The hadith and the Qur’an

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I recently had the pleasure of hearing Asma Barlas speak, which was amazing. She’s one of the first people I read when I started reading about Islamic feminism, and her book Believing Women in Islam had a huge effect on me. What I found especially interesting about her talk was what she said about the hadith. Usually when critical Islamic thinkers speak or write, they tend to either ignore the hadith or approach it in a very all-or-nothing way (which usually means rejecting all the hadith). 

Asma on the other hand argued that the hadith shouldn’t be completely rejected, but rather that they should be interpreted through the Qur’an. In other words, the Qur’an should act as a filter through which we approach the hadith. If the Qur’an says one thing and there is a hadith that contradicts this, why would we take the hadith as more authoritative? Many Islamic scholars today seem to be doing the opposite of what Barlas advocates – reading the Qur’an through the hadith. This places the hadith either alongside the Qur’an, or above it, which is a problematic view.

Barlas’ approach is very useful, because it combines both the Qur’an and hadith, but with the Qur’an as the ultimate word of God. The only thing is that it will always depend on how you interpret the Qur’an. If you see it as a gender equal text, then you will filter the hadith that way. But this is inescapable – we all read and interpret the Qur’an from our own subjectivities. 

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One thought on “The hadith and the Qur’an

  1. The principle that the Quran trumps the Hadith in any showdown between them, is a key methodological feature of the Hanafite school of Muslim legal thought, by far the oldest and most widespread. The mutual respect for a plurality of interpretations is also something enshrined in Sunni jurisprudence: kul mujtahid musib. That Asma Barlas doesn’t know this is testament to the estrangement Muslims have from their own intellectual history. Among South Asian Muslims there is a strong attitude of ‘our history is not relevant’, all that matters is what stuff we can find, take and reconcile with what happens to be popular in English right now. It goes all the way back to colonialism and the break down of the Arabic-Persian intellectual networks and educational institutions. Muslim scholars in this day an age think in a very different way to their premodern counterparts, the latter saw themselves as academics, men of the pen, the former see themselves as clerics, they’ve internalised the Protestant notion of religion.

    The problem I tend to have with people like Asma Barlas is they are part of that westoxified (as the Iranians say) trend. They keep asking questions like, ‘how do we reconcile Islam and gender equality?’ ‘how do we reconcile Islam and liberal democracy?’. What should be asked is ‘what is man, women, boy, girl, mukhannath, hijri etc.?’, ‘How do they relate?’, ‘how should they relate?’ And ‘what does this mean for how we live together in society?’ I’d say that the lack of interest in Islamic intellectual and social history, as well as their general lack of attention to the massive social and intellectual changes brought on by colonialism, is a big obstacle in providing solid answers to those questions.

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