The Science of Hadith

Hadith literature presents the most accurate history of a person and an epoch. No other phase in human history has been as well, and as accurately recorded as the Prophetic: not even the modern. In our times historical accounts are so intricately spun together with fiction that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. It is only someone armed with the facts who can successfully make the distinction, though he too cannot fully separate one from the other because of the complex expressions. This method helps present a picture which is entirely fanciful without earning a blame for falsification. The writer cannot be criticized for lack of facts, since they are there, or for the presence of fiction, the responsibility for which he shrugs off by saying that they are, after all, interpretations, and, therefore, open to dispute. But that is at the scholarly level. Common people have to go with the heavily laced version, which, once made to rote in school, remain stuck in the mind as facts for the rest of the life. In comparison to Hadith studies, especially when authenticity is the criterion, history of the world, as compiled by the Western historians, is little more than folklore.

The interest in Hadith gave rise to the study of several related disciplines. The question of authenticity, already a point of concern in the earliest stages, assumed urgency two or three generations after the Prophet (saws). In consequence, it gave birth to the Science of Hadith, embodying, apart from other disciplines, the Principles of Hadith Criticism. That in turn gave rise to the study of the lives and times of hundreds of thousands of those who had played their part as narrators, critics, collectors, annotators, copyists or commentators. This new discipline came to be known as Asma’ wa al-Rijal in Arabic.

In consequence, Hadith literature has always attracted to itself devotees of all sorts, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It provides equally rich grounds for study of religion, language, history, culture, spiritualism, psychology, sociology, armed struggle, and several other disciplines. And, because of the authenticity, richness and variety of texts filled with related as well as unrelated details, covering several epochs, Hadith literature has become a text that can be read for pleasure, profit, or intellectual pursuit.

Older Definition

Earlier we defined Hadith as a discipline that has the Prophet as its subject. However, this is the definition of the moderns, perhaps in vogue since a few hundred years. In the earliest stages the term Hadith carried a different connotation. Utterances of the Companions were also termed as hadith. Sometimes even utterances of the next generation Followers (Tabe`iyyun) were referred to as hadith. For example, Imam Malik’s “Muwatta’” makes no distinction between the Prophetic word and those of his earliest followers. This explains why there were hundreds of thousands of ahadith in earlier times, but much less in our own. For instance, Bukhari is on record (in Qastalani’s work) having said that he made his selection from 600,000 hadith. Imam Ahmed included in his collection around 40,000 ahadith out of a total of 750,0000 that he had collected (Dr. Muhammad al-Sabbagh). But, if we put together all the reports found in every hadith collection, we will not arrive at these figures – even if we added the untrustworthy ones to our inventory. So where are the rest? Are they lost? One answer is, yes, some have been lost. Many reliable versions did not find their way into compilations because the collectors thought one or two would do, and the rest – with same text, but different chains of narration – could safely be ignored. But, significantly, the reduction in numbers has something to do with the definition of the term. What was hadith in earlier times is not so any more. Imam Malik, for example, might count a statement of Ibn Mas`ud as a hadith, but in our times the parameters are different. Many people are given to doubts when they hear that at one time there used to be hundreds of thousands of ahadith in circulation, out of which Hadith collectors chose to record comparatively quite a few. The greater numbers that were dropped out, they erroneously conclude, (influenced by the Orientalists), must have been forged ones.

