The Muslim ummah has accomplished an unparalleled work. The great muḥaddithūn have, even in the early period of Islamic history, to all possible human extent, strove to safeguard the prophetic knowledge, sifted and separated it from the weeds of fabrication. They stored it in reliable compilations. This proves that the ḥadīth compilation was done under the firm principles set by the experts in the science. It was accomplished between the middle of the second century Hijrah to the middle of the third. This period can be called the prime youth of ḥadīth compilation. It was during this period that the treasure of prophetic ḥadīth was recorded in the books. The appearance of the books and written record marks the end of the oral tradition. The books compiled during this period earned acceptance and fame both among common people as well as scholars.
It is a known fact that during the period of oral transmission and narration of the prophetic ḥadīth, the practice of fabricating lies and ascribing them to the Prophet (sws) was done on a great scale. I have presented a thorough analysis of the practice of ḥadīth fabrication in the preceding chapter. We learned that aḥādīth were fabricated for pious as well as impious purposes. Though this evil design was carried out in a systematic way on a large scale, yet, the Muslim scholars, who engaged themselves in the science of jarḥ wa ta'dīl, followed the fabricators closely and exposed them. The fabricators were out to carve lies and ascribe them to the Prophet (sws). This they did. However, the tireless efforts of the expert muḥaddithūn made sure that such inventions were not included in the prophetic traditions. The satanic fabrications could not become part of the religion of God which generally remained pure of these assaults. The fabrications that were successfully added to the prophetic knowledge are not hidden so as not to be detected by a man of sound knowledge and religious vision. The only condition, however, is that the student of the prophetic traditions and the religion appreciates his duty to discern falsehood included in the prophetic knowledge. Such vigilance is, in fact, required in every science however mundane it may be in its nature. It is not peculiar to the proper analysis of the prophetic aḥādīth.
We know that the ḥadīth literature is very vast and spans over thousands of pages making up dozens of works. It is an ocean of knowledge. A very large number of aḥādīth was compiled by different people in those times. These narratives were obtained from various sources. Thus, the work accomplished by different scholars in different times cannot be expected to be of the same degree of soundness. All cannot be expected to be obtained from the same source or from different sources of the same authority. This is why the muḥaddithūn have categorized the ḥadīth works considering the soundness and weakness of the narratives of the aḥādīth mentioned in them. They put Muwaṭṭā of Imām Mālik, Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Bukhārī and Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Muslim in the first category. These three sources include all types of reliable narratives including saḥīḥ (sound), mutawātir (concurrent) and ḥasan (sound but next to saḥīḥ). The second category consists of the sunan-i arba'ah (the four sunan) i.e. Sunan of Tirmidhī, Sunan ofAbū Dāwūd, Sunan of Nisā'ī and Sunan of Ibn Mājah. All the aḥādīth contained in this group of works are not equally sound. They do not match the authenticity characteristic of the narratives contained in the works of the first category named above. Though we cannot say that the compilers of these books have shown laxity in gauging aḥādīth on the principles set by them, yet, however, the narrators of the aḥādīth in these books are not meticulous and good memorisers. The scholars of the later generations declared these works as widely accepted by the ummah in spite of their weakness. These works too are now considered a source of religious knowledge. There are sound aḥādīth in other works which pass the criteria for acceptable aḥādīth. These sound narratives contained in various other works of lesser reliability are pearls scattered and mixed in weeds. It is only experts in the science who can make use of them. The muḥaddithūn consider the above mentioned books of the first and second category as generally sound and reliable. These books are considered the basic sources. I believe that every work among these has a distinctive features and characteristics.
