In our current time of confusion and general lack of knowledge about the Islamic Tradition, an increasing number of Muslims are questioning the authority of the Prophetic Tradition that is embodied in the narrations from the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, which have been transmitted through history in major collections of Hadith such as Sahih Al Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan At’Tirmithi, and many others. There are now Muslims who refer to themselves as Al Qur’aniyeen (The Qur’anites), who completely reject the Hadith and claim that it is the cause for the division and strife within the Muslim community. Unbeknownst to them, the cause of division and strife is actually more due to the religious chaos and loss of authority and respect for traditional Muslim scholars. Furthermore, there are new converts to Islam who may find the interplay between the Qur’an and the Hadith slightly confusing. The purpose behind this article is to give a quick history about Hadith collection, which could address some of the misunderstandings of some Muslims about it, and also hopefully clarify the confusion some converts might be feeling about this crucial part of the Islam.
For the benefit of non-Muslims and new converts, as well as those Muslims who have not looked into the matter, a quick definition is in order. To put it simply, the term “Hadith” in Islam refers to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, or the reports of his companions may Allah be pleased with them that related his actions. This is a vast science that is studied all over the Islamic world and involves many branches, which will be addressed shortly.
Something that may not be at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to the Hadith is that its transmission is not written. Rather, as the case is in the transmission of the Quran, transmission of the Hadith is an oral practice. Having access to early written works on the Hadith does not establish their authority, just the same as having later works would not diminish their worth. In fact, it is narrated in the Collection of Sahih Muslim on the authority of Abi Sa’eed Al Khudary may Allah be pleaced with him that the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said:
Do not write on my authority and whoever wrote anything from me other than the Qur’an must erase it
The purpose behind this commandment from the Prophet peace be upon him was that the Arabs were generally an illiterate people who relied upon their astounding memory capabilities to transmit their knowledge, and so it was feared that a confusion between the Qur’an and the Hadith might occur if they were both written simultaneously.
Having mentioned that the Hadith was generally not written, one is not at a loss of finding some Hadith narrations that were in fact written down. But these were exceptions for travelling companions who were taking commandments from the Prophet peace be upon him back to their people. However, when we speak about an officially sanctioned collection of the Hadith, we find that such an act was not taken during the time of the Prophet peace be upon him.
The reliance upon the oral transmission of the Hadith continued through the times of the Rightly Guided Caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali may Allah be pleased with all of them. It also continued afterwards through the times of Mou’awyya, and his son Yazeed, Abdullah Ibn Az’Zubayr, Marwan Ibn Al Hakam, Abdulma’lik Ibn Marwan, Al Waleed Ibn Abdulma’lik, and the time of Sulayman Ibn Abdulma’lik.
In fact, to hear a single Hadith, or to confirm the presence of one word in a Hadith, men used to travel great distances east and west to reach the living person who is part of the chain of transmission whose authority the Hadith is being narrated through.
When Omar Ibn Abdulaziz (died 99 AH) was crowned as the new ruler, he wrote to his appointed mayor of Medina, Abu Bakr Ibn Amro Ibn Muhammad Ibn Hazm, and ordered him to “gather the Hadith of the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him and put it in a single collection for I fear the disappearance of knowledge circles and passing of scholars”. As Al Bukhari and Abu Na’eem Al Asbahani narrate it in their works, this command from Omar Ibn Abdulaziz is the first official order to collect the Hadith.
A possible contradiction arises with the above narration when one reads what Imam As’Souyoti says in his thousand line poem on the science of Hadith. He narrates that it was Ibn Shi’hab Az’Zuhri from the first generation following the companions who was the first to collect the Hadith rather than Abu Bakr Ibn Amro:
أول جامع للحديث والأثر *** ابن شهاب آمر له عمر
The first to collect the Hadith *** Ibn Shi’hab commanded by Omar
The scholars of Hadith have gathered between these two narrations by pointing to the fact that despite Abu Bakr being the first, he did not collect all the Hadith narrations available, and that it was Ibn Shi’hab who collected all the Hadith in Medina.