Nonetheless, so far as the non-specialists are concerned, there is another factor that reduces the number of ahadith, although they are still available in books. If an utterance of the Prophet comes to a hadith scholar through say ten different sources, or chains of narration, he counts them as ten ahadith, although to the commoners, the text being one, it is only one. So far as the scholars were concerned, if a hadith came through several sources, all trustworthy, then, its acceptability for legal purposes were greater than another that had, perhaps, only one or two chain of narrators. Hadith scholars therefore traced various chains of narration to strengthen the reports they already had on their hand. Many collectors prided in tracing as many chains of narration as existed. There were times when going around towns over vast distances was a pastime, and in some cases, an obsession. Siba`i has noted the words of Ibrahim b. Sa`id (d. 253 A.H.) who said, “If we could not trace a hundred different chains of narration, we considered ourselves orphans.” The hadith for example, which threatens a fabricator of hadith with Hellfire, is, to the common people, just one report. But experts, who are aware that more than seventy Companions having narrated it, know that there must have been thousands of them (in circulation at one point in time) since thousands of people had taken the narrative from those seventy Companions. We shall discuss this issue a little more in detail later.

Multiple chains of narration not only gave the experts confidence in the hadith they recorded, they also increase the commoner’s faith in the bulk of Hadith. If it is assumed that reports were fabricated, then, how do we explain these scores of chains? Would it have been possible for tens of thousands of people spread across the Muslim world, to agree to the fabrication of so many reports, with so many chains, anyone of which could be checked for its authenticity? How did those who were living in as far wide a world as Tashkent, Khurasan, Persia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Hijaz and Yemen, ever meet to agree upon the text of a hadith, so that all of them quoted in the same words, but everyone with a different chain of narration, each of which was checkable? That of course was not possible then, as it is not possible now.

Orientalists (Western non-Muslim scholars of Islam) had to prevent the entry of Islam in Europe. One of the means they employed was to discredit hadith since hadith is a powerful means by which Islamic truths penetrate into human hearts. Until recent times, when it became impossible for them to get away with fraudulent statements, they maintained that the chains were fabricated by the collectors themselves: Imam Malik, Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, Bukhari, Muslim and others. But, if accepted as a theory, that would have been more daunting a task. Let us assume that Imam Ahmed ibn Hanabl fabricated the chains he used for his Musnad: a collection of some 40,000 hadith. What he would have had to do was to first list out the names he was going to use, roughly five narrators a hadith, i.e., around 200,000 of them. Removing repetition of the narrators, he would have still needed several thousands of them. While writing down the names, he would have had to be careful to use real names, that is, those who did really exist, either in his time or earlier. He could not err on nicknames either, since he was going to freely use their nicknames rather than real. He would have also to be sure that the Companion he chose to place at top of the chain under fabrication, was really present at the time the event he was reporting. E.g., if he was reporting a battle, one of the eighty or so that took place during the Prophet’s lifetime, Imam Ahmed would have had to use only such a Companion’s name who had participated in that battle. For, both his contemporaries, as well as later scholars, were going to check on that. Thousands of families boasted of the fact that their father or grandfather had participated in a battle during the Prophet’s time.

Next, he would have had to work out the names of their fathers and grandfathers, in order not to mix up one with others of the same name. Thereafter, he would have had to jot down the dates of birth and death of each person he used to manufacture his chain. In another ledger he might have recorded such details as where each of his thousands of narrators took birth, to what towns they traveled and when and where they died. These exercises done, and a few more that will become obvious as we proceed with this subject, he was ready to sit down and begin to fabricate the chains.

While doing so he would have had to be careful to put the names in chronological order. To explain, he would have had to pick up the name of a Companion, then add up the name of the second generation narrator to the chain he was fabricating, and then, that of the third generation narrator, then fourth and fifth. While attempting that, he would have had to take care that he did not place a Companion’s name after a second generation narrator, or the name of a third-generation narrator before that of a second generation narrator, and so on, until the last man in a chain in which there were anywhere between 3-8 names.

