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Created: July 26, 2000
Latest Update: August 1, 2002

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Evaluating Religious Authority: Hadith

Teaching Essay Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, August 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

What do we do in the law when there are no witnesses? In some legal systems people are called to tell what they know, so that one can use their stories to root out contradictions and substantiations that the facts as reported are "probably" true. That's what we do in history, use multiple sources in the hope that they will support one another through the details, and make clear when there is no such support. An excellent example of this is found in the Using The Aahaad Hadith (one which does not meet the mutawaatir hadith's standard for confimation through the chain of transmission) In Issues Of `Aqidah (belief) at the University of Houston, in which means of establishing the authenticity of hadith is discussed.

(Muslim Student Association (MSA)-USC Hadith Database. The kind of careful scholarly discipline we are asking for in your examination of authorities is exemplified by the warning here against simplistic interpretations of the hadith.

"Warning (especially for Muslims)

"There are many early hadith scholars and teachers to whom we are indebted for introducing the critical science of collecting and evaluating ahadeeth. These teachers each collected many different ahadeeth. They did not allow students to quote from their collections until the students had actually come to them and learnt from them directly.

"Today, the situation is different. The collections of ahadeeth have for the most part stabilized, and with the advent of the printing press, the collections are easily mass-produced. There is a blessing in all this of course, but there is a real danger that Muslims will fall under the impression that owning a book or having a database is equivalent to being a scholar of ahadeeth. This is a great fallacy. Therefore, we would like to warn you that this database is merely a tool, and not a substitute for learning, much less scholarship in Islam."

When there is no witness present, circumstantial evidence, evidence like the similarities in the chain of transmission of the hadith, are used to determine authenticity. We need to think about the intellectual leap from the "probability" of authenticity of a statement that "probably" came down through the Prophet, to actual belief in what the Prophet is "believed" to have said. To close off our minds by accepting a given statement as "true beyond questioning" is to lose ourselves in what Freire would call "cicrcles of certainty," which means to admit no new information. In the case of authenticating what the Prophet said, perhaps that makes sense, since the best evidence of what He said must come from those who knew him, or purportedly knew him.