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Quran v hadith: a philosophical analysis

I thought it was timely to write this article, given Dr Fawad Ahmed’s brutally candid essay on the truth about hadith literature in Islam. Hadith are the alleged sayings, doings and abstentions of Prophet Muhammad, and we are told that hadith literature explains the Quran. Without hadith, we are told that the Quran would apparently be a mass of ambiguities and cannot be applied. Dr Fawad dealt with the historicity of hadith in his article, so I will not approach this issue from that angle. Instead, I will discuss the philosophical differences between Quran and hadith.

It should be a caveat here that I do not, in this analysis, represent the whole Quranist community (ie. Muslims who reject the authority of hadith) but rather only myself. It should also be noted that there are hadith which are parallel to Quranic norms and values, and so my analysis cannot be taken to include them. However, the corpus of hadith is an amorphous body of information with a mass of contradictions, so my focus will be on hadith which are deemed the most authentic yet quite clearly contradict the Quran both in meaning and in practice of the traditionalists (Sunnis).

Let us begin with the first point: the need for a clergy in Islam. Should Islam even have a clergy, let alone one which should be obeyed without question? The Quran is unequivocally clear on this issue: that religious clergy can become lords besides Allah (9/31) and that most of them will distract us from the path of Allah while amassing wealth (9/34). When the Quran invites us to contemplate it (47/24), it does not mention that we need a barrage of qualifications in order to do so, nor does it ask us to consult any scholars.

If we compare this with hadith literature, we will find that it is necessary to consult a clergy. We are told that the ulama are the inheritors of the Prophet. If the Prophet was a leader and an adjudicator, then the ulama must be called upon to do the same, hence the “kepimpinan ulama” idea. We are also told that whoever interprets the Quran according to his opinion, even if he is correct, is still wrong. Another hadith tells us anyone who does this will enter hell.

Interestingly, however, there is one sunna of the Prophet the ulama rarely follow, that is accepting remunerations for their role. In that capacity, the ulama contravene the Prophet explicitly.

The second angle we need to consider is that of personal responsibility. Beginning with the Quran, we find that every one of us will have to perform good deeds for ourselves. These deeds will be considered and its results shown to us eventually (99/7-8). No one can bear the load of others (35/18).

This is not true with hadith literature which enshrines the concept of intercession. We are told that Prophet Muhammad will intercede for his ummah on judgement day. His intercession will even happen for sinners and so, he is effectively overruling Allah himself with this privilege. This is because Allah has deemed that it is our acts which will save our souls. Furthermore, it is ironic that according to the Quran, there is no intercession at all on judgement day. This assertion is repeated three times in chapter 2 of the Quran (in verses 48, 123 and 254). Prophet Muhammad is to disclaim any knowledge of what would happen to his people (46/9). Therefore once again, hadith is at odds with the Quran in terms of religious philosophy, this time in terms of the personal nature of salvation.

Finally, we look at the issue of rituals and dogma. In mainstream Islam, if you ask anyone about the five pillars of Islam, you are very likely to get a set of dogmas which are said to define the religion. In other words, if you do not subscribe to these pillars, you are said to be “outside the fold of Islam”. These five pillars of Islam and six pillars of faith are clearly defined in a hadith where the archangel Gabriel visited the Prophet in human form in order to test his knowledge of them. If we notice, all these so-called pillars of Islam are ritual oriented and not social activism. Only zakat can be said to be socially effective and even then, one needs to pay a minuscule amount  (2.5%) which will not enforce any social change .

This “confessional style” Islam is not to be found in the Quran at all. In fact, the Quran’s rendition of these concepts related to the five pillars are process-oriented and related to the development of the self. Take for example the shahada (witnessing of Allah). The Quran speaks of the shahada in chapter 3 verse 18 as something people with knowledge can attain. When one has enough relevant knowledge, one may join this witnessing which Allah and the angels perform. This is a spiritual process rather than a confession. Indeed the command to “say” isn’t there at all.

It is the same with ritual prayer (salat). While hadith literature speaks of things which “nullify” the prayer as if it were a product to be inspected, the Quran focuses on internalising the reading so that it prevents us from injustices and evil acts (29/45). This is why we find that even though religious schools force its pupils to pray, we still hear of violence and other crimes from such institutions. Prayer is not about form but rather substance, in my understanding of the Quran.

In summary, we should not automatically assume that the Quran and hadith complement each other in terms of philosophy. In fact, in some fundamental areas, they are actually antithetical to one another. For traditional Muslims, the Quran is said to be the primary source and so should override these false hadith, however “authentic” they are claimed to be.

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism at King's College, London