There was another factor he would have had to take care of. As he placed names, he would have had to choose (out of the thousands on his list), such a one alone (as a second generation narrator) who had met with the one placed before him. If, for example, he chose a second in line narrator who was Khurasani, who never went to Kufah, where the Companion in the chain spent his life, then his fabrication would fail. He had also to check on the date of the Companions’ death, and the birth of the second generation narrators while linking them. If the second-generation narrator that he chose was born after the death of the Companion he had chosen as the first narrator, then his report was going to be rejected. Or if the Companion died while the second in line was still in his early teens, his fabrication would be discovered. Then there was another exercise he would have had to do: check on each of the thousands of names he had chosen to fabricate his chain, concerning the school of thought or sect he belonged to. If, for example, he placed anyone in a chain who was a Khariji, Shi’ee, Mu`tazili, or anyone of the newly cropped sects, the hadith he was fabricating was going to be rejected.

There was another daunting task he would have faced. He would have had to complete the above exercises taking into account hundreds of female narrators. That was tricky, if not risky. For, if he linked up a woman who stayed within the four walls of her house all her life with a man, she never met, her family members would descend upon the Imam and tear his scheme apart. It is another thing of course, that it would have been impossible for the Imam to collect data on hundreds of women narrators, spread all over the Islamic world, in complete secrecy.

It should be obvious that without good amount of reliable data, collected by hundreds of men sent across the wide Islamic world, fed into a computer, and, thereafter, without a fairly powerful computer program to sort, select, and fabricate chains that met with the criteria discussed above, (plus a few others that we shall discuss later in this work), it would not have been possible for Ibn Hanbal to “manufacture” chains of narration. Even today, provided the data, and provided a good computer program, fabrication of chains to match up with the chains already in existence, is not a daunting but an impossible task. It is not merely the numerousness of the parameters, but also the subtlety involved, when exactly – and where – they are applicable to specific cases, that will defy successful results. Computers alone will not be able to do it, without human aid, viz., manual entry of data at right spots. A close parallel is weather predictions, which fail beyond 2-3 days, because of the similar difficulties as we are discussing.

To offer a quick explanation: there being 40,000 ahadith in the Musnad of Imam Ahmed, each hadith with a chain of 3-8 narrators, data running into a million pages, to cover perhaps 250,000 different cases, will have to be entered by experts, for the computer to be able to successfully manufacture artificial chains to match exactly with the chains that, according to the Orientalists’ suggestion, Imam Ahmed forged. We realize that to some this may still be somewhat vague, but perhaps it will get clearer as we proceed with the explanations concerning the criteria that the Hadith Doctors set for themselves for acceptance or rejection of hadith.

To go back to the topic of numerousness of the hadith, what happened, apart from several narrators at the start, (to increase the number of hadith) was that, let us say, the narrator at the top, (usually a Companion), narrated a hadith before some twenty students. His students spread to different parts of the Islamic world. Now, when someone of, let us say, the third generation narrators, who had heard the hadith from his master in the town, learnt that there were others in other towns who narrated the same hadith, he made it a point to travel to those other towns and hear them narrated in person. The consequence was that when he had met the person and had personally heard – say, from three narrators in the town – their versions, he came to possess three more ahadith apart from his own. Then he moved on to another town where he heard, let us say five more. Now he had – one plus three plus five – altogether nine ahadith in his collection. But, to the commoner, and perhaps in truth also, he had only one, since the text was one.

Here is an example from the commentary work of Ibn Jarir. Commenting on verse 121 of Surah Al-Baqara, [“Those whom We gave the Book, recite it in the true manner of its recitation“], he narrates the following reports:

حدثنا ابن حميد، قال: ثنا جرير، عن مغيرة، عن مجاهد: {يتلونه حق تلاوته} قال: عملا به.‏

1. Ibn Humayd told us, Jarir reported through Mughira that Mujahid said (with reference to the words), `true manner of its recitation’ (that they mean), “they practice it.”

حدثني المثنى، قال: ثنا سويد بن نصر، قال: أخبرنا ابن المبارك، عن عبد الملك بن أبي سليمان، عن عطاء وقيس بن سعد، عن مجاهد في قوله: {يتلونه حق تلاوته} قال: يعملون به حق عمله.‏

2. Muthanna told me, Suwayd b. Nasr said that Ibn Mubarak reported through `Abd Malik b. Abu Sulayman, through `Ataa and Qays b. Sa`d that Mujahid said (with reference to the words), `true manner of its recitation’ (that they mean), “they practice it in true manner.”