After Ibn Shi’hab Az’Zuhri scholars started to write their own collections that grouped Hadiths by subjects, which took place in the generation of Imam Malik and his peers in the second century according to the Muslim calendar. This style of grouping Hadiths by subjects in a single collection is generally said to be started by Imam Malik. However, this cannot be confirmed for certainty because a number of scholars wrote collections of Hadith based on subject headings, and although their efforts were in different geographical locations, they all lived during the same era. Imam As’Souyoti affirms this in his poem when he says:
و أول جامع للأبواب *** جماعة في العصر ذو اقتراب
كابن جريج وهشيم مالك *** ومعمر وولد المبارك
The first to collect based on subject *** A group during a similar time
Such as Ibn Juraij and Hasheem (and) Malik *** and Ma’mar and son of Al Mubarak
The individuals referred to in the above lines were:
- Abdulma’lik Ibn Abdulaziz Ibn Juraij in Mecca (died in 150 AH)
- Hasheem Ibn Bashir Al Wasiti in Iraq (died in 183 AH)
- Malik Ibn Anas Al As’bahi in Medina (died in 179 AH)
- Ma’mar Ibn Rashid in Yemen (died in 153 AH)
- Abdullah Ibn Al Mubarak Al Hanthali in Khorasan (died in 181 AH)
This first generation of Hadith collectors became the catalyst for others to follow suit and exert their own efforts to write their own collections. One important point to pay attention to here is that for these scholars it was not enough to simply hear that the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said or did something for them to include the Hadith in their collection. In the science of Hadith are some very restricting conditions for a narration to be accepted as authentic, which include:
- Continuity within the chain of transmission between the narrators. This relates to whether each narrator did indeed meet the person who they relate the Hadith from. To confirm this we find the scholars of Hadith examining factors such as the exact dates of birth and death of each person in the chain
- Whether everyone in the chain of transmission is an upright person with sound intellect and strong memory
- No violation of Islamic Law or clear problem in the actual narrated text
The second condition referring to the person’s character has a further elaboration, which is typically accredited to Imam Malik may Allah have mercy on him and it includes that the person:
- Is scrupulous and abstains not only from impermissible actions, but also all that which would be unbecoming of virility
- Perfection of rote memorization and exact reproduction of what the person has heard from others verbatim
- Knowledge and understanding of all that the person has heard and speaks of
Within the science of Hadith is a branch called “The Knowledge of Men – علم الرجال”, which deals with the individuals named within the chains of transmission in all the Hadith narrations. Aside from knowledge of their dates of birth and death, this branch of knowledge examines their biographies, including the families the grew up in, their geographical locations, their travels, their upbringings, their general characters, whether they were known to have lied even once in their lives, the scholars they learned from, their creedal beliefs, who they relate the Hadith from and how they chose them, and even if their memory has deteriorated. For example, one can find narrators whose Hadith was accepted to a certain point in their lives, but later Hadiths after that would be rejected because their memory became weaker or they were confusing facts.
The problem with the contentions of those who reject Hadith seems to be their ignorance of history, as well as their mistaken understanding that the earlier generation before the collection of the Hadith were only relying on the Qur’an. The Islamic Tradition is an oral one. Even if one memorizes the Qur’an and any of the Hadith collections using the written texts they have purchased, they would still need to find scholars with continuous chains of transmission back to the original source to be given credit for their memorization and approved to be authentic. Hence, when one makes the charge that earlier generations were not using the Hadith, they’re merely exposing their illiteracy of Islamic history.
Before I end this, it wouldn’t be complete without showing how in their misguided attempt to hold on more firmly onto the Qur’an, Al Qur’aniyeen have actually rejected Qur’anic teachings by discarding the Hadith. The injunction to follow the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, which is embodied in the Hadith, is in the following verses from the Qur’an:
8من يطع الرسول فقد أطاع الله – النساء: الآية 0
He who obeys the Messenger (Muhammad peace be upon him), has indeed obeyed Allah [4:80]
أطيعوا الله وأطيعوا الرسول – النساء: الآية 59
Obey Allah and obey the Messenger (Muhammad peace be upon him) [4:59]
لا تجعلوا دعاء الرسول بينكم كدعاء بعضكم بعضا – النور: الآية 63
Do not make the calling of the Messenger (Muhammed peace be upon him) among you as your calling of one another) [24:63]
وما ءاتىكم الرسول فخذوه وما نهىكم عنه فانتهوا – الحشر: الآية 7
And whatsoever the Messenger (Muhammad peace be upon him) gives you, take it, and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain (from it) [59:7)
فإن تنزعتم في شيء فردوه إلى الله والرسول - النساء: الآية 59
And if you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad peace be upon him) [4:59]
فلا وربك لا يومنون حتى يحكموك فيما شجر بينهم ثم لا يجدوا في أنفسهم حرجا مما قضيت ويسلموا تسليما – النساء: الآية 65
But no, by your Lor, they have no Faith, until they make you (O Muhammad) judge in all disputes between them, and find in themselves no resistance against your decisions, and accept (them) with full submission [4:65]
وما ينطق عن الهوى إن هو إلا وحي يوحى – النجم: الآيتان 3 و 4
Nor does he speak of (his) desire. It’s only a Revelation revealed [53:3-4)
The above verses are only a selection from many that link obedience of the Messenger Muhammad peace be upon him’s commandments to obedience of Allah the Exalted’s commandments. Rejection of the Hadith by Al Qur’aniyeen will therefore necessitate rejection of Prophetic commandments, which in turn necessitates rejection of Qur’anic commandments.
I’ve only briefly and barely scratched the surface of this beautiful part of the Islamic Tradition. Hadith is a science in its own right, and those who hastily reject it are doing so out of ignorance. It is an indispensable part of Islam because it serves to define the details of general injections in the Qur’an. For example, while the Qur’an gives the general commandment to pray the obligatory prayers, the details of when and how to perform them are only obtained in the Hadith. They’re not placed against each other to be mutually exclusive as Al Qur’aniyeen seem to believe.
While it’s true that the Qur’an is the ultimate authority in Islam, the Hadith is its indispensable complementary companion, and it’s the second agreed upon foundational principle in the 4 Sunni madhhabs (schools of law). Due to its intricate nature, one needs to master several sciences to be able to judge a Hadith to be authentic or not, and several more sciences to be able to judge whether a ruling can be derived from it and be considered binding or not. Hence, returning this matter to its people of knowledge, i.e. traditional Muslim scholars, is imperative for one to have a sound understanding of Islam. Differences will always exist and rejection of the Hadith will not abolish these differences. But rather than being a source of mercy, differences can become a source of strife and division when religious chaos and ignorance manifest themselves as the norm.
That and Allah is more exalted and more knowledgeable.