The Authority of the Sunnah: Its Historical Aspect
Faced with the overwhelming arguments in favour of the authority of sunnah, some people resort to another way of suspecting its credibility, that is, to suspect its historical authenticity.
According to them, the sunnah of the Holy Prophet though having a binding authority for all times to come, has not been preserved in a trustworthy manner. Unlike the Holy Qur'ân, they say, there is no single book containing reliable reports about the sunnah. There are too many works having a large number of traditions sometimes conflicting each other. And these books, too, were compiled in the third century of Hijrah. So, we cannot place our trust in the reports which have not even been reduced to writing during the first three centuries.
This argument is based on a number of misstatements and misconceptions. As we shall see in this chapter, inshâ-Allâh, it is totally wrong to claim that the traditions of the sunnah have been compiled in the third century. But, before approaching this historical aspect of the sunnah, let us examine the argument in its logical perspective.
This argument accepts that the Holy Prophet has a prophetic authority for all times to come, and that his obedience is mandatory for all Muslims of whatever age, but in the same breath it claims that the reports of the sunnah being unreliable, we cannot carry out this obedience. Does it not logically conclude that Allâh has enjoined upon us to obey the Messenger, but did not make this obedience practicable. The question is whether Allâh Almighty may give us a positive command to do something which is beyond our ability and means. The answer is certainly "no." The Holy Qur'ân itself says,
Allâh does not task anybody except to his ability.
It cannot be envisaged that Allâh will bind all the people with something which does not exist or cannot be ascertained. Accepting that Allâh has enjoined upon us to follow the sunnah of the Holy Prophet, it certainly implies that the sunnah is not undiscoverable. If Allâh has made it obligatory to follow the sunnah, He has certainly preserved it for us, in a reliable form.
The following aspect also merits consideration. Allâh Almighty has given us a promise in the Holy Qur'ân:
Indeed We have revealed the Zikr (ie. the Qur'ân) and surely We will preserve it. (15:9)
In this verse, Allâh Almighty has assured the preservation of the Holy Qur'ân. This implies that the Qur'ân will remain uninterpolated and that it shall always be transferred from one generation to the other in its real and original form, undistorted by any foreign element. The question now is whether this divine protection is restricted only to the words of the Holy Qur'ân or does it extend to its real meanings as well. If the prophetic explanation is necessary to understand the Holy Qur'ân correctly, as proved in the first chapter, then the preservation of the Qur'ânic words alone cannot serve the purpose unless the prophetic explanations are also preserved. As quoted earlier, the Holy Book says,
We have revealed to you the Zikr (Qur'ân) so that you may explain to the people what has been sent down for them.
The word "Zikr" has been used here for the Holy Qur'ân as has been used in the verse 15:9 and it has been made clear that the people can only benefit from its guidance when they are led by the explanations of the Holy Prophet.
Again, the words "for the people" indicate (especially in the original Arabic context), that the Holy Prophet's explanation is always needed by "everyone."
Now, if everyone, in every age is in need of the prophetic explanation, without which they cannot fully benefit from the Holy Book, how would it be useful for them to preserve the Qur'ânic text and leave its prophetic explanation at the mercy of distorters, extending to it no type of protection whatsoever.
Therefore, once the necessity of the prophetic explanations of the Holy Qur'ân is accepted, it will be self-contradictory to claim that these explanations are unavailable today. It will amount to negating the divine wisdom, because it is in no way a wise policy to establish the necessity of the sunnah on the one hand and to make its discovery impossible on the other. Such a policy cannot be attributed to Allâh, the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.
This deductive argument is, in my view, sufficient to establish that comprehending the sunnah of the Holy Prophet, which is necessary for the correct understanding of the divine guidance, shall as a whole remain available in a reliable manner forever. All objections raised against the authenticity of the sunnah as a whole can be repudiated on this score alone. But in order to study the actual facts, we are giving here a brief account of the measures taken by the ummah to preserve the sunnah of the Holy Prophet. It is a brief and introductive study of the subject, for which the comprehensive and voluminous books are available in Arabic and other languages. The brief account we intend to give here is not comprehensive. The only purpose is to highlight some basic facts which, if studied objectively, are well enough to support the deductive inference about the authenticity of the sunnah.
The Preservation of Sunnah
It is totally wrong to say that the sunnah of the Holy Prophet was compiled for the first time in the third century. In fact, the compilation had begun in the very days of the Holy Prophet as we shall see later, though the compilations in a written form were not the sole measures adopted for the preservation of the sunnah. There were many other reliable sources of preservation also. In order to understand the point correctly we will have to know the different kinds of the sunnah of the Holy Prophet.
Three Kinds of Ahâdîth
An individual tradition which narrates a "sunnah" of the Holy Prophet is termed in the relevant sciences as "hadîth" (pl. ahâdîth). The ahâdîth, with regard to the frequency of their sources, are divided into three major kinds:
(1) Mutawâtir: It is a hadîth narrated in each era, from the days of the Holy Prophet up to this day by such a large number of narrators that it is impossible to reasonably accept that all of them have colluded to tell a lie.
This kind is further classified into two sub-divisions:
(a) Mutawâtir in words: It is a hadîth whose words are narrated by such a large number as is required for a mutawâtir, in a manner that all the narrators are unanimous in reporting it with the same words without any substantial discrepancy.
(b) Mutawâtir in meaning: It is a mutawâtir hadîth which is not reported by the narrators in the same words. The words of the narrators are different. Sometimes even the reported events are not the same. But all the narrators are unanimous in reporting a basic concept which is common in all the reports. This common concept is also ranked as a mutawâtir concept.
For example, there is a saying of the Holy Prophet,
Whoever intentionally attributes a lie against me, should prepare his seat in the Fire.
This is a mutawâtir hadîth of the first kind, because it has a minimum of seventy-four narrators. In other words, seventy-four companions of the Holy Prophet have reported this hadîth at different occasions, all with the same words.
The number of those who received this hadîth from these companions is many times greater, because each of the seventy-four companions has conveyed it to a number of his pupils. Thus, the total number of the narrators of this hadîth has been increasing in each successive generation, and has never been less than seventy-four. All these narrators, who are now hundreds in number, report it in the same words without even a minor change. This hadîth is, therefore, mutawâtir by words, because it cannot be imagined reasonably that such a large number of people have colluded to coin a fallacious sentence in order to attribute it to the Holy Prophet.
On the other hand, it is also reported by such a large number of narrators that the Holy Prophet has enjoined us to perform two rak'ât in Fajr, four rak'ât in Zuhr, 'Asr and 'Isha, and three rak'ât in the Maghrib prayer, yet the narrations of all the reporters who reported the number of rak'ât are not in the same words. Their words are different. Even the events reported by them are different. But the common feature of all the reports is the same. This common feature, namely, the exact number of rak'ât, is said to be mutawâtir in meaning.
(2) The second kind of hadîth is Mashhoor. This term is defined by the scholars of hadîth as follows:
"A hadîth which is not mutawâtir, but its narrators are not less than three in any generation." [Tadreeb-ur-Râwi by Suyuti]
The same term is also used by the scholars of fiqh, but their definition is slightly different. They say,
"A mashhoor hadîth is one which was not mutawâtir in the generation of the Holy Companions, but became mutawâtir immediately after them." [Usool of Sarkhasi]
The mashhoor hadîth according to each definition falls in the second category following the mutawâtir.
(3) Khabar-ul-Wâhid. It is a hadîth whose narrators are less than three in any given generation.
Let us now examine each kind separately.
The Authenticity of the First Two Kinds
As for the mutawâtir, nobody can question its authenticity. The fact narrated by a mutawâtir chain is always accepted as an absolute truth even if pertaining to our daily life. Any statement based on a mutawâtir narration must be accepted by everyone without any hesitation. I have never seen the city of Moscow, but the fact that Moscow is a large city and is the capital of U.S.S.R. is an absolute truth which cannot be denied. This fact is proved, to me, by a large number of narrators who have seen the city. This is a continuously narrated, or a mutawâtir, fact which cannot be denied or questioned.
