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Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy

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Few things provoke controversy in the modern world like the religion brought by Muhammad. Modern media are replete with alarm over jihad, underage marriage and the threat of amputation or stoning under Shariah law. Sometimes rumor, sometimes based in fact and often misunderstood, the tenets of Islamic law and dogma were not set in the religion’s founding moments. They were developed over centuries by the clerical class of Muslim scholars.

Misquoting Muhammad takes the reader back in time through Islamic civilization and traces how and why such controversies developed, offering an inside view into how key and controversial aspects of Islam took shape. From the protests of the Arab Spring to Istanbul at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and from the ochre red walls of Delhi’s great mosques to the trade routes of Islam’s Indian Ocean world, Misquoting Muhammad lays out how Muslim intellectuals have sought to balance reason and revelation, weigh science and religion, and negotiate the eternal truths of scripture amid shifting values.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published August 7, 2014

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About the author

Jonathan A.C. Brown

13 books340 followers
Jonathan Andrew Cleveland Brown is an American scholar of Islamic studies. Since 2012, he has been associate professor at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He holds the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University.

He has authored several books including Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, Hadith: Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, and The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim. He has also published articles in the fields of Hadith, Islamic law, Salafism, Sufism, and Arabic language.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 140 reviews
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
August 3, 2015
This is probably one of the most timely and necessary books I've read on the question of Islam and its continued vitality in the face of modernity. Starting with an examination of the tools of Islamic legal exegesis - a hugely expansive field - the author demonstrates the means by which it has traditionally been determined what "Islam" is in any particular area, or even region.

Particularly, as a scholar of hadith, he shows how hadith have come to be transmitted by various means and most interestingly he discusses philosophical approaches its transmitters have taken throughout history.

The idea of a hadith being rated "sound" (sahih) does not connote with its identification with an actual reality as such. There have always been different levels and types of truth and definitions of what is "true" (pragmatic truths, correspondent truths, coherent truths) and if a saying or represented a greater good. Furthermore, there has always been an accepted consensus among Islamic scholars that there were a huge number of fabricated hadiths which have been created and often accepted for myriad reasons. I won't go into great detail here, but it bears saying that the author uses an incredible range of history to show that hadith have never been an exact science or intended to operate on par as a second Quran. Hadith are not and have never been intended as an infallible stopgap against reason, or intended to overwhelm scriptural evidence from the Quran or from other sources of Islamic history. Interestingly, this has also been the position of ulama throughout history.

Such a position is not to endorse the modernist (and essentially incoherent) Quran-only approach to usul-al-fiqh, but to say that the idea of doubting particular hadith, especially when faced with preponderance of starkly contradictory evidence, or when it goes against empiricaly rationality or established Islamic conceptions of the "good", has never been an unprecedented position and has historically been quite common. Only when faced with the wages of modernity and the insecurities it has wrought has this ossified in contemporary times.

One thing I truly appreciated, and I think any reader would, is the authors forthright engagement with some of the biggest theological flashpoints between Islam and the contemporary West. The mentions of domestic abuse, carnal pleasures allegedly enjoyed by martyrs, jihad, relations between faiths, the marriage of Muhammad (saw) and Aisha, as well supernatural events related in the Quran, are often mustered as the best evidence supposedly against it. However this is a superficial engagement with 1400 years of Islamic jurisprudence, within which one can find intellectually satisfying answers to all these questions which also happen to correspond with normative belief throughout history. The author goes into the lives and trials of those Islamic modernists who have felt epistemological crisis when confronted by seemingly irreconcilable differences between the canon of their own cherished civilization and the realities of modernity. In fact, such a conflict does not seem very stark when Islamic beliefs and knowledge are viewed in the full light of understanding.

Although it also could not be said to track perfectly to Western modernity (nor can anyone religion) neither the Quran nor the hadith can said to endorse any of these things. Indeed, saying "the Quran/hadith/sharia says..." on any matter is inherently absurd. One can find a plethora of different soundly argued points within Islamic scholarship, and within each individual madhab, on essentially any legal position. The sharia, much maligned today, has always been a much more flexible, humane and intellectually sophisticated tradition than many of its supporters or detractors even seem aware of. Bringing up hadiths for instance which on surface appear vulgar, impossible or cruel fails to recognize how or why they were even recorded (for instance, hadiths dealing with non-temporal issues such as the afterlife were recognized as being allowed to take liberties in description out of the belief it'd serve the pragmatic truth of exhorting goodness and effort towards God, while those recording methods of worship were recorded far more stringently). It also fails to incorporate linguistics, the obvious and necessary shifting of terms and contexts in language over 1400 years, not to mention the way hadith were manufactured or accepted for varying reasons.

As the author mentions, epistemological periods often change when people come to discard or change their canonical literature. The sources of what is considered absolute truth, the truth in light of which reality is measured, may shift from older sources to new (ie. moving from religious books to secular sources of utility in judgement) and thus forge new ways of looking at the world. Muslims believe that the Quran is given for all time, and as such can always be reconcilable. Faced with an overpowering and sometimes hostile Western secular modernity, ancient books can seem like an albatross or perhaps something to be reevaluated simply so that it may conform to what now is seen as really "true". But while it may not give a free license to any behavior when studied in depth it becomes apparent that Islam is not the constricting or oppressive worldview which both its opponents and some of its proponents today claim. Islam is not an overbearing rulebook as many of us have been led to believe, it is a system which can incorporate not just assertive reason but even outright skepticism without much difficulty. Aside from broadly recognized core tenets, there is a huge thicket of existing legal opinion, and a huge array of exegetical tools to approach new issues which are all "right" and are all "Islam".

I really recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand Islam, whether from the inside or outside, as well as those grappling with questions about the reconcilability of Islam with positive contemporary values and beliefs. The book also happens to be written engagingly, with relevant anecdotes and an author keenly aware of the most sensitive questions existing around Islam today.

(P.S. A companion for further reading about tools of exegetical analysis would be Between God and the Sultan by Knut Vikor, also impressively researched work)
Profile Image for Alex Linschoten.
Author 12 books139 followers
January 24, 2015
If I had the money, I'd buy copies of this book for all my English-speaking friends and colleagues. Such a fascinating account of hadith scholarship and the ways in which Islam's scholars and intellectual apparatus have sought to come to terms with their scripture. Brown uses key moments of debate and controversy over the Qur'an and hadith/sunna to illuminate features of the scriptural interpretative tradition. I realise that makes it sound fairly dry/dull, but Brown takes care to make the text both extremely readable and also brings in some context from the Christian and Jewish interpretative traditions.

Overall, a super book. I'm going to return to it in a few days to reread with a notepad to make sure I've really understood and absorbed his argument. If your work brings you into contact with the Islamicate world in any way, you owe it to yourself to read this book.
Profile Image for Tim.
293 reviews287 followers
October 8, 2014
The concepts of tradition and authenticity and the intermingling of the two are constant themes in my own spiritual path. The search for truth leads one to seek stability through solid foundations that have been proven in the course of time, but also to a desire to sweep away the elements that look, sound and feel like human interpretation. What speaks to us most deeply through the clutter of life? What themes do we see ever-present in all things that speak to a universal truth? For me, they are themes of love, justice, peace, equality and the like. Yet the very language we use to describe those themes is interpreted through many different symbols, which carry different meanings depending on who is listening.

