Hadith is a genre of Muslim literature that originated in the early period of Islamic history. It is found in the earliest preserved compilations of legal and historical material ascribed to authors of the eighth century. Since then and continuing until the present time, a huge number of hadith collections have been brought to light.
The term hadith (often capitalized by Western scholars) denotes both the genre of literature and an individual text of this genre. Originally the term meant story, communication, or report but as a scholarly term hadith means tradition. Muslim scholarship tends to limit the term hadith to the accounts of the prophet Muhammad. Many Western scholars use hadith more broadly to include the traditions of the Prophet's Companions and even later generations. In this broader meaning, however, it was also used by early and a few later Muslim hadith scholars.
In the early and classical sources, that is, those dated until the eleventh century, one mostly encounters the hadiths in a typical form. Every single tradition begins with a chain of transmitters, called isnad (support, foundation). The first transmitter in the isnad is often the collector (sometimes even his pupil) in whose compilation the hadith in question is found, then the collector's informant is mentioned, then the latter's informant, and so on until the chain arrives at the original reporter of the text. The text, which is called matn in Arabic, could be either a short sentence or a long story. Here is an example of a hadith:
Yahya related to me from Malik from Ibn Shihab from ˓Ata˒b. Yazid al-Laythi from Abu Sa˓id al-Khudri that the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, said (= isnad): "When you hear the call to prayer (adhan), repeat what the muezzin (mu˒adhdhin) says" (= matn).
In this tradition the isnad informs us that Abu Sa˒id al-Khudri, a Companion of the Prophet, reported this saying of the Prophet, and that his report has been transmitted via ˓Ata˒, Ibn Shihab, Malik, and his pupil Yahya to the editor of the collection in which the hadith is found.
Role in Muslim Culture
The hadiths, embodying the tradition on the origins of Islam, are for Muslims an important source of guidance next to the Qur˒an. The "way" (sunna) of their Prophet and of the first generations of Muslims is taken as a model of how Muslims should live in this world in order to lead a happy eternal life in the hereafter. This is most obvious in that this sunna, particularly that of the Prophet, became after the Qur˒an the second fundamental source of the shari˓a, the Law of God. According to Muslim scholars this status of the sunna is advocated both in the Qur˒an and in hadiths of the Prophet and was already acknowledged by his Companions. In contrast, Western scholars usually think that the sunna acquired its status as second source of the Law only gradually during the eighth century and that in Sunnite law the hadiths of the Prophet gained the absolute superiority over other expressions of the sunna only in the first half of the ninth century. In Imami Shi˓ite law the traditions of the Prophet did not acquire such a superiority but are considered equal in value with that of the imams.
The important role that the hadiths came to play in Muslim scholarship in general, and for the establishment of the shari˓a in particular, induced Muslim scholars to scrutinize the tradition material critically and to define rules as to which hadiths could be accepted and which must be rejected. The traditional Muslim hadith criticism focused on the chains of transmitters (isnads), which accompany a hadith, but also checked whether its content (matn) is compatible with other recognized traditions and with the Qur˒an. This led among the Sunnites to a classification of hadiths in four classes: (1) sahih (sound); (2) hasan (fair); (3) da˓if (weak), with some subcategories of this class; and (4) mawdu˒ (spurious).Additionally, special classification systems were developed for the evaluation of isnads and matns. The critical evaluation of the hadiths found its expression in special compilations in which their authors collected the hadiths, that they considered reliable or accepted. The "six books" (see the section "Collections" below), which among the Sunnites acquired an almost canonical status, belong to this type of collection. Nevertheless, the evaluation of particular hadiths, even of those contained in the most revered collections, remained disputed in Muslim scholarship. In Imami Shi˓ism hadith criticism was less sophisticated and appeared late because the isnads consisted in large part of the (infallible) imams.
In modern times the Muslim debate about the reliability of the hadiths got a new impetus. Reform-minded scholars and intellectuals tried to revise the issue of which hadiths are essential and binding for a Muslim and which are not. Names like Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), Muhammad ˓Abduh (d. 1905), Rashid Rida (d. 1935), Mahmud Abu Rayya, and Ghulam Ahmad Parwez are connected with the critique of the traditional hadith scholarship. Scholars advocating Islamic revivalism, such as Abu l-A˓la˒ Maududi (d. 1979), Muhammad al-Ghazali, or Yusuf al-Qaradawi, also called for a reassessment of the classical hadith literature in light of the Qur˒an and modernity. They argued for a more sophisticated criticism of the content (matn) of the hadiths. A few others like Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) and Mohammed Arkoun advocated a new understanding of the development of the hadiths.
The earliest preserved hadith collections confine themselves to certain types of traditions. For example, the Sira of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) in the recension preserved from Ibn Hisham (d. 828 or 833) contains mainly historical traditions on Muhammad and his time. The Muwatta˒ of Malik b. Anas (d. 795 ) as transmitted by Yahya b. Yahya (d. 848) is a collection of legal hadiths, as is the Zaydi Shi˓ite Majmu˒ al-fiqh ascribed to Zayd b. ˓Ali (d. 740), but probably compiled only by Ibrahim b. Zibriqan (d. 799). By contrast, the Tafsir of ˓Abd al-Razzaq al-San˓ani (d. 827) contains exegetical traditions.
