Hadiths on the previous scriptures

A number of times when discussing what the Qur’an has to say about the previous scriptures, I have instead been informed that what Islam ultimately teaches, or what the Qur’an must mean, can be revealed by a certain hadith. Supposedly the hadith make clear that the Qur’an does in fact accuse the former scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel, of textual corruption. It is this supposition that we will examine.

Positive hadith on the previous scriptures

Though I will not dwell on them at length, it is worth briefly noting that some hadith seem to have a positive view of the previous scriptures.

Jamiʿ al-Tirmidhi 2653 – ‘The Torah and Gospel are with the Jews and Christians…’

Narrated Jubair bin Nufair: from Abu Ad-Darda who said: “We were with the Prophet (ﷺ) when he raised his sight to the sky, then he said: ‘This is the time when knowledge is to be taken from the people, until what remains of it shall not amount to anything.” So Ziyad bin Labid Al-Ansari said: ‘How will it be taken from us while we recite the Qur’an. By Allah we recite it, and our women and children recite it?’ He (ﷺ) said: ‘May you be bereaved of your mother O Ziyad! I used to consider you among the Fuqaha of the people of Al-Madinah. The Tawrah and Injil are with the Jews and Christians, but what do they avail of them?'” … (Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2653, translation from sunnah.com. Emphasis added)

Note the logic; the Jews and Christians still have their scriptures but this does not protect them from error. So too the fact that the Muslims possess the Qur’an is no guarantee of their spiritual knowledge.

Sunan Abu Dawud 4449 – ‘I believed in thee [‘the Torah’]…’

A group of Jews came and invited the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) to Quff. So he visited them in their school.

They said: Abul Qasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so pronounce judgment upon them. They placed a cushion for the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) who sat on it and said: Bring the Torah. It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying: I believed [ʾāmantu] in thee and in Him Who revealed thee.

He then said: Bring me one who is learned among you. Then a young man was brought. The transmitter then mentioned the rest of the tradition of stoning similar to the one transmitted by Malik from Nafi'(No. 4431). (Sunan Abi Dawud 4449, emphasis added, translation from sunnah.com)

‘I believed’ (ʾāmantu) reflects the perfect tense; but unless we imagine a pre-existent Muhammad speaking about a time before his earthly life, we cannot apply this to an uncorrupted Torah before his lifetime. And it would seem from his actions that it is the Torah brought to him which he believes in, which he placed on the judgement cushion.

A Muslim will respond that Muhammad is only confirming an uncorrupted part of the Torah, which still teaches the penalty of stoning for adultery. But there is no hint of such a limitation in the Hadith itself; we would need good reasons elsewhere (e.g. in other Hadith or in the Qur’an) to bring such an interpretation to this Hadith.


The weakness of one of the transmitters in this tradition is mentioned here, as was pointed out to me in discussion. Al-Albani still considers the hadith ‘Good’. I am aware, and I have been assuming that my audience is aware, that judging by the standards of Muslim isnād criticism, a Muslim will consider a Bukhari hadith to be more reliable than either an Abu Dawud or Tirmidhi hadith.

Sahih al-Bukhari 7543 – ‘Bring here the Torah and recite it, if you are truthful.’

Narrated Ibn `Umar:

A Jew and Jewess were brought to the Prophet (ﷺ) on a charge of committing an illegal sexual intercourse. The Prophet (ﷺ) asked the Jews, “What do you (usually) do with them?” They said, “We blacken their faces and disgrace them.” He said, “Bring here the Torah and recite it, if you are truthful.” They (fetched it and) came and asked a one-eyed man to recite. He went on reciting till he reached a portion on which he put his hand. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Lift up your hand!” He lifted his hand up and behold, there appeared the verse of Ar-Rajm (stoning of the adulterers to death). Then he said, “O Muhammad! They should be stoned to death but we conceal this Divine Law among ourselves.” Then the Prophet (ﷺ) ordered that the two sinners be stoned to death and, and they were stoned to death, and I saw the man protecting the woman from the stones. (See Hadith No. 809, Vol. 8) (Sahih al-Bukhari 7543, text and translation from sunnah.com. Emphasis added)

In this Bukhari hadith also there is no hint of a corrupted Torah. Muhammad appeals to it as a source of (legal) authority, and (at least on the matter of stoning) the text is reliable. The problem is not a corrupted text, but the corrupted motives of the Jew who tried to conceal the verse of stoning. In case the reader is unaware, Muhammad’s words in this hadith are those of Q 3:93, although the first part of the Qur’anic verse concerns dietary laws and not stoning.

Negative Hadith on the previous scriptures

It must however be admitted that certain other hadiths do suggest some doubt about the previous scriptures.

Sahih al-Bukhari 7363 – ‘…the people of the Scripture changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture…’

Perhaps the most significant hadith casting doubt on the textual status of the former scriptures is the following.

