Necessity and Reliability of Contextual Hadith (Asbab al-Nuzul) – Join islam

A typical argument traditionalists make against those who follow the Quran alone is that the Hadith is needed to make sense of the verses. Some go so far as to claim that the Quran is not understandable without the Hadith. In the book Hadith and Sunnah Ideals and Realities p. 135, under the article title “The Living Sunnah and al-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah” by Fazlur Rahman, he states:

“But the Quran is obviously not intelligible purely by itself— strictly situational as its revelations are…Nothing can give coherence to the Qur’anic teaching except the actual life of the Prophet and the environment in which he moved…”

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Except the Hadith does not explain the Quran. For example, one will not find any Hadith that provides a detailed tafsir of three consecutive verses of the Quran. This is because the Hadith is not a Tafsir of the Quran. According to Bukhari, when individuals study the Quran and reach an impasse in understanding, it does not state that they should go to the prophet, the companions, or the Hadith. It simply states to take a break.

Narrated Jundab bin `Abdullah: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “Recite (and study) the Qur’an as long as you are in agreement as to its interpretation and meanings, but when you have differences regarding its interpretation and meanings, then you should stop reciting it (for the time being.) (See Hadith No 581, Vol. 6)

حَدَّثَنَا إِسْحَاقُ، أَخْبَرَنَا عَبْدُ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنُ مَهْدِيٍّ، عَنْ سَلاَّمِ بْنِ أَبِي مُطِيعٍ، عَنْ أَبِي عِمْرَانَ الْجَوْنِيِّ، عَنْ جُنْدَبِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ اقْرَءُوا الْقُرْآنَ مَا ائْتَلَفَتْ قُلُوبُكُمْ فَإِذَا اخْتَلَفْتُمْ فَقُومُوا عَنْهُ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالَ أَبُو عَبْد اللَّهِ سَمِعَ عَبْدُ الرَّحْمَنِ سَلَّامًا.

Sahih al-Bukhari 7364

Additionally, a field of Hadith known as Asbab al-Nuzul ( أسباب النزول ) is meant to explain the context of the verses when they were revealed. The word “Asbab” means the “occasions” or “causes,” and al-Nuzul means “the dissension” but is meant in reference to “the revelation.” This term describes the historical context and specific events that supposedly prompted the revelation of particular verses or passages in the Quran.

Two primary works in this field are “Lubab al-Nuqul fi Asbab al-Nuzul” by Al-Suyuti (d. 1505 CE), a comprehensive work compiling the occasions of revelation for many Quranic verses, and “Asbab al-Nuzul” by Al-Wahidi (d. 1075 CE), one of the earliest and most authoritative works on the subject, providing detailed explanations for the circumstances of many revelations.

Al-Wahidi mentions about 570 verses out of the 6234 verses of the Quran, which is less than 10% of the Quran’s verses. Al-Suyuti is slightly better and covers just over 800 verses, which is ~13% of the Quran. This means that the Asbab al-Nuzul literature does not cover most Quranic verses.

Additionally, there are other major problems with this field of Hadith. Firstly, even the verses that it covers are riddled with conflicting reports. For example, these reports are unclear regarding the shift in Qibla’s direction (2:142-145) or what the prophet prohibited for himself to please his wives (66:1). Some narrations claim it was honey, while other narrations claim it was intercourse. Aside from this, there are contradicting Hadith to what the first verse revealed, the last verse revealed, the last sura revealed, as well as numerous other contradictions.

Asbab al-Nuzul is also considered less reliable than the standard narratives found in the six canonized books of Hadith (Kitab al-Sittah). Most of this material was derived from the early biographies of the prophet (Sirah) and the histories of the prophet’s campaigns (Maghazi) literature, which often contain many less reliable reports.

The most notable of this work is the biography of the prophet “Sirat Rasul Allah,” originally attributed to Ibn Ishaq (704–768 CE), whose recension we have attributed to Ibn Hisham (d. 833 CE). Interestingly, Ibn Hisham’s birth is unknown, but it is understood that he and Ibn Ishaq were not contemporaries. One of the primary concerns among muhaddithun is the reliability of the isnad (chain of transmission) used by Ibn Ishaq. Some of his sources were considered weak or unreliable. Renowned hadith scholars like Imam Malik and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal expressed reservations about the reliability of Ibn Ishaq’s narrations. For example, Imam Malik criticized Ibn Ishaq for including reports from sources he deemed unreliable. Critics argue that Ibn Ishaq sometimes included reports and anecdotes without rigorous scrutiny, mixing weak and strong narrations. This approach contrasts with the stricter methodologies applied by hadith scholars.