I have not seen the events of the First and the Second World War. But the fact that these two wars occurred stands proved without a shadow of doubt on the basis of the mutawâtir reports about them. Nobody with a sound sense can claim that all those who reported the occurrence of these two wars have colluded to coin a fallacious report and that no war took place at all. This strong belief in the factum of war is based on the mutawâtir reports of the event.
In the same way the mutawâtir reports about the sunnah of the Holy Prophet are to be held as absolutely true without any iota of doubt in their authenticity. The authenticity of the Holy Qur'ân being the same Book as that revealed to the Holy Prophet is of the same nature. Thus, the mutawâtir ahâdîth, whether they be mutawâtir in words or in meaning, are as authentic as the Holy Qur'ân, and there is no difference between the two in as far as the reliability of their source of narration is concerned.
Although the ahâdîth falling under the first category of the mutawâtir, ie. the mutawâtir in words, are very few in number, yet the ahâdîth relating to the second kind, namely the mutawâtir in meaning, are available in large numbers. Thus, a very sizeable portion of the sunnah of the Holy Prophet falls in this kind of mutawâtir, the authenticity of which cannot be doubted in any manner.
As for the second kind, ie. the mashhoor, its standard of authenticity is lower than that of the mutawâtir; yet, it is sufficient to provide satisfaction about the correctness of the narration because its narrators have been more than three trustworthy persons in every generation.
The third kind is khabar-ul-wâhid. The authenticity of this kind depends on the veracity of its narrators. If the narrator is trustworthy in all respects, the report given by him can be accepted, but if the single reporter is believed to be doubtful, the entire report subsequently remains doubtful. This principle is followed in every sphere of life. Why should it not be applied to the reports about the sunnah of the Holy Prophet? Rather, in the case of ahâdîth, this principle is most applicable, because the reporters of ahâdîth were fully cognizant of the delicate nature of what they narrate. It was not simple news of an ordinary event having no legal or religious effect. It was the narration of a fact which has a far-reaching effect on the lives of millions of people. The reporters of ahâdîth knew well that it is not a play to ascribe a word or act to the Holy Prophet. Any deliberate error in this narration, or any negligence in this respect would lead them to the wrath of Allâh and render them liable to be punished in hell. Every reporter of hadîth was aware of the following well-known mutawâtir hadîth:
Whoever intentionally attributes a lie against me, should prepare his seat in the Fire.
This hadîth had created such a strong sense of responsibility in the hearts of the narrators of ahâdîth that while reporting anything about the Holy Prophet they often turned pale out of fear, lest some error should creep into their narration.
This was the basic reason for which the responsible narrators of ahâdîth showed the maximum precaution in preserving and reporting a hadîth. This standard of precaution cannot be found in any other reports of historical events. So, the principle that the veracity of a report depends on the nature of its reporter is far more validly applicable to the reports of ahâdîth than it is applicable to the general reports of ordinary nature.
Let us now examine the various ways adopted by the ummah to preserve the ahâdîth in their original form.
Different Ways of Ahâdîth Preservation
As we shall later see, the companions of the Holy Prophet reduced a large number of ahâdîth in writing. Yet, writing was not the sole means of their preservation. There were many other ways.
First of all, the companions of the Holy Prophet used to learn ahâdîth by heart. The Holy Prophet has said:
May Allâh bestow vigor to a person who hears my saying and learns it by heart and then conveys it to others exactly as he hears it.
The companions of the Holy Prophet were eager to follow this hadîth and used to devote considerable time for committing ahâdîth to their memories. A large number of them left their homes and began to live in the Mosque of the Holy Prophet so that they may hear the ahâdîth directly from the mouth of the Holy Prophet. They spent all their time exclusively in securing the ahâdîth in their hearts. They are called Ashâb as-Suffah.
The Arabs had such strong memories that they would easily memorize hundreds of verses of their poetry. Nearly all of them knew by heart detailed pedigrees of not only themselves, but also of their horses and camels. Even their children had enough knowledge of the pedigrees of different tribes. Hammâd is a famous narrator of Arab poetry. It is reported that he knew by heart one hundred long poems for each letter of the alphabet, meaning thereby that he knew three thousand and thirty-eight long poems [al-A'lam by Zrikli 2:131].
The Arabs were so proud of their memory power that they placed more of their confidence on it than on writing. Some poets deemed it a blemish to preserve their poetry in writing. They believed that writings on papers can be tampered with, while the memory cannot be distorted by anyone. If any poets have written some of their poems, they did not like to disclose this fact, because it would be indicative of a defect in their memory [See al-Aghani 61:611].
The companions of the Holy Prophet utilized this memory for preserving ahâdîth which they deemed to be the only source of guidance after the Holy Qur'ân. It is obvious that their enthusiasm towards the preservation of ahâdîth far exceeded their zeal for preserving their poetry and literature. They therefore used their memory in respect of ahâdîth with more vigor and more precaution.
Sayyidunâ Abû Hurairah, the famous companion of the Holy Prophet, who has reported 5,374 ahâdîth, says:
I have divided my night into three parts: In one third of the night I perform prayer, in one third I sleep and in one third I memorize the ahâdîth of the Holy Prophet. [Sunan ad-Dârimi]
Sayyidunâ Abû Hurairah, after embracing Islâm, devoted his life exclusively for learning the ahâdîth. He has reported more ahâdîth than any other companion of the Holy Prophet.
Once, Marwân, the governor of Madînah, tried to test his memory. He invited him to his house where he asked him to narrate some ahâdîth. Marwân simultaneously ordered his scribe, Abu Zu'aizi'ah, to sit behind a curtain and write the ahâdîth reported by Abû Hurairah. The scribe noted the ahâdîth. After a year, he invited Abû Hurairah again and requested him to repeat what he had narrated last year, and likewise ordered Abu Zu'aizi'ah to sit behind a curtain and compare the present words of Abû Hurairah with the ahâdîth he had already written previously. Sayyidunâ Abû Hurairah began to repeat the ahâdîth while Abu Zu'aizi'ah compared them. He found that Abû Hurairah did not leave a single word, nor did he change any word from his earlier narrations [al-Bidâyah wan-Nihâyah and Siyar al-A'lâm of Dhahabi].
Numerous other examples of this type are available in the history of the science of hadîth which clearly show that the ahâdîth reporters have used their extraordinary memory power given to them by Allâh Almighty for preserving the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, as promised by Him in the Holy Qur'ân.
As we shall later see, scholars of the science of hadîth developed the science of Asmâ ur-Rijâl by which they have deduced reliable means to test the memory power of each narrator of ahâdîth. They never accepted any hadîth as reliable unless all of its narrators were proved to have high memory standards.
Thus, "memory power" in the science of hadîth is not a vague term of general nature. It is a technical term having specified criteria to test the veracity of narrators. A great number of scholars of the sciences of Asmâ ur-Rijâl and Jarh wa Ta'dîl have devoted their lives to examine the reporters of hadîth on that criteria. Their task was to judge the memory power of each narrator and to record objective opinions about them.
Memories of the ahâdîth reporters cannot be compared with the memory of a layman today who witnesses an event or hears some news and conveys it to others in a careless manner seldom paying attention to the correctness of his narration. The following points in this respect are worth mentioning:
1. The reporters of ahâdîth were fully cognizant of the great importance and the delicate nature of what they intended to report. They whole-heartedly believed that any misstatement or negligent reporting in this field would cause them to be condemned both in this world and in the Hereafter. This belief equipped them with a very strong sense of responsibility. It is evident that such a strong sense of responsibility makes a reporter more accurate in his reports. A newsman reporting an accident of a common nature in which common people are involved, can report its details with less accuracy. But if the accident involves the President or the Prime Minister of his country, he will certainly show more diligence, precaution and shall employ his best ability to report the incident as accurately as possible. The reporter is the same, but in the second case he is more accurate in his report than he was in the first case, because the nature of the incident has made him more responsible, hence more cautious.
