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Studying without a teacher

April 2, 2009


The zealousness of some born-again Muslims warms my heart yet at the same time, scares me. I don’t know how else I can repeat this and in how many different forms but do not ever attempt to understand Islam without a teacher. Without several teachers! The internet is a double-edged sword. You can get almost anything you want by going to Shaykh Google. Nothing beats having a living teacher to explain to you the basics of Islam, basics of Hadith, basics of Usul Fiqh, basics of Aqidah even. And they can’t just be any living teacher, they need to have the transmission back to the Prophet SAW, that coveted ijaza.


But who am I to advise? I’m still learning. I am utterly grateful for Allah for all the teachers that I’ve had and have right now, without whom I might just be another enthusiastic youth quoting hadith from a website, not knowing whether its sahih, not understanding the Arabic matan, not understanding Arabic literature and the context in which the Prophet SAW said certain things to certain people.


May Allah forgive us and present to us living teachers who have the unbroken chain of transmission back to the Prophet SAW. Amin.


Would you advise individuals to study hadith from al-Bukhari and Muslim on their own?



“There are benefits the ordinary Muslim can expect from personally reading hadith… but without a guiding hand, the untrained reader will misunderstand many of the hadiths,” cautions Nuh Ha Mim Keller.


Any Muslim can benefit from reading hadiths from al-Bukhari and Muslim, whether on his own or with others. As for studying hadith, Sheikh Shuayb al-Arnaut, with whom my wife and I are currently reading Imam al-Suyuti’s Tadrib al-rawi [The training of the hadith narrator], emphasizes that the science of hadith deals with a vast and complex literature, a tremendous sea of information that requires a pilot to help one navigate, without which one is bound to run up on the rocks. In this context, Sheikh Shuayb once told us, “Whoever doesn’t have a sheikh, the Devil is his sheikh, in any Islamic discipline.” In other words, there are benefits the ordinary Muslim can expect from personally reading hadith, and benefits that he cannot, unless he is both trained and uses other literature, particularly the classical commentaries that explain the hadiths meanings and their relation to Islam as a whole.


The benefits one can derive from reading al-Bukhari and Muslim are many: general knowledge of such fundamentals as the belief in Allah, the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the Last Day and so on; as well as the general moral prescriptions of Islam to do good, avoid evil, perform the prayer, fast Ramadan, and so forth. The hadith collections also contain many other interesting points, such as the great rewards for acts of worship like the midmorning prayer (duha), the night vigil prayer (tahajjud), fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, giving voluntary charity, and So on. Anyone who reads these and puts them into practice in his life has an enormous return for reading hadith, even more so if he aims at perfecting himself by attaining the noble character traits of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) mentioned in hadith. Whoever learns and follows the prophetic example in these matters has triumphed in this world and the next.


What is not to be hoped for in reading hadith (without personal instruction from a sheikh for some time) is two things: to become an alim or Islamic scholar, and to deduce fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) from the hadiths on particulars of sharia practice.


Without a guiding hand, the untrained reader will misunderstand many of the hadiths he reads, and these mistakes, if assimilated and left uncorrected, may pile up until he can never find his way out of them, let alone become a scholar. Such a person is particularly easy prey for modern sectarian movements of our times appearing in a neo-orthodox guise, well financed and published, quoting Quran and hadiths to the uninformed to make a case for the basic contention of all deviant sects since the beginning of Islam; namely, that only they are the true Muslims. Such movements may adduce, for example, the well-authenticated (hasan) hadith related from Aisha (Allah be well pleased with her) by al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, Shirk (polytheism) is more hidden in my Umma than the creeping of ants across a great smooth stone on a black night . . . (Nawadir al-usul fi marifa ahadith al-Rasul. Istanbul 1294/1877. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 399).


This hadith has been used by sects from the times of the historical Wahhabi movement down to the present to convince common people that the majority of Muslims may not actually be Muslims at all, but rather mushrikin or polytheists, and that those who do not subscribe to the views of their sheikhs may be beyond the pale of Islam.


