There is a trilogy of texts that define Muslim belief. First is the Quran, the words spoken by Muhammad that Muslims believe were inspired by Allah via the angel Gabriel. Second is the hadith, the sayings and actions of the Prophet written down by his followers mostly after his death. Third is the sira, or early biographies of Muhammad, the first of which was written about 200 years after his death.
Muslims believe that the actions and sayings of Muhammad serve as Allah’s desired standard for all Muslims for all time. With the exception of Prophetic allowances (Muhammad had eleven wives while today’s Muslim can only have four), Muslims are to accept everything in the Quran and the hadith as not only true but divine.
With the arrival of the internet and the translation of these ancient Arabic texts into English that are available online, Muslims faced an unprecedented challenge. The fact is that some of the hadith, even the most authoritative ones in the Sahih Al-Bukhari collection, are just plain silly.
When Jews are confronted with the fact that the law of Moses called for the stoning of adulterers and Christians are reminded that Paul taught that women should cover their heads and be silent in church, they have an easy answer. They simply say, “Yes, that is written there, but we don’t do that anymore.” It’s not so easy for Muslims. They have to try to explain. It’s true that the Christianized, Westernized Muslim living in America who is your friend or neighbor or coworker and probably the nicest person in the world doesn’t take this stuff seriously. In fact, they came to America to get away from the craziness. But over here in the heartland, where mockery or criticism can get you fired, imprisoned, or killed, it’s a different story.
And so religious shaykhs go to great lengths to explain the silly hadiths. Actually I haven’t yet come across an explanation for my all-time favorite. Muhammad said that if a woman becomes pregnant, the child will resemble whichever of the parents first reached orgasm. If the woman came first, the child will look like her. If it was the man, the child will resemble him. If this were actually true, I imagine that ninety percent of American kids would look like their dads. Maybe the reason I haven’t yet heard an Islamic response to this one is simply that it is too wild to even try.
But they do their best to explain other silly hadiths. When the media picked up that Muhammad ordered some sick people to drink a mixture of camel’s urine and milk as a remedy, shaykhs rushed to explain the medicinal advantages of that concoction. When someone pointed out that Muhammad had said that a man should only be in the presence of women who had nursed him, a shaykh issued a fatwa that (unlike in Saudi Arabia where men and women never work together) men and women could work together in the same office if the man was breastfed by all the women in that office.
I was listening the other day to a shaykh on television explaining some more of the silly hadiths to the millions of people watching. He was asked about the time when Muhammad told people not to worry about eating food that a fly had fallen into because even though one wing of the fly carried harmful bacteria the other wing carried the cure. The shaykh explained that “a British doctor” had actually done a study showing that this was true. As usual, he did not give the name of the doctor nor mention where this study was available.
The same shaykh was then asked about the hadith where Muhammad stated that the Children of Israel always took communal baths. Moses, however, chose to bathe alone. One day he laid his clothes on a rock which started to run away. Poor naked Moses had to run after the rock shouting, “My clothes, my clothes!” Without a second’s hesitation, the shaykh replied that this story was indeed true. Was not Allah powerful enough to cause a rock to run?
I have to concede the shaykh’s point. If Allah is all-powerful, he can make a rock do anything he wants it to. I just don’t believe it ever happened.