On January 28, 2022Dr. Javad Hashmi interviewed Oxford Scholar Dr. Joshua Little on his YouTube channel, The Impactful Scholar. In the interview, Dr. Little presented 21 reasons historians are skeptical of Hadith.

At 56 minutes into the interview, Dr. Little presents his third reason: that the Hadith were full of contradictions. Below is the list of issues that Dr. Little cited for this point.

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Dr. Hashmi followed these points with the following maxim, that for every Hadith, there is an equivalently valid opposite Hadith. Even the simplest facts are inconsistent. For example, how old was the prophet when he died, and how many years did he live in Mecca and Medina? Reports from just Bukhari and Muslim state that he was 60, 63, or 65. Some of these conflicting ages are also attributed to the same individual. This also carries to the ages of Abu Bakr and Uthman, which state that they all died when they were 63, which was not the case. If the Hadith that are deemed “authentic (sahih)” fail on these most basic facts, how reliable should they be considered for all the multitude of other topics they cover.

At the 1hr and 1min mark of the interview, Dr. Javad Hashmi says that he has done extensive research on the exegetical Hadith that attempts to contextualize the verses of the Quran (Asbab al-Nuzul) and has concluded that these Hadith are all pure speculation.

“It is not uncommon for Ibn ‘Abbas hadiths to present three or even four contradictory interpretations of the same verse.”– Herbert Berg

Also, there is another problem with the idea that we need the Hadith to explain the Quran, as such an argument leads to an infinite regress. If we say we need the Hadith to explain the Quran, then we will also need another entity to explain the Hadith, and another entity to explain that, and…

Numerous times in the Quran we are informed that it is complete and has details and explanations of everything.

[12:111] In their history, there is a lesson for those who possess intelligence. This is not fabricated Hadith; this (Quran) confirms all previous scriptures, provides the details of everything, and is a beacon and mercy for those who believe.

 لَقَدْ كَانَ فِى قَصَصِهِمْ عِبْرَةٌ لِّأُو۟لِى ٱلْأَلْبَـٰبِ مَا كَانَ حَدِيثًا يُفْتَرَىٰ وَلَـٰكِن تَصْدِيقَ ٱلَّذِى بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَتَفْصِيلَ كُلِّ شَىْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ

[16:89] The day will come when we will raise from every community a witness from among them, and bring you as the witness of these people. We have revealed to you this book to provide explanations for everything, and guidance, and mercy, and good news for the submitters.

 وَيَوْمَ نَبْعَثُ فِى كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ شَهِيدًا عَلَيْهِم مِّنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَجِئْنَا بِكَ شَهِيدًا عَلَىٰ هَـٰٓؤُلَآءِ وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ تِبْيَـٰنًا لِّكُلِّ شَىْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً وَبُشْرَىٰ لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ

[39:27] We have cited for the people every kind of example in this Quran, that they may take heed.

 وَلَقَدْ ضَرَبْنَا لِلنَّاسِ فِى هَـٰذَا ٱلْقُرْءَانِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍ لَّعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ

[18:54] We have cited in this Quran every kind of example, but the human being is the most argumentative creature.

 وَلَقَدْ صَرَّفْنَا فِى هَـٰذَا ٱلْقُرْءَانِ لِلنَّاسِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍ وَكَانَ ٱلْإِنسَـٰنُ أَكْثَرَ شَىْءٍ جَدَلًا

[6:38] All the creatures on earth, and all the birds that fly with wings, are communities like you. We did not leave anything out of this book. To their Lord, all these creatures will be summoned.

 وَمَا مِن دَآبَّةٍ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ وَلَا طَـٰٓئِرٍ يَطِيرُ بِجَنَاحَيْهِ إِلَّآ أُمَمٌ أَمْثَالُكُم مَّا فَرَّطْنَا فِى ٱلْكِتَـٰبِ مِن شَىْءٍ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِمْ يُحْشَرُونَ

God has given us hearing, eyesight, and a brain; we are responsible for using these faculties to understand. Still, if we disregard God’s words when He informs us that His book is complete and fully detailed, we will be deaf and blind to the wisdom in this profound book.

[18:57] Who are more evil than those who are reminded of their Lord’s proofs, then disregard them, without realizing what they are doing. Consequently, we place shields on their hearts to prevent them from understanding it (the Quran), and deafness in their ears. Thus, no matter what you do to guide them, they can never ever be guided.

وَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّن ذُكِّرَ بِـَٔايَـٰتِ رَبِّهِۦ فَأَعْرَضَ عَنْهَا وَنَسِىَ مَا قَدَّمَتْ يَدَاهُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَا عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ أَكِنَّةً أَن يَفْقَهُوهُ وَفِىٓ ءَاذَانِهِمْ وَقْرًا وَإِن تَدْعُهُمْ إِلَى ٱلْهُدَىٰ فَلَن يَهْتَدُوٓا۟ إِذًا أَبَدًا

The Quran informs us that it is the devil’s allies who will attempt to lure people against this claim from God that His book is complete and fully detailed, and they will due this by means of fancy speech.

[6:112] We have permitted the enemies of every prophet—human and jinn devils—to inspire in each other fancy words, in order to deceive. Had your Lord willed, they would not have done it. You shall disregard them and their fabrications.
[6:113] This is to let the minds of those who do not believe in the Hereafter listen to such fabrications, and accept them, and thus expose their real convictions.

 وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَا لِكُلِّ نَبِيٍّ عَدُوًّا شَيَاطِينَ الْإِنْسِ وَالْجِنِّ يُوحِي بَعْضُهُمْ إِلَىٰ بَعْضٍ زُخْرُفَ الْقَوْلِ غُرُورًا وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ مَا فَعَلُوهُ فَذَرْهُمْ وَمَا يَفْتَرُونَ

 وَلِتَصْغَىٰ إِلَيْهِ أَفْئِدَةُ الَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْآخِرَةِ وَلِيَرْضَوْهُ وَلِيَقْتَرِفُوا مَا هُمْ مُقْتَرِفُونَ

[6:114] Shall I seek other than GOD as a source of law, when He has revealed to you this book fully detailed? Those who received the scripture recognize that it has been revealed from your Lord, truthfully. You shall not harbor any doubt.
[6:115] The word of your Lord is complete, in truth and justice. Nothing shall abrogate His words. He is the Hearer, the Omniscient.
[6:116] If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of GOD. They follow only conjecture; they only guess.

 أَفَغَيْرَ اللَّهِ أَبْتَغِي حَكَمًا وَهُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ إِلَيْكُمُ الْكِتَابَ مُفَصَّلًا وَالَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمُ الْكِتَابَ يَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ مُنَزَّلٌ مِنْ رَبِّكَ بِالْحَقِّ فَلَا تَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْمُمْتَرِينَ

 وَتَمَّتْ كَلِمَتُ رَبِّكَ صِدْقًا وَعَدْلًا لَا مُبَدِّلَ لِكَلِمَاتِهِ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

وَإِنْ تُطِعْ أَكْثَرَ مَنْ فِي الْأَرْضِ يُضِلُّوكَ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ إِنْ يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَخْرُصُونَ

The reality is that God informs us that the Quran is the best Tafsir.

[25:31] We also set up against every prophet enemies from among the guilty. Your Lord suffices as a guide, a master.
[25:32] Those who disbelieved said, “Why did not the Quran come through him all at once?” We have released it to you gradually, in order to fix it in your memory. We have recited it in a specific sequence.
[25:33] Whatever argument they come up with, we provide you with the truth, and the best exegesis (tafsir).

وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَا لِكُلِّ نَبِىٍّ عَدُوًّا مِّنَ ٱلْمُجْرِمِينَ وَكَفَىٰ بِرَبِّكَ هَادِيًا وَنَصِيرًا

وَقَالَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ لَوْلَا نُزِّلَ عَلَيْهِ ٱلْقُرْءَانُ جُمْلَةً وَٰحِدَةً كَذَٰلِكَ لِنُثَبِّتَ بِهِۦ فُؤَادَكَ وَرَتَّلْنَـٰهُ تَرْتِيلًا
وَلَا يَأْتُونَكَ بِمَثَلٍ إِلَّا جِئْنَـٰكَ بِٱلْحَقِّ وَأَحْسَنَ تَفْسِيرًا

1walāوَلَاAnd not
2yatūnakaيَأْتُونَكَthey come to you
3bimathalinبِمَثَلٍwith an example / argument
5ji’nākaجِئْنَـٰكَwe brought you
6bil-ḥaqiبِٱلْحَقِّ[in] the truth,
7wa-aḥsanaوَأَحْسَنَand (the) best / better
8tafsīranتَفْسِيرًاtafsir / explanation / commentary / understanding.

Ironically, this is even echoed in the introduction to the Tafsir by Ibn Kathir.

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Therefore, the best way to understand the Quran is through its verses. If additional context was needed, it would have been already included.


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