Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Qur'an, maths and the hadith - a conundrum...

Many apparently devout Muslims have taken me to task in these pages for drawing attention to the seemingly bizarre and illogical stories in the world of the sunnah as related in the hadith* (the sayings and actions of the Prophet reported by reliable witnesses). They believe strongly that Islam has nothing to do with the hadith: "Yes, Islam IS limited to the Quran, where's your evidence that says otherwise?" one recently asked.
So be it. But if, in your keenness to distance yourselves from the shocking  (Muhammad torturing the camel thieves)  the obtuse (advice to dip a fly's wing into your drink to prevent it being contaminated by the whole fly) the insulting (women, dogs and donkeys negate prayers) the comic (monkeys stoning adulterous monkeys to death) or the simply incredible (giant hairless virgins with transparent legs waiting in Paradise), you dismiss the sunnah, then you must be prepared, surely, to defend the Qur'an as a text that can stand on its own without the need for the interpretation or explanation that the experts tell us is to be found therein.

For despite the protestations of many readers, the sunnah is officially part of the religion of Islam since, it is claimed, it explains and fleshes out the sometimes confusing and often esoteric Qur'anic passsages. This is how the necessity to read the Qur'an in conjunction with the reported sayings and actions of the Prophet is explained on one Islamic site:
Islamic law is based upon two references, the Qur'an (sayings of God) and the Sunnah (sayings and actions of the prophet). [..] All of this information is vital to the interpretation of a given Islamic law and none of it can be taken in a vacuum of the rest, based upon personal whims. At times the Qur'an contains a given law, at others the law is found in the Hadeeth, and in still other cases the broad outlines of a given law are presented in the Qur'an and the details are explained in the Hadeeth. For example, the Qur'an only commands Muslims to "pray." The details of how to pray are found in the Hadeeths of the prophet (pbuh) and described by the companions who saw him teach it and were themselves taught by him directly.
Now let us turn to one of the more problematical collection of passages of the Qur'an - one which those who choose to disbelieve the claim that it is the perfect word of God quote as proof of its fallible human source: the laws of inheritance. (Straight away let me say that I am happy to accept that the inheritance laws contained in the Qur'an represented an improvement on those existing at the time, and might very well be a sensible and fair system. This is irrelevant to my argument.)

There are numerous illustrations on the web of the mathematical inconsistencies contained within the laws of inheritance. I won't therefore labour the point but will simply quote one by Ali Sina. It is worth reading the whole article if you are in any doubt as to the mathematical problems presented by inheritance laws in the Qur'an...
According to the [...] verses, if a man dies leaving behind a wife, three daughters and his two parents,
His wife’s share of his inheritance is 1/8. (In what ye leave, their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child; but if ye leave a child, they get an eighth)  His daughters would receive 2/3 (if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance;)  and his parents each will get 1/6 of his inheritance. (For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children;)When you add all these fractions the sum is more than the total of inheritance.
Wife1/8=  3/24
Daughters 2/3=16/24
Father 1/6=  4/24
Mother1/6=  4/24
Total =
Because the arithmetic is indisputable, Muslims apologists are forced to explain that the complete explanation of the inheritance laws are contained in the sunnah, since obviously the Qur'an can't be expected to cater for every eventuality.
Indeed, so many and varied are the occasions when the inheritance laws in the Qur'an leave an impossible mathematical conundrum that a whole discipline has evolved, known, inter alia, as the Laws of Awl, for when the soi-disant perfect Qur'anic laws fall short. This is how Answering Christianity explains it: "This particular example falls under the laws of "Awl" which regulate the cases when the inheritor's shares exceed or "overshoot" the sum of the total inheritance, and in which case the inheritance is recalculated according to the laws of Awl and redistributed."
So even Muslim apologists have to concede that the perfect Qur'an's laws allow for situations when the inheritance "overshoots" or "exceeds" the total.
However, the laws in the Qur'an don't just result in the occasional "overshoot". There are also cases where it is possible to arrive at a situation where the poor relatives are left with an embarrassing extra load of dosh if they follow the rules. But worry not - for (you've guessed it) there is a set of laws arrived at by studying the sunnah for such circumstances as well: "There are yet other cases when the number of inheritors and their shares do not sum to a whole 100%, in which case the laws of "Usbah" come into play in order to distribute the unclaimed shares which have no corresponding people to receive them." 

Remember, these complex rules have been created by Islamic scholars purely because the laws as found in the Qur'an (quite literally) don't add up. The very existence of these complex rules is a tacit acceptance that the Qur'an is incomplete without them. 

Long papers have been written by impressively qualified Islamic experts on the subject of Faraid (Islamic Inheritance Law). One, written by Professor Mohd Ridzuan Awang, has this to say on the subject of using the hadith to clarify the laws: "Other than evidence (nas) from al-Qur'an, there are also the Prophet's (peace and blessings be upon him) hadiths which explain and detail out the meaning from al-Qur'an with regards to the beneficiaries and their shares. Among them is the Prophet's (peace and blessings be upon him) saying meaning: One half is for the daughter and one sixth for the son's daughter ie both shares make two thirds of the total property; and the rest is for the female sibling (Hadith by al-Bukhari) and Give the shares to those who are entitled to them and what remains over goes to the nearest beneficiary (Hadith by Muslim)"
Note the professor's choice of words: the Qur'an needs to be "explained and detailed out" using the hadith. That's the hadith from the same collections (Bukhari and Muslim) which contain those wise words about donkeys, flies, torture, monkeys and hairless giants.

