A Brief History of Hadith

Some people always love to claim that the Prophet ﷺ prohibited writing down hadith. This is absolutely and unequivocally true……..in the early stage of Islam. We have an authentic narration in Sahih Muslim where the Prophet ﷺ said “Do not write down from me anything other than the Qur’an.” Why on earth would he say this? Most importantly, because he knew how the previous religious traditions had mixed the words of Allah with the words of their prophets with the words of their scholars. I mean, look at the Bible. Where do the words of God end and where do Jesus’ words begin and where do the Apostles words come in? It’s completely different from the Qur’an which is meticulously preserved and kept safe from external additions. By prohibiting the writing down of anything religious other than the Qur’an, the Prophet ﷺ ensured that the fledgling Muslim community would not make the same mistakes as previous religious traditions and lose their scripture in a mix of other writings.

Now, people who reject hadith stop right here. “Oh, the Prophet ﷺ prohibited writing down hadith, case closed.” That’s nonsensical. It’s the equivalent of hearing a professor say something and before he can move on to the next point, sticking your finger in your ears and shouting “nananananana, I can’t hear you!” You have to look at the complete tradition and see if there is more to it. And oh boy, there definitely is.

The prohibition against writing down anything other than the Qur’an appears to have loosened sometime during the Madinan stage. The most explicit example of the lifting of this rule is an incident which occurred with Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn Al ‘As (ra). He says that he would write down every single thing he heard from the Prophet ﷺ.. People criticized him for writing down everything. Make sure you understand the significance of that statement. He was not criticized for writing down the words of the Prophet (saws), he was criticized for how much he was writing. The people told him that it was silly to write down everything when the Prophet ﷺ is a man who sometimes jokes with his companions, sometimes speaks in anger, etc. So Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn Al ‘As saw their point and stopped writing down everything, becoming more selective in what he wrote. Then one day he mentioned this to the Prophet ﷺ who pointed towards his tongue and said “Write! By Him in whose hands is my soul, nothing emanates from this [tongue] except the truth.” You also have a narration found in Tirmidhi of an Ansari companion who complained to the Prophet ﷺ about how he would listen to the Prophet ﷺ speak but then later find that he had forgotten everything. The Prophet ﷺ told him “Seek assistance with your right hand” and he made a motion mimicking writing with his hand. Yet another indication is when Abu Hurairah (ra) came to the Prophet ﷺ and told him that he could not get up for tahajjud because he would spend the night revising what he had written down from the Prophet ﷺ in the day.

I hope that’s enough to show quite clearly that the prohibition on writing down the words of the Prophet ﷺ was limited in time and he not only allowed but actually encouraged the sahabah to write down his ahadith once it became clear that the Qur’an was not in any danger of being mixed with his own words.

Now, before I move on to talk about compilations, let me stress another point. These arguments from people who reject hadith miss a key point. The early prohibition was on writing, it was not a prohibition on hadith themselves. The Prophet ﷺ prohibited writing anything other than the Qur’an (initially anyway), he never prohibited people from transmitting his words. Anyone who thinks this is…..well, I don’t want to sound mean. But come on, you have to be ten types of stupid to think the Prophet ﷺ was merely talking to his sahabah with verses of the Qur’an and never explaining anything to them, or teaching them to pray, or leading by example. In fact, the very narration which says “Do not write from me anything other than the Qur’an” continues and says “And narrate from me, for there is no harm in it and he who attributed any falsehood to me, he will find his abode in the Hell−Fire.” So he clearly expected them to be following his words and actions, he merely prohibited the writing of the ahadith so that the purity of the Qur’an would be preserved. Once that was no longer a concern, the Muslims were told to write down hadith.

Which brings us to the next point. The actual compilations. Realize that these compilations were not hadith books like we think of them. Categorized by chapter and in a certain order. No, no, no, that’s not how they were. These were personal journals of the sahabah. Things they wrote down in the presence of the Prophet ﷺ.. As you can imagine, they would follow no order. They were written down as the events occurred. This continued in the time of the tabieen, they would write down everything they learned from their teacher. Again, these were like personal notebooks and did not follow any set order. Two of these which we actually still have are the Saheefah of Hammaam ibn Munabbih and the Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzaq. Interestingly, these were discovered in manuscript form only very recently (like 20th century recently). They had been jumbled up with other old documents in libraries and no one realized what exactly they were. Once they were discovered, scholars went through them, looking at the narrations. And every single hadith found in those books had been preserved in the six books of hadith. There was not a single new narration. But that’s an aside, I’ll get to how hadith were preserved later:

Okay, so these are still journal forms, right? When do we get books. This occurs later on, during the reign of the famous Umayyad ruler ‘Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz. A student of Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (also his mother’s uncle), he saw the need to institutionalize the branches of Islamic education. OF these branches was hadith. So he commissioned a man named Muhammad ibn Muslim to produce an official compilation of hadith. This man, more famously known by the name Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri, was the first one to lay out ahadith in a systematic book form. In fact, it is this arrangement and categorization that we use to this day. He began with ahadith on belief, then purification, then salah, then janazah, then Eid, then charity, then fasting, eventually ending with signs of the last Hour and the Day of Judgement. The vast majority of hadith books are going to follow this pattern, originally made by az-Zuhri.

All of this to point out: writing of the hadith was done at the time of the Prophet ﷺ, with his expressing permission and blessing. It was written down by the sahabah and later scholars merely continued in this tradition, eventually arranging them in a systematic manner rather than having them interspersed in personal journals.

