The Science of Hadith – 7

The Science of Hadith

This discipline involves study of the texts, lives of the narrators, the dialects they spoke, the places they lived in or visited, the culture of the times, the general political situation, and movement of thoughts and ideas in the early historical phase of Islam. The principles of this science opened up several disciplines; Principles of Hadith Criticism being one. The Science of Hadith as well as the Hadith itself are the noblest of disciplines that humankind has bequeathed the later generations. They are fascinating subject too, for their richness of material, variety of subjects and the depth of knowledge as well as the systematic and rigorous application of the principles of criticism with complete objectivity and dependence on none of the human faculties but reason and logic. We do not know of any other discipline, except perhaps scientific, where, not only the rules are so strict, but which are applied with such firmness.

Principles of Hadith Criticism

This discipline helps to identify the trustworthy from the untrustworthy reports. It involves:

1) Tracing out the narrators,

2) Evaluation of their religious, moral and intellectual worth,

3) Discovering in every detail the links between one narrator and another,

4) Application of strict rules of language to establish an accurate meaning, or meanings to the texts,

5) Examination of the text against Qur’anic, Hadith, or other well-established sources of knowledge, religious or otherwise,

6) Discovery of hidden weaknesses in the texts or the narrators and, finally,

7) Assigning a weight to the report for juridical, practical, or moral purposes.


It was never experts alone who studied the Hadith in any phase of Muslim history. Muslims have always been eager to know what the Prophet said, did, or was like. But, admittedly, those who specialized were relatively fewer. Yet, the point might not be lost sight of that almost every scholar had interest in Hadith, except that those who specialized in disciplines other than the Hadith, preferred to let those continue with the narration and preservation who had already taken the lead, keeping themselves on the sidelines. But they were not totally ignorant of the discipline, and so came alive when a narrator erred in his narration. For example, on one occasion `Umar insisted on Mughira ibn Shu`bah, Abu Musa al-Ash`ari and others to produce witnesses to corroborate a narration of theirs. Many other examples can be cited. The total number of scholars therefore, who played important roles during the early development of the science of Hadith runs into thousands.

The above applies to the narrators also. There were many narrators of Hadith who adopted the middle course in reference to narration: narrating only when the need arose, remaining silent when there was no special reason to talk. To give some examples: Sa’id b. Yezid once traveled with Sa’d b. Malik, but the latter did not narrate a single hadith during the whole journey that lasted close to two weeks from Madinah to Makkah. Sha`bi followed ibn `Umar for a whole year but did not hear a hadith from him. `Adullah ibn Mas’ud was more generous. Someone counted his narrations as three ahadith a month. But of course, they did not follow a specific rule. When they held classes, they narrated abundantly.

In contrast, some others of the first generation narrators narrated freely at all times and on all occasions. For example, during the Hajj seasons `A’isha pitched her tent in the Holy precincts around Makkah and answered questions on all issues always substantiating her answers with ahadith.

The Proliferation

Again, in many cases if the narrators were not eager to narrate, their audiences were eager to hear. They demanded narration. After them the next generation narrators passed on the hadith to others: in their sitting rooms, in the mosque-circles, and in every place of gathering. This eagerness to learn led to the proliferation of Hadith literature. Within a few generations the situation had turned dramatic. Kufa alone boasted of 4000 men and women specializing in hadith. In some other cities the Traditionists (muhaddithun) had anywhere between 30 to 40,000 students sitting before them. Each of the hadith narrated had to be repeated several times over by the “Repeaters” before the last man could hear.

