The Widespread Use of Weak Hadith in Sunni Islam

A summary of the 2011 academic paper “Even If It’s Not True It’s True: Using Unreliable Hadīths in Sunni Islam, Islamic Law and Society” by Jonathan Brown

Jonathan Brown in his academic paper writes that the mainstream Sunni stance was that weak hadith were allowed to be used for topics such as manners, preaching and history, but not for law and ritual.

From time Muhammad died in 632 until the modern era the majority of Sunni scholars allowed the use of weak hadith in the above categories. What was considered a weak hadith was the subjective opinion of each scholar and not always agreed upon. Thus, it is very difficult for a Muslim to really know which hadith are truly reliable. It would be nearly impossible after almost 1000 years of this to know what parts of the Islamic narrative are true and which are not as emphasis was not placed on authenticity from an early stage.

The irony is that scholars were more strict on narrations regarding to Islamic jurisprudence, but Islamic law is ever less relevant to Muslims today. As well, widespread ijtihad is the norm because the world has changed so much from Muhammad’s time. What’s the minimum amount needed to be stolen for a hand to be chopped off? What about the specific number of camels or sheep one need to give in zakat? These are far less relevant to Muslims than Muhammad’s life details, the promised rewards and punishments for various deeds, the authentic duas that he made, and so on.

Yet due to the intentional laxity of the scholars, weak and fabricated hadith were spread eagerly among Muslims in order to encourage worship and “being a better Muslim.”

Does reading Ayat Al Kursi really mean an angel will protect you all night? (Tirmidhi, weak hadith). Can we be sure that whoever is in the state of jihad gets continuous reward equal to a fasting and praying person? (Muslim) How about whoever worships on Laylatul Qadr getting all their sins forgiven? Is there any way to know for sure if Muhammad really said these things? What about the punishment for touching a woman being worse than getting hit by a nail in the head? (Tabrani). Or that riba is worse than incest with one’s mother (mentioned in the article)

We really don’t know. And that’s the big problem with hadith today.

Muslims should consider carefully because they may be living their one precious life based on a lie passed on through generations. These conclusions are my own and not Jonathan Brown’s.

This article is my summary of Jonathan Brown’s 2011 paper and my reflections on what he wrote. Dates of each scholar have been written in brackets describing when they died (CE).

To understand this issue, look at the hadith

“There are seventy degrees of usury, the least of which is equivalent to a man having intercourse with his mother.” (Ibn Majah 2274)

As Jonathan Brown states, this hadith is criticized in its several versions but Ibn Majah and Al Hakim included it in their widely-respected compilations.

Mainstream Sunni scholars all the way from Ibn Hanbal (died 855) to Ibn al-Salah (1245) explicitly allowed using unreliable hadiths as long as it wasn’t on the topic of dogma or an unquestionable forgery.

Until the Salafi criticism appeared on the scene, Sunni scholars prioritized encouraging Islamic practice over the authenticity and truthfulness of what they were teaching.

In the pre-modern period, Brown writes, “ the acceptance of unreliable ḥadīths was the dominant position among Sunni scholars.”

Ahl al-hadith scholars like Ibn Hanbal and Abu Dawud accepted hadiths with lackluster isnads (chains of narration) because “the reports either had other isnāds bolstering them, were backed up by the accepted practice of respected jurists or because there was no other textual evidence on that legal issue.”

So if a practice was already agreed upon, or they couldn’t find any other text regarding it, they allowed the use of that weak hadith.

In regard to tafsir material that didn’t even contain isnad (chains of narration), scholars were happy to accept these reports to “fill in the gaps”. Jonathan Brown writes:

“Muslim ḥadīth critics were thus consciously lax in sifting through these reports, eager to preserve any material that was not of great consequence but still might be useful in providing details or filling in interpretive gaps.”

Scholars were willing to accept these type of statements for tafsir from those who they would not accept hadith from. “Al-Qaṭṭān explains that “those are not praised for their ḥadīths, but their tafsīr should be written down.”

Yet again we see that material was used by scholars as long as it wasn’t used for legal rulings. It makes you wonder how much of the Islamic narrative is actually true. How much of the seerah is accurate? How much of the tafsir is simply fabricated by well intentioned authors?

Brown then states,

“By the mid ninth century, however, a near consensus had emerged among ahl al-ḥadīth scholars that even ḥadīths with weak isnāds and no buttressing could be used as long as they did not directly concern legal rulings (aḥkām).” (Emphasis mine)

Brown is stating that scholars agreed by the ninth century that it was okay to quote weak hadith as long as it wasn’t for an Islamic ruling such as “How many poor people do I have to feed for each fast I miss?”

Scholars relaxed authenticity requirements for topics such as: manners, encouragement to good deeds (targhib), or warning against bad deeds (tarhib), or virtues of good actions (fa’dail al-amal), or descriptions of the reward or punishment in the hereafter.

When it came to hadith on what is permitted and prohibited, scholars were more strict. For example al-Tirmidhi himself admitted that in his collection there was lack of corroboration on these topics:

Chapter on Zakat (poor dues) — 17%
Chapter on fasting — 17%
Chapter on inheritance — 7%

Already, this is a bit worrying that ten to twenty percent of the hadith cannot be corroborated.

But when it comes to non-legal matters it gets worse:

Virtues of early Muslims — 52%
Duas/Invocations — 50%
Chapter of apocalyptic trials (signs of the day of judgement etc) — 35%
Manners — 27%

These are hadith that Al-Tirmidhi himself acknowledged could not be corroborated. As we can see yet again, Sunni giants knowingly allowed laxity in narrations.

