The Science of Hadith or the Anthropology of Hadith?

A hadith is described in terms of its matn (content) and isnad (chain of transmission). Supposedly there is a science for both. Let’s look very briefly at the purported science of isnad.

Muslims love to claim that a sound hadith is reliable in large part because of an unbroken chain of reliable transmitters. They take great pride in the "fact" that the compilers of the hadith scrutinized the moral character of the transmitters and thus contemporary Muslims can rest assured that no additions or deletions to or from the words or actions of Muhammad have invaded the hadith corpus.

Muslims assume that if the transmitters of the hadith have good character that this to a large degree guarantees that the content of their testimony is reliable (assuming the content in no way contradicts the Qur’an.)

There are some major logical problems with the Muslim assumptions and the "science" of hadith.

1. An unbroken, sound chain of good characters does not guarantee truth. The content of a hadith is true if and only if the content corresponds to reality. Whether the content corresponds to reality is unrelated to an isnad. The most a sound isnad guarantees is the minimization of the possibility that something was added or deleted from the original report. However, if the original report is defective, then we get an unbroken line of transmitters of a lie, a distortion, a hallucination, false consciousness, etc.

2. The original observer of Muhammad’s words or actions had to interpret those words/actions. Thus rather than a hadith being a description of an event/person, the content is an inference about, an interpretation of, the meaning of a description. No hadith is a description; every hadith is an inference or an interpretation. The good character of the original observer does not guarantee the reliability of his/her interpretation. Those individuals with good character were subject to superstition, cultural bias, ignorance, etc. What has been transmitted is valuable as a look into the mind of individuals in that culture at that time. That is fascinating indeed—as anthropology. It just doesn’t guarantee truth.

3. One might claim that the isnad of most hadith is more of a cable than a chain. There are multiple lines of transmission rather than a single, unbroken chain of transmission. For rhetorical purposes let’s grant that the isnad is more a cable than a chain. Now all that Muslims have are multiple lines subject to the same problems of cultural bias, superstition, and ignorance. Most people from similar cultural backgrounds interpret events in similar ways.

So….we have Muslims who dip both wings of a fly into their soup, scrape their teeth with a tree twig, break their fast with an odd number of dates, refrain from breathing into their glass of water, stay up late praying during the last few nights of Ramadhan to get a crack at the Night of Power, and otherwise keep themselves busy with minutiae and all because of some inference or interpretation of an event that has been handed down via very fallible individuals with all their deficiencies. Wow!

Reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was kept busy pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again. Unfortunately, the activity got him no where and it had absolutely no meaning. Muslims following hadith—so sad!

Series: Second Thoughts On Common Islamic Assumptions
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