Hamza Yusuf & The Sultan: A Case Study in the Misuse of Prophetic Traditions

[By Abdullah Feras]

In the past few days, footage from Hamza Yusuf in a Sufi retreat in 2016 was widely circulated on social media, resulting in significant backlash and outrage from the Muslim community. In the clip, Hamza could be seen criticizing the Syrian revolution, claiming that the “humiliation” the Syrian people were experiencing was directly consequential to their humiliation of the ruler, Bashar Al-Assad. To justify such a deplorably preposterous political outlook, Hamza cites an alleged Prophetic tradition where he quotes the Prophet saying: “If you humiliate a ruler, God will humiliate you.” He goes on to say: “That’s a hadith! In Tirmiḏī.”

Though Hamza has recently issued an apology regarding his tone and the pain he has caused others over his comments, he has not addressed his actual position expressed in the video, which is arguably much more problematic than his mere tone or attitude. Similarly, Hamza’s appeal to the aforementioned hadith is left unchallenged as many prepare to forgive him after his latest apology, which was nothing short of a mere emotional appeal. A careful analysis of the said Prophetic tradition, however, is sufficient to demonstrate Hamza’s problematic framework when dealing with Prophetic traditions in several regards. It is a classical example of the abuse and misuse of Prophetic authority amidst various discussions pertaining to Islam and the Muslim community. The defectiveness of Hamza’s appeal to the hadith revolves around two main points:

  1. The authenticity of the said hadith.
  2. The misquotation of the said hadith.

The Tradition’s Authenticity

Before discussing the ḥadīth’s wording and implications, it is important that we first discern it’s authenticity. The tradition in question today is a ḥadīth ascribed to the companion of the Prophet, Abū Bakrah al-Thaqafī. I have outlined the ḥadīth’s chains of transmission in figure 1 below:

Figure 1. A schematic outlining the transmission of this ḥadīth from Abū Bakrah

As seen in figure 1, the ḥadīth’s chains of transmission ultimately converge to a single strand of transmitters: Ḥumayd b. Mihrān → Sa’d b. Aws → Ziyād b. Kusayb → Abū Bakrah → The Prophet. Prior to the evaluation of each individual transmitter in the isnād, several preliminary observations regarding the trasnmission of this report must be made:

1. The ḥadīth’s transmission remained exclusively singular (gharīb) up till the late second century, where it eventually became more widely circulated by the students of Ḥumayd b. Mihrān.

Though this point is not necessarily direct evidence for the ḥadīth’s weakness, it is indeed a very peculiar phenomenon, considering that the isnāds of authentic traditions tended to branch out much earlier than that (usually between the late first century and early second century.) The relatively late exclusive transmission (gharābah) in this isnad is indeed the first indicator of a potential problem in the transmission of this ḥadīth. Thus, al-Bazzār (d. 292), after transmitting the report, commented saying: “Wording similar to that of this ḥadīth has been transmitted from the Prophet ~ through several chains, and we do not know of anyone who transmitted this ḥadīth with this wording from the Prophet except Abū Bakrah, Ḥumayd b. Mihrān, Sa’d b. Aws, and Ziyād b. Kusayb; and they are all Baṣrans.” (al-Bazzār 9:121)

Al-Tirmiḏī (d. 279) similarly made note of the gharābah in the ḥadīth, where he described it in his Jāmi’ saying: “This ḥadīth is ḥasan gharīb.” (al-Tirmiḏī 4:72)

2.The ḥadīth was excluded from all early ḥadīth collections that aimed to compile authentic reports, such as the Ṣaḥīḥs of al-Bukhārī and Muslim and later more lenient collections such as the Ṣaḥīḥs of Ibn Khuzaymah and Ibn Hibbān, and the Muntaqā of Ibn al-Jārūd etc.

Again, this point alone is not necessarily sufficient to dismiss the authenticity of this ḥadīth. However, it, along with the previous point, is a noteworthy phenomenon that may be cumulatively indicative of the defectiveness in the transmission of this report. We know that al-Bukhārī, for example, was well aware of this ḥadīth, since he referenced it in his seminal biographical work, al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr (Al-Bukhārī 3:366).

