A questioner asked:
Assalamu alaikum. Sunnis believe in the way of authentic hadith, which they base their religion on. An essential part of the foundation of this belief is that, according to Sunnis, they have comprehensive information about all the transmitters of the authentic hadiths. This allows them to determine the authenticity.
However, in the Quran, I came across a verse which says that even Prophet Muhammad did not know the hypocrites around him. So, the question is: if Prophet Muhammad did not know the hypocrites, then how can you?
[9:101] states, ‘Some of the Arabs around you and also some of the city people are hypocrites. They persist in hypocrisy. You do not know them, but We know them. We will punish them twice, and then they will be returned to a great punishment.’
Bismillah, all praise belongs to Allah.
Pondering the words of the Quran is an important responsibility, and it is commendable that you are doing it. We believe pondering the true meanings of the Quran will inevitably lead to the position of Sunni Islam and the acceptance of the ahadith and sunnah as a source of law.
[Understanding Surah Tawbah]
This Surah, Surah Tawbah, was also known by the name Surah al-Fadhiha, The Exposer. That is because Allah exposes many people that were not exposed before as hypocrites in this Surah. So, the entire point of Surah Tawbah is to make the hypocrites very clearly distinct from true believers. Allah wants people to be able to distinguish between the two groups because of the very fact that these are the people who will transmit the religion of Islam and we need to know who is doing so honestly.
Let us try to understand the verse. Allah says ⟪And among those around you of the bedouins are hypocrites, and [also] from the people of Madinah. They have become accustomed to hypocrisy. You, [O Muhammad], do not know them, [but] We know them. We will punish them twice; then they will be returned to a great punishment.⟫
Allah notes that there are hypocrites among both the bedouins and city-dwellers of Madinah that are very deep in hypocrisy. Allah also affirms that the Prophet (SAW), at least when the verse was revealed, did not know them.
Then, Allah promises about these hypocrites that ⟪We will punish them twice⟫ before they are ⟪returned to a great punishment⟫ in Hell.
What are these two punishments? The first is a punishment in the world when they are exposed, and the second is the punishment of the grave.
So, Allah promises in this verse to expose the hypocrites and punish them for their hypocrisy in the world. The Prophet (SAW) not knowing the hypocrites is not meant to be a permanent state of affairs. It is soon to end by the promise of Allah.
If you go on reading the Surah, Allah exposes one group of hypocrites after another.
Allah says ⟪And say, “Do [as you will], for Allah will see your deeds, and [so, will] His Messenger and the believers.”⟫ (9:105) He warns the hypocrites that they will be exposed to the Messenger and the believers because of their deeds.
Then, he exposes a group of hypocrites that built a mosque for falsehood: ⟪And [there are] those [hypocrites] who took for themselves a mosque for causing harm and disbelief and division among the believers […] And they will surely swear, “We intended only the best.” And Allah testifies that indeed they are liars. Do not stand [for prayer] within it – ever.⟫ (9:107-108)
Then, Allah contrasts this with a mosque built by pious people, saying ⟪A mosque founded on righteousness from the first day is more worthy for you to stand in. Within it are men who love to purify themselves; and Allah loves those who purify themselves.⟫ (9:108)
He wishes to show who are righteous and who are hypocritical so that everyone, including the Prophet himself, knows whom to trust and associate with.
Then, Allah describes some qualities of the true believers, saying ⟪They fight in the cause of Allah, so they kill and are killed. […] the repentant, the worshippers, the praisers [of Allah], the travelers [for His cause], those who bow and prostrate [in prayer], those who enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, and those who observe the limits [set by] Allah. And give good tidings to the believers.⟫ (9:111-112)
He further describes the most honored group of believers: ⟪Allah has already forgiven the Prophet and the Muhajireen and the Ansar who followed him in the hour of difficulty [i.e. the Battle of Tabuk] after the hearts of a party of them had almost inclined [to doubt], and then He forgave them. Indeed, He was to them Kind and Merciful.⟫
He designates the people who followed the Prophet (SAW) in the difficult Tabuk expedition to be forgiven and recipients of great mercy.
