15 January 2013

Scholars are at the head of the Muslim community when it comes to matters of religious knowledge. Nevertheless, they have disagreements with each other, just like everyone else. There are many reasons why they disagree, and their disagreements often revolve around their use of hadith evidence. The various reasons why Islamic legal scholars adopt certain hadith and not others is an important topic of research about which many treatises and books have been devoted, past and present. Some of the most illustrious thinkers in islam's history have written on this topic, like Ibn Taymiyah, Ibn Sayyid al-Batalyawsī, and Ahmad Shah al-Dahlawī. In summary, the most important causes of scholarly disagreement on the use of hadith texts are as follows:

1. Being Unaware of a Hadith

The Prophet’s Sunnah is what clarifies and provides detail to the general teachings found in the Qur’an. However, the Sunnah is vast, and it is easy for a scholar to be unaware of certain aspects of it. This was even the case for the Prophets’ Companions. For instance, we have the following account from Abū Sa`īd al-Khudrī:
I was sitting in the company of the local people of Madinah when Abū Mūsa came to me worried and flustered. We asked him what was the matter. He answered: “`Umar (the Caliph) summoned me to his house. I came to his door and called out the salutation of peace three times. When he did not reply, I turned around and left. Then `Umar confronted me and asked me: ‘What prevented you form coming to me?’ I said: ‘I did come, and I greeted you at your door three times., but you did not answer me, so I left. This is because the Prophet said: If you seek permission to enter three times and no one answers, then leave.

“At this point, `Umar said to me: ‘You better bring proof of what you say, or I will have you punished.’”

After hearing Abū Mūsā’s account, Ubayy b. Ka`b spoke up: “Indeed, the youngest in our company will go and testify that he has spoken the truth.” Then I said: “I am the youngest of us all.”

Ubayy said: “Then you go.” So I went off with Abū Mūsā and testified to the veracity of what he had told `Umar.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (2062, 6245) and Sahīh Muslim (2153, 2154)]
There are cases where a great number of Companions were unaware of a particular text from the Sunnah. We should not be surprised that this would be so for those who came after them.

When a delegation including the Caliph `Umar arrived at Damascus, they were informed that the city had been stricken by plague. They argued about whether they should enter the city. `Umar first consulted some of the senior Companions who had emigrated from Mecca, but found that they could not come to an agreement on the matter. Some said: “We have come this far, so we should go on.” Others opined: “We have a lot of people and some of the Prophet’s Companions in our company. We should not expose them to the plague.” He then consulted the eminent Companions from the native residents of Madinah, but they were just as divided in their opinion. Finally, he consulted those who accepted Islam after the conquest of Mecca, and they indicated that he should not enter the city. He accepted their opinion.

Abū `Ubayd asked `Umar: “Commander of the Faithful, are we fleeing from Allah’s decree?”

`Umar replied: “Yes, we are fleeing from Allah’s decree towards Allah’s decree.”

Then `Abd al-Rahmān b. `Awf, who had been away on an errand, stepped forward and said: “I know something relevant to this matter. I heard Allah’s Messenger say: “If you hear that plague has struck a land, do not enter it. If you are in a place where plague has struck, then do not leave it trying to escape it.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (5729) and Sahīh Muslim (2219)]

We can see here how the hadith that `Abd al-Rahmān b. `Awf related from the Prophet’s Sunnah confirmed `Umar’s opinion on the matter. This illustrates how the lack of knowledge regarding evidence from the Sunnah can lead to scholarly disagreement. It also illustrates two principles of Islamic law. First, it shows us that matters of public welfare must be given thorough consideration. Second, it demonstrates that disagreement is acceptable when a new situation arises, especially among those who have sufficient knowledge and competence. We see that the senior Companions from the emigrants of Mecca and those who sheltered them in Madinah were unable to reach an agreement on the matter, but none of them censured anyone else because they disagreed or blamed those who were ultimately shown to be wrong. This is because it is allowed for those who are qualified to exercise their judgement in matters of Islamic law where no direct textual evidence is known.