After these preliminary observations, we can proceed to evaluate the transmitters of this ḥadīth. As seen in figure 1, there is a bottleneck at several points in the isnād: (1) Ḥumayd b. Mihrān, (2) Sa’d b. Aws, and Ziyād b. Kusayb. These multiple pivots in the isnād contextualize the aforementioned peculiarities in the transmission of this ḥadith: Sa’d b. Aws was a criticized transmitter and Ziyād b. Kusayb was an obscure unknown transmitter.

Sa’d b. Aws al-Baṣrī’s reliability (not to be confused with the Kūfan Sa’d b. Aws):

  • Yaḥya b. Ma’īn said: “Sa’d b. Aws is a weak Basran.”
  • Al-Sājī said: “He is truthful.”
  • Ibn Ḥibbān mentioned him in his work, al-Thiqāt. However, this is not necessarily tantamount to an endorsement on his part as well-known. What further attests to this is that Ibn Ḥibbān had fully excluded Sa’d b. Aws from his Ṣaḥīḥ.

Source: Tahḏīb al-Tahḏīb 3/467

There is no conflict between Ibn Ma’īn and al-Sājī’s statement, for a truthful transmitter may simply be of bad retention, hence his description as a weak transmitter by Ibn Ma’īn.

Ziyād b. Kusayb’s reliability:

Ziyād was an obscure transmitter who’s reliability was not endorsed by a single early ḥadīth critic. Ibn Ḥibbān mentioned him in Kitāb al-Thiqāt, and that, for reasons similar to the aforementioned ones, is not tantamount to an endorsement.

Thus, we have a report exclusively transmitted by a criticized transmitter, from an unknown transmitter, from Abū Bakrah, and it is clearly inauthentic. What is further indicative of the weakness of this report is another redaction of this ḥadīth found in Al-Sunnah by Ibn Abī ‘Aṣim with the following isnād:

Muḥammad b. ‘Alī b. Maymūn informed us:  Mūsā b. Dāwūd informed us: Ibn Lahī’ah informed us, from Abū Marḥūm, from a man from Banī ‘Adiyy, from ‘Abdurraḥmān b. Abī Bakrah, from Abū Bakrah: “Whoever honors the Sulṭān of Allah in the Dunyā, then Allah shall honor him in the ‘Akhirah.” (Ibn Abī ‘Aṣim 2:492)

This other redaction of the ḥadīth presents the report as a statement of Abū Bakrah himself, not the Prophet. This redaction, however, is severely weak, as its isnād contains Ibn Lahī’ah, a disparaged transmitter, and two anonymous men. There is no way to ascertain the independence of the two redactions of this ḥadīth. Similarly, there is no way to dismiss the possibility that Sa’d b. Aws or Ziyād b. Kusayb may have actually acquired the ḥadīth from one of these anonymous transmitters and then erroneously (or intentionally) redacted it with a different chain of transmission. Either way, the ḥadīth is evidently inauthentic: the initial redaction of this report is transmitted with a weak isnad, and the second redaction does not even present it as a Prophetic tradition.

Al-Bazzār, as quoted earlier, noted that there are other isnāds to this tradition with different wordings. A question one may ask is: can these other reports strengthen the aforementioned ḥadīth of Abū Bakrah? The answer to that question lies in the analysis of those reports. There are two other companions from the Prophet from whom similar traditions are transmitted: (1) Ibn ‘Abbās and (2) Ḥuḏayfah.

Let us evaluate the transmission of Ibn ‘Abbās’ report, which is outlined in figure 2 below:

Figure 2. A schematic outlining the transmission of this ḥadīth from Ibn ‘Abbās

Before evaluating the the individual transmitters in this chain of transmission, it is important to note that this report, like the report of Abū Bakrah, was excluded from every single ḥadīth collection that sought to compile authentic traditions. Moreover, all chains of transmission converge to two main transmitters whom were both abandoned in ḥadīth and even accused of forgery, (1) Ḥusain b. Qays and (2) Ḥamzah al-Naṣībī.