What Islam as a tradition has done is to attempt to take the timeless words spoken by divinity and make them pragmatic in a world whose very nature is time and change. Brown – himself a Muslim - makes no apologies for this tradition – specifically Sunni Islam. He states correctly that regardless of how we approach Islam from a standpoint of belief, it deserves to be studied in its own right as one of the greatest “world intellectual and cultural achievements” (location 337). It’s the kind of tradition that will be able to stand up to the tough questions, and also the kind of tradition that needs no apologetics. No one needs to defend Islam, it’s true, a better way of saying it is that we need to wade through the dross that’s been placed on top of the authentic message.

It is against this background understanding that Brown tackles some of the toughest questions hurled at Islam by a cultural milieu shaped by the West. For a Western convert this makes for fascinating reading. For others, the detailed examinations of Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) might become tedious. Yet this is an immensely important book for those seeking to get to the authentic in religious traditions.
For those unfamiliar, the foundations of Islam scripturally rest on the Qur’an and the sayings/actions of the Prophet Muhammad that have been passed down in what are called “Hadiths”. The Qur’an is the unaltered word of the divine, the Real, God, Allah. One of the greatest claims to truth that Islam carries is the unchanged Qur’an that has been passed down through the centuries in its original language. No other scripture can make this claim. Speakers of the Arabic language will attest to the perfection displayed in the Qur’an’s very style and construction. No other piece of Arabic literature comes close. To fully appreciate the Qur’an it must be read and understood in its original language. InshaAllah I can personally experience this someday. To accept these features of the Qur’an is a fundamental requirement of what it means to be a Muslim.

Living the Qur’an in a religious tradition that theoretically governs every area of life requires an example, and this is found in the person and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). To know these actions we turn to Hadiths which – in theory – Muhammad himself said as attested to by trustworthy companions who then passed it down through trustworthy scholars over the ages. This is where tradition wades into the realm of interpretation. Did Muhammad say these words verbatim, and if so did the hearer convey them “accurately”? What is meant by accuracy? What linguistic elements particular to context have been missed in translation through various cultures, times and modern linguistic definitions? What is the underlying essence of the meaning of what Muhammad (s.a.w.) intended with the original message?

These are controversial questions for committed Muslims, with the degree of controversy depending on the environment in which Islam has been presented to the individual. The scholarly tradition of Islam has in practice become nearly as important as the Qur’an itself. To question this tradition is for many to approach placing “partners with God”. For others, it simply shows the encroachment of a foreign culture into areas in which it has no business. This then produces reactionary responses on all sides, and the underlying authentic message/meaning/purpose gets lost in the fight to uphold the tradition. In and of itself this fight says a lot about what it is we’re truly living for: the authentic itself or simply the “tradition”?

This is a complex book that seems meant to start a dialogue. Brown purposely stays away from providing many answers and focuses on criticism of Hadith through historical Sunni Hadith methodology. The subjects he tackles are the most controversial as posed in “Western” circles such as the age of Aisha when she married Muhammad (s.a.w.), the rights of women, stoning as punishment, etc… The most glaring omission to my eyes is homosexuality. That issue has been admirably addressed by Scott Kugle in Homosexuality in Islam, a highly recommended read.

I gave this book four out of five as I felt there was simply too much material. This created a feeling of discontinuity in the text and at times a disjointed style of writing without a clear progression. But this should in no way detract from one’s desire or need to read it. The questions raised are of the utmost importance for those seeking to understand.
Profile Image for Hamza.
157 reviews47 followers
April 28, 2018
Wow, what a book! It's definitely not for the faint of heart, as Dr. Brown breaks down a lot of concepts within Islam with very eloquent, professorial language. I found myself having to google a lot of the words he used. We need more books like this: books that aren't afraid to bluntly express the pros and cons of early hadith criticism without taking on a Qur'anist "They're all crap!" approach. Dr. Brown is well-known for his previous writings and lectures on Islam and ahadith in particular, so this will not disappoint any of his previous fans. I was going to write much more, but now that I've finished the book, I feel my brain needs a rest. Just read it!
Profile Image for Dennis Fischman.
1,332 reviews29 followers
September 26, 2015
You have in front of you an ancient text that people you respect have assured you contains all the wisdom of the world. But you have a hard time understanding it. It uses the language of a different time, and poetically at that, and it's hard to know what it means or how you should act upon it. Worse, there are particular passages that seem to contradict what you think you know for sure, or command you to do something you believe you know is wrong. How do you make sense of it, and how do you live by it?

These questions are familiar to me, as a Jew who is acquainted with the rabbinic tradition of interpretation. So, I had an advantage when I picked up Jonathan A.C. Brown's book on the Sunni Muslim tradition of interpretation. I've also met and talked about religious issues with Muslims (mostly online), so some of the history and terminology of Islam were familiar to me. If you don't have that background, then this book might be a slog for you, even though the author makes every attempt to welcome us all in.

One thing that is very different in Islam than in Judaism is that the reported sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad have a weight of their own. Jews respect Moses, but we don't act like him, and the only sayings of his that we follow are in the Torah. For Muslims, though, an authentic lesson from the life of Muhammad (called a Hadith) can be just as important or more important than what's in the Qur'an--because some schools of thought say you can only interpret the Qur'an in light of those examples. So, there is a "science of Hadith" aimed at making sure that the stories that are passed along about Muhammad are reliable.

Brown tells us about the four schools of Hadith interpretation and the differences between them. He discusses the ways that Hadith can be strong or weak based on whether they have an unbroken chain of reliable narrators behind them. They can also be widely corroborated by independent sources or limited to just one chain of narrators. He also says something new to me but which makes sense to me: that a Hadith used for determining practice (especially legal practice) has to be more carefully examined than one that just has a good moral to it. At least for some Muslim scholars, an exhortation to good behavior can be backdated to Muhammad without much harm--while others are concerned that if they accept any weak hadith at all, the whole structure will come into question.

Brown clearly admires the flexibility that Hadith interpretation provides for people who live in changing circumstances. He's gently impatient with modern, Western readers who think they can just pick up the Qur'an, or a Hadith, and know "the real meaning." At the same time, he's refreshingly honest in the last chapter of the book about the points where it might just not be possible for a modern person to reinterpret certain parts of the Qur'an or certain Hadith in a way that makes them acceptable to us, and what a quandary that is.

If you are willing to put the time into it, this book will reward you with knowledge and insights at every turn.
Profile Image for Sahar.
301 reviews246 followers
January 24, 2022
the last few chapters were truly unputdownable. RTC!
Profile Image for Nazmi Yaakub.
Author 10 books258 followers
October 11, 2017
Evolusi tradisi ilmu dalam peradaban Islam disorot dengan penuh ilmiah tetapi ditantang dengan bijaksana serta diterangkan dengan bahasa yang mudah difahami oleh pengarang yang melalui sendiri pendidikan Islam secara moden serta tradisi. Beliau mencerakinkan dengan penuh hikmah akan sejarah tradisi Islam daripada zaman awal Islam hinggalah pada era yang umat Islam berdepan dengan realiti zaman yang menyakitkan apabila berada pada kedudukan terendah sedangkan Barat mencapai keagungan sains material, sekali gus menimbulkan tanda tanya apakah kegagalan itu berpunca daripada tradisi dan ketidakupayaan merangkul idea dari Barat?