حدثني المثنى، قال: ثنا عمرو بن عون، قال: أخبرنا هشيم، عن عبد الملك، عن قيس بن سعد، عن مجاهد، قال: يتبعونه حق اتباعه.

3. Muthanna told me that `Amr b. `Awn reported through Hushaym, he through `Abd al-Malik, he through Qays b. Sa`d that Mujahid said, “they follow it in true manner of following.”

حدثني محمد بن عمرو، قال: ثنا أبو عاصم، قال: ثنا عيسى، عن ابن أبي نجيح، عن مجاهد مثله

4. Muhammad b. `Amr narrated to me that Abu `Aasim said, `Isa narrated through Ibn Abi Nujayh that Mujahid said the same thing.

حدثني المثنى، قال: ثنا أبو حذيفة، قال: ثنا شبل، عن ابن أبي نجيح، عن مجاهد: {يتلونه حق تلاوته} يعملون به حق عمله

5. Muthanna told me, he said that Abu Hudhayfa said, Shibl reported, through Ibn Abi Nujayh that Mujahid said (with reference to the words), `they recite it in the true manner of recitation,’ (that they mean) “they practice it in the true manner of practice.”

حدثنا عمرو بن علي، قال: ثنا مؤمل بن إسماعيل، قال: ثنا حماد بن زيد، عن أيوب، عن مجاهد في قوله: {يتلونه حق تلاوته} قال: يتبعونه حق اتباعه

6. `Amr b. `Ali said that Mu`ammal b. Isma`il said, Hammad told us that Ayyub reported Mujahid as saying (with reference to the words), `they recite it in the true manner of its recitation,’ that (it means), “they follow it in the true manner of following.”

حدثني عمرو، قال: ثنا أبو قتيبة، قال: ثنا الحسن بن أبي جعفر، عن أبي أيوب، عن أبي الخليل، عن مجاهد: {يتلونه حق تلاوته} قال: يتبعونه حق اتباعه.

7. `Amr told me, Abu Qutayabah narrated to us, Hasan b. Abi Ja`far said, Abu Ayyub said, Abu al-Khalil reported Mujahid as saying (with reference to the words), `they recite it in the true manner of recitation,’ that (the meaning is), “they follow it in the true manner of following.”

It can be seen in the above that all the narratives report the same opinion voiced by the same authority: Mujahid. These seven narratives, though reporting the same text, but because they had different chains of narration, were counted as so many reports, and not as one.

One may quickly glance through some hadith collections to find examples. Herewith an example from Muslim. He collected dozens of traditions on the topic of dogs and pictures inside homes. We choose to present only seven. But, to those who do not know what it means when it is said that Bukhari had 600,000 ahadith, out of which he gave space in his Sahih to only 6000, it may dispel the doubts concerning the nature of the ahadith that he did not place in his Sahih.

حدّثنا يَحْيَىَ بْنُ يَحْيَىَ. وَ أَبُو بَكْرِ بْنُ أَبِي شَيْبَةَ. وَ عمْرٌو النّاقِدُ وَ إِسْحَقُ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ (قَالَ يَحْيَىَ وَإِسْحَقُ: أَخْبَرَنَا. وَقَالَ الاَخَرَانِ: حَدّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ بْنُ عُيَيْنَةَ عَنِ الزّهْرِيّ، عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللّهِ، عَنِ ابْنِ عَبّاسٍ، عَنْ أَبِي طَلْحَةَ، عَنِ النّبِيّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ: “لاَ تَدْخُلُ الْمَلاَئِكَةُ بَيْتاً فِيهِ كَلْبٌ وَلاَ صُورَةٌ“.