Narrated Ubaidullah:

Ibn `Abbas said, “Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Qur’an) which has been revealed to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, ‘It is from Allah,’ to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been revealed to you!” (Sahih al-Bukhari 7363. Text and translation from sunnah.com. Emphasis added)

There are other similar versions of this hadith (Sahih al-Bukhari 2685, Sahih al-Bukhari 7523), including a shorter version:

Narrated `Ikrima:

Ibn `Abbas said, “How can you ask the people of the Scriptures about their Books while you have Allah’s Book (the Qur’an) which is the most recent of the Books revealed by Allah, and you read it in its pure undistorted form?” (Sahih al-Bukhari 7522. Text and translation from sunnah.com. Emphasis added)

Interpreting the Hadith

First of all, let us take the longer hadith as it stands. What is this Hadith actually alleging?

‘…wrote the scripture with their own hands and said…’

There is clearly some kind of claim of textual corruption, as it cites Q 2:79:

So woe to those who write something down with their own hands and then claim, ‘This is from God,’ in order to make some small gain. Woe to them for what their hands have written! Woe to them for all that they have earned! (Q 2:79, Abdel Haleem translation)

I have written an article on the meaning of this verse. Suffice to say here, this verse may be saying no more than that some Jews, at the time of Muhammad, wrote false copies of scripture. It may even be describing the writing of book(s) (e.g. the Mishnah and Talmud) alongside the Torah, and this may be the perspective of al-Ṭabarī. All of this is a long way from suggesting that the Torah and the Gospel experienced widespread textual corruption before the time of Muhammad, the common modern Muslim position.

‘…changed [baddalū] their scripture and distorted [ghayyarū] it…

How do we understand the other actions described: ‘the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed [baddalū] their scripture and distorted [ghayyarū] it’? The Qur’an itself does not seem to use these terms to clearly describe textual corruption; for instance, baddala refers to an oral changing of words in Q 2:59 and Q 7:162, is unclear in Q 2:211 (‘If anyone alters God’s blessings…’), and some version of bdl is ruled out for God’s revelations in Q 6:34, 6:115, 10:64, and 18:27. Bdl as abrogation is acknowledged in Q 16:101 (Nickel, 2011, 56-57).

Regarding the unclear accusation in Q 2:211, Nickel (77) notes that our earliest complete commentary on the Qur’an, by Muqātil ibn Suleymān (d. 150/767), considers this verse to be referring to disbelief in God and in Muhammad. al-Ṭabarī’s commentary on this verse cites individuals who understand ‘alters God’s blessings’ as ‘to disbelieve’ in it. al-Ṭabarī sees this verse as referring to Jews who will not believe in Muhammad and Islam (Nickel, 137).

As for ghayyara, according to Nickel (73), this verb ‘do[es] not appear in the Qurʾān in contexts which have been understood to suggest tampering with the earlier scriptures.’

None of this is to say that after the Qur’an, the words baddala or ghayyara did not acquire connotations of textual corruption; for example, Nickel (101) notes that Muqātil in referring to the textual corruption of Q 2:79 speaks of the ‘alteration (taghyīr) of the description of Muḥammad’. But if one wishes to propose that the Bukhari hadith above does authentically go back to Ibn ʿAbbās, one may wish to prefer the usage of language from the time of the Qur’an rather than later development. One should not, therefore, leap to the assumption that the kind of corruption being indicated by these verbs must be textual. We will return later to which of these possible meanings fits best in the context of the hadith in which it is found.

‘…you read [the Qur’an] pure, undistorted and unchanged [maḥḍan lam yushab]’

What precisely does taqraʾūnahu maḥḍan lam yushab mean? maḥḍan is from the root mḥḍ, a root not utilised in the Qur’an. In Lane’s lexicon (1968, p. 2692) we find the definition ‘pure, sheer, free from admixture, unmingled, unmixed’, and the term is applied to pure milk. Lam means ‘not’, and yushab is the passive of sh-w-b, which means ‘to mix’ or ‘to adulterate’.

This phrase is contrasting the reading of the Qur’an with the former scriptures. It could be suggesting that the People of the Book corrupt their scriptures by mixing in their own words as they read the authentic scripture (e.g. Q 3:78). But it could easily refer to textual corruption (Q 2:79). The broader context will have to decide.

The hadith’s overall polemic

If our case has been well-made, that the Qur’an itself does not clearly use the words baddala and ghayyara to describe the textual corruption of the previous scriptures, then perhaps the Bukhari Hadith above only envisages limited textual corruption as alleged by Q 2:79. Perhaps the major charge is of oral corruption. This hadith would be simply putting together different accusations against the People of the Book to make one overriding point: the People of the Book cannot be trusted regarding their scriptures. To a limited extent they have corrupted their scriptures (i.e. some Jews corrupting the Torah at the time of Muhammad), and additionally, they orally corrupt their scriptures. It is not surprising that the Hadith should warn Muslims against trusting them.

Alternatively, it could reasonably be argued that the hadith is combining all of these verbs into one single charge of textual corruption, understanding baddala and ghayyara in light of the textual corruption alleged in ‘they write the Book with their hands…’ This does seem to happen in the version in Sahih al-Bukhari 2685, where rather than ghayyara and ‘they wrote with their hands’ being separate (as in Sahih al-Bukhari 7363), it says they ‘ghayyarū with their hands’.

If the hadith does go beyond Qur’anic usage in conflating these terms, then we may then disagree with it, even if it does go back to Ibn ʿAbbās, and point out that it is not carefully enough distinguishing between how different words are used in the Qur’an.