We can discern in their disagreement a difference in outlook. Those among the Companions who favoured the exercise of faith through patience and fortitude wanted to go forward. Those who had a better appreciation of the Law and considerations of public welfare opted for turning back. This latter group were the more knowledgeable, and they were proven to be in the right.

The great jurist al-Shāfi`ī once told his colleague Ahmad b. Hanbal, an expert on the Sunnah: “If you know a hadith on a matter that is authentically related from the Prophet, inform me of it so I can retract my opinion and adopt it.” These were two of the four imams who founded the schools of Islamic Law, the other two being Abū Hanīfah and Mālik. They were all known for expressing an opinion and making that opinion dependent on whether a certain hadith supporting or contradicting it was authentic.

2. Forgetting a Hadith

A scholar may have heard a relevant hadith but then forgotten it. `Ā’ishah relates that Allah’s Messenger heard a man reciting a chapter of the Qur’an late at night, and he said: “May Allah have mercy on him! He has reminded me of a verse that I had forgotten from that chapter of the Qur’an.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (5038) and Sahīh Muslim (788)]

This is an example of a temporary lapse of memory, something that would be recalled on its own sooner or later. However, sometimes even the greatest scholars forget a piece of knowledge altogether. Books have been written on this matter, especially in the literature of hadith narration, one of the most famous being the work of al-Suyūtī entitled A Compendium of Those Who Narrated Hadith Then Forgot Them.

The hadith scholar Ibn al-Salāh gives the example of a chain of transmission exhibiting this phenomenon: “So-and-so related to me that I had related to him...” Here we have the case of a narrator who had forgotten a hadith he used to narrate. Later, it got back to him from one of his old students. Henceforth, he had to relate the hadith saying that he heard it from someone who had heard it from him!

Another example of forgetfulness is what happened to the eminent Companion Hudhayfah. He was leading the people in prayer standing on slightly elevated ground. Abū Mas`ūd tugged on his shirt, pulling him back from the elevation. Hudhayfah complied easily and settled into a position where he was level with the worshippers who were following his prayer. After the prayer was over, Abū Mas`ūd asked him: “Don’t you know that they used to prohibit that?” He was referring to the prohibition of the imam leading the prayers from a higher position than the rows of worshippers when there is no need to do so.

Hudhayfah replied: “Indeed I do. I remembered it the moment you tugged on my shirt.”

3. Considering a Hadith to Be Unauthentic

A scholar might be well aware of a particular hadith but determine that its chain of transmission is not sound. It is quite common for authorities on hadith to disagree whether a particular narration is authentic or not. They disagree just as often as jurists differ on legal rulings. Sometimes hadith scholars’ disagreements go back to different methodological principles in determining authenticity. Some are known to be more strict than others in their assessments.

A well-known example of this kind of disagreement relates to the question of whether a person who is not in a state of ritual purification can touch the Qur’an. The leading jurists of the four canonical schools of law agree that it is impermissible to do so. They base their ruling on the hadith where the Prophet said: “No one should touch the Qur’an who is not in a state of purity.” [al-Muwatta’ (1/199) and Sahīh Ibn Hibbān (6559)]

This hadith has been deemed sound enough to use as evidence due to the large number of corroborating lines of transmission that it has, though no single chain of transmission is free from defects. It has been narrated independently from Amr b. Hazm, hakīm b. Hizām, `Abd Allah b. `Umar, and others.

Furthermore, the jurists use this hadith to reinforce their interpretation of a passage of the Qur’an that reads: “It is a noble Qur’an, in a protected Book; none touches it save those who are pure.” [Sūrah al-Wāqi`ah: 77-79]

Other jurists, among them al-Tabarī and Ibn Hazm, held the view that it is permitted for a person in a state of minor ritual impurity to touch the Qur’an, because they did not regard the hadith as being authentic. As a consequence, they interpreted the verse in the context of referring to the protected tablet of the Qur’an in heaven, and to be talking about the angels.

