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Hadith

Hadith are reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and other early Muslims. After Muhammad's death, his companions carefully noted all of his teachings and actions, which they studied as the ideal model for Muslim behavior. They recounted these teachings to other Muslims so that the memory of the Prophet's life and works might influence the community of believers. Hadith (the word may be used as singular or collective) are a central part of Muslim culture. After the Qur'an, they are the most important source of guidance for Muslims.

Providing Clues About Early Islam.

As preserved for subsequent generations, hadith take the form of short, unconnected pieces, each of which is preceded by a list of its authoritative transmitters, or those who reported the text. Hadith cover many topics relating to both faith and daily life. In addition to such religious subjects as prayer, purification, and pilgrimage, hadith also address business transactions, inheritance, marriage and divorce, crime, judicial practices, war, hunting, and wine. Using direct language and a conversational style, each chapter of hadith contains anecdotes about how the Prophet dealt with these matters. Muslims use these stories for guidance in dealing with every aspect of their own lives. The hadith are also admired as examples of the richness of Arabic prose from the early Islamic era.

Throughout the history of Islam, the Qur'an and hadith have functioned together to shape the life of the Muslim community worldwide. Hadith provide the basic sources for the biography of the Prophet, filling in details about his personality, family life, and career. Hadith also help Muslims to interpret the Qur'an by explaining the circumstances in which portions of the sacred book were revealed, by supplying the meanings of obscure verses and words, and by providing examples in which the Qur'anic texts were applied to situations in daily life. By the early 800s, hadith had also become officially accepted as one of the sources of Islamic law.

Checking the Sources.

Hadith were gathered and transmitted orally for two centuries before being collected in written form and codified. Compilers searched widely for hadith, carefully recording reports exactly as received from recognized experts. They verified the chains of authority and transmission as far back as possible, often to Muhammad himself. These chains of transmission were assessed for their authenticity by examining the number of transmitters, their credibility, and by the continuity of the chains. The nature of the text was also examined. Reports that seemed illogical, exaggerated, or contradictory to the Qur'an were considered suspect.

In the 800s, an authoritative version of hadith was developed. It contained six large collections, which take their titles from the names of their compilers: al-Bukhari (died 870 ); Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (died 875 ); Abu Daud al-Sijistani (died 888 ); Ibn Majah al-Qazwini (died 887 ); Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi (died 892 ); and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Nasai (died 915 ). Sunni Muslims accept these volumes as the most authoritative texts and also respect the collections of Malik ibn Anas (died 795 ) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died 855 ).

Shi'i Muslims use these same collections but recognize only some of the Prophet's companions as valid authorities. They consider hadith from descendants of Muhammad through Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatimah, as well as those from later imams, to be fully authoritative. From the standpoint of their particular beliefs, Shi'i Muslims consider four hadith collections as particularly important—those of Muhammad ibn Yaqub al-Kulayni (died 940 ), Muhammad ibn Babuyah al-Qummi (died 991 ), and two collections of Muhammad al-Tusi (died 1068 ).

Studying the Hadith.

By the time the hadith collections had been completed, a science of criticism had developed. Scholars focused on the reliability of the original sources and the accuracy of the transmission from oral to written form. Awareness of possible fabrication, or invention, and false teachings has long been a concern, and it has become a major issue in academic circles since the 1900s. A great deal of literature emerged dealing with many aspects of the hadith, including historical context, the study of difficult words, and explanations of contradictions. While there are some new perspectives based on recently discovered material, Muslims generally depend on hadith treatises and commentaries of past centuries.

Some reform-minded scholars have recently suggested that the refusal of many Muslims to engage in a rigorous examination of hadith literature is blind conformity to the ways of the past. Some writers have composed thoughtful restatements of the ancient manuals, demonstrating a sensitivity and awareness to modern problems. Although this has provoked some controversy, reformists have refrained from attacking the hadith themselves but have simply urged Muslims to be more thoughtful in their acceptance of material attributed to the Prophet.

Since the 1990s, hadith scholars have been using computer technology to improve access to the vast amount of material in hadith collections. Specialists have created CD-ROMs that contain some 75,000 hadith, as well as their translations into ten languages. See also Ablution; Hajj; Law; Muhammad ; Prayer; Qur'an.

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