Sebagai sarjana Islam dan hidup di Barat, Dr Brown menyelongkar peta tradisi ilmu yang cuba memberikan interpretasi yang berautoriti dan berkredibiliti tetapi pada masa mengambil kira realiti pada zamannya, sebelum melihat isu-isu kontroversi yang berlaku pada zaman moden akibat modenisasi yang antara kesannya turut mengubah peta pemikiran sebahagian umat Islam termasuk hukum jihad, kepimpinan wanita, perkahwinan Rasulullah SAW, kedudukan ulama dan negara dan sebagainya.
Profile Image for عبدالرحمن عقاب.
665 reviews729 followers
May 1, 2022
قبل الإشادة بالكتاب، أرى وجوب الإشادة بالترجمة الراقية والبديعة. عبارات أدبية جزلة ودقيقة، بل هي ترجمة واعية تراجع مادة الكاتب وتبيّنها وتصوّبها باختصار في الهامش أحيانًا.
يقدّم جوناثان براون للمكتبة الإسلامية كتابًا مهمًا في بابه. من لحظة الاحتياج للسنة وانتهاءً بالتعامل معها في ظلّ العالم المعاصر، وضغوط المنهج العلمي والنقد الغربي للإسلام. مستعرضًا بلياقة مدهشة المراحل التاريخية، والاختلافات الفكرية والتفرعات المذهبية.
في الكتاب عرضٌ مهم جدًا للتشابه الفكري في مقاربة النصوص الدينية ما بين اليهودية والمسيحية والإسلام، والتعامل مع مشاكل الثبوت والدلالة. وهذا أهمّ ما في الكتابة بالنسبة لي.
وفي الكتاب مداخل فكرية مهمة لبعض المسائل التي تبدو عابرة. مثل مداخله عند الحديث عن التقليد والعُرف واللغة والحقيقة والتأويل، وغير ذلك.
ينقص الكتاب برأيي التعرّض للاختلافات التي اعترت الأحكام على بعض الأحاديث وبعض الرواة داخل المدرسة الحديثية الإسنادية الواحدة. كما أرى أنه اكتفى بأكثر المرويات إثارة للجدل، وفي بعض المرويات الأخرى التباس يستحقّ دراسة أخرى عن ملابسات "إنتاج" أو "إثبات" أو "تأويل" مثلها في المدونات التقليدية.
Profile Image for Shaimaa Ali.
610 reviews288 followers
February 21, 2016
I just came across this book through many readers here in Goodreads, some even rate it with a very high praise that once I found it I started reading it. However, it was an exhausting read!. Although the writer has profoundly discussed so many claims and accusations, but it sounded a bit repetitive & almost with no proper conclusion. (That was my main concern about it).

The author ( Prof. Brown) started his book by discussing Islam, its sources (Quran & Hadith), different Shariah schools (for example: Malik, Abu Hanifa), Sunni & Shiite Islam and lots of other detailed information that could be informative for new readers , but tend to be well-known facts for others. He Followed that by highlighting many controversial topics & questions like (Killing one's children, Women leading prayer, domestic violence in Quran ..etc).

I liked the book not only because of the topics illustrated, but also because the author was thinking in a loud voice . In some topics you couldn't just betray your conscious and believe the Ulama, in some others he just mentioned what was written about it ( but leaving you a bit skeptic!) . The author managed also to convey a fresh writing (as the book was written in 2014) with reflections on Egyptian 25th revolution , ekhwan then Army ruling later. Also reflecting on Muslims activities abroad (mainly in USA).

The author wide knowledge is something admirable, for me reading all those names about Ulama from India &Asia that I never heard about before was something remarkable!
Book Excerpt:
"In an era characterized by skepticism toward scripture writ large, however, they become a liability. "

And what a huge liability is awaiting for us in such a critical time!
Profile Image for Wayfarer.
100 reviews91 followers
August 31, 2015

Dr. Jonathan Brown present's a very readable and complex discussion surrounding the complexities involved in and challenges presented by Tradition in general and the Islamic Tradition in particular in relation to prevalent Western worldview. The discussions are varied and parallels are continually drawn with Western religious and secular traditions throughout the text, allowing the lay western reader to be continually engaged and with an aid to somewhat understanding the Islamic tradition. Though the text raises many questions, many of which are left unaddressed or not adequately addressed. I suppose for many naive Muslims this may be a rude awakening towards what it means to adhere to a Religion and the whole concept of a 'Noble Lie'. Those accustomed to absolutisms and lack of diversity, that is natural to any real Tradition, may find themselves in uncomfortable waters. Dr. Brown, uses his personal experiences of traveling and studying in the Muslim world (i.e. real interaction with the Tradition), as the underpinnings for orchestrating his varied discussions - somewhat socratic in nature. All in all, an interesting read - that furthers the current debates.
Profile Image for Azzam To'meh.
101 reviews23 followers
February 28, 2015
The book details how the Islamic (not Muslim) intellectual tradition formed and how scholars (and pseudo-scholars) interacted with the world throughout the Muslim history. It delineates, fairly accurately, the reason why Muslims react in certain ways under conditions of intellectual and political inferiority; and posits the scholarly professional critical framework of dealing with problematic hadiths and approaches. It is an amazing book that any Muslim attempting to interact with the modern world and the intellectual tradition simultaneously should read.
Profile Image for Razi Shaikh.
92 reviews72 followers
November 22, 2017
A brilliant book to get the hang of hadith, the history, breadth and the issues associated with it. Brown’s style is accessible, yet marked by a respectful academic rigour. Suggest the book to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Profile Image for Shahrazad.
79 reviews35 followers
June 20, 2022
Enlightening read, although it’s about Hadith transmission it felt like a quick history of Islam and Islamic thought/mathaheb where you see on display the vastness and diversity of Islam.

A good reminder of the enormous effort , dedication and sound methodology by ullama through out history. Suprized at the number of controversial issues Brown managed to tackle in this book .

Parallels of what happened in other abrahamic religions and the eternal dynamics of Culture vs sacred text and literal vs essence understanding.

Highly recommended ,you need a good knowledge of Islam , Sira and Hadeeth to fully grasp /appreciate.
Profile Image for Ahmad Abdul Rahim.
115 reviews40 followers
October 18, 2017
Jika terdapat satu teladan yang boleh diambil dari karya ini ia adalah bahawa tindakan kepemihakan yang diambil oleh seseorang penulis bukanlah kendala kepada penghasilan sebuah karya kesarjanaan yang unggul serta analisa yang ampuh.

Bagaimanapun jangan dilekas telan kata-kata manis diatas guna mengelak penyesalan kerana ‘keunggulan’ buku ini perlu digariskan perbatasannya.

Penulis memang tampak intim benar dengan tradisi keilmuan di dalam bidang hadis dan bidang kritikan hadis dan hal ini sudahpun maklum kepada mereka yang mengikuti perkembangan Dr Jonathan A.C. Brown di alam maya. Tidak kurang hebat adalah pengetahuan sejarah beliau -yang merupakan ijazah sarjananya- yang dimanfaatkan secara penuh di dalam bab kedua.

Di sana, Dr Brown memetakan dengan cemerlang sekali latar sejarah dan perkembangan intelektual di abad-abad terawal Islam terutamanya yang berkait dengan gerak pemejalan tradisi Islam pasca abad pertama sekaligus membuka pentas kepada perbincangan tentang polemik-polemik hangat di dalam bab-bab selepasnya. Dengan mengetahui betapa bidang kesarjanaan ilmu kritik hadis hanya mulai matang selepas daripada kemunculan mazhab-mazhab fekah yang masyhur, membantu pembaca untuk lebih prihatin apabila menyoroti kritikan-kritikan muhaddith terkemudian terhadap teks-teks sandaran yang digunapakai imam-imam Mazhab tadi.

