Volume 15-07 No:175
At the time of the Prophet (Pbuh), few of the Arabs were able to read and write. The overwhelming majority, including the Prophet himself, were illiterate. A number of the Prophet’s companions who enjoyed the accomplishment of literacy were entrusted with the task of writing down the Our’an. Whenever the Prophet received Qur’anic revelation, he ordered one of them to commit it to writing. Thus, when the Qur’an was compiled after the Prophet had passed away, his companions were able to collate a complete copy of the Qur’an which was kept by Abu Bakr, the first to succeed the Prophet as the ruler of the Muslim state. Some of the Prophet’s companions also wrote down Hadith (pronouncements of the Prophet). He, however, issued an order to all his companions to rub out whatever they had written down of his own statements. He feared that it might come to be confused with the Our’an. Those who accepted Islam and did not meet the Prophet, as well as new generations of Muslims, were eager to learn what the Prophet had said, since it is clear from the Qur’an and Islamic practices that what he said was meant to remain as guidance to all Muslims of all generations. A considerable part of Islam cannot be learnt from any source other than the Prophet’s Sunnah (i.e. his statements and actions).
Muslims have been aware of this since the very early days of Islam. Even his companions realized that. We have instance of some of his companions taking shifts to attend him. The one who has attended a certain shift would report to others what he heard the Prophet saying, and they, in turn, will make the same report when they attended him. This meant that Hadith was transmitted by word of mouth. The Prophet’s companions were very keen on memorizing his words accurately. They were cautioned by him in these terms: “He who deliberately and knowingly attributes to me something which I have not said will certainly have his place reserved for him in hell.” With such a warning, it is not surprising that the Prophet’s companions and their successors, as well as scholars in later generations, exercised a great measure of diligence in order to report the Prophet’s Hadiths in his own words.
In those early days, when people’s commitment to Islam was at its highest, no one entertained the slightest idea of attributing to the Prophet something which he was not certain the Prophet actually said. A quarter of a century after the Prophet had passed away, civil war erupted in the Muslim state. There were people who assumed an Islamic mantle working day and night in order to create division, hostility and conflict in the ranks of Muslims. They were able to bring two Muslim camps to fight one another. It is not surprising that such elements would fabricate any story to serve their purpose. To give credence to their stories, they attributed them to no lesser an authority than the Prophet. Thus, fabrication of Hadiths started.
Ilm Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel
Faced with this situation, Muslim scholars started to inquire about the reporter of any Hadith which has been reported to them. These were the origins of a science which was unique to Islamic civilization. It is known in Arabic as Ilm Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel. Its field of action was the reporters of Hadith, and its aim the evaluation of each reporter in order to classify him as reliable or not. As years went by, and generation followed another, every Hadith had to be reported by a chain of reporters or transmitters. Every single one had to be studied and classified. This was by no means an easy task. The scholars of Hadith realized that their work covered an area of great importance, since it made the difference between reliability and confusion with regard to the heritage of the Prophet.
Islamic scholarship began to flourish in the very early days of Islam. Once the Muslim state was well established, people gathered around the companions of the Prophet in order to learn from them and acquire an insight into the teachings and the principles of Islam. Since Islam encourages learning and puts in on par with worship, people realized that the more careful one is with his studies, the greater his reward from Allah. Hence, it is not surprising that from its very early days, Islamic scholarship was renowned for the dedication, accuracy and attention to detail of its scholars. We cannot stress strongly enough the element of accuracy in the study of Hadith.
It is sufficient to say that leading scholars devoted much of their attention to the study of Hadith and the confirmation of the authenticity of each Hadith before they passed any judgment on it. We find that the founders of three of the four major schools of thought, namely, Malik, Al-Shafie and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, each compiling a volume of the authentic Hadiths known to him. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal devoted much of his time to the study of this particular branch. His Musnad is well known among the leading compilations of the Prophet’s Hadiths.
There were other learned scholars, in various parts of the Muslim state, who also devoted much of their time and effort to the sifting of statements attributed to the Prophet and establishing the authenticity of what was really said by him. Succeeding scholars built on the work done by their teachers, and the study of Hadith attracted the attention of every new scholar who wanted to serve Islam and benefit by his study.
The study of isnad gathered great momentum, since it was through isnad, or chain of transmitters and reporters, that the authenticity of a certain Hadith was established. In order to appreciate how this developed into a great science, we have to remember that five or six generations after the Prophet there was a huge number of transmitters of Hadith who had to be studied carefully in order to establish the reliability of each one of them... Professor Mustafa Azami explains how isnad has flourished: “It is the common phenomenon of isnad system that as we go further, the number of transmitters increases. Sometimes a tradition transmitted by one companion of the Prophet acquires 10 students in the next generation, in the class of successors, and in turn these 10 students have in some cases 20 or 30 students belonging to different countries and provinces.” He then gives the example of a Hadith reported by Abu Hurairah that the Prophet said when anyone amongst you wakes up from sleep, he must not put his hand in his plate till he has washed it three times, for he does not know where his hand was during his sleep. Professor Azami explains that at least 13 students of Abu Hurairah transmitted this Hadith from him. Eight of them were from Madinah, two from Basrah and one each from Kufah, Yemen and Syria. Sixteen scholars also transmitted this tradition on the authority of Abu Hurairah’s 13 student. Six of them were from Madinah, four from Basrah, two from Kufah and one each from Makkah, Yemen, Khurasan and Syria.
Reliability of Hadith
Professor Azami then explains why the isnad gives us a clear idea of the reliability and authenticity of a certain Hadith. “The common feature of a good many traditions in the early part of the second century A.H. is the great number of transmitters who belonged to different provinces and countries, as we have seen (in the previous example). It was hardly possible for all these persons to consult each other so as to give a similar form and sense in transmitting a particular tradition. So, if a particular tradition is transmitted by so many persons with a similar form and sense, then its genuineness cannot be questioned, while the trustworthiness of the individuals has been confirmed by their contemporaries. It is general practice that if a man’s honesty is proved by his dealing with people, then his words are accepted as a true statement unless it is proved otherwise by facts. For the past generation with whom personal contact is impossible, one needs to rely, to a large extent, on the testimony of contemporary sources. The standard fixed by scholars of Hadith from the very early days was that if someone told a lie in his personal life, though he was honest in the transmitting of Hadith, his Hadith would not be accepted. People criticized their fathers, brothers, friends and close relatives. Perhaps it was the highest possible standard that could be set for the documentation of any source. Therefore, there is no good reason to reject the testimony of contemporaries.
“Furthermore, the Hadith literature still offers an opportunity to satisfy us. The other method to test people’s trustworthiness and honesty in certain cases is by cross-reference to the statements of scholars. This method was also employed by scholars of Hadith from early days.”
This science was brought to its zenith by Al-Bukhari and his contemporary scholars of Hadith. We will be looking at their work in more detail next issue, Allah willing.