Interest in Hadith

It is not difficult to explain the attendance of Hadith circles in tens of thousands. Very early on, the Companions of the Prophet had realized the important place that Hadith would occupy as time passed by. No single incident illustrates this better than the following. Ibn `Abbas, in his early teens at the time of the Prophet’s death, narrates his own story: “I suggested to an Ansari, ‘Come let us go around gathering Hadith from the Companions of the Prophet.’ He replied, ‘Come on, my boy. Do you think anyone will learn Hadith from you while so many of them are still alive?’ So I left him and began to look for people who could narrate the Prophet’s words. If I knew a Companion knew a hadith, I would repair to his house, squat down by the threshold while the dusty wind blowing into may face. When the Companion emerged, he would exclaim, ‘Good gracious, the Prophet’s nephew! What brings you here?’ I would explain my purpose. He would say, ‘But you could have asked me to visit you and I would have come.’ I would say, ‘No. It was right that I should come to you.’ (A few years later), it should so happen that the Ansari I had spoken to at the start, saw people around me asking about the traditions of the Prophet. He remarked, ‘This lad was cleverer than I.'” The Ansari’s skepticism in his words: “Do you think anyone will learn Hadith from you while so many of them are still alive?” tells us clearly that the reporting and study of Hadith was already a well-established discipline.

Apart from religious passion in the early Islamic phase, other factors had their bearing. An important element was that people had little else to engage themselves. There was not much for a pastime, except perhaps journeying to other lands: whose borders were now open after having remained closed for centuries. Islam had freed them from theaters, drinks, pubs, bars, night-clubs, gambling, musical performances, prostitute houses, cock-fights, street dances, magic shows, and many other diversions and activities that still account for how leisure time is spent by non-Muslims of today’s world. In fact, Islam discouraged even gossip. Study of the Hadith, therefore, filled the hours. And, whoever attended a few classes, ended up with a passion.

Again, before Islam, as in the modern Western system, the common folk were not treated by the ruling classes and the elites as worthy of serious attention. The commoners were there to serve those above them. What is the price that common man pays in terms of his mental, moral and spiritual slavery while serving the upper classes, is not the prime concern of those who sit at the helm of affairs, who set targets for growth, development, exports, and gross national product. The upper echelon is there to whip up passion in the masses to achieve the goals set for them. Of course, the West does not believe in any religion. But does it not believe in secular values? It does, at least secondarily so. But, who is ever bothered if less and less of the common people can appreciate poetry, or a good work of art? As a modern critic (Tariq Ali) recently wrote, despite the steep decline, one could in our times compare the gossip in cafeterias of Cairo and (say) California. The topics of common discussion would suggest the belief that the latter are uneducated boors. A step next, who in the West is concerned with the low morals, or, life’s aimlessness, or, unhappiness within homes? In simpler words, those at the upper strata of the society are not seriously concerned about those at the lower strata.

The above had also been the situation in the lands liberated by Islam. The elders of the society, the rich men, aristocrats, wealthy merchants, rulers and religious men alike, did not think of their masses as any more than a necessary lower crust. Some of them referred to them as dogs. As for the Holy Scripture, the masses were all the less qualified to study them. In fact, they were discouraged from even learning how to read and write.

In contrast, when those who had lived for centuries under the Roman and Persian hegemonies of the sort described above embraced Islam, they discovered that they were considered by Islam and Muslims as important entities. The conquerors wished to put them on a course of moral, spiritual and intellectual development. Following conversion to Islam, they also discovered that every one of them could gain higher status through piety. And piety was not much respected without learning. What’s more, they discovered that the most learned were not always the ancestral elites. Many leading scholars of the time were either slaves or former slaves of the Prophet’s Companions. People surrounded them like bees around a hive. The following may be narrated in this connection:

Zuhri (d. 124 A.H.) narrates: `Abdul Malik b. Marwan (d. 86 A.H.) asked me, “Where are you coming from?”

I said, “From Makkah.”

He asked, “Whom did you leave in charge (of intellectual activities)?”

I said, “‘Ataa’.”

He asked, “Is he a (free) Arab or one of the freed (non-Arab) slaves?”

I said, “Of the freed slaves.”

He asked, “How did he achieve this position?”

I said, “Through religion and (hadith) narration.”

He remarked, “It is right that those who are religious and narrate (ahadith) should lead (the people). Who in any case leads in Yemen?”

I replied, “Ta’oos.”

