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Essay on the Origins and Development of Hadith Literature

Discuss the Origins and Development of the Hadith Literature.

By Mamnun Khan

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem.

The Arabic word hadith as mentioned 23 times in the Qur’an connotes the meaning of “communication,” “story and “conversation.” Outside of the Qur’an, just like the term Sunnah came to be exclusively used by the end of the second century of Islam in relation only to “whatever the Prophet did, spoke of, or confirmed,” the term hadith came to be used almost exclusively in reference to “a narration about or from the Prophet.”i Very early in the history of hadith, it was recognised as having two parts: the chain of narrators going back to the Prophet (isnad) followed by the text (matn). It’s authority to contain guidance is only second to that of the Qur’an. The details of interpretation, practice and implementation of the meanings of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet not verbally as in the Qur’an but by the sayings and practices of the Prophet. A point which is proved by many verses of the Qur’an including the general command: “Whatever the Messenger gives you take it and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it.”ii Unlike the Qur’an, however, hadith literature was not consolidated into a single compilation and the question of how reliably they could be admitted as the unadulterated “narration about or from the Prophet” were the central concerns of the origins and development of the sciences (‘ilm) of hadith collection, terminology and methodology (usul al-hadith) since the very early days of Islam. This essay seeks to briefly outline some of the major features and drivers of the development of hadith literature.

We begin, then, with a look at what happened during the time of the Prophet, which was primarily to do with preserving hadith. One of the accusations by orientalists is this idea that hadith literature became available much later in Islamic civilisation, and by virtue of this somehow its authority to carry guidance is suspect. Against this line of argument, it has been shown that, much like the Qur’an, the knowledge of hadith was preserved by the Companions committing them to memory in the first instance. The Companion Abu Hurairah, reported to have narrated 1236 ahadith (through 5473 different chains)iii – more than any other Companion, for example, mentions how he divides his night into three parts: “In one third of the night I perform salah, in one third I sleep and in one third I memorize the sayings of the Prophet.”iv Moreover, in view of the general encouragement by the Prophet to convey knowledge “even if it be a single verse,” the Companions learnt hadith from the Prophet and then preserved it by teaching it to each other.

During the life time of the Prophet hadiths were also written down in small compilations (sahifa) in planks of wood, plates, bones and leather parchments. Many Companions received permission to do this by the Prophet. For example Amr bin al-‘As (d. 65 H) asked the Prophet, “May I write all that I hear?” to which the Prophet said, “Yes.”v This permission was, nevertheless, conditional upon being familiar with the text of the Qur’an and its linguistic style. Most scholars and historians agree that this prohibition came into effect to prevent the text of the Qur’an becoming entangled with the sayings of the Prophet, as some Companions had started annotating the text of the Qur’an with hadith in an effort to aid their understanding and teaching. Nevertheless, it is well-established that there were many Companions who had compiled hadith such as: Ibn ‘Umar; Anas ibn Malik; A’isha; Al-Sahifa al-Sadiqa (“The True Collection”) of Amr bin al-‘As containing a thousand ahadith; Sahifa of Jabir bin Abdullah (d. 78 H); Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (d. 69 H); ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, to name a few. Whilst individual copies of these compilations have been lost, there are a few examples of intact copies available today, like the collection known as Al-Sahifa al-Sahiha of Hammad bin Munabbih (d 101 H) containing ahadith narrated by Abu

The Companions knew that the Prophetic Sunnah had to be understood and preserved without any alteration, without which “obedience” and “following” would not be possible. The Qur’an mentions that the Prophet “does not speak out of his own desire, it is not but revelation revealed.”vii Moreover, there are ten verses containing the command “obey Allah and obey the Messenger…”viii as well as many other verses instructing the Companions to “follow” the Prophet (ittiba’), which served to highlight the need to preserve hadith.

