The Issue of Laymen Reading Ahadith

While living in an unprecedented time of access to information, Muslims around the world are also being challenged with ideas like atheism and agnosticism. Adding further to the problems of the layman Muslim are splinter groups and pseudo-scholars who encourage people to turn away from traditional Islam and take up the challenge of reading, understanding and interpreting Quran/Hadith on their own.

With that said, reading Hadith is fine, it just depends on what you read. Simply reading Bukhari isn’t a smart idea because Hadith are complex. Reading something like Riyad al Saliheen is better, because it is mainly just virtues, morals, etc. Imam Nawawi’s 40 Ahadith is also a good read, preferably with some sort of commentary, like the one by ibn Daqiq al ‘Id(ra).

Here are a list of points of why simply opening up Sahih al-Bukhari (or any other legal Hadith books) and trying to extract rulings from them is not the best idea:

  1. Hadith need to be contextualized. Every Hadith happened during some point in the Prophet’s(SAW) time, in some sort of environment/setting/context/event. Thus, a Hadith may say something, but it may be a reference to something specific. This is why Hadith scholars read and understand Ahadith as a whole, not as solitary passages, because some Ahadith explain other Ahadith and/or give a context to other Ahadith.
  2. Not all Ahadith are binding (or even applicable) to us. The Prophet(SAW) was not only a Messenger who brought revelation, but he was also a political leader, a judge, etc. Thus, there are some Ahadith in which the Prophet(SAW) is acting as a judge (Qadhi), and those Ahadith are NOT binding on us and can only be used with a judge’s permission. The reason for this is that the Prophet(SAW), as a judge, looked at the situation of the case he was judging (let’s say he was solving a dispute between 2 parties) and he assessed accordingly. That specific case/scenario is for the most part unique to that context, thus scholars have to first look carefully at those Ahadith and judge them accordingly to see if they fit another case (or as we say in law, a “set of facts”). The Prophet(SAW) also was a political leader and Ahadith about war, war gains, etc, can generally only be used with the Khalifa’s(head of state’s) permission. Of course scholars disagree on which Ahadith exactly are under the category of Messenger, political leader or judge, but the point is that these do exist. Refer to “Treatise on Maqasid al-Shari’ah” by Ibn Ashur(ra) for a more detailed account on this point.
  3. There are many sayings from the Salaf-us-Salih(Pious Predecessors) and the classical scholars about Hadith, they all generally look like this, “Hadith are a means of going astray”. Hadith needs tools to truly be understood, and who has those tools? The Muhadithun (scholars of Hadith). Us laymen don’t have those tools. The tools that are referred to here is the science of Hadith (also known as Usul al-hadith, Ulum al-hadith, or Mustalah al-hadith). On top of this, another set of tools is also required to truly understand Ahadith, and these are Usul al-fiqh(the principles of jurisprudence). This science is very important as this science tells us how to interpret and understand Divine Text (the Quran and the Ahadith literature) according to sound principles. Without following these sound principles, we may understand the texts incredibly wrong and become misguided.
  4. One must remember that the original language of Ahadith are in Arabic, so without in-depth knowledge of the Arabic language, you will not be able to fully grasp the nuance and details of the text. Words typically have different layers of meanings. These are a linguistic meaning, a technical meaning, a cultural/popular meaning, and an Islamic meaning. Even if one knows Arabic, they may be unaware of the specific cultural/popular definition of a word in the Prophet’s(SAW) time, and thus they may think they understand the Hadith, but in reality completely misunderstood it. Going back to Usul al-fiqh, one of the things that are discussed in this science is the Arabic language and how phrases can have multiple meanings. So without knowing the nuance of Usul al-fiqh, how is one supposed to understand the delicate language of the Hadith literature?

To conclude, people should not be discouraged from reading Ahadith, but the layman Muslim needs to keep the above points in mind when reading Hadith. This is especially true for legal Ahadith, because if you misunderstand them, you may go astray. To reiterate what was said at the beginning, it is best to read books such as Riyad al Saliheen, because these types of books have full explanations from our noble scholars.

— The following article was written by Mohammed al-Afghani, a USA-based student enrolled in full-time Islamic studies with a focus on Shafi’i fiqh and Hadith

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