Did Prophet Muhammad really say what they say he said? Muslims re-examine the words of their Prophet


The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

August 5, 2006

Did Muhammad Really Say That?

By Omar Sacirbey
The Washington Post

Jihaad Abdul-Majid has often found inspiration in the words and deeds of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, from his acts of compassion and charity to his counsel that followers treat women fairly and help the poor.

At the same time, other sayings that implied female inferiority and intolerance toward other religions troubled the 23-year-old student at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

“These issues have pushed me to seek more knowledge,” said Abdul-Majid, who recently enrolled in an online course about the hadith, the collected stories of what Muhammad and his closest companions said and did.

Muslims hold the hadith second only to the Koran as a source of Shariah law and personal guidance. For centuries, Muslims have hotly debated the hadith, often coming to vastly different conclusions about what lessons to draw from Muhammad’s life.

Now, with extremists citing certain sayings to justify violence, intolerance and the oppression of women, moderate Muslim scholars and lay people such as Abdul-Majid are revisiting the collected sayings and opening a debate about their meaning and role in Muslim life.

Because the hadith carry so much weight, any new interpretations could have dramatic effects on Muslim societies — influencing views on issues that include the rights of women and religious minorities and the compatibility of Islam with democracy. And a Hyattsville woman, Saida Malik, questions the hadith in part because the stories were gathered by males.

Yet even those who advocate change acknowledge it won’t come easily.
“There’s resistance because it means changing the culture,” said Pamela Taylor, co-chairwoman of the Progressive Muslim Union. “It’s a very threatening thing to look hard at your religion and say we’ve been doing it wrong for the last 1,100 years.”

Muhammad commanded followers not to record what he said to guard against the possibility that they would confuse his words with God’s. Instead, Muslims kept the sayings alive orally.

By the early 9th century, about 200 years after Muhammad’s death, as many as 700,000 sayings were circulating across the Muslim world. Many were of questionable credibility and some were even fabricated to support political or economic policies.
Leading scholars decided that the sayings should be collected and verified. Using a painstaking process, they traced the chain of narration and scrutinized the character and memory skills of the individual reporters.

The two preeminent hadith scholars, Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, collected 2,602 and 9,200 hadith, respectively, all of them considered sahih, or “sound,” authentic and indisputable. Other collections exist, but they include sayings with weak links or other defects.

Over the centuries, however, weak classifications have not stopped some Muslims from invoking some sayings for political purposes. Others have interpreted sound hadith in ways that many Muslims find inconsistent with other Islamic teachings. Such practices continue today.

Consider the dispute around a hadith that says, “A woman may not lead a man in prayer, nor may a Bedouin lead Muhammad’s followers or a corrupt person lead a committed Muslim in prayer.”

Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah, president of the Indianapolis-based Islamic Society of North America, last year cited the first third of that hadith in a paper arguing against women as prayer leaders in mixed-gender congregations.

Taylor of the Progressive Muslim Union, who supports women-led prayer, argued that the hadith suffers from a weak chain of narrators and is a racist text out of step with Islam’s racial egalitarianism.

It was “hypocritical,” she said, to use a hadith knowing it was weak.

Abdullah acknowledged that the hadith is “weak,” but said he used it only to support other hadith to make his case. He also denied it was racist.

Sound narrations that some see as inconsistent with the Koran, or that don’t fit Muhammad’s image as fair and compassionate, can be even more problematic.

For example, in several hadith collected by Bukhari, Muhammad orders adulterers to be stoned to death, although the Koran prescribes a punishment of up to 100 lashes. In recent years, Islamic courts in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Nigeria have handed down death sentences in some adultery cases, although it is unclear how many have been carried out.

“There are some that show him merciful and there are some that show him otherwise,” said Shahed Amanullah, editor of the online magazine altmuslim.com. “People are asking, ‘How can you have these contradictions?’ So something is wrong, and someone needs to resolve that.”

Saida Malik, a retired federal worker, took matters into her own hands 40 years ago as a young woman in Pakistan when she picked up an Islamic magazine that advocated rejecting any hadith that seemed inconsistent with the Koran or Muhammad’s character.

Malik, who immigrated to Hyattsville almost 30 years ago, said she’s still skeptical about the hadith, partly because they were collected by men.

“It’s my iman ,” Malik, 66, said, using the Arabic word for faith, “that he would not have given unreasonable, idiotic advice, which the hadith books are full of.”

Some scholars, however, warn against simply dismissing troubling sayings and suggest a better response is to reinterpret the texts.

“The scholars have done a tremendous job of recording and authenticating the hadith. After all that work, to say, ‘OK, let’s throw the hadith away because it doesn’t fit with my intellect,’ I should question my intellect, not the hadith,” Abdullah said.

Other scholars caution against a rush to view ancient texts through modern eyes. “If people don’t like something, the easiest thing to do is to say that the hadith must not be true,” said Mohammad Fadel, an Islamic law professor at the University of Toronto.

