A brief introduction to hadith science


Hadith literature forms a valuable source of information that gives us great insights into understanding the teachings contained in the Qur'an and the sunnah. We come across ahadith (plural) from different sources and categories that attribute a narration to the Prophet (peace be upon him). And therefore it is important to have a basic understanding of hadith and its compilation. 


A hadith primarily consists of two components. 
1). Isnad
2). Mat'n

Let us take a simple example here. Muhammad b. Jubayr b. Mut'im narrates from his father that the Prophet (s.a.w.) said "If anyone ascribes something to me which is ma'ruf and well-known to you, take it [as my statement]. If something which you do not acknowledge as ma'ruf is ascribed to me then you should reject it. For I do not utter munkar (abhorrent) things nor am I one of those who give munkar statements."[1]

In the above example, the words of the Prophet have reached through two intermediate people. Muhammad b. Jubayr heard from his father who heard it from the Prophet. This chain of transmission is called Isnad. 

The narration i.e. "If anyone ascribes something to me...." which is the content of the hadith is called Mat'n. Both the Isnad and the Mat'n play a vital role in the verification of any hadith. We shall have a brief overview of how these authentications are done and also the opinion of some of the pioneers in the field of ahadith compilation. 


Principles of hadith selection

Before we dive deep into the principles of Isnad, we shall look upon the fundamental principles and the guiding criterion to distinguish between sound and unsound ahadith. 

1). A hadith abhorrent to the understanding and religious taste of the believers and pious scholars cannot be accepted.
2). A shadh (rare) narrative which does not accord with the customary practice of the Muslims will not be accepted. 
3). A narrative that contradicts the Qur'an in any aspect shall be rejected. 
4). Narratives that contradict the known Sunnah are to be rejected.
5). Any narrative that contradicts the dictates of reason shall be discarded. 
6). Any narrative contradicting the conclusive and definitive evidence and arguments cannot be accepted.  


Utmost care is taken to ensure that a narrative is not wrongly ascribed to the Prophet and seeps its way into the religion. These fundamental principles of the science of ahadith literature were outlined by Khatib Baghdadi in his famous book al-Kifayah fi' Ilm al-Riwayah.


Analyzing the isnad

We now move towards the other and an equally important component of any hadith which is its isnad. In analyzing and scrutinizing the chain of transmission, every individual narrator's life and character is looked into deeply until the chain of transmission is traced all the way to a companion (r.a.) who eventually heard it from the Prophet himself. The companions however are free from any probing and inspection. Since Allah s.w.t Himself declares in the Qur'an the addressing the companions,

"And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you." [Qur'an 2:143] 

This shows that after the Prophet, the companions were to shoulder the responsibility of communicating and disseminating the religion of Islam. The Prophet had himself called his companions like "the stars in the sky". It was for this reason that the ahadith scholars unanimously agreed that the principles of character and cognitive analysis will not be applied to the companions (r.a.)


The viewpoints of Muhaddithuns

Once this principle was applied, an important question arose regarding the definition of a Companion.  Who is a sahabi? The scholars of hadith quite naturally, differed over this issue and three distinct groups[2] emerged

The opinion held by the first group can be represented by 'Abd Allah b. Umar (r.a.) stated, "I have observed that every adult Muslim who met the Prophet even for a moment while he understood the religion and found it pleasing can be called a sahabi. However, I believe that the companions can be divided into categories according to taqaddum fi' al-Islam"

By taqaddum fi' al-Islam,  'Abd Allah b. Umar (r.a.) means that going by this definition, all the companions are not equal but rather of different religious status and should be put in different categories.

The view held by the second group of scholars has been represented by Sa'id b. al-Musayyab as follows, "We do not consider someone a sahabi unless he remained in the company of the Prophet for a year or two and has fought with him a couple of battles". 

The third viewpoint of the scholars although agrees to the fact that the word sahabi be restricted to only those who have been with the Prophet for quite a long time and have been meeting him continuously. However, the ahadith transmitted by reliable and trustworthy individuals among the first generations shall be accepted even though the narrator has not been blessed with a longer company of the Prophet and has heard him only once.


Different ahadith scholars carried on the task of verifying and authenticating the sayings of the Prophet in the manner they deemed fit. Based upon the studies carried out, respective scholars graded the narrative into the following categories depending upon the authenticity
1). Sahih
2). Hassan
3). Dhaef
4). Mau'du


The order of mention is a gradual shift from the most authentic to the fabricated narratives. Herein, sahih forms the most reliable category while mau'du being the category of fabricated ahadith. It should be noted that these categories are not absolute for a hadith. Rather, one scholar may find a hadith to be fit for a particular category, as per his criterion, while the other may consider it more appropriate for another category. No doubt, the ummah shall forever be grateful that these extraordinary personalities were born during the early centuries of Islam and filtered out a large number of fabricated ahadith which would have been much difficult to carry out in later centuries. 


