Like countless young Muslims around the world, my folks had an ornate, hardbound collection of Sahih al-Bukhari shipped all the way over from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It arrived in an ominous wooden crate on the doorsteps of our small home in rural Idaho. The entire set filled up an entire bookshelf and dwarfed the many academic tomes my professorial father owned in his study.
Sahih al-Bukhari is a collection of thousands of canonical sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that exist outside of the Quran. Collectively, these are known as hadith. According to legend or apologetics (why not both?), Imam Bukhari spent a lifetime traveling far and wide to gather statements attributed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) roughly 300 years after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death. He somehow managed to whittle down some 600,000 sayings attributed to the Prophet (pbuh) to a more reasonable 7000 according to various levels of authenticity.
“I’m not questioning the words of our Prophet (pbuh), but whether he ever made such statements in the first place.”
Ultimately, Sahih al-Bukhari would be one of the main reasons why I abandoned Islam as a young adult for more than a decade. All the confusing and contradictory statements attributed to our Prophet (pbuh) proved way too much for me. As I began exploring academic philosophy as an undergrad, the exceedingly dogmatic answer that only certain scholars could truly understand the hadith seemed a sad, fallacious appeal to authority. Sadder still, my very questioning of the hadith was constantly maligned by other Muslims including my own family as a demonstration of weak faith.
Before I delve any further, let me express a constant gripe that I have with many practitioners of faith including my own brothers and sisters in Islam. When we critically evaluate another faith outside of our own we examine it with the finest of critical combs, a monocle and magnifying glass in tow alongside a library of fallacies at the ready lest there be some not-so-obvious failing in logic and consistency.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Islam, many of my fellow Muslims float in the most blissful, rote slumber adrift on proverbial pillows of dogma and apologetics. As a result, we rarely if ever apply the same level of scrutiny toward our own beliefs as we do to others.
So many Muslims employ a litany of exhaustive, syllogistic diatribes lamenting the logical inconsistency of the Trinity or the many seeming contradictions in the Old Testament. They’ll even draw from various academic sources like E.P. Sanders or Elaine Pagels to buttress their many critiques. However, if anyone dares to argue that the hadith are fraught with contradictions and outright falsehoods or that some lauded scholar of old might be incorrect prepare to have countless invectives thrown one’s way including shouts of kafir or apostate. Worse, if you happen to reside in places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan your very existence might be in jeopardy.
Bear in mind that when it comes to the hadith canon, myself and many other Muslims are not questioning the words of our Prophet (pbuh), but whether he ever made such statements in the first place. A giant red flag exists on any critical level when we as Muslims somehow trust that Bukhari was infallible in his approach and methodology in gathering the hadith. I mean the idea that one man could properly assess the veracity of some 600,000 sayings hundreds of years later is, for all practical purposes, impossible. Essentially, Muslims are granting Bukhari an almost prophetic status. If that’s not a kind of shirk or innovation I don’t know what is.
Even more to the point, a multitude of hadith found in Sahih al-Bukhari vehemently defended by countless Muslims simply run completely counter to our Prophet’s (pbuh) high, noble character and, most importantly, the Quran itself. How could our Prophet (pbuh) be, at once, the embodiment of fairness, kindness and compassion yet demand that camel thieves have their eyes branded, apostates beheaded, captives abused? More importantly, how could The Messenger of Islam be subject to mind-altering black magic and other tall tales without calling into question the full scope of revelation?*
“These hadith malign our Prophet (pbuh) far worse than any cartoon or caricature could ever hope to do.”
Sadly, just about all the harsh, deviant edicts by the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaeda are drawn from the hadith not the Quran. Stoning adulterers? Death to apostates? Check and check. These brutal mandates simply do not exist in the Quran. They are found exclusively in the hadith. Worse, upon closer inspection the maddening hermeneutics involved defy reason and, above all else, common sense.
