What Muslims Really Believe—The Islamic Traditions

by Edward J. Hoskins

To Muslims, the hadith are familiar in their daily lives. By tapping into these, we have a bridge that makes spiritual conversations relevant and accessible.

Twenty years ago my wife and I drank tea with Iraqi friends. We discussed the number of cups a guest must drink in order for him or her to be polite. The answer was an odd number: one, three, or five. I told my friends I believed this came from their Islamic traditions, the hadith. Earlier I had read a tradition dealing with this. The wife said, “No, that’s not possible.” The husband told her I was correct.

Over the last thirty years of reaching out to Muslims, I have watched as westerners—including myself—have made many errors relating to Muslims. The majority of these were due to simple misunderstandings.

Unfortunately, what we don’t understand, we fear.

So what is the antidote? We travel to a Muslim’s core beliefs.

Core beliefs may not always match specific actions, but they will always provide the foundation for an individual’s decisions and goals. If we are to understand Muslims, we must understand their deepest beliefs. Tough issues will surface: Is Islam a religion of peace? Must women wear the veil? What about heaven and hell, terrorism, freedom of speech, or the state of Israel?

The answers to these thorny questions are not, as commonly supposed, found exclusively in the Qur’an. In fact, many are not. If we rely strictly on the Qur’an for information, we will find passages that support both sides. Coming to firm conclusions is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Most Christians studying Islam have depended almost exclusively upon the Qur’an. A friend commented about this uniform reliance, “Ed, we’ve only been playing with half a deck.”

Years ago, I felt slightly myopic regarding Islam—what Muslims believe, how they think, why they do what they do. Studying the hadith was like putting on glasses; everything became clear.

My source of information was “the other half of the deck”—the Islamic traditions, known as the hadith. I read through the complete works of Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood, Ibn-Majah, Nasai, Tirmidhi, and Malik’s Muwattta for a total of more than thirty-five thousand Arabic traditions. The premise of this article is that these traditions answer most of the difficult questions Christians ask about Islam.

But my study yielded more than surface information. Other questions arose: Are serious Muslims more familiar with the hadith than secular ones? Are Muslim men more likely to know the hadith than women? Are Arabic-speaking Muslims more likely to be familiar with the hadith? As an added benefit, I found many examples where their prophet evidently borrowed freely from the Bible. This last finding made me curious whether the hadith could be used as conversation starters with my Muslim friends, bridges to real gospel truth. I spent the last five years field-testing what I learned from my study with Muslims from over thirty different Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Islamic countries. These dear Muslims were my real teachers.

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to the hadith1 and show how I have used them in relating spiritual truth to Muslims. There is not time or space to give answers to the difficult questions raised earlier. I deal with those elsewhere (Hoskins 2011). Not all of the answers will be popular or politically correct, but they are found in the hadith, and they are clear.  

The Hadith
Muslims believe the Qur’an is the mechanically-dictated, verbatim word of Allah delivered by an angel to Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years. It concluded with his death.

Muslims believe the Qur’an is heavenly, mysterious, and only fully understood by Allah. It does not completely address all the minutia of life. The only way to completely apply the Qur’an to daily life is to emulate Muhammad—the only man to have perfectly lived out the Qur’an. I like to think of the Qur’an as the skeleton, with Muhammad being the flesh on the skeleton, applying all of Islam to life.

The introduction to the Mishkat al-Masabih states, “In the Qur’an Muhammad was given the actual words of God; in the tradition the words used were his own but they were uttered under divine guidance” (Al-Baighawi 2006).

One Muslim told me, “The Qur’an tells us to pray, but it doesn’t tell us how. The hadith gives us the details of how to do it.”

From the early seventh century A.D., every word and deed of Muhammad was observed and memorized by his immediate family and close friends (companions), then told to others who related them to still others. These stories include every deed, gesture, and act of Muhammad, from dressing to dining, marrying to mating, dreams and visions, crime and punishment, buying and selling, and even sneezing and passing gas. Every aspect of Muhammad’s personal life was under scrutiny.

These narrations were related person-to-person over many years; each tradition consists of two parts, an
isnad, or chain of transmitters, and a matn, or main text. The chain appears like this: “I heard so-and-so mention that he heard on the authority of so-and-so, who related to him that he heard such-and-such companion say that the prophet said…”

For ease of readability all hadith in this article are in bold print. A number of the hadith contain the initials “pbuh” following the name of Muhammad. This stands for “peace be upon him,” the typical honorific Muslims apply to the name of their prophet. When they occur in the original text, I include them in my English translation.

