There are six principles which can help us decide between the sound and the unsound aḥādīth. These principles are foundations of the discipline of ḥadīth criticism. Taking guidance from these principles makes it easy for us to sift the reliable reports from the unreliable ones. It is extremely important for the student of the ḥadīth literature to take help form them and consider them in his effort to properly understand and fully benefit from the prophetic knowledge. Since this is a very delicate issue, I shall try to base my discussion on the prophetic sayings and views of the pious elders (salf ṣāliḥīn). I shall not add anything to it on my own. I have already mentioned many important points in the foregoing pages in this regard. Here I intend only to bring such points in a set order and properly organize the discussion so that it becomes clear and observable to the reader.
Khaṭīb Baghdādī is the most important figure among the scholars who dealt with the principles of the science of ḥadīth criticism. He has carefully put all the important discussions in his book, al-Kifāyah fī 'Ilm al-Riwāyah. My discussion here is based on the following chapters of this book:
1. Bāb fī wujūb iṭrāḥ al-munkar wa al-mustaḥīl min al-aḥadīth (On the obligation of rejecting the aḥādīth which contain munkar and improbable things)
2. Bāb dhikru mā yuqbalu fīhi khabar al-wāḥid wa mā lā yuqbalu fīhi(Issues which are decided on the basis of the individual narratives and matters which are not affirmed on the basis of such reports)
Khaṭīb has discussed this issue exhaustively. According to him, the following is the first criterion to differentiate between the reliable and the unreliable reports.
4.1 Religious Taste of the Believers and those Grounded in Knowledge
If a ḥadīth does not match the taste and understanding of the believers and of those grounded in knowledge, it should not be accepted. The Prophet (sws) has guided us to this principle as is evident in the following ḥadīth:
[You should accept] a ḥadīth [ascribed to me] which your heart finds familiar and it affects your hair and skins and corresponds to the call of your heart and mind for I am ever closer to such a statement than you. When something is ascribed to me which your hearts do not recognize and from which your hair and skins coil and which you find quite remote from your usual disposition [it cannot be my statement] for I am more remote from such a thing than you.
The Arabic word julūd (singular jild) means skin.In this instance, however, it connotes hair. The word has been used in the Qur'ān in this sense.
Whereat does creep the hair (julūd) of those who fear their Lord. (Q 39:23)
This usage is perfectly conventional and accords with the rules of Arabic language. In Arabic, we can use metonymy. One could speak of a container to refer to what it contains. The word abshār is plural form of bashr (skin). I believe that the most accurate translation of the word would be "body". Skin covers the body and is a part of it.
Let us now study the sayings of the pious elders on this issue. Rabī' b. Khuthaym says:
There are aḥādīth which give light like that of a clear day. We can easily recognize them [as the sayings of the Prophet (sws)]. There are, however, aḥādīth which are shrouded by the blackness of the dead of night. Our hearts are averse to them.
Walīd b. Muslim says:
I heard Awzā'ī say: "We would hear a ḥadīth and present it before our companions just like we present dīnārs to a goldsmith in order to learn if they are counterfeit or pure. We accept what our companions accept as genuine and we reject what they reject as defected.
Jarīr expresses his attitude in this regard in the following words:
Whenever I heared a new ḥadīth, I would go to Mughīrah and narrate it to him. Whichever ḥadīth he asked me to abandon, I did.
The historical narratives above mentioned bring to light some important points which follow:
First, the question whether a narrative is actually the saying of the Prophet (sws) is to be decided on the basis of its contents also. It is not merely accepted on the basis of an imposing chain of narrators. This exercise of studying and analyzing the matn can be carried out by only those who have developed a taste for the prophetic speech. They can, on the basis of their expertise, decide the true aḥādīth from spurious fabrications. Such people can, after listening to a narrative ascribed to the Prophet (sws), judge and decide its origin from the effects it creates on their hearts and minds. Such a taste cannot be developed by everyone. It can only be developed by a person whose nature is without blemish, whose perception of the prophetic speech is very sharp, whose mind is pure of absurdities, and who has remained in the company of the Prophet (sws) or, otherwise, has lived in the prophetic speech (ḥadīth).