The great Shafii scholar al-Bayhaqi classifies weak hadith into two categories. The first is known forgeries, which shouldn’t be used at all. The second is those which are unreliable due to a less serious flaw such as the narrator having memory issues. This type cannot be used in law, but can be used for tafsir, preaching, sharing the details of the early Muslim battles. Bayhaqi’s collection thus had many hadiths considered unreliable by other leading hadith scholars.

Al-Bayhaqī reiterates that “the scholars of ḥadīth have been lax (tasāhala) in accepting what has appeared concerning pious invocations and the virtues of actions as long as no one in the isnād was a known forger.

The famous scholar Ibn al-Salah also similarly agreed, but didn’t allow weak hadith to be used for aqeedah (belief) as well.

And then one of the most influential scholars, Imam Nawawi in his commentary on Sahih Muslim explains:

In fact he encouraged acting on any hadith regarding virtue of actions they encounter!

It’s important to emphasize that scholars did not allow use of patent forgeries, just questionable hadith. Jonathan Brown states that this actually didn’t make much of a difference though:

This unequivocal ban on using ‘forged’ ḥadīths, however, had little
practical consequence.
The category of ‘forgery (waḍʿ)’ represented only
the far end of the spectrum of ḥadīth unreliability, and there was no
consistent distinction between ḥadīths considered ‘forged’ and ‘weak’
ḥadīths. Ratings differed considerably between scholars; the abovementioned ḥadīth equating usury with incest was considered a forgery
by Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201), Ibn ʿArrāq (d. 963/1556) and others
but authentic by al-Ḥākim. Even if a scholar had substantial doubts
about whether the Prophet had said a statement, he might still only
consider the ḥadīth ‘weak’ and thus within the purview of application. (Emphasis mine)

Thus even if a hadith was a forgery, it was hard to prove, and other scholars might have disagreed and thus used it:

Furthermore, in Sunni ḥadīth discourse after the 400s/1000s, in
order to raise a ḥadīth from the status of ‘forged (mawḍūʿ)’ to that of
‘weak (ḍaʿīf )’, all a scholar had to do was present an argument that it
had some ‘basis (aṣl )’ from the Prophet. This was accomplished by
locating one narration that could be rated as merely ‘weak’, often by
buttressing it with other weak narrations or with the corroboration of
Companion opinions.

Thus, the practical ban on forged hadith meant little to nothing in practice.

Jonathan Brown also gives the example of Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani allowing a hadith about “70,000 being born from the town of Asqalan that will go to paradise without any reckoning” that was declared a forgery but he still allowed it because “the problematic transmitter in the ḥadīth’s isnād was not sufficiently unreliable to merit the rating of a forgery, and that the ḥadīth was thus admissible on the virtues of actions (or, in this case, of a place).”

By the mid 800s and on, there was some disagreement from major scholars regarding the use of potentially forged hadith:

The ones who disagreed with using weak hadith for any purpose including the author of Sahih Muslim, Imam Muslim bin al-Hajjaj (875), Ibn Hazm (1064). Strangely no such similar surviving statement was found from al-Bukhari. Ibn al-Jawzi (1201) also complained about the widespread use of weak hadith claiming “it ruins the scales of significance of actions” and destroys people’s lives:

The Andalusian scholar Ibn Dihya also complained about how lives were being ruined by weak hadith:

So several hundred years after Muhammad’s death, a few scholars have realized how fabricated hadith are causing problems in the community and are starting to speak out against other scholars who narrate such, but the mainstream position is still to allow it. These individuals were well intentioned and thought they were making the world a better place, but as they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

Jonathan Brown states that al-Dhahabi subscribed to the mainstream Sunni position on weak hadith (highlighted above) but sensed it’s potential harm.

One of Ibn al-Jawzi’s great students, Ibn Qudama (1223) disagreed with his teacher. He allowed weak hadith and described a nafl prayer known as “Salat al-Tasbih”, saying “authenticity is not required for optional acts of worship and actions”.

Ibn Taymiyyah (1328) spoke against using weak hadiths. The famous Ibn Rajab (1392) rejected Ibn Taymiyya’s call though.

Ibn Hajar (1449) made a conservative adjustment to the mainstream Sunni stance. He allowed weak hadith but added conditions.

Al-Suyuti (1505) followed the mainstream position even though he respected Ibn Hajar.

Jonathan Brown then describes modern hadith scholars (ie the Hanafi hadith scholar al-Laknawi (1887) and Salafis (such as Muhammad Abduh (1905) and how they dealt with this issue, which is out of the scope of my summary here and can be read in the original paper.

In conclusion

In early Sunni Islam, the mainstream position was that scholars allowed the use of weak hadith as long as it wasn’t being used for Islamic law. Because this door was left open for hundreds of years, the possibility is that much of Islamic history as know it is false. Many of the supposed rewards promised for good deeds and punishments for bad deeds were not actually said by Muhammad, and were later inventions. Muslims are left holding a bag of mixed apples without knowing which can be safely eaten and which are rotten.

Brown, J. (2011). Even If It’s Not True It’s True: Using Unreliable Hadīths in Sunni Islam, Islamic Law and Society, 18(1), 1–52. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156851910X517056

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Husband, dad to five, tech enthusiast. Former Conservative Muslim. www.abdullahsameer.com

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