The Sunnah and Orientalism

• The General Stance of the Orientalists towards the Prophetic Sunnah (First issue)

By: Professor and Dr. Akram Dhiya Al-Umari (Iraq) - 2012-09-10

Orientalists have always realized the importance of the Prophetic Sunnah to Islam in general, and the Holy Qur’an in specific, which is why they tried their best to attack its authority and doubt its truth.


Jeb, an American Orientalist, said, “Islam is built on the ahadeeth more than the Holy Qur’an, however if we remove all the ahadeeth that are lies, nothing would remain from Islam, and it would be just like the cactus fruit of Thomson.”  This is in reference to Thomson, an American man, who went Lebanon and was given a cactus fruit, and he tried to take all the seeds out. By the time he was done, there was nothing left in his hand.  (1)

Among the best who clarified the general stance of the Orientalists towards the Sunnah is Dr. Akram Dhiya’ al-`Umari in his book, Mawqif al-Istishraq min as-Sunnah wa as-Sirah an-Nabawiyyah (The Position of Orientalists towards the Prophetic Sunnah and Biography); what follows is his discourse:


The older Orientalists did not have specific studies on the Sunnah, but rather they focused on the Creed, Qur’an, Sirah, and History. Towards the end of the 17th century, the French Orientalist, Barthélemy d’Herbelot (1625 – 1695 C.E.), who owned the Maktabah ash-Sharqiyyah, a department designed for learning about the orient, founded in 1738 C.E., wrote a book about “Hadeeth, stories, news that is heard and spoken of, ahadeeth of the Messenger, things that the false Prophet said which were transferred from mouth to mouth, and person to person.”


In summary, his position is that all the ahadeeth found in the six books of hadeeth (Bukhari, Muslim, at-Tirmithi, an-Nasa’i, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah), al-Muwatta’, ad-Darimi, ad-Daraqutni, al-Baihaqi, and as-Suyuti, are taken, in large, from the Talmud.


It should be noted that he differentiates between the Sunnah that the Muslims adhere to, and the hadeeth which, according to him, are merely unverified historical reports. Also noted from the study of d’Herbelot, is that he belies the Messenger r, accuses him of fraudulence, and refers to him with the most disgraceful names.


            He also claims that “Mohammedanism” is taken from the Talmud and the Jews who entered in Islam. They then perpetually developed the religion into a number of different religions and cultures which had contact with the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, he accuses Muslims of not differentiating when studying the fundamentals of their religion; and this was taken from Ignác Goldziher (1850 – 1921 C.E.) and Joseph Schacht (1902 – 1969 C.E.), two of the most famous Orientalists who studied the topic of the Sunnah.


In the 18th century, the Orientalists categorized the fields of oriental studies in a subject-based manner, and towards the end of the century Leone Caetani (1869 – 1935 C.E.), William Muir (1819 – 1905 C.E.), and Aloys Sprenger (1813 – 1893 C.E.) appeared and were focused on the history of the Sunnah.  They had doubts about the authenticity of the ahadeeth, and they sought to uncover the veil on what they called, “The Origin of Hadeeth.” Goldziher referenced the fundamentals and roots of Islam back to Judaism and Christianity, and he asserted the impact of Hellenism and the Roman law code on the evolution and development of Islam.


Ignác Goldziher, someone well versed in the fundamentals of Semitic languages and Islamic history, as well as, having studied at Al-Azhar University, benefitted from these three.  He was Hungarian by ethnicity and Jewish by religion, and was considered by Orientalists, as well as those who were influenced by them, to be a pioneer of hadeeth study and criticism according to the historical method. He reached the point of saying that the chains of narrations and texts of the ahadeeth caused an evolution in Islamic ideology. 