10.1 Natural Approach of Ḥadīth Study
In order to best utilize aḥādīth, one has to critically analyse and ponder over the entire corpus of the ḥadīth literature. The first thing one must learn in this regard is to appreciate the natural way of studying aḥādīth. It is not understandable and natural to start studying aḥādīth from anywhere. This removes the use of the whole exercise. One does not gain anything. Take, for example, the study of the Qur'ān. We know that there are various commentaries on the Book. However, there are only three exegetical works that can be termed as the primary and fundamental sources of the Qur'ānic commentary. These include Al-Ṭabarī, al-Kashshāf and Tafsīr al-Kabīr. All other tafsīr works have been compiled in the light of these major works. Similarly, in my view, the sound method of understanding aḥādīth is that, at first, one selects the primary sources in the discipline. Then, one proceeds on to thoroughly ponder over the narratives contained in these books. He should then be able to grasp everything. If one finds in them something doubtful however tiny, he should mark it. Then one should collate all the material that deals with the issue under study from the entire literature. He would, thus, be able to set before him all the relevant material for study. This way a scholar continues pondering over doubtful narrative until he is able to give a clear and decisive verdict regarding its origin and teachings. This process will not only prove helpful in deciding on the ḥadīth in question but also provide the researcher with an opportunity of acquainting himself with the entire corpus of the ḥadīth literature.
10.2 The Primary Sources
By the primary sources, I mean works in a discipline that are original contributions. Such works are acknowledged as the foundation and primary source in that particular discipline. It is utterly impossible for a researcher in a discipline to neglect or ignore the view of the primary sources. If he is able to select the proper sources and has thoroughly studied them it means that he has set on the right direction. However, only experts in the discipline may select the primary sources. It is not for a commoner or an initiate to decide which works are primary sources in a given discipline.
What are then the primary sources of the prophetic traditions? Different answers can be given to this question for there is a room to differ over it. After the lifelong study of the ḥadīth literature, I have formed the view that the following three works form the primary source in this discipline: Muwaṭṭā of Imām Mālik, Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Bukhārī and Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Muslim.
When the student of the ḥadīth literature thoroughly studies and critically analyses these three works, he can be said to have studied the primary sources of the ḥadīth literature. An in-depth study of these works does not leave the student of the Ḥadīth in need to study rest of the kind.
If we study these three works in such a way that everything is on our fingertips, then we may learn the major difficulties in this discipline. We learn the basic questions in the ḥadīth criticism and identify its major problems. We learn which narratives are original prophetic teachings and which ones give rise to doubts and require further research. We can then mark the problematic narratives and discuss them in detail before forming an opinion. Some issues, no doubt, call for a long study and thorough analysis. Such issues will need in-depth analysis. This will take us to study rest of the ḥadīth literature.
Suppose, for example, we find a narrative, which creates some doubts in our mind. We will need to look for all the narratives discussing this issue in other works. We will study the chain of narrators of all the relevant narratives. Then we will study the wordings of the different versions. We will also need to observe the difference in the wording of the first narrative and the others. We will try to ascertain to what extant the collated material can prove helpful in solving the relevant questions. As a result, we are forced to study the entire ḥadīth literature in order to assess and understand a single narrative. Consequently, we are able to grasp all the works of the ḥadīth literature. We also come to learn in what respect a particular ḥadīth work is helpful. After going through this process in a couple of issues, we will have enabled ourselves to fully comprehend importance of different ḥadīth works.
Why have I given the above mentioned ḥadīth works primary importance? I have selected them from the entire literature because the ummah has always preferred them over the rest of the compilations. This preference is indeed an acknowledgement by the ummah of the greatness and extraordinary importance of these works. This is not an accidental choice. There are certain solid and understandable reasons for which the ummah has preferred these three works over the rest. The reasons which account for this preference for these books are given below. This will also help us understand the salient and distinguishing features of these works.
10.3 Distinguishing Qualities of Muwaṭṭā
Muwaṭṭāis the first effort to compile aḥādīth. This work earned fame and eternal acknowledgment. The book is attributed to a leading Madinan jurist and muḥaddith, Imām Abū 'Abd Allāh Mālik b. Anas b. 'Ᾱmir (93-179 AH). He compiled this book after carefully selecting one thousand traditions from almost one hundred thousand narratives before him. He took forty years in accomplishing this work. After its completion, he presented it to seventy scholars of repute from Madīnah. Imām Shāfi'ī is reported to have said that no book is sounder than Muwaṭṭā of Imām Mālik except the Qur'ān.
Over one thousand disciples of the said imām have transmitted this work from him. This has resulted in differences in the text in various instances. There are thirty known versions of the work of which the most famous is the one transmitted by Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā Laythī Undulusī.
