Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy

Few things provoke controversy in the modern world like the religion brought by Muhammad. Modern media are replete with alarm over jihad, underage marriage and the threat of amputation or stoning under Shariah law. Sometimes rumour, sometimes based in fact and often misunderstood, the tenets of Islamic law and dogma were not set in the religion’s founding moments. They were developed over centuries by the clerical class of Muslim scholars. Misquoting Muhammad takes the reader back in time through Islamic civilization and traces how and why such controversies developed, offering an inside view into how key and controversial aspects of Islam took shape.


A Review

This is probably one of the most timely and necessary books I’ve read on the question of Islam and its continued vitality in the face of modernity. Starting with an examination of the tools of Islamic legal exegesis – a hugely expansive field – the author demonstrates the means by which it has traditionally been determined what “Islam” is in any particular area, or even region.

Particularly, as a scholar of hadith, he shows how hadith have come to be transmitted by various means and most interestingly he discusses philosophical approaches its transmitters have taken throughout history.

The idea of a hadith being rated “sound” (sahih) does not connote with its identification with an actual reality as such. There have always been different levels and types of truth and definitions of what is “true” (pragmatic truths, correspondent truths, coherent truths) and if a saying or represented a greater good. Furthermore, there has always been an accepted consensus among Islamic scholars that there were a huge number of fabricated hadiths which have been created and often accepted for myriad reasons. I won’t go into great detail here, but it bears saying that the author uses an incredible range of history to show that hadith have never been an exact science or intended to operate on par as a second Quran. Hadith are not and have never been intended as an infallible stopgap against reason, or intended to overwhelm scriptural evidence from the Quran or from other sources of Islamic history. Interestingly, this has also been the position of ulama throughout history.

Such a position is not to endorse the modernist (and essentially incoherent) Quran-only approach to usul-al-fiqh, but to say that the idea of doubting particular hadith, especially when faced with preponderance of starkly contradictory evidence, or when it goes against empirically rationality or established Islamic conceptions of the “good”, has never been an unprecedented position and has historically been quite common. Only when faced with the wages of modernity and the insecurities it has wrought has this ossified in contemporary times.

One thing I truly appreciated, and I think any reader would, is the authors forthright engagement with some of the biggest theological flashpoints between Islam and the contemporary West. The mentions of domestic abuse, carnal pleasures allegedly enjoyed by martyrs, jihad, relations between faiths, the marriage of Muhammad (saw) and Aisha, as well supernatural events related in the Quran, are often mustered as the best evidence supposedly against it. However this is a superficial engagement with 1400 years of Islamic jurisprudence, within which one can find intellectually satisfying answers to all these questions which also happen to correspond with normative belief throughout history. The author goes into the lives and trials of those Islamic modernists who have felt epistemological crisis when confronted by seemingly irreconcilable differences between the canon of their own cherished civilization and the realities of modernity. In fact, such a conflict does not seem very stark when Islamic beliefs and knowledge are viewed in the full light of understanding.

Although it also could not be said to track perfectly to Western modernity (nor can anyone religion) neither the Quran nor the hadith can said to endorse any of these things. Indeed, saying “the Quran/hadith/sharia says…” on any matter is inherently absurd. One can find a plethora of different soundly argued points within Islamic scholarship, and within each individual madhab, on essentially any legal position. The sharia, much maligned today, has always been a much more flexible, humane and intellectually sophisticated tradition than many of its supporters or detractors even seem aware of. Bringing up hadiths for instance which on surface appear vulgar, impossible or cruel fails to recognize how or why they were even recorded (for instance, hadiths dealing with non-temporal issues such as the afterlife were recognized as being allowed to take liberties in description out of the belief it’d serve the pragmatic truth of exhorting goodness and effort towards God, while those recording methods of worship were recorded far more stringently). It also fails to incorporate linguistics, the obvious and necessary shifting of terms and contexts in language over 1400 years, not to mention the way hadith were manufactured or accepted for varying reasons.

As the author mentions, epistemological periods often change when people come to discard or change their canonical literature. The sources of what is considered absolute truth, the truth in light of which reality is measured, may shift from older sources to new (ie. moving from religious books to secular sources of utility in judgement) and thus forge new ways of looking at the world. Muslims believe that the Quran is given for all time, and as such can always be reconcilable. Faced with an overpowering and sometimes hostile Western secular modernity, ancient books can seem like an albatross or perhaps something to be re-evaluated simply so that it may conform to what now is seen as really “true”. But while it may not give a free license to any behaviour when studied in depth it becomes apparent that Islam is not the constricting or oppressive worldview which both its opponents and some of its proponents today claim. Islam is not an overbearing rulebook as many of us have been led to believe, it is a system which can incorporate not just assertive reason but even outright skepticism without much difficulty. Aside from broadly recognized core tenets, there is a huge thicket of existing legal opinion, and a huge array of exegetical tools to approach new issues which are all “right” and are all “Islam”.

I really recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand Islam, whether from the inside or outside, as well as those grappling with questions about the reconcilability of Islam with positive contemporary values and beliefs. The book also happens to be written engagingly, with relevant anecdotes and an author keenly aware of the most sensitive questions existing around Islam today.


from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20578790-misquoting-muhammad#other_reviews


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