On the Nature of the Ignored Hadith and the Contingency of Muslim Legal Doctrine
I am actually on vacation until the end of August, which is why you haven't heard from me in so long, but I did want to follow up on my last blog before going silent for a couple of weeks. In that blog, I had mentioned a certain philosophical divide that transcended actual legal outcome when it came to divisions between Salafist and liberal on how hadith should be approached. That is, to my mind, the Salafi cares about determining the actual words coming out of the Prophet's mouth even when it shouldn't affect legal outcome at all. To demonstrate this, I used a well known hadith which Salafist websites are actively going out of their way to reveal as fabricated even though it really doesn't matter--in the sense that other hadith get you to the same outcome. Similarly, the liberal fights the Salafi on whether or not such literalism is such a good idea even when, again, there is nothing at stake by way of legal outcome.
That hadith again--we are a people who do not eat until we are hungry, and when we eat, we do not sate ourselves.
But there is another dimension to this that is worth mentioning. This hadith helps to demonstrate another phenomenon underappreciated in shari'a discourse, and this is the extent to which hadith are quite often ignored or gleefully thwarted when they do not meet with communal expectations. Thus, in some sense, this distinction between, on the one hand, the community deciding what the Prophet's tradition is on its own, unconstrained by Salafi literalism, and, on the other, the literalists themselves, can at times be a bit of a red herring because the community decides anyway. When the community likes a hadith, they pay attention, and when they don't, it hides in the rubbish bin somewhere. Nobody will say it, but benign neglect of sacred text works just fine.
Why is this hadith in particular such a worthy example? Because to talk of this hadith as being ignored would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that it is hard to think of a series of principles that are more actively and consistently held in deep contempt in the Muslim dominated Middle East in particular, whether ultraconservative Saudi, more moderate Iraq, Egypt, Iran, wherever, in letter and in spirit, than “we are a people who do not eat until we are hungry, and when we eat, we do not sate ourselves.” It is willfully, gleefully violated every single day, several times a day. Walk into a Saudi home, or an Iraqi home, or an Egyptian home, and try not to eat unless you are hungry, and stop before you are full. Mounds and mounds of food are placed on your plate, over your protest. You are harassed actively until you eat beyond full. Go to a banquet in Saudi, or
Let’s consider a different hadith, one my mother and my wife are subjected to hear quite often as uncovered Muslim women when walking about in the Muslim world. “When a woman reaches puberty, nothing should appear from her but this, and this.” And in reciting the words “this”, the Prophet pointed to his face and his hands. In some parts of the world, it is good form to walk up to a woman without a headscarf and recite this. Now pretend we treated THAT hadith like the “we are a people” one I mentioned above, or as noted something more authoritative to the same effect. In that world, if a woman appeared in public dressed respectably, everyone would be shouting at her to take more of her clothes off. If she went to a dinner wearing a shirt, they’d ask her why she isn’t just wearing a bra and no top. If a miniskirt, they’d be nagging her again and again to shorten it and shorten it. The contest at the beach would be who wears less, that would be proper etiquette. You would be rude if you didn’t start forcibly removing clothing from your guests’ bodies. I’ve never heard of such a Muslim society, though I know a few Muslim men who I think might wish it did exist, but only so long as their female relatives were kept safely away from it.
So practice 2 is impossible to imagine, it is so foreign to our experience, and yet practice 1, the overeating, just as willful a violation of a hadith as practice 2 would be if it existed, goes without comment. We are a people committed to sticking our forks into the hallowed words of the Apostle of God when it comes to this notion of eating when hungry, and nobody talks about it. It’s not the subject of Friday sermons, nobody sits around in their homes and laments this like they do the appearance of women on the street with lipstick, or wearing “things they don’t wear even in Europe” (I’ve heard this a lot,in
And I know what the objection is going to be. The headscarf and the rules on dress are part and parcel of a broader system of sexual practices and sexual mores that are developed in far more than one hadith. In fact, the academic would argue, this is precisely why you have to understand rules in context, any reasonable study of context would see a pattern of intergender relations in Islam that has no parallel in consumption of food.
And that I submit, is not true, or rather its truth derives entirely from context, which is defined by social mores and understandings. I can easily create for you a fabric of hadith and verse that make clear that extravagances, in particular when dealing with food, are to be shunned. I would start with the report, from two of the most authoritative commentators in the Sunni world, Bukhari and Muslim, that it is the hypocrite or the infidel who eat as if they have seven stomachs. And the Quranic verse that talks of not eating or drinking excessively. And the hadith where the Prophet tells the overweight man he should have been giving some of the food that created his belly to the hungry. I could take all of these, and create for you a wonderful panoply of rules and regulations, centered on the issue of modesty and self restraint, the issue that leads to the rules of sexual behavior, but focus it on food, just as plausibly as the current set of rules that exist. These rules would prohibit restaurants from overserving, the rules would punish people through tazir of course for being overweight, they would make it shameful to overfeed your guests, they would lead to people walking up to people in the street eating French fries and quoting them Prophetic text. Yet they don’t exist. At most you’ll get agreement on a desirable if ignored social norm, and even then they won’t mean it given how mad they would be if you didn’t overserve them.
So in sum the Salafi is silly when he thinks you can just grab a hadith, toss it out there and somehow the pile of bricks then hurled is the legal structure. But it’s also silly to think that the problem is overreliance on words and not enough on spirit, or to think that “study” alone is going to get you some sort of “right” answer on how to put together the legal structure. Ultimately, whether it is the nature of the bricks themselves or the way they are put together, the community is going to decide what the house is going to look like and if you don't like the way the house looks at the end, stop blaming the doctrine. it's not the constraint.