I wrote this article approximately a year ago, but due to workload and focusing on other issues it was left sitting on my computer. I was asked by some brothers to release something new, and therefore I took this article and edited so that it was not specific to any particular group or scholar, but instead was giving the reader a holistic understanding of Hadith methodology and Quranism.
I have been saddened over the past few years at having seen a rise in young Muslims who are either leaving Islam completely and becoming atheists or are joining a ‘sect’ which follows only the Quran whilst rejecting the entire corpus of hadith. I have also seen many debates and discussions between the so-called ‘Quranists’ and ‘Hadithists’. What I have found is that in such debates the position of the Quranists is usually stronger and they tend to win. This almost invariably results in the person from Ahle Sunnah (mainstream Sunnis, or rather this name is used by all who claim to be mainstream Sunnis, including all of the reactionary salafist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS) calling the Quranist a disbeliever or heretic and then promptly leaving the debate. An example is this debate posted online by someone between himself and Dr Bilal Phillips which can be found here:
Sadly, Dr Phillips is authoritarian and dismissive but fails to provide the necessary academic or theological rigour to back up his rather blaise dismissal of the Quranists’ rather subtle point, embarrassing both himself and the ‘mainstream’ Muslims he claims to represent (although he is an avowedly sectarian Salafist and in no way ‘mainstream’ whatsoever).
The main flaw with the approach of the Quranists is that although they successfully display the weakness in the system employed by Hadithists, they do not provide a coherent or systematic alternative system and as such they are not able to fully understand the Quran that they hold to be the only source of guidance. I have expressed many times that the middle way between these two extremes (‘Quran only’ and ‘Hadith Spamming’) is the methodology of the Hanafis in theology, Hadith and their approach to the Quran.
The abovementioned exchange between a Quranist and a Hadithist demonstrates a lack of confidence in the system that those who exaggerate the role of hadith in Islam, namely people such as Bilal Phillips and Salafists in general, including those groups such as Deobandis and Brelwis who follow identical hadith methodologies to Salafis while claiming to be ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Hanafis’, adhere to and hence they resort like Phillips to leaving the debate promptly.
While meditating on the damaging effects of such public embarrassment on the minds of Muslim youth, I was sent many lectures by various scholars, which were deemed ‘refutations’ of the Quranists. To my great regret, there were many contradictions and errors made in these lectures and they were very far from a decent refutation of the methodology or ideas of Quranists. As Imam Al Ghazzali said in his famous ‘Deliverance From Error’, when attempting to refute a particular ideology, it is important that the information you present is accurate and refutes what the opponents actually assert, not what you would like them to have said or ‘heard’ that they believe. Imam Al Ghazzali gave the example of Shi’íte partisans of his time who rightly laughed off ‘refutations’ by Sunnis who had no idea of their actual doctrines. We have seen another example of this displayed very prominently with people being warned away from Sayyed Hossein Nasr’s recent Quranic translation and commentary by a raft of scholars (including those who had previously endorsed it on the book jacket no less) because it was full of ‘Perennialism’. However, these vocal and offensive diatribes and personal attacks on Nasr never once adequately defined what ‘perennialism’ was, least of all referring to the perennialists themselves.
Now the purpose of this post is not to analyse all of the mistakes contained within the entirety of these lectures – there are a large number of mistakes that will not be mentioned in this post such as Hanafis claiming that hadith are split into two, Mutawatir and Ahad. Anyone who reads the first few pages of our book ‘Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith’, or even picks up a basic book on Hanafi Usul (epistemic principles) will know that Hanafis in fact split narrations into three, Mutawatir, Mash’hoor and Ahad. It may be that they are not aware of the positon of the Hanafis and are therefore instead following the hadith science of the Muhaditheen (partisans of hadith). In any case, as this is not relevant to the attempted refutation of Quranists, for the purposes of this blog post I will only highlight the common errors made when attempting to refute the position of the Quranists, which in itself are significant mistakes.
Many scholars mention that Hadith Mutawatir are ones in which there is a rational impossibility that it could be a lie. But this is incorrect. When one delves into the area of epistemology, one realises that it is in fact rationally possible that everyone can collude on a lie. For example, growing up we all watched ‘The Truman Show’, a movie where everyone except the titular actor colluded in a mass conspiracy so that he thought the life he was living was real. So rationally it is possible – but habitually it is not possible that a hadith could be mass narrated from so many different people that they would collude on a lie. Here is an extract from our book speaking about this specific issue:
Incidentally, the impossibility of lying is habitual not logical. Based on logical possibility there is always a small chance the people have colluded on a lie (an ‘unreasonable doubt’ or a belief in an unreasonably huge conspiracy), but habitually from what we experience and know of human sociology and psychology it is in fact impossible.
Furthermore on the issue of Mutawatir, many hadith-centric scholars assert that Muslims did not disagree regarding their definition of Mutawatir or that they did not disagree regarding which hadith meet the conditions of Mutawatir. This is inaccurate. In fact there was a disagreement about both. Here again is a quote from our book regarding the number of hadith that are considered Mutawatir by the scholars of hadith (all references are found in the book itself of course):
According to some scholars there are two hundred agreed upon mutawātir hadith, although in some books it has been stated that there are around four hundred.
For those desiring further evidence which was not included in the book, here are statements from Ansari, Ibn Salah and the third is from a variety of scholars where they state that scholars did disagree about the number of mutawatir hadith and therefore the hadith which are mutawatir are disputed by the scholars.
The third scholar said there are no mutawatir hadith at all, Ibn Salah said there are only a small number of hadith which are mutawatir and Ansari said there are quite a few mutawatir hadith. What this very obviously means is that there is disagreement amongst the scholars about which hadith are mutawatir, in contrast to the bold assertion made by many scholars. Therefore some scholars may consider a certain hadith to be mutawatir whilst others may consider that same hadith to be ahad. To state that there is no disagreement about the hadith which are considered mutawatir is wildly inaccurate.
There is even a disagreement about what actually constitutes a Mutawatir Hadith in the first place. As mentioned in the book, the Hanafi position is that it is a situation where it would be habitually impossible for the people to collude on a lie and as such it reaches the level of habitual certainty. But there is a disagreement about this issue too:
These opinions vary from some who state that there should be at least a minimum of nine narrators to some who state that there should be at least fifty, whilst others have stated there should be a minimum of ninety-nine narrators.
Imam Baqallani stated that the minimum number of narrators for a hadith to be deemed Mutawatir is six narrators. Istakhari states that the minimum number of narrators of Mutawatir is ten and he states he supports this position. Some even state that the minimum number of narrators needed are 12, 40, 315, 70 etc. Therefore, to state that there is no disagreement is again, wildly inaccurate and exceedingly confusing. One has to empower students with accurate tools for thinking and facts which can be deployed without fear of rebuttal – and this is doubly important in matters of creed and theology. We must be even more rigorous in this day and age, when religion is constantly under attack as superstitious nonsense. We must all maintain academic rigor to the best of our ability.
There is also much confusion about specific hadith that scholars have claimed are is Mutawatir. Take for example the hadith about the impermissibility of eating donkey meat which many scholars claim is Mutawatir – which in fact is not true. Mullah Ali Qari, a famous Hanafi scholar from the sixteenth century states there is disagreement about the permissibility of eating donkey, based on the contradictions contained within the narrations of the hadith. Ibn Abbas states that eating donkey is permissible. There are two statements of Imam Malik and the most famous is that it is Makrooh Tanzeeh (disliked). So the positions held by the scholars are quite far from being Mutawatir – there is not even agreement about the issue and in the case of Ibn Abbas he is rejecting the notion of donkey meat being impermissible altogether. Ibn Abbas would not reject something which is from the Prophet (PBUH) for certain, nor would anyone conclude that Ibn Abbas is a disbeliever, since according to most Muslims, rejecting a Mutawatir narration constitutes disbelief. Here are the books stating the opinions:
In an attempt to refute Quranists scholars also claim that praying five times a day was witnessed by 100,000 Sahabah who then narrated it to a number exceeding 1 million, to tens of millions until it reached a billion. This is also incorrect (I won’t go into how these numbers are verified nor the problems of a billion Muslims today having chains going back to the Prophet, which can likewise cause confusion). The issue of five prayers is not narrated in any book such that it reaches the level of mutawatir. The issue is mainly taken from the hadith concerning the miraaj (the ‘Night Journey’ of The Prophet Muhammad) There are only a few sahabah who narrate the hadith about the miraaj. Some of the hadith mention all five of the prayers whilst others mentioned only some of them. An important point to note is that if one person narrates that a hadith which was then heard by one thousand sahabah that hadith is still ahad – as we only have one chain for that hadith. Therefore it is impossible that there are 100 000 hadith or narrators about prayer being five times a day.
