Beyond Law: Understanding Additional Dimensions to the Debate over Sound Hadith
“We are a people who do not eat unless we are hungry, and when we eat, we do not sate ourselves”.
So runs a hadith, (statement or utterance or action) of the Prophet Muhammad, from which we might learn much about the nature and importance of the hadith in determining the content of Islamic law. Personally, I have found it, as most hadith, uncommonly wise, having managed to lose about 15 pounds so far doing nothing but following the two canons—eat only when hungry, stop before you are full. But I am sure that nobody reading this blog much cares about that.
Generally, there is this sense with the hadith among liberals that, while perhaps wise overall, they are constraining in important instances. Few if any Muslims then take from this the notion that what one should do is entirely separate the Messenger from the Message, but rather to adopt different approaches to the hadith. One common theme, raised by Fatima Mernissi, among others, is to reexamine the validity of the hadith that have been determined to be sound. Another, by Fazlur Rahman, is to think of the notion of the tradition of the Prophet less as an ossified collection of statements, but rather as the living and breathing embodiment of the community.
The focus of these admittedly radical approaches is to get away from the precise words. Opposing this course would be those who purportedly insist that the traditional statements are the right ones, and that any violation of them is a violation of the shari’a.
This sounds rather familiar to an American ear, and so one can see why it has legs in the legal academy. There was Brennan and Scalia, the living constitution and the hard and fast textualist, and now there is a living Sunna and a written one. The Wahhabi is the textualist, Mernissi and Rahman are the Brennanites, and all of a sudden some dude who doesn’t know which way is up when handed a page of Arabic can start waxing on about ahl ul hadith, ahl ul ra’y, Wahhabism, the Mu’tazila and heaven knows what else by locating all of it on a platform with which he is familiar, that of American law.
It’s really not that simple, for any number of reasons, but one important reason is that this isn't necessarily a legal debate in many cases. In fact, quite often it has nothing to do with the substance of shari'a. That adds a dimension entirely missing in the Brennan-Scalia analogy, where the methodology is focussed solely on achieving legal result.
But our average literalist today is interested in none of this, what he wants to know is did the words come out of the Prophet’s mouth. And to do this, he relies on this quasi-scientific thing known as the isnad, or chain. “A said to B who said to C who said to D who said to E, who said, I heard the Prophet of God say . . .” You want to know if the Prophet said it, forget whether or not it seems reasonable for him to say, forget rhetorical power, forget the medieval apocryphal stuff, forget the folk wisdom, forget the wonderful tales you remember your grandmother telling you about Muhammad’s ascent to heaven, forget the wonder and the magic and everything that makes the Faith so inspiring to the soul, and focus on one thing. Did A really tell B who told C, and so forth? Are they reliable? And therefore is the narration “valid”?
This does not please the liberal Muslims of the world, who feel that this insistence on literalism robs faith of its wonder and its magic and replaces it with science that isn't very good. Chains of narrators of people, no doubt with their own biases and presuppositions, don’t guarantee authenticity. This latter criticism is by the way not simply a modern phenomenon, but representative of a strand of thought that has appeared throughout history.
Now yes sometimes (perhaps in most cases) this is about legal result, Mernissi does a devastating job going through the narrators reporting some hadith accepted as "sound" and demonstrates that their supposed objectivity can be highly contested. But it is more than that, it's also a desire to think of the faith differently. When the Mutazi'la object to the hadith approached this way, it can be about a result, but it can also be about a philosophical method of seeing the world, where reason plays a premier role, and particular words narrated from chains are less important. To one enamored of Sufism, it may be a dissatisfaction with soulless Salafi literalism and a desire for something altogether more spiritual. I am dramatically reducing rich philosophical traditions, but for the purpose of making one point alone--the debate can often be about nothing more than the means to approach faith itself, for reasons having nothing to do with the subtance of any actual legal or even ethical rules.
To see how that is, just consider our hadith of the day. For purposes of legal result, it actually does not matter whether the Prophet said these words or not. The debate is surely not about result. Beacuse even if you are a literalist, and heatedly deny that the words came from his mouth, there are plenty of other hadith which run to the same effect that are sound under the orthodox methods. These all indicate that one should not eat until they are sated, that the Muslim is frugal in his consumption of food, that eating and drinking is perfectly fine, but to excess it is not, and the like. There is even Qur’anic verse to this effect. (31:17 I think, working from memory). That does not, however, prevent the literalist from decrying the promulgation of this hadith as sound, nor does it arrest his campaign to make its fabrication known to all. And that whole effort is opposed by others not necessarily because they have sort of attachment to the principles underlying the statement (as noted, if that was the case, they could just point to the other source material accepted by the literalist and come to common ground here), but because they don't think this is the way to think about the Prophet or his words.
It's not, that is, in this context, about whether or not it's a good thing to overeat. Instead, it's all about whether or not the way to touch the face of God is through some sort of process based on quasi scientific methods to find precise words spoken, or whether one finds more refuge in reason, or perhaps in the stories of the Prophet told and retold in the community, and living and breathing in the hearts and minds of the Muslims, than in a million chains of narrators of unquestionable soundness.
Next post we'll go back to legal result and the hadith, using this same example to demonstrate something else striking about this supposed building block of Islamic law.