I believe that the principles of accepting aḥādīth which the imām has followed in this book are very reliable. This makes his work very distinct. The care he has shown in this process of ḥadīth selection becomes obvious to every reader.
The first distinguishing characteristic of the compilation is its comprehensiveness and briefness. In spite of the fact that this is a short work in relation to other works of the kind, it has proved comprehensive and covers all the necessary issues.
The second distinguishing characteristic of Muwaṭṭā is that its author has shown great care in taking only verbatim narratives. He adopted a very well balanced approach regarding accepting the narratives which preserve only meaning. He does not, at least, accept a narrative containing the prophetic statement if it is not reported verbatim. He insists that the words of the Prophet (sws) must be reported verbatim. This means that he does not accept a marfū' ḥadīth (ascribed to the Prophet (sws) himself) if it is not verbatim transmission of the words of the Prophet (sws). He was so conscious regarding the marfū' ḥadīth reports that he even gave consideration to letters, prepositions and particles like wāw, tā, bā etc. in them.
The third distinguishing feature of Muwaṭṭā is that its author is more careful in accepting narratives from the innovators than the generality of muḥaddithūn. He does not consider it allowable to accept a narrative transmitted by innovators even if they do not confess and invite others to their innovations. He generally declares such to be unworthy and unreliable narrators.
The fourth distinguishing feature of this book is its literariness. It contains highly literary form of the classical Arabic. This helps readers develop the ability to understand the language of the prophetic traditions.
Here it would not be out of place to mention that there still are weak and unreliable narratives in the book. These narratives have not been included by the author himself. They, on the contrary, have been added to the original. Thus, they are mere exceptions to the sound original content of the book. We know that the book has been transmitted from the imām by many people and has reached us through many chains of narrators. This made it possible for those on the lookout to incorporate spurious things in the genuine content. Still, however, a scholar with a sound knowledge can easily discern fabrications and weak narratives and distinguish them from sound ones.
It is also important to note that some of the 'Abbāsī caliphs were involved in persuading Imām Mālik to compile this extraordinary work. Their blessed intentions thus have a part in this great accomplishment. Their efforts are really commendable. They intended to make Imām Mālik write a book which could help in curbing the ever-increasing current of juristic differences in the ummah.
We learn that during the second century Ḥijrah, the juristic differences among the ummah increased. Apprehending the evil consequences of such tendencies, the caliph Abū Ja'far Manṣūr, during his visit to Ḥijāz in the year 148 AH, brought it to the notice of Imām Mālik that juristic differences were increasing among the ummah. He apprehended an immanent disorder arising out of this situation. He requested Imām Mālik that he should be permitted to issue a caliphal decree binding all the people to follow his opinions on juristical matters. Imām Mālik, however, did not approve it. He said that every group follows different imāms. Their views are based on the understanding and views of the pious elders. He requested the caliph to leave those people on what they were inclined to follow in these matters. At this response from the Imām, Abū Ja'far Manṣūr kept silence. He, however, did not let go of the thought that the imām should compile a book which could work as a basis for the legal code of the country and work as a unifying force for all believers. In 163 AH, he went to offer pilgrimage again. He met Imām Mālik and presented his wish before him. This time, he was persuasive. He presented his view forcefully and in detail. He said: "O Abū 'Abd Allāh, take up the reign of the discipline of fiqh in your hands. Compile your understanding of every issue in different chapters for a systematic book free from the extremism of 'Abd Allāh b. 'Umar (rta), concessions and accommodations of 'Abd Allāh b. 'Abbās (rta) and unique views of 'Abd Allāh b. Mas'ūd (rta). Your work should exemplify the following principle statement of the Prophet (sws): "The best issues are those which are balanced." It should be a compendium of the agreed upon views of the Companions (rta) and the elder imāms on the religious and legal issues. Once you have compiled such a work then we would be able to unite the Muslims in following the single fiqh worked by you. We would then promulgate it in the entire Muslim state. We would order that no body acts contrary to it."
It is said that Imām Mālik fulfilled this wish of the caliph and compiled the Muwaṭṭā. He, however, did not agree to the caliphal view that the book should be promulgated as the national law. Historical reports attest that another 'Abbāsī caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd too expressed similar wishes before Imām Mālik who remained unmoved.
