The Essential Hadith

December 2020

The immediate successors of Muhammad were faced with a serious problem. On the one hand it was clear that there was a demand for some enlargement and adaptation of the scanty dogmas of the Quran to meet the needs of new peoples coming under their sway; while, on the other, they did not feel free to act in contravention of the recognized principle that in all matters of law and politics, as well as faith, the Quran was to be the sole guide. Muhammad himself had been ruled by it, how could it be otherwise with his less divinely-guided successors, the Khalifas? It was clear, however that something had to be done, because the Quran did not suffice: how, then, were its deficiencies to be supplied?

The Sunna

Shortly after Muhammad’s death an oral law came to be recognized, called the sunna i.e. the ‘custom,’ or ‘usage,’ of the Prophet, according to which the sayings and practices of Muhammad were made to be a supplement to the Quran. There is ground, however, for believing that Muhammad did not think and speak of himself as infallible, nor look upon his utterances (other than those for which he claimed divine inspiration) as a sure and certain guide. A story concerning him confirms this view. It is recorded that he once ruined a date-crop by forbidding the owners to continue a long-established custom of artificial fertilization of the palm-trees. On seeing the disastrous result of his prohibitory order, he is said to have confessed that he had spoken in ignorance. He was not, he explained, on that occasion delivering a revelation, hence his error (Mishkatu’l-Masabih, Book 1, Ch 6, Part 1).
Notwithstanding this, the requisite authority for his sunna was found in those injunctions in the Quran where the believers are told to obey the Prophet as they would God Himself (e.g., Al-Ahzab 33:36; Al-Fath 48:17). Thus a new doctrine came to be formulated, according to which it was believed that the words and actions of Muhammad were under the control and inspiration of God, and therefore authoritative. He was to be, in fact, the “noble pattern” (Al-Ahzab 33:21) in everything.

The Hadith

The lock of the Quran’s obscurities opens only to the key of Tradition. Zwemer remarks, “Mark Twain once defined a ‘classic’ as a piece of literature which everyone has talked about, but which no one has read. One fears this remark would apply to the Hadith as regards many who profess to interpret Islam.”

The Traditions of Islam as a body of literature are called ahadith (plural of hadith). Hadith literally means “communication” or “narrative” and is an act or saying attributed to the Prophet, or to his Companions, which is used as a justification and support of the sunna. More precisely the Traditions are the records of a) What Muhammad did; what he declared: and that which was done in his presence and which he did not forbid. b) They also include records of the conduct and of the sayings of the Ashab, or “Companions” of Muhammad. Thousands of believers enjoyed the privilege of consulting the Prophet and thus earned the exclusive title of the “Companions.” When no other guidance was forthcoming the agreement of these Companions came to be looked upon as infallible, since they, too, were the object of God’s pleasure (Al-Fath 48:18).
It goes without saying, then, that these Traditions are held in great respect throughout the Muslim world. Certain statements, preserved in the Traditions and alleged to have been made by Muhammad himself concerning such matters, ensure for them this high regard: “I have left you two things and you will not stray so long as you hold them fast. The one is the word of God, and the other is the sunna of His Prophet.” (Mishkatu’l-Masabih, Book I, Ch. 6)

The content and scope of the Traditions

A very large portion of them deals with legal provisions, religious obligations, such as the prescribed prayersand the rules appertaining thereto; fasting, alms, pilgrimage, and jihad (holy war); details in respect of ‘fard’ and ‘wajib’ duties; things ‘halal’ (allowable) and ‘haram’ (forbidden); ritual purity and laws regarding food; criminal and civil law, and matters concerning courtesy and manners. There are also sections on dogma covering the areas of retribution at the day of judgment; hell and paradise; angels; the creation and revelation. Interspersed among these are edifying sayings and moral teachings attributed to the Prophet. These Traditions also served the further purpose of supplying a much-needed commentary on the Quran, seeking amongst other things to reconcile its conflicting passages.

The growth and of the Traditions
The manner in which these traditions came into existence can be readily imagined. After the death of Muhammad, in the intervals of leisure on military campaigns, the thought and conversation of the Companions would naturally turn to recalling the acts and sayings of their remarkable leader, who had put them in the way of becoming a conquering nation. As time passed the wonder of his achievement grew upon them, until he himself came to be thought of as endowed with supernatural power. Such an attitude of awe regarding Muhammad was still more marked in Muslims of a later generation who had never seen the Prophet and for whom his Companions themselves were objects of veneration. There are stories on record which clearly indicate this. Here is one: “Is it possible, father ‘Abdu’llah, that thou hast been with Muhammad?” asked a certain pious Muslim in the mosque at Kufa; “didst thou really see the Prophet, and wert thou on familiar terms with him?” “Son of my uncle,” came the reply, “it is as thou sayest.” “Well, by the Lord! “exclaimed the ardent listener, “had I been alive in his time I would not have allowed him to put his blessed foot upon the earth, but would have borne him on my shoulder wherever he listed.”

