Many Muslims today are using what is called a “weak Hadith defense” to divert the criticism non-Muslims are heaping upon Muhammad based upon the behavior that is recorded in these ancient and traditional Islamic sources.
Muslim reformers don’t realize that a denial of the validity of the Sunnah amounts to a denial of the Holy Qur'an's claim that the prophethood of Muhammad (may peace be upon him) is a timeless example for Muslims to follow. By denying the Hadith, a Muslim denies that the Prophet Muhammad’s (may peace be upon him) words and deeds are the timeless expression of the Will of Allah. By denying the Hadith, Muslims are unable to believe in Muhammad or follow his orders as the Qur’an requires.
1.The Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim collections are considered to be authentic historical records by orthodox Muslims. So, a weak Hadith defense is unjustified when these sources are used to critique Muhammad sayings and behavior.
2. A weak Hadith technically refers to the chain of narrators (isnad), reputation of the narrators, and the text of narration (matn). Even if there were a technical flaw in a Hadith, it does not necessarily mean that the Hadith is not an authentic one. Authenticity and weakness are two different concepts.
3.The Qur'an has less technical support for its authenticity than do many Hadith. Yet, the Qur’an is considered authentic by all traditional Muslims. So, if an historical saying must be rejected because it is technically weak, then much of the Qur'an would have to be rejected too. They were both collected, preserved, and passed on the same way and by the same people.
4.Some Muslims use the weak Hadith defense, because they approach Muhammad with their own wishful presuppositions. So, they automatically reject any Hadith that does not meet the standard of their uncritical assumptions. Our beliefs should be grounded in historical reality: not wishful thinking.
5.The third standard (matn) to judge the authenticity of a Hadith is an illegitimate standard. Present-day beliefs [read: unsubstantiated opinions] don't determine the events of the past. All Hadith compiled by Ishaq, Tabari, Bukhari, and Muslim had to be consistent with, or at least explain the Qur’an for them to be included in the original collections.
There is extensive historical information that can be ascertained about the life and teachings of Muhammad in the Hadith collections that were compiled from these ancient Muslim oral traditions. Some of the most valued collections of topically arranged Hadith were those collected by Bukhari, Dawud, and Muslim, who were ancient traditional Muslim scholars. The chronologically compiled collections of Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari are the oldest in Islam. Their extensive collections provide detailed information on the thoughts and actions of Muhammad (may peace be upon him). These collections must be studied in order to understand Muhammad’s (may peace be upon him) life and teachings. In fact, these collections provide vastly more information on the life and teachings of Muhammad and thus the nature of Islam, than does the Qur’an itself.
However, when someone examines these accepted Hadiths, they find some accounts in which Muhammad displays unfavorable behavior or says thing which simply are not true. This foolishness, immoral or criminal behavior is an embarrassment to many Western Muslims who seek to defend Islam. So without thinking about the consequences, many Muslims seek to minimize these historical accounts by claiming that these Hadiths are weak; and, therefore, they should be ignored in discussion of Muhammad’s religion.
But, is this weak Hadith argument a legitimate defense of Muhammad’s (may peace be upon him) character? Or, is it a convenient ploy to divert the attention away from the unsavory words and deeds of Muhammad (may peace be upon him)? Why should the ancient writings of the great traditional Muslim scholars be set aside so conveniently whenever Muhammad’s (may peace be upon him) violent or deviant behavior is exposed from these scholarly, ancient, traditional, and authentic Muslim sources? If we must hide the truth for Muhammad to be believed, is he believable?
Now, it is true there were many Hadiths that were rejected by ancient traditional Muslim scholars. They rejected them because these traditions were fabricated (maudu’) for political reasons long after Muhammad died. But these were discarded long before the trusted collections were compiled. These fabricated Muslim traditions are very much like the apocryphal post-New Testament writings that appeared long after the genuine New Testament gospels were written. But it is clear that Ibn Ishaq, al-Bukhari, al-Tabari, Dawud, and Imam Muslim did not include maudu' Hadith within their collections. In fact, they applied stringent standards to assure that mandu' Hadith were excluded.
For an oral tradition to be accepted as sahih (sound), it must meet important requirements. And, if a tradition did not meet the requirements for a sahih Hadith, it was not accepted into the family of sahih Hadith by Ishaq, Tabari, Bukhari, Dawud, or Muslim. Therefore, the standard Hadith collections are considered by traditional Muslim scholarship to be sahih. Thus, it is unjustified to use a weak Hadith defense when a sahih Hadith is used to present the actions and teachings of Muhammad.
Literally means sahih means sound, healthy, and without fault. Firstly, to be a sahih Hadith (in the third Islamic century which would include Tabari, Bukhari, Muslim, and Dawud but not Ishaq as it was written earlier), the Hadith must have had a chain of transmission (isnad) in which there was no weakness. Each link of the chain must have been connected by a narrator who heard the narration from the prior link in the chain. The chain of narrators must have been an unbroken chain. Secondly, each individual narrator must have been a just (‘adl) Muslim of good reputation. Thirdly, the text (matn) of the Hadith must have been in accordance with orthodox Islamic teachings. That means that the matn of a sahih Hadith needed to be consistent with the Qur’an’s message, help explain the Qur’an, help explain Islam’s Five Pillars, or help establish Islamic customs, rituals, and laws.
