The Hadith
Hadith Sciences

The Views of Orientalists on the Hadith Literature


The question of the value of the hadith literature (sayings of the Prophet) as a legitimate source is a broad one in which orientalists, not only those working on hadiths, but also those in other areas, including Islamic law, Islamic history and the Quran, are interested. For this reason, the discussion here needs to be limited according to some parameters. Focusing on the period between 1848 and 1950 is appropriate, for it allows one to make a chronological analysis and is a period in which leading orientalists produced their major works that shaped the view of the entire orientalist tradition on hadiths.

In the West, hadith studies began to become an independent discipline rather than being a part of studies on Islamic history or the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in 1890 when the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) published the second volume of his famous book, Muhammedanische Studien, in which he focuses on the hadiths. Therefore, any exploration of the orientalist view of the authenticity and sources of hadith literature must focus on the period that starts with Goldziher, although one also should pay attention to earlier studies as well.

Prior to Goldziher, an important figure in the literature was Gustav Weil (1808-1889), who argued in his Geschichte der Chaliphen that all the hadiths in al-Bukhari must be rejected. He was also skeptical of the authenticity of those verses in the Quran that speak of the Prophet as a mortal being and those about the event of the Isra (the night journey - a miraculous event). Shortly after him, Aloys Sprenger (1813-1893) argued in his three-volume book Das Leben und die Lehre des Mohammad, published between 1861 and 1865, that the hadith literature contains more authentic material than fabricated events. Another orientalist who worked on the authenticity of the hadith literature is William Muir (1819-1905). In the introduction to The Life of Mahomet, he proposed a number of criteria to establish the authenticity of hadiths, thereby giving the first examples of the orientalist effort to establish a chronology for them. According to Muir, although narrators often made distortions in hadith texts, the hadith literature largely contains historical facts. Finally, the last name in the pre-Goldziher era that should be mentioned is that of Reinhart Dozy (1820-1883) with his Het Islamisme (1863). Influenced by both Sprenger and Muir, Dozy argued that about half of the hadiths in al-Bukhari were authentic. For him, the fact that the writing of the hadiths occurred in the second century after the Hijrah was the reason why many fictitious hadiths to be included in the literature. His work, which also involves the claim that the revelations were epileptic crises, "generated negative reactions from all circles of society for insulting religious values" (Hatiboglu, "Osmanli Aydinlarinca Dozy'nin Tarih-i Islamiyyet' ine Yoneltilen Tenkitler [Criticism Directed to Dozy's History of Islam by the Ottoman Intellectuals], p. 202).

Ignaz Goldziher, a prominent figure who is referred to by every orientalist working on the hadiths, was also skeptical about the hadith literature, but disagreed with Dozy on his view that at least half of the hadiths in al-Bukhari should be considered as authentic. Revealing his overall distrust of the hadith literature, he claimed that the great majority of the hadiths were products of the religious, historical and social conditions prevalent in the first two centuries of Islam. For him, this literature contains all kinds of competing political views. Although he sometimes implies that the hadith literature might contain some amount of authentic material, he is not clear on this issue. Also, he claims that the significance of the sunnah (practices of the Prophet) as a legitimate source had gradually increased - a claim which would be taken up by later orientalists, particularly by Schacht and his followers, who argued that the prophetic traditions were not a reference source at the beginning of Islamic history. Goldziher draws a picture of a Muslim society where the fabrication of hadiths was a widespread phenomenon, with people frequently producing fictitious hadiths for political or other purposes. He argues that different groups would either make up many hadiths that supported their respective positions, or modify existing traditions to justify their views, or else censor the hadiths that had been adopted by others. He also accuses Muslim scholars of relying solely on the isnad (chain of transmitters) without paying attention to ‘obvious anachronisms' in hadith texts.

The Dutch orientalist C. Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), a contemporary of Goldziher's, claimed, just like the latter, that the hadith literature was a product of dominant groups in the first three centuries of Islam, and thus it reflected their views. Both orientalists agree on the idea that different groups made up many hadiths and used them as a means to gain their objectives. Likewise, they both claim that the hadith literature contains many elements of the Old and the New Testament, as well as Roman law. According to Hurgronje, when the Muslims scholars realized that these foreign elements had started to become a threat, they started sorting them out and eliminating those that were having a negative impact; however, they kept those elements that had become an integral part of the Islamic tradition, and then erased any sign that might have indicated their real source, calling these retained traditions "hadith". Accordingly, Hurgronje asserts that the idea that the roots of these hadiths can be traced all the way back to the Prophet is completely false and that the life and teachings of the Prophet cannot be re-constructed based on these traditions - an assertion that is a logical consequence of his biased view of the hadith literature.