It is important to note that there are people who have not enjoyed the privilege of the company of the Prophet (sws). However, they develop an expertise in the prophetic discourse (ḥadīth). They have deep insight and profound understanding of the religion. They make full efforts in training themselves in these disciplines. Their taste for the prophetic language can be of great help as well. Their understanding of the prophetic language may, in a degree, be inferior to that of the Companions (rta), and indeed this difference is only natural, yet, however, we must appreciate a relevant Qur'ānic statement. The Almighty says that in the later part of the life of this ummah, there shall emerge people who will be just like the first generation. (Q 56:13-4) This entails that God raises people of such fine and pure taste, even today, who have command of the prophetic language through God's given knowledge and understanding. They are able to decide the origin of a statement ascribed to the Prophet (sws). They can judge if it is a genuine prophetic saying or not.
Second, every prophetic ḥadīth creates an ihtizāz (sensation) in the heart of the listener if it is not dead. This ihtizāz can be of the nature of glad tiding if the ḥadīth gives positive news. It can also be a sense of fear of God if the ḥadīth warns of something. This applies to all aḥādīth. Similarly, a ḥadīth creates satisfaction, conviction and peacefulness (sakīnah) if it relates to the category of wisdom (ḥikmah). After all, man of pure heart and untainted nature cannot remain unmoved upon listening a ḥadīth for it creates a tumult in the inner self of the listener if is not already dead.
Third, it is commonly acknowledged that the language of the Qur'ān is distinctively superior to the ordinary human speech. It cannot be compared to the language of human beings. Similarly, the language of prophetic aḥādīth is superior to the language of common men. However, there is a little difference between the Qur'ānic and the prophetic speech. This minor difference between these two sources is only natural. The prophetic speech cannot, after all, match the Divine speech. Still, however, it is an observable reality that the prophetic speech is marked with such depth and vastness, such exaltedness and sumptuousness as cannot be observed in the speech of the ordinary humans. Though one cannot speak such language, yet, however, one can feel and sense it. On hearing a genuine prophetic ḥadīth one's heart cries out and witnesses that it must be the word of the Prophet (sws).
The prophetic ḥadīth, it should be noted, is not only marked with beauty of thought, it is also adorned with a palpable beauty of expression. However, this beauty can be noticed only by those who have made themselves acquainted with it. Experts of the language of aḥādīth can discern beauty of expression in the prophetic speech even if it is not apparent to the ordinary people. When they find a ḥadīth devoid of this characteristic beauty, they can easily understand that the narrative is not genuine. They come to know that it is a piece of stone being passed for a pure gem. Similarly, if they confront a statement originating from someone other than the Prophet (sws), falsely ascribed to him, they can, after listening to it, understand that this is not the speech of the Prophet (sws) even though it contains some beauty of expression. If such a fabrication, being passed as the prophetic saying, is abhorrent to his pure understanding of the religion he rejects it outright. He cannot even imagine that the Prophet (sws) could have uttered something inappropriate.
The Prophet (sws) is the most eloquent of all mankind. Take a look at the supplications ascribed to him. Even man with only a little understanding of and taste for the classical Arabic language can observe the excellence of the prophetic speech in them and appreciate that it originates from the Prophet (sws). Similarly he can appreciate the origin of some parts added to the treasure at a later stage. This line of examination will show that the grandeur, greatness, simplicity embedded in style, and beauty and attraction for hearts are such characteristics of the wise sayings of the Prophet (sws) which cannot be found in the speech of the ordinary people. Such stylistic beauties are the adornment of only the prophetic speech.
