Q - When is an authentic Hadith no longer authentic?
A - When it says something about Muhammad you don't want to believe.
At Muslims and the Seerah I suggested that Muslims deny unsavory parts of Muhammad's biography that do not correspond with the mental image they hold of their Prophet. Do they do the same with the Hadith?
Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi was quick to respond when Wafa Sultan quoted Muhammad saying the gates of heaven are under the shadow of swords (Bk 4, Nr 4681). "She is Jahilah, an ignorant woman," he thundered on the next al-Jazeera episode of Shariah and Life. "Besides, that is a weak Hadith."
The first part of his retort was to be expected. Ignorance is the favorite word used by Muslims to describe their opponents; you haven't criticized Islam if you haven't been called ignorant. After all, if the Jewish and Christian tribes of the Arab Peninsula were all living in Jahaliya before Muhammad blinded them with the glorious light of Islam, is it to be expected that anyone who turns away from that light 14 centuries later could avoid the same epithat?
But the second part of his answer was fascinating. Sahih Muslim, who along with al-Bukhari was the greatest Muslim scholar of the Hadith, slipped a weak Hadith into his collection that escaped the Ulema for over 1200 years until al-Qaradawi discovered it? Or did the Hadith communicate something about Muhammad that the Shaykh does not want us to know?
Western Muslims love to remind us that Muhammad said that Paradise is at the feet of mothers. That Hadith, narrated by Muawiyah ibn Jahimah from the al-Tirmidhi collection, truly is a weak Hadith (comment: Islam must have numerous Paradises, if one is at the feet of mothers and another is under the shadow of swords. Muhammad stated repeatedly that most of the inhabitants of Hell are women (Vol 1 Bk 6 Nr 301). Almost all Arab women are mothers. How can most of them be in Hell if heaven is at their feet?).
Fatima Mernissi is a Muslim writer popular among her readers for her attemps to demonstrate that Hadiths considered authentic for centuries but detrimental to women are really "weak Hadiths". She claims, for example, that Muhammad's statement that the prayer of a man is invalidated if a woman, donkey, or dog passes in front of him is a weak Hadith (Bk 4, Nr 1034). Although her fans think of her as bold, she really is doing nothing different than Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Rather than raise the question of whether Muhamad was a misogynist, she simply denies any evidence that suggests that he was.
In his Book of Songs, 10th century Iranian scholar Abulfaraj told the story of a poet named Attabi who was eating bread in a mosque. When a friend asked if he was not ashamed to eat in front of people, Atabi replied, "Would you be ashamed to eat in front of a cow? These people are no more intelligent than cattle; let me show you." He gathered a crowd together and invented a Hadith in which the Prophet said that whoever touched the tip of his nose with his tongue would escape hell. The entire audience began trying to do that, with Attabi turning to his friend and asking, "Do you see what I mean?"
I think Muslims are similar today. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Muslims are allowed only three responses when they hear their Prophet say that a newborn child will resemble the parent who first reached orgasm, a woman is only allowed to be in the presence of a non-family male if she has nursed him, or you don't need to worry about flies dropping in your soup because the bacteria on one wing will be neutralized by the medicinal value of the other (Bk 4, Vol 54, Nr 537). They can claim it is a weak Hadith (meaning that Muhammad did not really say it), they can argue it is a strong Hadith but was valid only for the time of the Prophet, or they can believe that it is a strong Hadith valid for all time. The one thing they are not permitted to do is simply respond, "Yeah, he could have said that. It was a ridiculous thing to say, wasn't it?"
Bear with me as I engage in a little Tafseer (Quranic and Hadith exposition) of just one of many subjects in the Hadith hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world accept without thought or question.
The Prophet and the Gecko:
1. Muhammad did not like the "wazagh" (variously translated as gecko or salamander), that often strikingly-beautiful little creature that runs up and down walls and across deserts throughout the Middle East. It was an evil creature, the Prophet said, because it used its cheeks as billows to stir the flames of the fire of Abraham (Vol 4, Bk 55, Nr 579):
Any intelligent person should already sense their truth antennae rapidly rising. The story of Abraham was one of many that Muhammad stole from the Hebrew Scriptures and inserted into the Quran. When the story itself did not serve his purpose, which was to demonstrate that these ancient Prophets had all been persecuted as he was, he added details that he either made up or found in local folk or religious traditions. One of these was the claim that Abraham was thrown into a fire (according to the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the three friends of Daniel who were thrown into a furnace but textual accuracy was never one of Muhammad's strong points). This fire, according to Islamic tradition, was so large that a bird flying above it was burned. Can you really believe that a gecko blew into the fire to fan the flames? Does it make any sense that its descendants thousands of years later should be cursed as a result?
