I’ve started to read the Hadiths lately. Hadiths are collections of the sayings and deeds of the false prophet Mohammed. They were transmitted orally from narrator to narrator for over a hundred years until they started to be written down. There are several collections of these anecdotes, with Sunnis and Shi’ites using different ones, but the most reliable among the Sunni is considered to be the collection of Sahih al-Bukhari, which is the one I am reading.
The Hadith are second only in importance to the Koran in Islamic theology and jurisprudence. In fact, given the obscurity of much of the Koran, the Hadith play a valuable role in explaining and illuminating the circumstances in which various portions of the Koran were “revealed”. Also, since Mohammed is considered to be the perfect role model for all Muslims, the Hadiths tell Muslims what the prophet did in various circumstances and so serve as a guide for Muslims.
Naturally, since it was over a century since the Hadiths were written down, it is likely that many anecdotes have been distorted in the transmission and many were even fabricated after the time of Mohammed. Islāmic scholars are aware of this and so they have classified hadiths according to how reliable they are considered to be. A hadith may be sahih (sound), daif (doubtful), or mawdu (fabricated). They also classify them as hasan (good) or munkar (denounced). Since the Muslim scholars were, of course, classifying these Hadiths before the development of modern Western textual criticism, the method they used was to examine the chain of narrators and compare the Hadiths to each other for inconsistancies. A Hadith from a more reliable or trustworthy chain of narrators is considered more reliable than one from a doubtful chain.
Each Hadith has two parts; the isnad, which is the chain of narrators, and the matn, which is the actual anecdote. I can’t comment very much on the contents of the Hadiths yet, as I have only just begun to read the collection. The text is clearer and easier to understand than the Koran, which has many obscure parts. It is very repetitive, as often the same anecdote or saying will be repeated over and over through different chains of narrators with slight variations of wording. Some of Mohammed’s actions seem rather strange, given the huge cultural gap between the modern West and seventh century Arabia. I get the impression, sometimes, that Mohammed was obsessive-compulsive, or at least more than a little superstitious.
I’m not sure reading the collection from front to back is the best or usual way to read it. I get the impression that a collection of Hadiths is more of a reference work. Still, that is the only way I know to do it.