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How Do We Know the Prophet Really Said It?
How do we know that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, actually said the things Muslims claim he said? Do the words attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, belong to him or someone else? To answer these questions Muslim scholars developed a scientific method to measure the authenticity, or lack thereof, of each statement attributed to the Prophet. These statements are called ḥadīth. The terms hadīth and Sunna are sometimes used interchangeably, but ḥadīth are the actual statements of the Prophet, and Sunna refers to the teachings found in ḥadīth.
We can never be certain which of the statements attributed to other Prophets in the Old and New Testaments, like Jesus peace be upon him, are actually their words. This is due to the fact that we know very little about those who compiled the New Testament. There is no method to measure their memory or to ensure they were upright people and not fabricating statements and falsely attributing them to Jesus. Furthermore, it is not only a matter of uprightness, but one must question the whether the accounts of previous Prophets were accurately recorded. Conversely, the science of ḥadīth was developed from Islam’s earliest days to ensure that foreign teachings do not enter Islam. Muslim scholars developed the science of ḥadīth which contains two parts: The statement of the Prophet and the chain of people who narrated that statement. Put simply, ḥadīth scholars studied the text and each narrator of the text to ensure they actually met each other and can be traced back to the Prophet peace be upon him. Furthermore, they corroborated different narrators’ transmissions to ensure that they matched. If they found a disparity they knew that something or someone had either fabricated the statement or had made a mistake. This effort led Muslim scholars to produce rigorous criteria for a ḥadīth to be considered authentic and attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
The science of ḥadīth is perhaps the most difficult to master, due to the abundant amount of names, dates, places, and technical jargon. Moreover, many ḥadīth scholars, especially the earliest among them, had their own terminology which is unique to them. For instance, the famous ḥadīth scholar Imam Bukhārī (d. 256/870) was known for not using explicit and harsh terms for his criticism, whereas other scholars would blatantly call a narrator a liar, heretic, or fabricator. The student of ḥadīth must know all of these different terminologies while looking at a chain of narration. This can quickly become overwhelming, however it also causes one to appreciate the great length ḥadīth scholars went to in order to protect and preserve the Sunna. What will be looked at in this series is not the terminology, but the general methods ḥadīth scholars used. It will become clear that the method of ḥadīth criticism was:
- a) Unique
- b) Ingenious
- Scientific and objective
In the next part, we will explain how Allah, in the Qurʾān, promises to preserve both the Qurʾān and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him.