He also forgives three of those who stayed behind out of laziness (not hypocrisy): ⟪And [He also forgave] the three who were left behind [and regretted their error] to the point that the earth closed in on them […] Then He turned to them so they could repent.⟫ (9:118)
He then commands us to associate with these people who have fulfilled their promise to Allah: ⟪O you who have believed, fear Allah and be with those who are true.⟫ (9:119)
Then, Allah heavily criticizes those who stayed behind from the expedition: ⟪It was not [proper] for the people of Madinah and those surrounding them of the bedouins that they remain behind after [the departure of] the Messenger of Allah or that they prefer themselves over his self.⟫ (9:120)
In fact, Allah commanded these groups of hypocrites to be completely ostracized from Muslim society: ⟪Those who remained behind rejoiced in their staying [at home] after [the departure of] the Messenger of Allah […] let them laugh a little and [then] weep much as recompense for what they used to earn. […] say, “You will not go out with me, ever, and you will never fight with me an enemy. Indeed, you were satisfied with sitting [at home] the first time, so sit [now] with those who stay behind.”⟫ (9:81-83)
He says ⟪O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination.⟫ (9:73)
This ostracization was to the point of not even praying funerals for them: ⟪And do not pray [the funeral prayer, O Muhammad], over any of them who has died – ever – or stand at his grave. Indeed, they disbelieved in Allah and His Messenger and died while they were defiantly disobedient.⟫ (9:84-85)
This is a clear indication from Allah of whom to associate with if there is any doubt or mistrust of hypocrisy. He designated some groups of people to associate with—in Surah Tawbah, those who joined the Tabuk Expedition—and some groups to completely avoid—those who stayed back and were not forgiven.
This clear elucidation of whom to trust and whom not to trust is one of the major purposes of Surah Tawbah. The Surah was revealed precisely so that no one comes a hundred years later and says “I don’t know who is a hypocrite.” Allah revealed a whole Surah to tell you exactly who was a hypocrite and who was a believer!
It is true that some specific people might not be known for sure from Surah Tawbah, but many people are proven believers and proven hypocrites based on it.
[Designated Groups of Believers in Other Surahs]
Other Surahs give other groups of proven believers, like those who pledged under a tree: ⟪Certainly was Allah pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you, [O Muhammad], under the tree, and He knew what was in their hearts, so He sent down tranquillity upon them and rewarded them with an imminent conquest⟫ (48:18)
This pledge occurred before the treaty of Hudaibiyyah. The Prophet (SAW) and his companions had decided to do umrah that year and were not prepared for a war. But, Quraish tried to prevent them from umrah. As such, the Prophet (SAW) sent Uthman ibn Affan (RA) to negotiate to Makkah. They did not get back any news from Uthman for a long time and thought he had been killed. It was in this context, with no preparation of war and while in ihram, the Prophet (SAW) stood under a tree and asked who would pledge to fight to avenge Uthman (RA)! Many of the Sahabah gave the pledge, and Allah became pleased at them for giving up their lives for the Prophet (SAW).
Later on, Uthman (RA) would return safely, and they would sign the treaty of Hudaibiyyah with the polytheists of Makkah.
Another group is those who fought in Uhud and did not leave: ⟪And what struck you on the day the two armies met was by permission of Allah that He might make evident the [true] believers. And that He might make evident those who are hypocrites. For it was said to them, “Come, fight in the way of Allah or [at least] defend.” They said, “If we had known [there would be] fighting, we would have followed you.”⟫ (3:166-167)
When the Muslim army was going to Uhud, a large group of hypocrites broke away from them and returned to Madinah saying they did not expect there to be a battle. They were afraid of fighting and dying for the sake of Allah. And Allah says this division was Allah making evident the believers (those who stayed for the battle) and the hypocrites (those who left). So, the ones who fought in Uhud are considered believers by Allah.
Allah was so happy with those who fought in Uhud that he even forgave those who turned back when they were being defeated. Allah says: ⟪Indeed, those of you who turned back on the day the two armies met, it was Satan who caused them to slip because of some [blame] they had earned. But Allah has already forgiven them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing.⟫ (3:155)
Allah in the Quran also gives general principles for figuring out hypocrites even in generations after the Prophet (SAW) from their actions.
Describing the hypocrites, Allah says ⟪Indeed, the hypocrites [think to] deceive Allah, but He is deceiving them. And when they stand for prayer, they stand lazily, showing [themselves to] the people and not remembering Allah except a little, Wavering between them, [belonging] neither to the believers nor to the disbelievers. And whoever Allah leaves astray – never will you find for him a way.⟫ (4:143)
He also says ⟪The hypocrite men and hypocrite women are of one another. They enjoin what is wrong and forbid what is right and close their hands. They have forgotten Allah, so He has forgotten them [accordingly]. Indeed, the hypocrites – it is they who are the defiantly disobedient.⟫ (9:67)
He also says ⟪O you who have believed, do not be like those who disbelieved and said about their brothers when they traveled through the land or went out to fight, “If they had been with us, they would not have died or have been killed,” so Allah makes that [misconception] a regret within their hearts. And it is Allah who gives life and causes death, and Allah is Seeing of what you do.⟫
The hypocrites are people who hate Salah and other odious (in their view) acts of worship and despise, most of all, fighting for the cause of Allah. They avoided all the major engagements of Islam in the Prophet’s time when victory was not likely, and that is why the designated groups of believers are often those who took up jihad when hypocrites would be too afraid to take up.