Ḥusain b. Qays’ Reliability:

  • Aḥmed b. Ḥanbal said: “His transmission is worthless, and I transmit nothing from him.” He also said: “He is abandoned and weak in ḥadīth.”
  • Yaḥya b. Ma’īn weakened him.
  • Al-Bukhārī said: “He is severely disapproved in ḥadith, and his transmission should not be transcribed.” Al-Jawzajānī made a similar statement.
  • Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī said: “He is weak and abandoned in ḥadith.” He was then asked: “Did he used to lie?” Abū Ḥātim replied saying: “I ask Allah for safety.”
  • Al-Nasā’ī said: “He is abandoned in ḥadīth.” He also said: “He is not reliable.”
  • Ibn Ḥibbān said: “He used to distort reports and ascribe the transmission of weak transmitters to reliable transmitters.”

Many others criticized him as well.

Source: Tahḏīb al-Tahḏīb 2:365

Ḥamzah al-Naṣībī’s Reliability:

  • Ibn Ma’īn said: “He is not worth a cent.” He also said: “His transmission is worthless.”
  • Al-Bukhārī and Abū Ḥātim said: “He is disapproved in ḥadīth.”
  • Abū Dāwūd said: “He is worthless.”
  • Al-Nasā’ī and al-Dāraquṭnī said: “He is abandoned in ḥadīth.”
  • Ibn ‘Adiyy said: “He fabricates ḥadīth.” He also said: “Most of what he transmits are disapproved fabrications, and he is implicated in their transmission.”
  • Al-Ḥākim said: “He transmits fabricated reports.”

Many others criticized him as well.

Source: Tahḏīb al-Tahḏīb 3:29

Thus, it is is evident that this report simply has no basis from Ibn ‘Abbās and that it was most likely acquired from other sources and then falsely ascribed to him by the disparaged transmitters.

Ḥuḏayfah’s report, on the other hand, is perhaps the most insightful of them all, as it may possibly lead us to the actual origin of this entire sentiment. I have outlined the transmission from Ḥuḏayfah in figure 3 below:

Figure 3. A schematic outlining the transmission of this report from Ḥuḏayfah as a Prophetic Tradition

Before evaluating the authenticity of this report, one must ask: can it even strengthen Abū Bakrah’s earlier report cited by Hamza Yusuf? It simply cannot. The ḥadith’s wording is fundamentally different to that of Abū Bakrah. In this report, Ḥuḏayfah is quoted by Ibn Shabbah and al-Maḥāmilī saying, in response to a group of individuals from the tribe of Banī ‘Abs who aspired to revolt against  ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān, “The Messenger of Allah said: The first band to march towards the Sultan [of Allah] to humiliate him shall be humiliated by Allah on the Day of Judgement.”

It is clear that this report is specifically referring to the murderers of ‘Uthmān, and it specifically refers to the first band to humiliate the Sultan of Allah. Moreover, there are various reasons to doubt the authenticity of this report as a Prophetic tradition, which I see no need to delve into. There is conflicting transmission from Ḥafṣ b. Ghiyāth that has implications on the connectivity of the isnād (shown in red and blue in figure 3). Similarly, al-Bazzār’s redaction converges to Kathīr b. Abī Kathīr, a contested transmitter. Another major piece of evidence that hints to the inauthenticity of this report as a Prophetic tradition is that it is authentically redacted in several sources as a statement of Ḥuḏayfah himself, not the Prophet. The chains of transmission for these other reports can be seen outlined in Figure 4 below:

Figure 4. A schematic outlining the transmission of this report as a statement of Ḥuḏayfah himself

The transmission of this redaction of the report is much more refined than the aforementioned redactions: Ibn Abī Shaybah’s isnād is authentic, and the other redaction from Abū Isḥāq is decent and is further corroborated by Ibn Abī Shaybah’s report. Thus, what most likely happened is that this tradition, as authentically reported in multiple sources, originally was a statement of Ḥuḏayfah himself regarding the first rebels against ‘Uthmān. Eventually, that statement of his was mistaken for a Prophetic tradition by some later transmitters. This phenomenon was a very common error that used to occur during the transmission of ḥadīth, and past ḥadīth critics often weakened reports for this reason.