2. As a result of this dislike for the salamander, Muhammad told his followers to kill them. He even promised they would gain one hundred brownie points with Allah if they killed them on the first blow, but less if it took two or more blows (Bk 26, Nr 5564) (incidentally, the Arabic used here for "blow" is the exact same word used in the Quran to beat disobedient wives, but more of that in my next post).
I know that "brownie points" sounds like a trivial translation for the important Arabic word hasanat, but I'm not sure I know a better one. Muslims believe our acts of virtue are balanced against our sins on Judgement Day, with destiny depending upon the outcome. Before looking more closely at what the Quran says about hasanat, let's first consider Muhammad's command to kill the geckos. How can you seriously follow a God who grants "hasanat", not for following the Golden Rule or acts of compassion, but for killing salamanders? How can you believe that the weak old man who can only kill them after three blows gains less virtue than the strong young man who kills them with one blow? At any rate, suppose you've had a good day and killed 10 geckos with one blow each. According to Muhammad, you have gained 1000 hasanat, or good points with God. What's next?
3. In a type of heavenly matching donation game, Allah promises his devotees in Surat al-Anam (Quran 6:160) that he will multiply any virtuous hasanats presented to him by ten. The young man who killed 10 geckos to gain 1000 hasanats suddenly has them multiplied to 10,000! The same verse promises that sins will not be multiplied. In other words, if you commit only one sin, but have killed ten geckos, you have 10,000 hasanats in your favor against only one sin for which you are liable. It's not a bad deal!
4. If this was not clear enough, Surat Hud (Quran 11:114) promises Muslims that if they perform the required five daily prayers, their good deeds (read Arabic "hasanat") will remove their sins. Again, the ratio is one-for-one. One hasanat will remove one sin. Imagine that our friend who killed ten geckos on the first blow for 1000 hasanat that were multiplied by Allah to 10,000, got drunk and cheated on his girlfriend last night, but lied about it to her today. Three hasanats will take care of those three sins, leaving him with 9,997 hasanats to his credit for future mistakes.
The Arabic verb "to laugh", dahaka, includes the concept of laughing at people because of their naivete. Several Hadiths, including this by Bin Majah, note that a slave woman (yes, Muhammad had slaves) entered Aisha's house and saw a spear hanging on the wall. When she asked the reason for the spear, Aisha replied, "The Prophet of Allah told us that when Ibrahim was thrown into the fire, the salamander was blowing on the fire to keep it burning. So the Prophet of Allah told us that they must be killed."
Can you not visualize Muhammad mocking the innocence of his nine-year-old child bride, sexual partner, and house servant, by telling her this boogie-man story of the evil salamander? Speaking of mockery, Muslims often make fun of Christians for their belief that they are saved by the blood of Jesus. This from the religion that apparently finds salvation in the blood of geckos?
Your Western-educated Muslim intellectual friends will without doubt quickly dismiss all that I have said above. They like to use academic expressions such as "extensive narrative tradition" when discussing the Hadith to give the impression there are deep moral and spiritual truths hidden within them that I have yet to find.
If you understand Arabic and really want to know the significance of Hadiths such as these, simply google "kutl al-wazagh", killing the gecko, in an Arabic web browser. Immediately almost 85,000 references will pop up. Most are in Arabic, although some such as this have pages in English. Read them carefully, and you will find thousands of Muslims all over the world writing to their Imams and Shaykhs with questions about geckos. "Do I get more hasanats if I kill a big gecko?" "I've committed a major sin; how many salamandars must I kill to be forgiven?" Again, Western Muslims brush aside the significance of questions such as this, but they are at the heart of Islam.
Karen Armstrong recently spoke to students in Sharjah about the Golden Rule. Can you imagine 85,000 young Muslims asking their Imams for advice on how to practically follow the Golden Rule rather than inquiring about how many geckos they have to kill to be forgiven for this or that sin? I'm an optimist who believes it could happen, but never will until Muslims begin to leave Muhammad behind.
Acknowledgement: some of the above material was discussed at the Arabic TV show Daring Question with host Rashid.