More than a thousand collections of traditions existed by the beginning of the ninth century AD. These were boiled down to the Sihah as-Sittah, or “the authentic six”: Bukhari (810–870 AD), Muslim (819–875 AD), Tirmidhi (d. 893 AD), Abu Dawood (817–888 AD), Ibn Majah (825–887 AD), and Nasai (831–916 AD). A seventh collection is considered next to the authentic six, Imam Malik’s Muwatta (712–796 AD). Because they are the most respected hadith collections throughout the Sunni Muslim world, these are the ones I chose to comprehensively survey.

Even among these seven works there is a gradation. The most respected collection of all is the Sahih (“for sure”) al-Bukhari. One reason Bukhari’s collection is preeminent is because three of the other “authentic six” were his pupils (Muslim, at-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah). I have never met a Sunni Muslim who did not accept the hadith as authentic and authoritative for practical living.

Using the Hadith to Build Bridges for the Gospel
One of the best ways to build rapport is to share a common interest. Muslims are no exception. Over the past four years, by asking a few questions, I field-tested several hundred Islamic traditions with friends from at least thirty different Islamic nations. With only one exception, every Muslim wanted to talk when I mentioned the hadith, even when I met him or her for the first time. More importantly, in nearly every case he or she felt warm enough to open his or her heart and allow deeper discussion.

Using the Islamic traditions built instant rapport. Why? Because the hadith are near and dear to the heart of every Muslim I have ever met. The word hadith is best translated as “narration” or “story.” So, how familiar are Muslims with the hadith? They hear them from early childhood onward from family members, friends, neighbors, school teachers, and religious leaders. Sometimes they are pithy proverbs. Other times they are formal teaching. But they do hear them on a regular basis—often daily, but at least weekly in the mosque.
The prophet (pbuh) said, “None of you has faith till he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Al-Bukhari 1991a, 19).

The first time I read this, I was struck by its similarity to what Jesus said in Matthew 7:12—“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” I thought, “Wow! I wonder if this could be used as a point of mutual understanding and contact with Muslims.”

The answer is yes. Over and over, I have seen the hadith provide natural bridges to conversations about the gospel.

When I visit Muslims, I bring a small notebook with a few hadith I have collected. Each page has one or two traditions with an accompanying Bible passage where I have found a similarity. I let my friend read the tradition and accompanying Bible verse. I follow with five questions:

• Have you heard of this tradition before?
• What does it tell you about the character (or virtue) of God?
• What does it tell you about the condition of humanity?
• Does it suggest a possible way to bridge the gap between the two?
• Can you recall a personal story in which you saw this tradition illustrated, either as a child or an adult?

A Bangladeshi friend sat at the next table at a coffee shop. Noticing I was looking over my collection of hadith, he approached me and asked if he could look at them. As he turned the pages, he commented, “I’ve heard that one before.” Flip. “Yes, I’ve heard of that one, too!”

He continued turning pages with a big smile on his face. Two other Muslims walked by and he called, “Look, Dr. Ed is studying the hadith!” They sat down, too. My friend saw a tradition about God’s judgment and commented, “Dr. Ed, I think Easter should be a more significant holiday to Christians than Christmas. You know, with the resurrection of Jesus and all. I read this book about Lazarus. I was so impressed with this one sentence (John 11:25)—‘I am the resurrection and the life’—that I memorized the whole thing.”

“Dr. Ed, when I first read that it felt so powerful and awesome!” Then he realized where he was and who was sitting with us. He added in a subdued tone, “But…in Islam we have the same thing.”

Below I share three more instances where I used hadith as transitions to biblical truth.

While visiting an African friend, I asked if he had heard the following tradition:

I heard the messenger of Allah (pbuh) say, “Allah made mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept ninety-nine parts and sent down on the earth one part, and because of its one part creatures are merciful so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs from its foal so as not to trample it” (Al-Bukhari 1991b, 20).

I showed him a similar passage from Lamentations 3:22–23—“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

My friend had heard this hadith. He went on to explain the importance of showing mercy on Judgment Day: “Allah will say, ‘I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was sick and you didn’t take care of me.’” That opened a door to share the words of Jesus from Matthew 25:31–40, the parable of the sheep and goats. My friend laughed in amazement and pleasure at Jesus’ words.

A man came to the messenger of Allah (pbuh) and said, “Who among all people is most worthy of my doing good? He said, “Your mother.” He said, “Then who?” He said, “Then your mother.” He said, “Then who?” He said, “Then your mother.” He said, “Then who?” He said, “Then your father” (Muslim 1990a, 164).

I read this with a friend from Niger. We then read Ephesians 6:1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

My friend reflected, “I know a man from Niger. When he was younger he struck his mother. Today, his hand is withered. I have seen it.” During the evening, we read one of Jesus’ parables and I was able to share my personal faith story.

The messenger of Allah said, “Truly Allah does not look at your appearance or your wealth, but He looks at your hearts and your deeds” (Muslim 1990b, 174).

