The Science of Hadith – 4 Orientalists and Hadith (1)

The works on Islam and related topics, as produced by Western scholars, over past few centuries, is a dark patch on the face of scholarship. These scholars (who later came to be designated as Orientalists) were always at loggerheads with the Prophet and ill at ease with facts surrounding him. Their efforts, on the one hand, to produce anthropological data on Muslims for the benefit of their colonial governments, and, on the other, a distorted account of Islam and its Prophet for the consumption of their peoples, especially the intellectual class, produced a mass of material that can be safely consigned to the waste box without any significant loss to humanity, but with some possible benefits. To quote Rene Guenon (from his

East and West“), not for any specific reason but to impress upon our readers that we do not stand alone in holding an opinion that we had formed long before we knew who Guenon was: “.. as for the works that have been produced about the East and its doctrines, it would in most cases be better not to know of their existence, for ignorance pure and simple is far preferable to false ideas.” The modification we offer is, “.. ignorance pure and simple is far preferable to prejudice.” And prejudice it was that the Western writers aimed to create.

While it is true that its several internal forces take the major responsibility for ushering the modern West into what Rene Guenon termed elsewhere as its reversion to a new phase of “dark age,” the credit for keeping firmly shut access to the alternative system that could have prevented it from this end – Islam – goes to the Orientalists. It is only since quite recently that their grip has loosened, but not before the reins were handed over to the media, which exceeds them both in vigor as well as in prevarication and disfigurement. Reduction of human existence to the level of insects engaged in material production and consumption with frenzied devotion, resulting in destruction of homes, break-up of families, proliferation of crime, pornography, sexual perversion and drug use, with no relief in the remotest regions of the horizon, is a state for which Orientalists must accept their share in the making.


If the Orientaists did not commit errors of judgment in portraying the Messenger and his Message; they were neither short of source material at any time. Many of them knew Arabic better than many Arabs contemporary to them, and had in their possession the necessary Islamic source works. In fact, their libraries boasted of better collection of rare manuscripts, than the libraries of the regions of origin. But, right at the start they had decided on an image that they would create, and therefore applied themselves with full rigor and complete sobriety, modifying their methods in keeping with the changing times and informational possibilities, but not the ultimate ends and objectives. In the words of Rodinson, “Authors bent on systematically running down the Arabs (paradoxically enough, a fairly popular sport with arabists) have described this society (Arab) as barbaric.” (Maxime Rodinson, “Mohammed”, p. 18, Pantheon Books, 1971).

In view of the goals firmly set before the eyes, and although quite a few of the Orientalists translated the Qur’an, as well as brought out hundreds of volumes on what was more difficult and inscrutable, viz., Sufi literature, while some others worked on analyzing and criticizing Fiqh, not many attempted translation of the Hadith, or Qur’anic commentaries that contained – as true sources – authentic Islamic information. Hadith was almost entirely ignored. Obviously, those who were at loggerheads with the Prophet could not be expected to work on his speech. It was also because, while for the layman understanding the Qur’an can be a laborious task, Hadith literature is much easier to comprehend. The Prophet has said thousands of beautiful things that serve the double purposes of softening the heart as well as expounding the message of the Qur’an. This was perhaps considered dangerous for their masses. This writer can recall an Australian buying a collection containing two hundred ahadadith. Next day he appeared excited. “Do you know something?” he said, “The book I bought yesterday? Well, it is fantastic.” If the translation of Mishkaat al-Masaabih is an exception, it is perhaps because it is more or less a book on Law.

Instead of translating the Hadith, the Orientalists chose to produce an Index of the Hadith: surely a daunting task. The six canonical works plus Daaraami, Imam Malik’s Muwatta and the voluminous Musnad of Ahmed (a collection of 40,000 hadith) were chosen for indexation! But none of the nine works were translated. Why? It is because they wished to help the scholarly class in research, but would not allow their masses to get a whiff of the message contained in these works.