He asked, “An Arab or a freed slave?”

I answered, “A freed slave.”

He asked, “Who leads the Syrians?”

I said, “Mak-hool.”

He asked, “An Arab or a freed salve?”

I answered, “A freed slave. He is a Nubian, freed by a woman of the Hudhayl (tribe).”

He asked, “Who leads in the Jazirah (The Mesopotamian region)?”

I replied, “Maymoon b. Mahran and he is a freed slave.”

He asked, “Who heads the Khurasani region?”

I said, “Dahhaak b. Muzaahim who also happens to be a freed slave.”

He asked, “Who is there in Basrah?”

I answered, “Hasan (al-Busri), a freed slave.”

He asked, “Who heads in Kufah?”

I replied, “Ibrahim al-Nakha`ee.”

He asked, “An Arab or a freed slave?”

I answered, “An Arab.”

`Abdul Malik exclaimed, “Woe unto you my dear. You relieved me by this statement. However, by God, soon it is a freed slave will take over lecturing them from the pulpit while the Arabs sit there under his gaze.”

I said, “Leader of the Faithful. This is religion. He who took care of it will lead, while he who ignored will fall.”

The above narrative, as in “Seeyar A`laam al-Nubalaa” has been questioned for its veracity. But there is overwhelming evidence that it reflects the prevalent situation.

It must also be noted that the domination of the non-Arab former slaves in the scholarly circles was not all. The slaves-turned-scholars enjoyed such standing that they openly looked down upon the ruling class and the rich, criticized their ways and even humiliated them on encounter. The masses, therefore, realized very soon, that for the first time in their history they were truly free, and that in the new system there was only one road to true honor: learning.

Again, when the people in those times adopted the religion of Islam it took them a single encounter with older Muslims to realize that their previous religion was worthless. It comfortably met the requirements of annulment. They discovered that being a Muslim was not like being a Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian. Islam was a system that belonged to a high intellectual order. A vast intellectual and spiritual world was open to them through the gates of learning.

Further, in contrast to other religions, in Islam everyone was free in the fullest sense. There was no priestly class between the common folk and the Holy Scripture:- to read, interpret and explain the perennially intriguing writings. In complete contrast, in Islam it was not merely their right to know the sources of the rulings and opinions but they were in fact required to seek religious knowledge from the original sources and make the best of what they personally understood for application in everyday life, and for guiding others.

Another difference between the old and new religion was that learning in the previous religion consisted of no more than learning a few catechism and stories of saints, martyrs and other holy men. Many of the stories about them were, to say the least, incredible. They were too good to be true. Further, the character of the saints portrayed through those stories was a far cry from the life-style of the religious men they had to deal with. There was no substance in those stories, they did not reflect the realities in the least, nor were they as edifying as to attract the attention of the intelligent. In contrast, the Hadith did not leave a topic untouched. From most minute details of private behavior to the establishment of an Islamic State, there was nothing not dealt with. It did not matter what one’s tastes and natural disposition were: this worldly or next-worldly, political or literary, social or ascetic, aesthetic or religious, there was enough in the Hadith to attract the attention of people of all tastes. The new discipline allowed for the study of a wide variety of subjects to all classes of men and women. The law especially required quite a bit of brain racking. That was taken as a challenge. Hadith was not merely something new. It was also interesting, rich and exciting. Its study made a man feel like a scholar.

The interest of the state authorities had its own impact. The rulers sitting in Madinah were not sending envoys clad in rich robes for whom the roads were lined up by the officials and public for ceremonial reception at the beginning of the day and a drinking party by the evening. The town was abuzz with the news passed around excitedly that the Khalifah at Madinah – the powerful man who had destroyed the Roman and Persian empires – had sent no less than one of the foremost Companions of the Prophet to teach the people their religion. When he arrived, then to the astonishment of the masses, the envoy shook hands with the common folk, took his position in the mosque and narrated ahadith or taught the rules of religion to those who could not touch the robe of their rulers of the past.

