Case Study: A Closed Secular and an Open Secular Approach to Hadiths [Hadith 3 of 5]

In this clip, a discussion on the likely origin of the Muslim prayer (salah) took place. This clip came from a longer interview on BBC Radio, here. For an overview of the longer interview, please read the Reference Section, below.

الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله

All praise is due to ALLAH and peace and blessing upon His Messenger

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the Name of ALLAH, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful


1) An Open Secular Approach (using material evidences that does not say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ with regards to God)*1

After the interview, above, Professor Jonathan Brown wrote an article, here: Tom Holland – The Five Daily Prayers and the Hypocrisy of Revisionism

Excerpt: “Let’s indulge revisionist skepticism about historical sources written by Muslims. Let’s forget that the story of how and when the Prophet Muhammad instituted the five daily prayers, which Muslim scholars concluded either happened in 617 CE or soon before the Prophet’s emigration to Medina 622 CE, was recorded in major Muslim historical collections from the late 700’s and early 800’s. The earliest attested book in which this story appears in the Muwatta’ of Malik bin Anas (died. 796), which was compiled in Medina in the mid to late 700’s. Malik includes a report transmitted via a chain of narrators from the Prophet, who said, “Five prayers God has ordained for His servants, and whoever does them without treating them lightly, God has given that person a promise to grant them entrance into the Garden….” (Muwatta’: kitab salat al-layl, bab al-amr bi’l-witr). If we indulge in revisionist skepticism and assume that Malik was making up the whole transmission that he claims came from the Prophet, we would still know that, at least during Malik’s own lifetime in Medina, there was the clear idea that a core part of Islam was five daily prayers.

And then we could indulge more revisionism and insist on relying on non-Muslim sources. Since Rav Yehudai never mentions the Muslim prayer, why not look at a non-Muslim source that does? We could look at the T’ung tien, a Chinese Tang court work of history and geography that was published in 801 CE. It contains a description of Kufa by a Chinese soldier who was taken prisoner at the Battle of Talas in 751, spent years amongst the Muslims in Iraq and Iran, and returned to China in 762. One of the few observations that this Chinese soldier recalls of Kufa, which was the Abbasid capital at the time (Baghdad not being built until the 760’s), was that the Muslims there would pray five times a day.

So between the Muwatta of Malik and the T’ung tien, we know that Muslim communal practice in Medina and Kufa in the mid 700’s included the five daily prayers. This despite the fact that the two regions of Medina and Kufa had dramatically different traditions of Islamic law. So both regions must have inherited the prayer practice from a common, earlier practice, and there thus must have been some common origin for the five prayers. This would push the historical attestation for the practice back at least one generation to at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet.” LEARN MORE >




2) A Closed Secular Approach (using material evidences with implications of the non-existence of God)*1

Tom Holland wrote a reply, here: A Response to Dr Jonathan Brown on The Five Daily Prayers.

Excerpt: “[Dr Brown] must know in his heart of hearts that the reason he and I disagree as to the likely origin of the 5 daily prayers owes … more to the fact that we come to the question from radically opposed starting points. Dr Brown is a Muslim, and as such – and please do forgive me if I am assuming too much here – believes that the instruction to pray 5 times a day comes ultimately from God. To point out that he is parti pris is not, of course, to pretend that I am not similarly so myself. I also bring my ideological prejudices to the party. As a non-Muslim, I do not believe that the origins of the 5 prayers are to be explained with reference to a supernatural entity, and so naturally I look to situate them in the cultural context that may have inspired them.” LEARN MORE >




3) A Conclusion via a Response to Tom Holland’s Five Points (from his article, above)

A. Right – now we’re getting somewhere: Tom Holland acknowledges that he is just as much ‘biased’ as Dr Brown – albeit from different perspectives. And yet, this is the point: the two perspectives are not equal; one keeps the possibility for God open (and can remain silent on it), whilst the other closes this possibility up entirely. Moreover, Dr Brown actually makes no mention of God; he purely uses material evidences to demonstrate the plausibility of the idea to pray five times a day as not coming from the Muslims themselves but from elsewhere, as explicitly prepostrous. The Open approach (in this example) clearly is the stronger position. Furthermore, the danger with the Closed approach is demonstrated by Tom Holland: the effort to find an explanation that must not give an iota of weight to traditional Muslim accounts results in his inevitable moves at conjecture; the Closed approach, therefore, ends up leaning (ironically, given its supposed aversion to myths) towards ‘flights of fantasy’ which is the ‘clutching at straws’ way of doing history.

B. Tom Holland’s point: The five prayers is not mentioned in the Qur’an. Response: So what? The idea that it ought to be in the Qur’an, given its importance in Muslim practice, is purely conjectural reasoning. An easy answer might be: We, as believers, equally need the Sunnah (the example of the Prophet) to flesh out the details of practice. This is what is meant by the Qur’anic statements: “He who obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah . . .” [Qur’an 4:80] and, “O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger . . .” [Qur’an 4:59].


  • How do I obey the Messenger (peace be upon him)?
  • What did he say?
  • Are there any reported sayings from him?
  • Isn’t a ‘report’ called ‘hadiths’ in Arabic?

See this. The details of the Prophet’s Sunnah are provided in the hadiths. And the believers ended up investing time to identify the range of hadiths ‘out there’, and also filtered through them to identify the authenticated ones from the weaker ones via the Hadith Criticism Method (see the Reference Section, below).

