

Thoughts (on this, or on Hargey’s argument)?

N.B. The website Islamophobia Watch is suspicious of the media’s love affair with Hargey. FWIW.


  1. The effect of the reported sayings/reports/actions of a prophet depends on the context of the prophet’s life and how he lived it.

    The beginnings of Islam are intertwined with war and conquest and expansion of the Islamic empire and because Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and there are no prophets after him – it’s not clear to me how the religion can ever really be separated from or divested of its war heritage. War and jihad are bound in very tightly with the final source of divine revelation. Sayyid Qutb understood this and mocked Muslims who talked about only conducting ‘defensive’ wars.

    Try to imagine, without a continued line of new revelation and new prophets, how difficult it might be to separate Mormonism from the polygamy revelations received by Joseph Smith. It is hard to make that separation anyway – at least in the mind of non-Mormons. Islam doesn’t have new revelation or new prophets. So the scripture and religious narrative always takes Muslims back to Muhammad’s revelations and back to his battles, wars and conquests.

    Sunni Islam has a number of hadith collections. Two of them – Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim – are considered (by Sunni Muslims) to be especially correct and sacrosanct.

    I spent quite a bit of time going through English translations (by a Muslim) of these two hadith collections, specifically examining what they have to say about any kind of violence. The related material (there is plenty of it) is very jihad-oriented. Despite what you might hear about jihad being an internal (peaceful) struggle, the jihad described was all very hands-on holy war type of jihad. Battles were described, deaths occurred, etc. In Sahih Bukahi and Sahih Muslim, there is no hadith that defines jihad as a peaceful internal struggle. In these two collections, jihad is always a violent war struggle between Muslims against non-Muslims that will only end when Islam is supreme.

    The hadith and the biography of Muhammad (known as the Sira) are vital and central to militant Islam and terrorism – because Islamic militants want to be like the early followers of Muhammad – followers known as the Ansar (Helpers) and the Muhajirun (the emigrants) who were willing to sacrifice everything to follow the true prophet.

    At first glance, the Qur’an is more didactic in nature – but a Muslim who knows the background militant narrative that is used to explain and commentarize on the Qur’an – sees a Qur’an revelation that is in a specific historical context which often imbues the Qur’an revelation with a militant interpretation.

    The Fatihah, the first surah of the Qur’an, seems pretty innocent when you read it in translation. But the commentaries reveal an interpretation that shows it is slamming both Jews and Christians as apostate groups.

    What I’m trying to say is that the Qur’an isn’t always what it appears. It should be read in the context of its commentaries and also how it appears in the biographies of Muhammad. When you read the biography of Muhammad and see how Qur’an quotes are clarified (or expanded upon) therein, the Qur’an takes on new meanings that could not have been understood the same way otherwise.

    Reading the Qur’an is sort of like reading Doctrine and Covenants, but the Qur’an suras lack the historical descriptions that appear before the D&C chapters. But to a lifelong Muslim who knows the culture and the historical tradition, the historical context and long-held interpretations are hovering in the background and seem obvious. And they are packed with meaning.

  2. I’d say the Journal of Discourses is a good analogy to the hadith.

  3. Huston, the only reason I used D&C as the analogy is because D&C is almost all revelations received by Joseph Smith. Since the Hadith are so primarily focused on Muhammad, I thought that might be the closest match.

    But I am not a church history expert. So you might very well be on to something.

    The hadith really are an unusual focus on Muhammad. Everything he does, down to how he brushes his teeth, sleeps with his wives, cleans up after relieving himself … etc. It’s all in there.

    So I’m not sure we really have anything in our records that truly compares to the hadith – though I did once hear a woman LDS instructor say something like “If the prophet ate a certain brand of cold cereal, I would eat it too.” That’s the kind of focus and attention on Muhammad that you get in the hadith.

  4. Gilgamesh says:

    I agree with Huston. The D&C is canonized scripture – akin to the Quran. The JD are teachings derived from canonizewd scripture and personal relationships with the prophet Joseph.

    Another anology is the Torah and the Talmud.

  5. I agree with danithew that there really isn’t a good Mormon parallel with the Hadith, although there may be some aspects of Mormonism that might compare loosely with some parts of the Hadith. The Qur’an and the Hadith have been used for centuries as political and legal “documents” and nothing in Mormonism compares to that. Note that I don’t think that the use of the Qur’an and Hadith in such a way in inherently bad. They’ve been used often in ways that even Christian Westerners might agree with.

    Since I’m not looking for a disagreement with danithew today, because he’s one of my favorite people, I’ll leave it at that.