Apparently, Imām Mālik thwarted the caliphal wish. He, however, compiled Muwaṭṭā, a great favour to the Muslims. He kept before his eyes the target of removing the juristic differences between the scholars of the ummah. He targeted a book that comprehensively treats all pertinent issues.
Shāh Walī Allāh (1703-1763) attached great importance to Muwaṭṭā during his efforts to serve the prophetic traditions. It is, perhaps, considering the importance of the work in the ḥadīth literature that he penned two commentaries on it written in two major languages of the Muslims in that time, Urdu and Persian. Those exposed to the views and thoughts of Shāh Walī Allāh know that he has exerted his every effort in saving the Muslims from harms of juristic disputes. He intended to bring the discipline of Islamic fiqh on a path that helps remove disputes. He pursued the great cause started by Imām Mālik. Taking light from the works of Shāh Walī Allāh and inspired by his blessed wishes I have written the book "Islāmī Riyāsat Mēn Fiqhī Ikhtilāfāt kā Ḥal" (Resolving Juristic Differences in the Muslim State).
10.4 The Status of the two Ṣaḥīḥs
A few thousand aḥādīth contained in Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī and Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim have been selected from hundreds of thousands of traditions. One can easily understand the level of scholarship the authors of these works showed and the extent of hardships they might have suffered in the process of sifting the sound narratives from a huge mix of fabrications and unsound aḥādīth. As a result of the efforts of these great scholars, we find genuine narratives compiled in proper books. All the narratives contained in these books are reported through isnāds consisting of reliable narrators in all the layers. Thus, the chain of guarantors of each ḥadīth contained in these two books leads us directly to the Prophet (sws). Generally we do not doubt that isnāds in these narratives would be suffering from discontinuity or any of the narrators in the chains would be committing irsālor tadlīs.
We must appreciate and acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of these imāms. Their services, in this discipline, are so great that we shall ever remain indebted to them. Considering the soundness of these two books, the ummah has acknowledged them as the most important and primary sources of the prophetic ḥadīth from the classical times. Their status is not shared by any other work with the only exception of Muwaṭṭā of Imām Mālik. All the other works produced later are a mere imitation of the excellent scholarship exhibited by these two scholars.
It is important to note that Imām Bukhārī and Imām Muslim have not recorded in their books all that can be termed as ṣaḥīḥ ḥadīth by the experts in the science. There is a limited number of narratives which both of these imāms acknowledged as ṣaḥīḥ yet they did not include them in their compilations. Such narratives are recorded either in the remaining four works usually called sunan-i arba'ah or some other compilations.
A group of scholars of the ummah acknowledges superiority of Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī over Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim while another group attaches more importance to the latter work. The majority considers Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī superior to Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim in status and soundness. However, most of the scholars from the western part of the Islamic world prefer Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Muslim. I believe that both of these works enjoy equal status. Both are equally important. Both have distinctive qualities and features and it is not necessary to prefer one over the other. The truth of the matter is that each is matchless in its own right. Now I wish to explain this point in the following pages.
10.5 Distinctive Qualities of Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī
Ṣaḥīḥof Bukhārī is the work by a great scholar of the ḥadīth criticism, Imām Abū 'Abd Allāh Muḥammad b. Ismā'īl al-Bukhārī (194-256 AH). He selected a few thousand aḥādīth from five hundred thousand narratives. He spent sixteen years in sifting, selecting, researching on and compiling the traditions in this excellent work. He states that he benefited from more than a thousand teachers and narrators of aḥādīth. Almost seventy thousand students learnt this book from Imām Bukhārī.
