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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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Why is so much known about Muhammad's life?

Muslims believe that Muhammad not only received God's final revelation to humankind but also perfectly lived out the revelation he received. Thus he is sometimes referred to as the “living Quran.” Muhammad was and is the model of the Muslim ideal to be emulated by all believers. While Muhammad was alive, people could go directly to him to request his advice or opinion about any topic. When Muhammad died, the Muslim community lost its direct channel of revelation.

Because Muslims believe that Muhammad's words and actions serve as a living example of the meaning of the Quran, the early Muslim community was anxious to preserve as many memories of his words and actions as possible. Narrative stories about the Prophet's example (Sunnah), known as the hadith (traditions) of the Prophet, record many aspects of Muhammad's life, including religious belief and ritual, eating, dress, personal hygiene, marriage, treatment of spouses, diplomacy, and warfare. These detailed records of Muhammad's actions in war and peace, his interactions with family, friends, and foes, his judgments in good and bad times, and his decisions when under siege and when victorious recall and reinforce for Muslims what it takes to follow the word of God. Excluded from imitation is anything Muhammad did in his specific capacity as Prophet.

The hadith were collected over a period of several hundred years. In many cases, there are several hadith that deal with the same situation, since many people were typically present when Muhammad was answering questions from the Muslim community. Although there are many hadith collections, two in particular, those compiled by Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj and Ismail al-Bukhari, enjoy special authoritative status in Sunni Islam.

Early on, given the proliferation of traditions of the Prophet, questions quickly arose about the authenticity of the hadith; as a result, a special science of hadith criticism was developed in order to authenticate them. The most important method of hadith authentication was through verification of the chain of transmitters. Most began with the format that so-and-so told so-and-so that she or he heard from so-and-so, tracing the line of transmitters (isnad) back to either Muhammad himself or one of his Companions who had reported that Muhammad said or did something. Great care was taken to determine the honesty of the various transmitters and whether they could possibly have known the person from whom they received the hadith. If the chain of transmitters could be proven possible, then the hadith was accepted as authentic.

A second method of hadith criticism focused on the content of the hadith rather than just the chain of transmitters. Those who examined the content (matn) attempted to verify that the hadith was consistent with both the Quran and other hadith on a similar topic. In cases where two hadith conflict, religious scholars use the Quran as the final authority with respect to content, regardless of who the transmitter was.

Although some modern scholars, both non-Muslims and Muslims, have raised questions about the authenticity of the hadith, the majority of Muslims continue to consider the hadith as scripture and cite them as evidence of God's commands about a particular topic. Equally important, whether or not they came directly from Muhammad, the traditions of the Prophet provide a rich religious and social history, a substantial record of how the Prophet of Islam has been and continues to be regarded by the Muslim community, and insight into the issues and debates within early Islamic history.

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