Thus, it can be seen that the report cited by Hamza Yusuf in the video is evidently weak. To formulate political positions on the basis of such inauthentic Prophetic traditions is definitely problematic, let alone to implicate millions of Muslims in a crime they never committed. It is not acceptable for such reports to be ascribed to the Prophet. Similarly, it is not acceptable for them to be disseminated to the Muslim public without any clarification on their authenticity.

The Misquotation of the Hadith

Asides from the fact that Hamza’s appeal primarily stems from an unreliable Prophetic tradition, what is further concerning is that Hamza seems to have drastically misquoted that report and misrepresented its contents. He translates the tradition, which he alleges is in Jāmi’ al-Tirmiḏī, saying:

“If you humiliate a ruler, God will humiliate you.”

“That’s a hadith! In Tirmiḏī.”

If we were to refer to al-Tirmiḏī’s Jāmi’, we would find that Hamza’s wording is slightly off and out of context. Al-Tirmiḏī redacted the report in the following manner:

“عن زِيَادِ بْنِ كُسَيْبٍ الْعَدَوِيِّ، قَالَ: كُنْتُ مَعَ أَبِي بَكْرَةَ تَحْتَ مِنْبَرِ ابْنِ عَامِرٍ، وَهُوَ يَخْطُبُ وَعَلَيْهِ ثِيَابٌ رِقَاقٌ، فَقَالَ أَبُو بِلَالٍ: انْظُرُوا إِلَى أَمِيرِنَا يَلْبَسُ ثِيَابَ الْفُسَّاقِ، فَقَالَ أَبُو بَكْرَةَ: اسْكُتْ، سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ  يَقُولُ: ” مَنْ أَهَانَ سُلْطَانَ اللَّهِ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَهَانَهُ اللَّهُ

Ziyād b. Kusayb said: I was with Abū Bakrah beneath the pulpit of Ibn ‘Amir as he was giving a sermon wearing thin clothes. Abū Bilāl (A Kharijite) thus interjected: “Look at our ruler wearing the clothes of the fussāq!” Abū Bakrah thus replied: “Be silent, for I have heard the Messenger of Allah say: Whoever humiliates the Sultan of Allah in the land, then Allah shall humiliate him.” (Al-Tirmiḏī 4:72)

The word used by Abū Bakrah in this hadith is: “Sultan of Allah”, which evidently is of slightly different implications than “ruler.” The context of this report similarly alludes to this reality: a just Muslim governor appointed by ‘Uthmān was interrupted by a Kharijite amidst a sermon for no valid reason. Can the report be cited to undermine the Syrian people’s demand for their God-given rights as the reason why they are being “humiliated” today?

A careful assessment of this report in other sources demonstrates that it was never intended to mean what Hamza Yusuf derived from it. Al-Tirmiḏī’s redaction of this ḥadīth is abridged and concise. The complete redaction of this report, however, can be found in several sources, such as the Musnad of Aḥmed. In his Musnad, Aḥmed b. Ḥanbal redacts the report as follows:

 

” مَنْ أَكْرَمَ سُلْطَانَ اللَّهِ فِي الدُّنْيَا، أَكْرَمَهُ اللَّهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ، وَمَنْ أَهَانَ سُلْطَانَ اللَّهِ فِي الدُّنْيَا، أَهَانَهُ اللَّهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ “

“Whoever honors the Sultan of Allah in the Dunyā, then Allah shall honor him on the Day of Judgement; and whoever humiliates the Sultan of Allah in the Dunyā, then Allah shall humiliate him on the Day of Judgement.” (Ibn Hanbal 34:79)

As evident, this redaction is of drastically different implications:

  1. It asserts that Allah’s consequent humiliation of the individual who humiliates His Sultan will take place on the Day of Judgement. Thus, the ḥadīth simply cannot be cited to explain the tribulations faced by the Syrian people today for merely demanding their rights.
  2. The report mentions the honoring of the Sultan, and it entices Muslims to do so. It is clear that the Prophet was not enticing Muslims to honor and revere oppressive criminal tyrants who openly defied Allah, such as Bashar Al-Assad etc. The context of the ḥadīth simply is fundamentally different than the one promoted by Hamza Yusuf when appealing to this tradition.