For these reasons, this kind of writing continued and proliferated during and after the period of the Companions, and it was not until the latter part of the first century that questions of authority and accuracy became significant. It was normal to expect the collection and documentation of hadith to precede the development of methodology for its authentication.ix However, it is inconceivable that early transmitters of hadith were not aware of the heavy responsibility of being truthful in this matter, or in fact any other matter, as the Prophet was well-known to have exhorted: “You must be truthful! Verily, truth leads to righteousness, and righteousness leads to Paradise…”x The Prophet also said: “If anyone tells a lie about me intentionally, let him be sure of his place in the Hell fire.”xi The Qur’an further states: “…if there comes to you a transgressor (fasiq) with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.”xii Hardly surprising, then, the Companions were never known to have knowingly lied, and in fact were at pains to ensure the veracity, of a matter relating to what the Prophet taught them.xiii

In the period following the Companions, by the latter part of the first century hadith documentation was widespread in ever-increasingly sized collections known generally as Musannaf (lit. classified). These were perhaps the earliest attempt to systematically arrange hadith collections into chapters of law such as marriage, divorce, compensation, hajj, zakat, trade (tijarah) etc. They also tended to contain the sayings and judgements of the Companions and leading Successors (tabi’i) in an effort to aid decisions on juristic problems (fiqh). These characteristic changes in hadith documentation were introduced by Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 124 AH), and likely stemmed from an earlier call to formally document the Sunnah by the Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz (d. 101 AH). The greatest products of this period were the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik (d. 179 AH), which was without doubt the first compilation with truly global significance. Other notable compilations during this period were that by Ibn Jurayj (d. 150 AH) and Ibn Ishaq (d. 151 AH) in Makkah, Abu Amr Al-Awza’ (d. 157 AH) in Egypt, Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 160 AH) in Kufah and Hammad bin Salama (d. 167 AH) in Basra.

In the third century came the Musnad collections, which were generally much larger collections. They were arranged regardless of the subject matter by the name of the Companion narrating the hadith, though with differing arrangements in the names of the Companions, and painstakingly isolated the Sunnah of the Prophet from the sayings and edicts of the Companions and leading Successors. The most famous of the Musnad collections were that of Imam Ahmad (d. 241 AH), Abu Dawud al-Taylasi (d. 204 AH), Abdur Razzaq (d. 211 AH), Ibn Abi Shaiba (d. 235 AH) and Ibn al-Najjar (d. 262 AH), to name a few.xiv

The Musnad collections generally reflected two key developments in hadith literature. Firstly, the vast numbers of earlier collections of hadith in the first two centuries of Islam were in one way or another absorbed into these bigger Musnad compilations. Secondly, inconsistencies in wording, multiple asaneed, increase in the number of transmitters, variant recordings, forgery (wad’) and known weakness of hadith transmitters in respect of their retentive power (al-dabt) and uprightness (‘adalah) were becoming more apparent, and for this reason, much greater and systematic attention to the isnad was given. These critical remarks helped scholars “make cross-references to detect fault and falsehood.”xv In turn, they led experts of hadith to make disparaging and authenticating remarks of narrators and to use evaluative terms like Sahih (authentic), Da’if (weak) and Mawdu’ (fabricated) to indicate the reliability of admitting something as a hadith of the Prophet.

In the following period, from the latter part of the third century, the Sahih of al-Bukhari (d. 256 AH) and Muslim (d. 261 AH), Jami’ of al-Tirmidhi (d. 279 AH) and Sunan compilations of Ibn Majah (d. 273 AH), Abu Dawud al-Sijistani (d. 275 AH) and al-Nasa’i (d 303 AH) came into existence. These collections signified the final stage of documenting the Sunnah, and later became generally known as the Sahih sitta. These were large compilations that had characteristic features of their own.

Among these, the collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim represented the epitome of methodological rigour and the most stringent tests for grading a hadith as Sahih. Whilst there are some differences between them, al-Bukhari is generally recognised as having used the most stringent conditions. These were: 1) the report had to be muttasil (continuous) with no link missing in the isnad; 2) every narrator in the isnad must be adil (honest and true and observe basic things of Islam – as robustly defined by al-Bukhari himself); 3) every narrator must be known to be dhabit, whose retentive power is not in any doubt; 4) the hadith should not have any rareness (shadh/shuduh); and 5) the experts of hadith should not be able to find any hidden defects of any kind.