Goldziher's claim that Muslim scholars could not notice the ‘obvious anachronisms' in hadith texts was also taken up by the Belgian orientalist Henri Lammens (1862-1937). According to him, since the Muslim ulema (scholarly class) largely confined their efforts to the critique of narrative chains (isnad) and paid insufficient attention to the internal/textual critique of the hadiths, they failed to notice logical and historical impossibilities and anachronisms in the narrations. As on many points, he agrees with Goldziher about the allegedly fictitious nature of the traditions, and argues that Islamic law was very much influenced by Roman law. According to Lammens, elements borrowed from foreign sources were not only falsely attributed to the Prophet and his Companions through the fabrication of hadiths, but they also had been completely assimilated into Islamic law, thereby making it seem as if Islamic lae was an original and authentic legal tradition.

Another orientalist scholar who takes the idea that Islamic law is an imitation of other systems as self-evident is David Samuel Margoliouth (1858-1940). Highly influenced by Goldziher and Muir, Margoliouth claims that the development of the hadith literature, as explicated in Goldziher's studies, should lead the researcher to be skeptical and to constantly ask the question, "what is the possible reason for the fabrication of this particular hadith?" In addition to being influenced by his predecessors, Margoliouth also had a considerable impact on subsequent orientalists, particularly Joseph Schaht, and through him, the entire orientalist tradition. In this context, his most effective assertion is the idea that the concept of the "sunnah" was originally used to refer to pre-Islamic customs/traditions that had not been abolished by the Quran. For him, the attribution of the term "sunnah" to the Prophet's sayings and deeds was a result of a slow and gradual process. One of the reasons behind this transformation, he argues, was the desire to prevent a potential anarchical situation that might be caused by the prevalence of the traditions and life styles of the different groups that were integrated into the Muslim world as a result of the expansion of Islam. Margoliouth sees the concepts of infallibility (ismah) and non-recited revelation (wahy ghayr matluw) as theories constructed to justify the position of the Prophet's sunnah as a legitimate source of the law. A similar claim was made by Goldziher in the context of ghayr matluw revelation. Margoliouth maintains that at the end of the process of justifying existing practices by referring them to the Prophet, with these practices becoming the Prophet's sunnah and thus strengthening authority, al-Bukhari tried to sort out the hadiths with his strict rules; however, in the view of Goldziher the authenticity of those traditions he considered to be reliable are still questionable.

Another Western orientalist in the pre-1950 period is Josef Horovitz (1874-1931), who is known for his studies on the seerah literature. However, as Horovitz himself remarks, it is not possible to completely separate the latter from the hadith literature. He tried to establish the chronology of the isnad by employing the methods of Ibn Ishak (85/704-151/768). According to Horovitz, the isnad first emerged in the last quarter of the first century AH. Although this is an earlier date for the start of the isnad than that given by previous orientalists, Horovitz was still skeptical about the isnad in terms of its role in establishing the ‘sources' of hadiths, unlike other orientalists, such as G. H. A. Juynboll, who traced the isnad back to the same date. Likewise, although Horovitz differs from his predecessors on the issue of the chronology of the isnad, he occupies common ground with them in terms of the assertion that Islam contains many elements from other religions and cultures. He describes Islam as "an area where syncretism dominates."

The same assertion was also made by the Dutch orientalist Arent Jan Wensinck (1882-1939), who was a leading member of the famous Concordance project. A study on the Dutch orientalist tradition reports that while he was working on his PhD dissertation on Prophet Muhammad's relationships with the Jews in Medina, Wensinck realized the significance of the hadiths for Islamic theology, and thus started the Concordance project in order to make sure that the hadiths could be used more efficiently in studies on Islam. He claims that the scope of the provisions of the Quran was limited to the Medina context, and with the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula there emerged the need for different moral and legal sources; these Muslims found in Roman and Jewish law, Christian ethics and asceticism, and Hellenism. Elements taken from these external traditions, according to him, compensated for the missing traditions, and they are contained in the hadith literature. He further claims that this literature includes not only those elements borrowed from the above-mentioned traditions, but also the hadiths fabricated by competing groups, as Goldziher argued before him. For this reason, Wensinck sees the hadiths as an important source for the history of Islamic theology. Assuming that the Quran was authored by the Prophet, he claims that the hadiths were produced by Islamic society after him, and that this is the reason why they have been so popular among Muslims.

Another Western scholar working on the prophetic traditions, Alfred Guillaume (1888-1965), differs from his predecessors with his claim that the different ways in which the hadiths were fabricated reflect the political and religious tendencies of competing groups. He also argues that only a few of the hadiths can belong to the authorities to whom they were attributed, based on mistakes made during the narration process. His work on the hadith literature entitled The Traditions of Islam makes it necessary to mention his name in this context.