Another factor in the Hadith gaining quick popularity was the Qur’an. When the new Muslims studied the Qur’an, they found that although it was pretty easy to follow because of its lack of ambiguity, it was not as easy to work out rules and principles of law. The latter required a good amount of background knowledge. It was the Hadith which provided it.

Such were the reasons behind the tremendous interest that Islamic learning provoked, with the Hadith in the forefront and explains the sudden florescence of this discipline. If we said those were stormy times, it would be an understatement.

Weight of the Reports

Obviously, as the interest in narration, hearing and study of hadith picked up pace, not every narrator commanded equal respect. If the narration originated from say `Umar ibn al-Khattab, Ibn `Abbas, Abu Hurayrah, or others of that class, then, it had greater chance of being heard than if it came from lesser known Companions. Similarly, if `Umar’s report came through his son `Abdullah, and from him his slave Nafi`, then too the narration was assigned a greater value. Thus, not only the narration (matn: the text), but also the narrators began being quoted, remembered, and passed on. This is how the isnaad (chain of narrators) gradually developed.

In fact, Hadith collectors prided on certain chain of narrators. For instance, a chain of narrators consisting of “Maalik, he from Naafi`, he from Ibn `Umar” was considered to be of the highest class, regardless of what the text it contained.

Memorizers and Recorders

Understandably, with the proliferation of narration and narrators, problems arose. We shall discuss this in a moment. But, at this point, we shall attend to another issue viz., the manner of preservation.

While most people learnt the Hadith by heart, the practice of writing it down had started right during the Prophet’s time. After initial hesitation, fearing its mix up with the Qur’an, the Prophet had allowed that his words be written down. Abu Bakr, `Ali ibn abi Talib, `Abdullah ibn `Amr b. al-`As, Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, Zayd b. Thabit, Abu Hurayrah, and several others possessed their personal collections of Hadith. Samurah b. Jundab had compiled one which was (in the words of Goldziher: Zubayr Siddiqi), “is identical to his Risalah addressed to his son.” Ibn `Abbas in fact wrote so many books, mostly containing Hadith, that the load had to be carried on a camel. It is said that Waqidi (d. 207 A.H.), the famous biographer of the Prophet, drew material for his work from this source. Bara’ b. `Azib actually used to dictate Hadith. Thus, (once again in the words of Goldziher), “It can be assumed that the writing down of the Gadith was a very ancient method of preserving it… Many a Companion of the Prophet is likely to have carried a Sahifa with him and used it to dispense instruction and edification to his circle (Zubayr Siddiqi). In all, there were tens of Companions who compiled the Hadith. This point does not need but exercise of common sense. What was most important for the earliest Muslims after the Qur’an? Hadith. To what use were those who had just acquired the art of reading and writing (cf. through prisoners taken at Badr), expected to put? Was there anything else to write than Hadith? Yet, we had to emphasize this because many who are ignorant of the early historical conditions assume that Hadith came to be written only after a hundred years, an allegation fabricated by the Orientalists.

With the death of the Prophet, and the phenomenal expansion of Islam, the Companions spread out, initially on account of Jihad, but later for individual reasons. Dimashq, Kufa, Busra, San`a, the newly founded Cairo, several Persian towns, in short, every town of importance had dozens of Companions living in it. Hadith also spread with them. The new Muslims were never as eager about anything as to hear a hadith from one of the Companions. Mu`adh ibn Jabal, together with 32 other Companions related the Hadith at Emesa. Abu Dardaa’s entourage could be envied by the kings. And, the tradition of writing it down continued. Hammaam b. Munabbih (a Taabe`i) wrote down Abu Hurayrah’s narratives. A couple of copies of his manuscripts have survived to this day (Dr. Hameedullah).