It cannot be denied that the companions of the Holy Prophet, their pupils, and other reliable narrators of ahâdîth believed with their heart and soul that the importance of a hadîth attributed to the Holy Prophet exceeds the importance of any other report whatsoever. They believed that it is a source of Islâmic law which will govern the Ummah for all times to come. They believed that any negligence in this respect will lead them to the severe punishment of hell. So, their sense of responsibility while reporting ahâdîth was far higher than that of a newsman reporting an important incident about the head of his country.
2. The interest of the reporter in the reported events and his ability to understand them correctly is another important factor which affects the accuracy of his report. If the reporter is indifferent or negligent about what he reports, little reliability can be placed on his memory or on any subsequent report based on it. But if the reporter is not only honest, serious, and intelligent but also interested and involved in the event, his report can easily be relied upon.
If some proceedings are going on in a court of law, the reports of these proceedings can be of different kinds. One report was given by a layman from the audience who was incidentally present at the court. He had neither any interest in the proceedings nor had due knowledge and understanding of the legal issues involved. He gathered a sketchy picture of the proceedings and reported it to a third person. Such a report can neither be relied upon nor taken as an authentic version of the proceedings. This report may be full of errors because the reporter lacks the ability to understand the matter correctly and the responsible attitude to report it accurately. Such a reporter may not only err in his reporting, but may after some time also forget the proceedings altogether.
Suppose there are some newsmen also who have witnessed the proceedings for the purpose of reporting them in their newspapers. They have more knowledge and understanding than a layman of the first kind. Their report shall be more correct than that of the former. But despite their interest and intelligence, they are not fully aware of the technical and legal questions involved in the proceedings. Their report shall thus remain deficient in the legal aspect of the proceedings and cannot be relied upon to that extent because despite their good memory, they cannot grasp the legal issues completely.
There were also lawyers who were directly involved in the proceedings. They participated in the debate at the bar. They have argued the case. They were fully aware of the delicate legal issues involved. They understood each and every sentence expressed by other lawyers and the judge. It is obvious that the report of the proceedings given by these lawyers shall be the most authentic one. Having full knowledge and understanding of the case they can neither forget nor err while reporting the substantial and material parts of the proceedings.
Suppose all the three categories had the same standard of memory power. Yet, the facts narrated by them have different levels of correctness. It shows that the interest of the reporter in the reported event and his understanding of the facts involved plays an important role in making his memory more effective and accurate.
The deep interest of the companions of the Holy Prophet in his sayings and acts, rather even in his gestures, is beyond any doubt. Their understanding of what he said, and their close knowledge and observation of the background and the environment under which he spoke or acted cannot be questioned. Thus, all the basic factors which help mobilize one's memory were present in them.
3. The standard of memory power required for the authenticity of a report is not, as mentioned earlier, a vague concept for which no specific criteria exist. The scholars of the Science of hadîth have laid down hard and fast rules to ascertain the memory standard of each reporter. Unless a reporter of a hadîth has specific standards of memory, his reports and not accepted as reliable.
4. There is a big difference between memorizing a fact which incidentally came to the knowledge of someone who never cared to remember it any more, and the memorizing of a fact which is learnt by someone with eagerness, with an objective purpose to remember it and with a constant effort to keep it in memory.
While I studied Arabic, my teacher told me many things which I do not remember today. But the vocabulary I learnt from my teacher is secured in my mind. The reason is obvious. I never cared to keep the former remembered, while I was very much eager to learn the latter by heart and to store it in my memory.
The companions of the Holy Prophet did not listen to him incidentally nor were they careless in remembering what they heard. Instead, they daily spared specific times for learning the ahâdîth by heart. The example of Abû Hurairah has already been cited. He used to spare one third of every night in repeating the ahâdîth he learnt from the Holy Prophet.
Thus, memorization was not a weaker source of preservation of ahâdîth, as is sometimes presumed by those who have no proper knowledge of the science of hadîth. Looked at in its true perspective, the memories of the reliable reporters of ahâdîth were no less reliable a source of preservation than compiling the ahâdîth in book form.
The second source of preservation of ahâdîth was by mutual discussions held by the companions of the Holy Prophet. Whenever they came to know of a new sunnah, they used to narrate it to others. Thus, all the companions would tell each other what they learnt from the Holy Prophet. This was to comply with the specific directions given by the Holy Prophet in this respect. Here are some ahâdîth to this effect:
Those present should convey (my sunnah) to those absent [Bukhari].
Convey to others on my behalf, even though it be a single verse [Bukhari].
May Allâh grant vigor to a person who listens to my saying and learns it by heart until he conveys it to others [Tirmidhi, Abu Dâwûd].
You hear (my sayings) and others will hear from you, then others will hear from them [Abu Dâwûd].
A Muslim cannot offer his brother a better benefit than transmitting to him a good hadîth which has reached him [Jâmi'-ul-Bayân of Ibn 'Abdul Barr].
These directions given by the Holy Prophet were more than sufficient to induce his companions towards acquiring the knowledge of ahâdîth and to convey them to others.
The Holy Prophet also motivated his companions to study the ahâdîth in their meetings. The word used for this study is Tadarus which means "to teach each other." One person would narrate a particular hadîth to the other who, in turn, would repeat it to the first, and so on. The purpose was to learn it correctly. Each one would listen to the other's version and correct his mistake, if any. The result of this tadarus (discussion) was to remember the ahâdîth as firmly as possible. The Holy Prophet has held this described process of tadarus to be more meritorious with Allâh than the individual worship throughout the night. He has said:
Tadarus of knowledge (the word "knowledge" in the era of Nabî was used to connote knowledge relative to the Holy Qur'ân and the hadîth) for any period of time in the night is better than spending the entire night in worship [Jâmi'-ul-Bayân].
Moreover, the Holy Prophet has also warned, that it is a major sin to hide a word of "knowledge" whenever it is asked for:
Whoever is questioned pertaining to such knowledge that he has and thereafter conceals it, will be bridled by a rein of fire [Tirmidhi].
At another occasion, the Holy Prophet disclosed that concealment of "knowledge" is in itself a major sin, even though the person having that knowledge is not asked about it. He said:
Whoever conceals knowledge which can be benefited from, will come on Doomsday bridled with a bridle of fire [Jâmi'-ul-Bayân].
The hadîth makes it clear that the disclosure of knowledge is an inherent obligation on each knowledgeable person, no matter whether he is asked about it or not.
As the knowledge of the sunnah of the Holy Prophet was the highest branch of knowledge in the eyes of his companions, they deemed it an indispensable obligation on their shoulders to convey to others what they knew of the sunnah.
Thus, it was the most favorite hobby of the companions of the Holy Prophet whenever they sat together, instead of being involved in useless talks, to discuss his sayings and acts. Each of them would mention what he knew while the others would listen and try to learn it by heart.
These frequent discussions have played an important role in the preservation of the Sunnah. It was by the virtue of these discussions that the ahâdîth known only by some individuals were conveyed to others, and the circle of narrators was gradually enlarged. Since these discussions were carried out at a time when the Holy Prophet () was himself present among them, they had the full opportunity to confirm the veracity of what has been conveyed to them in this process, and some of them actually did so. The result was that the knowledge of ahâdîth acquired a wide range among the companions, which not only helped in spreading the knowledge of Sunnah but also provided a check on the mistakes of narrations, because if someone forgets some part of a hadîth, the others were present to fill in the gap and to correct the error.
The third way of preservation of the Sunnah was to bring it into practice.
The knowledge of Sunnah was not merely a theoretical knowledge, nor were the teachings of the Holy Prophet merely philosophical. They related to practical life. The Holy Prophet did not confine himself to giving lessons and sermons only, he also trained his companions practically. Whatever they learnt from the Holy Prophet they spared no effort to bring it into actual practice. Each companion was so enthusiastic in practicing the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet that he tried his best to imitate even his personal habits.
Thus the whole atmosphere was one of following the Sunnah. The Sunnah was not a verbal report only, it was a living practice, a widespread behavior and a current fashion demonstrating itself everywhere in the society, in all the affairs of their daily life.