That is the full understanding of the Quranic discourse on the hypocrites. Allah tells us to associate with believers and disassociate from hypocrites, and we need to be able to identify whom the two groups are to fulfill this command. As such, God exposes many hypocrites in the Quran and designates many forgiven groups in the Quran.
The hypocrites were not an overwhelmingly large group but a few people among the believers, some of whom Allah exposed directly, some of whom Allah exposed in groups, and some of whom are exposed through their qualities. Likewise, Allah designates groups of believers in the Quran whom we can trust for sure.
[Who were the Sahabah that narrated ahadith?]
The hadith corpus is dominated by some companions over others. So, the vast majority of hadith do not come from unknown or random companions that we have no information about. They come from established, well-known companions of the Prophet (SAW).
Can we substantiate that these companions are part of whom Allah wants us to associate with and take information from? Yes.
The most prolific companion in narrating hadith is widely known to be Abu Hurairah (RA). Who is Abu Hurairah (RA)?
Abu Hurairah was a person who lived in the mosque of the Prophet (SAW) and did nothing except listen to him and follow him. Then, after the Prophet (SAW)’s death, he learned from many of the senior companions. That is why he was able to narrate so many ahadith despite converting to Islam relatively late.
Abu Hurairah (RA) also attended the Tabuk Expedition and was definitely not a hypocrite. He also matches no description of a hypocrite mentioned in the Quran seeing as he lived a life of poverty only to learn Islam while hypocrites are described as those who prefer the comforts of the world over the religion.
Other prolific narrators are Aisha and Umm Salamah (RA), two wives of the Prophet (SAW).
No one can doubt their transmission when Allah Himself is the one who tells the wives of the Prophet (SAW) to preserve the teachings of the Prophet: ⟪And remember what is recited in your houses of the verses of Allah and wisdom. Indeed, Allah is ever Subtle and Acquainted [with all things].⟫ (33:34)
He also says about them: ⟪Allah intends only to remove from you the impurity [of sin], O people of the [Prophet’s] household, and to purify you with [extensive] purification.⟫ (33:33)
There would be no logic to Allah telling the wives to remember teachings mentioned in their house if one or more of them were hypocrites.
Other more prolific narrators from are Abdullah ibn Umar, Abdullah ibn Masud, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Ali ibn Abi Talib from the Muhājirūn and Ubadah ibn as-Samit the Ansari (RA).
All were in the Battle of Uhud, gave the pledge under the tree, and joined the Tabuk Expedition. Their faith was made evident by Allah three times and more!
Another major narrator is Anas ibn Malik. He was quite young and acted as a servant and helper for the Prophet (SAW) when the Prophet came to Madinah. He also gave the pledge under the tree and joined the Tabuk Expedition.
Another major narrator is Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA), who was the nephew of the Prophet (SAW). He also joined the Tabuk Expedition.
Another major narrator is Jabir ibn Abdullah the Ansari. He was one of the people who gave the pledge of Aqabah, his father was martyred in the Battle of Badr, and he fought in the Battle of Uhud, pledged under the tree, and joined the Tabuk Expedition.
Another major narrator is Abu Saeed al-Khudri. His brother fought in the Battle of Badr, his father was martyred in the Battle of Uhud, and he pledged under the tree and joined the Tabuk Expedition.
These few narrators account for a significant portion of the hadith corpus, and they are all confirmed as believers by the Quran in various ways! I did not mention other prolific narrators from the Sahabah only because I did not want to prolong this, but there are more to mention, and they are almost all confirmed by the Quran.
[Is it possible for liars to get away with it?]
Liars, historically, get caught. Either they are exposed by other people who correct their lies or they get caught lying about something else and lose trust.
Particularly in the later generations, there were usually multiple students from one teacher and someone making up narrations or changing them would be caught when compared with the narrations of his peers.
In the generation of the Sahabah, we mentioned that hypocrites were a small group, most of whom were exposed and ostracized from society. Thus, the risk of any particular companion is little to none, especially when taking all of Allah’s praise for the companions into account.
Additionally, everyone can be tested with the qualities of the hypocrites Allah describes in the Quran and were, no doubt, tested by the companions. If we do not find any signs of hypocrisy, the default is not to mistrust them.
Allah says in the Quran ⟪O you who have believed, when you go forth [to fight] in the cause of Allah, investigate; and do not say to one who gives you [a greeting of] peace “You are not a believer,”⟫ (4:94)
And Allah says ⟪O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate⟫ (49:6), specifying doubt and investigation when someone known to be disobedient brings news.
These verses and others in the Quran show that Islam is not a religion of mistrust and rejection of people’s testimony for no reason. Rather, the default is trust of Muslims.
And Allah knows best.