What is the Significance of Islamic Tradition?

Prof. Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

Islamic tradition (Arabic: hadith – transmission, tradition, report) is substantially more extensive than the Koran. It is concerned with reports about Mohammed compiled by Muslim theologians in several collections as late as approximately two centuries after his death. These hadithe provide information about how Mohammed (and the first “companions of the Prophet”) lived and which views they held in regard to particular questions. But, the tradition also includes detailed instructions on the necessary ablutions before ritual prayer, explanations of the order of prayer (also in the mosque), regulations for the fast during Ramadan or the pilgrimage to Mecca, clothing regulations for men and women, rites pertaining to Muslim burial, as well as dietary commandments (prohibition of alcohol and pork). In addition, the traditional texts also treat questions of Islamic law, above all of marital and family law, but also of criminal and inheritance law and of the law of testimony.

In the Muslim view, the traditional texts have the same authority in legal questions as does the text of the Koran. That is, the traditions acknowledged as “genuine” are considered to be just as inspired by God as is the Koran. Indeed, in cases of conflict, the tradition can claim an even higher authority than the Koran. If, for example, the tradition demands the stoning of married adulterers, but the Koran, in contrast, demands “only” the whipping of them (Sure 24:2), then the traditional stoning rule, and not whipping, is considered by the overwhelming majority of Muslim theologians as binding. And if the Koran names no penalty for apostates who turn their back upon Islam, but merely threatens them with condemnation to Hell in the afterlife, but the tradition on the basis of Mohammed’s word (“Whoever changes his religion is to be killed!”) demands the death penalty, then this instruction is considered as binding by the four Sunni legal schools – that is, by the absolute majority in Muslim theology.

The tradition, thus, explains and interprets the text of the Koran, or even sharpens its meaning. In legal questions, therefore, it is not enough just to follow the rules of the Koran, for the instructions from the tradition also are binding upon the believer. In all other non-legal questions, Mohammed’s way of life, his “habit” (Arabic: sunna Muhammadiya) is to be considered by Muslims as a binding guide. This way of life must be emulated in every way possible. Thus, if the tradition disapproves of men wearing gold and silk (reason: whoever wears gold and silk in this world will not wear them in Paradise) and reports that Mohammed, for this reason, is said to have worn a silver ring, then it is appropriate to the emulation of Mohammed’s “habit” to wear silver rings exclusively.

The question of the authenticity of individual texts from the tradition has been answered differently by Muslims and non-Muslims. Soon after Mohammed’s death, many stories about his behavior, habits, and his alleged or actual comments were circulating in the Muslim community. Later, reports about his comrades-in-arms and the first caliphs (rulers after Mohammed), even about Mohammed’s favorite wife, Aisha, also were added to these. At this time – in the first two centuries after Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D. – the tradition in all probability was not yet systematically collected and, was, at best, only partially compiled in a written form.

Prompted by the necessity to create a binding legal system for the rapidly expanding Muslim world empire – and in the knowledge that the Koran alone contained too few, and hardly any systematically gathered, legal statements, as well as in the desire to record reports about Mohammed and his way of life for the Muslim community, Muslim scholars beginning in the ninth century A.D., when the hadithe already in circulation were quite numerous and the question of the authenticity of such traditions must have been a burning issue, compiled six collections which today are acknowledged by Muslims as “authentic tradition”:

  1. The compiler of the hadith collection which is the oldest, most famous, and considered as authoritative is ’Abd Allah ibn Isma’il al-Buhari (ca. 810-870 A.D.). His collection of tradition encompasses 97 chapters and 3460 sub-chapters. The Arabic title of the work is al jami’ as-sahih al-musnad min al-hadith rasul Allah, or sahih, for short.
  2. Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (died 875 A.D.) composed the work al-jami’ as-sahih, which contains approximately 12,000 traditional texts.
  3. Abu-Dawud al-Sijistani (ca. 817-888/889 A.D.) compiled approximately 4800 traditional texts in his kitab as-sunan.
  4. Abu ’Abd Allah Muhammad b. Maja (ca. 819-886 A.D.) collected about 4341 traditions in his work kitab as-sunan.
  5. Abu ’Isa Muhammad at-Tirmidhi (ca. 820-892 A.D.) collected 4000 traditions.
  6. Abu Abd ar-Rahman an-Nasa’i (ca. 830-915 A.D.) collected approximately 5000 traditions in his work kitab as-sunan.

