Did Muhammad Really Say That?

By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Jihaad Abdul-Majid has often found inspiration in the words and deeds of Islam's prophet, Muhammad, from his acts of compassion and charity to his counsel that followers treat women fairly and help the poor.

At the same time, other sayings that implied female inferiority and intolerance toward other religions troubled the 23-year-old student at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

"These issues have pushed me to seek more knowledge," said Abdul-Majid, who recently enrolled in an online course about the hadith, the collected stories of what Muhammad and his closest companions said and did.

Muslims hold the hadith second only to the Koran as a source of Shariah law and personal guidance. For centuries, Muslims have hotly debated the hadith, often coming to vastly different conclusions about what lessons to draw from Muhammad's life.

Now, with extremists citing certain sayings to justify violence, intolerance and the oppression of women, moderate Muslim scholars and lay people such as Abdul-Majid are revisiting the collected sayings and opening a debate about their meaning and role in Muslim life.

Because the hadith carry so much weight, any new interpretations could have dramatic effects on Muslim societies -- influencing views on issues that include the rights of women and religious minorities and the compatibility of Islam with democracy. And a Hyattsville woman, Saida Malik, questions the hadith in part because the stories were gathered by males.

Yet even those who advocate change acknowledge it won't come easily.

"There's resistance because it means changing the culture," said Pamela Taylor, co-chairwoman of the Progressive Muslim Union. "It's a very threatening thing to look hard at your religion and say we've been doing it wrong for the last 1,100 years."

Muhammad commanded followers not to record what he said to guard against the possibility that they would confuse his words with God's. Instead, Muslims kept the sayings alive orally.

By the early 9th century, about 200 years after Muhammad's death, as many as 700,000 sayings were circulating across the Muslim world. Many were of questionable credibility and some were even fabricated to support political or economic policies.

Leading scholars decided that the sayings should be collected and verified. Using a painstaking process, they traced the chain of narration and scrutinized the character and memory skills of the individual reporters.

The two preeminent hadith scholars, Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, collected 2,602 and 9,200 hadith, respectively, all of them considered sahih, or "sound," authentic and indisputable. Other collections exist, but they include sayings with weak links or other defects.

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