The Anxiety of Misquotation

By Scott C. LucasFebruary 28, 2015

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy by Jonathan A. C. Brown

A man said: O Messenger of God, who is a Muslim? [Muhammad] replied: Anyone from whose tongue and hand Muslims are safe.

Then he said: Who is a believer? He replied: Anyone whom people trust with their lives and property.

Then he said: Who is an emigrant? He replied: Anyone who abandons (emigrates from) bad deeds.

Then he said: Who is a Mujahid? He replied: Anyone who struggles with his own soul for the sake of God, Mighty and Majestic is He.


According to the Qur’an, God bestowed two things upon the Prophet Muhammad: His Book and “the wisdom.” Muslims traditionally identified “the Book” as the Qur’an itself and “the wisdom” as the Sunna, or practice, of Muhammad. The primary differences between the two types of revelation are their scope and their method of transmission. The Qur’an was put into an approximately 500-page long codex within two decades of Muhammad’s death. The Sunna is a whole library containing tens of thousands of reports, or hadiths, compiled by individual Muslim scholars between the 8th and the 11th centuries. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was so widely transmitted that forgery of any part of it is impossible, and thus it is the actual word of God, passed by the Angel Gabriel on to Muhammad from about 610 to 632 CE. The history of the hadiths is much more complicated.

The hadiths that make up the Sunna were transmitted orally by a number of first- and second-generation Muslims and did not become widely disseminated until a century after the death of Muhammad. Each hadith consists of a chain of narrators and the actual text reporting something Muhammad said, did, or tacitly approved. Starting in the late 8th century, a small number of Muslim scholars embarked on a project of ranking the reliability of the narrators of these hadiths, which in turn played a central role in sorting reliable (or sound/sahih) hadiths from others, which were merely “fair,” “weak,” or fabricated. The result of these labors in the Sunni tradition was two canonical books of the highest status — the Sahihs, compiled by al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875) — followed by four additional canonical books, alongside a host of non-canonical ones that only a dedicated hadith expert or outstanding jurist would consult. Each of these books, save for the Sahihs of al-Bukhari and Muslim, contained many hadiths Muslim critics evaluated as weak; some of them even included outright forgeries.

While Sunni hadith scholars were hard at work sifting an exponentially growing body of hadiths, Sunni jurists and theologians were actively articulating and debating Islamic law and theology into what rapidly emerged as four self-sustaining schools of jurisprudence and three of theology. Each school endeavored to bolster its positions with selective Qur’anic verses and hadiths when it could, and used other intellectual tools — such as the declaration of consensus upon a certain position, analogy, or various forms of reasoning — when revealed sources were unavailable. One of the premises of the traditional schools of Islamic law was that the masses of Muslims were obligated to defer all legal questions to the jurists. This deference to juridical authority is taqlid, often translated as “blind imitation,” though a more charitable translation might be “trust in the jurists’ rulings.” Only jurists could engage in original legal reasoning (ijtihad), and even then most of them agreed that they could only adjudicate between rival opinions within their schools, rather than reassess traditional opinions through a creative reading of the Qur’an and hadiths.

Neither the Crusaders nor the Mongols could dislodge the Sunni jurists’ self-appointed monopoly on defining authentic Islamic practice and belief. But European colonialism was a different beast. As part of their “civilizing mission,” British, French, and Dutch colonial administrators established new educational institutions that broke the near-monopoly religious scholars had long enjoyed in the realm of education. How these Sunni scholars survived and reasserted their authority in the wake of colonialism, nationalism, secularism, Nasserism, and socialism is the topic of Jonathan A.C. Brown’s exhilarating new book, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy.

Let me start by saying that Brown is among the most talented and productive scholars in the field of Islamic Studies today. In less than a decade, he has produced a series of ground-breaking scholarly articles on Sunni hadith criticism, a monograph on the historical process by which the famous hadith collections by al-Bukhari and Muslim achieved canonical status, a definitive survey of hadith literature and its disciplines, a short biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and now Misquoting Muhammad. He is also a practicing Muslim who has the rare ability to sit at the feet of traditional scholars from Egypt to Malaysia for hours on end and translate that knowledge into something beneficial for his American audiences. As Brown notes in his preface, Misquoting Muhammad is primarily inspired by his observation that

by far the most pressing questions befuddling both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences were how we should understand such-and-such a controversial Qur’anic verse, or such-and-such a provocative Hadith. During the question-and-answer time at talks I gave, I saw again and again the disillusioning clash between scripture and modernity acted out before me by individuals wondering how they should understand Islam today and what their relationship to the classical heritage of Islam should be.

This candid admission of the catalyst behind the book explains why the hadiths and Qur’anic verses with which Brown engages are primarily the controversial ones. This is a risky strategy, since the reader might receive the false impression that most hadiths are provocative or contentious. However, given that Muslims today face far more scrutiny over hadiths about virgins in heaven than they do for hadiths about loving one’s neighbors here on earth, his focus on controversial hadiths makes sense. Such a choice also provides Brown with ample opportunities to compare Muslim interpretative choices with parallel challenges found in the European tradition. This is one of his strategies for achieving his second major objective: elevating the reader’s sympathy for the accomplishments of Sunni scholars, regardless of whether the reader is a Muslim.

