Collectors of tradition

December 2020


The collectors of traditions were sincere and honest in their activities. They sought out in good faith all the traditions and enquired carefully into the authorities on which they rested, and recorded them with scrupulous accuracy. There was however an immense amount of fictitious matter and acceptance or rejection of tradition was accepted only on the claims of a chain of transmitters. This spirit of Islam would not allow free enquiry and real criticism. If doubts did arise, and questions were entertained, by any rash philosopher, the temporal power was there to silence them. The temporal power was so closely wielded with the dogmas of Islam, that it had no option but to enforce with a stern front and iron hand those dogmas developed from the traditions.

The six principal collectors of Hadith received by Sunni Muslims: (the Sihah-Sittah, or “six correct” books) 1) Muhammad Ismail Bukhari died 870; 2) Muslim-ibn-i-Hajjaj died 875; 3) Abu Isa’ Muhammad Tirmidhi died 892; 4) Abu Daud Sajistani died 888; 5) Abu Abdur Rahman Nasai died 915; 6) Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn-i-Majah died 886

Other collections appeared in the course of time, but they are only compilations based on the works we have mentioned. The best known and most reliable is the Mishkat-ul-Musabih (the niche for lamps). Then, there is the collection of the Traditions of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. This collection is constructed differently as the sayings of Muhammad, recorded by different individuals are given in separate sections for each individual. The same tradition is given ten, twenty, or even one hundred times.

The collections of Hadith received by Shia: 1) The Kafi, by Abu Jafar Muhammad A.H. 329; 2) The Man-la-yastahzirah-al-Faqih by Sheikh ’Ali A.H. 381; 3) The Tahzib, by Sheikh Abu Jafar Muhammad, A.H. 466; 4) The Istibsar, by the same author; The Nahaj-ul-Balaghat, by Sayyud Razi, A.H. 406.

Service rendered by collectors

That the collectors of tradition rendered an important service to Islam, and even to history, cannot be doubted. The vast flood of tradition, poured forth from every quarter of the Muslim Empire without the labours of the traditionalists it would have formed a chaotic mass in which truth and error, fact and fable, would have mingled together in undistinguishable confusion. It is a legitimate inference that tradition in the second century embraced a large element of truth yet also that traditions often contained much that was exaggerated and fabulous. It is proved by the testimony of the Collectors themselves, that thousands and tens of thousands of traditions were current in their times which possessed not even the shadow of authority.

Immense proportion of fictitious traditional matter in current tradition

Muhammad gave very special injunctions respecting the faithful transmission of his sayings; for example, it is related by Tirmizi, that the Prophet said, “Convey to the other persons none of my words except those which ye know of a surety. Verily he who purposely represents my words wrongly, would find a place nowhere for himself but in fire.”

Notwithstanding the severe warning given by Muhammad himself, it is admitted by all Muslim doctors that very many spurious traditions have been handed down. The prodigious amount of fictitious material may be gathered from the estimate even of Muslim self-criticism. Reliance upon oral traditions, at a time when they were transmitted by memory alone opened up a wide field for fabrication and distortion. There was nothing easier, when required to defend any religious or political system, than to appeal to an oral tradition of the Prophet. The nature of these so-called traditions and the manner in which the name of Muhammad was abused to support all possible lies and absurdities, may be gathered most clearly from the fact that Bukhari, who travelled from land to land to gather from the learned the traditions they had received and came to the conclusion, after many years sifting, that out of 600,000 traditions, ascertained by him to be then current, only 4,000 were authentic! And of this selected number, the European critic is compelled, without hesitation, to reject at least one-half.

The principal collectors of the hadith

Al Bukhari (810-870): He is the famous collector of Sunni traditions which are compiled in the volume known as Sahih-al-Bukhari. The compilation which is said to have taken sixteen years to compile comprises of up to 7,000 traditions of the acts and sayings of Muhammad. He believed that amongst the sheer volume of traditional literature there was an urgent necessity to search out and preserve the grains of truth which were scattered here and there amongst the chaff. It is said that he was so anxious to record only the trustworthy records that he performed a prostration of worship before he recorded each tradition. He had a dream concerning his Herculean task which is described in his own words: “In a dream I beheld the Messenger of the Lord (Muhammad), from whom I seemed to be driving off the flies. When I awoke I enquired of an interpreter of dreams the meaning of my vision. It is, he replied, that thou shalt drive away lies far from him. It was this which induced me to compile the Sahih.’

He began the study of the Traditions when he was only eleven years old and when he was sixteen he went on the pilgrimage and attended the lectures of the most famous of teachers of Tradition in Mecca and Medina. His sixteen years of journeying in search of tradition took him firstly to Egypt, then he spent five years in Basra and then throughout Asia until he finally returned to his native home of Bukhara. It was in Bukhara that he began to sift through the mountain of information that he had accumulated.