Hadith on Stoning and Supposedly Lost Verses in the Quran
Let’s be clear: Stoning anyone for anything including adultery is nowhere to be found in the Quran. In fact, the Quran stipulates a very explicit, non-lethal punishment for adultery and that’s only if one can provide four witnesses of the physical act itself. However, the hadith that recommend stoning as punishment (borrowing from the Old Testament) found in Sahih al-Bukhari is considered mutawatir — a term fraught with its own interpretations by scholars themselves, but one that implies a kind of consensus to the point of infallibility within the context of Islamic apologetics. It’s the main reason why many Muslims vehemently defend the arcane, brutal mandate of rajm or stoning.
In a somewhat reasonable essay on crimes and punishments in Islam for the Yaqeen Institute, Jonathan Brown, a popular Islamic scholar and associate professor at Georgetown University, sought to dispel false notions of harshness and wanton cruelty often attributed to Islam. Unfortunately, Brown inadvertently and almost comically exposes the egregious exegetical contortions necessary to justify stoning as a punishment in Islam.
While discussing stoning, Brown mentions that Islamic scholars of old accepted the fact that the Quranic verses on stoning were removed in their entirety, yet still remained enforceable by Divine decree (naskh al-tilawa):
“Most pre-modern Muslim scholars had no problem with the notion that the Quran originally included a verse stating ‘The noble man and woman, if they commit zinā, surely stone them both,’ but that God ordered the verse removed while maintaining the ruling intact. The famous Shāfiʿī/Ashʿarī Hadith scholar Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī (d. 458/1066) stated that he knew of no disagreement on the possibility of a verse of the Quran being removed in its entirety (naskh al-tilāwa) while its ruling remained…”
Such an argument fails the most basic kind of syllogistic logic especially if we remain inside the boundaries of Islamic dogma and apologetics. As Muslims, we accept the Quran as a source of Divine perfection, the very words of God Almighty. In fact, for Muslims, only the Quran is considered perfect, without error. We also accept that God is omniscient, having complete knowledge of all things. How then are we supposed to wrap our heads around the notion that God would somehow remove a verse but still insist that we act upon it? It beggars belief.**
But wait, there’s more! Muslims have also argued that the very verse in question was accidentally removed because a sheep ate the pages it was written upon. It sounds like a joke made up by Pamella Gellar, David Horowitz or some other Islamophobic moron, but, unfortunately, it exists in the hadith canon. The purported hadith is even graded sound by many:
“The Verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and the paper was with me under my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate it.” Source
“You’re a Modernist, Bro!”
I’m sure some Muslims reading this will accuse me of innovations and yielding to progressive, postmodern norms. Or maybe they’ll accuse me of being a Quranist — a Muslim who draws his or her faith solely from the Quran. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
It’s all the scholar worship, extra-canonical labyrinths outside of the Quran and exegetical failings that are the actual innovations. All these odd and terrible hadith written hundreds of years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and literally in direct contradiction to the Quran are the novel and false constructs. These hadith malign our Prophet (pbuh) far worse than any cartoon or caricature could ever hope to do.
It bears repeating for the umpteenth time: With the context of Islam, only the Quran is considered perfect, free from error, the very words of God Almighty. This perfection does not extend to any other form of scripture including Sahih al-Bukhari.
It’s really no wonder why so many young Muslims are abandoning faith today. The frustration and fatigue that such odd and distorted theological assessments create are beyond measure. The innumerable contradictions between the Quran and Sahih al-Bukhari make one feel spiritually drawn and quartered.
It’s vital for us to recognize that there exists a dogmatic stranglehold on Islamic exegeses concerning the hadith in many of our communities online and elsewhere. These are rooted in uncritical methodologies, scholar worship and patently false claims of consensus (‘it’s ijma, bro!) funded by the seemingly endless coffers from bastions of draconian rule like Saudi Arabia. These are nothing but an outright disservice to our Prophet(pbuh) and our profound, beautiful faith.
* An invaluable, though sometimes caustic essay on Bukhari that’s a must read for Muslims is Have You Been Blackmailed with Bukhari Yet?
** To be fair, even Brown insists that naskh al-tilawi is insane. However, he falls well short of denouncing stoning as un-Islamic and simply yields to a rote interpretation veiled in academic hubris.