In order for these conditions to be systemically codified and consistently applied, by the third century, there were many allied fields of hadith studies which developed, and were then expanded, clarified and organized further in the preceding centuries to aid teaching and study. In all of this, there were countless stories of remarkable individual effort and sacrifices, learning, technical innovation and attention of minute details in every aspect of hadith literature. The most prominent amongst them were:

  1. The study of the biographies of the reporters of hadith (‘Ilm al-rijal) and their critique and validation (al-Jarh wa’l-Ta’dil), which were together “concerned mainly with the reliability or otherwise of the transmitters of hadith” and gathering “information which either proves them as upright and reliable, or else weak and unreliable.”xvi Early examples were the Tarikh of Ibn Ma’in (d. 233 AH), Tabaqat of Khlifa bin Khayyat (d. 240 AH), Tarikh of al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Jarh wa’l-Ta’dil of Ibn Abi Hatim (d. 327 AH). In the eighth century, al-Mizzi (d. 742 AH) produced a 12 volume encyclopedic collection titled Tahdhib al-Kamal fi Asma’ al-Rijal. His student, al-Dhahabi (d. 748 AH) produced an even larger, and more famous, version known as Tahdhib al-Tahdhib, and other indexed works like Mizan al-‘Itidal, Tadhkirah al-Huffaz. The work of Ibn Hajar (d. 852 AH) known as Lisan al-Mizan and an abridged version of Tahdhib al-Tahdhib known as Taqrib al-Tahdhib have also attained lofty status in this field.

  1. There was also expansion and great overlaps in the system of grading ahadith (Mustalah al-hadith). Al-Tirmidhi, for instance, was first to introduce a third category known as Hasan (fair or good), to supplement the classification of Sahih, Da’if and Mawdu’ (fabricated) that had already been in use since the second century. And new technical terms like Marfu’, Mawquf, Maqtu, Mutawatir, Mashoor, Ahad and their possible sub-divisions were introduced by many scholars, sometimes with subtly different definitions, to help with systematically organising the great corpus of hadith literature.

  1. Study of hidden defects and concealment of weaknesses in the text and isnad known as ‘Ila al-hadith and tadlis al-hadith, respectively, also attained great significance. Some of the earliest works were that of Yahya bn Ma’in (d. 233 AH) called Al-Tarikh wa’l-‘Illah, Imam Ahmad’s ‘Illah al-hadith, and al-Tirmidhi’s Al-‘Illah.

  1. The painstaking study of unfamiliar expressions (gharib al-hadith), conflicts in hadith (mukhtalif al-hadith), and abrogation of hadith (al-naskh wa’l-mansukh fi’l-hadith) were also developed to help determine whether or not a hadith met the conditions for a particular grade of classification.

  1. Lastly, throughout history many scholars have written and continue to write critical commentaries on the major hadith collections, to annotate and clarify particular points of sunnah, fiqh and hadith analysis itself. There is much room in this for today’s scholars to further expand, refine and critically comment on hadith – a remarkable body of literature to comprehend and find benefit in the deen.

i Mustafa Al-‘Azami, Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, p3.

ii Al-Qur’an 59:7.

iii Mustafa Al-‘Azami, Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, p26.

iv See Taqi Usmani, The Authority of the Sunnah, Idaratul Quran, p84.

v Mohammad Hashim Kamali, A textbook of Hadith Studies, The Islamic Foundation, 2005, p 25

vi Ibid, p26, and See Taqi Usmani’s The Authority of the Sunnah, Idaratul Quran, p112.

vii Al-Qur’an 53:4.

viii See Taqi Usmani, The Authority of the Sunnah, Idaratul Quran, p11. Qur’anic verses include: 3:132, 4:49, 5:92, 8:1, 8:20, 8:46, 24:54, 47:33, 58:13, 64:12.

ix Ibid, p 9

x This is part of a hadith recorded in the Sahih of Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud and Al-Tirmidhi.

xi Sahih Muslim, hadith 1861.

xii Al-Qur’an 49:6.

xiii Mustafa Al-‘Azami, Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, p49.

xiv Ibid, p74.

xv Ibid, p69.

xvi Mohammad Hashim Kamali, A textbook of Hadith Studies, The Islamic Foundation, 2005, p 81.


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