What other writings are authoritative for the community?
by John Kaltner
the other bodies of writing that play an influential role in Islam
the most important are those pertaining to the life of the Prophet
Muhammad. The hadith,
or traditions about the prophet’s life, are second only to
the Qur’an in terms of the impact they have had on the community.
Because he was considered to be the ideal model for all Muslims,
stories about Muhammad’s life began to circulate among his
followers at a very early stage. These hadith, an Arabic
word meaning “report” or “account,” usually
describe something Muhammad said or did that was remembered by someone
close to him.
enormous number of such traditions began to circulate orally in
the early centuries of Islam, and as the religion grew the hadith
spread throughout the Muslim world. Eventually some individuals
began to gather together the traditions and study them for accuracy
and reliability, a process that culminated in the compilation of
several collections. The two most respected and frequently cited
hadith collections are those by al-Bukhari and Muslim,
two men who both died in the year 870.
of these works contains several thousand hadith covering a wide
range of topics. A popular English-Arabic version of al-Bukhari’s
collection is nine volumes long and is divided into 93 sections,
each treating a different topic. The following list of some of the
section titles gives a good sense of the range of topics covered
by the hadith: belief, menstrual periods, prayers, funerals,
pilgrimage, debt, agriculture, prophets, food, medicine, tricks,
and God’s unity.
typical form of a hadith can be seen in the following one,
in which the prophet Muhammad discusses how long he likes to pray.
bin Abi Qatada narrated: My father said, “The Prophet said,
‘When I stand for prayer I prefer to prolong it. But when
I hear the cries of a child I cut it short because I do not wish
to trouble the child’s mother.’”
hadith has two parts: a chain of transmitters and a body.
In this example, the chain runs from Abdullah bin Abi Qatada to
his father to the prophet Muhammad. Some chains are longer than
this one and others are shorter, but they all end with Muhammad.
The body recounts some statement or action of the Prophet. In this
case, the body is his comment about prayer.
though it is the less interesting part of a hadith, the
chain of transmitters is actually the more crucial component. When
al-Bukhari and the other compilers went about deciding which traditions
were reliable and which were not they paid careful attention to
who transmitted each hadith. They looked at such things
as the personal reputation of each transmitter, whether or not individuals
who were linked in the chain were contemporaries and could have
known each other, and if the last person in the chain would have
been in a position to have heard or observed the Prophet.
this way they attempted to verify the credibility of each chain
as a way of determining the probable accuracy of the hadith.
Each tradition was placed into one of several categories ranging
from strong to weak, and this influenced their decisions regarding
which traditions made it into their collections.
hadith are very popular with Muslims because they give
them information and insight into the life of the prophet. But sometimes
they have been a controversial part of Islam. Some scholars question
the historicity of the traditions because they can be easily fabricated
by simply attaching a strong chain to a spurious saying of Muhammad
that would advance one’s own personal agenda. Some
modern reformers have even argued that Muslims should stop appealing
to the hadith. Despite these problems, the prophetic
traditions continue to exert great influence over Muslims, especially
in the area of Islamic law, where they are the second source used
to determine legal rulings after the Qur’an.
set of writings that has been important, although less authoritative
than the hadith, is the biographies of Muhammad. The most
well-known account of the Prophet’s life is that written by
Ibn Hisham, who died around the year 770. His biography provides
a detailed, in-depth account of Muhammad’s life and career
that fills in the gaps that remain if one tries to reconstruct the
events based solely on the Qur’an and the hadith. While the
work undoubtedly contains much accurate information about Muhammad’s
life, some of it is more legendary in nature as it highlights the
miraculous in a way that puts him on par with the other prophets.
©2006 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.