Understanding aḥādīth requires proper understanding of the instances of specification and generalization, situation and context, and the nature of address. A proper understanding of the instances of specification and generalization requires that, while explaining the ḥadīth narratives, one appreciates where an apparently general statement, actually, deals with a specific case. Similarly, one has to appreciate the points in the text where a seemingly specific command is used in a general sense. Muḥaddithūn have discussed these questions in detail. However, this issue is very delicate and one has to remain alive to these facts.
Likewise, understanding the ḥadīth literature requires that the student is able to fully appreciate the implications of the textual context as well as context of situation. This is extremely important to understand. Failure to appreciate the proper textual context as well as context of situation gives rise to grave and complex questions leading to unending disputes. Take, for example, the famous ḥadīth which says:
Leaders shall be from among the Quraysh. (Musnad Aḥmad, No: 19792)
The majority of the scholars of the third and the later generations committed serious errors in determining the true context of this ḥadīth. Literal interpretation of the narrative led them to believe that only the Quraysh could validly rule the Muslims. Evidently, this view puts Islam and Brahmanism on equal ground as far as the political system is concerned. This view clearly ignores that Islam is the first religion aiming to purify the political systems from the evil of Brahmanism.
The primary cause of this error is that the scholars failed to understand the proper context of this prophetic statement. This ḥadīth does not give a universal directive governing the political system of Islam. It does not establish the political superiority of the Quraysh for all times. It is, on the contrary, a prophetic judgment on a political dispute that was buried in the minds of a group of the Anṣār (helpers) of Madīnah. This group expected that, after the Prophet’s (sws) demise, it was they, not the Quraysh, who truly deserved to be the leaders of the Muslim ummah. They based this view on their services to the religion of God. This dispute remained latent in the minds of only a group among the Anṣār during the lifetime of the Prophet (sws). Yet it found expressions in various ways even during his lifetime. The Prophet (sws) feared that, after his demise, the dispute might cause a great divide within the ummah. Sensing this danger, the Prophet (sws) decided to settle the issue during his lifetime. Seen in this light, the prophetic statement means that at that time the people of Arabia would not accept the leadership of any tribe other than the Quraysh. Therefore, immediately after him, the leaders should be elected from the Quraysh. This prophetic decision settled the dispute that arose between the immigrants of Makkah and the Anṣār of Madīnah right after the death of the Prophet (sws). In the famous meeting of the Saqīfah of Banī Sā‘idah, the Anṣār put forward this claim.
True nature of the words of the Prophet (sws), therefore, is that it was a decision on an implicit dispute on the question of leadership of the Muslims. The Prophet (sws) gave his verdict before the dispute clearly manifested itself. He based his decision on the established political superiority of the Quraysh. He did not adduce eternal racial superiority of the Quraysh over the other nations of the world as is entailed by the usual interpretations of the narrative.
One example of errors resulting from incorrect identification of the context of this prophetic saying follows. The leader of a contemporary Islamic movement, on the basis of this ḥadīth, issued a legal opinion (fatwā) to the effect that a sharī‘ah directive can be altered and suspended. In the support of this view he cited the ḥadīth above mentioned. He held that though Islam affirms equality as an established moral principle, yet, in the case of the candidacy for caliphate, the Prophet (sws) found this principle inexpedient. He cancelled this principle and declared that leaders shall be from among the Quraysh.
Take still another example. Some tradition contain following words of the Prophet (sws):
I have been commanded to fight the people until they profess there is no God but Allah. (Bukhārī, No: 385)
Apparent and literal meaning of the narrative, disregarding its true context, validates the Orientalists’ view that Islam was spread by the sword. It also entails that the war against unbelief that the Prophet (sws) started has to go on till the whole mankind embraces Islam and declares Allah to be the only deity. This is plainly wrong. History falsifies this interpretation. We know that the Prophet (sws) accepted jizyah from the People of the Book as well as the Magians (al-majūs). He did not force them to say that there is no God but Allah. Similarly all such people who contracted treaties with Muslims, before their subjugation (mu‘āhid/ahl al-ṣulḥ), were allowed to follow their religion. They too were not forced to convert. We must, therefore, try to discover the true meaning of this narrative. If we consider the word “the people” in the narrative specifically referring to the children of Ismā‘īl, based on obvious textual indications, the ḥadīth narrative conforms to the teachings of the Qur’ān.
I have explained in my commentary on the Qur’ān the Divine law regarding the Messengers (rusul) and their direct addressees. I have explained that sometimes God sends a Prophet (nabī) as a Messenger (rasūl) to a nation. The Messenger makes his message plain. He establishes his claim by a number of portents and removes all possible doubts on his claim to be a Divine Messenger. If his addressees reject him and his message even after the itmām-i ḥujjah (making the truth obvious in a conclusive manner), the rejecters are either struck by God’s cosmic punishment and destroyed or, otherwise, punished at the hands of the believers.
It is this way (sunnah) of God which this ḥadīth explains. It is a historical fact that the Prophet (sws) was primarily sent to the Children of Ismā‘īl, who were his direct addressees. Therefore, after itmām-i ḥujjah was accomplished by the Prophet (sws), they were left to choose between death and faith. They were not held in bondage nor were they offered to pay jizyah and follow their religion.
Similar problematic narratives bearing upon issues of great importance abound in the ḥadīth literature. It is, therefore, very important to learn the context of situation of the reported acts and statements of the Prophet (sws). Failure to understand the true context of such narratives has perplexed most of our renowned scholars who badly failed to explain such problematic narratives. They either adopted apologetic attitude with regard to these narratives or came to hold clearly unfounded views.
.The author refers to the viewpoint of Abū al-Aa‘lā Mawdūdī. See Abū al-A‘lā Mawdūdī, Rasā’il-o-Masā’il, 22nd ed., vol. 1 (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1990), 64-8.