"Questions from a Student": Deducing the law out of context (Part I)


Let the questions roll!

For a very long time, now, something has intrigued me about hadith and its use in deducing what is unlawful from what is lawful, or deducing Islamic law, or figuring out what day Ramadan should start. This, perhaps, is an example where the Prophet is taken out of context by a great many people. Now, I must remind all of you–as I am constantly reminded–I am not a scholar; I am a student. Yet, this does not eradicate the questions in my mind about the hadith.

The hadith are a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The process of their collection and authentication is a truly remarkable story, and it is unparalleled in the history of religous scholarship. Nevertheless, it is essential to understand that each saying had a context; each saying was part of a longer conversation; each saying had a story behind it. For many hadiths, this story is omitted. Furthemore, many, many, many people quote hadiths out of context, and they can potentially totally misunderstand what the Prohpet (pbuh) meant.

The hadiths about the sighting of the moon are a prime example, and this is a particularly relevant issue given the whole Eid-ul-Adha mess. I looked up the books of fasting in Sahih Bukhari and Muslim. In both books, there are a number hadith about beginning Ramadan when the moon is sighted. Almost all of them, interestingly, are narrated by Ibn Umar (r). There are other hadiths that say similar things narrated by Abu Hurayrah (r) and Hudhayfah (r). Yet, let me focus on the hadiths of Ibn Umar (r). I will list the hadiths in the book of fasting in Sahih Bukhari:

1. Narrated Abdullah bin Umar: Allah’s Apostle mentioned Ramadan and said, “Do not fast unless you see the crescent (of Ramadan), and do not give up fasting till you see the crescent (of Shawwal), but if the sky is overcast (if you cannot see it), then act on estimation (i.e. count Sha’ban as 30 days).”

2. Narrated Abdullah bin Umar: Allah’s Apostle said, “The month (can be) 29 nights (i.e. days), and do not fast till you see the moon, and if the sky is overcast, then complete Sha’ban as thirty days.”

3. Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: The Prophet said, “The month is like this and this,” (at the same time he showed the fingers of both his hands thrice) and left out one thumb on the third time.

4. Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: The Prophet said, “We are an illiterate nation; we neither write, nor know accounts. The month is like this and this, i.e. sometimes of 29 days and sometimes of thirty days.”

5. Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet or Abu-l-Qasim said, “Start fasting on seeing the crescent (of Ramadan), and give up fasting on seeing the crescent (of Shawwal), and if the sky is overcast (and you cannot see it), complete thirty days of Sha’ban.”

I listed this last one for completeness’ sake. Now, is it conceievable that the Prophet (pbuh) said these four statements to Ibn Umar (r) on four different occasions? Did the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) walk past Ibn Umar (r) one day in Medina and, after saying his salams, said, “Do not fast unless you see the crescent, and do not give up fasting till you see the crescent, but if the sky is overcast, then act on estimation” completely out of the blue? Probably not. These hadiths had a context, a conversation. What was that context? What was that conversation?

Now, taken separetely, the hadiths tell us to sight the moon to determine the beginning of Ramadan. Yet, put them together, i.e., reconstruct the conversation, and they tell a slightly different story… (to be continued)

P.S. Check out my latest article on Beliefnet.

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