The Muslim ummah, in its entire history, has faced many kinds of assaults by enemies of Islam. However, the Hadīth fabrication presented the most severe and unique challenge. The enemies of Islam, in the early phase of Islamic history, decided to damage the authenticity of the unparalleled and unexampled treasure of the prophetic knowledge, if not destroy it altogether. Their efforts, however, were thwarted by the efforts of imāms of the science of Hadīth criticism. May the Almighty bless the souls of those imāms who defended the treasure of prophetic knowledge! They exerted their full efforts in sifting the true knowledge from fabrications. They pointed out the loopholes through which the weak Aḥādīth were mixed with the sound ones. The intensity of fabrications can be imagined by considering the fact that only a few thousand narratives could pass the test of a set criterion for the sound Aḥādīth from hundreds of thousands of traditions. This renders it important for us to discuss in detail the motives of Hadīth fabrication and try to ascertain the ways weak and fabricated traditions were included in the sound narratives. We must also understand the nature of this evil. For if a researcher in this field is not fully conscious and well aware of the nature of the evil he can hardly be expected to show the required competence.
Why were Aḥādīth fabricated?
A study of the pioneer works on the principles of Hadīth criticism reveals that there were pious as well as impious motives for fabricating Aḥādīth. It was not that the fabrications for pious purposes were less harmful. Indeed both have done equal damages to the religion. The fabrications under pious motives have rather proved more detrimental for Islam than the ones concocted under evil designs.
I Hadīth Fabrication for Pious Purposes
A thorough enquiry into the issue of Hadīth fabrication reveals that there are two major pious motives behind fabrication of Aḥādīth. First, people fabricated Aḥādīth concerning virtues and excellences of the Qur’ānic sūrahs in order to attract people to the Book. Second, with the aim of drawing people to do good and avoid evil, such Aḥādīth were concocted and circulated which exaggerated rewards of good deeds and punishment for evil ones. All other types of pious fabrications have ramifications of these two motives.
The First Form
People started to fabricate Aḥādīth with an intention to serve the religion of God. Most Aḥādīth about the excellence of reciting any of the Qur’ānic sūrahs are examples. The Aḥādīth forged to attract people towards good deeds (targhīb) and warn them about the Last Judgment and the consequences of misdeeds (tarhīb) are also examples of this type of fabrications. Such Aḥādīth tell us that merely reciting a single sūrah of the Qur’ān suffices one as a guarantor of success in the Afterlife. If a believer recites a sūrah of the Qur’ān, for example, he does not need do anything else to deserve the life of eternal bliss. Thus, these narratives promise extraordinary rewards for a person reciting a single sūrah.
One wonders how one merits such lofty rewards by merely uttering words of a sūrah without even understanding it. This clearly contradicts the teachings of Islam. The Prophet (sws) is reported to have stated that a believer will be rewarded for what he comprehends in the recitations he makes in the Prayer. The Qur’ān has expressly commanded that the believers should ponder over the Book of God. It has commanded the believers to act upon its teachings. There is no concept of heaping reward or seeking blessings merely through chanting the words of God.
That the narratives regarding the excellence of reciting the sūrahs of the Qur’ān are very famous and widely accepted can be gleaned from the fact that Zamakhsharī, a celebrated exegete of the Qur’ān, tries to mention such a narrative at the end of almost every sūrah in his commentary on the Qur’ān. This is in spite of his claims to be mutazilite rationalist. One wonders what becomes of his rationality at this point.
Some experts in the science of Hadīth criticism investigated these Aḥādīth and discovered a certain fabricator. When asked why he incurred such a heinous sin, he explained that he noticed people readily learning and following the juristic work of Imām Abū Ḥanīfah. This alarmed him and he decided to concoct Aḥādīth eulogizing recitation of certain verses so that people might be attracted by the Qur’ān. This motive is obviously pious. Such Aḥādīth became popular and many great scholars contributed to their spread. The experts in the science, however, always declared them fabrications. As mentioned above, one of the fabricators confessed his crime. These narratives, however, could not meet the objective of the fabricators. People could not be attracted to the Qur’ān. Contrarily, these Aḥādīth created the erroneous belief that the basic purpose the Qur’ān has been revealed to serve is not to understand and obtain guidance from it but to earn reward by merely reciting it.
