Basically, definitive texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah cannot contradict each other because one truth cannot be at odds with another truth. So any assumed contradiction between such definitive texts is apparent rather than real. Our role then is to dispel the assumed contradiction either by reconciling the texts and thereby accepting them all — but without abusing or twisting them — or by giving preference (tarjih) to some over others. Attempts to reconcile should take priority over preferring one to another because, unlike reconciling, preferring means rejecting one of the two contradicting texts.

This rule is necessary for understanding the Prophetic Sunnah in the best way because the reconciling approach puts each authentic hadith in its proper context and applies it to relevant situations. This, in turn, reveals the consistency among authentic hadiths and rules out any assumption of contradiction.

The reconciling approach is limited to authentic hadiths only. We are not required to attempt to reconcile authentic hadiths with weak ones unless we choose to do so. As for fabricated hadiths and those that have no chain of transmission, there should be no attempt to reconcile them with authentic ones. Rather, the falsehood of those “hadiths” and their contradiction to the Qur’an and the Sunnah should be exposed.

This may explain why Hadith scholars have rejected the hadith reported by Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi on the authority of Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) that prohibits women from seeing men, and have accepted the authentic hadiths reported by `A’ishah and Fatimah bint Qais (may Allah be pleased with both of them) in Sahih Al-Bukhari that allow women to do so.

The text of the hadith of Umm Salamah is as follows:

On the authority of Umm Salamah, she said: I was with the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) and his wife Maimounah (may Allah be pleased with her) was present after the verse ordering Muslim women to wear the hijab was revealed. Thereupon, came the son of Ibn Umm Maktum (`Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) addressed us saying, “Screen yourselves from him.” We asked, “Messenger of Allah, is he not blind? He can neither see us nor recognize us.” Then the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Are both of you blind? Don’t you see him?” (Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi; authenticated by At-Tirmidhi)

Although the above hadith is authenticated by Imam At-Tirmidhi, it is weak because its chain of transmitters includes Nabhan, who is not known to the authoritative scholars of Hadith except Ibn Hibban, who accredited him. Imam Adh-Dhahabi listed him in his book Al-Mughni, which is dedicated to weak narrators.

The above hadith of Umm Salamah contradicts another  to the effect that women are allowed to see men. `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) is reported to have stated, “I have seen the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) covering me with his upper garment while I was looking at the Abyssinians playing in the mosque” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim). This hadith is narrated with a number of versions but their general meaning is the same.  

Al-Qadi `Iyad commented on the above hadith:

The hadith proves that women are allowed to look at the activities of non-mahram men [a mahram is a close male relative whom a woman is not allowed to marry]. What is blameworthy in this regard is that women should look at the attractive body parts of men or look at men desirously.

The other authentic hadith quoted in this regard is the one of Fatimah bint Qais, in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) addressed her after learning that she was irrevocably divorced: “Spend your waiting period (`iddah) in the house of Ibn Umm Maktum, for he is a blind man and you can take off your garments without him seeing you.” He said this after he had previously told Fatimah to spend her waiting period in the house of Umm Shuraik: “That is a woman whom my Companions visit.”

Thus, the weak hadith of Umm Salamah cannot stand against the above authentic hadiths.

About Women Visiting Graves

An example of apparent contradiction between hadiths is seen in the hadiths related to women’s visiting graves. Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) is reported to have stated, “The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has cursed women who visit graves (excessively).” Other hadiths prohibit women from following funerals, which clearly implies prohibiting women from visiting graves as well.

On the other hand, we see other Prophetic hadiths indicating that it is permissible for women to visit graves. For example the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “I had forbidden you from visiting the graves, now visit them.” (Ahmad and Al-Hakim; authenticated by Al-Albani) In another hadith, he (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Visit the graves. Verily, they remind you of death.” (Muslim)

The general permissibility indicated by these two hadiths is applicable to women.

Other hadiths allowing women to visit graves are the following:

`A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) is reported to have asked the Prophet about what to say upon visiting the graves. He replied,

“Say: peace be upon you, O people of the dwellings, believers and Muslims. May Allah show mercy towards the dead and the alive from us, and in sha’ Allah we will join you.” (Musim, An-Nasa’i and Ahmad)

Anas ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) once passed by a woman crying at a grave. He said to her, “Fear Allah and be patient.” She said, “Leave me alone, for you have not had a calamity like mine.” She did not know that she is speaking to the Prophet. Subsequently, she was told that she was talking to the Prophet. She went to him at his place where she found no door-keepers. She said, “I did not know you.” He said, “Real patience is that shown at the first shock.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Thus, what the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) disapproved was the woman’s failure to be patient, not her visit to the grave. It is also reported that Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet (may Allah be pleased with her), used to visit the grave of her uncle Hamzah (may Allah be pleased with him) every Friday supplicating for him and crying there (Al-Hakim, and cited by Ash-Shawkani in his Nail Al-Awtar).