In short, a very important tool of deciding between the reliable and spurious aḥādīth is the pure taste for the prophetic speech. An obtuse person cannot develop such a taste and understanding nor can this ability be borrowed. This taste is a product of pious nature, firm belief, deep insight and living in the prophetic aḥādīth. Those blessed with this taste for and understanding of the prophetic speech can not only spot the beauty of a saying genuinely ascribed to the Prophet (sws) but also the ugliness of the fabrications. A man in the possession of gems would never settle on stones in his assets.
At this point, it would not be out of place to explain that people blessed with this kind of taste for the prophetic aḥādīth seldom doubt their judgment. Doubts and uncertainty cannot, however, be ruled out. It is understandable. Such uncertainly and doubts faced in this exercise, at times, open ways for further understanding. Therefore, a few experiences of this nature, if at all, do not negate the applicability of the relevant prophetic statement mentioned above.
The ability to differentiate the genuine prophetic statement from the fabrications, granted to the true believers and the people of knowledge and understanding, is further explained with the help of the following ḥadīth. Abū Hurayrah narrated:
They [Companions (rta)] asked the Prophet (sws): "O Prophet of God, how would you recognize those among your ummah whom you have not seen?" He replied: "Will not some owner of horses with white foreheads and white legs be able to recognize them if mixed with the black ones?" They responded: "Certainly he would." At this the Prophet (sws) said: "Then know that the people of my ummah will have white faces and white hands and feet, a product of their habit of ablution." (Muslim, No: 249)
In my view, this parable equally applies to the distinction between the speech of the Prophet (sws) and that of other people. The prophetic speech is discernable from a distance provided the observer has a pure taste and inquisitive mind.
4.2 The Ma'rūf Practice
The second measure of distinction between the genuine and the spurious aḥādīth is the knowledge and understanding of the ma'rūf (known and customary practices). This principle is obtained from the following saying of the Prophet (sws):
Muḥammad b. Jubayr b. Muṭ'im narrates from his father who narrates that the Prophet (sws) said: "If anyone ascribes something to me which is ma'rūf and well-known to you, take it [as my statement]. If something which you do not acknowledge as ma'rūf is ascribed to me then you should reject it. For I do not utter munkar (abhorrent) things nor am I one of those who give munkar statements.
This means that if a narrative accords with what is ma'rūf then it may be accepted as a genuine prophetic word. If, however, it contradicts what is customary then it should be rejected. In other words, the Prophet (sws) has guided us to keep the religion pure of the undesirable things. He has directed us to judge something presented to us as part of the religion with the help of the established religious teachings. The religion is pure and unadulterated. If the new thing reported to us accords with the earlier established religious teachings in form and spirit then we can accept it as part of the religion. If, however, it does not match them, we should reject it outright. This ḥadīth also guides us to the true disposition of the Prophet (sws). The Prophet (sws) says that he does not utter munkar things. This means that it is not possible for anyone to ascribe any munkar to the Prophet (sws). He cannot be imagined to say good things and then, God forbidding, add munkar to them. Whatever he utters is pure. All he says is marked by perfect unity of thought. He does not wander in every wadi like poets. If we are able to defend this unity of the prophetic teachings then satans cannot mix pebbles (i.e. fabrications) in the gems (i.e. true prophetic knowledge). To ignore this unity of the prophetic knowledge and to lose its awareness results in the loss of everything. This clarification from the Prophet (sws) was important, rather necessary. If it is possible to imagine, God forbid, that the Prophet (sws) at times uttered munkar things then the munkars would surely have constituted a great part of the religion. We would then accept all the munkar things ascribed to the Prophet (sws). Similarly, on hearing a munkar ascribed to the Prophet (sws), one would be right to claim that the Prophet (sws) stated it.