Who exactly is misquoting Muhammad? Just about everyone. Brown tackles this question head-on in the sixth chapter, titled “Lying about the Prophet of God.” Starting with the hadith that “[Usury] is of seventy types, the least severe of which is like a man having sex with his mother,” and the hadith “People are asleep, and when they die they awaken,” Brown reveals their common denominator by saying “[neither] of them is technically ‘true.’” He then takes the reader through the complex question of what is truth, drawing on Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, William James, and the Lotus Sutra, all to highlight the ambiguity of a concept most people probably take for granted.

One of the most acrimonious debates within Sunni Islam for the past several decades has been over whether weak or forged hadiths can be used as indicators of Muhammad’s true teachings, or whether Muslims are obligated to cite only authentic (sound) hadiths in their articulation of Islam. The legacy of taqlid, or trust that the jurists taught the true Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, has been severely challenged by non-traditionally trained post-colonial Sunni Muslims called Salafis. The common rallying cry of Salafis is their insistence that legal positions backed by sound hadiths trump any of the traditional jurists’ positions supported by weak or forged hadiths. The traditional Sunni laxity with the use of weak hadiths may be all the more surprising given that one of the most widely attested quotations of Muhammad is “Whoever misrepresents me intentionally, let him prepare for himself a seat in the Hellfire.” One can imagine the surprise Salafi scholars and inquisitive modern Muslims have when they discover that many popular hadiths fail to meet the minimal standards of verification they expect of their scripture.

What about the headline-grabbing militants? Misquoting Muhammad predates the dramatic rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq or the more recent atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Brown briefly discusses the ideology of Osama bin Laden and argues that contemporary Salafi militants quote Muhammad accurately, but in a highly truncated manner, stripped of the moderating influence of the classical tradition. Unsurprisingly, the result is a warrior-Prophet, robbed of his spiritual and humane attributes. Sometimes accurately quoting a fraction of Muhammad’s teachings is more threatening to society than misquoting him on a grand scale.

If a hero emerges from Misquoting Muhammad, it is probably the Azhari scholar-activist Muhammad Ghazali (d. 1996). According to Brown, Ghazali “aimed to restore Muslims’ pride in their religion,” and was more open-minded regarding gender issues than most of his colleagues. He argued that the famous hadith in Bukhari’s Sahih that Muslim scholars long argued prevented women from serving as rulers and judges was restricted to a specific historical context and simply did not apply in an age when Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and Indira Gandhi were successful leaders of their respective countries. Ghazali also challenged the applicability of the Qur’anic verse (Q. 2:282) calling for one male plus two female witnesses for the registration of debts in the place of two male witnesses in an age when many women had commercial experience. And he even suggested that a highly educated woman had a greater claim to lead men in prayer than a modestly educated man. While Brown writes with admiration for Muhammad Ghazali, he makes it clear that his views were exceptional, ephemeral, and inspired conservative scholars to double-down on their arguments for gender inequality.

The primary message I took away from Misquoting Muhammad is that the Sunni scholarly establishment has survived the unprecedented series of 20th-century intellectual storms and challenges with impressive tenacity. Only the Salafi movement has offered a significant resistance and a comprehensive alternative to the four Sunni schools of law, with whom it frequently agrees. Liberal and progressive alternatives, such as the Qur’an-Only Movement, have had highly circumscribed impacts and enjoyed little popularity. Doctrinally, traditional Sunni Islam appears very solid and nearly impenetrable.

And yet there is a significant weakness in this edifice. Throughout his journeys in Misquoting Muhammad, from Egypt to India, Yemen to Malaysia, Jonathan Brown interacts with very few female teachers or interlocutors. The only woman to whom he seems to speak directly is a 105-year-old Yemeni who narrates to him hadiths with relatively short chains of transmission. The only female Muslim thinker he engages with is the American emerita professor, Amina Wadud. The Moroccan academic, Khadija Battar, who wrote a detailed critique of Bukhari’s Sahih using traditional Muslim sources, merely gets a half sentence and an endnote. This absence of highly-educated female scholars capable of exercising ijtihad, or independent legal reasoning, is a shortcoming of post-colonial traditional Islam that remains unexplored in Misquoting Muhammad.

Despite the paucity of female scholars in his book, Jonathan Brown addresses topics of great concern for many contemporary Muslims regarding women, such as child brides, domestic violence, and female-led congregational prayers. Deep in the sixth chapter of Misquoting Muhammad, he proposes a subtle hermeneutic technique that could help mitigate the literal reading of authentic hadiths that “can’t be true” according to many Muslims’ ethical sensitivities. One can hope that some educated Muslims — female and male — will be inspired by this erudite book to interpret traditional Islamic texts creatively, without too much anxiety over misquoting the Prophet Muhammad. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to misquote him.


Scott C. Lucas is the Director of the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Arizona.

LARB Contributor

Scott C. Lucas is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. He has published on hadith, Islamic law, and Qur’anic commentary. His research is accessible at


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