Yahya b. Yahya, Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shaybah, `Amr al-Naqid, Is-haq b. Ibrahim, (Yahya and Is-haq used the word: We were told, while the other two said: we were reported by Sufyan b. `Uyaynah, from Zuhri, through `Ubaydullah, he through Abu Talha, from the Prophet that he said, “Angels do not enter into a house wherein is a dog or a picture.”

حدّثني أَبُو الطّاهِرِ وَ حَرْمَلَةُ بْنُ يَحْيَىَ. قَالاَ: أَخْبَرَنَا ابْنُ وَهْبٍ. أَخْبَرَنِي يُونُسُ عَنِ ابْنِ شِهَابٍ، عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللّهِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللّهِ عُتْبَةَ أَنّهُ سَمِعَ ابْنَ عَبّاسٍ يَقُولُ: سَمِعْتُ أَبَا طَلْحَةَ يَقُولُ: سَمِعْتُ رَسُولِ اللّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “لاَ تَدْخُلُ الْمَلائِكَةُ بَيْتاً فِيهِ كَلْبٌ وَلاَ صُورَةٌ“.

Abu Tahir narrated to me, and Harmalah b. Yahya, they said, we were told by Ibn Wahab who said, I was informed by Yunus through Ibn Shihab, through `Ubayduallh b. `Adbullah `Utbah that he heard Ibn `Abbas said, I heard Abu Talha say, I heard the Messenger of Allah say, “Angels do not enter into a house wherein is a dog or a picture.”

وحدّثناه إِسْحَقُ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَ عَبْدُ بْنُ حُمَيْدٍ. قَالاَ: أَخْبَرَنَا عَبْدُ الرّزّاقِ. أَخْبَرَنَا مَعْمَرٌ عَنِ الزّهْرِيّ، بِهذا الإِسْنَادِ، مِثْلَ حَدِيثِ يُونُسَ، وَذِكْرِهِ الأَخْبَارَ فِي الإِسْنَادِ.

And Is-haq b. Ibrahim narrated to us, and `Abd b. Humayd, the two said, We were told by `Abd al-Razzaq, that Ma`mar reported from Zuhri through the chain similar to that of Yunus, and his mentioning of the information concerning the chain.

حدّثنا قُتَيبَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ. حَدّثَنَا لَيْثٌ عَنْ بُكَيْرٍ، عَنْ بُسْرِ بْنِ سَعِيدٍ، عَنْ زَيْدِ بْنِ خَالِدٍ، عَنْ أَبِي طَلْحَةَ، صَاحِبِ رَسُولِ اللّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنّهُ قَالَ: إِنّ رَسُولَ اللّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “إِنّ الْمَلاَئِكَةَ لاَ تَدْخُلُ بَيْتاً فِيهِ صُورَةٌ“.

Qutaybah b. Sa`id narrated to us, that Layth b. Bukhayr narrated through Yusr b. Sa`id through Zayd b. Khalid, through Abu Talha, the Companion of the Prophet that he said that the Messenger of Allah said, “Angels do not enter into a house wherein is a dog or a picture.”

حدّثنا أَبُو الطّاهِرِ. أَخْبَرَنَا ابْنُ وَهْبٍ. أَخْبَرَنِي عَمْرُو بْنُ الْحَارِثِ أَنّ بُكَيْرَ بْنَ الأَشَجّ حَدّثَهُ أَنّ بُسْرَ بْنَ سَعِيدٍ حَدّثَهُ أَنّ زَيْدَ بْنَ خَالِدٍ الْجُهَنِيّ حَدّثَهُ، وَمَعَ بُسْرٍ عُبَيْدُ اللّهِ الْخَوْلاَنِيّ أَنّ أَبَا طَلْحَةَ حَدّثَهُ أَنّ رَسُولَ اللّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “لاَ تَدْخُلُ الْمَلاَئِكَةُ بَيْتاً فِيهِ صُورَةٌ“.

