We study and ponder over aḥādīth to fully benefit from the prophetic knowledge transmitted to the ummah in the form of traditions. Proper investigation in and contemplation on aḥādīth requires that the researchers in this discipline follow certain fundamental principles. If a researcher attempts studying aḥādīth ignoring these principles he will face perplexing questions at every step in this exercise. He would, very likely, lose the straight path. Those intending to steer clear of the danger of losing the true prophetic knowledge will find the following principles helpful in avoiding these dangers. Those taking help from these principles will find the road to understanding aḥādīth quite easy.
There are five fundamental principles of understanding aḥādīth. A detailed discussion on each follows.
The Qur’ān is the Measure of Truth
The first and the foremost principle is that the Qur’ān is the real measure of truth regarding aḥādīth. In fact, it is the only criterion of truth in all religious matters. While discussing the interrelationship between the Ḥadīth, the Sunnah and the Qur’ān, I have explained that the Qur’ān and Ḥadīth are interrelated as the root is related to its branches or a text is to its explanation. The Qur’ān gives the core guidance forming the religion and the sharī‘ah. This Qur’ānic guidance is the basis and foundation of the religion while aḥādīth explain and detail it.
The Qur’ān has many characteristics. It has many names and attributes of which one name, given to it by the Almighty Himself, is mīzān (the criterion/measure). The Qur’ān is the measure of judgment. This means that it works as a judgment over the differences and disputes between the people. It establishes the truth firm and makes it distinct from the untruth. This is the greatest purpose the Qur’ān was revealed to fulfil. It is only the Qur’ān which measures the ideas and views in the divine scale and decides over the validity of what people ascribe to God. It determines what part of the current religious ideas is the truth from God and what part of these is a human addition mixed with the pure divine guidance. The Qur’ān says:
It is God Who has revealed the Book with decisive truth, and the balance (al-mīzān). (Q 42:17)
Certainly We sent our messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the balance (mīzān) that men may conduct themselves with equity. (Q 57:25)
Considering this very quality of the Qur’ān, it has been given the name muhaymin (guardian/criterion). In order to establish justice and equity, we need a balance and a criterion. Almighty God has referred to these two qualities of the Qur’ān in the following verse as well:
And to you we have revealed the Book with the truth, in confirmation of the [prophesies of] the earlier Scriptures, and a criterion (muhayman) over it. So judge between them by that which God has revealed, and do not follow their desires setting aside the truth which has come to you. (Q 5:48)
Everything concerning the religion and the sharī‘ah has to be measured by this criterion. This is a general principle which covers all the religious matters and sources. When we find a ḥadīth which goes against the religion and admits of doubt we have to measure it by the Qur’ān, for the Book rules over it.
Someone may consider aḥādīth independent of the measure of the Qur’ān. He may posit that it is not subject to the Qur’ān and it is a judge for itself. He would, however, be forced to adopt as the part of the religion even the narratives which clearly contradict the Qur’ānic teachings. He would be including in the religion that which does not belong to it.
I believe that every such ḥadīth as is proved unsound when measured on the scale of the Qur’ān, is either a fabrication or a distortion. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to keep the religion of God safe from the onslaught of such narratives. It is unperceivable, on the scale of reason as well as revelation, that the Messenger (sws) negates or contradicts the commands of the Almighty God. The scholars of the religious sciences unanimously hold that any ḥadīth that contradicts the Qur’ān is a munkar narrative. It has to be rejected. I quote the leader of the muḥaddithūn and the greatest servant of the Prophetic tradition, Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal in this regard. Faḍl b. Ziyād reports:
I heard Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal respond to a question regarding the traditions which say that the Sunnah overrules the Qur’ān (qāḍiyatan ‘alā al-Qur’ān) in the following words: “I do not dare say that. However, the Sunnah explicates the Book, defines and explains it.
This means that, according to him, no ḥadīth can abrogate the Qur’ān. We acknowledge the status of aḥādīth. We do not deny it. However, we hold that the claim that it overrules the Qur’ān is baseless.
(Translated by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi from Islahi's Mabadi Tadabbur-i Hadith)
Khaṭīb Baghdādī, Aḥmad b. ‘Alī Abū Bakr, al-Kifāyah fī ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah, (Hayderabad Deccan: Dā’irah al-Ma‘ārif al-‘Uthmāniyah, 1938), 8.