There is no doubt of his effect on the flow of oriental studies in the field of the Sunnah.  He led the belief that fabrication of the ahadeeth began during the early time of the Sahabah, even if there is some original material established.  He acknowledged that there were ahadeeth writing in manuscripts by the hands of the Sahabah. However, and despite that, he did not believe that writing the Sunnah actually began until the second generation, and that most ahadeeth, in his view, were fabricated by the political sects among the philosophers and partisan followers of the Islamic schools of thought in the 2nd and 3rd generations.  This is why he had the belief that they reversed the evolution of Muslims politically and ideologically in those two centuries, and that there is no complete connection between these two centuries and the first century.  He focused on the struggle between the Umayyad peoples, whom he personifies as ignorant tyrants, and the righteous scholars, who are supporters of the Prophet’s r family.  He accused az-Zuhri of fabricating the hadeeth, “Do not travel far except to three mosques.” However, Az-Zuhri, the first to gather hadeeth, had a time frame between saying the ahadeeth by mouth and writing them, which would create a historical gap and cause distrust in them.



His studies and researches have become a foundationfor Orientalists who came after him.  A few of them criticized or amended his views, like Johann Füeck (1894 – 1974 C.E.) and Josef Horovitz (1874 – 1931 C.E.).  As for the overwhelming majority, they sufficed with just deepening his views by bringing new evidences, or making them more general to suit more fields.  Some who did that are Alfred Guillaume (1888 – 1966 C.E.), Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868 – 1945 C.E.), Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb (1895 – 1971 C.E.), William Montgomery Watt (1909 – 2006 C.E.), and Arent Jan Wensinck (1882 – 1939 C.E., pronounced Vensinck).


Wensinck focused on the ahadeeth dealing with creed in his book, “The Muslim Creed”, during a time when Joseph Schacht, who was of British nationality and Jewish religion, (1902 – 1969 C.E.) focused on the ahadeeth dealing with rulings in his books, “The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence”, and, “An Introduction to Islamic Law.” Schacht asserted that the ahadeeth are fabricated. Gibb and Roger Savory both praised Schacht’s book, and Gibb regarded it as a fundamental to all other western studies in Islamic civilization and law, at least in a time when Savory counted Schacht among the greatest scholars of Islam in the world. Schacht, in his book, “The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence” studied two books, al-Muwatta’ by Malik, and al-Um by ash-Shafi`i.  He then gave a general summary of his studies of the other books of hadeeth and fiqh.  He came up with the theory of “Hindering Slander” when trying to explain the evolution of the asanid.

We can summarize his views by knowing his allegation that the largest portion of asanid are fabricated, his belief that the oldest ahadeeth do not appear before the 150th year of the Hijri calendar, that the ahadeeth were fabricated by the jurists and those who followed the other sects He also claimed  that ash-Shafi`i is the one who came up with the notion that the Sunnah is used as proof, and that before that the people used to act according to the schools of thought.  In summary, he had a huge impact on his generation of Orientalists.


Schacht disparaged the chain of narration that Malik narrates from Nafi` who narrates from Ibn `Umar.  He said that Nafi` died when Malik was young; this, however, is false because Malik even used to have his own circle and was teaching during the life of Nafi`.


James Robson refuted Schacht with regards to this chain of narration in an article entitled, “The isnad in Muslim Tradition.”  In this article, he swayed from his views that he used to follow Schacht when he published his research.  He used to doubt all the ahadeeth, and view that only the Qur’an can be correctly attributed to the Messenger r.  It should be noted here that Guillaume, Watt, and Robson are all Christian clergy men.  An inclination towards the study of the hadeeth sources and criticism of hadeeth documents appeared from Robson (born 1890 C.E.), who was a professor in Manchester beginning from 1949 C.E. He proved that there are some original materials of the ahadeeth, contrary to what Schacht believed, and before him, Goldziher.  He did not agree with Caetani and Sprenger in the claim that the chains of narration of `Urwah bin az-Zubair (D. 93 Hijri) are fabricated by the latter day authors.


Sprenger claimed that the isnad system is poor, that considering the hadeeth as a whole, both sanad and text, has led to a great deal of harm and confusion, and that `Urwah’s asanid are all fabricated by the latter day authors.  He wrote an article called, “Usul Tadwin al-Watha’iq `Inda al-Muslimin.” However, he did affirm that the ahadeeth were written and scribed during the time of the Prophet r, basing his view on, Taqyid al-`Ilm, of al-Khatib [al-Baghdadi], something that Goldziher disagreed with later on.


