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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What other writings are authoritative for the community?
by John Kaltner

Among 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.

An 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.

Each 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.

The typical form of a hadith can be seen in the following one, in which the prophet Muhammad discusses how long he likes to pray.

Abdullah 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.’”

Every 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.

Even 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Another 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.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John 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 (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts 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.


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