What is Hadith? Learn History, Process, and Value
The term Hadith derives from the Arabic root ḥ-d-th meaning “to happen” and so “to tell a happening,” “to report,” “to have, or give, as news,” or “to speak of.”
The Hadith is the collected traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), based on his sayings and actions.
It means tradition seen as narrative and record. From Hadith comes the “Sunnah” (literally, a “well-trodden path”—i.e., taken as precedent and authority or directive), to which the faithful conform in submission to the sanction that Hadith possesses.
Hadith in Islam is thus both content and actions of the Prophet (PBUH), Hadith being as the biographical ground of law and Sunnah as the system of obligation derived from it.
In and through Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) may be said to have shaped and determined the behavior patterns of the household of Islam by the posthumous leadership his personality exercised.
Compilations of hadith, or words attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, are the second most important form of scripture, or religious text, in the Islamic scholastic tradition.
Hadith is an essential source of deriving Islamic law and determining what is deemed as Sunna or a model of proper Islamic practice based on prophetic precedent.
In addition, hadith are critical to understanding the Qur’an and many of its general injunctions which would be otherwise ambiguous without their correlating explanations found in hadith sources.
This article will analyze the basic foundations of hadith studies (ʿulūm al-ḥadīth) which are essential to a well-grounded understanding of this important field of Islamic Studies.
A progression of the various elements related to hadith studies such as hadith terminology, the legislative authority of the Sunnah, methods of collecting and preserving hadiths, important transmitters, canonical hadith sources, hadith classification, weak hadiths, and forged hadiths, will be presented over the course of the semester to build a solid understanding of the role of hadith in shaping the Islamic scholarly tradition.
Furthermore, this study of the scholastic aspects of hadith studies will culminate with an exploration of relevant contemporary issues such as debates regarding the authenticity of hadiths in Western scholarship.
History of Hadith
First, we highlight that the compilation of hadith does not get accepted as a reported text without examining it critically, and it is not sufficient for this text to be narrated from a scholar or a person of respectable standing in order for it to be accepted.
Rather it is essential that the attribution of the report to the one who said it should be proven, and it should be examined thoroughly and carefully to make sure that it is in harmony with the proven principles and general guidelines.
This critical methodology that deals with historical reports was absent in the case of the Torah and Gospel, and it was absent in the case of all historical narratives before Islam.
Then Islam came to give the world this sound methodology that is based on research, thorough examination, and sound thinking.
Charles Guinevere contrasted this methodology of critically examining historical events with the Christian methodology that is based on faith, which accepted reports from earlier generations without any discussion or critical examination.
Many researchers overlooked this methodological connection between the Holy Quran and the sciences of hadith, to the extent that many people thought that the methodology of the hadith scholars was the result of a kind of unsurpassed brilliance and that it developed because of need alone.
But the truth that cannot be doubted is that the methodology of the hadith scholars is a Qur’anic methodology, and it is one of the manifestations of the miraculous nature of the Quran.
The Science Of Hadith
The study of tradition (ʿilm al-ḥadīth) distinguishes between the substance, or content, known as the “gist” (matn) of the matter, and the “leaning” (isnād), or chain of corroboration on which it hangs.
In all these ways, and others involving more minutiae, it was possible to establish categories of Hadith quality. Traditions might be sound (ṣaḥīḥ), good (ḥasan), or weak (ḍaʿīf). Other terms, such as healthy (ṣāliḥ) and infirm (saqīm), were also current.
Each of the three classifications was liable to subdivisions, depending on refinements of assessment and, later, on their standing with the classic compilers.
Distinctions were less rigorously seen if the traditions were cited not for legal definitions but merely for moral purposes.
A ḍaʿīf tradition, for example, might well be salutary for exhortation, even if lawyers were required to exclude or ignore it.
Traditions also varied in strength according to whether one or more “companions” could be adduced, whether the isnād had parallels and whether they were continuous back to Muhammad (muttaṣil) or intermitted (mawqūf).
The subtleties in these and other questions were part of the active competence that attended the whole science.
The Compilations of Hadith
The most revered of all traditionalists was al-Bukhārī (AH 194–256 [810–870 CE]), whose Al-Jāmiʿ al-ṣaḥīḥ (“The Authentic Collection”) has a unique place in the awe and esteem of Muslims as a work of great historical import and deep piety.
While a boy, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and gathered traditions in wide travels. According to tradition, he was inspired to his task by a vision of the Prophet Muhammad being pestered by flies while asleep—flies that he (al-Bukhārī) fanned from the Prophet’s face.