“This is understandable to some extent, but it’s an easy way out; it’s not an intellectually sound approach,” he said.

There is also no guarantee that new interpretations that try to reconcile certain texts with modern times will be accepted by all Muslims.

This year, for example, Afghan judges justified their death sentence for a Muslim convert to Christianity based on a death sentence handed down by Muhammad to an apostate. Yet most Muslim scholars condemned the Afghan judges, citing examples from Muhammad’s life in which he urged tolerance for people of other faiths. They noted that the man ordered by Muhammad to die was not guilty of changing religions, but of treason.

“With this apostasy issue, the differences become so glaring, with one side saying, ‘put to death,’ and the other saying, ‘no, free will.’ People are coming from two worlds,” said Amanullah of altmuslim.com. “The cultural differences in the Muslim world stem from the hadith.”

Other scholars emphasize that the hadith and their interpretations should be viewed through the prism of time and culture. If Muslims are to successfully reinterpret the hadith for the 21st century, they must avoid literalism and be willing to apply the hadith to reflect today’s cultural norms.

“In the prophet’s time, there was a tacit understanding that things would change as circumstances changed,” said Ebrahim Moosa, an Islamic studies professor at Duke University.

“We need to re-evaluate our canon of interpretation.”

18 comments for “Did Prophet Muhammad really say what they say he said? Muslims re-examine the words of their Prophet

  1. Jeff
    January 23, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    I found this very interesting Tarek. As a westerner and atheist I struggle to understand religion. I can’t understand how you can pick and choose the parts you like, and interpret to mean what you like. It is the written word that is important here. In a hundred years from now, someone will say, “that is not the written word and you are all doing it wrong”, no matter what interpretation you come up with. And we will be dealing with it all again.

    “For example, in several hadith collected by Bukhari, Muhammad orders adulterers to be stoned to death, although the Koran prescribes a punishment of up to 100 lashes.”

    Both are horrible, yes? I have more compassion than your Muhammad? How can anybody follow anyone or anything that says something so horrible? Is this not enough to turn you off?

    And I, the kafir, am shown much disrespect in Islam teachings. Why should I, in return, respect Islam, or anyone who follows it? You disrespect me. And you expect respect back?

    Thank you. I value your opinion on my comments.

    • Kamal
      January 26, 2015 at 10:19 AM

      The problem stems from what you understand the difference between religion of GOD and followers of GOD. Religion of GOD means one equal team under the roof. Islam is not a religion, Islam is a Universal political system, under which all flourish equally and one does not look down or treat other inhumanely in anyway shape or form, regardless of ones colour of eyes, Geographical location, or genetics. All humans are equal, but those under the system who do even better than other in their treatment of other humans, they get to excel and later, they will be rewarded very pleasantly… Under one equal Terrorist who dictates the same to all, without any barrier of their creed, colour or gender! Quran 49:13 save piety!

      Atheist would like to regard themselves above others intellectually, since they do not confirm to one terrorist rather, they confirm to many different ones who pit them against each other, for the sake of a Doctrine that they Engineer control with. Such, as the current Political systems which area literally trying to obliterate humanity, so they can say it is do able!

      Your mistake Sir, and many like you including many (Pseudo ‘Subrogate’ Muslims), is that, they are all followers of the same Dogma (System) however, they have all given themselves the rights to change the system selectively, by including sub systems. As in, Federal, Provincial, Municipal, Burroughs, Ten Units government system. Now you see how the system gets fucked up?

      Its not the religion It is not GOD. You too follow a system and have no say as much as you would like to believe that you, democratically do! The system that you have created with your intelligent buddies always have a god (President, King, Prime Minister or an Asshole) when you do not confirm to their tyranny, they incarcerate you and terrorize you!

      “And I, the kafir, am shown much disrespect in Islam teachings. Why should I, in return, respect Islam,” Perhaps retract this sentence so you can see clearly. You see, lashes in Islam and if you fuck a 18 years old shy of 2 days before her birthday, they will put you in jail and in there you will become someone elses bitch. However, under the system, if we all had the same fear of GOD the unseen unheard, who is compassion to all humanity the same, equally to all, then in the penal institution you will not have the fear of getting your Ass mauled! You get it? Don’t diss the System because of our sub governments, those who create a set of rule and the create loop holes. And, unfortunately, in our system, those loop holes only exist to those who have money to buy very good LIARS… Errr I mean Lawyers!

      If you would like to know what are these subsystem governments that are screwing your thinking, they are called. JEWS, CHRISTIANS, SHIA AND SUNNI!

      God Allah Taala (The Exalted one) is Fair in all his affairs!

      Peace and Submit!

      • red
        May 15, 2016 at 11:56 AM

        racist hate-mongering pig.

