What is the Hadith?
This article is limited to a brief introduction of the hadith literature. It is not a comprehensive examination or explanation. For more detailed information see these two articles on the Answering Islam website (1, 2). Both referenced articles expand upon what is introduced in this explanation.
It is a common misconception to believe the source of Islamic guidance and knowledge emanate solely from the Qur’an. Many Muslims will state that their theological understandings and religious activity are all sourced from the Qur’an and nothing but the Qur’an. Any Muslim who makes this claim is making an inaccurate statement.
The Hadith literature are a record of the activities and sayings of Muhammad and some early adopters of Islam. The Qur’an (Allah) reminds Muslims that they have been given a perfect pattern of conduct to follow which is Muhammad (K33:21). A faithful Muslim will know that the Hadith literature is a source where thousands of short stories covering the personal activities and sayings of Muhammad are documented. Therefore, a Muslim who is devoted to the Qur’an and following the example of their Prophet (33:21) are forced consult the Hadith literature.
The Hadith literature is the soruce for understanding many Islamic practices that are either not clearly explained in the Qur’an or missing. For example, every faithful Muslim can easily cite the 5 Pillars of their faith and explain these as the foundation for Islamic life. The five pillars that Muslims will recite are clearly found in the Hadith set of Al-Bukhari Volume 1, Book 2, Number 7:
Narrated Ibn 'Umar: "Allah's Apostle said: Islam is based on (the following) five (principles):
1. To testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah's Apostle
2. To offer the (compulsory congregational) prayers dutifully and perfectly
3. To pay Zakat (i.e. obligatory charity)
4. To perform Hajj. (i.e. Pilgrimage to Mecca)
5. To observe fast during the month of Ramadan”
The problem for the Muslim lies in the fact that these 5 clearly expressed Pillars of the Islamic faith are not clearly commanded in the Qur’an as they are in this single Hadith quote. Muslims can skip around the Qur’an with both clear and vague references to each of the 5 Pillars, but nowhere in the Qur’an are the 5 Pillars expressed as a unified set of beliefs as clearly as they are expressed in this single Hadith. Allah has many commands in the Qur’an such as the command to not befriend non-Muslims (5:51) and the Qur’an is not clear which 5 are given special treatment and unified. Absent the Hadith literature, it is impossible for a Muslim to explain why these 5 commands are to be regarded as the Pillars of Islam and not any other commands in the Qur'an.
While the Qur'an is typically a single volume, the Hadith literature for Sunni Muslims comprises 6 sets of books. There are 6 recognized Hadith collections and all are currently published in English with Arabic text:
Sahih Al-Bukhari (9 Volumes) Sahih Muslim (7 Volumes) Sunan Abu-Dawud (5 Volumes) Sunan An-Nasa’i (6 Volumes) Sunan Ibn-Mahah (5 Volumes) Jami’ Tirmidhi (6 Volumes) As you can see from the list above, the Hadith literature is voluminous (38 volumes) when compared to the Qur’an. The Hadith literature contains thousands of short stories and sayings and many are repeated with slight variations. In summary, the Hadith literature are essential for understanding Islamic religious practices and Islamic history. A practicing Muslim cannot ignore the commentary, explanation and religious guidance which the Hadith literature provide. Muslims will never claim inspiration of the Hadith as they do the Qur’an, but they follow the Hadith as though it were inspired. The Hadith literature are uninspired in word, but inspired through their deeds. These books are the uninspired/inspired works of Islam.