If a student of mathematics confines himself with remembering the formulas orally, he is likely to forget them after a lapse of time, but if he brings them in practice, ten times a day, he shall never forget them.
Likewise, the Sunnah was not an oral service carried out by the companions. They brought it into their daily practice. The Sunnah was the center of gravity for all their activities. How could they forget the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet around which they built the structure of their whole lives?
Thus, constant practice in accordance with the dictates of the Sunnah was another major factor which advanced the process of preserving the Sunnah and protected it from the foreign elements aiming at its distortion.
The fourth way of preserving of ahâdîth was writing. Quite a large number of the companions of the Holy Prophet reduced the ahâdîth to writing after hearing them from the Holy Prophet.
It is true that in the beginning the Holy Prophet had forbidden some of his companions from writing anything other than the verses of the Holy Qur'ân. However, this prohibition was not because the ahâdîth had no authoritative value, but because the Holy Prophet had in the same breath ordered them to narrate his ahâdîth orally. The full text of the relevant hadîth is as follows:
Do not write (what you hear) from me, and whoever has written something (he heard) from me, he should erase it. Narrate to others (what you hear) from me; and whoever deliberately attributes a lie to me, he should prepare his seat in the Fire." [Sahih Muslim]
The underlined phrase of the hadîth clarifies that prohibition for writing hadîth was not on account of negating its authority. The actual reason was that in the beginning of the revelation of the Holy Qur'ân, the companions of the Holy Prophet were not fully familiar with the Qur'ânic style, nor was the Holy Qur'ân compiled in a separate book form. In those days some companions began to write the ahâdîth along with the Qur'ânic text. Some explanations of the Holy Qur'ân given by the Holy Prophet were written by some of them mixed with the Qur'ânic verses without any distinction between the two. It was therefore feared that it would lead to confuse the Qur'ânic text with the ahâdîth.
It was in this background that the Holy Prophet stopped this practice and ordered that anything written other than the Holy Qur'ân should be rubbed or omitted. It should be kept in mind that in those days there was a great shortage of writing paper. Even the verses of the Holy Qur'ân used to be written on pieces of leather, on planks of wood, on animal bones and sometimes on stones. It was much difficult to compile all those things in a book form, and if the ahâdîth were also written in the like manner it would be more difficult to distinguish between the writings of the Holy Qur'ân and those of the ahâdîth. The lack of familiarity with the Qur'ânic style would also help creating confusion.
For these reasons the Holy Prophet directed his companions to abstain from writing the ahâdîth and to confine their preservation to the first three ways which were equally reliable as discussed earlier.
But all this was in the earlier period of his prophethood. When the companions became fully conversant of the style of the Holy Qur'ân and writing paper became available, this transitory measure of precaution was taken back, because the danger of confusion between the Qur'ân and the hadîth no longer existed.
At this stage, the Holy Prophet himself directed his companions to write down the ahâdîth. Some of his instructions in this respect are quoted below:
1. One companion from the Ansâr complained to the Holy Prophet that he hears from him some ahâdîth, but he sometimes forgets them. The Holy Prophet said:
"Seek help from your right hand," and pointed out to a writing. [Jâmi' Tirmidhi]
2. Râfi' ibn Khadij, the famous companion of the Holy Prophet says, "I said to the Holy Prophet () [that] we hear from you many things, should we write them down?" He replied:
You may write. There is no harm. [Tadrîb-ur-Râwi]
3. Sayyiduna Anas reports that the Holy Prophet has said:
Preserve knowledge by writing. [Jâmi'-ul-Bayân]
4. Sayyiduna Abu Râfi' sought permission from the Holy Prophet to write ahâdîth. The Holy Prophet permitted him to do so. [Jâmi' Tirmidhi]
It is reported that the ahâdîth written by Abu Râfi' were copied by other companions too. Salma, a pupil of Ibn 'Abbâs says:
I saw some small wooden boards with 'Abdullâh Ibn 'Abbâs. He was writing on them some reports of the acts of the Holy Prophet which he acquired from Abu Râfi'. [Tabaqât Ibn Sa'd]
5. 'Abdullâh ibn 'Amr ibn al-'Aas reports that the Holy Prophet said to him:
He asked, "and how should it be preserved?" The Holy Prophet replied, "by writing it." [Mustadrik Hâkim; Jâmi'-ul-Bayân]
In another report he says, "I came to the Holy Prophet and told him, 'I want to narrate your ahâdîth. So, I want to take assistance of my handwriting besides my heart. Do you deem it fit for me?' The Holy Prophet replied, 'If it is my hadîth you may seek help from your hand besides your heart." [Sunan Dârimi]
6. It was for this reason that he used to write ahâdîth frequently. He himself says,
I used to write whatever I heard from the Holy Prophet and wanted to learn it by heart. Some people of the Quraysh dissuaded me and said, "Do you write everything you hear from the Holy Prophet, while he is a human being and sometimes he may be in anger as any other human beings may be?" [Sunan Abu Dâwûd]
They meant that the Holy Prophet might say something in a state of anger which he did not seriously intend. So, one should be selective in writing his ahâdîth. 'Abdullâh ibn 'Amr conveyed their opinion to the Holy Prophet. In reply, the Holy Prophet pointed to his lips and said,
I swear by the One in whose hands is the soul of Muhammad: nothing comes out from these two (lips) except truth. So, do write. [Sunan Abu Dâwud; Tabaqât ibn Sa'd; Mustadrik-ul-Hâkim]
It was a clear and absolute order given by the Holy Prophet to write each and every saying of his without any hesitation or doubt about its authoritative nature.
In compliance to this order, 'Abdullâh ibn 'Amr wrote a large number of ahâdîth and compiled them in a book form which he named, "al-Sahîfah al-Sadîqah." Some details about this book shall be discussed later on, inshâ-Allâh.
7. During the conquest of Makkah (8 A.H.), the Holy Prophet delivered a detailed sermon containing a number of Sharî'ah imperatives, including human rights. One Yemenite person from the gathering, namely, Abu Shah, requested the Holy Prophet to provide him the sermon in a written form. The Holy Prophet thereafter ordered his companions as follows:
Write it down for Abu Shah. [Sahîh-ul-Bukhâri]
These seven examples are more than sufficient to prove that the writing of ahâdîth was not only permitted but also ordered by the Holy Prophet and that the earlier bar against writing was only for a transitory period to avoid any possible confusion between the verses of the Holy Qur'ân and the ahâdîth. After this transitory period the fear of confusion ended, the bar was lifted and the companions were persuaded to preserve ahâdîth in a written form.
The Compilation of Hadîth in the Days of the Holy Prophet
We have discussed the different methods undertaken by the companions of the Holy Prophet to preserve the ahâdîth. An objective study of these methods would prove that although 'writing' was not the sole method of their preservation, yet it was never neglected in this process. Inspired by the Holy Prophet himself, a large number of his companions used to secure the ahâdîth in written form.
When we study individual efforts of the companions for compiling ahâdîth, we find that thousands of ahâdîth were written in the very days of the Holy Prophet and his four Caliphs. It is not possible to give an exhaustive survey of these efforts, for it will require a separate voluminous book on the subject which is not intended here. Nevertheless, we propose to give a brief account of some outstanding compilations of ahâdîth in that early period. It will, at least, refute the misconception that the ahâdîth were not compiled during the first three centuries.