This misinterpretation becomes understandable once we take into account the vastly different contexts between listeners of the Qur’an in Medina, as opposed to Muslim conquerors ruling over vast swathes of Jews and (particularly) Christians after the Arab conquests. In the latter situation, these People of the Book could point out the differences between their scriptures and the Qur’an, thus necessitating the charge of textual corruption. It would be very easy, and cognitively satisfying, for Muslim interpreters to understand Qur’anic accusations against the People of the Book to be alleging textual corruption. Reynolds (2012, Kindle Location 2786-2787) notes that the phrase ‘How do you ask the people of the Scriptures…’ may be envisaging just such a time after Muhammad and the conquests, when Muslims were in greater interaction with Jews and Christians.

But even if the Ibn Abbas hadith is authentic, and the correct interpretation is that of extensive textual corruption, this may only be referring to corruption of the Torah, by Jews, at the time of Muhammad. While Sahih al-Bukhari 7523 speaks of God’s ‘books’ (kutub, plural) being tampered with, one of the other full narrations (Sahih al-Bukhari 7363) speak of their tampering with the ‘scripture’ (kitāb, singular). The other full version (Sahih al-Bukhari 2685) is more ambiguous, referring to their having ‘changed with their own hands what was revealed to them.’

Even if multiple scriptures are in view, this could be the Torah and the Psalms of David (Q 4:163, 17:55) or the Scrolls of Abraham. (Q 53:36-37, 87:19); it need not be the Gospel. It would in part depend on whether one thinks of ‘People of the Book’ in this hadith as Jews, or Jews and Christians together, and whether they are all accused of textual corruption, or only some of them (but suspicion is therefore cast on the entire group).

An opinion potentially attributed to Ibn Abbas

If we are considering a tradition narrated by Ibn Abbas, it is worth considering how Ibn Abbas may have viewed this topic more broadly. Bukhari attributes the following to Ibn Abbas:

Ibn ‘Abbas said, “Both good and evil are recorded,” and “yuharrifuna” (4:46) means “they remove”. No one removes the works of one of the Books of Allah Almighty, but they twist them, interpreting them improperly. (Source and translation here. Emphasis added)

To begin with, it is not clear whether ‘No one removes…interpreting them improperly’ is Bukhari still quoting Ibn ‘Abbas, or summarising Ibn ‘Abbas’s position, or whether this is Bukhari’s own opinion.

Furthermore, as Bassam Zawadi points out, this appeal to Ibn Abbas is not supported by Bukhari with a full isnad-chain. I do not mention this statement to imply that Ibn ‘Abbas himself actually did discount the possibility of textual corruption. It is true I might instinctively incline to this position because of the principle of embarrassment, i.e. it is unlikely that a later Muslim would invent this saying, once the charge of textual corruption became ubiquitous and more severe. However, I must concede the possibility that an early Muslim falsely attributed this position to Ibn Abbas. As we will discuss below, Western scholars suspect the reliability of many hadiths attributed to Ibn Abbas.

Another reason for mentioning this hadith is that Bukhari has chosen to include it, as a brief explanatory note. It is possible that he simply mentions it as one exegetical opinion he has heard, but it is also quite possible that Bukhari agrees with the sentiment of the statement. And if that is the case, one then wonders whether or not he would have understood the hadith we have focused on above to be teaching textual corruption.

Appeals to Motzki

We are about to comment upon the nature of hadith transmission. In case the reader wishes to sidestep such discussion by appealing to the work of Harald Motzki, please read our article Motzki and the reliability of the hadith to understand what Motzki himself says.

Variation in hadith transmission

Let me begin by saying that I do have respect for the Islamic hadith tradition, and its complexity and richness as an intellectual endeavour. While I do not believe it is an entirely trustworthy procedure, I am still less sceptical toward the hadith than some non-Muslims.

But even someone who has great faith in the system of hadith authentication may still recognise that it does not necessarily preserve the exact wording. As Muslim scholar Jonathan A. C. Brown writes (2011, p. 23, Kindle location 548. Emphasis added):

Most early Muslim scholars understood that keeping track of the exact wording of hadiths was not feasible and that ‘narration by the general meaning (al-riwāya bi’l-ma‘nā)’ was an inescapable reality. The Companion Wāthila b. Asqa‘ had admitted that sometimes the early Muslims even confused the exact wording of the Quran, which was universally well-known and well-preserved. So how, he asked, could one expect any less in the case of a report that the Prophet had said just once? Al-Hasan al-Basrī is reported to have said, ‘If we only narrated to you what we could repeat word for word, we would only narrate two hadiths. But if what we narrate generally communicates what the hadith prohibits or allows then there is no problem.’ Some early Muslim scholars insisted on repeating hadiths exactly as they had heard them. Ibn Sīrīn (d. 110/728) even repeated grammatical errors in hadiths that he had heard. Eventually, Muslim scholars arrived at the compromise that one could paraphrase a hadith provided that one was learned enough to understand its meaning properly.

