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The Hadith: The Traditions of Islam


1. Divisions between the Various Types of Traditions.

The heritage of Islam, particularly its jurisprudence, has four sources - two founded on historical records going back to the time of Muhammad and two on the development of the science of interpretation in the early centuries of Islam The Qur'an has always been regarded as the primary legal source of Islam but, when it was found necessary to look elsewhere for guidance, the early jurists of Islam turned to the Hadith. Only when both of these failed to provide the authority sought did they resort to ijtihad (interpretation) until they reached ijma (consensus). In the very early days of Islam Muslim authorities tended to rely on their own opinions to establish their interpretation of what a prescribed law should be for any given situation not founded on the Qur'an, a practice known as ra'y. The great jurist ash-Shafi'i, however, preferred to rely solely on traditions from the prophet and thereafter on the method known as qiyas (analogy) where interpretations were to be derived from comparisons with relative subjects dealt with in the Qur'an or the traditions. Once Shafi'i's school of law was fully established together with the other great schools founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Abu Hanifa and Malik, the "door" of ijtihad was closed and it was considered that ijma had been reached on all necessary points of law (though the schools differ in many matters to this day but mostly on minor points of interpretation). Accordingly Islamic jurisprudence has for centuries known no real development and is based fundamentally on the four sources mentioned.

In this chapter we are concerned solely with the Hadith the record of Muhammad's actions, decrees and sayings. These are mostly juristic in content and emphasis, though much material in the larger works of Hadith is purely historical.

It is not known when the practice of reducing the traditions of Muhammad's life to writing began. Muslim writers generally claim that all the genuine Hadith (the word means "a message or a new "communication") were written down by Muhammad s companions either during his lifetime or shortly thereafter, but Western scholars doubt whether any were so recorded and circulated before the Ummayad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasids more than a century after Muhammad's death.

It was during the reign of the Abbasids that the practice of collecting Hadith really took root and many early Hadith scholars travelled all over the Muslim world to trace the traditions of Muhammad's sayings and decrees.

Unfortunately wholesale fabrication of Hadith during the early days made it difficult for genuine scholars to distinguish the true from the false, but eventually six major collections were recognised as authoritative works of Hadith containing, for the most part, true records. The divisions of Hadith took many forms. Where traditions were reported by a large number of companions, they became known as mutawatir, that is, "continuous", meaning that they were successively reported by many authorities.

Such traditions are "very few in number and hardly ever touch on legal matters" (Juynboll, The Authenticity of the Tradition Literature, p. 11 ). The second coming of Jesus is attested by seventy traditions from different sources and it is a typical non-juristic hadith unanimously recognised. The next form of Hadith are known as mashur.

Lastly, traditions transmitted by only one or two transmitters are known as ahad, that is, "isolated", from the Arabic root for "one". These divisions are broken up into many other detailed sub-divisions but all rely either on the number of authorities for the tradition or on the nature of their origin. The latter, for example, are divided into musnad, traditions traced back to Muhammad himself, mauquf, those only going back to his companions, and maqtu, those derived from his Successors. A tradition from a Successor directly traced to Muhammad is known as mursal. Naturally those going back to Muhammad himself are considered more genuine.

Another form of dividing the Hadith into degrees of reliability is that which analyses defects in the reporters of traditions or in the textual content of the traditions themselves. Each tradition begins with a list of its chain of reporters, known as its isnad, its "support", and concludes with its content, its matn. There are three classes in this case as well.

Once again there are a number of sub-divisions. The sahih and hasan traditions are graded as maqbul (acceptable) while the da'if are treated with reserve. Hadith known to be fabricated are known as mardud (rejected).

2. The Early Sirat Literature and the Musnads.

The early records of traditions can also be divided into different categories. We begin with the Sirat literature, as it is known, which consists of early biographies of Muhammad's life compiled between a hundred and two hundred years after his death. These contain many of the traditions found in the later major works of Hadith but are not true collections as such. They are purely biographical works in which the material is set out in a chronological form. The three major works of Sirat literature are Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasulullah (the "Life of the Messenger of Allah", the earliest and most famous biography), Waqidi's Kitab al-Maghazi ("Book of the Campaigns"), and Ibn Sa'd's Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir ("Book of the Major Classes"). It has become fashionable in Muslim circles today to regard these works as inferior to the later Hadith collections. One writer says:

The chief reason for this attitude is really that the Sirat works contain records of Muhammad's life which are today regarded as unpalatable, for example, Muhammad's concession to idolatry which was recorded by all three major biographers. It is probable, however, that these works, in their own robust manner, contain a truer picture of Muhammad's life than the later collections which, in comparison, often betray evidences of refinement to improve the image of Islam's founder. (We have already cited two traditions from Bukhari, i.e. those relating to Muhammad's wife Zaynab bint Jahsh and the occasion where all the Meccans bowed with Muhammad after he had recited Surah 53, which are clearly revised editions of the original records which reflected rather poorly on him).

Ibn Sa'd was attached to Waqidi himself for some time and became known as Katib al-Waqidi, the "secretary of Waqidi". His biography, like Ibn Ishaq's, has always been held in high esteem, notwithstanding the negative attitude of many Muslim writers. An author with a more positive approach says:

Another early form of tradition literature consists of the Musnad works which can be regarded as the first attempts at a genuine collection of the Hadith. The name applied to these compositions indicates their character.