Compare this with 1 Samuel 16:7—“The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

I shared this with a friend from Yemen. He responded:

Once I was driving in a storm. I stopped because the road was blocked by flooding. There was lots of thunder and everyone was afraid, except for one man who looked to be a beggar. This man was calm and not afraid. He tried to calm us and give advice. We were looking at his outward appearance.

At this point, something changed in my friend’s demeanor. With tears in his eyes, he quoted hadith after hadith—I kept track; nearly twenty in all—and only two verses from the Qur’an. This was a natural opportunity for me to share scripture and my personal faith story.

To Muslims, the hadith are familiar stories that play a practical role in their daily lives. By tapping into these, we have a bridge that makes spiritual conversations relevant and accessible.  

I conclude with five thoughts.

1. The hadith fill in the gaps of understanding left blank by the Qur’an.

2. In my field-testing, I found no significant gender, geographical, or language ability differences. Well over ninety percent of all Muslims were familiar with my randomly-selected hadith.

3. Knowledge of the Islamic traditions can give us greater understanding and compassion for our Muslim friends and acquaintances. It did both for me.

4. Using the hadith builds near-instant rapport and facilitates deeper sharing. Every time I mention one, I get a smile. That’s rapport which opens the door to greater sharing.

5. Bridges for communicating biblical truth abound in the hadith. The traditions are packed with topics like the “golden rule,” “control your temper,” “God looks at the heart,” “blessed are the merciful,” “feed the hungry,” “separate me from my sins as far as the east is from the west,” and many more. To date, I have thirty-eight single-spaced typewritten pages of these.

I want to conclude with two cautions. First, with further study, you will discover that many hadith portray Islam and their prophet in less-than-stellar terms. Some are frankly embarrassing. When you come across these, remember that they originated in violent and tribal seventh-century Arabia. Please do not use them as weapons to bludgeon your Muslim friend. They are valuable for increased personal information, but I found them hurtful to my friends’ feelings and generally non-productive.  

Second, in our eagerness to relate with Muslims and seek commonality, we can wind up giving away what is most precious to us—the centrality of the person and work of Christ. Years ago, I was on duty as an emergency room doctor. Paramedics brought in a victim with a gunshot wound to the chest. The bullet pierced her heart, but she was still alive. A leak in the heart wall was partially sealed by clotted blood, so the heart kept beating.

She had only a few minutes to live. If her blood pressure could be maintained, there might be enough time for the surgeon to arrive, get her to the operating room, open the chest, plug the leak, and keep her from dying. I also knew that only one thing could keep her alive for those precious few minutes: administering lots of oxygen-carrying whole blood. Still conscious, she said, “Doctor, you can give me any type of medicine you want except for blood.” I explained she only had a few minutes to live and that she needed blood. She refused, and we couldn’t save her.

Every person is dying from a diseased heart. The disease is sin, and it separates us from God. It’s a relentless condition that causes vicious hemorrhaging. There is only one treatment—the life-giving blood of Jesus. It would be wonderful if other treatments were enough to save someone—things like greater compassion, better cultural understanding, or a guaranteed land-for-peace proposal. But we need Jesus. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Jew, our illness requires the oxygen-rich whole blood of new life in Christ. Nothing else will do.

1. For all hadith presented in this article, the translations from the original Arabic are mine and were checked meticulously against existing English translations of respected Islamic authors. For any mistakes in my own English translations, I take full responsibility.

Al-Baighawi. 2006. Mishkat-al-Masabih. Lahore, Pakistan: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf Publishers.

Al-Bukhari. 1991a. The Translations of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari. Medina, Saudi Arabia: Dar AHYA Us-Sunnah Al-Nabawiya. Vol. 1, book 2, no. 12.

_____. 1991b. The Translations of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari. Medina, Saudi Arabia: Dar AHYA Us-Sunnah Al-Nabawiya. Vol. 8, book 73, no. 29.

Hoskins, Edward J. 2011. A Muslim’s Mind: What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Islamic Traditions. Colorado Springs: Dawson Media.

Muslim. 1990a. Being the Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad as Narrated by His
Companions and Completed under the Title Al-Jami Us-Sahih
. Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Islamic Publications. Vol. 4A, No. 2548.

_____. 1990b. Being the Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad as Narrated by His
Companions and Completed under the Title Al-Jami Us-Sahih
. Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Islamic Publications. Vol. 4A, Number 2364R2.


Edward J. Hoskins is a physician with thirty years experience reaching out to Muslims. He is the author of A Muslim’s Heart (NavPress) and A Muslim’s Mind (Dawson Media). Ed and his wife, Charlene, have two children and two grandchildren. In his free time Ed makes wooden toys for children.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 422-428. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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