Variation in this Hadith

I have noted above how we have three longer forms of this tradition, and a shorter version. Is the former an expansion of the latter, or the latter a condensation of the former? If the longer forms are expansions of an original shorter version, then the difficulties with reconciling this hadith and the position of the Qur’an vis-a-vis the former scriptures decrease, as the shorter version contains less to suggest a charge of textual corruption.

Even slight changes in wording can be highly significant. It can mean the difference between a Bukhari hadith saying the ‘last hour’ is near (within a lifetime of Muhammad) or that it may be near. I have noted above how some of the important language changes slightly between the different versions of our hadith in question:

Allah has revealed to you that the people of the scriptures have changed with their own hands what was revealed to them and they have said (as regards their changed Scriptures): This is from Allah, in order to get some worldly benefit thereby.” (text and translation from Sahih al-Bukhari 2685. Emphasis added)

ḥaddathakum ʾllāhu ʾanna ʾahla l-kitābi baddalū mā kataba ʾllāhu wa ghayyarū biʾaydīhim l-kitāb, fa-qālū huwa min ʿindi llāhi, li-yashtarū bihi thamanan qalīlan

…and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, ‘It is from Allah,’ to sell it for a little gain. (text and translation from Sahih al-Bukhari 7363. Emphasis added)

wa-qad ḥaddathakum ʾanna ʾahla l-kitābi baddalū kitāba ʾllāhi wa-ghayyarūhu wa-katabū bi-ʾaydīhim l-kitāba wa-qālū huwa min ʿindi llāhi li-yashtarū bihi thamanan qalīlan

Though it is not major, we see in 2685 a blending of what is in 7363 listed separately – ‘they changed the book with their hands’ rather than ‘they changed it [i.e. the book] and wrote the book with their hands’. 2685 speaks of changing ‘what God revealed [lit: wrote]’, whereas 7363 says they changed ‘[the] book of God’.

These are not large-scale changes, but given how crucial precise wording is on this topic (e.g. see the article here), it is potentially significant that we cannot be sure of the exact wording of the original form of this hadith. Some of the wording may be original, and perhaps some of the wording was added later as an explanation. This may have been done with good intentions, but inadvertently changed the meaning of the hadith. Indeed, perhaps the shorter version became expanded due to explanatory additions. It is interesting that all of the longer versions of this hadith (here, here, and here), but not the shorter version, have a certain transmitter in common: Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri.

Problems with al-Zuhri

To quote Muslim scholar Jonathan Brown (2011, p. 89, Kindle Location 1869, Kindle Edition) once more:

Al-Zuhri’s opinions carried great influence, but later critics all agreed that his mursal hadiths (see below for a discussion of this term) were too unreliable to use.

Why could he not be trusted with mursal hadiths? Is it that he was not considered to be at the highest level of transmitters? This is not to suggest that he was not broadly speaking reliable. Brown (2011, p. 226, Kindle Location 4796, Kindle Edition) notes that:

Motzki argues that, rather than being consummate forgers of hadiths, major hadith transmitters such as al-Zuhri and Ibn Jurayj were in general reliably passing on reports from the previous generation.

Even one convinced of his general reliability can still accept that he was not infallible:

As the eleventh-century critic al-Khalili (d. 446/1054) warned, ‘Even if a hadith is provided to you with an isnad from al-Zuhri or another one of the masters, do not declare it authentic merely because of that isnad, for even a reliable transmitter (thiqa) can err. (Brown, 2011, p. 95, Kindle Location 2002, Kindle Edition)

An interesting comment on Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri’s reliability can be found here (the comment by Joseph Islam, 2013). He appeals to the alleged letter from Laith ibn Sa’d (the reliability of which may be known better by the Muslim reader), a letter recorded by Ibn al Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 1350 CE). Joseph Islam quotes from the following section:

14. Ibn Shihab used to contradict himself a lot when we met him. When one of us would write to him sometimes, despite his sound opinion and knowledge, he would respond to a single question in three ways, each contradicting the other, and he wouldn’t know of his previous opinion in the issue, and this is what led me to what you disliked, i.e my leaving him. (I have taken the translated text from here, search for ‘Malik’s letter to Layth & Layth’s letter to Malik’):

For another Muslim voice sceptical of al-Zuhri, and citing Muslim traditions to that effect (again, whether these traditions are themselves authentic or justified I must leave to the knowledgable reader), see Monthly Renaissance.

John Burton (1994) also urges caution concerning al-Zuhri:

Al-Zuhrī himself would have had difficulties meeting the later standards. The isnād had come into use by his day but can be seen when studied to be rudimentary and imprecise. Many of his own isnāds are imperfect, and he also makes free use of what would later be called ‘the composite isnād‘, which amalgamated information received from several sources.’ (116)

It is also well known that al-Zuhrī was the teacher of Malik ibn Anas (e.g. Burton, 1994, 127). Yet, I would note, I am not aware of these al-Zuhri hadiths, which speak about the former scriptures, being present in Malik’s Muwatta. Please do inform me if I am mistaken.

Burton (176-177) also alleges that later authorities could not be sure the manner in which earlier authorities, including Ibn Abbas and al-Zuhri amongst others, transmitted their material. Was it by audition? Or in the handing over of a hadith book to a student? To extrapolate myself further, might there have, in some cases, been the assumption that a given tradition followed a certain isnad because it was known who someone’s teacher was, even if that particular hadith had not been transmitted in that route?