The later works were usually arranged into sections where the Hadith were recorded and categorised under topical headings. These earlier works, however, were compiled according to their isnads. All traditions going back to any particular companion were simply listed under his name, irrespective of the subject-matter.

The most famous Musnad was that of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of one of the four major schools of law in Islam. It is an exhaustive work with a vast number of traditions. The compiler could not always sift the true from the false, however, and the collection's chief value today is to serve as a catalogue of the traditions circulating throughout the Muslim world at the time of the rise of the Abbasids.

Like the early biographies, one cannot help feeling that there may be many traditions in this work which give a truer perspective of Muhammad's life, despite the presence of other fabricated hadith, than the more highly-acclaimed later collections of Hadith. During the period of the Ummayad dynasty many traditions were fabricated to favour the caliphs from the descendants of Umayya, but when the descendants of Abbas, Muhammad's uncle, overthrew the dynasty, it soon became fashionable and, indeed, expedient to quash these traditions and compose fresh ones favouring the Abbasid dynasty instead. Ibn Hanbal was an exception to this rule.

As a result Ibn Hanbal suffered greatly under the Abbasid caliphs al-Ma'mun and his brother and successor al-Mu'tasim. He was treated in a most cruel way, not only for his fearlessness in recording unpalatable hadith, but for many other reasons as well.

3. The Distinction between the Hadith and the Sunnah.

One often comes across the terms Hadith and Sunnah in the context of the record and example of Muhammad's teachings, conduct and behaviour. At face value one can distinguish between the two and say that the Hadith are the written records, transmitted by a chain of authorities, of the sayings and actions of Muhammad, whereas the Sunnah is the actual form of behaviour or code of conduct of the prophet which has become the prescribed norm for the universal Muslim community.

Another writer sums it up very succinctly: "Tradition, as a matter of record, is called Hadith; as a matter of obligation it is called Sunnah" (Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, p.98). In the early days of Islam, however, there was a far greater distinction between the two. During the reigns of the four immediate successors of Muhammad known as the "rightly-guided caliphs" Islam spread rapidly. For a long time there were no prescribed laws for the whole Muslim community and where a general code of legal maxims took root, these became the Sunnah, the "example" or, more properly, the norm for the community. In those days there was no need for the laws of Islam to be based directly on any prescribed, recorded practice of Muhammad.

It was only during the days of the great Muslim jurist ash-Shafi'i, and as a result of his influence and leadership in this field, that the Hadith became the standard of all Muslim jurisprudence and the only true Sunnah, therefore, was the Sunnah of the Prophet as it was recorded in the transmitted traditions. Shafi'i decreed that no legal precept was binding unless it was founded on a tradition. If there was no tradition, the correct maxim was to be determined by the process of analogy (qiyas) with other traditions which contained material relative to or comparative with the matter at hand.

As Schacht goes on to point out, while the terms Sunnah and Hadith are not really synonymous, Shafi'i's practice of making the Sunnah dependent exclusively on the traditions led him, and with him the Muslim world to this day, "to identify both terms more or less completely" (Schacht, op.cit., p.77).

Some modern Muslim scholars would like to dispose of the Hadith altogether as an unreliable, outdated and inflexible rule of conduct, in favour of the Qur'an alone which, being the alleged Word of God, must contain all that is necessary for life and conduct and be relevant to every age. Yet it was precisely the limitation of the Qur'an in this respect that led to the rise of the Hadith as the major source of Muslim law and practice. The fact that the Sunnah of Muhammad has become so completely identified with the Hadith makes it impossible that the Hadith can be dismissed without the whole foundation of Islam being simultaneously fractured.

The author goes on to comment: "For the Qur'an did not come in a vacuum. Hence the well-known paradox that even the thoroughgoing sceptics about the Hadith cannot resist supporting their views by it whenever it suits them" (Rahman, op. cit., p. 67). The Hadith, whether genuine or not, have become the real foundation of the ethics, laws and practices of Islam. There is no Sunnah now but that which is derived from the recorded traditions. While the Qur'an remains the Scripture of Islam, the Hadith have become the major source of its jurisprudence.

4. The Isnad - The Early Test of Authenticity.

We have already mentioned the two major features of each tradition, its isnad and matn. Although one would think that the sensibility, historical veracity or material probability of the contents of each tradition would have been critically analysed to determine whether it was likely to be authentic or not, this has not been the case. The collectors of Hadith made very little effort to examine the internal evidences and generally confined themselves to an external test, that is, the reliability of the silsilat al-asanid, the "chain of supporting points", of each tradition. Thus the genuineness of each Hadith was determined by the identities of the personalities who were alleged to be its transmitters.

Thus the isnad became the pivotal point on which the authority of all traditions was to be tested. The test to be applied was purely whether the chain for each tradition was founded on a sequence of approved transmitters.

To give an example of a typical isnad, a tradition regarded as sound might begin with the following chain of transmitters: "Affan ibn Muslim informed us that Hammad ibn Urwah related on the authority of Urwah that he received from Ayishah that the Apostle of Allah said..." and thereafter the content, the matn, would follow. It does seem, however, that the science of isnad-verification may only have developed sometime after the collection of Hadith had begun for one of the earliest records of Hadith does not contain complete isnads for each tradition.

Just as the Hadith has become the ultimate arbiter of the Sunnah, so the isnad-system has become the foundation on which the veracity of the traditions has been tested. While neither may be foolproof or even generally reliable, they have become the major source of Islamic law and practice.

Muhammad and the Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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