The evolution of the Hadith science

Marzuqa Karima

Read the first of this series here: An introduction to the history of Hadith compilation

As the generation of the companions drew to a close, their successors rose to carry the mantle of the prophetic tradition and continue the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. As elucidated previously, there are two factors to consider which emerged as a result of the socio-political conditions in the Islamic world. 

1.     The increase of political and theological sectarianism which divided Muslims into various factions. 

2.     The increasing gap between the Prophet and the present milieu. (inevitably, an increase in the number of narrators). 

In an attempt to overcome these issues, Hadīth critics were constantly developing terminology to articulate the grading of prophetic narrations

By the second half of the 2nd Hijri century, (8th century) the collation of hadīths began to take a more organised form. The first organised works were known as the musannaf collections. These facilitated the referencing and sourcing of traditions which were inclusive of hadīths and non-hadīth material such as statements of the companions and jurists, and these pre-classical musannafs based their works on the private notes or sahīfas of the companions.

Another type of collection referred to as musnads – these were organised according to the names of key narrators who featured in the isnads (chains).This prepared the path for the crystallisation of the science of ‘ilm al-rijaal (science of narration). Along with the compilation of hadīths, so too was the science of hadīth naturally developing. 

However, it was not until the 8th century that a governmental declaration for the public use of private hadīth collections was legislated by ‘Umar bin Abdul Aziz, albeit limited to traditions that dealt with economic and administrative affairs. This highlights the fact that this was not a call for writing  down a whole encyclopaedia of Hadith traditions, but was rather to codify and circulate hadīths which were to be used for specific purposes. Caliph Umar II successfully accomplished this through the noted hadith scholar al-Zuhrī (d.741) who publicised the collections to the various provinces. 

Prominent hadith critics from this century included Yahya bin Said al-Qattan and Abdul-Rahman bin al-Mahdi. They eventually passed on their knowledge of hadīth criticism to their three prominent students; Ibn Hanbal, Yahya Ibn Ma’in and ‘Ali al-Madini.

An essential point to note is that the use of the terminologies was not yet formalised. Like the jurists, the hadith critics would regularly differ with another on the judgment of a narrator. For example, Abu Hanifa, a local to Kūfa, considered Jābir al-Ju’fī a liar, who was a narrator not to be trusted whereas another scholar Wakī’ held him in high regard.[1]Some of the reasons could be due to whether the conditions of authenticity have been met, or even in their difference regarding the relevance of the conditions of authenticity.  One critic’s standards would not always be the same as another’s.  This is especially important when studying a chain, as each narrator would then be examined in their respected milieu and according to the judgement of his/her contemporaries. 

By the 3rd/9th century, narrator criticism became fully formalised with its own conventional and technical terms. Ibn Abī Hātim ar- Rāzī (d.890) attempts to formalise the terminologies that were being circulated among Hadith critics. In ascending order: 

Status of the narratorUse of the narration
1. Reliable and precise (thiqa/mutqin/thabt)Hadīths can be used as evidence in legal issues.
2. Truthful/Sincere (sadūq, mahalluhū al-sidq, lā ba’s bihī)Hadīths can be used as proof once corroborated 
3. Revered (Shaykh

4. Suitable to narrate (Sālih al-hadīth)

5. Lenient (layyin al hadīth

6. Not strong in narrating (laysa bi qawiyy)

7. weak (dha’īf) 




Hadīths are recorded and used to identify corroborations. 
Liar, abandoned (matrūk al-hadīth, kadhāb, dhāhib al-hadīth)Hadīths are not used. 

In regards to compilation, the 9th century was known as the golden age of the hadith folk movement whereby the canonisation of hadīths took place. The six canonical hadith collectors came to be known as Sahih Muslim, Sahih Bukhari, Sunan An-Nasa’i, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, and Sunan Ibn Majah. These books have been preserved until today.

By the 6th/12th century, scholars such as ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Maqdisī were able to successfully push for the canonisation of the six books by additionally collecting biographies of narrators that were in the collections. Once their authenticity was recognised, their collective authority  has been guarded by Sunni Muslims to this day. 


[1]al-‘Ilal, Tirmidhi

Marzuqa Karima is a graduate of Ebrahim College having completed the Alimiyyah Programme and subsequent postgraduate course in Hadith studies (Dawra Al-Hadith). Her interest lies in the Hadith sciences, and she has attained ijāza from the likes of Shaykh Akram Nadwi (UK) and Shaykh Hatim al-Awni (Makkah), as well as studying for a brief stint in Ammān at the University of Jordan. She is currently pursuing an MA in Islamic Studies at SOAS

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