Juynboll (1983, 146) describes al-Zuhri as ‘the key figure par excellence, who perhaps of all ḥadīth transmitters occurs most frequently in isnāds‘. He argues that there may in fact have been more than one such person behind the name, and speaks of ‘indications that seem to converge on the pluriformity of ‘Zuhrī”. He (148-149) notes many people (66!) of a similar age to Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī, many of whom ‘reportedly had been either masters or pupils of Ibn Shihāb’. Juynboll (149) proposes

that many of those who had the nisba Zuhrī, either through kinship, clientage or otherwise, may often have been addressed by that name or may have asked to be called by it, in so doing creating confusion with the one great transmitter who was alternatively called Zuhrī or Ibn Shihāb.

Juynboll (169) provides information on how early rijāl experts viewed al-Zuhri. He speaks of the assessment by Yaʿqūb b. Sufyān al-Fasawī, which ‘is as uncritical as it is non-committal’. He goes on to write:

Early Iraqi experts are very brief, probably because during the first half of the second/eighth century the still prevailing ‘regionalism’ (see last footnote) prevented Iraqi experts from being familiar with what was going on in Syria. In any case, Shūʿba’s opinion – if any – does not seem to have been recorded; Ibn Saʿd has the usual kāna thiqa kathīr al-ḥadīth wa ʾl-ʿilm wa ʾr-riwāya. And other early Iraqi experts air the familiar, vaguely critical remarks: Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd did not set store by Zuhrīʾs irsāl; Ibn Maʿīn denied that Zuhrī had transmitted from Ibn ʿUmar…thus establishing a terminus post quem…ʿAlī ibn al-Madīnī listed Zuhrī among a number of other meritorious transmitters, and Abū Ḥātim and Abū Zurʿa are equally vague; Bukhārī is even less concerned, for a collector who has made so much use of Zuhrī isnāds indeed a feature worthy of note.                                                                                                                               

Juynboll (170) goes on to provide more details of one of these reports, which

points to the controversial issue about Zuhrī having, or not having, been under Umayyad pressure regarding the promulgation of ḥadīths, and that this was taken as a blemish on his character. Whether or not this anecdote is historical is hard to assess, but a scrutiny of the isnāds permits a tentative dating and provenance.

He finds the ‘common link’ behind this reports to be Fulayḥ b. Sulaymān (d. 168/784), who himself had a ‘bad reputation…in general with all the rijāl experts’. He was allegedly one of Zuhri’s pupils, yet ‘used to make disparaging remarks about Zuhrī’s rijāl (=masters?)’. Zuhrī had other opponents, Abū ‘l-Qāsim, Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn and

Karābīsī is cited in a particularly vicious innuendo that Zuhrī transmitted traditions from two famous Successors…which nobody else had, thereby implying that he might have fabricated them. Even an expression of doubt on the part of Bukhārī regarding Zuhrī’s transmission from a certain obscure transmitter, which Bukhārī had not even included in his tarjama of Zuhrī but had mentioned elsewhere [footnote – At-taʾrīkh al-kabīr, II 2, p. 258], is eagerly adduced by Abū ‘l-Qāsim as one more disparaging statement undermining Zuhrī’s position as a first-class muḥaddith. Finally, he quotes Abū Ḥātim who implied in a statement that Zuhrī could be accused of tadlīs, a remark, significantly enough, absent from Abū Ḥātim’s son’s rijāl work.

It would perhaps be remiss not to mention some scholarly works which are positive about al-Zuhri traditions. The influential scholar Harald Motzki (2011) wrote a book chapter called “The Jurisprudence of Ibn Shihāb Al-Zuhrī. A Source-Critical Study.” As (46) he concludes, ‘[a] source-critical study of the early sources now available shows that the number of texts that can be attributed to Zuhrī is much larger than Schacht thought.’

But Motzki is not, to my knowledge, claiming that any tradition attributed to al-Zuhrī can be accepted as reliable prima facie. I write more about Motzki here, including where he explicitly states that individual traditions must be carefully examined. Motzki’s work takes advantage of earlier collections of material (especially the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Sanʿānī, d. 211/826) that were not available to earlier generations of Western scholars like Joseph Schacht. I have never seen him comment on the general reliability of material found in later works, such as Ṣaḥīḥ alBukhārī.

It may also be worth mentioning the thesis of der Voort (2012), a student of Motzki, titled ‘Between History and Legend: The Biography of the Prophet Muhammad by Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī’. His chapter 5 helpfully summarises how his contemporaries and later scholars have understood him. He (309) introduces the chapter as follows:

Was Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhri a puppet of the Umayyad caliphs or an independent scholar? This question refers to the ambivalent attitude of both al-Zuhrī’s contemporaries and modern Western scholars towards him. On the one hand, they regard him as an excellent scholar with a great knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, the biography of Muhammad and other sciences, whose name appears in the asâmd of many traditions that are accessible to us nowadays. On the other hand, some contemporary and later scholars heavily criticize al-Zuhrī’s close connection with several Umayyad caliphs and his manner of transmission.

