For more on this topic, see Hadith Series

Author’s Introduction

A few years ago I was involved in a debate on the radio with a prominent British historian who had recently written a sensationalist book on the origins of Islam. He claimed, in a distinctly haughty tone not uncommon among academics, that praying five times a day was not originally part of the Prophet’s message but was, in fact, imported into early Islam by Zoroastrian converts as an imitation of their own Zoroastrian five-times daily prayer.[1] Along with many other Western scholars, he argued that, since Muslim sources like the Sira and Hadith collections consisted of material compiled at earliest a few decades after the events they described, they could not be relied on as reliable historical sources for the life of the Prophet ﷺ or Islam’s beginning. Moreover, they were compiled by Muslims who had every interest in shoring up the claims of their religion.
But the evidence that this scholar relied on when making his claim about the ‘true’ origins of Muslim prayer came from a book written by a rabbi in France in the twelfth century, and it did not even mention prayer; it mentioned how Zoroastrian converts to Islam often continued drinking after becoming Muslim. Meanwhile, a Hadith describing the duty of praying five times a day appears in the earliest surviving book of Hadith, the Muwatta’ of the Medinan scholar Imam Malik (d. 796).[2]
Why did this British scholar disparage Muslim reliance on evidence from a few decades after the life of the Prophet ﷺ, collected by a scholar in the Prophet’s own city, while arguing that speculation about a statement made by a Jewish rabbi centuries later in Europe was better testimony about the origins of Islam?[3] Why, not long after this interview, did this and several other Western scholars argue that the Qur’an could have come from much later than Muslims alleged or much earlier than they alleged but not from the actual time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the seventh century?
The answer is that the way in which Western scholars generally view reports about the past, and reports about the history of religions and scriptures, in particular, is not neutral. It is the product of a specific cultural and political tradition. Though this method prides itself on shedding light on the dark recesses of all human pasts, it has its own blind spots.
What follows is an excerpt from my book Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, 2nd edition, (Oneworld, 2017). Specifically, it is the introduction of the chapter on the Western study of the Hadith tradition. We have decided to publish this section here on Yaqeen because it provides an important resource for those who read Western historical writings about early Islamic history and, more broadly, about the formation and development of religious traditions. In short, these pages provide a manageable summary of how and why ‘modern’ people came to a uniquely skeptical and cynical attitude towards scripture and orthodoxy across religious traditions.   - J. A. C. Brown


The Origins and Assumptions of the Western Study of the Hadith vs. the Islamic Tradition