4. Considering the Hadith Evidence to Be Off the Point

Textual evidence, with regards to its clarity, can be divided into two categories. First, there are texts that are perfectly clear in indicating a specific point, so that no other interpretation or understanding is possible. For instance, Allah says regarding inheritance: “They receive half of what the wife leaves behind if the wife has no children.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 12]

This verse can only be understood in one way. This is because the word “half” is specifies a quantity about which there is no ambiguity. Therefore, scholars agree that if a married woman dies and she leaves behind no children to inherit from her, then her husband inherits half of her estate.

Then there are texts whose language allows for more than one valid interpretation. A clear example from the Qur’an is the verse: “Divorced women have a waiting period of three menstrual cycles.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 228]

This verse is clear that a divorced woman can only get married to someone else after three menstrual cycles (assuming she is not pregnant or past the age of menstruation, for which other rules apply). However, the verse is unclear whether these cycles should be counted from the time of bleeding or the time in between. This difference in understanding can affect exactly how much time a woman will have to wait. There is no decisive way to resolve the issue from a linguistic angle, since the wording applies to both possibilities equally, and there is no other textual evidence that clarifies the verse’s intent. For this reason, the Companions disagreed on the ruling to be derived from this verse, and scholars have been equally divided on the issue ever since.

The same thing happens with the hadith. Indeed, most textual evidence is open to more than one interpretation. Therefore, a scholar can be aware of a hadith and consider it valid, but understand it in a way that makes it inapplicable to the matter under investigation.

5. Conflicting Evidence

In some cases, the text in question is both authentic and clear in what it means; however, it is in apparent contradiction with another text. This situation engenders a lot of scholarly disagreement, since a scholar might opt to disregard the clear legal implications of one text in favour of another which he or she deems to be stronger. Disagreements in law arise when scholars differ as to which text provides the more compelling evidence for the issue at hand.

A good example for this kind of disagreement is the issue of whether touching one’s private parts nullifies the state of ritual purity. There are two contradictory hadith on this issue. The first is related from Bushrah bint Safwān that the Prophet said: “Whoever touches their private area must perform ritual ablutions.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī (82), Sunan Abī Dāwūd (181) Sunan al-Nasā’ī (1/216) and Sunan Ibn Mājah (479)] The meaning of this hadith is that touching the private parts nullifies the state of ritual purity, requiring a person to perform ablutions before offering prayer.

The second hadith is related from Talq b. `Alī that a man asked the Prophet about whether people need to perform ablutions before prayer after touching their private parts. The Prophet replied: “It’s just a part of your body.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī (85), Sunan Abī Dāwūd (182) Sunan al-Nasā’ī (1/101) and Sunan Ibn Mājah (483)] here, the Prophet is making it clear that touching your private area is just like touching your foot or your ear when it comes to its effect on ritual purity.

These two hadīth appear to give conflicting rulings on the matter, and scholars have had to determine what they mean. Some scholars have favoured the first hadith and ruled that touching the private area nullifies a person’s state of ritual purity, and others have given preference to the second hadith and decreed that touching the private area has no effect.

Those who favoured the first hadith argued that since it goes against the default assumption that a person remains in a state of ritual purity, it is providing a new ruling and therefore must have been the last thing the Prophet said on the matter. The other statement must have been something the Prophet said earlier, and was later abrogated.

Other scholars have countered that the best way to approach these two texts is to try and reconcile them. They argue that when the Prophet said it was just a body part, he was making it clear that touching the private area does not negate one’s state of ritual purity. When he said that one should make ablutions after touching it, he was describing what was preferable to do, but not imposing an obligation.

Still at third group of scholars found another way to reconcile the two hadith by saying that touching the private area only nullifies one’s state of ritual purity if it induces erotic feelings; otherwise it is just like touching any other part of the body.

These are the five main reasons for why we find scholars not acting in accordance with certain hadith when deducing their legal rulings. It is never just a case of wilful neglect.