As to the question of al-Zuhri’s independence, der Voort (334) gives his own answer:

The question raised at the beginning of this chapter was whether al-Zuhrī was a puppet of the Umayyad caliphs or an independent scholar. The answer lies probably somewhere in between. It seems implausible that al-Zuhrī was a completely independent scholar, since he worked for a long time for the Umayyad family under several caliphs and obtained influential jobs. To describe al-Zuhrī as a puppet is probably too extreme, however; there is no conclusive proof that he fabricated ahadith in favour of them.

Although he finds no evidence of utter fabrication, der Voort (326-327) says ‘This does not exclude a pro-Umayyad tendency in al-Zuhrī’s material, for example by withholding or softening of certain unfavourable information about the Umayyad family and its predecessors.’

Accusations against al-Zuhri’s methods of transmission include his giving of permission to transmit hadiths in books, without checking through the books first, and the combining of information from two or more informants without indication (322-323). It seems like der Voort (321-322) considers the latter to have some corroboration, as his analysis of traditions concerning Muhammad’s night journey ‘suggests that the transmitters who distributed the traditions, i.e. the common links in the asānid, probably knew several versions and combined them into one story. ‘ On pp. 199-200 he had said ‘Therefore, although al-Zuhri received his information on Muhammad’s choice between drinks according to the asānid of the two-topic and choice traditions only from Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab, it seems much more likely that al-Zuhri combined traditions from one or more informants into his choice and two-topic traditions.’

From his own Isnād-cum-matn analysis, der Voort (344) concludes that ‘[Al-Zuhrī’s] editing consisted in the addition of more details and names of persons, the softening of information, the harmonization of biases and contradiction, but also the combination of separate elements or traditions into larger units or a summary.’

None of the above is to say that al-Zuhri is utterly unreliable; he may well be a generally good source. But we must be aware that he is not without criticism, and we must think about the way in which he may have transmitted material.

Problems with the Ibn Abbas ascription

Berg (2000, 131) writes that ‘a number of Western scholars are extremely sceptical of all that has been attributed to Ibn ʿAbbās.’ He (131-134) goes on to discuss some of these perspectives, both optimistic and pessimistic on the reliability of such material. This section is recommended to the reader, as well as Berg’s broader summary of Western scholarship on the hadith (6-48).

Michael Pregill (2019, 104) writes:

As many scholars have noted, Ibn ʿAbbās is the symbol of authoritative interpretation in Sunnī tradition par excellence, and thousands upon thousands of exegetical traditions are linked to his name in the extant sources. Here the specter of ikhtilāf rears its head again, as this massive corpus is every bit as diverse and contradictory as the tafsīr tradition in general. As Berg and others have shown, there is hardly enough internal consistency within the traditions associated with this figure’s name to justify understanding them as anything but pseudepigraphic. This should not misunderstood as forgery, or as proof of fraud or conspiracy on the part of early Muslim traditions and transmitters. Rather, it indicates the important of Ibn ʿAbbās as a symbolic figurehead in the tradition, as well as the broader significance of the idea of prophetic warrant for exegesis in the Qurʾān in Muslim collective memory. The invocation of the name of Ibn ʿAbbās is not mendacious, but rather reflects the sincere conviction that if a given interpretation had the ring of truth, it naturally must have been passed down from Ibn ʿAbbās on account of his close relationship with the Prophet.

Brown (2011, p. 216, Kindle location 4606, Kindle edition) notes that one of the criticisms made by G. H. A. Juynboll [Muslim tradition, 29-30] is that:

in the earliest sources available, [Juynboll] says, major hadith transmitters like Ibn ‘Abbās were described as narrating as few as nine hadiths from the Prophet. Yet by the time Ibn Hanbal compiled his vast Musnad in the first half of the 800s he collected 1,710 narrations from Ibn ‘Abbās (although Juynboll admits that these included repetitions of the same hadith.

Brown (223, Kindle location 4730) notes that Patricia Crone too, in her book Roman, provincial and Islamic law (1987, p. 33), pointed to these figures collected by Juynboll. Brown (p. 19, Kindle location 465) himself suggests that the lower and higher figures can be accounted for by distinguishing between those hadiths which Ibn Abbas heard directly from the Prophet, and those many more hadith where he was in fact transmitting a report from another companion. I will leave it to the reader, and to those more knowledgeable, to evaluate the strength of Brown’s proposed solution.

Problems with Ibn Abbas

Even if we could be sure that the hadith, even in its longer form, goes back to Ibn Abbas, can we trust the reliability of his opinion?

To begin with, it is important to note that Ibn Abbas is not claiming to give a prophetic opinion; it is his own. It is plausible that Ibn Abbas might have misunderstood what the Qur’an says on this topic, particularly given how certain passages can be differently interpreted, and especially given that he is in a post-Qur’anic context with greater interactions with Jews and Christians, with greater familiarity of what is actually contained in those scriptures and whether or not they line up with the Qur’an.