The question of the authenticity of a tradition was discussed intensely by theologians and compilers already in the early Muslim period, and numerous texts were rejected as legend. A text then was acknowledged as authentic when it:

  1. possessed, above all other aspects, a flawless, that is, an unbroken, chain of transmission (Arabic: isnad) back to a direct companion of the Prophet (someone, thus, who personally knew Mohammed),
  2. was testified to in several sources, and
  3. the transmitter of the tradition was known as a reliable informant of good repute.

Because of the great weight placed upon an unbroken chain of transmission, a tradition (Hadith) always consists of two parts: the chain of those handing down the tradition back to Mohammed (Arabic: isnad), and the story itself, the text (Arabic: matn). According to the opinion of the majority of Muslim theologians, it is not the content of a tradition that can determine the authenticity of the tradition, but rather always only a flawless chain of transmission. Some traditions contain statements and regulations that for non-professionals are difficult to understand.

Others, in the non-Islamic view, appear quite one-sided or even problematic.

Several Examples from the Tradition (the chains of transmission are not given here)

What is the deficiency of a woman? She is deficient in her intelligence and her religion.

“Once Allah’s messenger went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of ‘id-al-Adha or al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said:

‘O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).’

They asked:

‘Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger?’

He replied:

‘You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.’

The women asked: “O Allah’s Messenger! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said:

‘Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?’

They replied in the affirmative. He said:

‘This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?’

The women replied in the affirmative. He said:

‘This is the deficiency in her religion.’”

(The Book of Menses. in: Sahih al-Bukhari Arabic-English, Vol. 1, ed. by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Kitab Bhavan: New Delhi, 1984, pp. 179-180)

What is true faith?

To do good to one another:

“To wish for one’s (Muslim) brother what one likes for one-self is a part of faith. None of you will have faith till he wishes for his (Muslim) brother what he likes for himself”

To love Muhammad more than one’s father, children and all mankind:

“To love the Messenger (Muhammad) is a part of faith. Allah’s Messenger said: ‘By Him in whose hands my life is, none of you will have faith till he loves me more than his father and his children’”

(The Book of Belief (Faith)” in: Sahîh al-Bukhari Arabic-English, Vol. 1. hg. v. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Kitab Bhavan: New Delhi, 1984, pp. 19/20).


“Abu Huraira … narrated, that Allah’s messenger [Muhammad] … had said: ‘Whoever believes in Allah and the last judgement shall treat his guests with due respect. This is one day and one night and feeding them for three days. Beyond that it is sadaqa [a gift]. And the guests are not allowed to stay with their host until they make him feel embarrassed.’”

(Al-Buhari, Hadith No. 6135, quoted from: Auszüge aus Sahih Al-Buharyy. Aus dem Arabischen übertragen und kommentiert von Abu-r-Rida’ Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rassoul. IB Verlag Islamische Bibliothek: Köln, 1989, p. 618)

Prayer is expiation of sins

“Narrated Abu Huraira …: ‘I heard Allah’s messenger … saying: ‘If there was a river at the door of anyone of you and he took a bath in it five times a day would you notice any dirt on him?” They said: ‘Not a trace of dirt would be left.’ The Prophet … added: ‘That is the example of the five prayers with which Allah annuls evil deeds.”

(The Book of the Times of Prayers. In: Sahih al-Bukhari Arabic-English, Vol 1, ed. by Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Kitab Bhavan. New Delhi, 1984, p. 301)