It seems reasonable to suppose that the luxuriant growth of material embodied in the Traditions took its rise under conditions similar to those we have described. When we consider all the circumstances — this passionate demand for detail, the need for a more elaborate code of law, and the authority claimed for such sayings — it is not surprising to find that traditions were fabricated. The requirements of those early, exciting days brought into existence not only hundreds but thousands of hitherto unknown sayings and practices alleged to have originated from the Prophet. Every kind of story about Muhammad, false or true, was put into circulation, until the thousands grew to hundreds of thousands. So notorious was the practice that Muslims themselves do not deny, and never have denied, that gross fabrication went on.

The essential features of a hadith

Strictly speaking a hadith has two parts: 1) The Arabic isnad (plural of sanad), i.e., the “support” and 2) The Arabic matn, or “text,” of the sunna.

The Isnad consists of the names of persons who have handed on the substance of a tradition to one another. Thus there is a chain of transmitters ending with the original authority. The following may be taken as a specimen of a perfect hadith: “Muhammad, bin ‘Abdullah bin Numair al Hamdani said to us that Abu Khalid (who is Sulaiman bin Hayyan al Ahmar) said that Abu Malik al Ashja’i said that Sa’ad bin ‘Ubaidah said that the son of ‘Umar said that the Prophet of God said: ‘Islam is founded on five things; to believe in the Unity of God, to say the prescribed prayers, to give alms, to fast in Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage’ (Sahihu’l-Muslim, Book 1, p 176).
According to Muslim doctors, a genuine tradition must possess a number of characteristics. The narrator must have distinctly stated that such and such a thing had been said or done by the Prophet; the chain of narrators from the last link up to the Prophet must be complete; every one of the narrators must have been persons conspicuous for their piety, virtue and honesty, and each one of them must be well known for his learning; the import of the tradition must not be contrary to the injunctions of the Quran, or to the doctrines deduced from it, or to such other traditions as are proved to be “sound.” This mass of material, constituting a supplemental code of law, was for a long time oral in form. No attempt was made to preserve it in writing; it was committed to memory and transmitted orally. A teacher who had memorized a mass of traditions would recount them to a student, and in this way they were passed on to others. This system was well developed in the Arab world for passing down much of their history.

Categories of Isnads

1) Sahih – (sound). Said to be utterly faultless, having no weakness and does not contradict any generally prevalent belief.
2) If the isnad is incomplete or there is no perfect agreement regarding reliability it is called hasan (beautiful).
3) Every tradition is considered weak (daif) if there is a question over the content, the transmitters or it is unorthodox.
4) If a tradition is transmitted by only one person whose authority is considered weak it is called matruk (abandoned, no longer considered)
5) If a tradition is considered absolutely false it is called mawdu’ (invented).
6) If a tradition can be traced through an unbroken chain of trustworthy authorities to a companion of the prophet it is called musnad (supported).
7) If the authorities expressly mention that all the authorities swore on an oath as they handed down their tradition it is called musalsal.

The transmission of Traditions

It was a general view of Muslims that knowledge of sacred learning could only be obtained through oral instruction from a teacher. Students took long journeys ‘to hear’ and attend lectures from such persons known as reliable authorities of tradition. In the oral transmission by the teacher it was very usual for one of the students to read out a copy while the others listened and then the reader would give explanatory details. Oral transmission however, fell into disuse but continued to be copied but in the same style as the oral.

The traditions collected and classified

We are told that towards the close of the first century of the Hijra men developed a positive passion for searching out these traditions. They travelled from city to city and from tribe to tribe, from one end of the Muslim world to the other, personally interviewing any surviving Companion of the Prophet, or their successors, in the hope of securing some fragment concerning his life. But the business was too serious to be left to private enterprise, and so we learn that the Khalifa,’ Umar 2, about a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, issued orders for a more formal collection of all extant traditions.
The earliest compilation of which we have knowledge belongs to a date towards the end of the second century of the Hijra. The material amassed has been handed down, both in the form of biographies of the Prophet and in collections of traditions which bear upon every conceivable aspect of his life. In compiling these collections the question of evidence assumed great importance. Two main classes of Companions, or Successors of the Prophet, took precedence in the transmission of the traditions: 1) The Ashab, i.e., the actual Companions of the Prophet. The evidence of their own eyes and ears was considered sufficient. 2)The Tabi’in or “successors,” i.e., the people of the first generation after Muhammad, who are supposed to have got their information from the Ashab.