In this prophetic statement, ma'rūf, means the Qur'ān and the Sunnah. The term munkar refers to things that do not accord with the fundamentals of the religion, sayings, and directives issued by the Prophet (sws). If we apply this principle to some of the isrā'īliyyātand exegetical narratives, usually held sacrosanct, their assumed status is abolished. Consider, for example, the edified description of earlier Prophets and Messengers of God as depicted by the Qur'ān and sound prophetic aḥādīth. Keeping this in mind, let us analyze the condemnable picture of these persons emerging from some of the historical narratives. We shall learn that the latter directly hurt the stature of the great Prophets of God including Abraham, Lot, David and Solomon (sws). We consequently learn that all such narratives fall under the category of munkar. These are worthy of rejection. Fabrications mixed in the ḥadīth literature damage the status of even the Prophet Muḥammad (sws).
Another rather bitter reality is that such munkar narratives mixed in the ḥadīth literature have caused attacks from the Orientalists on the Prophet of Islam (sws) and the great religious persons. The crime of the Orientalists is nothing more than that they added colour to some weak aḥādīth. The original material has thus been provided by the unreliable and careless narrators. They, therefore, must bear the burden of this evil movement.
If we keep in mind this criterion of ma'rūf and munkar while deciding the sound from the spurious narratives, the fabrications can never deceive us. Guided by this principle, an expert can easily and clearly see that such a narrative contradicts the Qur'ān or it goes against the prophetic practice transmitted through generality-to-generality. On the basis of this observation one should reject them.
4.3 The Qur'ān
In the practice of judging the sound from the spurious aḥādīth, the third criterion is the Qur'ān itself. In this regard the Prophet (sws) has been reported to have said:
Contradictory narratives (ascribed to me) shall soon reach you. Whatever of these accords with the Book of God and my Sunnah originates from me and whatever of it is against the Qur'ān and my Sunnah cannot be my word.
This ḥadīth gives us two principles. However, we shall confine our discussion on the status of the Qur'ān as the criterion and leave the Sunnah for the next section. The above ḥadīth teaches us to reject any such narrative as contradicting the Qur'ān in any aspect. On the discussion of the interrelationship of the Qur'ān, the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth, we have thoroughly discussed this issue. I explained that in matters of the religion the Qur'ān is the custodian over everything else and a criterion for distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Nothing contradicting it can ever be tolerated. Some extremist ahl al-Ḥadīth dare to posit that the Ḥadīth is custodian over the Qur'ān. Their view has been fully refuted in the light of the following saying of the most learned exponent of the Ḥadīth, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal himself. It has been reported:
I heard Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal respond to a question regarding the traditions which say that the Sunnah overrules the Qur'ān: "I dare not say so. However, the Sunnah explicates the Book, defines and explains it."
While referring to the status of the Qur'ān,as the criterion and distinguisher between the sound and unsound narratives, Khaṭīb Baghdādī writes:
A khabar-i wāḥid (an individual-to-individual report) shall not be accepted if it offends (manāfāt) commonsense, thābit and muḥkam (clear and established) Qur'ānic directives, the known Sunnah, the practice which is as current as the Sunnah and any definitive argument.
The word manāfāt employed by Khaṭīb connotes complete negation. Here I shall confine our discussion to the part of the statement that relates to the status of the Qur'ān in this regard. The aḥādīth which negate and contradict the Qur'ān are discarded. The reason is that the Qur'ān is the criterion for gauging everything in the religion for it is absolutely authentic and sound. As for the authenticity, it has been transmitted through qawlī tawātur (oral or documentary) of the ummah. This is why khabar-i wāḥid, the probable truth, cannot be acceptable if it goes against the Qur'ān. Khabar-i wāḥid can neither abrogate the Qur'ān nor change its directives nor affect its rulings and statements in any way.
4.4 The Known Sunnah
According to the last quoted ḥadīth, the treasure of the known Sunnah (sunnah ma'lūmah) with the ummah, is itself a criterion to judge the sound aḥādīth from the unsound ones. Anything contradicting or alien to the Sunnah shall not be accepted. This is because the Sunnah is historically established for it has reached through tawātur-i 'amalī. This cannot be affected by something reported as khabar-i wāḥid. The Sunnah predates akhbār-i āḥād.