The reason why I have highlighted this issue is that if you form your argument based on weak evidence, far from refuting your opponents it in fact leads people to follow them even more, as that weak evidence is easily refuted. It reminds me of a book I read from a famous orientalist scholar Juynboll. He was attempting to refute the concept of mutawatir hadith. He tried to do this by presenting the many hadith which convey that crying for the dead causes pain to the dead person. He mentioned it was mutawatir and then went about scientifically analysing the narrators of the hadith and the weakness contained within the hadith (and indeed, it does contain many weaknesses). The problem with his presentation was that this hadith is not an agreed upon mutawatir hadith in the first place. There are many problems with this hadith according to the Hanafis, therefore refuting it does not disprove the concept of mutawatir hadith at all, but instead merely proves that this particular hadith is not mutawatir. If he had taken an agreed upon mutawatir hadith and refuted it only then would he be able to prove that mutawatir hadith cannot be relied upon. Ironically, the same mistake is made by many Quranists who present the hadith about the last sermon of the Prophet (PBUH) and state that it is mutawatir and then move on to show contradictions within the hadith as it is narrated in three different forms. Again, they make the same mistake that Juynboll made, which is that this hadith is not mutawatir in the first place. Therefore their argument is based on a false premise and weak evidence, as teleological thinking and assuming things a priori always gets one into trouble in any field of knowledge.
Another common error made by these scholars is to use ahad hadith cited in various collections of Tirmidhi to attempt to prove that Quranists are incorrect. Yet this is a profoundly flawed argument. If Quranists do not accept the authority of hadith as their defining feature, why then would you use hadith to prove that they are wrong? It’s the same as using the verses of Quran to disprove the position of an atheist. First one should rationally prove the existence of God, then that the Quran is from God and only then are you able to use the Quran as a proof with a particular individual. Sadly Muslims today have been pushed into a position of extreme confusion vis a vis epistemology and the role of reason due to the inconsistent and ambivalent way these are employed by scholars, who themselves frequently have one eye on pleasing or appeasing Salafis (who are hostile to reason unless it is used against non-Muslims). A very sad example was seen recently when a famous scholar publicly refused to clarify his position on whether young Muslims were to use the intellect or blindly follow authorities. He was perhaps understandably fearful of losing his Saudi sponsored tenure but such embarrassing incidents on social media can be multiplied without end and are a source of shame for Muslims and pleasure for atheists.
The disproportionate anathematisation of the Mu’tazila and reflex shaming of anyone who shows the least bit of sympathy for them is also extremely confusing for Muslims who tend to think as a result that reason is commendable when applied to criticising other religions but reprehensible when applied to ones own.
But I digress – to continue with the rather lacking refutation of Quranists, another claim they go on to say is that the Quranists are different to the ‘hadithists’ because they believe that the Prophets can sin. This is very misleading as it is also the positon of the Ashari, Hadithist and Salafi Schools – please take a read of my article ‘Can Prophets Sin’ which can be found using this link: https://sulaimanahmed.com/2015/03/23/can-prophets-sin-2/. Here you can find that Imam Baqallani, Juwayni, Amidi, Eiji and Sanussi all state that prophets can commit sin and that it is the relied upon position of the Ashari School. Salafi archfiend Ibn Taymiya went as far as adducing the ‘Satanic Verses’ incident as a proof of the Prophets’ ‘humanity’ – as if committing polytheism is the only way to prove that the prophet Muhammad was human! I would be amiss if I did not add that it is one of life’s supreme ironies that Salafists and Wahhabis, who never tire of calling Sufis and their opponents in general ‘grave worshippers’ for believing in a doctrine of intercession or for asking dead people to pray for them, nonetheless venerate a leader who believes that the Prophet himself promoted the intercession of lesser deities. Needless to say, this gross absurdity is soundly rejected by the Hanafi Maturidi School.
It was also mentioned by hadith-centric scholars that it is unfair of the Quranists to mention hadith which are Ahad and go against the sound intellect and reason such as the narration of the Earth being on the horn on bull or Earth being on the back of a whale. This is because Ahad (recall, not mass transmitted) can be authentic weak or forged, therefore why do the Quranists present forgeries when scholars of hadith have stated that it is forgery. Now, as far as I am aware the hadith about Earth being on the horn of a bull is not a hadith from the Prophet (PBUH), but it is from Shia sources which was mentioned by Imam Suyuti. But a more pertinent hadith to the issue is the hadith of Ibn Manda mentioned in ‘Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith’:
If it conflicts with observed reality, it is rejected. For example the hadith of Ibnu Manda that “the Earth is on the back of a whale.” This hadith is rejected as we can see from space (and Earth), that the Earth is not on the back of a whale.