This manner of collecting traditions continued and there are many later examples of compilations confined to a certain type of tradition or to traditions on certain topics. From the ninth century onward more comprehensive collections became available. There are two main types. In most of the comprehensive collections the traditions are put together in chapters and paragraphs according to the content of the traditions. Thus we find chapters on prayer, marriage, commercial transactions, Qur˒anic exegesis, maghazi (campaigns of the Prophet), and so forth in which traditions on the particular topics are combined. This type of ordering of the subject matter is called musannaf (classified). The oldest comprehensive collections preserved, such as the Musannaf of ˓Abd al-Razzaq (d. 827), the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shayba (d. 849), the Sunan of Sa˓id b. Mansur (d. 841), or the Sunan of al-Darimi (d. 868), belong to this type, as do the six hadith collections of al-Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim (d. 874), Ibn Maja (d. 886), Abu Dawud (d. 888), al-Tirmidhi (d. 892), and al-Nasa˒i (d. 915), which over time were recognized by Sunnite scholars as the most reliable ones. The collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim were even called the "sound" (sahih). The canonical hadith collections of the Imami Shi˓ites compiled by al-Kulini (d. 939), al-Babuya al-Qummi (d. 991), and al-Tusi (d. 1067) also belong to the musannaf type.
Several comprehensive collections compiled from the ninth century onward show another method of ordering the hadiths. All traditions whose isnads go back to the same original reporter are put together; for example, the hadiths transmitted from the above-mentioned Abu Sa˓id al-Khudri. The entries are arranged alphabetically according to the name of the original reporters. Such a type of collection is called musnad. Generally it confines itself to hadiths of the Prophet. The most famous compilation of this type is the huge Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855), but there are earlier ones, such as the Musnad of al-Humaydi (d. 834) and the Musnad of al-Tayalisi (d. 813)—the latter probably compiled by one of his pupils—and many later ones, like the Tahdhib al-athar of al-Tabari (d. 923), which is incomplete; the Musnad of Abu Ya˓la (d. 919); or al-Mu'jam al-kabir of al-Tabarani (d. 970).
Muslim scholars did not always use the terms musannaf and musnad consistently in the titles of the collections, and they classify hadith collections also according to several other criteria.
Hadiths are available in collections dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries or even later. The hadiths themselves, through their isnads, claim to have been transmitted from earlier times. There are four sources that allow us to know more about the history of these hadiths: (1) the isnads of the traditions; (2) their texts (matns); (3) biographical traditions about the transmitters found in the isnads; and (4) the later norm and practice of transmitting traditions (known from different types of sources).
Most Sunnite Muslim scholars are convinced that it is possible to reconstruct the history of the hadiths on the basis of the four sources, which they consider on the whole as being reliable. They usually sketch the origin and development of the hadiths as follows: The Prophet taught his "way" (sunna) to his Companions orally, by writing or by practical demonstration. He encouraged his Companions to diffuse his teachings and sent teachers and preachers to newly converted tribes. His Companions were very eager to learn as much as they could from their Prophet. They learned his sunna, that is, his practice, by doing it with him, they memorized it, or—if they could write—wrote it down. After the death of theProphet, his Companions continued their efforts to memorize the hadiths and to write them down, and instructed others whenever they felt that this was needed, and some Companions even attracted circles of students whom they taught regularly.
In this way the hadiths were also transmitted to the following generations. The students of the Companions, the older Successors, became teachers themselves and the circles of students committed to the study of the Qur˒an and to the preservation of traditions grew steadily. There were only few Successors who had collected hadiths from different sources, but their students, who flourished in the first half of the eighth century, devoted themselves to the task of collecting traditions more systematically. They also began to arrange them thematically and transmitted their written collections to wider circles of students. This is the material out of which the early substantial collections of traditions were compiled, such as Ibn Ishaq's Sira or Malik's Muwatta˒, which are preserved through recensions of their pupils.
This scenario, which has a certain attraction by appearing natural or even inevitable, at least as far as the Prophet and his Companions are concerned, is almost completely based on information taken from traditions that go back, according to their isnads, to eyewitnesses of the time of the Prophet, the Companions, and the Successors. It is rejected outright by a Western school of thought that argues that the precise history of the hadiths available in the collections of the ninth century and later cannot be reconstructed anymore. Scholars belonging to this school of thought doubt, first of all, the historical value of the isnads, which they consider as generally fabricated and as arbitrarily attached to the traditions. They furthermore argue that the biographical traditions about the transmitters who appear in the isnads are not an independent historical source, because the information contained in the biographical traditions may be invented to support the isnads. If these two sources, isnads and biographical traditions, are unreliable, then we are left with the texts alone. On the basis of their content and style, only a very global reconstruction of their history is possible. As models for such a reconstruction, the developments of the Jewish and Christian religious literature can be used. The result is "salvation history," the reconstruction of how the Muslim community at the turn of the eighth century reflects through its traditions on its own origins. This school of thought derives its inspiration from the studies of J. Wansbrough (1977, 1978). According to this approach the hadiths are generally inauthentic in the sense that they do not reflect the factual history of the first two Islamic centuries. This skepticism of the traditions has its roots in the studies of I. Goldziher (1890) and J. Schacht (1950).
