The documentation of Hadith

"Chinese Whispers"

All the collections of hadith present today, and which are regarded as 'sahih' (authentic), were collected over two hundred years after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet prohibited the writing of his hadith, and as a result, all the four Khalifas who succeeded the Prophet also prohibited the writing of any hadith about the Prophet (see: History of Hadith) When Prophet Muhammed died he had no knowledge of any hadith books. There is more than one hadith in these collections which include instructions from the Prophet to his people instructing them not to write anything from him other than the Quran.

The Quran contains clear instructions for following the Quran alone and rejecting all hadith:

So in which hadith besides it (Quran) do they believe? 77:50

These are God's revelations (Quran) that We recite to you truthfully. In which hadith other than God and His revelations do they believe? 45:6

Among the people there is one who trades in baseless hadith to mislead others from the path of God without knowledge and he does it as a mockery.
31:6

God has brought down the Best Hadith; a Book (Quran)
that is consistent in its frequent repetitions. 39:23

So let them produce a hadith like it (Quran) if they are truthful.
52:34

What about if we wish to study the hadith purely for historic purposes and not as a source of Islamic law? How relaible and authentic do we expect the available collections of hadith to be? Can these collections be authentic as they are claimed to be, or are they corrupted tales and lies attributed to Prophet Muhammad? How does corruption set in on any historic document?

We find that an assured process, through which any piece of information can be corrupted, is the verbal transmission of information through a chain of people. This is what is called 'Chinese Whispers'. The following is an example:

During a college course, a lecturer was demonstrating the effect of verbal transfer on the preservation of an original message. He asked 10 people to come forward from his audience. He then asked 9 of them to leave the hall, and then gave the one in the hall a small piece of paper to read out to the audience. The man read the following extract from the Bible :

"After this Jesus went down to Capernaum in company with his mother and followers and his disciples, but they did not stay there long. As it was near the time of the Jewish passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. There he found in the temple the dealers in cattle, sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them out of the temple, sheep, cattle, and all."

After that, the lecturer took the piece of paper from the first man and put it in his pocket. He then called the 2nd man in, and asked the first man to repeat to the 2nd man the words that he had just read out from the paper.

The man said the following:

"After this Jesus went down to Capernaum in company with his mother and his disciples, and they stayed a long time. After that Jesus went back to Jerusalem. Beside the temple he saw people who were buying cattle and pigeons, he also saw money-changers. Jesus kicked them all out."

Now the lecturer asked the third man to come in and asked the second man to repeat what he had just heard from the 1st man. He in turn said:

"After this Jesus went down to Jerusalem with his mother and some of his disciples and stayed for a couple of days .... After that Jesus went back to the temple. Beside the temple he saw people who were buying cattle and pigs, he also saw money-changers. Jesus shouted at them and told them they were wicked."

Once again the next man came in , and the message was repeated as follows:

"One day Jesus was in Jerusalem with his mother where he was was for many years .... but one day Jesus left Jerusalem and went to a far away. Beside the temple he saw people who were buying horses and pigs, he shouted at them for having so much money and told them that money was wicked."

By the time the next man narrated the same story it became:

"Jesus was born in Jerusalem and lived with his mother for many years there .... one day Jesus went to the market place in Jerusalem and in the market he saw people who were riding horses and selling pigs, he shouted at them for having so much animals and money asked them to give their money to charity for it is wicked."

In turn, the next man said the following:

"Jesus was born in Jerusalem and lived with his mother all his life .... one day Jesus went to the market place in Jerusalem and in the market he saw people who were riding horses and selling pigs, he shouted at them for their cruelty to the animals and asked them to give up all their money or to make sure their animals are well fed."

In turn, the next man said the following:

"Jesus was born in Jerusalem and lived near a market place where there were lots of people mistreating the poor pigs and whipping their horses ......... one day Jesus went to the market place and saw those wicked people who were only interested in selling their pigs, they were very loud and rude to him, so he did not reply back but cursed their money and left ..."

The reader is now invited to go back and read the first account of this story and then once again read this last one which was only the 6th new narration!

It is important to note is that this incident took place in a period of 10 minutes in a lecture, which would mean all participants would have good reason to remember the content of the message. What would be the case of thousands of hadith, most of them many pages long that were transmitted through many people and over a period of 200 years?

We must also note that the ten men in the lecture were all honestly trying to repeat the story as best as they can remember. We cannot accuse any of them of deliberately trying to corrupt the story they were narrating.

The importance of this example is that it deomstrates that corruption in the verbal transmission of any information is not necessarily due to bad character or dishonesty on the part of the narrator, but simply due to the altering of the facts through a sequence of verbal transmissions. This in turn is due to the fact the human being does not have tight proof memories.

Sadly, the hadith scholars maintained that the character integrity of the narrator is the deciding factor for the authenticity of any hadith! If the narrator was knwon to be of good character then they would label the hadith as authentic! How simplistic is that? A story narrated across 200 years and by 6 to 10 different men in a chain, cannot in any way be authentic.

We should not be surprised to see God clearly telling us in the Quran to follow no hadith other than the Quran.

For a detailed historical account of the compilation of hadith please check the article: The History of Hadith