In reply, traditional scholars point out that the words fi Ummati, “in my Umma” in the hadith plainly indicate that what is meant here is the lesser shirk of certain sins that, though serious, do not entail outright unbelief. For the word shirk or polytheism has two meanings. The first is the greater polytheism of worshipping others with Allah, of which Allah says in surat al-Nisa, “Truly, Allah does not forgive that any should be associated with Him [in worship], but forgives what is other than that to whomever He wills” (Quran 4:48), and this is the shirk of unbelief. The second is the lesser polytheism of sins that entail shortcomings in one’s tawhid or knowledge of the divine unity, but do not entail leaving Islam. Examples include affection towards someone for the sake of something that is wrongdoing (called shirk because one hopes to benefit from what Allah has placed no benefit in), or disliking someone because of something that is right (called shirk because one apprehends harm from what Allah has placed benefit in), or the sin of showing off in acts of worship, as mentioned in the sahih or rigorously authenticated hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, The slightest bit of showing off in good works is shirk (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d.,1.4). Such sins do not put one outside of Islam, though they are disobedience and do show a lack of faith (iman).


Scholars say that the lesser shirk of such sins is meant by the hadith, for if the greater shirk of unbelief were intended, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would not have referred to such individuals as being in my Umma, since unbelief (kufr) is separate and distinct from Islam, and necessarily outside of it. This is also borne out by another version of the hadith related from Abu Bakr (Nawadir al-usul, 397), which has fikum or “among you” in place of the words “in my Umma”, a direct reference to the Sahaba or prophetic Companions, none of whom was a mushrik or idolator, by unanimous consensus (ijma) of all Muslim scholars. As for sins of lesser shirk, it cannot be lost on anyone why their hiddenness is compared in the hadith to the imperceptible creeping of ants across a great smooth stone on a black night; namely, because of the subtlety of human motives, and the ease with which human beings can deceive themselves.


Similarly, al-Bukhari relates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Truly, you shall follow the ways of those who were before you, span by span, and cubit by cubit, until, if they were to enter a lizards lair, you would follow them.” We said, “O Messenger of Allah, the Jews and Christians?” And he said, “Who else?” (Sahih al-Bukhari. 9 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint (9 vols. in 3). Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d., 9.126: 7320).


This hadith is also used by modern movements claiming to be a return to the Quran and sunna, to suggest that the majority of ordinary Sunni Muslims who follow the aqida (tenets of faith) or fiqh of mainstream orthodox Sunni Imams (whose classic works seldom fully correspond with their views) are intended by this hadith, while there is much evidence that the orthodox majority of the Umma is divinely protected from error, such as the sahih hadith related by al-Hakim that “Allah’s hand is over the group, and whoever diverges from them diverges to hell” (al-Mustadrak, 1.116). Such hadiths show that Quranic verses like “If you obey most of those on earth, they will lead you astray from the path of Allah” (Quran, 6:116) do not refer to those who follow traditional Islamic scholarship (who have never been a majority of those on earth), but rather the non-Muslim majority of mankind.


It is fitter to regard the previously-mentioned hadiths wording of following the Jews and Christians as referring, in our times, to the Muslims who copy the West in all aspects of their lives, rational and irrational, even to the extent of building banks in Muslim cities and holy places never before sullied by usury (riba) on an institutional basis since pre-Islamic times. Or those who promote divisive sectarian ideologies under the guise of reform movements among the Muslims, as the Jews and Christians did in their respective religions.


Traditional scholarship is protected from such misguidance by the authentic knowledge it has preserved, living teacher from living teacher, in unbroken succession back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). To return to our question, without such a quality control process, the unaided reader of hadith cannot hope to become a sort of homemade alim, giving fatwas on the basis of what he finds in al-Bukhari or Muslim alone, because the sahih hadiths related to Islamic legal questions are by no means found only in these two works, but in a great many others, which those who issue judgments on these questions must know. I have mentioned elsewhere some of the sciences needed by the scholar to join between all the hadiths, and that some hadiths condition each other or are conditioned by more general or more specific hadiths or Quranic verses that bear on the question. Without this knowledge, and a traditional sheikh to learn it from, one must necessarily stumble, something I know because I have personally tried.


