By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
Hadith, narrations of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, can be useful supplementary material, which in some circumstances can help to clarify certain matters. However, a few things should be born in mind when referencing hadiths:
1). The only sacred scripture of Islam is the Holy Qur’an, all other texts including hadith are of a supplementary nature. Hadiths are not part of the sacred scripture of Islam, even though they do make reference to the purported words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
2). Hadiths vary in their degree of reliability, some hadith are most likely authentic, as they’re based on multiple narrations from individuals regarded as honest and trustworthy members of the community, renowned for their accurate memories; nevertheless, many hadith are no where near as reliable and some are fraudulent. The great imams of hadith themselves, threw out most of the narrations submitted to them for collation. This fact in itself indicates that fraudulent hadiths were something very common during the period in which the famous hadith collections were compiled. If this were not so, would these noble people have felt such a need to sort the wheat from the chaff, and to edit together the books which they did? Even the hadith which they did preserve have been categorised from authentic (sahih) to weak (daif). All this should make us question just how reliable these books are, and not to place too great an emphasis upon them; especially not to the extent that we end up placing more emphasis on hadith than upon the Divine revelation of Almighty God – the message of the Holy Qur’an.
3). Unlike the timeless wisdom of the Holy Qur’an, hadith are a product of their times. Through making reference to the day to day incidents during the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and his noble companions, they do give us tremendous incites into the lives and culture of the Prophet and his companions. However, this is precisely the very same reason why they are encoded in time and place. In order for us to be able to extrapolate meaningful wisdom and practical guidance in completely different cultural contexts, we need to understand such things as the culture of that time, what the Prophet, peace be upon him, was striving to achieve through his words i.e. his intentions, and through understanding these points, what we are meant to take from these hadiths in present day contexts and what was simply meant for the particular situations which Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was addressing at that time.
Many times I’ve witnessed hadith being referenced without any effort being made to take these points into consideration. Yet, without taking these into consideration, we will undoubtedly take the Prophet’s noble words completely out of context and perhaps even do the very opposite to that which he would have advised, were he with us today helping us work through how we should address the various challenges we face in contemporary circumstances.
How should we address the difficulties, morally, spiritually and physically, faced by the brave souls working to contain the nuclear disaster at Fukushima? How do we approach the dilemmas faced by leaders who inherit nuclear arsenals in a post atomic age? What is the guidance in the sunnah (example of the Prophet, peace be upon him) for how astronauts should dress? What do the hadith teach about living in space? Clearly, there is guidance in the Holy Qur’an and wise words of our holy Prophet, peace be upon him, which teach us how to address such matters. But we will not derive any useful solutions through a literal reading, but only through contextual interpretation and logical deduction.