C. Tom Holland reitterates his point about the Persian influence being so strong – which no one is denying. It is just that his ‘clutching at straws’ argument belies the purely conjectural basis of his claims, given the fact that Dr Brown has already annihilated the specific issue here about the five-times salah (i.e. the Muslim-specific prayer) being devised by the Zoroastrians. The hadith regarding praying 50 times is purely those pertaining to the miraj – and no one was actually doing this (i.e praying 50 times). And using vague expressions like ‘over time’ and ‘ended up’ gives the false impression that there was a gradual change in religious practice of essentials (i.e. one minute they’re praying 50, and then later on, five). This wasn’t the case at all. And mentioning, vaguely, that he’s ‘not alone in thinking (like this)’ is misleading, as he provides no evidence (of what) and no sources (of who) – so we have to take his word for it, which I woudn’t.

D. The one fact that Rav Yehudai ‘has no particular dog in the fight’ is a) speculation and b) is not a sufficient reason to rely upon despite the extensive account given by Dr Brown’s regarding the Muslim’s more convincing (normative) explanation.

E. The notion that just as the influence of the Ancient Near East on Classical Greece is a sign that traditional Islam was entirely dependent on the influence of extragenous cultures is another vague and ‘woolly’ exposition of events. Of course, there may have been influences – and scholars do not take issue with that per se. Rather, Tom Holland’s claims seem to suggest that the core components of Islam were derived from elsewhere – that is to say, copied (dishonestly, unwittingly etc). But this – of course – does not acknowledge the possibility that the similitudes might have occurred from the fact that other cultures share a common, sacred source. This is indicated in Dr Brown’s account (see above). Of course, Holland would say he ‘can’t accept that explanation’ – but, well, actually, yes he could – especially if the evidence points in that direction. Isn’t that the point of the evidence? This is the problem with the Closed approach.

Or he could say that the similarities were coincidences, but he didn’t.

Moreover, it is via this last point that Holland seeks to ‘have a dig’ at Dr Brown: Holland makes the case for his ‘Revisionism’ by claiming that his comes from a great line of Western scholars in the early 20th century, who confronted the Classicists through the thesis of Near Eastern influence on classical Greece. Unfortunately, Holland is suffering from delusions of grandeur, because those Western scholars were experts in their respective fields, whilst Holland’s specialism is in Classical (Western) antiquity – not in Arabic or Islamic disciplines (historical or otherwise) at all! We need to distinguish between Revisionism (based on facts) and Revisionism (based on fiction). It appears that Tom Holland’s slip-slides more into the latter.





The clip, above, came from a longer interview on BBC Radio, here: BBC radio Tom Holland and Jonathan Brown

The first point is to note how the whole (full-length) interview is framed. Firstly, apparently the context deemed important by the show is to indicate a) how this interview was recorded weeks before certain bombings took place and b) at the outset of the interview, mentioning the Charlie Hebdo attack. The show hosts believe this is somehow supposed to be the most appropriate, relevant and meaningful context to pitch this show. But is it? This is the first question. For some non Muslims it might be. For other non Muslims it might not be. For Muslims, it most certainly is an erroneous place to start and in fact is an irrelevent place to start; the investigation into hadiths is important because it is important if you want to discuss and know ‘what is Islam’. I would suggest that framing the conversation around this supposed necessary context is contrived and confirms an Islamophobic bias (or agenda). Such a bias is not fine if one is attempting to be neutral and unbiased. The bias is inherent even before the discussion takes place. What we have from the onset is a pretence of neutrality. Please bear that in mind as you proceed to listen.

As we approach midway into the interview, we get to the notion that a) some hadiths were fabricated and b) some hadiths were serving political objectives. Both the host and Tom Holland ask an obviously important question: “How can we tell which hadiths were made up?” O.K. my thoughts on this were as follows: “Are you for real?! That was precisely the point as to why the Hadith Criticism science emerged – to sift through the hadiths – rigorously, eliminating any deemed suspicious – and thousands upon thouands were dismissed/discarded as such – whilst others were categorised as possible (weak), probable (good) and definite (authenticated). But the classifications became more complex than I’ve relayed and the testing methods became more stringent.

Two thirds in, the host refers to the salafists as extremists. If that isn’t ‘leading the witness’ I don’t know what is. The supposed link between salafists and hadiths on the one hand and Islamic State (IS) on the other is laughable. The fact that IS hold a hadith highly proves nothing. By the end of the interview, both Tom Holland and the host were trying to get Dr Brown to agree that hadiths are bad because IS can use hadiths to justify their violence. This supposition is using one’s logic and reason at retrograde levels – a kind of ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ approach. The fact is hadiths can be used to justify anything. There is a robust method of using Qur’an and hadith in matters of law and this is via certain schools of thought. The issue here is that there has been a disruption in traditional schools of thought and law from the colonial period onwards when traditional Islam became increasingly divorced from political power. But that’s another connundrum for another time. In the meantime, the point is, facts can be used to justify anything. Some governments use facts to justify wars, whilst other Western governments fake ‘facts’ to start illegal ones… but this doesn’t mean we condemn the idea of facts. We need to stop with this nonsense, pronto. And face the facts.




*1 The notion of Open and Closed Secular perspectives was first referenced in Section G of The Muslim Theories of Evolution.


سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين

Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.


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One response to “Case Study: A Closed Secular and an Open Secular Approach to Hadiths [Hadith 3 of 5]

  1. Reblogged this on Blogging Theology and commented:

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