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Halima Begum

Non- Muslim Scholarship and Hadith: Weighing up the Pros and Cons of the
Main Orientalist Critiques of Hadith

This essay will discuss the concept of Hadith, its criticisms and its contribution to the
Islamic sciences and how well-rooted it is within the folds of the Muhammadan
religion. It will then delve into the notion of Orientalism and the definition of the Orient
through the work of Edward Said. The essay will then unpick the main Orientalist
critiques into the following matters; the origins of Hadith, the purpose of Hadith, the
authors of Hadith and the authenticity of Hadith. Each criticism is interdependent on
the other. The key Orient characters will be Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht. It
is important to mention the counter argument, which, in this field, will be the works of
the Apologists or Anti-Orientalists, such as Mustafa al-A‟zami and Wael B. Hallaq.
There will be mention of the traditional and non-traditional methods of interpretation
and how the Orient and the Apologist use the traditions to either negate or validate
the concept and notion of Hadith.

Hadith; A Cornerstone

Hadith literature has served several purposes for many centuries. It is second to the
Qur‟an and an important source to investigating Islamic history. Also, provides and
in-depth insight to cultural, social and legal religious judgements. Thus, to be able to
study the Islamic sciences and to understand the Arab society, one cannot dismiss
the Hadith literature and traditions. Hadiths are the embodiment of the Prophet
Muhammad; his sayings, practices, his physical description and tacit approvals.
While Hadith traditions are that of the past, they have played a key role in the lives of
Muslims from the time of the Prophet‟s death to today and are a contributing factor to
shaping the Muslims‟ everyday life. Hadith literature is no longer a sole interest for
the Muslim nation; Western scholars have also taken a great interest in the Hadith
material. Hadith, as a primary source, has not only been a key factor for those
working or studying in the field of Hadith, but in other fields also such as; Islamic law,
Islamic History and the Qur‟an. The origins of Hadith attributed to the Prophet are
still a subject of dispute between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, raising polemics
between the Orientalist and the Apologist.

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The Orientalist

One cannot look into the study of Hadith in Western academia and hope to get a
complete understanding, without looking at the work of the Orientalists. In order to
look into the work of the Orient it is important to understand the Orient. It is argued
that the perspective of the Orientalist is not based wholly on reality, and their
purpose is to convey a negative image. John M. MacKenzi in his book Orientalism:
History, Theory and the Arts states that the terms „Orientalism‟ or „Orientalist‟ are,
“the activities which they describe came, of course, from within the culture that had
spawned them. The transformation in their meaning and use came from outside”.
(1995, p.3) Edward W. Said, in his ground-breaking book, Orientalism, defined it as
the acceptance in the West of, “the basic distinction between East and West as the
starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political
accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, „mind,‟ destiny and so on.”
(1977, p.3) He further clarifies this notion and states that, “by Orientalism I mean
several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted
designation for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed the label still serves in a
number of academic institutions.” (1977, p.2) Thus, anyone who delves into this
topic, regardless of their profession, what they then convey of it is Orientalism. (Said,

Orientalist Critics and the Apologists

Amongst the well-known Orientalists in the field of Hadith are Ignaz Goldziher and
Joseph Schacht. It is important to mention that they are not the only Oriental critics,
however their works are the keystone for later western scholars, and you will always
find that either one or both are mentioned in the works of other Orientalists such as
the late Norman Calder, who is largely in agreement with Schacht in his ideology.
(Maghen, 2003, p.276) Goldziher was a Hungarian scholar of Islam whose published
book on Hadith was titled Muhammedanische Studien in 1890, which was then
translated into English and was titled Muslim Studies. This piece of literature and
research gave rise to other critics of Hadith such as Joseph Schacht. Schacht was a
scholar on Arabic and Islam. His book The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence
which was produced in 1967 and is still used in the study of Hadith and Islamic law.
A half century after Goldziher, Schacht applies Goldziher‟s method to the