As for William Muir (1819 – 1905 C.E.), a contemporary of Sprenger, he criticized the way that the chains of narration are relied on in authenticating ahadeeth, due to the possibility of interpolation in the chains of narrators.  Despite this assertion, he, like Sprenger, affirmed that there is some original basis for the ahadeeth, but viewed that half of the ahadeeth contained in Sahih al-Bukhari are fabricated, and cannot be trusted.


As for Caetani, he mentioned in his memoirs that the chains of narrations were added to the actual texts after a period due to outside influence.  This is because the Arabs did not know of chains of narration, and that only `Urwah and Ibn Is-haq used them.  Even so, he claims that `Urwah did not always use chains of narrations, and Ibn Is-haq used them in an incomplete manner.


Horovitz affirmed `Uwrah’s knowledge of the isnad, and that the isnad only was added to the hadeeth during that last third part of the 1st century [Hijri] He also took az-Zuhri’s practice of collecting various chains of narration for the same text into consideration.  Horovitz viewed that the Arabs adopted the isnad from the Jewish Talmudic schools of thought. He, as well as Guillaume, viewed that the Jews and Muslims were very alike in that they refer their respective religions back to their Prophets.

Johann Füeck refuted Goldziher and freed the muhaddithin and fuqaha’ from the allegation of fabricating the ahadeeth.  He unveiled the Goldziher’s method of dealing with Islam, in that that he used the historical materialism method (2)   and the method of doubt (3)  which necessitates that the ahadeeth used in deriving rulings are all false until proven otherwise.

As for David Samuel Margoliouth (1858 – 1940 C.E.), a contemporary of Goldziher, also held the same views as Goldziher’s, except he took them further  and stated that the Messenger r did not leave any orders or rulings besides what are found in the Qur’an.

Guillaume viewed that it is impossible to prove the authentic transmission of the ahadeeth contained in the Six Books of Hadeeth (Al-Bukhari, Muslim, At-Tirmithi, an-Nasa’i, Abu Dawud, and Ibn Majah’s respective hadeeth collections) to the Sahabah, although some of the narrations are authentic. Guillaume explained az-Zuhri’s statement, “The rulers forced us to write the ahadeeth” as a mistaken interpretation, used as an excuse to fabricate ahadeeth, as Goldziher before him asserted.

Nicholson adheredto the statement of Abu `Asim an-Nabil, “I have not seen something that righteous people lie more about than hadeeth.” He said that proofs thereof were mentioned in Goldzihers, Mohammedan Studies, and that even the most pious scholars would lie when narrating ahadeeth, in order to fulfill political and ideological agendas. Imam Muslim, however, clarified that at times they would narrate a lie without intending it.  Yahya bin Sa`id al-Qattan said, “The most lies I have seen are by those who are ascribed to goodness and asceticism (az-Zuhd).” Lies (al-Khathib) here, according to the dialect of the Arabs of the Peninsula, are used to define mistakes in general.

Noel J. Coulson (1928 – 1986) and Guillaume both viewed that the muhaddithin only critically examine the chains of narration without paying attention to the texts of the ahadeeth. Coulson said, “If the chain of narration connects at every narrator, and every narrator is upright, in their estimation, then they would accept the hadeeth and hold it as a legislative obligation. Faith in Islam does not allow them to question the text of the hadeeth, since it is divine revelation.  Therefore, it does not accept historical criticism.”



(1) Refer to, At-Tabshir wa al-Isti`mar, by Dr. Mustafa Khalid and Dr. `Umar Farukh, pg. 98.

(2) T.N. An investigative method formed and articulated by Karl Marx (1818 – 1883 C.E.) used to determine changes in society.  He claimed that all changes in society are attributed to economic and materialistic factors.  He states in, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life…”

(3) T.N. Also known as Cartesian Skepticism, the method of doubt is a skeptical approach to analyzing claims and texts formed by René Descartes (1596 – 1650 C.E.), which incorporates doubting everything that could have a miniscule possibility of error.  He would allege that sensory knowledge can often be doubted since it could very well be a hallucination.  Descartes brings two arguments to prove his case.  His first argument is that of the dream, where he alleges that one cannot distinguish a dream from reality, and that dreams are presented in the form of reality, such that one may experience a dream and have firm belief that it was, indeed, reality.  His second argument is that of the demon.  This argument states that we are controlled by a demon, and this demon could cause us to create our own world within our minds which we may believe is reality.




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