The flies represented the cloud of spurious traditions darkening the true image, and the fan was its tireless rescuer. Whatever the truth of this narrative, it captures the temper of al-Bukhārī’s vocation.
His Ṣaḥīḥ occupied 16 years of editorial pains and scrutiny. He included 7,397 traditions with full isnād. Allowing for repetitions, the net total was 2,762, gathered, it is said, from more than 600,000 memorized items.
He arranged the whole into 97 books and 3,450 chapters or topics, repeating the traditions that bore on several themes.
Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī was born on July 19, 810 in Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan.
Bukhari one of the greatest Muslim compilers and scholars of Hadith known in the Islamic world.
His chief work is accepted by Sunni Muslims—i.e., those following the majority tradition—as second only to the Qurʾān as both a source of religious law and sacred work.
The imams attested to his good memory, precision, knowledge, asceticism, and worship. Imam Ahmad (may Allaah have mercy on him) said of him: Khorasan has never produced anyone like him.
Ibn Khuzaymah (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: I have never seen anyone beneath the canopy of heaven who has more knowledge of the hadeeth of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and who has memorized more (hadeeth) than al-Bukhaari.
Al-Tirmidhi (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: I have never seen in Iraq or in Khorasan anyone with more knowledge of hadeeth criticism, history, and isnaads than al-Bukhaari.
Al-Bukhaari had more than one thousand shaykhs whom he met in the countries and cities to which he traveled. Among them were: Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Hammaad ibn Shaakir, Makki ibn Ibraaheem, and Abu ‘Aasim al-Nabeel.
Among those who narrated from al-Bukhaari were:
Muslim ibn al-Hajjaaj the author of al-Saheeh; al-Tirmidhi; al-Nasaa’i; Muhammad ibn Nasr al-Marwazi; and many others.
Al-Bukhari wrote many books, the most famous of which are: al-Jaami’ al-Saheeh; al-Tareekh al-Kabeer; al-Adab al-Mufrad; Khalq Af’aal al-‘Ibaad.
He died, may Allaah have mercy on him, on the night of Eid al-Fitr, 256 AH.
Imam Muslim another great scholar who also was known for his work in Hadith was born in 204 AH, or it was said in 206 AH.
He devoted his time to hadith, and he traveled in search of hadith and strove hard in that field until he became very prominent. His contemporaries attested to his virtues. His shaykh Muhammad ibn Bashshaar (Bandaar) said: The hafiz of this world are four: Abu Zar’ah in al-Ray, Muslim in Nisapur, ‘Abd-Allaah al-Daarimi in Samarqand, and Muhammad ibn Ismaa’eel in Bukhara.
Ahmad ibn Salamah al-Nisaboori said: I saw Abu Zar’ah and Abu Haatim giving precedence to Muslim ibn al-Hajjaaj in the knowledge of Saheeh over the shaykhs of their time.
Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr said of him: They unanimously agreed on his eminence, leadership, and high status. The greatest evidence of that is his book al-Saheeh; no book before it or after is as well organized or precise in the isnaads of its hadith.
His shaykhs included: Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bukhaari, Yahya ibn Yahya al-Teemi, Ishaaq ibn Raahawayh, Yahya ibn Ma’een, Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shaybah and many others.
His students included: Abu Haatim al-Raazi, Abu ‘Eesa al-Tirmidhi, Ibn Khuzaymah, Abu ‘Awaanah al-Isfaraayeeni and Makki ibn ‘Abdaan.
His well-known books include al-Jaami’ al-Saheeh; al-Kuna wa’l-Asma’; al-Tabaqaat; al-Tamyeez; and al-Munfaridaat wa’l-Wahdan.
He died, may Allaah have mercy on him, in Rajab 261 AH.
The Top 6 Hadith Scholars and Compilers
- Imam al-Bukhaari
- Imam Muslim
- Imam Abu Dawood
- Imam al-Tirmidhi
- Imam al-Nasa’i
- Imam Ibn Maajah
Brief History of Top 6 Hadith Scholars
Below we quickly highlight the brief stories of the top 6 hadith scholars in Islam. We want to clarify that this is a brief synopsis of the history of these great men.
Each scholar has books written about their life story that can give you a deeper understanding of the lives of these Scholars.