Not all Western scholars hold to the extreme skepticism that doubts the historical reliability of the Muslim traditions altogether. Many Western scholars of Islam assume that there may be both unreliable and reliable traditions and that it might be possible to discern between them. They differ, however, widely as to the methods through which this could be achieved. In this respect more or less skeptical and sophisticated approaches can be distinguished. Some scholars (like M. W. Watt) rely in their methods mainly on the texts of the hadiths, while others (like Juynboll) focus on the isnads, and yet others (like J. van Ess, H. Motzki, or G. Schoeler) use a combination of matn and isnad analysis. The latter method starts from collections in which the traditions are available and tries to detect indications in the isnads and the texts as to whether the traditions in question were really transmitted or fabricated. The investigation can be focused either on a single tradition, of which variants are available in different collections, or on the traditions contained in one and the same collection. In the first case the aim is to find out whether it is possible to reconstruct the transmission history of a particular hadith. In the second case the issue is scrutinized to determine whether the history of a whole collection can be reconstructed, whether the collector may have invented the hadiths or the isnads or both, or whether he has received them from the informants he names.
This source-critical approach produces another scenario of the history of the hadiths. In contrast to the pictures drafted by Muslim scholars and extreme skepticists, the conclusions of the source-critical scholars are general but confined to the collections and traditions studied. Their scenario is therefore fragmentary and provisional.
According to the source-critical approach there are collections, such as ˓Abd al-Razzaq's Musannaf or Ibn Hisham's Sira, which can be shown to have been compiled from earlier sources. That means that the names to which the collectors ascribe their materials are, at least partially, their real informants. This does not yet say anything about the quality of their textual transmission. These informants or sources of the collectors, like Ibn Jurayj or Ibn Ishaq, lived in the first half of the eighth century. It is also obvious that the huge amounts of traditions that were transmitted by these informants were mostly not invented by them or falsely ascribed to some other informants, but were really received from the persons named. This is suggested by the great variation between the isnads and the matns, which are said to derive from the different informants and by formal peculiarities that suggest a real transmission. In this manner the materials going back, for example, to ˓Ata˒ b. Rabah (d. 733) or ˓Amr b. Dinar (d. 744), some of the key informants of Ibn Jurayj (d. 767), or the material going back to al-Zuhri (d. 742), a key informant of both Ibn Jurayj and Ibn Ishaq (d. 767), can be recovered. The quality of the material transmitted from these informants—flourishing in the first quarter of the eighth century and belonging to the Successors, the generation following that of the Prophet's Companions—can be evaluated on internal grounds and by comparing their traditions with variants of them found in other reliable sources and transmitted by compilers other than Ibn Jurayj and Ibn Ishaq. In this waysuspicious transmitters can be detected as well. The procedure can, at least in some cases, also be applied to the material deriving from the Successors. That means that through this method it is possible to date large amounts of traditions step by step back until, at least in some cases, the time of the Companions.
The materials reconstructed as being earlier sources allow for conclusions about the way hadiths were transmitted from generation to generation until they were incorporated in the collection in question, for example ˓Abd al-Razzaq's Musannaf. It could be established, for example, that the transmission of traditions in Mecca and Medina from the middle of the seventh until the middle of the eighth century occurred orally but was accompanied by written notes. This indicates that the transmission focused on the content of the traditions, not on the exact wording. In the succeeding generations transmission occurred orally in combination with verbatim copying. The use and quality of isnads differed among the early scholars. It seems that incomplete isnads coexisted with complete ones from the time of the Successors onward until the end of the eighth century.
It can also be said that in early Meccan scholarship transmission of traditions played a minor role compared to that of Medina, but the situation changed in Mecca in the course of the first half of the eighth century. These differences notwithstanding, there can be no doubt that there are traditions about the Companions and the Prophet that were known and transmitted in both centers of learning already in the second half of the seventh century. It is improbable, however, that the source-critical approach can lead to an earlier period, aside from exceptional cases. One of the limitations of this method is that it cannot generalize. That means that as long as a single hadith or a group of traditions has not yet been or cannot be scrutinized by this method, their dating remains obscure. A judgment about their historical reliability must be postponed or cannot be made.
See alsoSuccession .
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Abdul Rauf, Muhammad. "Hadith Literature—I: The Development of the Science of Hadith." The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Vol. 1, Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period. Edited by A. F. L. Beeston, et al. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
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