Buku ini sememangnya dipenuhi dengan perbahasan akademik-akademik seperti yang disebutkan di atas tetapi gaya penulisan yang dipilih penulis jauh sekali tidak bernuansa sedemikian. Rujukan-rujukan kepada budaya pop memang kerap timbul. Namun yang lebih kerap adalah penggunaan leitmotif yang berlebihan pada perkiraan aku.

Setiap bab atau topik justeru akan bergerak secara formulaik bermula dengan suatu anekdot, diikuti dengan biografi (dari sudut pandang pertama), kemudian konflik yang ditemui individu-individu tersebut -dan disini penulis akan menyuntik perbahasan-perbahasan yang ingin dibangkitkannya- serta berakhir dengan renungan penulis terhadap anekdot tadi.

Makanya pembaca akan temui buku ini bermula dengan Shah Waliullah sebagai peneraju aliran revivalisme-semula abad 17; bab terkemudiannya pembaca diperkenalkan dengan Kevseri seorang agamawan-birokrat Uthmaniyyah yang hidup sewaktu kesedaran nasionalisme sekular mengambang di khilafah terakhir Islam; seterusnya adalah Sidqi dan Rayya modenis Muslim berbangsa Mesir yang tersentak dengan hadis-hadis sahih yang menyalahi apa yang diajarkan sains moden kepada mereka; dan yang terakhir adalah Konflik Siasah Mesir 2011-2013 sebagai kemuncak pertelingkahan faham moden dan tradisi di dalam kerangka siasah syariah.

Isu-isu yang ingin dibangkitkan sememangnya kompleks sehingga penulis berpendapat strategi penulisan yang seumpama itu adalah wajar. Tetapi bagi aku penilaian itu adalah terlebih anggaran (overestimate) di sisi penulis. Kompleksiti sebenar isu bukanlah pada tema-tema besar yang merelungi perbahasan soal interpretasi sabda Nabi, sebaliknya pada perincian-perincian pelaksanaannya yakni pada tingkat pengoperasian wawasan itu.

Ini jelas sekali dilihat lewat strategi penulisan seterusnya yang dipilih penulis iaitu mendatangkan argumen lewat pengemukaan aneka contoh (argument by example).

Memang banyak sekali contoh-contoh isu yang dibangkitkan meliputi isu kepimpinan wanita, perhambaan, pedofilia, pemalsuan hadis secara sengaja, imam wanita, tipu sunat, hadis-hadis yang berbunyi tidak sopan atau menyalahi penemuan sains moden.

Guna apa gugusan contoh di atas dikumpulkan kalau bukan sekadar demi menebalkan perbahasan-perbahasan yang sebenarnya berlegar pada tema-tema teras yang seberapa sahaja?

Cara gaya sebegini memperosokkan penulis ke dalam bahaya yang lain.

Ada sebab kenapa di dalam ilmu mantik ‘argument by example’ dikategorikan sebagai suatu falasi. Ini kerana bukan semua contoh-contoh yang dirangkumkan mempunyai kesejajaran fenomena yang sama.

Walhasil apabila penulis membawakan pernyataan-pernyataan umum (aphorisms) yang membawa makna-makna khusus, peralihan nada daripada partikular kepada general itu berlaku secara terlalu mendadak; dua idea yang sebelumnya boleh difahami secara berasingan, apabila cuba dicantumkan secara paksa oleh penulis maka kelancaran hujahnya sirna.

Pernyataan-pernyataan seperti:

“[Mengkaji] Tabiat manusia adalah dari sudut empiriknya, tidak kurang sukar berbanding dengan [mengkaji] pergerakan planet”

Atau generalisasi seperti:

“Tema-tema yang senantiasa berulang [sepanjang sejarah intelektual Islam] adalah ulama-ulama sering cuba untuk menerhadkan medan makna Al-Quran”

“Tiada literalisme [di dalam menyantuni Sunnah] sewaktu era pra-moden (kecuali segelintir daripada golongan Khawarij)”

Nada-nada penulisan sebegini terdengar seperti keluar dari rongga dada seorang wartawan yang menulis sebuah artikel polemik.

Ditambah pula dengan penggunaan lebih daripada satu leitmotif di dalam perbahasan topik yang sama (contohnya Muhammad Ghazali dan Yusuf Al-Qardhawi sebagai leitmotif bersama-sama dengan Sidqi dan Abu Rayya di bawah topik modenisme di dalam Islam) di samping penghuraian yang sebenarnya lebih mirip kepada sebuah komentari meta berbanding analisis asli, menjadikan wacana yang ingin dibangkitkan penulis tidak berapa jelas biji butirnya dan isi utamanya tidak dapat didengar sebaik yang mungkin.

Jika bukan kerana isi-isinya yang ilmiah, tentu pembaca akan mewartakan buku ini sebagai buah tangan seorang jurnalis yang pandai.

Satu perkara lain yang mana buku ini miskin adalah ketiadaan definisi 'tradisi' diberikan yang cukup ampuh guna menampung setiap perbincangan susulan yang menyinggung persoalan yang serupa.

Tiada ragu bahawa buku ini memerlukan pendefinisian sebegitu.

Umpamanya sewaktu membincangkan betapa konsep ijma’ sendiri dipertikaikan keabsahannya oleh ulama dengan kaliber seperti Shafie’, atau penggunaan hadis-hadis palsu secara sengaja, atau tekad para ulama mengalihkan makna beberapa ayat Al-Quran dan Hadis dari literal kepada figuratif.

Tanpa huraian kepada apa yang dimaksudkan penulis apabila beliau menyebut ‘tradisi’, tiang-tiang perbezaan antara jiwa dan bentuk tradisi Islam dan tradisi agama lain dibiarkan ranap bertindih antara satu sama lain walaupun setiap satu daripada mereka punya sejarah makna yang berbeza.

Jika penulis berkeputusan untuk mengambil langkah seumpamanya tentunya terdapat ruang untuk beliau memberikan sorotan tambahan terhadap zaman sejarah yang melatari perkembangan tradisi intelektual antara Islam vis-a-vis Kristian pula (eg: Islam berkembang di dalam latar kekuasaan sosio-politik yang agung manakala Kristian di dalam latar politik yang tertindas; setiap tradisi dan mazhab-mazhab Kristian berkembang secara terpisah antara satu sama lain sebelum Persidangan Nicea hadir mengobrol).

Bukankah itu lebih baik berbanding kisah-kisah sampingan tadi?

Sebaliknya keunggulan sebenar karya ini, pada hemat aku, adalah kejayaannya menggariskan keselarian permasalahan-permasalahan yang dihadapi di dalam berinteraksi dengan teks-teks kudus: samada agama yang dibincangkan adalah Islam, Kristian atau pagan Romawi-Yunani.
Rata-rata daripada masalah ini, rumus penulis, adalah timbul daripada peralihan pandang alam daripada sakral kepada sekular.

Di sebalik tidak senangnya aku dengan kaedah penulisan yang dipilih penulis, sekurang-kurangnya tema ini berjaya dicanai oleh beliau dengan begitu baik sekali. Andai direnung kembali, leitmotif-leitmotif yang dipilih oleh penulis sememangnya bertumpukan kepada titik-titik persimpangan di dalam sejarah yang mana dua pandang alam tersebut sedang hangat berpencak. Darjah persepektif berubah apabila lokus pandangan juga berubah. Satu-satu masalah fekah yang dicuba-rungkaikan ulama boleh saja dilihat sebagai suatu persembahan akrobatik minda yang lincah atau juga suatu percubaan jujur memaknai teks kudus.