The Second Form
Another group of fabricators comprises reformers and pious individuals. Directed by their mystic disposition, they forged a lot of traditions containing warnings of punishment for the committers of certain wrongs (tarhīb) and promising rewards of good deeds (targhīb). The purpose was to create fear of the Last Judgment in the hearts of people, to make them perform religious duties and to encourage them to avoid sinful acts. When these fabricators were attacked by the muḥaddithūn, they pleaded that they fabricated Aḥādīth with the intent to call people to virtuousness and to stop them from sinfulness. They should, therefore, not be subjected to the strict criteria of Hadīth acceptance concluded by the muḥaddithūn.
The muḥaddithūn, instead of countering and rejecting these erroneous views, showed a concessive attitude to these shallow arguments. They practically yielded to the view of the fabricators and subsequently confined their scrutiny to the narratives containing legal directives (al-aḥkām). Thus, they let the band to fabricate and spread, as the prophetic word, whatever they liked. The view of the fabricators finally dominated. Their fabrications are diffused through esoteric literature produced by the Muslim Sufis. I have discussed this issue in the chapter “Excellence and Inherent Limitations of the Isnād”.
The Sufis successfully put grave misconception in the minds of the muḥaddithūn. History proved that the stance of the latter regarding such narratives was mere naivety. If one reads through the works of the Sufis, one shall learn that they base their innovatory beliefs and notions either on esoteric interpretation of the Qur’ānic verses or baseless Aḥādīth. This practice is not confined to the general class of the Sufis; even the most learned among them take this very path.
No one doubts Imām Ghazālī’s scholarship and eruditeness. His work Iḥyā’ al-‘Ulūm is one of the best works written on the subjects of taṣawwuf and tadhkiyyah (purification of the self). However, he is the least careful person among the scholars of the ummah in quoting baseless Aḥādīth.
The fabricators and the concessive muḥaddithūn claimed that the weak narratives that they accepted belong to the category of targhīb wa tarhīb. They attract people to do good and encourage them to avoid evil. However, the truth of the matter is that these narratives affect all spheres of human life. They even cover the fundamental religious beliefs including the belief in unicity of God (tawḥīd) and the Last Accountability (ākhirah). It was not, in fact, possible to contain this onslaught. For Islam is a religion, all parts of which are inseparably interlinked. Religious directives and beliefs as well as their philosophical bases and wisdom are inseparably interconnected. Parts depend on the whole. If one part is infected, the whole cannot be saved from the ailment.
We can say that the sayings the Sufis pass as Aḥādīth affect tawḥīd, among other fundamental beliefs, moral theories and Islamic worldview. It strikes even attributes of God Almighty. Thus all the fundamentals of Islam are affected.
The muḥaddithūn committed a serious wrong by accepting the weak narratives concerning the targhīb wa tarhīb. This opened the doors to disputations over religion beyond reform. The door to entry for the weak Aḥādīth let the ideas of Confucius, Buddha and Zoroaster enter the religion. Alien philosophical and esoteric notions and theories assume the form of Aḥādīth and find their way into the religion of God.
Once this door for the weak and fabricated reports was opened, it became impossible for the Muslims to parry the onslaught. Nobody knew what to do. All believers cannot be expected to develop in the science, act like the most careful critics and sift the weak from the sound Aḥādīth. Yet, however, it is the duty of the scholars to appreciate the evil results of the misjudgements of the muḥaddithūn.
I believe that the muḥaddithūn did it with true intentions. I do not think they committed deliberate wrong. However, it is also true that the laxity they showed corrupted the face of Islam. It has made falsehood dominate all aspects of religious life. Truth was shrouded and concealed under layers of falsehood.
Although the muḥaddithūn have stressed care in accepting the weak Aḥādīth from the pious reformers, this emphasis is meaningless because the muḥaddithūn themselves did not make proper efforts to analyze the narratives containing targhīb wa tarhīb. Besides, not every narrator could analyze the isnād and the matn. In the present day, such a work is an insurmountable task. The duty to ferret out the truth is, now, a crown of thorn rarely worn.