They were also careful about biographies of the Prophet. Most of them preferred to write their own versions. That allowed them to paint the picture of their desire. Translation of original Arabic works on the Prophet’s life, even the earliest ones, which they carefully preserved in their libraries, was out of scope. Out of hundreds, the one they chose – late in their history – was Ibn Is-haq’s “Life of the Prophet.” Why this particular one? It is because the work speaks less about the Prophet, or his message, than how he overcame resistance – through battle after battle, 39 in all. It is more or less a chronicle of battles. This seems to have influenced the choice. The translation was a successful way to demonstrate that Muhammad (saws) was a warrior Prophet: a theme of relentless harping, once it became clear that neither the physical force of Islam, nor its spiritual impact could be combated.

The Trend-setters

The trend was set and themes were identified by the earliest Churchmen who labored on generating a gulf between Islam and the flocks in their care. The advantage this class enjoyed was that as godly men, who were supercilious about truth and considered beyond suspicion regarding their motives, they were not required to explain, either to other churchmen or to their parish, the sources of the material they produced. They enjoyed greater freedom at misrepresenting than the modern day Orientalists, the inheritors of their concerns and objectives. (It is a strange phenomenon that to this day what the Church says about other faiths is treated as credible by the Christians, while what it claims for itself is to be treated with skepticism, if not incredulity).

The Making of an Image

Guibet, Abbot of Nugent of the 11th-12th centuries, admitted to having no written source for his tales, suffered no qualms while claiming that the Prophet of Islam had met with an ignominious death, and that pigs had torn his body after death. He justified his disgusting tale by saying, “it is safe to speak evil of one whose malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken.’ (Clinton Bennet, “In Search of Muhammad”, p. 84). He was stating a Church policy. His flock followed his example. The Crusaders of the middle ages reported back to their countrymen after the failed battles in the Middle-east that they had seen a forty foot statue of the Prophet in Damascus to whom the Muslims offered their homage. There was a Bishop who had actually broken an idol that – so the story circulated in Christian Europe – Muslims worshipped. Even as late a visitor as Edward William Lane (d. 1876), had quite a few fascinating but fictitious stories to narrate in his account of the Egyptians. And Flaubert concocted disgusting sexual episodes that he claimed – but too profane for us to reproduce – were performed in the streets of the Muslim world. (Edward W. Said, “Orientalism“, Penguin 1995).

Capitalizing on the lack of access to knowledge on the part of the common people – if access was ever desired – the medieval Christian scholars arrogated freedom to use such superlatives for the Prophet as: “an imposter, robber, murderer, traitor, dupe, deceiver, adulterer, epileptic, possessed by a demon, unclean, bovine, swinish, illiterate, rough and stupid, magician, skilled in letters and mathematics, instructed in the general science, astrologer, whose revelations were said by conjuration of demons, speaking out few truth but many lies, who could not produce miracles to prove his prophethood, base by birth and repute, sick, poor, low class, and a camel-herd.” (Norman Daniel, “Islam and the West”, Oneworld and Oxford publications, 1993). There seem to hardly exist the voice of a sane man to say, “A genuine Muhammad is much less difficult to explain than a fraudulent one.” (Maxime Rodinson, “Mohammad“, p. 77-78).

Not that these sentiments do not echo one way or other in TV and radio sermons of modern-day Christian world, but at least their audience can check the authenticity, if they so wish. Occasionally, one of them does it, reducing, although marginally, the prejudice. But in medieval times, the masses had no access to facts – most were illiterate anyway, as compared to highly literate Muslims of the time – and, consequently, the superlatives had their desired effects.

The prudent among them acted with some caution in choice of adjectives but the purposes were shared. For example, it was thought that a condemned Christian heretic called Sergius had crossed into Arabia “and made such a good impression on the Prophet that he took him as a teacher, sometimes calling him Gabriel the Archangel, hiding what he dare not reveal, that the lunacies which he delivered to those whom he deceived, he had learned from a man.” (Ref. as above).

Another report had it that in the fifteenth year after his death, the Prophet’s Companions met to discuss compilation of a book, to which they found they were not equal to the task, and therefore, took the assistance of Christians and Jews, who found no material of any worth in the life of the Prophet, and hence invented their own stories to be included in the Qur’an.