Abu Tahir reported to us, Ibn Wahb reported to him, `Amr b. al-Harith informed him that Bukayr b. Al-Ashajj narrated to him that Yusr b. Sa`id narrated to him that Zayd b. Khalid al-Juhanniy reported to him, along with Busr b. `Ubaydullah al-Khawlani, that Abu Talha narrated that the Prophet said, “Angels do not enter into a house wherein is a dog or a picture.”

حدّثنا إِسْحَقُ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ. أَخْبَرَنَا جَرِيرٌ عَنْ سُهَيْلِ بْنِ أَبِي صَالِحٍ، عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ يَسَارٍ، أَبِي الْحُبَابِ، مَوْلَىَ بَنِي النّجّارِ، عَنْ زَيْدِ بْنِ خَالِدٍ الْجُهَنِيّ، عَنْ أَبِي طَلْحَةَ الأَنْصَارِيّ. قَالَ: سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “لاَ تَدْخُلُ الْمَلاَئِكَةُ بَيْتَاً فِيهِ كَلْبٌ وَلاَ تَمَاثِيلُ“.

Is-haq b. Ibrahim narrated to us, that Jarir b. Suhayl b. Abi Salih reported to him, through Sa`id b. Yasar, Abu al-Hubab, a freedman of Banu al-Najjar, through Zayd b. Khalid al-Juhanni, through Abu Talha al-Ansari that he heard the Messenger of Allah say, “Angels do not enter into a house wherein is a dog or a picture, nor graven images.”

Now, since the narrator is one: Abu Tlaha, and the text is one, to the non-experts, this is one hadith. But not to the Muhaddithin. To them they are five. And, perhaps it may not be necessary to say that Muslim must have had scores of ahadith coming from Abu Talah, on this topic alone, but which he did not place in his collection for reasons of volume. In fact, many readers are annoyed by repetitions when they read hadith collections today. But, to the ancients, possessions of hundreds of ahadith on a single topic was a matter of great pride. To, repeat, those who did not have a report through a hundred different chains, thought they were orphans.

To the alarm of some perhaps, the drama does not end here. With any variation in the text, however, minor, a report was counted as a new hadith. To take the above examples, the last quoted is a different hadith altogether because of the addition of words, “nor graven images.”

Another point may be noted here. To a Hadith doctor, one or more of several reports would be trustworthy, while the rest weak, or fabricated. Now, when someone who does not know the science of hadith, comes across one of the ahadith, say of Abu Talah on the same topic, with the remark that it is a fabrication, he thinks Abu Talha’s hadith on this topic is a fabrication. He is unaware that there are many other chains of transmission that are trustworthy. He is also worried about the great number of unauthentic ahadith, out of which only some are trustworthy. He is not aware that if a narration is trustworthy, it does not matter how many untrustworthy ones are there narrating the same trustworthy text. Further, he does not know that a hadith termed as weak or forged, may not be weak or forged. These are technical terms coined by the Hadith doctors for classification purposes. A literal meaning has not been intended. A Hadith maybe termed forged. But it might not be forged at all. All that the term is saying is that the report has such defects as deserving of the nomenclature reserved for it in the classification. We shall have more to say on the issue later in this work.

The above in any case should put us in a better position to appreciate the statements of the sort Bukhari and other collectors made. Bukhari said that he had memorized 100,000 trustworthy hadith and 200,000 untrustworthy ones. Today’s reader does not know that tens of thousands of the hadith that were untrustworthy to Bukhari, would have had the same text as what he considered trustworthy, but their chains of narration were not as trustworthy. The above should also dispel the doubt planted by the Orientalists into the minds of the ignorant Muslims (be they holders of doctorate degrees in profane subjects), that the chains of transmission were manufactured. Fabrication and manufacture, are arts in which the Orientalists have excelled. Muslim scholars are high above what their detractors allege. The question of fabrication will be taken up for further discussion as we proceed.

(To be continued)

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