    • PanC
      May 16, 2016 at 8:32 AM

      Correct Jeff, I agree with you. How can anybody follow anyone that says something so horrible. And even if accept this because of 1500 years back condition, why they consider them now. #NonSense.

    • March 11, 2017 at 8:53 PM

      In the Qur’an, there’s a verse Al Kafiruun. This surah essentially address how a Muslims should engage with Non Muslims, including your goodself. The spirit of tolerance and co existence is deeply pronounce in this surah, at least to my understanding.

  2. Mohammad Ikram
    January 25, 2015 at 6:14 AM

    Many of these hadiths were fabricated to justify the Ommayad rule whose founders Muawiya and Yazeed butchered the Holy Prophet’s own family. Gradually, the Salafs and their Indo-Pak counterparts, the Deobandis have removed all the hadiths that are in favour of Imam Ali and Syedna Hussain.

    • soulzfire
      March 7, 2015 at 7:35 PM

      Mr Ikram, Both Koran and Hadith are the most corrupted books…my problem with koran is the differentiation between jews muslims and christians..How can Allah be only bothered about muslims ..Prejudice seems to be allah’s trait……an ignorant idiotic and corrupted politician wrote that book..tell me who made this world as per muslims..ALLAH..right? and what does Allah do..ALWAYS RIGHT!!!….so when you guys try to convert a non muslim…you are actually correcting ALLAH’S FAULTS…..Please grow up…islam has proved to be the most hypocritical, nonsensical and destructive faith in the history of mankind…

      • May 15, 2016 at 9:28 AM

        Well explained Soulzfire

      • red
        May 15, 2016 at 12:04 PM

        how many different kinds of inequality does islam supposedly prescribe? it demands that other religions not be treated equally. and men and women are unequal, and moslems and unbelievers and idolaters. and it justifies slavery.

        so much for anything like the universal declaration of human rights. but the islamists still insist blindly that human law must be inferior to what they claim is “divine” law? yeah, right.

      • manoj kumar
        May 15, 2016 at 1:26 PM

        You are absolutely right man. Muslims are burden on humanity and moreover they are danger to mankind

        • A. Khan
          March 11, 2018 at 2:22 PM

          That’s really interesting, because I always thought that the mass weapon producing and exporting countries were a danger to the world. In order to sell their weapons in bulk, they would have to create artificial conflicts around the world. Because ‘Business is Business.’ And that it would mean nothing to them if a million innocent people would die needlessly as a result of it. So look around you again, this isn’t 1426. Open your eyes and be honest in your observations. Who is the aggressor and who is the victim.

      • Vivekanand Rasam
        May 15, 2016 at 1:45 PM

        Why Mohammad did not allow his teachings to be recorded in writing. Why did he left his teachings to be misinterpreted by generations to follow.
        It was a maniac decision by the ordinary person whose Muslims regard as Allah’s follower.
        Utter nonsense.
        Koranic or Hadith teaching and its interpretation on every issue takes Muslim world to 7th century.

  3. RAY
    May 15, 2016 at 1:51 PM

    Even I have lot of doubts about these books. Are the books really genuine or made up stories if Allah is the most merciful and powerful why he couldn’t make one religion for all mankind. Why are we killing in the name of religion?

    • March 12, 2018 at 12:46 PM

      Allāh has made only one religion, that is the total submission to God Almighty, Allāh in Quranic language. It is from the time since the first man landed on earth. People diverted themselves from the right path and made their own religion. God sent several Prophets around the world in different era for their respective people to give guidance. Muhammad was sent as the last Prophet as a guide and mercy to whole of mankind till the Dooms day.

  4. Vijay
    May 15, 2016 at 4:32 PM

    View it from any angle, you are bound to find it ridiculous since it is plainly irreconcilable with common sense and logic. It advocates violence. It’s incompatible with all non-Islamic religions. It clearly discriminates between genders, faiths & races. I wonder how it was accepted by the African people.

  5. iaminblr
    May 16, 2016 at 10:04 AM

    Jurisprudence. The science of ‘Natural Justice’ that every man has been endowed with. Nothing more is required. One grow own’s own consciousness. Then natural justice will flow. All other texts are b*** sh**

  6. March 11, 2017 at 11:11 AM

    This must be questioned, because what people believe and propagandized in name of Koran, hadith and all other garbage in name of prophet. Prophet was a very kind and humble man; he never attacked and killed anyone by his own will and command.

    He kept sword only when he was attacked by his enemies to kill him and innocent people with him. He didn’t taught anything which is publicized and taught in his name. He was messenger of higher spirits and told what they conveyed to him.

    He has nothing with dogma and commandments, all stupid Muslims fighting for never prescribed or told by prophet. We must inquire about it and erase every ugly thing stick in name of Islam and his prophet.

  7. E.M
    March 12, 2018 at 2:47 PM

    The problem is not God or Muhammed, but human beings and how they have managed to distort every religion for their own purposes.

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