Hal ini menghablurkan lagi fenomena keselerakan kognitif (cognitive dissonance) yang sering kedapatan di dalam mentaliti umat Islam dinihari apabila mereka berinteraksi dengan teks-teks agama yang kudus. Lantas menimbulkan keinsafan betapa sebelum kita mempersoalkan kesepadanan Islam dengan modeniti, ada baiknya kita mengambil selangkah ke belakang dan mempersoalkan apakah modeniti itu sendiri.

Sepanjang melaksanakan ‘misi’ di atas, penulis berjaya memberikan paparan gemilang terhadap kosmopolitan Islam, keunikan tradisi isnad yang meladeni sejarah agama ini serta kecanggihan warisan intelektual yang diwarisi umat sebaik-baik umat ini. Dr Brown telah membuktikan betapa tradisi keagamaan yang diwarisi umat Islam adalah, pada jiwa terdalamnya, suatu percubaan memustakakan Kebenaran. Kesan mendalam kepada mana-mana pembaca karya ini adalah sikap hormat-kritis krisis terhadap peranan ulama sebagai penerus obor nabi.

Pengakhiran buku ini berhenti pada noktah yang sedikit hampa dan itu sebenarnya sebab terbesar aku menganugerahkannya empat bintang. Namun aku tidak menafikan terdapat beberapa idea yang terkandung di dalam karya adalah idea asli yang bernilai lima bintang. Antaranya adalah penghujahan berani penulis di dalam isu Imam Wanita (Dr Brown tidak menolak keabsahannya).

Kemungkinan idea paling berani yang disuguhkan penulis adalah cadangan beliau bahawa di dalam kitab Dwisahih -Bukhari dan Muslim- sendiri kriteria-kriteria penyaringan hadith tidaklah seragam pada takah kesarjanaan yang selantai. Tesis ini begitu polos sekali dan pragmatik untuk dimanfaatkan demi merungkai persengketaan antara kem Sufi-Ashaari dan kem-kem lain yang prihatin dengan penggunaan hadith-hadith yang andal serta muktabar sahaja (tidak eksklusif kepada Salafi sahaja). Namun sayang sekali usul tersebut tiada sempat dirumuskan menjadi satu idea pokok yang lebih mendasar. Di sini, sekali lagi, aku menyalahkan penulis yang terlalu menyibukkan diri dengan penggunaan-penggunaan leitmotif samping.

Mohon agar jangan diambil perkara-perkara keruh di dalam ulasan ini. Nah, lihat sekarang, berapa banyak buku setebal 300 ms boleh memaksa aku menulis ulasan sebegini panjang?
Profile Image for Jonathan Brown.
135 reviews106 followers
August 4, 2017
This book is a tricky one to evaluate. Jonathan A.C. Brown's primary objective seems to have been to show that the Islamic intellectual tradition is potent, diverse, rich, and worthy of serious study in its own right (none of which I've ever doubted - so am I part of the target audience, or not?). He has perhaps the best treatment I've yet seen of the origins of, and practical and theoretical differences between, the major jurisprudential schools (madhahib). In a sweeping, engaging, and detail-rich flood of text, he explores several key debates within Islam today, especially where various specific hadiths, and hadith sciences in general, are concerned; and his proposal that early hadith scholars used different levels of strictness in evaluating the authenticity of hadiths on different topics, and that this is the key to unraveling many 'authentic' but problematic hadith today, is certainly of great interest. In all this, I'd go so far as to call this book essential - it should be required reading for any student of Islam.

That said, there are flaws here, too. Brown seems to want to come off as erudite for erudition's sake; or, in other words, he tries too hard, and it leaves a bit of a taste in one's mouth. (He stands in contrast to the majority of scholars I read, whose erudition of equal or greater caliber shines through without going through pains to display it.) He knows his particular subject matter quite well, but when he ventures outside of it, then, regardless of what sort of polymath he'd like to be seen as, he stumbles. His very uncritical stumping for radical reader-response theories of literary meaning is a stain on the book, and in one chapter where he talks a great deal about Martin Luther as a proposed analogy for certain Muslim reform movements (and, in the process, Brown pontificates on what Luther really meant vis-a-vis tradition), the actual number of citations of Luther's writings is a distressingly meagre one - near the very end, cursorily referencing two pages of Luther's Large Catechism. And any time Brown abstracts from the Islamic tradition to broader cross-tradition questions of 'scripture,' 'canonicity,' 'tradition,' and so forth, he runs risks that perhaps he ought not have. That aside, while he weighs in on a few of the interpretive questions raised in the book, he does so quite inconsistently, seemingly only where he has particular passion. I merely found this curious. And in his appendices treating certain specific narrations, he occasionally notes that a given narrator in the isnad was criticized by leading hadith scholars as lacking in some measure of reliability, but enlarging even slightly on the reasons and providing a brief example or two would have been a greater help.

Still, all in all, in spite of these flaws and criticisms, the book's many merits add up to a worthwhile addition to the field - I'd give it 3.9/5 stars, had I that level of precision at my fingertips here.
Profile Image for Miss Susan.
2,403 reviews51 followers
May 20, 2018
picked this up after trying to contact a shaykh about a sahih bukhari hadith that struck me as impossible to be true from it's surface reading -- was there context i was missing? am i misunderstanding its classification? how did bukhari evaluate the validity of hadiths anyways, i know about isnad evaluations but did he also look at content?

i didn't get a response but being blessed with money i figured i'd see how far i got by buying some books on the topic. pretty far it turns out! brown's clearly widely read with regards to early islamic thought and i appreciated the cogent explanation of the methodological differences between the hanafi, maliki, shafi'i, and hanbali madhabs. he's at his best when he sticks to describing early islamic history -- i was texting my cousin excerpts throughout because there were tons of interesting tidbits i wanted to follow up on (thanks for the footnotes bro, appreciate a writer who follows good citation practices) -- and i gotta say, just looking at our conversation, i can see a pattern of me being like '...will you get to the point' when he gave into the temptation to pontificate on his understandings of western philosophy. the start to chapter 6 was probably the worst example of it -- he spent like a half dozen pages on like kant and john stuart mill just to basically say that traditional ulama assumed an ignorant public that required 'noble lies'. bro, they've passed on, please chill about trying to defend them via comparison to the west and just acknowledge what they believed

it'd also be a lot stronger if he engaged with more female scholarship -- you can MAYBE have a pass when we're talking hundreds of years ago but frankly, his discussion of verse 4:34 was appallingly poorly done. feminist muslim scholars have been wrestling with this verse for decades and he barely gives a nod?

(i actually double checked the copyright date when he didn't bring up laleh bakhtiar's reading just to see if this is old enough that he could've missed it. nope, first published in 2014)

(i would also say that the lack of any mention of tradition and lgbt muslims is a gap but given that i've run across brown's opinions on this elsewhere i'm glad he went with keeping quiet. scott siraj al-haqq kugle is out there for anyone who wants to read work engaging with this -- i personally intend to at some point)

anyways, overall quite interesting. five engaging chapters out of seven + a bibliography to dig through are decent value for seventeen bucks. 3 stars
Profile Image for Matthew.
Author 1 book37 followers
October 5, 2015
4.5 stars - a seriously impressive work of scholarship. A wide variety of people would likely find reading this book extremely useful, whether a casual reader or someone digging a bit deeper.
Profile Image for Michal Lipták.
76 reviews45 followers
February 10, 2020
This is a fascinating journey. Jonathan A. C. Brown is himself a convert, follower of Hanbali madhhab (or so wiki teaches me) and, one can say, a conservative - indeed, it's the combination of his breathtaking erudition in (not only) Islamic philosophy, history and jurisprudence with the eloquence of a Western conservative and familiarity with Western conservative mindset and themes that makes his arguments not only revealing, but also immensely readable and relatively easy to follow.