Furthermore, Muslims accept the text of the Qur'an without hesitation. However, each ayah (verse) of the Qur'an is not based upon Mutawatir (multiple chains of corroborating narration continuous through history) isnad. So, why should a Hadith have to meet a higher standard of historical verification than the Qur'an itself?
When a Hadith meets all the proper qualifications for a sahih Hadith, it must be accepted by all Muslims. A sahih Hadith is an obligatory Hadith—it is the Prophet’s Sunnah. It must be acted upon according to the consensus of the Muslim scholarship. The sahih Hadith are those used as the sources of Islamic jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh). They are used as proof in cases involving Islamic Shari’ah law. They make our observance of Islam’s Five Pillars possible.
So, it is not legitimate for a Muslim who professes to follow the teachings and behavior of Muhammad to downplay sahih Hadith. These Hadith are not weak.
Furthermore, the fact that a Hadith is not a sahih Hadith does not mean that the Hadith is not a true report regarding Muhammad’s life. It simply means that, technically speaking, the isnad of the Hadith lacks the high standard required to be a sahih Hadith. So, even though a Hadith is technically weak, i.e., its isnad is not flawless, it may still be an authentic Hadith. Technically, a weak Hadith is not the same thing as a ‘forged’ (Maudu’) or fabricated Hadith.
Fabricated Hadith were not intentionally included in Burkhart's, Muslim’s, Ishaq’s, or Tabari’s collections. So, simply setting aside a Hadith as weak is only a statement regarding its isnad. It is not a statement that the traditions is a forged or a Maudu’ Hadith. The fact that a Hadith was included in Ishaq’s, Tabari’s, Bukhari’s or Muslim’s collection is evidence that the Hadith is an authentic one, even though its isnad may not meet the standard required to be a sahih Hadith. Ishaq was not only Muhammad’s (may peace be upon him) first biographer, he was the first Islamic scholar whose writings survive. Tabari was the first Muslim to write a commentary on the Qur’an. These men were the most learned Muslims of their day. So, the weak Hadith defense used against an unfavorable Hadith found in one of their collections that displays Muhammad's (may peace be upon him) immoral or criminal behavior is a really weak defense.
If a Muslim wants to deny the behavior or words attributable to Muhammad (may peace be upon him) found in the oldest Hadith collections, they must prove that the Hadith is not historically authentic while at the same time revealing an earlier, and more authentic Hadith, to support a different conclusion. Then they must explain how the unfavorable Hadith found their way into the oldest and most trusted collections while at the same time explaining away the contradiction, as internal contradiction is evidence that something isn’t true. And even then, we must be careful not to condemn any Hadith that is consistent with the teaching of the Qur’an. This is a much more difficult task.
Lastly, some Muslims disparage some Hadith because of their initial presuppositions regarding the sayings and behavior of Muhammad. For example, they uncritically assume that Muhammad was a perfect and flawless individual whose sayings and actions were all divinely inspired by Allah. Beginning with this initial presupposition, they set aside everything in traditional Muslim scholarship that does not accord with their initial religious assumptions. However, this is unfortunate, because historical reality should take precedent over our religious assumptions. Instead, our religious belief should be in accordance with historical reality. This is why the historical record found in the ahadith [Arabic plural of Hadith] and the Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq are so important.
Finally, the third standard (matn) that Muslim scholarship uses to judge the authenticity of a Hadith seems to be an illegitimate standard. The real standard should be the historicity of a narrative. To determine the actuality of an historical event, the chain of narrators (isnad) and the reliability and reputation of the narrators ('adl) are valid considerations. By contrast, it is not intellectually appropriate to reject a historical event because it does not agree with Muslim religious doctrine. This view gets the cart before the horse. In essence, it asserts that, even if a historical event actually happened, Muslim scholarship would reckon that it did not happen if it conflicts with their present-day religious dogma. Our present-day thoughts don't create the events of past history. If they did, there would be no point in historical research.
As a side note, some Muslim scholarship applies their third standard to the events of the Bible. For example, some believe that all prophets lived sinless lives. Since Muslim belief teaches that adultery is a sin, it would follow that no prophet committed adultery. Therefore, since we believe that King Dawud (King David) was a prophet, it follows that he never committed adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-5). Therefore, we must conclude that the biblical report of King Dawud's adultery was not a true report because the historicity of the report is irrelevant. It does not make any difference whether or not King Dawud actually committed adultery. For many Muslims, present-day beliefs take precedence over the actual events of history. Thus, there could never be an historical event that could conflict with Muslim dogma. Such an arbitrary standard safely protects the religion of Islam from the realities of the historical record, making the religion of Islam non-falsifiable…but at what cost?