His full name was Abu ‘Abd-Allaah Muhammad ibn Ismaa’eel ibn Ibraaheem ibn al-Mugheerah ibn Bardizbah al-Ja’fi al-Bukhaari. His grandfather al-Mugheerah was a freed slave of al-Yamaan al-Ja’fi, the governor of Bukhara, so he took his name after he became Muslim. Imam al-Bukhaari was born in Bukhara in 194 AH. He grew up an orphan and started to memorize hadith before he was ten years old. When he was a young man he set out to travel to Makkah and perform the obligation of Hajj. He stayed in Makkah for a while, studying under the imams of fiqh, usool, and hadith. Then he began to travel around, going from one Islamic region to another, for sixteen years in all. He visited many centers of knowledge where he collected hadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) until he had compiled more than 600,000 hadith. He referred to one thousand scholars of hadith and discussed these reports with them. These scholars were people who were known for their sincerity, piety, and sound belief. From this huge number of hadith he compiled his book al-Saheeh, following the most precise scientific guidelines in his research as to their authenticity and in distinguishing the Saheeh (sound) from the weak, and in finding out about the narrators, until he recorded in his book the most sound of the sound, although it does not contain all the Saheeh hadith. The book’s full title is al-Jaami’ al-Saheeh al-Musnad min Hadith Rasool-Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) wa Sunanihi wa Ayaamihi.
The governor of Bukhara wanted al-Bukhaari to come to his house to teach his children and read hadith to them. But al-Bukhaari refused and wrote to him: “Knowledge is to be sought in its own house,” meaning that knowledge is to be sought not summoned. Whoever wanted to learn from the scholars should go to them in the mosque or in their houses. So the governor bore a grudge against him and ordered that he be expelled from Bukhara. So he went to the village of Khartank which is near Samarqand, where he had relatives, and he settled there until he died in 256 AH at the age of 62. May Allaah have mercy upon him.
His full name was Muslim ibn al-Hajjaaj ibn Muslim al-Qushayri al-Nisapoori Abu’l-Husayn. He is one of the leading scholars of hadith and one of the most knowledgeable. He was born in Nisapoor on the day that Imam al-Shaafa’i died in 204 AH. He studied in Nisapoor, and when he grew up he traveled to Iraq and the Hijaz to learn hadith. He heard hadith from many shaykhs, and many scholars of hadith narrated from him. The most famous of his books is his Saheeh which is known as Saheeh Muslim. This is one of the six reliable books of hadith. He spent nearly fifteen years compiling this book, which is second only to Saheeh al-Bukhaari in status and in the strength of its hadith. Many scholars have written commentaries on his Saheeh.
His books also include Kitaab al-Tabaqaat, Kitaab al-Jaami’ and Kitaab al-Asma’, and others which exist in printed and manuscript form. He died in the city of Nasarabad, near Nisapoor, in 261 AH, at the age of 57. May Allah have mercy on him.
Imam Abu Dawood
His full name was Sulaymaan ibn al-Ash’ath ibn Shaddaad ibn ‘Amr ibn Ishaaq ibn Basheer al-Azdi al-Sajistani, from Sajistan. Abu Dawood was the leading hadith scholar of his age. He is the author of al-Sunan, which is one of the six reliable books of hadith. He was born in 202 AH. He traveled to Baghdad where he met Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and stayed with him; he also looked like him. He also traveled to the Hijaz, Iraq, Khurasan, Syria, Egypt and the borders of the Islamic world. Al-Nasaa’i, al-Tirmidhi, and others narrated hadith from him. He attained the highest degree of piety and righteousness. His book al-Sunan includes more than 5300 hadith.
The caliph Abu Ahmad Talhah (al-Muwaffaq al-‘Abbaasi) asked three things of him: the first was that he should move to Basrah and settle there, so that seekers of knowledge could come to him, thus bringing more people to settle there. The second was that he should teach al-Sunan to his children. The third was that he should give exclusive classes to his children, for the children of the caliph should not sit with the common people. Abu Dawood said to him: As for the first, yes; as for the second, yes; as for the third, no way, because all people are equal when it comes to knowledge. So the sons of al-Muwaffaq al-‘Abbaasi used to attend his lessons, and they would sit with a screen between them and the people. He remained in Basrah until he died in 275 AH. May Allaah have mercy on him.