Gradually, Brown leads us through history of establishment of four basic madhhabs (schools of Islamic jurisprudence - fiqh): Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali, and familiarizes us with the methodologies. Firstly he leads us through intricacies of legal argumentation and logic, the rating and interpretation of hadiths, the function of logic, reason, analogy (qiyas), custom, consensus, "best practice" (istihsan) and so on. This was the most gripping part for me as a total outsider. You will learn about evaluation of "isnads" - the lines of transmission of hadiths - and of many ingenious ways of filling the gaps in the scripture and teachings.

With this background, Brown confronts - in form of case studies - some of the most controversial topics in Islam from the point of view of Western liberal order, such as: role of women (with emphasis on whether they are allowed to lead prayers or be political leaders [enjoyably, he lists influential Egyptian cleric Mohammed al-Ghazali in favour of women leaders, who in turn cited, somewhat masochistically, Golda Meir as example of a leader surpassing most men in competence]), underage marriage (with emphasis on example given by Aisha), jihad, apostasy, hudud punishments, beating of wives and so on.

What I find admirable about Brown - not only in this book, but also in his articles I've read previously - is that although he's clearly sensible to the controversies, and would clearly like to make Islam look better in eyes of Western liberals, he doesn't flinch before the difficulties and doesn't opt for liberal-pandering interpretation that renders the rich interpretative tradition of fiqh single-handedly obsolete. So, for example, Quran 4:34 does indeed permit striking a wife, and aside from some sort of poststructuralist interpretation it can't be read away, as much as would wished for. What he proceeds to show, however, is that reading it away is indeed what many of the scholars - ulama - wished for as long as Islam existed (in one - although unreliable - hadith, Prophet himself expresses unease about this God's revelation). Moreover, the actual "use" of striking the wife was almost completely discouraged to the point of being "disliked" (makruh, one category above "prohibited" or haram). He lists countless examples from juridical practice through centuries that show striking of the wife to be almost indefensible before Sharia courts. But - and this is surely enough to earn an ire of liberals like myself - he maintains that one can't interpret striking of the wife as inherently wrong.

As for Aisha's case, Brown convincingly rejects efforts to tamper with her birth certificates and interpret her as in her teens - efforts made by some liberal-minded Muslim clerics. No, Brown considers it established that the marriage was indeed consumed when Aisha was nine, and that this cannot be interpreted as sin since Prophet cannot commit a sin. He then proceeds to show how legal practice discouraged such child marriages to the point of non-existence, despite at many points maintaining that nine was indeed, theoretically, the lower limit for marriage. Aisha's and Prophet's case was, however, considered to be a sui generis and sort of miraculous case whose recurrence cannot be ruled out in principle, but which for all practical purposes didn't recur. Still, for an outsider, operating on the basis of modern Western norms, it's surely much easier to consider Prophet a paedophile and engaging with this sort of exegesis requires to suppress many prejudices, and frankly, many wouldn't see the point in it.

At other times, one's heart is warmed when Brown brings Islam closer to accepted Western liberal order - when he, for example, convincingly argues (against such heavyweight as Qaradawi) for women leading prayers, or when he interprets the famous hadith about killing Jews (one that at one point found its way to Hamas' charter) as unreliable, despite being included in reputable Sahih Muslim hadith collection, where it is considered sound. Brown's novel but convincing - again, for the outsider - argument is that this belongs to "End of Days" genre of hadiths, and these hadiths (alongside, for example, etiquette hadiths or exhortation hadiths) bore less of a scrutiny by the transmitters as more important hadiths focusing on basic tenets of faith, liturgy or legal matters. In all such cases, however, one wonders to what degree is Brown really influenced by aligning Islam with modern liberal standards which, for example, despise anti-semitism (he surely is to some degree trying to do this, too) and to which degree he's engaging in better scriptural interpretation. And to be honest, any preference to the latter is troubling for liberal outsider such as myself.

In any case, the overall landscape of Islamic jurisprudence - although in Brown's case, more focused on its Sunni part - is fascinating. Secular liberal reasoning rarely thematizes its sources and when it does, it's more often philosophically clumsy than not. In general, this kind of reasoning tends to proceed from some basic, and as simple as possible principles. At their basics, though, the basic principles tend to appear quite a lot as revealed truths in religion. Religion, on contrary, thematizes the sources precisely through acknowledgment of the revealed truths, which are rightly treated as beyond reasoning, as absolutely transcendent, although - "fides quaerens intellectum" - not incompatible with reasoning. What in my mind sets Islam apart from, so to say, Catholicism, is the particular temporality of revelation. Where Jesus strikes within the world suddenly, Muhammad takes his time, builds a state, acts as judge, as war leader, marries and has children, and so on. Where apostles have barely some time to grasp basic tenets of what will emerge as Christianity, first Muslims have time to establish a state which will set a moral example for posterity, live in a state of grace, with revealed truths emerging through years - and when political strives appear in this state, they take up instantly theological significance, too - which results in Shiite-Sunni divide. As a result, Islamic jurisprudence, theology and philosophy has much more material to work with.

This results in a system that's both surprisingly flexible and impenetrable, since navigating its byzantine and at many times bizarre intricacies appears - again, to an outsider, nonetheless - as inhuman task. Although one thing is sure - sitting down to read Quran or some hadiths is absolutely useless when one wants to grasp at least some insight into how Islam "works". Brown is clear on this count in the end - never study alone, always seek help of a shaykh. Anyway - it is this impenetrability that, from the other side, appears, conversely, as rigidity.

In any case, the enjoyment for me as Western liberal here is twofold: firstly, it's nice to have better idea about who one of the "ideological rivals" is. Secondly, the intricacy of Islamic scholarship, despite giving results that Western liberal finds indefensible, is nonetheless intellectually stimulating. It forces one to consider the "rootlessness" of liberal value system and doubt the too easy deductions from the basic principles. It makes one consider the function of tradition and that tradition is not impediment to reason, on contrary, it can very well stimulate it. One cannot build a tradition from a scratch, and certainly not a tradition to replace something like Islam - because that ultimately was established by God, not men. This "rootlessness" is necessary condition in which Western liberalism finds itself, it cannot avoid it, and I wouldn't consider myself a liberal if I didn't believe that this can ultimately be turned into an asset, not deficiency. But how exactly, that I don't know, and I feel that this issue is confronted far less than it should, even as far as some sort of foundational texts are considered (German tradition of transcendental philosophy being promising, but somehow unsatisfying). In the meantime, engaging with Islamic thinking through wonderful (even if from the normative point of view disturbing) books like that of Jonathan A. C. Brown is as good a subsidy as it gets for me.
Profile Image for Zubair Habib.
48 reviews6 followers
February 26, 2017
This book was incredibly well done. The aim of the book is to give an outline of how Islamic theology developed. There is particular emphasis on the evolution of the four legal schools that are followed and specific discussion on some contentious topics .

The author has an incredible depth and breadth on the topic, but what I found most reliable was the lack of personal voice in his presentation. It is almost encyclopedic in tone, only towards the last bits of the book does some of his own voice filter through in opinions. This is rare in a subject as personally emotive as religion, but Jonathan Brown has done this well.