The Dictations of the Holy Prophet
To begin with, we would refer to the fact that a considerable number of ahâdîth were dictated and directed to be secured in written form by the Holy Prophet himself. Here are some examples:
The Book of Sadaqah
The Holy Prophet () has dictated detailed documents containing rules of Sharî'ah about the levy of Zakâh, and specifying the quantum and the rate of Zakâh in respect of different Zakât-able assets. This document was named "Kitâb as-Sadaqah" (The Book of Sadaqah). 'Abdullâh ibn 'Umar says,
The Holy Prophet dictated the Book of Sadaqah and was yet to send it to his governors when he passed away. He had attached it to his sword. When he passed away, Abu Bakr acted according to it till he passed away, then 'Umar acted according to it till he passed away. It was mentioned in his book that one goat is leviable on five camels. [Jâmi' Tirmidhi]
The text of this document is available in several books of ahâdîth like the Sunan of Abu Dâwûd. Imâm Zuhri, the renowned scholar of hadîth, used to teach this document to his pupils. He used to say:
This is the text of the document dictated by the Holy Prophet about the rules of Sadaqah (Zakâh). Its original manuscript is with the children of Sayyiduna 'Umar. Salim, the grandson of 'Umar had taught it to me. I had learnt it by heart. 'Umar ibn 'Abdul-Azîz had procured a copy of this text from Salim and 'Abdullah, the grandsons of 'Umar. I have the same copy with me. [Sunan Abu Dâwûd]
The Script of 'Amr ibn Hazm
In 10 A.H., when Najran was conquered by the Muslims, the Holy Prophet appointed his companion, 'Amr ibn Hazm as governer of the province of Yemen. At this time the Holy Prophet dictated a detailed book to Ubayy ibn Ka'b and handed it over to 'Amr ibn Hazm.
This book, besides some general advices, contained the rules of Sharî'ah about purification, salâh, zakâh, 'ushr, hajj, 'umrah, jihâd (battle), spoils, taxes, diyah (blood money), administration, education, etc.
Sayyiduna 'Amr ibn Hazm performed his functions as governor of Yemen in the light of this book. After his demise this document remained with his grandson, Abu Bakr. Imâm Zuhri learnt and copied it from him. He used to teach it to his pupils. [Certain extracts of this book are found in the works of hadîth. For the full text see, al-Wathâ'iq as-Sayâsiyyah fil-Islâm by Dr. Hamîdullâh.]
Written Directives to Other Governors
Similarly, when the Holy Prophet appointed some of his companions as governors of different provinces he used to dictate to them similar documents as his directives which they could follow in performing their duties as rulers or as judges. When he appointed Abu Hurairah and Ala ibn al-Hazrami as his envoy to the Zoroastrians of Hajar, he dictated to them a directive containing certain rules of Sharî'ah about Zakâh and 'Ushr. [Tabaqât Ibn Sa'd]
Likewise, when he sent Mu'âdh ibn Jabal and Malik ibn Murarah to Yemen, he gave them a document dictated by him which contained certain rules of Sharî'ah. [ibid]
Written Directives for Certain Delegations
Certain Arab tribes who lived in remote areas far from Madînah, after embracing Islâm used to send their delegations to the Holy Prophet. These delegations used to stay at Madînah for a considerable period during which they would learn the teachings of Islâm, read the Holy Qur'ân and listen to the sayings of the Holy Prophet. When they returned to their homes, some of them requested the Holy Prophet to dictate some instructions for them and for their tribes. The Holy Prophet used to accept this request and would dictate some directives containing such rules of Sharî'ah as they most needed.
1. Sayyiduna Wa'il ibn Hujr came from Yemen and before leaving for home, requested the Holy Prophet :
Write me a book addressed to my tribe.
The Holy Prophet dictated three documents to Sayyiduna Mu'awiyah. One of these documents pertained to personal problems of Wa'il ibn Hujr, while the other two consisted of certain general precepts of Sharî'ah concerning Salâh, Zakâh, prohibition of liquor, usury, and certain other matters. [ibid]
2. Munqiz ibn Hayyan, a member of the tribe of Abdul-Qais, came to the Holy Prophet and embraced Islâm. While returning home he was given a written document by the Holy Prophet which he carried to his tribe but initially he did not disclose it to anyone. When, due to his efforts, his father-in-law embraced Islâm, he handed over the document to him who in turn read it before his tribe which subsequently embraced Islâm. It was after this that the famous delegation of Abdul-Qais came to the Holy Prophet. The detailed narration is found in the books of Bukhâri and Muslim. [Mirqât Sharh Mishkât; Sharh an-Nawawi]
3. The delegation of the tribe of Ghamid came to the Holy Prophet and embraced Islâm. The Holy Prophet sent them to Sayyiduna Ubayy ibn Ka'b who taught them the Holy Qur'ân and:
the Holy Prophet dictated for them a book containing injunctions of Islâm. [Tabaqât Ibn Sa'd]
4. The delegation of the tribe of Khath'am came to the Holy Prophet. While discussing their arrival Ibn Sa'd reports on the authority of different reliable narrators:
They said, "We believe in Allâh, His messenger and in whatever has come from Allâh. So, write for us a document that we may follow." The Holy Prophet wrote for them a document. Jarir ibn 'Abdullâh and those present stood as witnesses to that document. [ibid]
5. The delegation of the tribes of Sumalah and Huddan came after the conquest of Makkah. They embraced Islâm. The Holy Prophet dictated for them a document containing Islâmic injunctions about Zakâh. Sayyiduna Thâbit ibn Qais had written the document and Sa'd ibn Ubâdah and Muhammad ibn Maslamah stood as witnesses. [ibid]
6. The same Thâbit ibn Qais also wrote a document dictated by the Holy Prophet for the delegation of the tribe of Aslam. The witnesses were Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah and 'Umar ibn al-Khattâb.
These are only a few examples which are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. Many other instances of the same nature are found in only one book, namely the Tabaqât of Ibn Sa'd. A thorough research in all the relevant books would certainly expose a large number of like events for which a more detailed book is required.
All these examples refer to those events only where the Holy Prophet dictated documents containing general Islâmic injunctions. He has also dictated numerous official documents in individual cases. The large number of such documents prevents us from providing even a short reference to all of them in this brief study. All these documents also form part of the Sunnah and a large number of Islâmic injunctions are inferred from them. In brevity, we instead would only refer to a work of Dr. Muhammad Hamîdullâh, namely, al-Wathâ'iq as-Siyâsiyyah, in which he has compiled a considerable number of such documents. Those who desire further study may peruse the same.
The Compilations of Hadîth by the Companions of the Holy Prophet
As discussed earlier, the Holy Prophet has not only permitted but also persuaded his companions to write down his ahâdîth. In pursuance of this direction, the blessed companions of the Holy Prophet used to write ahâdîth, and a considerable number of them have compiled these writings in book forms. Some examples are given below.
The Scripts of Abu Hurairah
It is well-known that Abu Hurairah has narrated more ahâdîth than any other companion of the Holy Prophet. The number of ahâdîth reported by him is said to be 5374. The reason was that he, after embracing Islâm, devoted his full life for the sole purpose of bearing and preserving the ahâdîth of the Holy Prophet. Unlike the other famous companions, he did not employ himself in any economic activity. He used to remain in the mosque of the Holy Prophet to hear what he said and to witness each event around him. He remained hungry, faced starvations and hardships. Yet, he did not leave the function he had undertaken.
There are concrete evidences that he had preserved the ahâdîth in written form. One of his pupils, namely, Hasan ibn 'Amr reports that once:
Abu Hurairah took him to his home and showed him "many books" containing the ahâdîth of the Holy Prophet. [Jâmi' Bayân-ul-'Ilm; Fath-ul-Bâri]
It shows that Abu Hurairah had many scripts of ahâdîth with him. It is also established that a number of his pupils had prepared several scripts of his narrations.