  6. Dan Clayton says:

    I’m not sure why you are trying to draw a comparison. Mormonism is fundamentally different in one very serious way. That is that it preaches personal spiritual instruction and revelation in how to apply the written and verbal word of God through his servents. It is much more dynamic than a two dimentional “word of god.” The strength of righteousness comes from correct application, which comes through personal revelation given the stewardship of the individual within family and church. The strength of the chains of hell come from confusion, brought on by the necessity to trust one arm of flesh over another…

  7. Sahih Al Bukhari

    Sahih Muslim

    These two links might be useful to those who want to read about the two most prominent hadith collections.

  8. I think that trying to draw an analogy with Mormonism is difficult, because we retained a largely hierarchical tradition. Sunni Islam does not. It is more like low church protestantism in that there is no religious hierarchy able to declare the truth.

    I also think I disagree with the contributor to the Times you mention. Olivier Roy’s excellent Globalized Islam stresses the degree to which the evolution of European Islam is driven by the lack of a cultural context. From region to region, Sunni Islam takes on various forms and interacts with culture to form distinctly different traditions. In the European context, individual Muslims are at most partially embedded in that ‘native’ culture, and who, separated from their native culture, often engage in a process of trying to determine what is culture and what is religious doctrine. As different individuals work through these issues, they can incline both to more ‘liberal’ forms of Islam and to more ‘radical’ forms of Islam. Moving beyond his thesis, it’s hard not to note that the Wahabi have always had as their project the purification of cultural practices and the removal of error (in Islamic terms) from them. It is only natural that there will be an attraction to such a tradition by people trying to sort out what is culture and what is faith, so they can change cultural contexts but keep the faith.

    Further, in this context, the real problem for people like the cited columnist is making their approach persuasively orthodox. To make an analogy to Mormonism, an orthodox mormon who moves out of the mormon corridor doesn’t want to cease being faithful or orthodox, but they have to figure out how to live their lives in a different cultural context, one that may not be as supportive of their ideas, beliefs, and practices. They would not be satisfied by the Community of Christ, or a Mormon-friendly Unitarian congregation. They would want the real thing. Likewise, an orthodox Jew would probably be driven crazy if all they could find were Reform synagogues.

    So the problem isn’t one of reformation; its one of making a less aggressive form of Islam (which do exist in other cultural contexts, after all) persuasively orthodox in Europe. And no one on the outside can fix that.

  9. Actually, my first thought was that the Christian parallel to the Haditha are the creeds of Protestantism – and that the Restoration of the Primitive Church parallels the return to the original teachings of the Q’uran proposed by Hargey…(with of course the similarity to Martin Luther already noted).

  10. Following Patrick and TMD,

    The parallel is not within the literature of the Brighamite LDS religion, it is within the broader structure, including FLDS, in all their varieties.

    We are not so different from Islam in that some of us (in the broader Mormon Church) have been happy to take shotguns to our opponents, to commit statutory rape and to keep our women barefoot and pregnant with little education all based on the teachings of Joseph Smith.

    This can be seen in microcosm with Prop 8. The right wing of the Brighamite church would be willing to shun (and were it possible, excommunicate? can they kill??) the opponents of 8. Apparently this is within the leadership’s choice of outcomes.

    It is a matter of liberality, where liberality is defined by a broader vision of live and let live, acceptance and in the spirit of religion, love.

  11. Just to add to the confusion as to where the parallel lies, it occurs to me that the Joseph Smith papers project that are being published – if we were to take them, break them into short versified anecdotes about specific issues/questions/principles and make them into a scriptural sub-canon – perhaps they could qualify as a Mormon version of the hadith.

  12. there really isn’t a good Mormon parallel with the Hadith

    Actually, I think the old Priesthood Bulletin used to serve a somewhat parallel function. Fortunately, the Church — as per the suggested Islamic reformation above — told the stakes and wards to throw them all out and stick to the current version of the General Handbook of Instruction.

    I think danithew is dead on when he says:

    Try to imagine, without a continued line of new revelation and new prophets, how difficult it might be to separate Mormonism from the polygamy revelations received by Joseph Smith.

    More generally, imagine how differently the Church would have developed if all revelation ceased with Joseph Smith. Consider the current RS/PH study guide and how often quotes from Joseph Smith are actually recollections some time after the fact by other Church members of what Joseph said.

    There is a real power and flexibility in Church governance that comes from having a series of prophets equal in authority to the founder. There are risks as well (cf. blacks and the priesthood), but the benefits far outweigh them, IMHO.

    Great post. ..bruce..

  13. You might be interested in Reza Aslan’s book No God but God, Ronan. He argues that a Muslim Reformation is already well under way, and that the mujahedeen are actually as much a manifestation of it as the moderate sola-scripturists. Think of the terrorists as the militant Anabaptist-types, and Hargey as a sort of Menno Simons. They’re all the result of a democratization of interpretive authority, which has always been restricted to the clerical establishment until now.