Islamic Reformation At Last!
It's hard to overstate how significant this is. For all the lambasting that the Qur'an gets, in actual fact, most of the awful and retrograde bullshit that occurs in Islamic societies--like female genital mutilation, the burqa, etc.--are based on the hadith: the collection of sayings and stories attributed to the prophet Mohammed, and collected after he died. Muslim feminists, especially in the west, routinely call for a return to the Qur'an and an abandonment of the hadith. And historians and Western scholars have long pointed out that the Mohammed that shows up in the hadith often bears little resemblance to the Mohammed of history, who was often derided by his fellow religious leaders for being overly fond of, and constantly caving in to, his wives, and for being too gentle with children.
Having said that, one hadith I'm rather fond of tells that one time when it was raining outside, The Prophet went to get his coat and found a cat sleeping on it. He went out into the rain without his coat rather than disturb the cat's slumber. (I may be recalling the details wrong; the story is in Karen Armstrong's Muhammad.) So not all the hadith are rotten. In fact (as you'll get a sense of) most of them are morally neutral answers to questions of procedure. But the ones that are wicked are truly awful. (By the way, the single most appalling practice of Islamic culture--"honor killings"--are not only not mentioned in the Qur'an, but I'm told they're not even in any of the hadith; they're just poisons picked up from the outside culture.)
I actually picked up a book of hadith (called A Manual of Hadith by Maulana Muhammad Ali), because they're actually pretty hard to find in English, and the official volumes I mostly came across were prohibitively expensive. (The book I have was collected, and contains commentary by, Maulana Muhammad Ali, who is, it should be noted, a member of a Muslim sect called the Ahmaddiyas, who follow a prophet who came AFTER Mohammed, so they're a bit like Muslim Mormons only not as weird.) There are a LOT of hadith--six volumes, minimum, if you're counting only the "strong" traditions (the hadith are divided into strong/authoritative and weak/less authoritative, based on their history of transmission)--and so the one volume I have is a compilation that seems pitched toward American converts, and I don't know enough to assert that these are all strong hadith. But I figure it can't hurt to give a quote or two to give a sense of what it's like to read the book:
"It is reported about Umm Waraqah who had learned the Qur'an by heart that The Prophet commanded her that she should act as imam of the people of her house, and she had a mu'adhdin [muezzin; the one who gives the call the prayer] and she used to act as imam of the people of her house."
"Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said, "When one of you leads the prayer for the people, he should lighten it, for among them is the weak one and the sick one and the old one; and when one of you prays alone, he may lengthen it as he likes."
"Samurah said, the Messenger of Allah commanded us that when we were three one of us [i.e., the one acting as imam] should stand in the front."
And so on. Most of them are very short, and most of them are reports on procedure ("How did The Prophet handle babies crying during Jummah?" etc.). Since there is no information about Mohammed in the Qur'an, the hadith, all read together, form something like the equivalent of the Gospels, and--at the same time--the equivalent of the Talmud.
I'm not saying the Qu'ran is a model of enlightenment. But if Islamic culture could throw off the tradition of the hadith (or at least employ scholarship to take out the bad ones), then there would be room for more liberal democratic readings of the Qu'ran--readings most American Muslims already practice, by the way--and Muslims everywhere would be freer to read the Qur'an the same way that Christians read the Bible and Jews read the Torah: by ignoring the weird, violent stuff and focusing on decency.
I predict a lot of violence over this--fundamentalists don't give up easily--but in the long run this is very good news for the planet.