The Script of 'Abdullâhi ibn 'Amr
It has been stated earlier that 'Abdullâh ibn 'Amr was specifically instructed by the Holy Prophet to write ahâdîth. He therefore compiled a big script and named it "As-Sahîfah as-Sâdiqah" (The script of truth). 'Abdullâh ibn 'Amr was very precautious in preserving this script. Mujâhid, one of his favorite pupils says, "I went to 'Abdullâh ibn 'Amr and took in hand a script placed beneath his cushion. He stopped me. I said, 'You never save anything from me.' He replied:
This is the Sâdiqah (the Script of Truth). It is what I heard from the Holy Prophet. No other narrator intervenes between him and myself. If this script, the Book of Allâh, and wahaz (his agricultural land) are secured for me, I would never care about the rest of the world. [Jâmi' Bayân-ul-'Ilm]
This script remained with his children. His grandson, 'Amr ibn Shu'aib used to teach the ahâdîth contained in it. Yahyâ ibn Ma'in and 'Ali ibn al-Madini have said that every tradition reported by 'Amr ibn Shu'aib in any book of hadîth has been taken from this script [Tahdhîb at-Tahdhîb]. Ibn al-Asir says that this script contained one thousand ahâdîth. [Asad-ul-Ghâbah]
The Script of Anas
Sayyiduna Anas ibn Mâlik was one of those companions of the Holy Prophet who knew writing. His mother had brought him to the Holy Prophet when he was ten years old. He remained in the service of the Holy Prophet for ten years during which he heard a large number of ahâdîth and wrote them down. Sa'îd ibn Hilal, one of his pupils, says,
When we insisted upon Anas, may Allâh be pleased with him, he would bring to us some notebooks and say, "These are what I have heard and written from the Holy Prophet, after which I have presented them to the Holy Prophet for confirmation. [Mustadrik Hâkim]
It shows that Sayyiduna Anas had not only written a large number of ahâdîth in several notebooks, but had also showed them to the Holy Prophet who had confirmed them.
The Script of 'Ali
It is well known that Sayyiduna 'Ali had a script of ahâdîth with him. He says,
I have not written anything from the Holy Prophet except the Holy Qur'ân and what is contained in this script. [Sahîh Bukhâri- Book of Jihad]
Imâm Bukhâri has mentioned this script at six different places of his Sahîh. A combined study of all those places reveals that this script was substantially large and it consisted of ahâdîth about qisâs (retaliation), diyah (blood money), fidyah (ransom), rights of the non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state, some specific kinds of inheritance, zakâh rules pertaining to camels of different ages, and some rules about the sanctity of the city of Madînah.
The script was written by Sayyiduna 'Ali in the days of the Holy Prophet. Then, in the days of his khilâfah (rule), he felt that the ahâdîth of the Holy Prophet should be spread among the people to widen the range of Islamic knowledge and to refute certain misguided ideas prevalent in those days.
It is reported by the famous historian Ibn Sa'd that he stood in the mosque and delivered a lecture. Then he asked the people,
"Who will purchase 'knowledge' for one dirham only?"
He meant that whoever wanted to learn ahâdîth, should buy writing paper for one dirham and come to him, for dictation of the ahâdîth of the Holy Prophet.
It is reported that Hârith al-A'war bought some paper and came to him:
So, ('Ali) wrote for him a lot of knowledge. [Tabaqât Ibn Sa'd]
It should be kept in mind that the word "knowledge" in the early centuries of Islamic history was used for the knowledge of ahâdîth only. [ibid]
Scripts of Jâbir
Jâbir ibn 'Abdullâh is one of the famous companions of the Holy Prophet who has narrated a large number of ahâdîth. It is established that he had compiled the ahâdîth in two scripts. One of them contained a detailed account of the last Hajj performed by the Holy Prophet. The full text of this script is found in the Sahîh of Muslim wherein he has described even the minute details of the last Hajj. [Sahîh Muslim- Book of Hajj. Dhahabi says that this is a replica of Jâbir's script.]
His second script contained other ahâdîth relating to different subjects.
Qatâdah, the famous pupil of Jâbir, says,
I remember the script of Jâbir more than I remember Surah al-Baqarah (of the Holy Qur'ân). [Tahdhîb at-Tahdhîb]
Reference to this script is also found in the Musannaf of 'Abdurrazzâq where some ahâdîth of this script are reported.
Scripts of Ibn 'Abbâs
'Abdullah ibn 'Abbâs was the cousin of the Holy Prophet. When the Holy Prophet passed away, he was yet very young. In order to preserve ahâdîth, he began to compile what he himself heard from the Holy Prophet as well as those narrated by other companions. Whenever he came to know of any companion having some ahâdîth, he would travel to him to hear them. All such ahâdîth were compiled by him in several scripts. These scripts numbered so many that they could be loaded on a camel. These scripts remained with his pupil Kuraib. Musa ibn 'Uqbah, the famous historian, says:
Kuraib left with us a camel load of Ibn 'Abbâs's books. When 'Ali ibn 'Abdullâh ibn 'Abbâs would need any book from them, he wrote to Kuraib, 'Send to me such and such books.' He would then transcribe the book and send to him one of the two copies. [Tabaqât Ibn Sa'd]
The pupils of Ibn 'Abbâs would copy these scripts and read them over to him to confirm the correctness of the copies. [Jâmi' at-Tirmidhi]
Sometimes Ibn 'Abbâs would narrate the ahâdîth to his pupils while they would record them. [Sunan Dârimi]
These are only a few examples of efforts made by the companions of the Holy Prophet for the compilation of ahâdîth. We do not intend here to present an exhaustive survey of such efforts. Detailed books can be consulted for this purpose. Our purpose here was to give only some examples. These concrete examples are more than sufficient to refute the fallacious assumption that the ahâdîth were never written in the days of the Holy Prophet and his companions.
The Compilation of Ahâdîth in the Era After the Companions
The history of the compilation of ahâdîth after the companions is even more vast and detailed. Each companion who narrated the ahâdîth had a large number of pupils who compiled what they heard from him. The pupils of the companions are called "Tâbi'în."
The compilations of the Tâbi'în were generally not arranged subject wise, though some of them have arranged the ahâdîth under subjective headings. The first known book of hadîth which is so arranged is Al-Abwâb of Imâm Sha'bi (19-103 A.H.). This book was divided into various chapters. Each chapter contained the ahâdîth relating to the same subject like salâh, zakâh, etc.
This proves that the first book of ahâdîth arranged in a regular manner appeared in the very first century. Another book was written by Hasan al-Basri (d.110) in which he compiled ahâdîth containing any explanations or commentaries of the Holy Qur'ân [Tadrîb ar-Râwi]. This was also a regular book written on a particular subject which appeared in the first century.
In the era of the Tâbi'în the compilation of ahâdîth was undertaken officially by the famous khalîfah, 'Umar ibn 'Abdul-Azîz (99-101 A.H.). He issued an official order to all governors under his domain that they should gather the knowledgeable persons from among the companions of the Holy Prophet and their pupils and write down the ahâdîth found with them [Fath al-Bâri].
The result of this official decree was that several books of ahâdîth were prepared and spread all over the country. Ibn Shihâb az-Zuhri was one of the pioneers of the compilation of hadîth in this period. He has written a number of books.
All these books and scripts written in this period were afterwards included in the larger books of hadîth written later on, as is usual in the evolution of every science. The separate entity of these books and scripts, being uncalled for, was not much attended to. Thus, the larger books written in the second and third centuries gradually took their place, and being more comprehensive, detailed, and sufficient, they were so widely spread and studied that the books of the Tâbi'în no longer remained on the scene.
However, some manuscripts of these books were preserved. Later books were compared and confirmed by such preserved manuscripts.
One of the books written in the days of the Tâbi'în was the script of Hammam ibn Munabbih, a pupil of Abu Hurairah, who prepared a book containing ahâdîth he heard from Abu Hurairah. This book is also known as "As-Sahîfah as-Sahîhah." All the ahâdîth of this book were included in later compilations. The full text of it is also found in the Musnad of Imâm Ahmad. The original script of this book was thus not attended to and was lost for a considerable time.
In 1373 A.H. (1954 C.E.), two manuscripts of this book were discovered in the libraries of Berlin and Damascus, and were published by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah with a detailed introduction.
Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah edited these manuscripts which were written centuries ago. He has also compared their text with the one narrated in the Musnad of Imâm Ahmad. He could not find any material difference between the two texts. There are a few very minor differences of negligible words which always exist between two manuscripts of the same book.
It proves that the books of the Tâbi'în were included and were thus made part of the later books of hadîth, with all necessary precautions by which they can safely be relied upon.
The Compilations of the First Century
We present here a list of hadîth works written by the Tâbi'în in the first and second centuries. In the first century the following books of hadîth were compiled by the Tâbi'în:
1. Book of Khalid ibn Ma'dan (d. 104)
2. Books of Abu Qilabah (d. 104). He bequeathed his books to his pupil, Ayyub Saktiyan (68-131 A.H.), who paid more than ten dirhams as a fare for them being loaded on a camel.