When I first came to Jordan in 1980, someone had impressed upon my mind that a Muslim needs nothing besides the Quran and sahih hadiths. After reading through the Arabic Quran with the aid of A.J. Arberry’s Koran Interpreted and recording what I understood, I sat down with the Muhammad Muhsin Khan translation of Sahih al-Bukhari and went through all the hadiths, volume by volume, writing down everything they seemed to tell a Muslim to do. It was an effort to cut through the centuries of accretions to Islam that orientalists had taught me about at the University of Chicago, an effort to win through to pure Islam from the original sources themselves. My Salafism and my orientalism converged on this point.


At length, I produced a manuscript of selected hadiths of al-Bukhari, a sort of do-it-yourself sharia manual. I still use it as an index to hadiths in al-Bukhari, though the fiqh conclusions of my amateur ijtihads are now rather embarrassing. When hadiths were mentioned that seemed to contradict each other, I would simply choose whichever I wanted, or whichever was closer to my Western habits. After all, I said, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was never given a choice between two matters except that he chose the easier of the two (Sahih al-Bukhari, 4.230: 3560). For example, I had been told that it was not sunna to urinate while standing up, and had heard the hadith of Aisha that anyone who says the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) passed urine while standing up, do not believe him (Musnad al-Imam Ahmad. 6 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 6.136). But then I read the hadith in al-Bukhari that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) once urinated while standing up (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.66: 224), and decided that what I had first been told was a mistake, or that perhaps it did not matter much. Only later, when I began translating the Arabic of the Shafi’i fiqh manual Reliance of the Traveller did I find out how the scholars of sharia had combined the implications of these hadiths; that the standing of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to pass urine was to teach the Umma that it was not unlawful (haram), but rather merely offensive (makruh)–though in relation to the Prophet such actions were not offensive, but rather obligatory to do at least once to show the Umma they were not unlawful–or according to other scholars, to show it was permissible in situations in which it would prevent urine from spattering one’s clothes.


In retrospect, my early misadventures in hadith enabled me to appreciate the way the fiqh I later studied had joined between all hadiths, something I had personally been unable to do. And I understood why, of the top hadith Imams, Imam al-Bukhari took his Shafi’i jurisprudence from the disciple of Imam Shafi’i, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr al-Humaydi (al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi’iyya al-kubra. 10 vols. Cairo: Isa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1383/1964, 2.214), and why Imams Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, and al-Nasai also followed the Shafi’i school (Mansur Ali Nasif, al-Taj al-jami li al-usul fi ahadith al-Rasul. 5 vols. Cairo 1382/1962. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 1.16), as did al-Bayhaqi, al-Hakim, Abu Nuaym, Ibn Hibban, al-Daraqutni, al-Baghawi, Ibn Khuzayma, al-Suyuti, al-Dhahabi, Ibn Kathir, Nur al-Din al-Haythami, al-Mundhiri, al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Taqi al-Din al-Subki and others; why Imams such as Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi followed the madhhab of Ahmad ibn Hanbal; and why Abu Jafar al-Tahawi, Ali al-Qari, Jamal al-Din al-Zaylai (the African sheikh of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, thought by some to have been even more knowledgeable than him), and Badr al-Din al-Ayni followed the Hanafi school.


These facts speak eloquently as to the role of hadith in the sharia in the eyes of these Imams, for whom it was not a matter of practicing either fiqh or hadith, as some Muslims seriously suggest today, but rather, the fiqh of hadith embodied in the traditional madhhabs which they followed. There would seem to be room for many of us to benefit from their example.


© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995


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