It is common for Muslims to appeal to the work of Harald Motzki to convince non-Muslims of the reliability of the hadith. It is true that Motzki belongs to a group of scholars who are more optimistic about our ability to find authentic hadith. However let us read his own words, as he summarises the group of scholars to which he belongs:
Disregarding [Joseph] Schacht’s theories, and using methods similar to those of van Ess, Gregor Schoeler, Motzki and others have studied several individual ḥadīths that they have dated into the first/seventh century. The scholars of this subgroup have rejected both the claim of the sceptics that the Ḥadīth must be considered as fictitious until the contrary is proven, and that of their opponents, who have argued for the contrary. They have avoided general statements about the historical reliability of the Ḥadīth and have postponed judgements about individual ḥadīth until they have examined them. It has been their opinion that many more ḥadīths and ḥadīth collections need to be source-critically analysed before judgements of a more general character about the origin of certain parts of the Ḥadīth can be proposed. (emphasis added. Motzki, 2004, xxviii-xxix)
When Motzki and fellow scholars do date a given hadith earlier than other scholars (e.g. Joseph Schact, or more recently Juynboll), this does not necessarily get us all the way back to the time of Muhammad. As Daniel Brown (2020, 52-53) summarises:
Amidst the sometimes heated debates, it is easy to miss that we have left behind
the question of authenticity in its usual sense, that is, the question of whether hadith
reports are authentic to Muhammad or his companions. When Schoeler claims that
sound method can recover “authentic” traditions he must redefine authenticity: traditions are authentic “which were demonstrably collected and disseminated in a
systematic process of teaching, by historical individuals from approximately the last
third of the first century a.h.” (Schoeler 2011, 2). This means that the painstaking
efforts of Motzki and his followers will gain us, at best, a few decades over Juynboll
and Schacht. Projections farther back than that are admittedly hypothetical and
western hadith studies speculative.
This is not nothing, as Brown (53) acknowledges. I would point out that the remaining gap of 55-60+ years is somewhat longer than the historical gap between Jesus and the writings of Paul (25-30 years) and similar to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (typically dated somewhere between 35-60 years after Jesus; John’s Gospel is often dated around 70 years after Jesus). Perhaps we could try and excavate earlier material still, such as by identifying creedal and poetic material in Paul’s writing (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Phillipians 2:6-11), or something similar in the Hadith.
It is true that Motzki (2004, 20) did say of a certain legal maxim (al-walad li-l-firāsh) that it could ‘be dated back at least to the second half of the first century A.H., if not to the prophet himself, [and this] undermines some of Schacht’s fundamental ideas’. This is potentially even earlier than the Schoeler quote above. But as with Motzki’s earlier caution, this is after a careful assessment of an individual maxim. Motzki’s (2001) examination of two hadiths about the compilation of the Qur’an (under Abu Bakr and Uthman respectively) concluded that they can be traced at least as far back as ‘the first quarter of the 2nd century AH’ (29), and even, Motzki prefers, ‘towards the end of the 1st Islamic century’ (31). Early, but not necessarily back to the events they describe (in this case events before Abu Bakr’s death in 634 and Uthman’s in 656).
Finally, it is worth saying that however great a scholar Motzki may be (he is universally recognised as a major scholar in the field), his views do not command universal assent. Daniel Brown (51-52) discusses pushback against Motzki from Shoemaker, Melchert, and Pavlovitch. Motzki’s work must be seriously considered, but not taken as gospel truth. And as we have mentioned, one must carefully consider what Motzki, and similar scholars, actually argue that their methods can achieve.
Brown, Daniel W. “Western Hadith Studies.” In The Wiley Blackwell Concise Companion to the Hadith, edited by Daniel W. Brown, 39-56. Hoboken, NJ/Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2020.
Motzki, Harald. “The Collection of the Qur’ān. A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments.” Der Islam 78, no. 1 (2001): 1-34.
Motzki, Harald. “Introduction – Ḥadīth: Origins and Developments.” In Ḥadīth: Origins and Developments, xiii-lxiii. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
Motzki, H. “The Muṣannaf of ʿabd Al-Razzāq Al-Ṣanʿānī as a source of authentic aḥādīth of the First Century A.H.”. In Ḥadīth: Origins and Developments, edited by H. Motzki. Aldershot, UK/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.