One of the scholars commented on Qur’anic Tawhid in words: “.. Muhammad puts in the Qur’an more than a hundred times, I believe: There is no God except God. For this proposition is true simply of everything: there is no dog except a dog; there is no horse except a horse.” (Daniel, p.65). A few others had other grievances against the Qur’an. In reference to the Qur’nic statement, “Allah knows all,” one of them remarked, “But who is so silly as to doubt that God knows all things.” Yet others were unhappy with the Qur’anic statement that the birds flying in the air are upheld by the power of God: “Really, air supports them just as water does the fish that swim in it.” (Ibid, p.84). These audacious remarks tell us how much ecclesiastic authorities believed in the power of the God in whose defense they articulated such howlers.


The earliest days of the Prophet’s life were accounted in the following manner: “.. as now he could earn his living for himself laboriously by the exercise of his own body, after the manner of poor people, he became the employee of a certain widow woman. He looked after her ass, and he was paid, for her account, by certain travelers whom he guided on the ass to parts of Asia. Soon she committed her camels also to his care, and he was made her agent in neighbouring cities and in towns roundabout, and made a profit. He was admitted to the grace and familiarity of the widow through his service, and all his commerce; and, desiring each other libidinously, they lay together, at first in secret and fornication union; but afterwards the woman contracted matrimony with him publicly, and handed an abundance of money over to him.” (Ibid, p.111)

“Energetic in individual matters and greatly cunning, he was advanced from lowliness and destitution to riches and fame. As, bit by bit, this grew, he spread terror of himself, often pursuing his neighbors, and especially his blood relations, in ambushes, robberies, and forays, and killing as many as he could, either secretly or publicly.” (Ibid, p.113)

“.. he gathered to himself men who were fugitives, pernicious men, corruptors of manners and oppressors of others, and also as many murderers as he could; and he became their prince. He sent them to woodland, by-ways, to hill-tops, to roads frequented by travelers and to every other place, to rob men, both to plunder their goods and kill those who put up opposition; and the fear of Muhammad fell upon all the men of those parts.” (Ibid, p.114,)

If such was his life, what was the kind of death Muhammad deserved? The religious scholars supplied the details: he suffered a shameful death, was eaten by dogs, or suffocated by pigs. This happened when he was in a drunken stupor. He suffered that kind of death, “since he taught uncleanness and shame, it was by pigs which are considered unclean animals, that he was devoured.” Another scholar thought that he was seized by an epileptic fit in the desert, and so was devoured by wild beasts.” According to another pious man, since the Prophet rejected Trinity, “he suffered three ignominies in death: he was handed over to be torn to pieces by the pigs because of threefold agency: drunkenness, poison and epilepsy.” (Ibid, p.127)

Another learned man reconciled several stories: “A cunning Jewess, whom Muhammad desired, insisted that he should come to her alone, by night. When he did so her relatives killed him, cut off his left foot, threw the rest of the body to the pigs, who quickly devoured it. The woman anointed and scented the foot, explaining to people who came to fetch Muhammad that angels had come to carry him off to Heaven. She had pulled him back by the foot, which, after a tug-of-war with the celestial powers, was all of the Prophet that remained.” (Ibid, p.127). One may ask, how could any people cultivate such absurdities? The answer is, prejudice merely blinds the eye; but premeditated dishonesty darkens the soul.

The Perennial Problem

Evidently, if such were the facts, and principles that the latter day Orientalists inherited from their saintly peers, how could one expect them to treat the Prophet and His message with any objectivity? What chance was there that they would treat a mass of literature – the Hadith, any small selection of which at once removed misunderstandings and prejudices of decades – with fairness? The opposition of the Orientalists to Hadith was an expected event.

The problem in the West has been of perennial nature. Whether it is the trail-blazers of the yesteryears, or the thorough-bred pundits of the modern era, when it comes to Islam and Muslims, truths and facts are not the primary concern. The nation, race, religion, culture, civilization, and the way of life come first. They constitute the highest possible values at the alters of which moral and intellectual integrity rightly deserve to be sacrificed. The difference between the trail-blazers and their dutiful followers (with the exception of a few, but far in between) is that the former were blunt, while the latter inter-lace their words with skill to yield suggestions and nuances that their predecessors suffered neither qualms nor fear to express. In both cases however, the arrow hit the mark. We will have a few more lines to state on the character of the Orientalists, Allah willing, in the next two articles.

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