So if you pride yourself on being one of those modern rational Muslims who regard the hadith as being at best an irrelevant adjunct to your faith and at worst an embarrassing anachronism, then you might wish to consider this: your perfect holy text contains laws which even Muslim scholars concede need the further explanation found in the sayings and actions of Muhammad for them to make sense. (And even then the explanations seem to be contradictory at best... see Note)

To summarise: The laws pertaining to inheritance found in the Qur'an are incomplete without the further explanation found in the hadith. This is the view of Islamic experts, since they have found it necessary to invent additional laws to overcome the many inconsistencies.  However, the Laws of Awl and Usbah rely upon commentary found in the hadith. To accept the Laws of Awl and Usbah one must, by extension, therefore accept that Muhammad tortured, believed flies wings were an effective germicide, thought monkeys capable of stoning each other for adultery and that women, dogs and donkeys somehow negated prayers.

To quote the poor confused Muslim from the Sunni Forum below: It could be possible that I'm missing something important here. So if there is any Muslim out there who'd like to explain how you can dismiss the hadith whilst still claiming the Qur'an is perfectly understandable and clear, then I'd like to hear from you.

Note: there are many honest and humble Muslims who are genuinely concerned about this issue and find little solace in the official responses. A quick trawl of the Sunni Forums reveals the following:
Ok…Rules of ‘Awl’ and ‘Usbah’ can be used to clear the problem. But those rules are the fruits of human intelligence, isn't it? And in 4:176 it is clearly claimed that, “Thus doth Allah make clear to you (His law), lest ye err. And Allah hath knowledge of all things.”…. But Sura Nisa(4 no sura)?? Do you think it’s clear? To me it’s everything else but clear.
I tried to solve it using some of the Muslim scholars writing. But I think each of them just invented different solutions to prove that Quran is correct. Their solutions are not identical, and they contradict with each other. It seems that there is no UNIQUE solution based on only Quranic Ayats. [...] It could be possible that I am missing something important here. If someone has been able to find the actual solution (which is authentic enough according to the Quran), then it would be a great help if he shares it with me. Remember that we can solve it in many ways if we ignore some part of the Quranic verse mentioned above. But I am looking for a solution that will prove Quran is logically 100% correct and we don’t need any human intervention/tricks/patch to make it work.
Seeking for an informative reply from you guys....I hope someone has the answer! 

* all hadith stories referred to are contained in the Sahih hadith of Bukhari and Muslim - those collections regarded as the epitome of reliability. If you discount these two, you cannot logically believe any of the hadith (and must ask yourself, for example, why you are praying five times a day and prostrating yourself)


  1. Your premise is that the Quran NEEDS Hadith, because their are passages in its text that are unexplainable/illogical without a Hadith explanation/apology.

    You offer one example (I would have liked more), the infamous inheritance math problem.

    There is an explanation for this that isn't rooted in Hadith however. The portions of inheritance dedicated to the parents and marriage partner are always to be taken out of the original "pot" first. Children and Siblings THEN take their allotted portions out of the REMAINING pot. This does NOT result in a mathematical improbability, and can result in some excess money, which the Quran then tells Muslims they can donate to the needy.

    Here's a source. I'd like to know what you think.

    1. He gives you more than one example.

      "The quote from the Islamic web site states "For example, the Qur'an only commands Muslims to "pray." The details of how to pray are found in the Hadeeths of the prophet (pbuh) and described by the companions who saw him teach it and were themselves taught by him directly." More specifically, the direction of the prayer, the number of daily prayers and the number of rakah during each prayer are not found in the Koran but in the Hadeeth. Without the Hadeeth, Muslim prayer rituals make no sense as the guidance is not found in the Koran.

      Another example not mentioned by Spinoza is the five pillars of Islam, which come from the Hadeeth.

      There is also the general explanation from the Islamic web site that the Koran and the Sunnah are both sources of Islamic law. This is Islam 101 and I suspect you know that notwithstanding your contrarian tone.

    2. I didn't consider this an example, because it isn't one.

      The Quran commands Muslims to pray 3 times a day, though some argue it specifies 5. It tells Muslims how to purify themselves before prayer (washing face, neck, arms, feet). It also tells Muslims the positions for prayer (standings, bowing, prostrating).

      A few specifics like the number of rakah or what EXACTLY to say aren't mentioned, but there is an easy way around this. Maybe Allah wanted prayer to be an inclusive experience more focused on content then specific movements.

      Why are the five pillars important? They are all orders individually given in the Quran; why is using Hadith to condense them into a nifty little saying even remotely important?

      Sure, any website can say Hadith/Sunnah are sources of Islamic law, but that doesn't make it true. The only source of Islamic Law is the Quran, as iterated by the Quran itself and Muhammad.