I enjoyed understanding the process of today's status quo as it was formed over the millenia, as well as living through its evolution over time and geographies.

The reading of the book reinforced my faith in a major way, giving me an added sense of identity by learning that my position today is part of a much longer and richer collective history. I was also heartened to note the immense amount of thought and scholarship that this religion has exercised throughout its existence, and that conclusions today are not casual.

It is distinct that somewhere in the past few hundred years the scholarship legacy has faded from its prior glory, perhaps as a result of the growth in numbers, perhaps as a result of changed social and political enablers.

I found this book spiritually uplifting, but in an indirect and unexpected way, and intellectually fun.

The writing is a intensely academic and takes some time to tune into.

Profile Image for Kumail Akbar.
250 reviews31 followers
May 13, 2021
To begin with I found the title of this book oddly similar to Bart Ehrman’s book – Misquoting Jesus – except that book is written by an ex-Christian critically analyzing quotations attributed to Jesus, whereas this book does nothing of the sort. Misquoting Muhammad is a sweeping summary of Sunni claims regarding Hadith scholarship as it has presumably existed through the ages. I tried to keep aside my assumptions regarding what the book is intended to be, but after finishing it, I was left with no doubt that this exists to offer mildly believable apologetics regarding the tradition of dealing with hadith literature.

The Sunni narrative of the ‘science’ of hadith collection and verification over the centuries past is presented, except without any real attempt at questioning the claims. If this were a work produced in a seminary of Pakistan, that would be understandable. But for a ‘western scholar’ to not thoroughly examine the critiques of Islamic historical documentation as provided by the likes of Crone, or even consider notions of historical memory, culture, psychology (retroactively infusing personal biases etc.) while presenting the story of hadith documentation completed in the centuries after Muhammad, would only be astonishing if one continued carrying the assumption that this is a serious critical inquiry to begin with.

The hadith were ‘collected’ from the descendants of the companions of Muhammad, who provided ‘chains of transmission’ (X heard from Y on the authority of Z) over a period spanning well over a century, over areas spanning thousands of kilometers, over ethnic linguistic and culturally different populaces which were starkly different from the one in which Muhammad was born. For e.g. Bukhari the most prominent Hadith complier was a Persian, not a native Hejazi Arab, from Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan – a distance of nearly 4000km from the Hejaz – and he was born over a century after Muhammad). Brown presents his documentation of hadith literature without even a half-baked criticism that I have provided in the previous sentences.

The only critical evaluation presented is the one presented by Sunnis for aeons – the process was thorough, the hadith were compared against similar sayings provided by similar chains of transmission and categorized as strong or weak or forgeries accordingly. What this reasoning completely misses out on is the assumed objectivity of Bukhari or the compilers themselves – they too were products of their culture and time, and were far removed from the era of Muhammad, so their standardization is at best a commentary on what they found to be commonplace or what they intuitively felt was ‘right’.

Outside of the process of Hadith documentation, there is also no serious attempt made in even more ‘subjective’ places. (What I mean by this is, a believer-scholar like Brown could not really be expected to critique the edifice on which his theology stands, but at the very least he could have been expected to more thoroughly evaluate the strands of reasoning deployed in taking different approaches to hadith interpretation. Brown does this only sporadically, just enough to make the work feel like it has touched on potential criticisms, without ever really diving deep into them.

Although I must admit, the few places where he does seem to raise a critical question, the questions are interesting, and they make you think. One such case was towards the end where Brown evaluates modernist approaches regarding interpreting the Quran without resorting to hadith literature – Brown manages to show that not only does this become next to impossible, he also questions the assumption that using Hadith as a vector will necessarily lead to socially reprehensible outcomes – and that a Quran only approach can similarly lead to – let’s say less than ideal social outcomes. Unfortunately, this makes the whole work more of a disappointment – it is clear that Brown does not lack the tools for critical inquiry, he just chooses not to engage them as thoroughly as he could. To me, the natural extension of his reasoning easily leads to discarding both the Quran and Hadith literature as ‘uninterpretable’, for lack of a better term, as far as decision making in this day and age are concerned. This conclusion is almost dripping from his closing chapters, but to expect Brown to proceed in that direction is to expect too much off him.

How then should I rate this book? High for readability. Thorough, for the mechanics it describes – contains all you need to know about how Sunni ulema, etc. have grappled with questions regarding the relevance and interpretability of hadith literature throughout the ages. Very highly, for giving Western audiences insights into the Sunni hadith intellectual tradition, and juggling apologetics with an attempt to present a serious work. Also, very highly, for head on presenting and addressing some of the more stand out criticisms of Muhammad/Islam as they exist in Western/secular popular discourse. Very low marks for reasoned critical inquiry though. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4, seems fair I suppose.

Interesting quote and what it reveals about the book:

“When a work becomes canonical its internal order and logic are guaranteed by the collective will of the canonical community. Its consonance with the known truths and reality outside the text is similarly committed to. What Frank Kermode referred to as the Principle of Complementarity is the willed assumption of the community that has invested value and meaning in a text that the text must make sense within itself and against its extratextual surroundings. It cannot suffer from senseless internal contradictions. It cannot clash with what is known to be true outside the text. What the biblical scholar Moshe Halbertal termed the Principle of Charity is the willingness of a canonical community to read its texts in the best possible light and in a way that defuses or elides contradictions with truth or order.”

My TLDR: people believe whatever they want and extract from a text whatever they desire.
92 reviews2 followers
June 5, 2021
Scholarly, extremely detailed and quite academic, this is an amazing book about the history of Islamic scholarship and Hadith studies in specific. I was consistently mind-blown, mostly because I'm sadly quite ignorant I suppose, and really appreciated the breadth of view the author provided.
Profile Image for Qutaiba.
4 reviews15 followers
December 5, 2020
I have never read a book so comprehensive, elucidating, and rich in its content and style about the Islamic tradition. This book is an eye opener for us Muslims who have become unnecessarily apologetic and helpless since the advent of modernity and western sensibilities. It fully explores the details and nuances of Muslim interpretive tradition; and how it is very different from the prevalent common notions about it in the everyday life. The very foundation of Muslim interpretive tradition is that: a scripture requires *charitable* reading from a collectivity which believes and adheres to it. A scriptural community never employs propositional logic to interpret its scripture. Things are not black and white when understanding a scripture. Verses are not just assigned the values of 1s and 0s (i.e true and false) in a charitable reading done by a scriptural community. In fact, a charitable reading of the scripture requires from its community to be interpreted in the most beautiful of manner; and the standard of beauty and sensibility lies not in our shaky and flimsy faculty of reason, cultural practices, and customs but in the Divine revelation- i.e the word of God as exemplified by His Prophet (saw).
1,358 reviews1 follower
January 17, 2016
An essential insightful academic examination of the history and evolution of Islam, particularly the impact and evaluation of the various levels of hadith (a saying or action of the Prophet, based primarily on the establishment of a verifiable line of transmission), the role of ulama (religious scholars) and Shariah courts in interpretation, and the variety of external impacts on the religion throughout its history, particularly in the modern age. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the sources of interpretive conflict in Islam, and of the struggle of Muslims throughout history - and particularly in the present geopolitical environment - to ground their beliefs in both an historical record and in the "realities" of their worlds. As an aside, I thought that the brief mention of the sharply conflicting views and understandings of the American Constitution, both historically and in the present day (see, e.g., the Second Amendment), was an excellent reminder of how difficult it is for people to agree on what even a "recent" and "legal" document means; good perspective on why there are so many differing interpretations of the 1400+ year old Qur'an.
Profile Image for Mohamad Ballan.
38 reviews38 followers
February 3, 2015
An enlightening read. Dr. Jonathan Brown has written an important and highly relevant work which needs to be read (and re-read) carefully in order to be truly appreciated. The work is essentially an insightful mapping out of the (Sunni) Muslim interpretive tradition and a detailed discussion of the various aspects of scriptural hermeneutics in the modern world. Dr. Brown seeks to demonstrate his point by taking a set of case studies--including issues as varied as apostasy rulings, domestic abuse, female leadership of congregational prayer and the use/misuse of unreliable hadith--as his point of departure. A highly recommended read for all those interested in scriptural hermeneutics, reform in Islam, and Islamic jurisprudence.
Profile Image for عبد الله القصير.
312 reviews63 followers
December 26, 2019
كتاب رائع جدًا. يستحق الاقتناء والقراءة اكثر من مرة. المؤلف يناقش علاقة علماء الشريعة مع الحديث النبوي والحديث مع القرآن. يبحث الكتاب في تعامل علماء السنة مع مختلف الأحاديث واختلافاتهم في استنباط الأحكام من خلالها. أعطاني هذا الكتاب نظرة واسعة وعميقة للشريعة وطريقة العلماء باستنباط الأحكام تجعلك تحترمهم حتى لو لم تتفق معهم.