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development of early Islamic law. (Brown, 2009) The Goldziher method was based
on his conviction that the Hadith literature did not reflect the life of the Prophet, but
rather of, “the beliefs, conflicts and controversies of the first generation of Muslims.”
(Brown, 2009, p.95) Golziher himself states that, “The hadith will not serve as a
document of the infancy of Islam, but rather a reflection of the tendencies which
appeared in the community during the more mature stages of its development.”
(1973, p.18) Thus their core premise is that they claim that Hadith is falsified

Muhammad Mustafa al-A‟zami and Wael B. Hallaq are amongst the few anti-
orientalist critics or “Apologists” who have responded to the claims of Schacht and
other Orients. Mustafa al-A‟zami is amongst the cotemporary Islamic scholars, and
was amongst the first to “refute the work of the Orientalists to the effects that
hadith…had not been transmitted in a reliable way.” ( Wael B.
Hallaq is a scholar of Islamic law and Islamic intellectual history. Amongst his field of
expertise is the “intellectual history of Orientalism and the repercussions of
Orientalist paradigms in later scholarship and in Islamic legal studies as a whole.”
( Both al-A‟zami and Hallaq negate and rebuttal claims that were
made by Goldziher and Schacht. Such as the notion of conspiracy that the larger
Muslim population of the second century conspired and falsified documents, which
will be discussed later on. Their reactions are due to feeling a need to correct the
mistakes of the Orient, using both history and Hadith to put right the claims negating
the value of Hadith.

The Origins of Hadith

Goldziher was convinced that the Hadith did not reflect the life of the Prophet and the
origins of the traditions did not lie with him, but rather, “beliefs, conflicts and
controversies of the first generation of Muslims.” (Brown, 2009, p.95) Schacht follows
Goldziher in this, that is, in the notion that Hadith is based on practices and traditions
during the time of the early Muslims which were then attributed to the Prophet in
order to make such practices as acts of law. (Ruthven, 1984) Schacht, from his
research, dates the origins of the Hadith literature back to the Umayyad‟s. (1950)
Hallaq argues that this would only be feasible if the early Muslim converts saw the
Sunnah of the Prophet as that which is “not religious in nature”. (2005, p.103)

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However, such a notion seems implausible, “since the sunan, which pre-eminently
included Prophetic sira and Sunna, were religious and furthermore inspired by the
early Muslims‟ interpretation of what Islam meant to them.” (Hallaq, 2005, p.103)

The Purpose/Use of Hadith

Schacht separates fiqh from Hadith and states that there is no relation between the
two. He concludes that the traditions from the Prophet “do not form, together with the
Koran, the original basis of Muhammadan law, but an innovation begun at a time
when some of its foundations already existed.” (1950, p.50) In his book Origins
Muhammad Jurisprudence he addressed the conflict between traditionalists and
non-traditionalists – those who do not accept Hadith as doctrinal law and those who
do. He claims that many of these traditions already existed but to make them part of
Islamic law they simply attached an isnad to it and thus affiliated the practice to the
Prophet. (Schacht, 1950) Schacht is also critical of al-Shafici‟s methodology of
filtering and accepting Hadith traditions. He criticises al-Shafici and his methods, and
it would seem that his methodology was not so firm, and a lot of the isnad were
fabricated in order to make them acceptable. (1950) He shapes al-Shafici to be a
man who manipulates the rules he set in place for finding authentic hadiths and
rejects the non-traditionalist method which is to “take only from the Qur‟aan.”
therefore if someone was to quote a tradition - a practice of the Prophet, it would
only be feasible and accepted upon consensus. So, that is to say, even if the
tradition was weak, if there was consensus then it was accepted. Schacht argues
that the concept of consensus was founded in ancient schools of law and has
resurfaced again in the doctrine of consensus in Muhammadan law. (1950)

The Authors of Hadith

Goldziher and Schacht criticise the isnad of the Hadith more so than the matn and
question the agenda of the authors of Hadith as the Hadith were compiled in the
ninth century. Schacht argues that a tradition at one time would be given one isnad
and as time went on it would be given another. (Brown, 2009) He made claims such
as, “traditions with the very worst isnad are likely to be early, and those with near
perfect records of transmission betray their late development.” (Brown, 2009, p.95)
Moreover, Schacht states that the tradition is something which existed during the
time of the Umayyids, so in order to make it authoritative, they merely gave it an

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isnad going back to the life of the Prophet, now making it law. Al-A‟zami argues
otherwise in his book Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, in the chapter of
Hadith Criticisms: History and Methodology, he mentions the scrupulous nature of
the companions when they narrated from the Prophet, “a father graded down his
own son, a son criticized his father, a brother criticized his own kin and friends
criticized their dear one without fear” (1977, p.47) so as not to be amongst those who
would lie about him.

