….. The main texts of Islam are the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sira. The Qur’an is the Uncreated and Literal Word of God. It cannot be changed. It contains contradictions within itself, which long ago were resolved in favor of what are thought to be the later, and harsher verses. The “harsher” verses are said to date from Muhammad’s time in Medina, after he conquered that city. No longer needing to curry favor with anyone, as he had had to do in Mecca, he could afford to be as harsh as he pleased. The interpretive vehicle for dealing with contradictions in the Qur’an, and favoring the later verses, is “abrogation” or naskh. The doctrine dates back more than a millennium. Nonetheless, some have suggested that the doctrine be abandoned, so that the harsher verses no longer would be held to abrogate the softer verses from Muhammad’s “Meccan” period. This is unlikely to be accepted by more than a handful of would-be “reformers of Islam.”
The Hadith are the written records of what Muhammad said and did. In the centuries immediately following the death of Muhammad, tens of thousands of Hadith were recorded by imaginative Muslims. It became the job of specialists – muhaddithin – to study the existing Hadith, so as to determine with what degree of confidence to believe in the reliability of any given Hadith. These muhaddithin in the main relied on the study of the isnad-chain – that is, study of the transmission through time of each Hadith. Thus if A heard a story from B, who heard it from C, who heard from D, back as far as possible, and the closer that chain reached to the time of Muhammad and an eyewitness to what he said or did, the more “authentic” that story was deemed to be.
The muhaddithin did make the study of isnad-chains into a laborious and, by our lights, sterile pseudo-science, and in so doing did manage to winnow the tens of thousands of existing Hadith down to about 4,000 (the number of Hadith in the two collections deemed most reliable). There are many collections of Hadith. But six collections of them, identified by the word “Sahih,” by different muhaddithin, are regarded as the most reliable. And among those six, the two compiled by Al-Bukhari and Muslim are treated with the greatest respect. Rather than employing an Accept/Reject system, the muhaddithin established categories of likely authenticity, and proceeded to rank each Hadith according to four levels of reliability, based on study of each Hadith’s isnad-chain. A Hadith that is assigned a high rank of authenticity by Al-Bukhari or Muslim will have much greater authority for Muslims than a Hadith that is assigned to the lowest rank of authenticity by them, or given a middle rank by one of the muhaddithin deemed less authoritative.
The Sira is the name given to the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad. The Hadith, which are stories, not in chronological order, about the acts and sayings of Muhammad, also contain miscellaneous information about everything from the treatment of women, to the origin of the universe, to music and musical instruments, to the correct methods of bathroom hygiene, to views on dogs and statues, and much more. The Sira, by contrast, tells the story of Muhammad, in chronological order, and in particular, it tells of the progressive revelation, over 23 years, by the Angel Gabriel, of Allah’s Message to Muhammad, Messenger of God, Seal of the Prophets. The very first, and indispensable, contribution to “the Biography of Muhammad” is believed to be that by Ibn Ishaq, who lived some 150 years after Muhammad had died. And that biography is preserved thanks to one Ibn Hisham, who copied it down and incorporated it into one of his own works. Non-Muslim scholars differ as to how much faith can be put in a biography composed 150 years after the death of its subject, and preserved in a copy written by someone else (and possibly subject to scribal error), but Muslims do not question what is contained in the Sira, just as they believe in the Hadith and in the ranking systems for the Hadith by those they consider the most authoritative muhaddithin.
All the biographies of Muhammad by Muslims are hagiographical; no matter what he did, Muhammad could do no wrong. He is for Muslims the Model of Conduct (“uswa husana”) and the Perfect Man (“al-insan al-kamil”). The Sira is, in large part, based on the information contained in the Hadith, but aside from its chronological organization (lacking in the Hadith), the Sira offers other information, not to be found in the Hadith, about the times in which Muhammad lived, just as the Hadith contains much information not to be found in the Sira. There is considerable overlap between the Hadith and Sira, but they are not the same.
The texts – Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira – have been the subjects of generations of commentators. A commentary on the Qur’an is called a tafsir, and the commentaries are particularly important because the language, and meaning, of much of the Qur’an require elucidation; some passages are simply unfathomable. The scholar Christoph Luxenberg (an alias), is a philologist who is a native speaker of Arabic, and a great authority on Syriac (the version of Aramaic spoken in the region of Edessa). For years he has been startling the world of Qur’anic studies by claiming that 20% of the Qur’an is incomprehensible even to native speakers familiar with classical Arabic. Luxenberg believes that the Ur-text of the Qur’an is Syriac, possibly the language of a Christian lectionary; he argues that many of the knottiest philological problems in the Qur’an are susceptible of solution if one posits such an Ur-text, written not in Arabic but in Aramaic, or rather in that version of Aramaic known as Syriac. He has been winning converts to this view among non-Muslim Qur’anic scholars, but few Muslims, obviously, can allow themselves to accept Luxenberg’s view. Even without the Luxenberg controversy, It is not possible to read the Qur’an, even its seemingly least difficult verses, and grasp their meaning without making use of the most authoritative Muslim commentators. They serve as the indispensable guides to the meaning of many passages that cry out for exegetical glosses.
The Sunna – essentially, the manners and customs and ways of being of the Arabs in the days of Muhammad – matters to Muslims, or most Muslims, as much as the Qur’an. It has even been said that the Sunna could exist without the Qur’an, but not the Qur’an without the essential gloss of the Sunna. And the Sunna is founded on, consists largely of, what is in the Hadith and the Sira, that is the life – words, deeds, and stories about – Muhammad. He, not Allah, is the central figure in Islam. Muhammad is mentioned four times as often as Allah in the Qur’an. He is the Model of Conduct – uswa hasana – a phrase used in the Qur’an exactly three times, the other two times both used to describe Abraham. He is, furthermore, the Perfect Man, al-insan al-kamil, and everything he did, as a consequence, was Perfect. Whatever he did was right. Some of what he did is exclusive to him – he had nine wives and two concubines, but ordinary mortal Muslims are allowed four wives only. However, much of what he did is not limited to him but is worthy of emulation. Little Aisha caught his fancy when she was six, the daughter of his good friend, and was considered betrothed at that point, but Muhammad contained himself, waiting until she reached the reasonable age of nine before consummating, with sexual intercourse, his marriage to her. That might have been thought one of the details of his life – such as nine wives – that ordinary Muslims would not have been allowed to emulate. But it turns out that the age of the child bride, little Aisha, is not regarded by Muslims as embarrassing – though with Westerners who raise the matter of Aisha, in a manner that suggests dismay or horror, they have started to offer various strategies of pretend denial: she wasn’t really nine years old, but possibly as old as nineteen, we are told, offered preposterously by apologists as the age at which she reached puberty. But we know from reliable Hadith that she was called by her mother when she was on her swings with playmates, and then later, when she went to Muhammad’s house, she brought her toys with her. Swings and toys suggest nine years, not nineteen.
If the subject of little Aisha comes up – and in any conversation or discussion of Islam between Muslims and non-Muslims the latter should be sure to raise the subject, non-Muslims should understand that Aisha matters because she is not merely a figure in the distant and unrepeatable past. Her example affects Muslim girls today. Under the secularizing Shah, the marriageable age of girls in Iran had been raised to eighteen. That learned theologian of Islam, the Ayatollah Khomeini, managed in 1982 to lower the marriageable age of girls from thirteen to nine years. Since Khomeini died in 1989, the legal age has again been raised, to thirteen. A piquant detail: Khomeini married his wife when she was ten years old. And if it worked for him, and for Muhammad, why not allow it for everyone?