Answered by Shaykh Shuaib Ally
Question: My Mother is dealing with someone at work that is dedicated to making her doubt Islam by trying to find contradictions between Hadith and empirical science. What’s your advice to her?
Most “contradictions” are very specific and would need specialists in those fields to determine accuracy.
Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,
I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits.
We are obligated to believe everything that the Prophet – peace and blessings of God be upon him – delivered to us from God, and that he was truthful in transmitting what he did.
Does Failing to Resolve Apparent Contradictions Negate this?
Someone may point out apparent contradictions between certain narrations and empirical science, in an attempt to demonstrate the unreliability of the former. A Muslim’s faith is not impugned if they do not know how to resolve these apparent contradictions, or how others have sought to resolve it, even if they do nothing to find out.
Reasons for Faith Remaining Intact
This is for two reasons. One is that, as you have mentioned, many such resolutions require specialist knowledge, or at least a familiarity with Islamic or other disciplines. A layperson is not obligated to know such information for their faith to be sound.
The second is that a person is obligated to believe in a general framework that is internally coherent; this is the belief that I mentioned above, that the Prophet – peace and blessings of God be upon him – transmitted to us truthfully from God.
With that as the default, singular confusions or lack of understanding of the interpretation of specific traditions attributed to the Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, cannot be said to render the entire framework of belief untrue.
This understanding of knowledge accords with the manner in which we normally see and operate in the world. For example, a person can have a general belief in the idea of gravity, which may be as unsophisticated as believing that things are supposed to fall down. That, as a default belief, is based on good evidence, namely, the vast majority of a person’s life experience. If, however, one comes across something that seems to militate against this – say, something that rises instead of falling down – one wouldn’t discard their belief in the general applicability of gravity, even if they don’t understand precisely how this exception fits into the entire system, or never bothers to find out.
A similar scenario plays out for faith beliefs, such as a person’s belief in the prophecy of Muhammad – peace and blessings of God be upon him. An inability to readily explain certain narrations, or even to access scholarly discussion on such matters, does not render the entire coherent framework of belief untrue.
This easily applies at the level of the layperson, because of the lack of access to scholarship. It can also applies at the scholarly level; this is why scholars, who by virtue of being human have access to limited knowledge, may at times indicate that they are not sure yet how to fit certain traditions into the overall framework of established belief.
How Scholars Deal with Difficult Traditions
That said, if one is able to, it is generally encouraged to seek out answers to anything one thinks might impugn their faith.
To this end, it is useful to know how scholars tend to deal with traditions that, while transmitted through sound methods, appear to contradict empirical truths. They usually do this in one of two ways.
The first is to interpret the text in a non-literal fashion when possible, according to linguistic and social convention. This is a preferred method, as it allows for scholars to conserve and continue to make use of the maximum amount of available evidence, as opposed to discarding it.
When this does not appear possible, scholars may consider the tradition fabricated; a general principle is that a sign of a tradition being fabricated is that it irreparably contradicts other clear evidence, whether it be established texts or principles, or empirical truth.
Understanding that there are hermeneutical principles at play in interpreting and dealing with traditions can – God willing – assuage the layperson in remaining content in their faith, especially if one does not have the time, means, or concern to delve into the issues raised. If this is not the case, one should seek out reliable scholarship in an effort to determine how others have specifically dealt with such apparent contradictions.