Abu Da’ud al-Sijistani (now Afghanistan) (817-888): Similar appears to have been the experience of the other intelligent compilers of the day. Abu Daud, out of 500,000 traditions which he is said to have amassed, threw aside 495,200, and retained as trustworthy only 4,800. But even Abu Daud’s own comments raises a measure of doubt as to the trustworthiness of these: “I wrote down five hundred thousand traditions respecting the Prophet, from which I selected those, to the number of four thousand eight hundred, contained in this book. I have entered here in the authentic, those which seem to be authentic, and those which are nearly so.” Muslims, however, claim that he had no intention of collecting all what were considered authentic traditions for he only wanted to compile a manual of Hadith and so condensed his collection from 300,000 ahadith to 4,800. —– Abu Da’ud recognised that contradictory hadiths existed and stated “if there are two contradictory reports from the Prophet, an investigation should be made to establish what his companions have adopted”.

It will, therefore, be seen how unreliable are the traditions of Islam although they are part of the rule of faith. Such being the case, it is not surprising that ’Ilm-i-Hadis, or the Science of Traditions, has become a most important branch of Muslim teaching.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Majah (209 – 273 A.H.): Imam Ibn Majah was born in the city of Qazvin in northern Persian. He is said to have visited Basrah, Kufah, Baghdad, the Hijaz, Mecca, Syria and Egypt to hear and gather ahadith. He is known to have authored 3 books, popularly known as Sunan ibn Majah, at-Tafsir and at-Tarikh.

Imam Malik b Anas 93 A.H – 179 A.H: He was born in 93 AH in Medina. His great grandfather was a companion of Muhammad and his father was a successor of the Prophet. He did not travel abroad to study ahadiths, as he learned them from the many scholars who visited Medina. Malik is famously known for ‘The Muwatta’ which records ahadith of Muhammad, legal opinions of the companions and the successors and some later authorities.

Al-Tirmidhi: He collected his traditions from Khurasan (N.E Persia), Iraq and the Hijaz. His work has far fewer traditions than Bukhari or Muslim but there are less repetitions. It is distinguished in two areas 1) has critical remarks regarding the isnads 2) points of differences of opinion between the Islamic authorities which follow tradition on the basis of two hadiths attributed to Muhammad: “Difference of opinion in the Muslim community is a sign of divine favour”; and “It is a mercy of God that the theologians differ in opinion.” —- As far as we are aware the hadith compilations of Nasa’i and Tirmidhi are not yet available in English.

Historical Analysis — What real value are the hadiths?

During the first two Caliphates, faction was unknown: Muhammad lived for ten years beyond the Hijra and the Caliphates of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar occupied the thirteen succeeding years, during which the new born empire, animated by the one ruling passion of enforcing an universal submission to Islam, was unbroken by schism.

The effect on tradition due to divisions following the murder of ‘Uthman

The weak and vacillating reign of ‘Uthman (A.H. 23-35) which ended with his murder, gave birth to the conspiracy of Ali and his party and caused a fatal rent in the unity of the empire leaving it to the prey of contending factions and new competitors for the Caliphate. The immediate effect of this disunion was not unfavourable to the historical value of Tradition for although each party would be tempted to colour their recollections by their own factious bias, they must still do so in the face of a hostile criticism. And, while as yet there were alive on either side eye-witnesses of the Prophets actions, both parties would be cautious in advancing material that might be liable to dispute, and would be eager to denounce and expose every false statement of their opponents. Uthman, when Caliph, commanded: “It is not permitted to any one to relate a tradition as from the Prophet, which he hath not already heard in the time of Abu Bakr or ‘Umar. And verily nothing hinders me from repeating traditions of the Prophet’s sayings (although I be one of those with the most retentive memory amongst all his Companions) but that I have heard him say, whoever shall repeat of me that which I have not said, his resting-place shall be in Hell.” This tradition, if well founded, gives pretty clear intimation that, even before ‘Uthman’s murder, fabricated traditions were propagated by opponents to shake his authority, and that the unfortunate Caliph endeavoured to check the practice by forbidding the currency of traditions not already known in the Caliphates of his two predecessors.

The Umayyad Caliphates favourable to truthful tradition: The troubled four and a half year Caliphate of Ali was terminated by assassination, and the opposing faction of the Umayyads then gained undisputed supremacy. During the protracted sovereignty of this dynasty, that is for nearly one hundred years, the influence of the ruling power opposed the superstitious dogmas of the adherents of Muhammad’s more immediate family. It would not be tempted to follow those distorting fabrications that made out a divine right of succession in favour of the uncle or the descendents of the founder of Islam. Such in the process of time were the motives, and such was the practice, of the partisans of the houses of Ali and Abbas, the son-in-law and the uncle of Muhammad. In the early part, however, of the Umayyad succession, these insidious tendencies had but little room for play. The fiction of divine right, even had it been thought of, contradicted too directly the knowledge and convictions of the early Muslims to have met with support. The unqualified opposition of a large section of Muhammad’s most intimate friends to Ali himself shows how little there was for regarding him as the peculiar favourite of heaven. The Kharijites, or sectarians of the theocratic principle and the extreme opponents of the Umayyads, went the length of condemning and rejecting Ali for the scandalous crime of parleying with the denounced Mu’awiya. It is therefore evident that the extravagant pretensions of the Alyites and Abbasids were not entertained, or even dreamt of, in the early part of the Umayyad Caliphate.