المؤلف محايد والكتاب لا يعطي أي أحكام أخلاقية لمواضيعه ولكن يبين لك أنه نادرًا ما تجد أحكام قطعية في الشريعة ومتفق عليها.
إذا لم اقرأ الكتاب فأنصحك بقراءته، وإذا كنت قرأته فأنصحك بإعادة قراءته!!
Profile Image for Fardeem Munir.
12 reviews4 followers
April 9, 2017
I was always a fan of Dr. Jonathan Brown's work and he does a fantastic job highlighting the varying levels of complexity in the hadith tradition. Recommended to anyone wishing to get a basic overview on how the tradition works and how the scholars have historically dealt with controversial material.
116 reviews70 followers
August 30, 2017
It is an amazing book with respect to its content and writing style. It has provided me with a framework to think reasonably about the collection& interpretation of Hadith and related literature. The book summarizes the history of collection of Hadith, Establishment and evolution of different sects (Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Mutazillah, Qaramtah), efforts of different Jurists/Imams to understand religion, Quran and Saying of the Prophet (PBUH) in their times, challenges to interpretations like philosophy & science, deep issues of Islamic Epistemology, deconstruction of Hadith and fiqah in our times , philosophical debates on the validity of history as knowledge etc. I especially like the philosophical and comparative religion part of the book.

A highly recommended book but it require some background knowledge of Quran, Hadith, fiqah and Islamic history to fully appreciate the book.
Profile Image for Sagheer Afzal.
Author 1 book45 followers
January 4, 2017
I had the pleasure of meeting the author at Princeton a couple of years ago and he struck me as a very erudite and personable scholar. This book bears ample testimony to his erudition.

In the UK; despite the abundance of indigenous scholars there is never any discussion on the authenticity of the hadith which they liberally dispense from the pulpit. In this eloquently penned book; Professor Brown has done an admirable job in exposing numerous false hadith which have over time embedded themselves in the canon of hadith quoted by the Sunni clergy.

Hadith which are patently absurd and universally accepted; such as the Hadith of the Devil farting or the Fly Hadith or even the Hadith in which Riba is likened to having physical relations with your mother are examined in detail and as ever when I read historical anecdotes of my fellow Muslims I was astounded at how violent my brethren became when they encountered anything different. It is hard to believe that a mundane matter of whether or not to raise your hands before prostrating could be a cause for physical assault. Or even result in the creation of a multiple books debating this issue.

Professor Brown gives a very cogent reason why forged Hadith have remained unchallenged by comparing the evolution of scriptural authenticity in other religions and this is a major triumph of the book. It elucidates a familiar trend amongst all religions. The power of the clergy and how they have gained controlled of the laity by quoting hadith which they felt would subjugate them. It was with great surprise that I learnt whilst reading this book that prior to coming into contact with the Western world; Muslims never read or studied the Holy Quran on their own.

The ulema expressly forbade such a practice for obvious reasons. Allowing people to think for themselves would decimate the power of the clergy. To keep the laity compliant all manner of apocryphal hadith were told. In the words of Kant: 'A Guardian class empowered to tell a Noble lie...shrouding the flock in ignorance and superstition to keep them placid and malleable.'

Naturally; a few intrepid souls questioned the validity of an Islam without Hadith. But for many such a notion remains unthinkable. The author quotes a remark made by a Zaid Shakir; a leading American Imam; 'If you knock out Sahih Bukhari then you knock out Shariah' A very troubling realisation. It was surprising to learn that Quranists or proponents of a 'Quran Only' movement never gained significance. Due to the advocates espousing an Islam compliant with Western sensibilities; of which Kamal Attaturk was enamoured with and Sayid Qutb was repulsed by.

A fundamental question is raised in the book. Do you need the ulama to mediate divine scripture to the masses? I am of the opinion that you do not. History bears witness to the fact that the ulema have been very selective of the interpretations of the Quran. By disregarding the interpretive possibilities in the Quran and proffering a perspective aligned to their own individual view; they have done a huge disservice to Muslims. Whereas before; the difference between the clergy and the laity was solely dependent on education, now this is not the case. In the current age; more people enjoy an education that empowers them to think for themselves.

An indoctrinated Mullah proclaiming hadith whilst oblivious to their veracity should not be the reality that it is today. Muslims seeking rulings to cover every aspect of their existence, no matter how trivial, from scholars ever eager to comply, is not a phenomenon but a very tragic fact of life. In page 153 of the book you learn that the Ulema debated about whether or not coffee was a magnet for vice. You could perhaps claim that this was during the reign of the Ottoman Empire but the underlying point is still valid. You still find scholars today who broaden the domain of haram with an endless supply of hadith. I can personally cite examples I have found of scholars declaring that according to hadith whoever keeps their garments below ankle length will go to hell or hadith that state that whoever keeps the friendship of a non-Muslim is a snake.

Professor Brown mentions the context of the hadith regarding the length of your garments. In pre-Islamic Arabia; the wealthy were inclined to let their garments drag across the ground when they walked because it signified the fact that they had servants who would wash their garments for them. Quoting Hadith without context is not regarded as untoward in the Muslim world today. This book provides profound reasons why it should be.

The only part of the book where I felt the author should have delved deeper was when he mentioned the time when Sufism was the dominant form of Islam and Sufi Masters or sages were aplenty. If epochal sages like Ibn Arabi could use their mystical prowess to divine a chain of transmission by looking at hadith then why was no effort made to eradicate the surfeit of false hadith? Professor Brown does not really provide adequate analysis of this matter.

Towards the end; the book does meander. Too much time is dealt with the infamous Quranic verse allowing beating your wife. Here the author does seem to become somewhat apologetic and defiant. But that in no way vitiates the quality of this remarkable book.

All Muslims should read this book.
Profile Image for Hassan Ahmed.
12 reviews9 followers
May 19, 2018
What an amazing book!!! It deals with almost all contemporary issues that Muslims and Westerns see as puzzling in Islam. I wish to read it again and assimilate everything written in it. I recommend everyone to read it!
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