Jesus Christ in the Traditions of Islam

I. Introduction

1. The Word "Hadith"

The Arabic word Hadith, which in European languages is most often translated as "traditions," means message or story. Hadith are not only information about religious life but also historical narratives, whether sacred or profane, whether referring to a time far-removed or more recent (1). This is the literal meaning of the word Hadith. Every traditional text which, in accordance with certain rules, can be directly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, is an approved Hadith - a binding report about his sayings or actions.

Every Hadith consists of a statement about the chain of tradition (isnad) and the actual text. As an example:

Ismail b. Ibrahim spoke with us. He said: "Abu Haiyani't-Taimi told us about Abu Zar'a who commented from Abu Hurayra who said: `The Prophet - Allah bless him and grant him salvation - was among the people one day. Then Gabriel came and asked him about the Faith'" (2).

From this example, it follows that the authenticity of an Islamic tradition depends upon the succession and reliable character of the commentators. Out of necessity, its authority is connected with those who passed it down.

Sunna, a word which is frequently used as a synonym for Hadith, means "path, lifestyle, and manners." It is concerned primarily with the deeds and habits of Muhammad. Every Muslim is obliged legally to adopt (to copy) the lifestyle of his Prophet - a lifestyle which has been thoroughly described in the traditions. Muslims endeavoured to preserve reports about this lifestyle (3).

A very large part of these Hadith-sayings, attributed to the Prophet, deal with ahkam ("the legal requirements and religious duties") and define halal or haram; that is, "what is allowed or forbidden." They describe ritual purity, dietary laws, penalties, and civil rights. They also deal with courtesy and good manners. Furthermore, they comment on dogma, retribution on the Day of Judgement, and explain Hell, Paradise, angels, the Creation, revelation, the earlier prophets, and everything concerning the relationship between God and man. Many traditions also include encouraging sayings and ethical instruction in the name of the Prophet.

2. The Place of the Hadith in Islamic Law (the Sharia)

The Hadith is the second of four sources of Islamic law, and therefore the second authority of Islam. The first sources is the Qur'an itself. The third is the final analogy in questions of law - based on the Qur'an and Sunna among Sunnis and reason among Shiites. The fourth and last sources is the agreement or consensus of all Islamic scholars. Special reasons make the Hadith synonymous with the Qur'an, and, in folk Islam, sometimes more important than the Qur'an itself. Many Islamic scholars consider the everyday words of Muhammad to be actual revelations, for it is written in the Qur'an (Sura The Star 53:2-4): "Your comrade (Muhammad) is not astray, neither errs, nor speaks he out of caprice. This is nothing but a revelation revealed" (4). Some exegetes understand the word this to be everything that Muhammad said, while others limit this to what was said in the Qur'an only. Another Qur'anic verse (Sura The House of Imran 3:42) is also considered a pointer to the meaning of the Hadith; for the word wisdom, which in this and other verses is found next to the term The Book, is believed to mean Muhammad's sayings: "And he(Allah) will teach him (Jesus) the Book, the Wisdom, the Torah, the Gospel" (5).

However, the most important reason for the Hadith being esteemed so highly is that the Qur'an gives no detailed information about essential orders for faith and life; therefore the Qur'an demands tradition as an indispensable supplement. A clear example is found in ritual prayer. Although the Qur'an obliges believers to exercise this practice, it gives practically no rule as to how and when one should pray. Without the traditions, which describe the prayer duty of the Prophet in detail or in which the Prophet instructed his congregation, one could determine neither the number of daily prayers nor how to perform them (6).

The influence of the Hadith is particularly far-reaching in the area of Islamic law, the Sharia, as we can see in this famous rule from the Sunnis: "If a Qur'anic verse is found to contradict a tradition of the Prophet, it (the Qur'anic verse) may be abrogated, provided the tradition came from him" (7).

No one can know exactly which (and how many) traditions are really traceable to the Prophet, because these held a powerful position from the beginning, were based almost exclusively on oral traditions when collected in Muhammad's time, and were not actually written down until a decade after Muhammad's death. Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafite school of law in Turkey (and among the predominantly Turkic peoples) is believed to have regarded only 17 traditions as reliable. Abu Dawud (d. AD 888), one of the main collectors of traditions whose Sunanu Abi Dawud is one of six reliable Hadith collections, re-ports in the Forward of his work, that out of 500,000 traditions, he could only accept 4,800 as reliable.

Most traditions cannot be viewed as actual, believable, historical accounts of the Sunna of the Prophet. Much more, they express what leading Muslim circles deemed authoritative in the first centuries after Muhammad's death, and were only attributed to the Prophet then.

From the approximately one thousand collections of traditions, the Sunnis consider only six to be approved. They all originated in the third century after Muhammad's death. They are collections from:

  1. Al-Bukhari (d. AD 870)
  2. Muslim (d. AD 875)
  3. Abu Dawud (d. AD 888)
  4. Al-Tirmidhi (d. AD 892)
  5. Al-Nasa'i (d. AD 915)
  6. Ibn Madja (d. AD 886)

These works are most commonly and conveniently called "The Six Books" (al-kutubu's-sitta) - the six accurate, reliable collections. They are regarded as Holy Books in addition to the Qur'an. The collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim hold a particularly lofty position.

The Shiites have developed their own Hadith collection. They view the traditions in the Sunni collection with suspicion if one link in the chain of commentators did not belong to Ali's group. The most important Hadith collection of the Shiites is Al-Kafi fi usuli'd-din.

3. Traditions Dealing with Christianity

Since our Lord Jesus Christ and His salvation constitute the essence of the Gospel, this booklet concentrates on traditions that deal with His person. Many detailed reports are found in the collection of Hadith, covering everything one could possibly imagine about Christianity. Most of the time, odd accounts are dealt with, to which one should give no serious thought. However, the traditions that will be touched on first - those dealing almost exclusively with Christ - can at least be found in one of the six reliable Hadith collections; that is, they are of major importance for the majority of Muslims, regardless of the conflicts of scholars over their worth.

Lastly, the Sufi-influenced view of Christ in folk Islam will be described. Although the stories presented are fictitious and appear even a bit humorous without exception, one needs to realise that through them the masses in Islam are strongly influenced. As was already mentioned: The approved traditions are not available to the majority of believers; these surface only when talking with Muslims who really understand their religion.