Evidence that Ibn Abbas did have at least one incorrect religious opinion can be seen here:

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: To run along [al-saʿʾ] the valley between two green pillars of Safa and Marwa (mountains) was not Sunna, but the people in the pre-islamic period of ignorance used to run along it, and used to say: “We do not cross this rain stream except running strongly. ” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3847. Text and translation from sunnah.com)

Ibn ‘Abbas’s opinion here, on something as fundamental as a major constituent part of Hajj, conflicts with actual Islamic practice (the ritual of sa’i). Given that he could be wrong on such a clear matter, might he not have misunderstood some of the Qur’anic nuances about the former scriptures?

Another particularly relevant factor here is the age of Ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68/686–8), ‘who was only fourteen years old (or nine according to some sources) when the Prophet died, [and] is the fifth largest source, with around 1,700 hadiths.’ (Brown, 2011, 19, Kindle Location 459). Brown goes on to say that Ibn ‘Abbas seems to have heard prophetic material from other companions, though our hadith in question does not claim to be prophetic. Instead, our point is that if Ibn ‘Abbas encountered Muhammad at a young age, perhaps he is liable to make certain mistakes in his understanding of the Qur’an.

One also needs to ask, and I do not mean to offend the Muslim reader, whether Ibn Abbas is an inherently reliable and trustworthy individual. The Muslim may respond that Ibn Abbas has gone through the highest level of scrutiny, and come out with flying colours. Putting aside methodological issues about how we can evaluate past figures, is this actually the case with Ibn Abbas? Has he gone through extensive scrutiny? Brown (2011, p. 88, Kindle Location 1858, Kindle Edition) speaks of the attitude with which Muslim scholars approached the earliest generation:

The Sunni critics’ view of the Companions was both ideologically driven and practical. Sunni Islam was built on the idea that the Companions of the Prophet had inherited his authority and passed on his teachings reliably. In that sense, as a group they were above reproach. In terms of hadith criticism, however, the critics’ reach did not extend far enough back to apply the rules of transmitter criticism to the Companions. The earliest critic, al-Zuhri, had met only the youngest of the Companions, and his hadith criticism mostly addressed the reports he heard from other Successors. Al-Zuhri, Malik, and Shu‘ba had direct experience with the Successors, but they had no real way to evaluate the uprightness or accuracy of Companions. In a sense, reports such as Aisha’s aforementioned rejection of hadiths for content reasons represent vestiges of hadith criticism from the Companion generation. That the collective impunity of the Companions was a later construct of the Sunni worldview is evident when one finds occasional minor Companions listed in early books of weak hadith transmitters. (Emphasis added)

When one is willing to subject Ibn Abbas to scrutiny, a couple of potential problems emerge. During a political dispute between al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī and Muʿāwiya over the caliphate, Ibn Abbas made contact with Muʿāwiya, even though al-Ḥasan had put Ibn Abbas in charge of his forces. At that time Ibn Abbas was accused of misusing funds from the Baṣran finances (Berg, 2000, 131). This is not to definitively assert that Ibn Abbas was guilty of wrongdoing. But it is to say that the accusation was made, that Ibn Abbas was not immune from criticism.

Juynboll (1983, 193), in listing the ‘limited number of occasions [in which] the concept kadhib [is] associated with Companions in mutual controversies’, mentions ‘cases [which] concern Ibn ʿAbbās, Ibn ʿUmar…’ Kadhib refers to dishonesty. Juynboll does not provide details, but the footnote refers to Ibn Qutayba, Taʾwīl, pp. 30f. The interested reader may dive in further.

Reynolds on this Hadith

Reynolds (2012, Kindle Locations 2778-2850) suggests this hadith may not be authentic, because he thinks it is incompatible with the Qur’an’s teaching on the previous scriptures, which he also discusses in his 2010 article (see bibliography) and his 2018 Qur’an commentary. He (2012, Kindle Locations 2786-2787) also suggests that the phrase ‘How do you ask the people of the Scriptures…’ may reflect a post-Qur’anic time, when Muslims were in greater interaction with Jews and Christians.

While I broadly agree that the Qur’an should be understood in its own right, and that a hadith which seems to conflict with it should be rejected (a criterion also used by Muslims), I have tried to go further in this article and address the reliability of the hadith itself.

Sahih al-Bukhari 4987 ‘Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.’

The full text of this hadith is as follows:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to `Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to `Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So `Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to `Uthman. `Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, `Abdullah bin AzZubair, Sa`id bin Al-As and `AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. `Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, `Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. `Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. (Sahih al-Bukhari 4987. Emphasis added. Text and translation from sunnah.com)

Before considering the meaning of this text, we should begin by considering the transmission of the hadith. As far as I can work out, there are (on sunnah.com) two recorded transmissions of this hadith; in Bukhari, as quoted above, and in Tirmidhi. The isnads converge at a certain Ibrahim (identified in Tirmidhi as Ibrāhīm ibn Saʿd), who then transmits from al-Zuhrī, fromʾAnas ibn Mālik, and finally from Ḥudhayfa ibn al-Yamān. Note that again we have Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī in the isnad, for whom see above.

The key part of this passage for our purposes is when Hudhaifa says to Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” It doesn’t explicitly say that the Jews and Christians differed over the book; it could just be highlighting that the Jews and Christians in the past have differed (over what is unspecified), and now the Muslims are at danger of differing (over the recitation of the Qur’an).

