Hadith and the Qur’anic mileau + thoughts on the NT

Note: This website has taken a different direction. From now on, all I will be posting is my study notes and my thoughts/questions related to Islamic studies. Please read this.

Scholars of religious texts are interested in reconstructing the original understanding of the text they study, ie. what the text ‘really says’ rather than what believers claim it says. This means removing the centuries of dogma and scriptural interpretation methods that are not necessarily relevant to understanding the text the way the author understood it. A well known example of the disparity between a believer’s understanding of their book and the original intent of the author is the Christian doctrine of the trinity. Christians insist that the bible, when taken altogether, preaches a trinitarian view of God. The arguments brought forth to support this are unconvincing and convoluted. They also ignore the historical reality of the new testament. The NT is a collection of documents written by different authors with different agendas, faithfully reading one gospel in light of another’s epistle is not a good idea! To give a silly example, I would not use the way magic works in the harry potter universe to understand some mysteries in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. lol.

Unfortunately, because Christians chose to canonize and and make sacred the books you see in the NT today, they think that their inter-textual view is justified because it’s ultimately by the same author (God). I am NOT saying that the books of the NT should not be read together, only that they must be read critically and carefully. After all, the gospel writers did read each other’s work, so some degree of unity is to be expected. How these writers interacted with each other’s works can reveal important information. But if there is a glaring contradiction, it is probably just that: One writer disagreeing with another’s viewpoint. Differing accounts of the  resurrection probably don’t mean that the eye witness one gospel was relying on was half blind or whose vision was partially obscured by a passing horsecart, while another gospel relied only on eyewitnesses with 20/20 vision or the latest specs. There may actually be a historical exaggeration, or a contradiction, or whatever.

Now let’s apply this same analogy to the Qur’an under the view of the modern Islamicist. Approaches to the Qur’an usually ignore Hadith that could shape the interpretation of the Qur’an. The reason? Hadith are not reliable. That means that the Qur’an and the individual Hadith are by different authors. Because of this, they must (rightly) not be interpreted in light of each other.

This is not a correct statement to make, and I think most scholars do know it, it’s just that sifting through hadith takes far too much work. There definitely are reliable and historically accurate hadith out there. Motzki’s “Origins” has shown that to be undeniable[1]. Unfortunately Motzki’s method is painstakingly slow and very rigorous (which is why it works), it can take a very long time just to analyze one book of Hadith. However, if you’re going to research the beliefs of the early Muslims, why would you ignore a relevant body of historical literature just because it takes too long, and go with the Qur’an only? What matters is truth, not what is convenient.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, there are many examples one could give. One that I have in mind is Donner’s thesis that the early believers also included Christians and Jews who chose to be righteous: It was only later (ie. a while after the Prophet) when the Muslims eventually developed their own identity did they make Islam more exclusive. His argument is purely Quranist. Why wouldn’t Hadith literature be relevant here? I would think that oral traditions that have a very real chance of being the words of the Prophet (s.a.w) would be very important! Who better to tell you about the beliefs of the first Muslims than the Prophet who lead the movement?

Ignoring all of the hadith is throwing the baby out with the bathwater: Sure, it might be easier just to rely on the Qur’an to study the origins of Islam, but if Hadith can tell you things that the Qur’an does not, well, then you’re going to come out with a flawed and incorrect understanding of early Islam because you chose to restrict yourself to only a part of the available data.

Yes, hadith studies are painstaking, but they can yield very important information on early Islam. The New Testament is rightfully being dismantled and the books of individual authors are being studied both as a collection in isolation and in their wider context, yet Qur’anic studies provides new challenges with respect to Hadith literature: there is indeed a chance that both come from the same source[2], and through careful analysis of both the Hadith and the Qur’an can we correctly and accurately reconstruct a model of the early Islamic community.

[1] Motzki is absolutely brilliant. What a scholar.

[2] To Muslims (ie. me), one is the very word of God, the other is inspired through His Prophet.

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