The Authenticity of Hadith

The authenticity of Hadith has been in question for centuries. John Wansbrough
argues that the Hadith literature is tied into interpreting the Qur‟an and it did not start
out as actual historical events, but out of the early propensity of early Muslims to tell
stories related to the Qur‟an. (1977) His theory is based on the tradition of Arabs in
poetry and storytelling, “Early storytellers who entertained audiences with pious
stories gave way to Qur‟an commentators who supplied them with respectable isnad”
(Brown, 2009, p.95) Alois Sprenger and William Muir, both scholars who worked in
India, each express their scepticism in writings on Muhammad published during the
1950‟s. Both suspect that which was taken as authentic was in fact fabricated.
However they were not complete sceptics and were even optimistic and wrote about
the Prophet based on what they believed were reliable traditions. (Brown, 2009) The
Apologists state that practices of the early companions and caliphs are their
interpretations of Islam and should not be the cause to dismiss Hadith. Hallaq states,
“That they were dynamic and constantly evolving is self-evident; but to dismiss them
as non-religious or non-Islamic just because they underwent significant changes that
made them unrecognizable as predecessors of the later, „„settled‟‟ religious forms is
to miss the meaning and historical significance of Islam‟s first century.” (2005, p.103)


Non-Muslim scholarship has given rise to detailed insight into the Hadith Literature.
Orientalist critiques of Hadith have caused both traditionalists and non-traditionalists
to delve into the science, answering the criticisms and possibly further developing
the science. It has even resulted in some traditionalists to become part of Western
scholarship. From a traditional perspective, the criticisms of the Orientalists on
Hadith would appear hypercritical. From a historical perspective their notions

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expropriate centuries of work and a large part of Islam, such as the notion that
Hadith compilation, if any, took place several years after the life of the Prophet or
complete mythology. The Apologists argue that there was in fact Hadith activity
during the life of the Prophet and this can be seen through the “living Sunnah” and
oral traditions. However there is no denying that the lives of the Arabs did play a big
role in the shaping of the Hadith practices, as the Prophet Muhammad was initially
sent to Arabs. Rather than being critical of Hadith, claiming that the Arab Muslim
world already had these practices and the Prophet‟s name and status was used later
to justify their practices, there is a need to look at it holistically and accept that it is
not an either-or-situation, that is, it is not just about the Arab practice, or just about
the Prophet practices, they need to be seen as something which influenced each

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Al-A‟zami. M. M. (1977) Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature. Baltimore.

American Trust Publications.

Brown. D. W. (2009) A New Introduction to Islam. Blackwell Publishing.

Columbia University. 2003. MESAAS. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17
March 2015]

Goldziher. I. (1973) Muslim Studies, Volume 2. Aldine Publishing Company

Hallaq. W. B. (2005) The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law. Cambridge.

Cambridge University Press.

Islamonline. (2010) The Intellectual Journey of a Hadith Scholar: Mustafa Al-A'zami

[ONLINE] Available at:
hadith-scholar-mustafa-al-a-zami [Accessed 17 March 2015]

MacKenzi. M. J. (1995) Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts. Manchester.

Manchester University Press.

Ruthven. M. (1984) Islam in the World. New York. Oxford University Press

Said. W. E. (1977) Orientalism. London. Routledge. Kegan & Paul Ltd.

Maghen, Z. (2003) Dead Tradition: Joseph Schacht and the Origins of "Popular
Practice". Islamic Law and Society, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 276-347

Wansbrough. J. E. (1977) Quranic studies: sources and methods of scriptural

interpretation. Volume 31. Michigan. Oxford University Press.