Although the above hadiths allowing women to visit graves are more authentic and larger in number than the hadiths prohibiting the same, reconciling the two types of hadiths is possible. Imam Al-Qurtubi stated the following:

The “curse” referred to in the hadith [narrated by Abu Hurairah] is limited to those women who visit graves excessively. This is clearly indicated by the use of the Arabic word zawarrat (a hyperbole form that denotes excessive visiting) in the hadith. The reason for this curse may be that such excessive and frequent visits can lead a woman to abandon her marital duties, or cause her to dress improperly, or make her wail at the grave, etc. It can be said that if all the above violations are avoided, then women are permitted to visit graves, as remembering death is something both men and women need.

Commenting on Al-Qurtubi’s opinion, Imam Ash-Shawkani stated that this is the approach to be followed concerning the apparently contradictory hadiths narrated on the question at hand.

If it is impossible to reconcile hadiths with apparent contradiction, then preferring one hadith over others with the tools mentioned by the authoritative scholars of Hadith is to be resorted to. Imam As-Suyuti mentioned more than one hundred tools of tarjih in his book Tadreeb Ar-Rawi `Ala Taqreeb An-Nawawi.

Apparent contradiction (ta`arud) and methods of preference (tarjih) are among the important issues dealt with in the sciences of principles of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), the sciences of Hadith, and the sciences of the Qur’an as well.

Abrogation in Hadith

One issue related to this subject is abrogation (naskh), which falls within the realm of the sciences of the Qur’an and the sciences of Hadith alike. Some Qur’an interpreters (mufassirun) go so far as to say that one single verse called the Verse of the Sword has abrogated 100 verses of the Qur’an, though these pro-abrogation interpreters do not agree on what the exact Verse of the Sword is.

In Hadith, some scholars resort to abrogation if they are unable to reconcile two apparently contradicting hadiths so long as they know which hadith is narrated first and which one is narrated after.

The verses claimed to be abrogated in the Qur’an are larger in number than the hadiths claimed to be abrogated although it should have been the other way round because, while the Qur’an tends to handle general subjects and to lay down eternal principles, the Sunnah is more inclined to tackle detailed issues and incidents involving daily occurrences that the Prophet had to tackle in his capacity as the head of the Muslim state.

Moreover, close examination of hadiths claimed to be abrogated reveals that many of them are not really so. For example, some hadiths may target Muslims in their normal life affairs when they are in no need for dispensations (rukhsa) whereas other hadiths treat conditions that require dispensations. So each hadith needs to be applied in the context and condition relevant to it.

Similarly, some hadiths tackle a certain situation that differs from another situation dealt with by other hadiths. Such diversity of situations does not necessitate abrogation. For example, a hadith is reported to the effect that in one year the Prophet prohibited the Muslims to keep the meat of the sacrificial animal more than three days. In the next year the Prophet allowed Muslims to keep the sacrificial animals’ meat as long as they liked. This later ruling, indeed, does not abrogate the former because each of the two rulings was issued in a different situation. [Editor’s note: In the first situation a group of poor Bedouins came to Madinah seeking food, so the Prophet ordered the Muslims not to keep the meat more than three days in order that they help the poor Bedouins. In the next year the situation was different; there was no need for quick disposal of meat and therefore Muslims were allowed to keep it.]

It is worth mentioning here what Al-Hafiz Al-Baihaqi cited from Ash-Shafi`i, using his own chain of transmission in his book Ma`rifat As-Sunan Wal Aathar:

If two hadiths are apparently contradicting, then we should apply them both if they can be reconciled. However, if the attempt to bring them together is impossible, then the situation can be one of the following:

It maybe that one of the two hadiths is abrogating and the other one is abrogated. In this case, we should apply the abrogating hadith and leave the abrogated one aside.

It maybe that the two hadiths are apparently contradicting each other while there is no evidence stating that one of them abrogates the other. In this case, we treat both hadiths as completely equal in their status as evidence unless one of them is more authentic, closer to the spirit of the Qur’an or the Sunnah, in more agreement with the rules known to the scholars or to the sound analogical deduction, or closer to the opinion of the majority of the Prophet’s Companions. The hadith with the above characteristics definitely precedes the other hadith.

In brief, only authentic hadiths are to be accepted, in the same way only reliable witnesses are accepted.  

By  Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi