Quran and hadees

  • A word on their relationship

In Muslim literature and discourse the two words frequently appear together, often in the form of a compound (Quran-o-hadees). For Muslims, the Quran occupies a unique position as the last word of God, both literally and figuratively. The hadees too is invaluable as it is the primary source of the history of the times of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). No Muslim can therefore remain indifferent to the hadees literature.

When it comes to authority however, there’s an agreement among all Muslims that the position of the Quran is supreme. So, while there’s no conflict in most cases, in the event of there being one it’s the Quran that will settle the issue. The theory at any rate goes like that. The reality, however, can sometimes be very different. As Maulana Amin Ahsan Islahi famously found out in 1982 when relevant parts of his Tadabbur-e-Quran (which were uncompromising on precisely this point, and went against the traditional majority jurist opinion) were quoted verbatim by the Federal Shariat Court in its judgment on stoning. All hell then broke loose: the FSC was dissolved, and the maulana was threatened, declared outside the folds of Islam, told to repent, and called everything under the sun. Of course, clerics were at the forefront of that movement, but if they were not actually supported by the laypeople (the silent majority), they weren’t opposed by them either.

The silent majority presents an interesting case. If you ask an ordinary Muslim his views on the relationship between the Quran and hadees, chances are that you will get one (or a combination) of the following responses:

1.        To understand the Quran, we need historical references that are found in hadees.

2.        To try to understand the Quran except in the light of hadees would cause sectarianism. Alternatively: We are sure to go astray if we hold any interpretation of a Quranic verse other than that held by the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions.

3.        The Quran mentions and prescribes many acts of worship without going into much detail. Without hadees we wouldn’t know how to perform them, which makes hadees indispensable for following the Quran.

While most people know that the Quran and the hadees are very different things, perhaps it’s a good idea to occasionally stress exactly in what way that is so, for confusion here often leads to difficulties

While none of the three positions explicitly does so, as far as many Muslims are concerned, they combine (probably not on the conscious level) to give hadees a standing almost the same as that of the Quran. They thus end up subconsciously granting – in deed even if not in words — hadees a degree of authority that goes a long way in explaining the discrepancy between theory and practice when it comes to the relationship between the Quran and the hadees. First a few words by way of rebuttal of the three stances:

The problem with the first stance is that it contradicts the original ‘The Quran is supreme’ position. The Quran explicitly calls itself al-Furqan (the criterion), but that status is obviously compromised when it is judged in the context of any outside historical reference. Being a book (and not a collection of random statements) – its author none other than God Himself – the Quran makes itself abundantly clear by providing all the context needed. Indeed, the lack of context is precisely one of the things that make prophetic narrations so unreliable when used to judge the Quran or used otherwise as a primary source of religion. The other, of course, being transmission and reliability issues, because of which no hadees can quite attain the reliability of the Quranic verses. To say that the Quran depends on some text outside it to make itself clear is tantamount to saying that God doesn’t know how to get His message across – that too in a book which He calls His miracle, no less.

The problem with the second stance is that most Muslims have traditionally done precisely that – namely, trying to understand the Quran in the light of hadees – but we still have innumerable sects and subsects! The trouble is that we don’t have just the one set of hadees: There are the Sunni collections and the Shia collections, and then there is emphasis on different subsets when it comes to sub-sects of each. If anything, it’s hadees that should be understood in the light of the Quran (instead of the other way around); and then perhaps we won’t have as many sects.

The problem with the third stance is that it’s like claiming that one learns to drive by reading from some text-book. Even if somebody goes on and puts the procedure in writing, people would still learn driving as they always have been: by emulation and practical instruction. What’s true of driving is also true of practical things such as fasting, pilgrimage, sacrifice, prayers, and ablution. All generations learn these things by demonstration from their elders, and that makes it a subject of sunnat, not hadees. (Sunnat is the exact practical analogue of the Quran: one reached us by oral consensus and continuity of all generations of Muslims, while the other reached us by practical consensus and continuity of all generations. After all, Muslims were performing all these rites before the first prophetic narrations were collected, let alone compiled and published, were they not?

While most people know that the Quran and the hadees are very different things, perhaps it’s a good idea to occasionally stress exactly in what way that is so, for confusion here often leads to difficulties described above. There are three fundamental differences between the Quran and the hadees. One: The Quran is the verbatim speech of God; whereas the hadees is a record of paraphrased reports of sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Two: The Quran enjoys a continuity and consensus of all Muslims regarding its contents from the Prophet’s time down to our own. There is no such continuity or consensus when it comes to hadees. Three: The Quran is a coherent book, whereas the hadees literature is a compilation of random and miscellaneous reports, usually lacking the complete contexts.