Here the reader should refresh what I have mentioned in the discussion about difference between the Ḥadīth and the Sunnah. I mentioned that there could be more than one sunnah in a given matter. Mere difference of form is not mutual contradiction. This fact should be fully grasped.
The Sunnah is established by tawātur-i 'amalī (continuity of practice). This means that there is no question of its acceptance and rejection. It is known of necessity. However, the scholars have clarified that khabar-i wāḥid is fully rejected in certain cases. I have thoroughly discussed this issue under the topic 'ḥujjiyyat of khabar-i wāḥid' (Force of khabar-i wāḥid). As has been mentioned above, Khaṭīb Baghdādī too holds that all akhbār-i āḥād that contradict the known Sunnah or practices that are followed like a sunnah shall be rejected. Similarly narratives that contradict "the practice which is as current as a sunnah" shall also be rejected.
By "the practice which is as current as a sunnah" the author of al-Kifāyah fī 'Ilm al-Riwāyah probably means what the Mālikī jurists term as "al-'amal 'indanā hākadhā" (our normative way goes thus). It means that a particular practice is customary and is followed by the people perpetually. Such a customary practice, according to the Mālikī jurists, is practically equal to the Sunnah. Something practiced by the community perpetually, must have acquired the Prophet's (sws) approval. On this basis, the Mālikī jurists do not affirm a khabar-i wāḥid contradicting a perpetual (mutawātir) customary practice in Madīnah refusing to accept it as a satisfactory source to rely on. In like manner, they reject practices current in other centres if found against the Sunnah current in Madīnah.Another analogical case is the stance of the Ḥanafī jurists regarding khabar-i wāḥid. In issues which relate to everyday life of the believers, they do not rely on khabar-i wāḥid. In such cases, they prefer the views of the scholars based on personal reasoning and analogy. In matters of 'umūm-i balwa, they consider conducting ijtihād a more careful attitude than following a khabar-i wāḥid. This is perhaps because it is easier to mend an erroneously concluded ijtihād but extremely difficult to reject something invalidly accepted as a saying of the Prophet (sws) or erroneously practiced as his action.
4.5 Reason and Commonsense
Reason and commonsense ('aql-i kullī) functions as the fifth criterion in the practice of sifting the sound from the unsound aḥādīth. I have already mentioned the view of Khaṭīb Baghdādī in this regard.
Why are the aḥādīth that offend commonsense rejected? I believe that the religion, as explained earlier, is entirely based on reason and fiṭrah. It is only the dictates of reason and fiṭrah that have been highlighted in the Qur'ān and the Sunnah. The Almighty Allah and the Prophet (sws) accomplished itmām-i ḥujjah on the people only on the grounds of reason and fiṭrah. Those who opposed the religion of fiṭrah, following desires of the flesh, were declared as the enemies of reason. In this perspective, there remains no chance for us to accept a khabar-i wāḥid that negates the foundation of the religion. Therefore, a khabar-i wāḥid contradicting reason must be rejected.
It needs to be appreciated that by reason we do not mean reasoning by a particular individual. On the contrary, it refers to human reason, the greatest blessing of God on man. We know that many people believe in most absurd things and negate most exalted facts. Such are not under consideration. Here we refer only to reason which decides matters absolutely and whose judgments are supported by all those endowed with power to reason in this world. The decision of reason cannot be rejected on the basis of something which cannot be considered the saying of the Prophet (sws) with absolute surety.