It can be observed that all of the orientalists mentioned so far share a common skeptical attitude towards the hadith literature. At this point, we may refer to a different view in the orientalist literature, namely that of Johann Fueck (1894-1974), who criticizes the skeptical approach of his predecessors, arguing that the Prophet had set an ideal example for Muslims from the beginning. He stresses the uniting, as opposed to dividing, aspects of the hadith literature, focusing on independent and neutral hadith scholars rather than an idea of competing groups fabricating prophetic traditions. According to Fueck, those who see the hadith literature as simply a collection of views of later generations ignore the deep influence of the Prophet on believers. They thus fail to see the originality of the hadith literature, regarding it instead as a ‘mosaic' composed of many foreign elements. Consequently, they accept the hadiths as fabricated until proven otherwise. For Fueck, however, despite the fact that hadith scholars were not completely successful in eliminating fabricated hadiths, the hadith literature contains many authentic traditions. For when the activities of collecting hadith started fifty years after the death of the Prophet, only the younger Companions were still alive and the ulema of hadith narrated only from them. In this context, the fact that there are very few traditions narrated from such companions as Abu Bakr and Omar, who were closer to the Prophet, increases the credibility of the hadith scholars. (For, according to Fueck, if these scholars had been fabricating the hadiths as was claimed, they would have attributed them to older companions who were closer to the Prophet, rather than the younger ones, for this would support the soundness of their [fabricated] hadiths; but the fact that they did not do so proves their trustworthiness.) On the other hand, Fueck argues that the narrative chains of hadiths can ultimately be traced back only to the second century (AH), while there is no sound evidence for the preceding period. Although he admits the idea that the roots of the sunnah can be found in the first century, he claims that some modifications and revisions in the hadiths were made by later generations. Nevertheless, he still differs from earlier orientalists in arguing that in many cases the authentic essence beneath these modifications can be established on the basis of certain criteria.

It is clear that all the orientalists mentioned so far, with the notable exception of Johann Fueck, basically agree with, and expand upon, the views put forward by Goldziher. Nevertheless, Joseph Schacht (1902-1969), who made an impact on his successors similar to that of Goldziher, complained that the findings of the latter had been ignored and consequently the ‘standards lowered'. By ‘lowered standards' he meant, of course, the abandonment of Goldziher's skepticism towards hadiths. He saw his own studies as an extension of Goldziher's work, and started from the basic premise that the hadiths were not traditions that conveyed the Prophet's sayings and practices, but were rather simply a reflection of developments and dominant views in second-century Islamic society. According to Schacht, it was al-Shafi's (150/767-204/820) efforts that allowed the hadiths to become a legitimate source of Islamic law, gaining an ultimately authoritative position vis-à-vis opinion; within 50 years there was a great wave of marfu (hadiths that belonged to the Prophet) narrations. Accordingly, Schacht alleges that the marfu hadiths first emerged in the middle of the second century (AH), and the legitimate hadiths belonging to the Companions (mawkuf traditions) emerged in the early second century. As is apparent from this periodization, he claims that the adoption of the hadiths of the Prophet as a source of law in Islam took place at a later date than that of the traditions of the Companions - that is, the latter were adopted at a time closer to the Prophet himself. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, the date he provides for the traditions of the Companions does not reach further back than 100 (AH), which also invites another of his assertions. According to Schacht, it is not possible to find any authentic tradition among those attributed to the Companions either. He argues that authentic legal traditions can only be found among those attributed to the subsequent generation, the generation of Successors (tabiun). Thus, the implications of his allegations are serious. Furthermore, although he admits that the hadiths about theological issues could be dated to an earlier time than the legal traditions, Schaht nevertheless asserts that not all of these hadiths can be dated to the first century. He also maintains that his conclusions about legitimate hadiths can be applied to historical narratives as well. Considering all this, his assertions might be said to have far-reaching implications. Thus, Schacht became a major figure in orientalist literature, greatly influencing the later scholars - so much so that the subsequent generations of orientalists have been divided into either those who accept his claims or those who do not, making him a central figure in the literature.

The orientalists briefly discussed so far are those who represent the mainstream tradition of Islamic studies in the West. The designation of Schacht as a turning point is not only due to his great influence on his successors, but also because he shaped the direction of the discipline by generating a strong reaction against his assertions. The common allegation of his own work and this period in general can be summarized thus: contrary to what Muslims think, there was no intense activity of hadith narration or any systematic scientific effort on the part of Muslim scholars in this area during or after the lifetime of the Prophet. For this reason, the orientalists of this period do not believe in the authenticity of the hadith literature, nor do they ever directly relate it to the Prophet in any way. However, this attitude makes it impossible to say anything about the first century and prevents further research, turning it into a closed period. Those Western scholars who have realized this and tried to make use of the hadiths on the basis of certain criteria they have established, on the other hand, are accused (by Schacht) of "lowering the standards".



aliyu kawal namadi
aliyu kawal namadi03.11.2016

Alhamdulillah may Allah uplift you to highest pedestral



Abdulrauf Suleiman
Abdulrauf Suleiman25.10.2016

alhamdulillah allahu akbar thanks for teaching i have gained fron it jazakallahu khair ya akhee



muhammad shahid shagari.
muhammad shahid shagari.31.08.2015

alhadulillah that islam have you. thank you also for your effort.



Hafiz  Saeed Ahmed
Hafiz Saeed Ahmed27.09.2014

what an excelant article



khalid khan
khalid khan30.06.2012

Excellenat article. May Allah increase in your knowledge and imaan.