In fact, several early authorities presented a drastically different interpretation of the ḥadīth than the one promoted by Hamza. Several scholars have held that it was referring to just and righteous rulers who enforced Allah’s commands and prohibitions.

Al-Suyūṭī, in his commentary on the Jāmi’ al-Tirmiḏī, said:

In his book, نزهة الأخيار في شرح محاسن الأخبار, Ibn al-Khāzin said: “What is meant in the hadith is that Allah appointed the Sultan to fulfill his commandments. Thus, if a person honors him, then he has honored the One who has appointed him, and Allah shall honor him; and vice-versa. Humiliating him (the Sultan) is in disobeying his commands to do acts of righteousness.” (al-Suyūṭī 2:535)

ِAl-San’ānī explains the hadith saying:

What is meant by the Sultan is the evidence and proof, and the Sultan of Allah in the land is the Quran. Thus, whoever humiliates it and refrains from acting upon it and fulfilling its obligations, then Allah shall humiliate him with all types of humiliation.

It is also possible that it was referring to the Caliph, since the muḥaddithīn referenced the report in this context. Thus, it would mean that the Sultan here is the Sultan of Truth whose obedience is obligatory.  Humiliating him is to refrain from carrying out was is necessary, such as abiding by his commands and avoiding his defiance; and to avoid revolting against him and break the unity of the Muslims; that is what the story behind the ḥadīth hints to… (ِAl-San’ānī 3:736)

There are various other interpretations of the ḥadīth, but these examples shall suffice to demonstrate that Hamza Yusuf’s understanding of the ḥadīth simply is not a universal understanding among Muslim scholarship. Not only is his quotation of the ḥadīth inaccurate, but his interpretation of it is, at best, contestable.

Conclusion

Though there is a lot to be said about Hamza’s problematic political views and affiliations, this scenario provides us with a live example of how Prophetic authority may be abused and misused to justify various ideas and ideological predispositions. This abuse of Prophetic authority by Hamza manifests in several main issues:

  1. His appeal to an inauthentic Prophetic tradition to justify his political outlook.
  2. His decontextualization of that inauthentic Prophetic tradition.
  3. His provision of contestable commentary on that inauthentic and decontextualized ḥadīth which, contrary to what is implied, is not universally accepted among Muslim scholarship.

It is unfortunate that a man who is seen as a scholar of the Islamic faith by many would fall prey to such problematic behaviors and practices. Nevertheless, so as long as Hamza opts to remain silent about the actual content of his talk, it is incumbent upon us to respond to his claims, clarify the Truth, and advise him and the rest of the Muslim community. It is about time that we, as a community, stand up against the misuse of Prophetic authority to justify defective ideologies and practices that have plagued the Ummah for many years, and it is about time that Hamza is held accountable for his morally defunct views and positions and for his meddling with the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ.

Works Cited

Al-Bazzār, Aḥmed b. ‘Amr. Musnad al-Bazzār. 1st ed., Maktabat Al-Ulum Wal-Hikam, 2009.

Al-Bukhārī, Muḥammad b. Ismā’īl. Al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr, Da’irat Al-Ma’arif Al-‘Uthmaniyyah.

Al-Tirmiḏī, Muḥammad b. ‘Isā. Al-Jāmi’ Al-Kabīr. Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami, 1998.

Al-San’ānī, Muḥammad b. Ismā’īl. Al-Taḥbīr li-Iḍāḥ Ma’ānī al-Tafsīr, 1st ed., Maktabat Al-Rushd, 2012.

Al-Suyūṭī, ‘Abdurraḥmān. Qūt al-Mughtaḏī ‘alā Jāmi’ al-Tirmiḏī, Umm Al-Qura University, 1424.

Ibn Abī ‘Aṣim, Abū Bakr. Al-Sunnah. 1st ed., Al-Maktab Al-Islami, 1400.

Ibn Ḥajar, Aḥmed. Tahḏīb al-Tahḏīb, 1st ed., Matba’at Da’irat Al-Ma’arif Al-Nizamiyyah, 1326.

Ibn Ḥanbal, Ahmed. Musnad al-Imām Aḥmed. 1st ed., Mu’assasat Al-Risalah, 2001.

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