It is important to note that the author of al-Kifāyah has used the word munāfāt. As explained earlier, munāfāt signifies complete negation. In some cases, with a little deliberation, one can reconcile between reason and a khabar-i wāḥid which apparently negates reason. It should then be accepted as valid. There is nothing wrong in reinterpreting a narrative and making it to accord with reason. The problem, however, arises when we find a khabar-i wāḥid completely contradicting reason while neither of these two accepts reinterpretation to make it accord with the other and nor can either be preferred to the other. In case of a real contradiction, we have to reject one of these two.
If the student finds a prophetic ḥadīth incomprehensible, he must not hastily declare that it contradicts reason. If we cannot understand something, it does not mean it contradicts reason. One can, for example, say that he does not understand how water, fire and trees will coexist in Hell. There could be various causes of this lack of understanding on one's part. Therefore, he should not reject the fact as irrational. It can, at best, be held that human intellect lacks power to understand this reality.
A little deliberation will help us see that there is no problem with the fact that Hell will contain fire, water and trees together. This is because we know that God has created trees of fire even in this world. The most powerful kind of fire, electricity, is obtained using water. This we notice in our everyday life. All this confusion ends up with a single point that it is only lack of one's understanding that he cannot comprehend how fire and water shall coexist. There is no real contradiction between the Qur'ānic fact and the dictates of reason.
Let us now take an example illustrative of real contradiction between the two sources of knowledge. The Qur'ān, in one of its rhetorical questions, asks a particular group of people whether God can be expected to treat the pious and the sinful equally. Certainly He cannot be. To hold that it is possible would be an outrageous view. It implies that God's world is sheer injustice. It does not matter to God whether someone is pious and virtuous or sinful and rebellious. He shall treat both equally. This viewpoint obviously contradicts dictates of reason for if we accept that God will not punish the wicked and reward the pious, we question God's justice and, in fact, ascribe injustice to Him.
The truth of the matter is that the Creator and the Sustainer of this world is perfectly Just. This is supported by the numerous phenomena we encounter at every step in this universe as well as in the human self. To hold that God is not Just is to clearly contradict reason. God Himself teaches justice and commands us adherence to it. This is the teaching of all the Messengers of God and what all the Scriptures teach. It is precisely justice upon which the heavens and earth rest. Had there been no justice, the entire universe would have collapsed and ruined. How can it now be possible that God equally accepts justice and injustice? Only enemies of reason can go as far as to hold that.
4.6 Definitive Evidence
The last criterion used in the practice of sifting the sound from the unsound aḥādīth is definitive evidence. Khaṭīb Baghdādī, as quoted above, acknowledges this principle. He has mentioned that no khabar-i wāḥid is acceptable if it offends any definitive evidence.
An argument and evidence, received (naqlī) or rational ('aqalī), is usually a more satisfactory source of knowledge than a khabar-i wāḥid. We can never be absolutely certain whether a khabar-i wāḥid is validly ascribed to the Prophet (sws). The same conclusion follows from considering this issue in another perspective. We are obliged to follow the prophetic example (sws). Definitive evidence is closer to the Prophet's will and decrees than khabar-i wāḥid which is at best probable truth. It is not right to hold that we must prefer a narrative ascribed to the Prophet (sws), however weak, to rational and inferential conclusions. Committing an error in exercising ijtihād is safer than following lies. We can revise and correct our view concluded through ijtihād. However, if something wrongly ascribed to the Prophet (sws) is recognized as the part of the religion, it will create far reaching problems for which we will have no remedy.
There are six principles, the guiding criterion, to decide between the sound and the unsound aḥādīth. These fundamental principles are:
1. A ḥadīth abhorrent to understanding and religious taste of the believers and the pious scholars cannot be accepted.
2. A shādh (rare) narrative which does not accord with the customary practice of the Muslims will not be accepted.
3. Narratives which contradict the Qur'ān in any aspect shall be rejected.
4. Narratives which contradict the known Sunnah are to be rejected.
5. Any narrative that contradicts the dictates of reason shall be discarded.
6. Any narrative contradicting the conclusive and definitive evidence and arguments cannot be accepted.