Book Review: Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World

“Oh my Lord, advance me in knowledge.” (Holy Qur’an 20:114)

The book ‘Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World’ by Dr. Jonathan Brown is an essential book to have!

I will have to say that Bassam Zawadi was correct when he reviewed this book and proclaimed it ‘a wealth of knowledge’.  here:

When I started to read this book, I could not put it down. I finished it in a little less than two days time.

This is an absolutely well organized and well written work!

When I watch Dr. Jonthan Browns videos and lectures I come away unimpressed.

You can see my critique of his recent lecture delivered at Zaytuna institute, in Hayward, California here:

However, when reading this book you would swear that the person speaking and the man who penned this most excellent book were two different people!

What impressed me about the book was its flow and chapter arrangements.

I was also impressed that Dr. Jonathan Brown would give book recommendations at the end of each chapter.  These recommendations included works by scholars whom are opposed to Dr. Jonathan Brown himself!

This my dear readers is a rarity today (in Islam and outside of Islam).   This most likely is self evidently due to the last few chapters of his book in which he talks about Western critical methodology, the fact that we are open to investigate truth claims.

Something that Islam claims it once cherished.

One thing to note when reading is that Dr. Jonathan Brown is ‘his own man’. 

As a man of learning, and well studied he’s not about to get patronized by Sunni or Shi’a sectarianism.

For example his willingness to come forward and share with us that the ‘hands off’ approach to questioning ‘sahih’ Bukhari and ‘sahih’ Muslim are modern phenomenon.

“The Sahihayn were thus not immune to criticism. Only in early modern and modern periods has it become controversial to criticize the Sahihayn, but this is primarily due to Muslim scholars eagerness to protect the status of two books that they see as symbols of an Islamic tradition under attack from modernity.” (page 40)

The cherished notion of the ‘Ahl Sunnah’  that all the companions are just is squarely shown to be a machination.

“That the collective impunity of the Companions was a later construct of the Sunni worldview is evident when one finds occasional minor Companions listed in early books of weak hadith transmitters.” (page 88)

Even showing the dishonor and blatant nastiness shown to women by quoting a statement from the shaykh of Imam Bukhari, Ibn Ma’in where he said about someone who critiqued a companion, calling the mana sucker of his mother’s clitoris’.  (page 87)

As shocking and disgusting it was to read this, Dr. Jonathan Brown did not think twice about penning down in his book.

His mention that the famous Sunni hadith scholar Ibn Salah proclaimed that ‘there was no such thing as mutawatir hadith’  (on page 109)

His statement that the Blessed Messenger (saw) had a companion named Mu’awiyah who fought a bitter civil war with another companion named Ali (both of whom slaughtered Muslims)

and Dr. Jonathan Brown  quotes from the books of history.

“There are even reports from the early historian al-Mada’ini that Mu’awiya encouraged systematic forging and circulation of hadiths affirming the virtues of the caliphs and Companions at Ali’s expense.”

(cited from Al-Mada’ini’s Kitab al-ahdath; Ahmad b Sa’d al-Din al-Miswari, Al Risala al-munqidha min al-ghiwaya fi turuq al riwaya, pp. 51-55)  this citation is found in  Dr. Jonathan Browns book “Hadith Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World page 70

I mention these things to show that Dr. Jonathan Brown is his ‘own man’. He is under absolutely no pressure to sanitize anything.

His treatment of Sufi interaction with the hadith literature was most just.

All of these things I just quoted are generally things that the Sunni sect would not want the general public to ponder over too much.

I have never seen a more balanced approach to the history of the hadith; its transmission, compilation, sectarian views thereof etc.

So if there is anyone who totally rejects all the hadith and your looking for a book with nuggets of information you can use against the hadith this is not it.

In fact in the closing chapters Dr. Jonathan Brown brings us up to speed on the current debates regarding the hadith literature.

It is in these chapters that I really felt naive,  I felt as if Dr. Jonathan Brown was a deep reservoir of knowledge, and we were merely lapping up the dew from the morning grass.

The section “Western debates over historical reliability” is an absolute essential read for those highly critical of the hadith literature.

Especially the section onWestern Evaluation.

Where he quotes from the works of Nabia Abbott, David Powers, Fred Donner and Harold Motzki  all who do not dismiss the hadith literature out right.

These are names of scholars, that those people who reject the hadith in totality would prefer you to not know about.

Though in fairness I do want to say I have seen web sites like ‘Islamic Awareness’ among others quote Nabia Abbott, and traditionalist, and use the above names to try and bolster the idea that ‘the hadiths have come down to us exactly as the traditionalist have said’.

That is simply an abuse of their material, and cherry picking their works.

Nonetheless,  pages 233-234  Dr. Jonathan Brown effectively uses a ‘chicken or the egg’ analogy to answer some Western criticism of the hadith.

I thought that was beautifully done.  I’m not going to quote what he said, because you need to go and get the book!

My critique of the book is minimal.

On page 62 on the section‘Quoting God or Hadith Qudsi’  I noted that he gave very little attention to this bizarre yet intriguing genre of hadith.

I was quite curious (and still am curious) as to why that was the case.

I am also thankful to Bassam Zawadi, the person whom made me quite curious concerning this book.

However, if your a student of the hadith literature, or your curious as to this particular area in Islam I would encourage you to pick up this book.

It is by far THE best book on the hadith literature (that I have read) in the English language. 10/10 stars!



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7 responses to “Book Review: Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World

  1. Ammar

    Very excited to the read.. I ordered it 10 days ago.. but amazon seems to have bungled it

  2. Salaamun aleikum. Hamza Yusuf claims only 500 hadith have mutawatir status; Wael Hallaq claims only 14, and according to Brown “the famous Sunni hadith scholar Ibn Salah proclaimed that ‘there was no such thing as mutawatir hadith’” (p.109). It appears there is as much ‘ijma (consensus) on this issue as there is on the number and/or existence of mansukh (abrogated) and naasikh (abrogating) ayaat in The Qur’an – i,e, NONE.

    • walakum salaam wr wb Field Muslim!

      Excellent point. In fact in Brown’s book there are a few paragraphs devoted to the Mutazalite claim of what should be considered mutawatir, and we can see that the scholars differed on the number of how many transmitters need to be common in each chain of transmission. Numbers range from 2, 4, all the way to 40 even!

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