3. The script of Hammam ibn Munabbih, already referred to.
4. Books of Hasan al-Basri (21-110 A.H.)
5. Books of Muhammad al-Baqir (56-114 A.H.)
6. Books of Makhul from Syria
7. Book of Hakam ibn 'Utaibah
8. Book of Bukair ibn 'Abdullah ibn al-Ashajj (d. 117)
9. Book of Qais ibn Sa'd (d. 117). This book later belonged to Hammad ibn Salamah.
10. Book of Sulaiman al-Yashkuri
11. Al-Abwâb of Sha'bi, already referred to.
12. Books of Ibn Shihâb az-Zuhri
13. Book of Abul-'Aliyah
14. Book of Sa'id ibn Jubair (d. 95)
15. Books of 'Umar ibn 'Abdul Aziz (61-101 A.H.)
16. Books of Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 103)
17. Book of Raja ibn Hywah (d. 112)
18. Book of Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn 'Amr ibn Haq
19. Book of Bashir ibn Nahik.
The Books of Hadîth Written in the Second Century
The basic characteristic of the books written in the second century is that a large number of them were arranged subject-wise, while the books of the first century were not. However, compilations without due arrangement continued in this century too. The list of books compiled in this period is very long. A few prominent books are referred to here:
1. Book of 'Abdul Malik ibn Juraij (d. 150)
2. Muwatta of Malik ibn Anas (93-179)
3. Muwatta of Ibn Abi Zi'b (80-158)
4. Maghâzi of Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 151)
5. Musnad of Rabi' ibn Sabih (d. 160)
6. Book of Sa'id ibn Abi 'Arubah (d. 156)
7. Book of Hammad ibn Salmah (d. 167)
8. Jami' Sufyan ath-Thauri (97-161)
9. Jami' Ma'mar ibn Rashid (95-153)
10. Book of 'Abdur-Rahman al-Awzâ'I (88-157)
11. Kitâb az-Zuhd by 'Abdullâh ibn al-Mubârak (118-181)
12. Book of Hushaim ibn Bashir (104-183)
13. Book of Jarir ibn 'Abdul-Hamid (110-188)
14. Book of 'Abdullâh ibn Wahb (125-197)
15. Book of Yahya ibn Abi Kathîr (d. 129)
16. Book of Muhammad ibn Suqah (d. 135)
17. Tafsîr of Zaid ibn Aslam (d. 136)
18. Book of Musa ibn 'Uqbah (d. 141)
19. Book of Ash'ath ibn 'Abdul-Malik (d. 142)
20. Book of Aqil ibn Khalid (d. 142)
21. Book of Yahya ibn Sa'id Ansari (d. 143)
22. Book of Awf ibn Abi Jamilah (d. 146)
23. Books of Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (d. 148)
24. Books of Yunus ibn Yazid (d. 152)
25. Book of 'Abdur-Rahman al-Mas'udi (d. 160)
26. Books of Zaidah ibn Qudamah (d. 161)
27. Books of Ibrahim al-Tahman (d. 163)
28. Books of Abu Hamzah al-Sukri (d. 167)
29. Al-Gharâib by Shu'bah ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 160)
30. Books of 'Abdul-Aziz ibn 'Abdullâh al-Majishun (d. 164)
31. Books of 'Abdullâh ibn 'Abdullâh ibn Abi Uwais (d. 169)
32. Books of Sulaiman ibn Bilal (d. 172)
33. Books of 'Abdullâh ibn Lahi'ah (d. 147)
34. Jami' Sufyan ibn 'Uyainah (d. 198)
35. Kitâb-ul-Âthâr by Imâm Abu Hanîfah (d. 150)
36. Maghâzi of Mu'tamir ibn Sulaiman (d. 187)
37. Musannaf of Waki' ibn Jarrah (d. 196)
38. Musannaf of 'Abdur-Razzâq ibn Hammam (136-221)
39. Musnad of Zaid ibn 'Ali (76-122)
40. Books of Imâm Shâfi'i (150-204)
The following books written in this age are still available in printed form:
1. Al-Muwatta by Imâm Mâlik.
2. Kitâb-ul-Âthâr by Imâm Abu Hanîfah.
3. Musannaf by 'Abdur-Razzâq. This book has been published in eleven big volumes.
4. As-Sîrah by Muhammad ibn Ishaq.
5. Kitâb az-Zuhd by 'Abdullâh ibn al-Mubârak.
6. Kitâb az-Zuhd by Waki' ibn Jarrâh (3 volumes).
7. Al-Musnad by Zaid ibn 'Ali (76-122).
8. Sunan of Imâm Shâfi'i.
9. Musnad of Shâfi'i.
10. Siyar of Awzâ'i (88-157).
11. Musnad of 'Abdullâh ibn al-Mubârak.
12. Musnad of Abu Dâwûd Tayalisi (d. 204).
13. Ar-Radd 'ala Siyaril-Awzâ'i by Imâm Abu Yûsuf.
14. Al-Hujjah 'ala Ahlil-Madînah by Imâm Muhammad ibn Hasan Shaibâni.
15. Kitâbul-Umm by Imâm Shâfi'i.
16. Al-Maghâzi by Waqidi (130-206) (4 volumes).
This list is by no means exhaustive. But a careful study of these books only which are available today in printed forms would clearly reveal that their style is much developed and they definitely do not seem to be the first books on their subject. Some of them are in more than ten volumes, and their arrangement shows that the compilation of hadîth in those days reached a developed stage.
All these valuable efforts of compiling the ahâdîth belong to the first and second centuries. Hence, one can easily see how false is the assumption that the compilation of ahâdîth did not take place before the third century.
What we have cited above is more than sufficient to prove that the compilation of ahâdîth had begun in the very days of the Holy Prophet and has continued in each point of time thereafter. This process has, no doubt, passed through certain stages as is usual in every new science or branch of knowledge. But the assumption that the process did not begin before the third century cannot by substantiated on any ground whatsoever.
The Criticism of Ahâdîth
Although the task of preserving the ahâdîth through all the four ways mentioned earlier, including compilations in written form has been performed with due diligence throughout the first four centuries of Islamic history, yet it does not mean that all the traditions narrated or compiled in this period have been held as true and reliable.
In fact, in the same period in which the work of the compilation of ahâdîth was going on, a very systematic science of criticism was developed by the scholars of hadîth in which numerous tests were suggested to verify the correctness of a narration. All these tests were applied to each and every tradition or report before holding it reliable. The different branches of knowledge which have been introduced by the scholars of the science of hadîth has no parallel in the art of historical criticism throughout world history. It is not possible for us to herein present even a brief introduction of these different branches and the valuable works produced in this respect. It may be said without any fear of exaggeration that thousands of books have been written on these different branches of knowledge regarding the science of hadîth.
It will be pertinent, however, to give a brief example of the nature of the criticism of ahâdîth carried on by scholars and the different tests applied by them to ascertain the veracity of a hadîth.
The traditions viewed from different angles have been classified into hundreds of kinds. Relative to their standards of authenticity, the traditions are ultimately classified into four major categories:
(a) Sahîh (sound)
(b) Hasan (good)
(c) Da'îf (weak)
(d) Maudû' (fabricated)
Only the first two kinds are held to be reliable. Precepts of the Shari'ah can be based on and inferred from only these two kinds. Hence, only the ahâdîth of these two categories are held to be the source of Islamic law. The other two kinds have little or no value especially in legal or doctrinal matters.
Before declaring a hadîth as sahîh or hasan, the following tests are applied:
(a) Scrutiny of its narrators.
(b) Scrutiny of the constancy of the chain of narrators.
(c) Comparison of its chain and text with other available paths of narration in the same manner.
(d) Examination of the chain and the text of the hadîth in the light of other material available on the subject, and to ensure that there is no defect in the chain or in the text.
We will try to give a brief explanation of these four tests as they are applied by the scholars of hadîth to scrutinize the veracity of a tradition.
