Jonathan Brown on ‘anachronisms’ in hadith

Guest post! In a previous article promoting methodological naturalism, I cited a lecture by Dr. Jonathan Brown as an example of where Islamic interpretations may conflict with Western secular interpretations. Here, with permission, is Dr. Brown’s response.


Someone sent this site to me. I’m flattered to have been discussed. One possibility for reconciling the Western naturalist view and a theistic one would be that most of the earliest hadiths (dated by source/author) that mention what would later be sects like the Qadariyya, Murji’a etc, don’t refer to the proper names. Rather, they talk about “those who believe in qadar,” etc. This is also the same for early texts attributed to people like Abu Hanifa that deal with these beliefs as well. As far as I know, it’s the enemies of these groups, not the groups themselves, that start using proper names to designate these schools of thought.

Let’s assume that the Prophet said that “Those people who believe in qadar are the Majūs of my umma”, and then later transmissions of this report, which post-date the appearance of the proper name Qadariyya, Murji’a etc, paraphrase the Prophet with these new terms (such paraphrasing was not unusual and openly recognized). In this case there would be no anachronism. In order to say that it’s impossible for the Prophet to have made the statement I suggested, one would have to argue that he was somehow mentally unable to grasp that the issue of qadar/free will was something that religious people debated.

This would make him not only totally unaware of his religious context (which would militate against the whole Muhammad was a product of late antiquity argument) or dumber than an American high schooler.

Jonathan Brown

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.


  1. Is there any way to tell what was open to paraphrasing and what was not?

    Isn’t the problem that Muhammad couldn’t have said things that are actually recorded, not that it’s “impossible” for him to have said vaguer things that we suggest?

  2. There was no concrete rule to distinguish paraphrasing from direct quotation, although paraphrasing was suggested in situations of 1) diversity of wording in various transmissions of the same general report, 2) where the exact wording of the report seemed to clash with other authoritative sources (reason included).

  3. Thank you for replying, Professor Brown.

    What is the reason that paraphrasing of the sort done centuries ago is no longer acceptable today?

    I don’t understand how your response “reconcil[es] the Western naturalist view and a theistic one.” It seems that you are just giving in entirely to the naturalist view, by accepting that the hadith as recorded is impossible and suggesting that maybe Muhammad could have said something related, but we can’t say for sure (unless you have some reason to think your assumptions about what was really said must be right) and in any case, it would have been completely non-miraculous. Where do you make room for Muhammad possessing knowledge of the unseen, as you did in quote posted in the original article?

    • Hi,

      Sorry I should have been clearer. My response only reconciles the two views for that one sort of Hadith. Ultimately, the two views (theistic vs. naturalistic?) are irreconcilable. Both rest on mutually exclusive metaphysical assumptions that cannot be proven to those who do not hold those assumptions.

  4. As far as I’m aware (and from what I see being articulated in recent scholarship), the Koran and Early Islam were essentially apocalyptic: Mohammed believed himself to be living in the End Times.

    Ergo: Any hadiths attributed to Mohammed regarding future historical events, etc. are probably anachronistic, even those that “don’t refer to the proper names.”

    What do you think?

    • Bottlecap: What matters isn’t so much what do we humble commenters on a blog think, but what do scholars of early Islam think. . .

      And there, we have Dr Wilferd Madelung and the two Doctors Cook (Michael and David) sifting through apocalyptic material in the Hadith. They clearly assume that the whole apocalyptic genre is a subset of propaganda, each piece to be dated to the point in time where its propagandum is last relevant. They apply this principle to the Hadith as well.

      As for Jonathan Brown, frankly that man belongs in a madrassa and not in a Catholic or secular academy.

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