His full name was Muhammad ibn ‘Eesa ibn Soorah ibn Moosa ibn al-Dahhaak al-Salami al-Tirmidhi, Abu Eesa. He came from Tirmidhi, one of the cities of Transoxiana, after which he was named. He was one of the leading scholars of hadith and memorization of hadith. He was born in 209 AH and studied under al-Bukhaari; they had some of the same teachers. He began to seek hadith by traveling to Khurasan, Iraq, and the Hijaz. He became famous for his memorization of hadith, trustworthiness, and knowledge. His shaykhs included Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Abu Dawood al-Sajistani. He compiled al-Jaami’ which is counted as one of the six reliable books of hadith. In this book, he examined the hadith in detail, which is of benefit to students of fiqh, because he mentions the hadith and most of his hadith deal with rulings of fiqh. He mentions the isnaads and lists the Sahaabah who narrated the hadith, so what he believes is Saheeh he says is Saheeh, and what he believes is da’eef he says is da’eef. He explains who among the fuqaha’ accepted the hadith and who did not. His Jaami’ is the most comprehensive of the books of al-Sunan, and is the most useful to the muhaddith (hadith scholar) and faqeeh. His other works include Kitaab al-Shama’il al-Nabawiyyah and al-‘Ilal fi’l-Hadith. He was blind for the latter part of his life, after he had traveled around and compiled sahih reports from prominent and well-versed scholars. He died in 279 AH at the age of 70. May Allah have mercy on him.
His full name was Ahmad ibn Shu’ayb ibn ‘Ali ibn Sinan ibn Bahr ibn Dinar al-Nasaa’i, Abu ‘Abd al-Rahmaan. He came from the city of Nasa in Khurasan, after which he was named (Nasawi or Nasaa’i). He was born in 215 AH, and he was one of the leading scholars and muhaddiths of his time. His comments on al-jarh wa’l-ta’deel (the study of the soundness or otherwise of narrators of hadith) are highly esteemed by the scholars. Al-Haakim said: I heard Abu’l-Hasan al-Daaraqutni say more than once, “Abu ‘Abd al-Rahmaan is the foremost among all scholars of hadith, and he is the best evaluator of narrators of his time.”
He was extremely pious and righteous, and he used to regularly observe the best kind of fasting (the fasting of Dawood), he used to fast on alternate days. He lived in Egypt, where his books became famous and people learned from him. Then he moved to Damascus, where he died on Monday 13 Safar 300 AH, at the age of 85. May Allaah have mercy on him.
Imam Ibn Maajah
His full name was Muhammad ibn Yazeed al-Rab’i al-Qazwayni, Abu ‘Abd-Allaah. His father Yazeed was known as Maajah, so he was known as Ibn Maajah. The name al-Rab’i refers to Rabee’ah, after whom he was named because his father was a freed slave of Rabee’ah . He was a famous hafiz and the author of the book of hadith called al-Sunan. He was born in Qazwayn, after which he was named, in 209 AH. He travelled to Iraq, Basrah, Kufa, Baghdad, Makkah, Syria, Egypt and al-Rai to write down hadith. He wrote three books during his travels: a book on Tafseer; a book on history, in which he compiled the reports of men who had written down reports of the Sunnah from the time of the Sahaabah until his own time; and his book al-Sunan. Ibn Maajah died on Monday 22 Ramadan 273 AH, at the age of 64. May Allaah have mercy on him.
Ruling on the Hadith in these books:
With regard to Saheeh al-Bukhaari and Saheeh Muslim, the ummah accepts the hadith that are contained in these books, and they are agreed that everything in them is Saheeh apart from a very few phrases which al-Bukhaari and Muslim narrated in order to explain why they are not sound, either explicitly or implicitly, as the scholars who wrote commentaries on these two books, such as Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah (may Allaah have mercy on him), have explained. With regard to the other books of Sunan, they are not free of some da’eef (weak) hadith here and there. Some of them are noted as such by the authors themselves, and others have been pointed out by other scholars. They did not point out all the weak hadith, because they narrated the hadith with their isnaads, so it is easy for the scholars to tell the Saheeh hadith from the da’eef by checking the chain of narrators and knowing who is reliable and who is weak.
Among the famous scholars in this field were Ahmad, al-Daraqutni, Yahya ibn Ma’een, Ibn Hajar, al-Dhahabi, al-Waaqi and al-Sakhaawi. Among the contemporary scholars in this field are al-Albaani, Ahmad Shaakir, and others. May Allah have mercy on them all.
Hadith reaches of public and private conduct may be found there, from the disposal of a date stone to the crisis of the deathbed, from the manner of ablution to the duties of forgiveness, from the physical routines of digestion to the description of the Day of Judgment.