Notes: Albani’s Revolutionary Approach to Hadith

My notes on this short article about Albani’s approach to hadith:

  1. The Wahhabi movement originally was Wahhabi in aqida but Hanbali in fiqh.
  2. Al-Albani accused the Saudi Salafi establishment, which was nepotistic and insular, of being Salafi in aqida but not Salafi in fiqh. He invented a “Salafi” fiqh, focused purely on hadith studies and ditching Hanbali fiqh to the wayside.
  3. For him, being a proper Salafi in fiqh means making hadith central to the juridicial process, since hadith can provide answers to matters not found in the Qur’an without relying on a madhhab. The mother of all sciences of Islam thus becomes the science of hadith, which aims at re-evaluating the authenticity of known ahadith. Though according to his methods, ijtihad (independent reasoning) must be excluded from the process. The critique of the matn (content of the hadith) should be only grammatical or linguistic. Only the sanad (chain of transmission) may be questioned. So the central focus of the science of hadith becomes ‘ilm ar-rijal (the science of narrators) also known as ‘ilm al-jarh wal ta’dil (the science of critique and evaluation) which evaluates the reliability of narrators. Albani also insists that the scope of the re-evaluation must encompass all existing ahadith, even those of Bukhari and Muslim, some of which he declared weak.
  4. He issues fatawa that went against the Wahhabi establishment and the wider Islamic consensus. He went against ijma’ several times.
  5. Bin Baz invited him in 1961 to teach at the Islamic University of Medina. This prompted embarassed reactions from the Wahhabi establishment, who disagreed with him but could hardly attack him because of his impeccable Wahhabi credentials in terms of aqida. His book “The Veil of the Muslim Woman,” where he argued that Muslim women should not cover their faces, finally gave them justification to evict him from Saudi Arabia in 1963.
  6. Albani’s methods challenged the Wahhabi’s legitimacy among Saudis. The Wahhabi tradition had been monopolized by a small religious aristocracy from Najd, originally centered around Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and his descendents (known as the Aal al-Shaykh) before opening up to a few other families. In the Saudi system, members of this aristocracy were the sole transmitters of the Wahhabi tradition, and independent scholars were excluded because they had not received “proper ilm” from “qualified” ulema. Traditional Wahhabi ‘ilm depended on transmission of ijazas given by respected Wahhabi scholars.
  7. Albani had very few of these ijazas, and he challenged this system with his critical hadith approach. In his method, where every hadith is suspect, ijazas meant little since an inauthentic hadith could be transmitted by a respected scholar. Instead, memorizing large numbers of ahadith and narrators is a good scholar of hadith. Thus, the science of hadith can be measured according to objective criteria unrelated to family, tribe, or regional descent (IE Najd), allowing for a new level of meritocracy.
  8. Al-Albani claimed to be more faithful to the spirit of Wahhabism than even Muhammad ibn Abdil Wahhab himself made him very popular among Salafi youth.
  9. Many marginalized people joined Albani’s movement, perhaps as a reaction to the insular-ness of the Saudi establishment.
  10. They formed many spinoffs, as well. Juhayman’s 1979 siege of Mecca comprised of Albani’s pupils, mostly bedouin folks and non-Saudi residents. The Madkhali movement was partly comprised of some of his pupils, whose calls for disengaging from politics caught the eye of the Saudi state who used them to counter the Al–Sahwa Al-Islamiyya who combined Salafism on religious issues and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas in politics.
  11. Interestingly enough, his ideas encouraged some disciples to call, along Albani’s earlier line, for an even “purer” approach to the critique of hadith. Yet another breakoff group emerged under the Indian sheikh, Hamza al-Milibari. They would promote the centralization of hadith, but criticize Albani himself for relying on the “later” traditionists’ methods of hadith criticism, and pride themselves on relying on the “early” tradtionists’ methods, namely before ad-Daraqutni (d 995 CE). They named their approach manhaj al-mutaqaddimin (the methodology of the early ones). These scholars were also peripheral folks, such as Sulayman al-‘Alwan and ‘Abdallah al-Sa‘d.

Albani’s methodology gave a feeling of power to the ostracized Salafis, providing a banner of unity for them where the Saudis rejected them in a sort of “glass ceiling” of scholarship. He gave independent Salafi entrepreneurs a weapon to fight their way into previously very closed circles. It made peripheral scholars feel superior by thinking they are “on the manhaj” and declaring the popular sheikhs to be off it. The nafs’ desire for fame and popularity may tie in here, as well, opening the door for young, unpopular scholars to carve out a following by claiming to be the only torchbearers of the “true” methodology of Islam.

Further Reading:


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