Followers of the Zaydi / Zaidi math-hab are at a distinct advantage when it comes to the study of ahadith (prophetic narrations) and the study of the authenticity of ahadith. This is because, unlike the Sunnis, the Zaidis do not require taqleed (blind acceptance) of ahadith, and unlike 12 imamers, Zaidis do not believe in the infallibility of some of the ahadith narrators.
With these two restrictions lifted from them, Zaidi scholars are in a position to review ahadith critically and logically, taking into account the historical / political context of the hadith’s appearance, its conformity with Qur’anic principals, and applying reason/logic in an effort to ascertain the hadith’s authenticity.
Why do Sunnis and 12 Imamers uncritically accept their ahadith collections?
The sunnis have idolized two of their ahadith collectors, namely Bukhari and Muslim, to such an extent that they do not acknowledge that either of them could have made a mistake when selecting the ahadith that went into their collections. They have labeled their collections as “Sahih al Bukhari” and “Sahih Muslim”, and if anyone challenges any ahadith from these two collections, they are considered non-sunnis. This is despite the fact that these two scholars, who are not from ahlul bait or even from Qr’aish, never claimed infallibility.
The 12 Imamers have idolized their 12 Imams to such an extent that any narrations supposedly originating from them go unchallenged as well. They have an advantage over the sunnis in that their narrations come from ahlul bait, however, their insistence that their Imams are infallible makes serious scientific study, with a critical approach, very difficult.
Contrast this with the Zaidi position as articulated by Imam Rassi Society:
“A hallmark feature of the Zaydi school is that all of our hadith literature are subject to scrutiny; even ahadiths from our imams! We don't have any book called "Saheeh this" or "Saheeh that". The Qur'an and logic are used to judge the ahadith.”
As discussed in an earlier post, the Zaidis and 12 Imamers agree that “Allah ta`ala does not abrogate His speech by (anything) other than His speech” i.e. the Qur’an can not be abrogated by the Sunna (the ahadith). However, the sunnis, also known in history as “ahlul hadeeth” have a tendency to give ahadith precedence over the Qur’an where there is a contradiction.
As well as using the Qur’an and logic to judge the validity of a hadith, another way of evaluating ahadith, which was refined by the mu’tazili scholars, is to identify and promote those ahadith which are “mutawatir’, i.e. found in the books of all Islamic math-habs including sunni, Zaidi and 12 imamer, in other words:
“those (ahadith) that have come down to later generations through a large number of chains of narration, involving diverse transmitters such that it is virtually impossible that all these people, living in different localities and espousing (at times radically) different views, would come together, fabricate the exact same lie and attribute it to the Prophet of Islam or any other authority. A large number of narrators is not a sufficient criterion for authenticating a report because people belonging to some sect or party may have an interest in fabricating reports that promote their agendas. The power of this mode of transmission, tawatur, rests on both the number and diversity of narrators at each stage of transmission.” (quoted from Wikipedia summary of Mu’tazili doctrine).
This is a very scientific and logical way to identify the accurate ahadith, and it surprises me that nobody has yet published a book of these “mutawatir ahadith” for hadith skeptics like myself to reflect upon.
We have seen that Zaidism and Mu’tazilism are intricately interwoven, therefore I think it is fair to say that Zaidi scholars, like Mu’tazili ones, would have given preference to ahadith which are mutawatir, when quoting from narrators other than Imam Zaid bin Ali. (further research on this point is on its way).
Zaidi scholars also have a tendency to re-interpret ahadith from other schools so that they conform with narrations on the same topic from the Imam Zaid.
Imam Rassi Society has provided an example of this tendency in these words:
“Another thing about our imams is that they made themselves familiar with the narrations of other schools, taking all of the narrations on a topic and seeing if one can interpret the others to conform (with the Zaidi view). For example, in the issue regarding whether touching one's private parts violates ritual purity, our (Zaidi) imams take the position that it doesn’t. As for those (non- Zaidi) narrations that seemingly contradict that view, they interpret those reports that say: ((Whoever touches one's private parts should make ablution)) to mean: "Whoever touches one's private parts should wash their hands". This is because the literal meaning of wudu is to wash one's limbs.”
For all of these reasons, the Zaidi math-hab is clearly the superior math-hab of the three, when it comes to the scientific and logical study of the ahadith. Having said that, Zaidis must be on their guard not to uncritically accept ahadith from their own school, in the event that any of them seem not to conform to the guiding principles of hadith validity mentioned above (i.e. being in accordance with the Qur’an, being logical, and, wherever possible, being mutawatir.)
An example of a possible inconsistency within Zaidism: (?) Debate welcome…
I personally find it surprising that all three schools (Zaidi, sunni and 12 imamer) have accepted the ahadith prescribing the punishment of stoning for married adulterers, which contradicts with the Qur’anic ayat prescribing flogging (i.e. a much more lenient penalty). Here we have an example of a hadith which is mutawatir (agreed upon by all schools of thought) yet in contradiction with the Qur’an. I personally would go with the Qur’an on this one; even though I identify myself as a Zaidi, and it is a mutawatir hadith. On this particular issue I am taking the position of the “Ahlul Qu’ran”, (a group of scholars who have rejected al ahadith because their respect for the Qur’an), because I am not yet convinced by the following justifications for the “unQur’anic” hadith, given by the three math-habs:
A Zaidi justification (from AwsMekka):
“In the written history about leaders (imams)in Yemen (and in Gilan and Dailman) I didn’t read that any did stoning ...but there are ahadith that imam Ali(as) lashed the married adulterer while saying “I lash according to Quraan” and then stoned him saying “I stone according to the sunna”. Imam Hadi (founder of Zaidism in Yemen) only did stoning when the adulterer confessed and chose to be stoned, i.e. to restore their honour”
A 12 Imamer justification (from MacIsaac):
“The usual explanation is that it is abrogated in recitation while not abrogated in ruling. Regardless, yes we do have hadiths indicating that the punishment for the muhsan (married, and whose spouse is sexually available to them) adulterer is to be stoned. However, our fiqh is compatible with what the Quran says in that the adulterer is also lashed a 100 times, like the ayat says. The stoning is an additional punishment on top of that.”
A Sunni justification (a hadith from Sahih al Bukhari, kitab ul hudood)
“The Prophet S.A.W said; “For unmarried persons, one hundred lashes and one year’s exile, for married adulterers, 100 lashes and stoning.”
With all the freedom to evaluate and re-consider its hadith literature, the Zaidi math-hab is the only math-hab that has the potential to develop and flourish into the future, weeding out any inconsistencies; with objective research and open minded scholarship, the true ahadith can be uncovered from the false. Zaidi scholars are in the perfect position to carry out this task. Sunni and 12 Imamer scholars are not. I believe the Zaidi math-hab will be the only math-hab left standing when truly objective and scientific research into all of the ahadith has been thoroughly completed.