City of Brass

City of Brass


On Hadith and righteousness: a debate

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

A few years ago, blogger Yursil had an interesting and provocative post about hadith and the theological methodology of the Salafi and Wahabi sects of Islam:

The opposite of Taqlid is the approach taken by the Ahl ul Hadith (People of Hadith), otherwise known as Salafi’s or Wahabi’s. Their influence has been far and the printing press has been their friend indeed. Wrapped in source texts they seek every answer in between marks on paper, not realizing the heaviness of those texts and the burden they bear.

Hadith were an attempt at capturing the Amal (Manners) of the Prophet (??? ???? ???? ? ???) in a supplementary way for future generations. They were not meant to replace those who the Prophet (??? ???? ???? ? ???) himself described as his inheritors and those who the Quran praises. Reading Hadith to achieve those manners is possible for pieces here and there, but at the same time it is quite like parents communicating to their child only through one way text messages. Such an approach is insufficient to handle the needs of transmitting the fundamental expressions of our faith (including ritual prayer) much less raising a well rounded person.

Today’s Muslims are, for the most part, like such children.

This is an interesting critique, especially since it draws a implicit line between those who would consider themselves “traditionalists” and the Salafi movement. I posted this excerpt at Talk Islam and it generated a fascinating and broad discussion. Here are a sampling of the responses.

Abu Noor, who also self-identifies as a traditionalist but also has Salafi leanings, took issue with Yursil’s contention:

Much of this is somewhat of a strawman, since all “Salafi” scholars and teachers I have read or studied with stress the importance and value of having teachers and of learning manners and character especially from human examples.

[...] At the end of the day, Yursil seems to be saying that one should follow the example of the “righteous awliya” unquestioningly but that one is obviously free to ask lots of questions and search far and wind to convince oneself of who these righteous awliya are.

Many of us are nervous about such assertions because both within and outside of Islam, there are plenty of examples of the status of being considered a “righteous saint” can become institutionalized and/or hereditized and become a label that gets attached to people who don’t seem to deserve it.

Willow chimed in:

I find myself on one side of the fence with regard to religion generally, and on the fence itself when it comes to the tension between traditionalism (ethics through isnad, if you will) and modern sunnah (emphasis on textual ethics over taught ethics). On the one hand, I disagree with Aziz about institutionalizing righteousness-institutionalized righteousness inevitably becomes self-righteousness, as those in power become more and more convinced of their own infallibility. (After all, they have the benediction of an institution.) On the other hand, the ability of the individual to interpret textual Islamic ethics has clearly become flawed in the extreme. I don’t know why. You can get so lost in the hadith that they cease to make any kind of sense. I know far too many Sunnis who can tell you exactly how to enter and exit a bathroom, but cannot answer basic questions about the nature of Islamic justice. (Indeed, having spent the majority of my Muslim life among the Sunniest of modern Sunnis, I cannot for the life of me tell you what is meant by Islamic justice. But I know exactly what the hudud punishments are for fornication vs. adultery.)

What all this means, I don’t know. I’ll go to my grave before I agree to follow a single scholar or alim or supposed wali without recourse to any others. On the other hand, I have learned nothing of use by gathering information in such a diffuse way.

Buzzkill shared a relevant anecdote that i found very illuminating:

I went to a ISNA Conference in Dallas some years ago and had a book table with some titles that rattled some of the umma. One discussion went this way:

Attendee: This book is bida’at. It is introducing innovation into the Deen.

Me: How so?

Attendee: It investigates areas of Islam that are not for us to consider. What we need to know is only the mastery of the Five Pillars and to read and believe Qur’an majid.

Me: Do you read the Qur’an?

Attendee: Yes

Me: How does Sura 2 begin?

Attendee: “This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah…”

Me: Doesn’t It begin, “ALM?”

Attendee: This is only for the Prophet to know, not us.

Me: You think Allah has put something is His Holy Book which is private and only for Prophet Mohammad?

Attendee: Yes.

Me: Does this seriously make sense to you?

Attendee: Yes.

At that point I realized he and I follow a very different religion. What we don’t understand, sometimes we ignore or explain it away.

This just scratches the surface, however, with many more insightful comments than the above, from other commentors. It’s a great discussion and deserves a look from anyone interested in how Muslims disagree on the question of religious authority.



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