    3. "The only source of Islamic Law is the Quran, as iterated by the Quran itself and Muhammad."

      That is a statement that is demonstrably false. There are four schools of Sunni Islamic Jurisprudence and all rely heavily on the Hadith/Sunnah. You are making an argument of what Islamic Law might be if Muslims followed your logic but this is the opposite of what Islamic Law is in practice (both historically and today). I agree with your logic that the Quran ought to be the only source but that is not the reality.

    4. On Nov. 11 Anonymous writes "Why are the five pillars important? They are all orders individually given in the Quran; why is using Hadith to condense them into a nifty little saying even remotely important?

      Wrong on multiple levels. Without the 5 pillars, Islamic practice as we know it today would not exist. It is difficult to arrive at the pillars without the Hadith. The pillars are set out in Sahih Bukhari 1:2:7, which claims that the Prophet said Islam is based on 5 principles. Islam without the 5 pillars would not be Islam.

      1. Shahada - not found in the Quran. This is the most basic tenet of Sunni Islam. All converts say it when they convert and all Muslims believe it to be true.

      2. Salah - only partially described in the Quran. The command to pray 5 times per day is not in the Quran. The words recited during the prayer come from the Hadith and not the Quran. The compulsory congregational prayer is not described in the Quran. The number of rakah recited during each prayer is not in the Quran. Most of the prayer ritual comes from the Hadith and the Sunnah and not the Quran.

      3. Zakat – not in the Quran. One can perhaps argue that the obligation (charity) can be extrapolated from the Quran but this is not explicit and there is no guidance on how much to pay or when to pay it. You need the Hadith for this.

      4. Hajj – the pilgrimage is mentioned in the Quran but the many rituals associated with it are not.

      5. Fasting – only partially described in the Quran. The Quran prescribes fasting but gives no guidance on how or when to fast. The details of fasting along with the significance of Ramadan are described in the Hadith without which the meaning would not be known.

      In summary, throw out the Hadith and you are left with a very different religion.

  2. Thanks for your comment, anon.
    I've taken a look at the article. It seems to me that the author makes an assumption for which there is no justification. He states that a close examination of the verses will show there are two kinds of inheritors viz I. Inheritors who will get a fixed portion and ii. Those who will share the rest.
    However, the author fails to show us which verse tells us this.
    I can see nothing in the verses which suggest this is the case.
    In any case, one has to ask that if such a rule were clear from reading the Quran why then have Islamic experts felt the need to invent complex rules in addition to what we find in the Quran?

  3. It seems to be based on the fact that the parents are guaranteed a fixed 1/6 share of the original pot if the deceased has children/siblings.

    Conversely, when children inheritance is first mentioned, it simply says that sons get 2x what a daughter gets. As it carries on with multiple daughters, it mentions the inheritance, but apparently this phrase isn't the same as the one which refers to the original inheritance sum.

    It all seemed fairly tenuous to me, but a close reading of the verses does make this scenario possible, especially when you read multiple translations side by side. I found multiple sites and sources with this view, and some explain that while this is fairly clear when read in Arabic, the translation to English that disrupts sentence structure and grammar makes this somewhat difficult to recognize.

    I can't speak on why some Islamic experts disagree about this subject. Perhaps for similar reasons we are discussing it here. The instructions are complicated, organized in a roundabout way, and open for debate.

    However, this Quran math issue doesn't seem to be a good example of Islam NEEDING Hadith for something.

    1. The translation point is definitely a serious one.

      I am a lawyer by trade. Even written in English, most legislation really isn't clear or easy to understand. That's why there is a need for lawyers, courts, and cases to decide what the interpretation is.

      This is even with legislative notes included, and even if you ask whoever wrote the legislation the courts generally don't accept what is then stated by them if they do answer.

      Instead we have to go be a few different interpretation rules and argue whichever result we hope to achieve using a few different statutory interpretation tools.

      If you aren't a lawyer, I don't know how you'd have mastery over this skill, and even if you are it takes quite a bit of skill and there is quite a bit of disagreement among the best lawyers and judges on a case by case basis.

      You can sort of look to the hadith as legislative notes, but they are going to carry much less weight than using the entire document, and then rules of specificity etc. In my experience there are a lot of examples of things in legislation that appear to be contradictions, but after interpretation is done it really isn't considered as such. I'm sure you can read some SCOTUS decisions to see that in action, SCOTUS invalidates legislation all the time by using interpretation and then choosing what to accept and what not to, and what to invalidate because of a higher level of authority (in this case hadith would be invalidated by the Quran, as state legislation would lose out to the Constitution).

  4. Grew up mainstream protestant. Converted to Orthodox Islam five years ago. Then became Quran alone muslim several months after that. Then started studying various translations. Now questioning why The Almighty would make belief a condition of salvation or face hell. Infallible or otherwise it makes no sense. I find myself sliding into the comfy confines of rational thinking. Fuck religion.

    1. LOL you kind of almost described my life.

      I'm not quite that far on the F religion trail though.

      I hope you didn't leave Islam simply for the belief/salvation/hell idea. Its completely irrational to apply subjective human morals/logic to a God (assuming he exists).