What many scholars fail to mention is that these ahad reports were tested based on the science of hadith followed by the hadithists. The hadith of Ibn Manda meets the five conditions of hadith and as such it was deemed to meet their conditions of authenticity and was accepted. Therefore according to the hadithists, there is a strong probability that the Prophet (PBUH) did say the hadith and therefore it is authentic. Now, I would like to posit here that just as Quranists are unfair and partial, Brelwi/Deobandi/Salafi groups in turn like to minimise their own idiosyncrasies: Brelwis and their Deobandi opponents (both South Asian groups arising in response to British colonialism, both inspired by the hadith scholar and partisan of extremist scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, Shah Wali Allah and both riding on the back of existing support for Hanafism in the Subcontinent and Central Asia while at the same time eradicating Hanafi hadith sciences as they had existed for 1400 years in favour of the Hanbali/Salafi hadith methodology) share the same hadith methodology which compels them to accept such narrations. In essence, neither the Quranists nor Hadithists are willing to be upfront about the problems with their methodology. We can only hope that the opponents of Muslims, multiplying daily, will be similarly willing to ‘overlook’ embarrassing narrations.
I am forced here to present a grievous and unforgivable error, an issue which we encountered with nauseating frequency in both the ‘Study Quran’ issue and again here: declaring ones opponents unbelievers (takfir) on spurious evidences. They mention that the legal ruling on someone who rejects those things known by necessity and also the Sunnah is that he is a disbeliever and that it is not permissible to consider him Muslim nor pray his funeral prayer.
Sunnah is broken up into three, Ahad, Mash’hoor and Mutawatir, therefore grouping it together into one is inaccurate anyway. Rejecting Ahad Sunnah can never lead to kufr as it probabilistic knowledge (zani) therefore it is incorrect to deem a person disbeliever if they reject these types of hadith. In terms of Mutawatir hadith it is only disbelief if one is certain for themselves that it is from the Prophet and then one was to reject it. This is because the definition of Mutawatir is that it reaches the level of habitual certainty. Here is yet another extract from the book explaining the issue:
An important point to consider regarding this issue is that the information needs to be mutawātir to you. This means that you need to have heard the information from many different people and sources to the point where it would be impossible for a person to deny it. Therefore if you heard a mutawātir narration, but it was only from one source, it would not be mutawātir to you and therefore denying it would not equate to disbelief.
Therefore issuing a fatwa of kufr on a whole group based on this is not only incorrect but also premature and the advice that one should not read their funeral prayer is completely without merit and frankly disgusting to any person of sound morals. I advise people who make these statements to repeal them because calling someone a disbeliever is no small matter. Many a times, we see statement of disbelief (Takfeer) levelled at the Quranists either at the end of the conversation or in talks as a way of vilifying them before abruptly ending the conversation.
This kind of willingness to takfir and like it or not, by inference to kill (since most takfiris also militantly insist on the liquidation of ‘apostates’ as being central to Islam – a myth exploded in our book) those who Muslim scholars disagree with is exactly what people rightly fear about Muslims as a group.
I apologise for highlighting these issues in this blog post, but as far as their statements where they lose their sense and in a gross distortion of Islamic legal norms declare a whole group of admittedly deviant people to be unbelievers, I feel it imperative to draw the line between having incorrect opinions and holding positions of disbelief. We have seen recently the ramification of calling someone an apostate, where scholars are supporting terrorism which includes vigilante killing of people they deem apostates. Followers of extremist groups may turn to the streets of Pakistan and the UK, to kill innocent people who follow the Quranist methodology, as they may confusingly think that they are rejecting the Prophet (PBUH).
Our approach on the other hand is that one should not blindly follow scholars but analyse each issue on its own merits. What you then find is that we don’t make the error of accepting all the Hadith contained in Bukhari. But at the same time we do not do as the Quranists, which is to reject a system, but have nothing to replace it. Hence errors are made such as the ones made above by the Quranist. You see errors and fabrications have been made within the corpus of Hadith and therefore you need principles in order to deduce which of them are accepted and which of them are rejected. The flaw of the Quranists is that without a system, they are left unable to explain the Quran or when they make an attempt they are making serious errors, which in this case was accidentally attributing errors to God.
What you find with the Hadithists is that they say that they accept all sahih hadith meeting their five conditions of assessing hadith and regard the redactions of Bukhari etc as final, but when these very same hadith are then brought before them, they reject them but without admitting to said rejection. So for example, the hadith of the Prophet being affected by black magic in Bukhari clearly states that the Prophet (PBUH) imagined he had done things which he had not, which is very obviously an effect on the mind. Yet they will ‘interpret’ this to mean something that does not match the text of the hadith at all (i.e, it affected his body) – a form of rejection – but without honesty. They likewise accept the hadith of the ‘Satanic Verses’ but when approached for an explanation, an insufficient and nonsensical one is given. Hence you have people who use their intellect to reject this approach and move to Quranism.
But we already have a classical methodology, which unlike the Quranist one, provides a strong alternative system in place and has the added benefit of being from the time of the Salaf. If people were to learn this methodology they would be much more inclined to refrain from rejecting the entire corpus of hadith.