Now, initially, there was no need to have an isnad. I mean, think about it. The sahabah are hearing directly from the Prophet ﷺ and writing it down. There’s no chance of the information being false. Then you have the era of the tabieen. Here, it still isn’t an issue because the tabieen are hearing it from the sahabah and the pool of sahabah is small and insular enough that there’s no chance of a sahabi making things up. But after that? Here comes the problem. Especially after the first Muslim civil war (called the Fitnah), you had people who would make things up in order to support the side they were on. It is in this context that the isnad system arose. It became an integral part of a hadith that not only should you know the text, you should know the person who narrated it to you. And who they heard it from back to a sahabi. The logical corollary from this new requirement is that the average person should be able to know who a narrator is. This leads to a discipline called ’ilm ar rijal or “The Knowledge of Men” (and, of course, falling under that, women of which there were plenty). You had information collected and biographies written about any person who narrated a hadith. As you can imagine, this was no easy task. One of the foremost figures in this field was Ali al-Madaini who commissioned literally hundreds of people to investigate every single narrator of hadith and find out the person’s life story, if they were truthful people, their character, how they earned a livelihood, etc. This was then written down for later generations to use to make determinations of the people who narrated hadith. This is a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, there is no other society which has produced this level of biographical works.

Ok, so this is how isnads arose. How do we use isnads to determine what is authentic? This is a complex topic and to become an expert, you must devote years of study. I don’t mean you have to become a scholar. No, this is beyond that, this is a subspecialty of being a scholar. If being a scholar is like being a primary care doctor, critiquing hadith isnads is being a cardiologist. You have to go through the normal scholarly education and then spend additional time learning this. However, the basics are easy enough to grasp:

Hadith are classified broadly into two groups: acceptable and unacceptable. There are five criteria we use to grade hadith:

  • That there is a continuous, unbroken chain of narrators from the compiler (the person who wrote down the hadith into the book we are referencing) to the Prophet ﷺ.
  • That every narrator in the chain be of good character and trustworthiness.
  • That every narrator be of strong memory.
  • That the hadith not contradict anything more authentic than it.
  • That there is no hidden defect in the hadith. This right here is the big one that really, is only in the domain of a hadith specialist.

So if a hadith meets these five criteria, we call it saheeh (authentic). If the third criteria is not as strong (i.e., the narrator’s memory is good instead of excellent), the hadith’s strength is downgraded to hasan (good). This is the only difference between saheeh and hasan. The other four requirements need to be met in both categories.

Okay, so that’s the acceptable group. What about the unacceptable? If any of these criteria is not met, the hadith is graded as da’eef, or weak. You can further subdivide this into over 30 categories but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Now, if within the chain, there is a known liar, we can call it fabricated. Fabricated narrations (we don’t really call them hadith) are rejected out of hand. For da’eef though, it’s a bit more complicated. As a general rule (but again, this is coming into the domain of a hadith specialist), two da’eef hadith narrated from two separate chains can strengthen one another and raise the grade to what is called “hasan li ghayrihi” or “good due to outside factors.”

Now, we base our theology and law on saheeh and hasan hadith. We do not base theology on da’eef hadith, there’s no question about that. However, there have been scholars who have been a bit more lenient on the use of da’eef hadith in certain scenarios if certain conditions are met. So, for things like extra acts of worship, inducing people to do good, for things like history and tafseer, some scholars are more lax in allowing weak narration to be used.

Ok, with that brief introduction (and trust me, it is brief. Hadith authentication is a vast field and I basically gave you just the first lecture of Hadith Studies 101), let me get back to the topic of compilations. For the early period of Islamic history, as I mentioned, people simply kept ahadith in personal journals. After ibn Shihab Az-Zuhri, you had a systematic arrangement of ahadith, but, and this is important, the focus was on compiling all the narrations you got. Scholars recorded narrations regardless of authenticity. Was it better when the hadith was authentic? Definitely. But they still wrote down weak and even fabricated narrations. Think about it like a scientist doing an experiment. (S)he needs to write down the results of every experiment. Even when the data does not support the hypothesis and it is technically a failed experiment, the results still need to be meticulously recorded. Hadith collectors saw it similarly. You write down all the narrations you get, and then later, you can compare various narrations to see what is authentic. So yeah, maybe this hadith you got is weak, but let’s see, this other narration of the same incident which is also weak comes from a separate chain and thus the hadith is “hasan li ghayrihi.” So a scholar writes down everything and trusts the reader to grade the narration and figure out what is authentic or not.

This was how hadith books were written until one day, a famous scholar by the name of Ishaq ibn Rahawayh was sitting with his hadith students and casually remarked about how nice it would be if he could just open up a hadith book and not worry about grading the hadith, i.e. if a person would compile onlyauthentic narrations into a book of hadith. A young student sitting in the audience decided to take it upon himself to do just that. That student’s name was Muhammad ibn Isma’il and he came from the far eastern province of Bukhara. We remember him as Imam Bukhari. The rest, as they say, is history.

Further reading:

Usool al-Hadeeth: The Methodology of Hadith Evaluation by Dr. Bilal Philips
Studies in Early Hadith Literature by Mustafa Azami and
Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World by Jonathan Brown

Dr. Philips book is a quick read and hits the basics. Dr. Azami’s book is especially good as a response to allegations that the hadith literature can not be trusted. Dr. Brown’s book is pretty good but gets dry at times. I’d read them in this order. Also, half of Dr. Azami’s book is an appendix so it’s not too long of a read.

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