THE WORD ‘TAʿARUḌ’ in the Arabic language is derived from the trilateral root ʿayn • râ • ḍâd—or from ʿaraḍa—which means ‘parallel.’ The technical term ‘taʿâruḍ’ in ḥadîth studies also means ‘parallel,’ for just as two parallel lines never meet, similarly two contradictory statements can never simultaneously be true. Proving one side or the other of a contradiction automatically disproves the other. It is for this reason that contradiction in divine Revelation is impossible, and, as we know, both the Quran and the Sunnah comprise divine Revelation.
Scholars, too many to cite here, have affirmed the principle that contradiction between two operative, or applicable Revealed Texts governing the same situation, (or meaning, or event) would be absurd. This is based on the explicit statements of the Quran itself, wherein Allah Himself has said:
Will they not, then, reflect on [the meaning of] the Quran? If it had been from other than Allah, they would most surely have found in it much discrepancy…. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:82]
And of the Prophet ﷺ, in relation to his articulation of Revelation, Allah has said in the Quran:
By every star when it descends [into the horizon]! Your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed. Nor has he been deluded. Nor does he speak out of whim. This [Quran] is none other than a divine Revelation being revealed to him. None other than a [messenger] angel has taught [it to] him, one of awesome strength and judiciousness…. [Sûrat Al-Najm, 53:1-6]
According to Ibn Ḥazm in his A ḥkâm: The notion of contradiction with respect to the Quran and a ḥâdîth—even in the least degree—is barred [by the fact that they comprise divine Revelation]. Rather, any sense of contradiction reflects the state of our [human] knowledge limitations.
Ibn Al-Qayyim, in Zâd Al-Maʿâd states that “those who assume contradiction when it comes to a ḥâdîth because of ‘mutual abrogation,’ or ‘paradox’” do not understand that discrepancy in Texts [rather] arises on account of
(1) “one or the other ḥadîth not authentically originating with the Prophet ﷺ,” or,
(2) “one ḥadîth abrogating the other, if that occurrence be possible,” or,
(3) “variance of the [original] narrators in their [spheres of] comprehension” [of what was heard] from the Prophet ﷺ. For, “in no way can [such contradiction] arise from the [speech or actions] of the Prophet ﷺ.”
Conditions of Contradiction in Hadith
The existence of a seeming contradiction between two ḥadîths is not established unless four conditions are fulfilled:
Contradictions Occur in the Same Sphere.
An example of this is the statement: The marriage contract makes intercourse permissible and forbidden. In reality, this is not a contradiction because the two different rulings fall into two different spheres. The marriage contract makes intercourse with the wife permissible, while it removes the possibility of there ever being permissibility of intercourse between the husband and the mother of his wife.
Contradictions Occur at the Same Time.
Sometimes a ruling was abrogated. For example, there are some authentic a ḥadîth that narrate that the Prophet ﷺ would not pray janâza (the funeral prayer) upon those who had not fulfilled their debts. Yet other a ḥadîth inform us that he would pray over those who were in debt and then pay their debts for them.
The reason for this contradiction is that the Prophet ﷺ was, at first, forbidden from praying over those in debt but thereafter was allowed to do so.
Textual Dictates or Rulings Occur in Mutual Opposition.
An example of this is the ḥadîth: While the adulterer commits adultery, he is not a believer, and while the thief steals, he is not a believer…(Bukhâri), which appears to contradict the ḥadîth: There is no servant who says: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger,’ who then dies save that he shall enter Paradise…even if he has committed adultery and thievery (Muslim).
The apparent contradiction arises from the fact that in the first ḥadîth the Prophet ﷺ negates the description of belief when it comes to the one who commits adultery. In the second, he states that even an adulterer can enter Paradise while it is known that only those that have belief can enter Paradise—for the Prophet ﷺ said: You shall not enter Paradise until you believe (Muslim).
The scholars have different ways of elevating the understanding of people beyond the appearance of this contradiction, the most common way being the explanation that the negation of belief in the first ḥadîth does not mean the absolute negation of all belief in that person. Rather, it indicates the negation of belief in its complete form.
Other scholars say that in the first ḥadîth, the Prophet ﷺ specified that only while one is in the act of adultery is the description of belief suspended from the adulterer.
Others say that in the first ḥadîth, the Prophet ﷺ specified that belief exits the adulterer while he or she is committing the act. But this does not negate the fact that, after completing the act, belief returns to the one who committed adultery. In other words, the ḥadîth means that belief has left that person temporarily, rather than such a person having left belief for good and becoming of the inveterate disbelievers.
The Contradiction Occurs in a Ruling Applicable to One and the Same Person.
So, as in our first example, if it is said: “This person is permissible yet forbidden,” it is not necessarily a contradiction because she can be permissible to her husband but forbidden to every other man.
In other words, whenever we see two a ḥadîth that we suspect may contradict each other, we first ascertain whether both are authentic or not. If they are, then we determine if the contradiction occurs in the same sphere, in the same time, and with respect to the same person.
Should all of these methods be exhausted, then we use the Science of Mukhtalif Al-Hadîth (the Science of Reconciling Contradictions between Aḥâdîth) to reconcile apparent contradiction.
If reconciliation is impossible, then the issue falls outside the realm of mukhtalif al- ḥadîth—in which case our perception of contradiction is clearly vindicated.
Says Ibn Al-Qayyim of the Prophet ﷺ:
He spoke nothing but the truth. Mistakes and errors [in understanding seemingly contradictory ḥadîths] occur owing to deficiencies in our own comprehension of particular statements, or as a result of our attributing to them an unmerited authenticity, or stemming from our inability to discern the Prophet’s purpose, or because our mentalities are improperly aligned with his intent.