1. Scrutiny of the narrators
The first and foremost test of the correctness of a hadîth relates to the credibility of its narrators. This scrutiny is carried out on two scores: firstly, examination of the integrity and honesty of a narrator, and secondly, examination of his memory power.
To carry out this scrutiny, a separate complete Science has been introduced which is called 'Ilm-ur-Rijâl (the knowledge of men). The scholars of this science devoted their lives for the thorough enquiry about each person who has reported a hadîth. For this, they used to go to his place and enquire about him from his neighbors, pupils, and friends so that no scholar would be impressed by his personal relations with a narrator. 'Ali ibn al-Madini, the famous scholar of Rijâl, when asked about his father, first tried to avoid the question and replied, "Ask some other scholar about him." But when the question was repeated with a request for his own opinion, he said:
It is the matter of Faith, (I, therefore, reply) he is a weak narrator.
Waki' ibn Jarrâh, the well-known Imâm of hadîth, held his father as "weak" in hadîth, and did not rely on his reports unless they are confirmed by some reliable narrator.
Imâm Abu Dâwûd, the author of one of the Six Books, has opined about his son 'Abdullâh (this is the same 'Abdullâh whose work, Kitâb-ul-Masalif, has been published by some orientalists), that he was "a great liar."
Zaid ibn Abi Unaisah has said about his brother Yahya, "Do not accept the traditions of my brother Yahya, because he is reputed in lying."
Similar opinions are recorded in the books of the 'Ilm-ur-Rijâl. Hundreds of books have been written on this subject. Here are only a few examples:
Tahdhîb at-Tahdhîb by Hâfiz Ibn Hajar: Printed in twelve volumes, this book has been designed to give a brief account of all the narrators whose narration is found in the famous Six Books of hadîth only. It contains the life accounts of 12,455 narrators, arranged in alphabetical order. (This is the total of the members given in each volume separately. Sometimes, the same narrator has been mentioned in different places with different names. So, the actual number of the narrators may be less, but not less than 10,000.)
You can pick up any name from any chain of any hadîth in any book from the Six Books. This name will certainly be found in the Tahdhîb at-Tahdhîb recorded in its place in alphabetical scheme. There you can find his dates of birth and death, the list of his teachers, the list of his pupils, important events of his life, and the opinions of the scholars about his credibility.
There are several other books meant for the narrators of the Six Books exclusively, and after consulting them one can easily reach a definite conclusion about the veracity of a narrator.
Lisân al-Mîzân by Hâfiz Ibn Hajar: This book is meant exclusively for those narrators whose names do not appear in any chain contained in any of the Six Books. It means that the traditions reported by them are found only in some books other than the Six Books.
This book consists of seven volumes and embodies the introduction of 5,991 narrators.
Ta'jîl al-Manfa'ah by Hâfiz Ibn Hajar: This book is confined to the introductions of the narrators whose traditions are found in the books of the four Imâms: Mâlik, Abu Hanîfah, Shâfi'i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and are not among the narrators of the Six Books. Thus, it contains the introduction of 1,732 narrators.
All these three books are written and compiled by the same person, namely, Hâfiz Ibn Hajar. It means that he has compiled the introduction of more than seventeen thousand narrators of hadîth.
This is the effort of only a single scholar. Many other books are available on the same subject. The following table will show the large number of narrators introduced in a few famous books of Rijâl which are frequently referred to:
Name of the book
Number of narrators
Ibn Abi Hatim
Hâfiz Ibn Hajar
Hâfiz Ibn Hajar
The last book of this table has introduced only those narrators who have been held as "weak" narrators. Similar books are written by Ibn Abi Hatim, Dâraqutni, etc. On the contrary, there are books which deal with the reliable narrators only, like Thiqât of Ibn Hibbân in eleven volumes.
Anyhow, if a narrator is found to be dishonest, has very weak memory or he is unknown, no trust is placed on his narrations. A large number of traditions has been repudiated on this score alone.
2. Constancy of the chain of narrators
It is well-known that no report, in the science of hadîth, is accepted unless it gives the full chain of narrators upto the Holy Prophet. Each narrator from this chain is first scrutinized on the touch-stone of his credibility as discussed above. But even if all the narrators of a chain are found to be reliable, it is not enough to hold the tradition as authentic. It must be proved that the chain is constant and no narrator has been missed in between. If it is found that some narrator has been missed at any stage, the tradition is held to be unreliable. To ensure the constancy of the chain, it is necessary to know about each narrator whether it is possible for him historically to meet the person from whom he claims to hear the tradition.
This scrutiny is indeed very difficult and delicate. But the scholars of the science of hadîth have undertaken this task in such an accurate manner that one cannot but wonder.
While holding an enquiry about each narrator, the scholars, besides ascertaining his integrity and memory, would also survey his teachers and pupils. Thus, a detailed list of both his teachers and pupils is available in each detailed book of Rijâl. So, when deciding about the constancy of a hadîth the scholars do not only make themselves sure about the dates of birth and death of each narrator, but also examine the list of his teachers and pupils.
Not only this, they often try to fix the time-span in which a narrator had opportunities to meet a particular teacher and that in which he did actually hear ahâdîth from him. On the basis of this information they derive certain important conclusions about the credibility of a narrator.
For example, 'Abdullâh ibn Lahi'ah is a well-known Egyptian narrator of hadîth. It is established that his memory was weak and he used to narrate those traditions which he wrote. At a particular time, his house was burnt by fire and all his books were also burnt. After this occurrence he sometimes used to report ahâdîth from his memory. Therefore, some scholars have decided that his narrations before the accident are reliable while those narrated after it are not worthy of trust. Now, the pupils who have heard ahâdîth from him in the early period, their narrations may be accepted, while the reports of those who have heard from him in the later period cannot be relied upon. The scholars have scrutinized the list of his pupils and have specified the names of his early pupils, like 'Abdullâh ibn Wahb, etc. and have declared that all the rest should be treated as his later pupils, and no trust might be placed on their narrations.
In short, the second type of scrutiny, which is very essential in the criticism of traditions, relates to the constancy and perpetuity of the chain of narrators. If it is found that a narrator has not heard the hadîth directly from the one to whom he is ascribing it, the tradition is said to be Munqati' (broken) which cannot be treated as reliable.
3. Comparison with other narrations: The third test applied to a tradition relates to its comparison with what is narrated by other pupils of the same teacher.
Sometimes a tradition is reported by several narrators. All these reports about the same saying or event are said to be the turuq (different paths) of that tradition. While scrutinizing a tradition, the scholars undertake a combined study of all its "paths." If it is found that the majority of the reliable reporters narrate the hadîth in a particular way, but one of them reports it in a version substantially different from that of the others, his report is held to be a shâdh (rare) version. In such case, despite the reliability of the reporter, his version is not accepted as a sahîh (sound) one, and no trust is placed on it unless it is confirmed and supported by any internal or external evidence.
4. General analysis of the tradition: The last, and very important, scrutiny is accompanied by the general analysis of a tradition. In this scrutiny the tradition is analyzed in the light of other relevant material available on the subject. The tradition is examined from different angles: whether the reported saying or event is at all possible; whether the reported event conforms to the established historical events; whether its text can be held as truly attributed to the Holy Prophet; whether the chain of narrators is genuine, etc.
This is a very difficult and delicate scrutiny which cannot be undertaken successfully unless the scholar has full command over all the relevant subjects, occupies complete knowledge of hadîth, and has a great skill in the science of criticism of hadîth.
If, after this scrutiny, a strong doubt appears to a scholar about the authenticity of a hadîth, he points out that there is a "defect" ('ilal) in the chain or in the text of the hadîth, and a tradition having this kind of 'illah or defect is not held as sahîh.
Thus, a sahîh (sound) hadîth has been defined by the scholars as follows:
"What is reported, by a reporter who is honest and of good memory power, without any break in the chain of narrators, without any shudhûdh (rareness) and without any 'illah (defect)." (Taqi Usmani, The Authority of Sunnah, Chapter 3: The Authority of the Sunnah: Its Historical Aspect, Source)