Primary Hadith collections

The three most distinguished work among all the works of hadith literature is Imam Malik's Muwatta, Sahih al Bukhari and Sahih al Muslim. So far we have only looked upon some of the fundamental principles in analyzing any hadith. However, Imam Malik, Imam Bukhari, and Imam Muslim had way more strict parameters to test the authenticity and credibility of any saying attributed to the Prophet of Islam. Let us look at some of the distinguishing qualities that make these collections unique and one of a kind.  


Imam Malik's Muwatta

Muwatta is the first effort to compile ahadith, a work that earned fame and acknowledgement across all ages. Imam Malik lived in the second century of Islam and taught hadith at the Prophet's mosque in Medina. He compiled his book after carefully selecting a thousand ahadith from a hundred thousand narrations. Muwatta is the fruit of his forty years of work while living in Medina. After completion of his book, Imam Malik presented his work to seventy reputed scholars of Medina who considered his work to be of high credibility and importance. Imam Shaf'i is reported to have said "No book is sounder than Muwatta of Imam Malik except the Qur'an". 

The principles of accepting ahadith which Imam Malik has followed makes his book a reliable one. Here are some principles that make this book one of a kind[3]

Comprehensiveness and briefness: While the book is a short work of hadith collection, nevertheless Imam Malik gave forty years in taking utmost care to cover all the necessary issues. 

Verbatim narratives only: Imam Malik took care in taking only those narratives which were reported in the exact words of the Prophet and not any indirect speech. He even gave consideration to letters, prepositions, and particles. 

No report from innovators: Imam Malik has been very careful in not accepting any hadith from an innovator even if he did not invite people to his innovation. He declared them unworthy and unreliable. 

Classic literariness: Just like the Qur'anic speech is unparalleled and incomparable, the speech of the Prophet was also unique and eloquent. Accepting only verbatim narrations helped in not only analyzing the language of every narration but also gave his book a highly literary form of classic Arabic. 


Sahih of Imam Bukhari

Imam Bukhari lived in the third century of Islam. He was the great grand student of Imam Malik. He selected a few thousand ahadith from five hundred thousand narratives and spent sixteen years in selecting and shifting the sound narration from the unsound. His great efforts produced an excellent work of the ahadith literature highly regarded till this day. In due course, we shall discuss some of the special qualities that make the book of Imam Bukhari[4] so widely acclaimed. 

Chain of narrators: Since Imam Bukhari lived a century after Imam Malik, he had a greater challenge when it came to the isnad. Nevertheless, Imam Bukhari's analysis and the critical investigation reached the level of excellence. He ensured that not only should the life span of every consecutive narrator overlap but that the evidence for their meeting should be verifiable. Imam Muslim on the other hand only adhered to the overlapping in the life span of the narrators as sufficient proof.

Choice of narrators: Imam Bukhari accepted narratives only from those who in his knowledge not only believed in Islam but also practised its teachings. This further adds to the soundness in the chain of narrators. 

Ordering of chapters: The proper arranging of chapters expresses the profound knowledge of Imam Bukhari. The systematic arrangement of ahadith into chapters helps the readers in developing a proper understanding of the religion. 


Sahih of Imam Muslim

Imam Muslim was the student of Imam Bukhari who carried on his legacy of ahadith compilation. Imam Muslim collected and investigated three hundred thousand narrations of which he selected a few thousand for his sahih. Imam Muslim claimed that he never accepted or rejected any hadith without having thoroughly investigated it. Let us look at some of the distinctive qualities of the collection of Imam Muslim[5]

Two independent isnads: Imam Muslim only recorded those narratives which were reported by two reliable successors from two different companions transmitted through two independent chains. We did not see any such criterion adopted by Imam Bukhari.

Clipping together all versions: Imam Muslim while writing down any hadith in his book would also mention along with, all the different versions and similar narrations that were also reported. This helps readers in comparing the different narrations to the same incident. 

Choice of wordings: Imam Muslim would also inform the readers about whose wordings he has used in recording the hadith. He would also inform if the narrators have differed over the exact wordings of the tradition. 

This was a glimpse into the world of the study of hadith literature, probably a droplet from the ocean of prophetic knowledge. The work of these geniuses laid the foundation of ahadith analysis. Indeed it was a great blessing from Allah s.w.t. that these great hadith scholars were born in the early centuries of Islam and took up the responsibility of segregation of sound ahadith from the unsound. The work of academia was carried on by later scholars and continues to flourish with the treasure of prophetic knowledge.




Sources: All the key classification and principles have been taken from the book Fundamentals of Hadith Interpretation by Amin Ahsan Islahi
[1] Ibid p.51
[2] Ibid p.60
[3] Ibid p.109
[4] Ibid p.113
[5] Ibid p.115
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