It was during this period that the main fabric of Tradition grew up, and assumed permanent shape. Towards its close, all surviving traditions began to be systematically sought out, and publicly put on record. Subsequent sects might strive to re-cast them but their efforts could secure but a very partial success, because the only standard they possessed was formed under the influence of the Umayyad princes. In the traditional pressure of this period, although the features of the Prophet were magnified into majestic and supernatural dimensions the general events of early Islam were undoubtedly preserved with very tolerable accuracy, and so a broad basis of historical truth has been maintained.

The Alyites and the Abbasids conspire to supplant the Umayyad line

In the latter part of the period of the Ummayad line an undercurrent of great volume and intensity commenced to flow. The adherents of the house of Ali, beaten in the field of battle and in all their rebellious attempts to dethrone the Umayyads, were driven to other expedients; and the key-stone of their new machinations was the divine right of the family of the Prophet to both temporal and spiritual rule. They established secret associations, and sent forth emissaries in every direction, to decry the Umayyads as godless usurpers, and to canvass for the Alyite pretender of the day. These claims were strengthened by the mysterious report that the divine Imam of Ali’s race was about to step forth from his hidden recess, and stand confessed the conqueror of the world. Such attempts, however, issued in no permanent results until another party leagued themselves in the struggle. These were the Abbasids, who desired to raise to the throne some descendent of the Prophets uncle, Abbas. They combined with the Alyites in denouncing as usurpers the present Umayyad dynasty, which though sprung from the Quarraish, was but distantly related to Muhammad. By their united efforts they at length succeeded in supplanting the Ummayads but when the Alyites found themselves over-reached an Abbasid Caliph was raised to the throne.

Resulting perversion of Tradition under the Abbasids

It is not difficult to perceive how much Tradition must have been affected by these unwearied conspirators. Perverted tradition was in fact, the chief instrument employed to accomplish their ends. By it they blackened the memory of the forefathers of the Umayyads, and exalted the progenitors of the Abbasids. By it they were enabled to almost deify Ali, and to assert their principle that the right of the empire rested solely in the near relatives of the Prophet, and in their descendants. For these ends no device was spared. The Quran was misinterpreted, and tradition falsely coloured, distorted and fabricated. Their operations were concealed as they canvassed in the dark. Thus they were safe from criticism; and the stories and glosses of their traditional schools gradually acquired the character of their prescribed evidence.

First biography of Muhammad compiled under the Abbasids: It was under the auspices of the first two Abbasid Caliphs that the earliest biography of which we have any remains was composed; that namely of Ibn Ishaq. It is cause for little wonder that this author followed in the steps of his patrons and that, while lauding their ancestors, he sought to stigmatise the Ummayads.

When the Abbasids reached the throne they cast aside the Alyite platform from which they had made the fortunate ascent. They were then obliged in self-defence to crush with an iron hand every rising of the Alyites, who found to their cost that they had become the unconscious tools for raising a party with whom they had reality as little fellow-feeling as with the Umayyads.

The reign of Caliph Al Mamun and his harmful influence on tradition: The fifth Abbasid caliph was the famous Al Mamun (A.H. 198-218), who, during a reign of twenty years countenanced the pursuits of literature. He, in contrast to his predecessors, who had bitterly persecuted the followers of Ali, declared that Ali was the noblest of all mortals and Muawiyya the basest. He severely punished any one who should venture to speak evil of the one, or attribute good to the other. He made strenuous efforts to impose his own theological views upon all and went so far as to establish even a type of inquisition, and visited penalties on those who dared to differ from him.

It was in this reign, the busiest age of the traditional writers (excepting only that of Ibn Ishaq) that the earliest extant biographies of Muhammad were composed. It was under Al-Mamun that Waqidi, Ibn Hisham and Madaini, lived and wrote. It is a great misfortune, that the three oldest Arabic histories, which are nearly the only sources of authority for the first period of Islam, were written under the government of Al-Mamun. At a period when every word in favour of Muawiyya rendered the speaker liable to death, and when all were declared outlaws who would not acknowledge Ali to be the most distinguished of mankind, it was not possible to compose, with even the smallest degree of impartiality, a history of the Companions of Muhammad and his successors.’

The collectors of general tradition likewise flourished at this period and came within the circle of Abbasid influence and some of them under the direct patronage of Al-Mamun. This class, travelled over the whole empire, and searched after every kind of tradition which bore the slightest relation to their Prophet. The mass of narrations gathered by this laborious process was sifted by a pseudo-critical canon, founded on the general repute of the narrators who formed the chain from Muhammad downwards and the approved narrations were published under the authority of the collectors name. Such collections were far more popular than the biographical or historical treaties. They formed in fact, and still form the ground-work of the different theological schools of Islam.

The six standard Sunni collections were compiled exclusively under the Abbasid Caliphs, and the earliest of them partly during the reign of Al-Mamun. The four canonical collections of the Shia were prepared somewhat later, and are incomparably less trustworthy than the former, because their paramount object is to build up the divine headship of Ali and his descendants.

© 2015 “Message 4 Muslims” All rights reserved.