But most early collectors preferred to memorize. The Arabs of those times disdained the art of writing, holding in low esteem those whose memory power needed the aid of the pen. There were some Hadith scholars who would not accept that their students write down the Ahadith of their narration. They insisted that they memorize them. Abu Sa`eed was asked by his students, “You narrate wonderful Ahadith. But we are afraid we might add or subtract. Would it not be good if we wrote them down?” He answered, “Do not write them. Do not treat them like the Qur’an. But rather, memorize them as we used to memorize them.” Then, after a pause he added, “Take them from us like we took them from the Prophet” (Mustadrak).

Conversely, there were students of Hadith who would not accept Hadith from those who in any measure relied on written material. Cross checking was done by hearing the same narration from other narrators, even if that meant traveling from one end of the Muslim world to another. Indeed, to travel to distant places either to obtain a new hadith, or cross check one’s personal collection was no less common than travel for reasons of trade or jihad. Yahya’ ibn Ma’in (d. 233) said, “There are four kinds of people who never became mature in their lives; among them is one who writes down Hadith of his own town and never journeys out for this purpose” (`Aazami).

Despite this, from early on the other method of transmission of Hadith was gaining ground viz., a master dictating from his written collection. There were some, as Dr. `Aazami has pointed out, who attached such importance to writing down that they would not narrate a hadith if the students were not writing down. Occasionally, one of them refused to dictate if the student was writing on a wooden board, fearing its erosion. In extreme cases, precautious students refused to write down if the master did not narrate from a written copy.

While for several centuries after Islam emperors did not know how to read and write, the art had receiving a bolstering shot in the arm by no less than the Prophet himself. An unconnected report in Bukhari says, “The Prophet used to teach us these words (of supplication) with the same (emphasis) as writing (was taught).” Although he had not allowed Abu Hurayrah to write the Hadith (perhaps because he himself had Prayed for enhancement of his memory), he had allowed `Abdullah ibn `Amr to do so. In fact, Abu Hurayrah says, “There was none who knew the Ahadith of the Prophet more than me except `Abdullah ibn `Amr who used to write down with his hand as well as memorize them, while I used to memorize but not write.” (Although this report has some weaknesses, it is strengthened by others of similar nature, such as the one below, involving, again, `Abdullah ibn `Amr).

On one occasion when the Prophet learnt that a woman knew a charm for a certain kind of disease, he told her, “Why do you not teach it to Hafsa (his wife) as you have taught her how to read and write” (Abu Da’ud). And, `Umar had written to his governors: “Learn to shoot (arrows), walk in the open, barefoot, and teach your children how to swim and write.” These few reports out of many should give us some idea of the writing culture that had begun to develop during the early phase of Islamic history.

The Prophet himself had given preference to writing. He said in a hadith preserved in Hakim’s Mustadrak, “Preserve knowledge.” He was asked, “How can we preserve it?” He replied, “By writing it down.” Another report by `Abdullah ibn `Amr in Abu Dau’d says, “I went up to the Prophet and told him, ‘I wish to use my hand besides my heart to preserve your utterances. What’s your opinion?’ The Prophet replied, ‘If it is my words, you may seek help from your hand besides your heart.” (Kitab al-`Ilm). Once he dictated a short write-up on charity but death overtook him before he could dispatch it to his governors. He left it in the sheath of his sword. It remained with Abu Bakr until he died. After Abu Bakr, `Umar used it until he too died. The note said (among other things) that a goat was payable as zakah on every five camels. In fact, there are many instances of the Prophet sending written directives to his governors expounding various ordinances (Taqi).

It was in the nature of things therefore, that with the passage of time the trend to write down the Ahadith caught up – although memorizers remained hard bound to their own practice. Down to this day, especially in the Madrasas, there are always quite a few who memorize the Hadith. Obviously, even if not everyone agreed with their insistence, the memorizers drew respect from the scholars and non-scholars alike. Hafiz ibn Kathir, a scholar of the middle ages, and a famous commentator of the Qur’an, was known as a Hafiz not because he had memorized the Qur’an, a practice more commonly prevalent, but because he had memorized Hadith.

The two of course, the memorizers as well as those who wrote down, remained; each cross-checking his material with the other’s collection – oral or written.

(To be continued).

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