But if Jews and Christians are said to have differed over the book, in what way? In terms of what they consider to be the Book (Jews reject the Injil)? In terms of its recitation? This is, after all, the issue faced by the Muslims here. Note that issues about misreading or mispronouncing scripture can be found in Q 2:59, 104; 3:78, 93; 4:46; 7:162. Or perhaps this hadith is alleging textual corruption (which would be more likely if the other al-Zuhrī hadith above was understood this way). But notice that this is not the statement of Muhammad, but of Hudhaifa. The conquests are clearly already underway, as seen from the introduction to the hadith, and Muslims may have begun to have interactions with Jews and Christians from outside Arabia.

Blackmailing with Bukhari

If one insists on accepting a hadith simply because it was classified ‘Sahih’ by Bukhari, one opens themselves up to ‘Blackmailing with Bukhari‘, where the Muslim will be challenged to accept every Bukhari hadith, no matter how hard to believe. Amongst the most difficult examples:

Women in hell

Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri:

Once Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of `Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) ?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.” (Emphasis added. Sahih al-Bukhari 304. Text and translation from sunnah.com)

Dunking flies

Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said “If a house fly falls in the drink of anyone of you, he should dip it (in the drink) and take it out, for one of its wings has a disease and the other has the cure for the disease.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3320. Emphasis added. Text and translation from sunnah.com)

Umar’s doubts about kissing the black stone

`Umar came near the Black Stone and kissed it and said “No doubt, I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit anyone nor harm anyone. Had I not seen Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) kissing you I would not have kissed you.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 1597. Emphasis added. Text from here)

Note the parallel to pagan stone worship described in this Bukhari hadith. For early Muslim unease about Safa and Marwah as well see the Bukhari hadith here, and for Ibn Abbas disputing sa’y (an integral part of Hajj) see this Bukhari hadith here.

Treatment of early Muslim women

Narrated `Ikrima:

Rifa`a divorced his wife whereupon `AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. `Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complained to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating). It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) came, `Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!” When `AbdurRahman heard that his wife had gone to the Prophet, he came with his two sons from another wife. She said, “By Allah! I have done no wrong to him but he is impotent and is as useless to me as this,” holding and showing the fringe of her garment, `Abdur-Rahman said, “By Allah, O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! She has told a lie! I am very strong and can satisfy her but she is disobedient and wants to go back to Rifa`a.” Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, to her, “If that is your intention, then know that it is unlawful for you to remarry Rifa`a unless `Abdur-Rahman has had sexual intercourse with you.” Then the Prophet (ﷺ) saw two boys with `Abdur- Rahman and asked (him), “Are these your sons?” On that `AbdurRahman said, “Yes.” The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “You claim what you claim (i.e.. that he is impotent)? But by Allah, these boys resemble him as a crow resembles a crow,” (Sahih al-Bukhari 5825. Text and translation from sunnah.com. Emphasis added)

Perhaps Aisha is exaggerating here, in order to elicit sympathy for this woman’s (alleged) situation. If so, it is a striking exaggeration.

Difficulty of remembering the Qur’an

Narrated `Abdullah:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “It is a bad thing that some of you say, ‘I have forgotten such-and-such verse of the Qur’an,’ for indeed, he has been caused (by Allah) to forget it. So you must keep on reciting the Qur’an because it escapes from the hearts of men faster than camel do.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 5032. Text and translation from sunnah.com. Emphasis added)

For a Sahih Muslim tradition about forgetting large chunks of material (as long as Q 9), see here.

‘Blackmailing with Bukhari’: summary

To the Muslim who wishes to accept all these traditions, fair enough, my other criticisms still hold. Another Muslim might fairly respond that evaluation of hadith is probabilistic, and that rejection of a few bad hadiths does not mean that Bukhari’s method isn’t mostly reliable. They might also claim that the hadiths about the former scriptures have multiple lines of transmission (I have not verified this for the ‘blackmailing’ hadiths above).

These are reasonable responses, but such responses still acknowledge that the method of isnad analysis is not foolproof. A supposedly ‘sound’ isnad can be attached to an erroneous content (matn). Once this concession is made, one must then use other criteria to evaluate Bukhari’s hadith, and a classic Muslim principle is that a hadith cannot contradict the Qur’an. And if one interprets the Bukhari hadith to allege widespread textual corruption, this would seem to contradict the teaching of the Qur’an (see articles here under the title ‘The Qur’an affirms the Torah and Gospel’s Reliability’).


The point of this article has not been to utterly denigrate the value of ḥadīth. Careful studies of individual traditions could reap fruitful results. However, we have argued that it is methodologically unsound to appeal to one or two ḥadīths, without such individual examination, in order to definitively pronounce how one must interpret the Qur’an. This is especially the case when such traditions go back to Companions, i.e. they do not claim to be Prophetic.

Furthermore, these traditions themselves require interpretation as to what exactly they are accusing the People of the Scripture of. One must also take note of other ḥadīths that may have a different view.

We have also discussed the contentious nature of two of the figures involved in the transmission, Abdullah ibn Abbas and ibn Shihab al-Zuhri. Finally, we have highlighted the difficulties involved in accepting a ḥadīth as authentic because it was judged so by al-Bukhari.


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