The first distinctive quality of Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī is the quality and soundness of the chain of narrators of the selected aḥādīth. In this respect, it outmatches all other works with the only exception of Muwaṭṭā of Imām Mālik. The criterion Imām Bukhārī set for the analysis and critical investigation of the isnād reaches the point of excellence. He has set before him two principle criteria for the sound narratives. First, the lifetime of a narrator should overlap with the lifetime of the authority from whom he narrates. Second, it should be verifiable that narrators have met with their source persons. They should also expressly state that they obtained the narrative from these authorities. Imām Muslim, on the contrary, considers the possibility of the meeting of a narrator with the authority as sufficient proof for his obtaining aḥādīth from him. If it can be historically established that the narrator and the authority lived in the same period of time, Imām Muslim would consider it a sufficient proof for their exchange of knowledge. He would not insist that the meeting of the narrator and the authority he quotes should be independently established. Imām Bukhārī, we have seen, insists on the meeting of the narrator and the source. To him, meeting of the both must be established independently or a reliable narrator should expressly state that he obtained aḥādīth from a particular authority. Imām Muslim, however, is so much confident on and strongly committed to his view in this regard that he has severely criticised the view of Imām Bukhārī in his introduction to his Ṣaḥīḥ. However, a careful analysis of the views of both the scholars would lead one to conclude that the view of Imām Muslim is not well grounded. His confidence in his viewpoint and his severe criticism of Imām Bukhārī's view does not affect the reality of the matter. The view held by Imām Bukhārī is sounder, established and well argued.
The second distinctive quality of Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī is that in spite of the fact that the author has benefited from the knowledge of more than a thousand scholars and narrators of the prophetic ḥadīth, he accepted the narratives from only those who, according to his knowledge, not only believed in Islam but practiced its teachings. With a theological view, this aspect adds to the prominence of the work. A careful reading of the book shows that Imām Bukhārī has considered this aspect in the arrangement and ordering of the topics. He specifically targeted rooting out the evil of secession introduced by the Murjitesand their brotherly groups.
In spite of his efforts, however, we see that the beliefs held by the Murjiteshave been practically adopted by the majority of the Muslim world. Importance of practicing the religious teachings has vanished from the Muslim mind. It is considered sufficient for success in the Afterlife that one has faith in the fundamental beliefs of Islam and ceremonially follows some basic commands. Whereas the truth of the matter is that, in Islam, belief is of no use unless it is reflected in one's actions. If beliefs are not corroborated by actions of the believer, they would not avail him anything. Belief without practice is like a dead stem of a tree from which no shoots and branches of good and pious deeds spring. It is only through practical adherence that beliefs of a believer is set firm, nourished and strengthened. It is only practical adherence to the beliefs that is accepted by God. It grants the person excellence and high status in the sight of God. In his Ṣaḥīḥ, Imām Bukhārī has fully clarified this fact in the light of the prophetic aḥādīth.
The third distinguishing quality of Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī is its particular arrangement and ordering of chapters. This expresses the profound knowledge of the author and his understanding of the religion. This has made the book more useful guide in training and nourishing the proper thought and understanding of the religious disciplines. Its excellence, thus, rests in the fact that it moves the heart, stirs the mind and forces the reader into pondering over the fundamental religious issues. Consequently, the book develops proper understanding of the religion in the reader.
10.6 Distinctive Qualities of Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim
The author of Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim is a great scholar of the third century, Imām Abū al-Ḥusayn Muslim b. Ḥajjāj b. Muslim (206-261 AH). He investigated three hundred thousand narratives of which he selected only a few thousands for his Ṣaḥīḥ. He was rightfully proud of this great achievement for he showed great care and exerted great efforts in selection and compilation of the material. He would boastfully say that if the muḥaddithūn continued writing aḥādīth for two hundred years, they would still remain indebted to his work. He claimed that he had not selected or rejected any ḥadīth without thorough investigation.
The first distinctive quality of Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim is that the author recorded only such narratives as were reported by two reliable successors from two Companions (rta) which subsequently travelled through two independent unbroken isnāds consisting of sound narrators. Imām Bukhārī, as we have seen, has not followed such strict criterion.
The second distinguishing feature of the book is its scientific arrangement of themes and chapters. The author, for example, selects a proper place for the narrative and, next to it, puts all its versions. It is useful in that it collates all the relevant narratives together. A researcher can study and take help from all related aḥādīth put at a single place. Imām Bukhārī has, as we saw earlier, not followed this method. He scatters different versions of a narrative and the related material in different chapters. He does not leave the reader with an opportunity to consult them together. This arrangement of the narratives helps greatly in studying the aḥādīth which invite doubts and confusions and require great deliberation and in depth study. Consequently, in the exercise of understanding aḥādīth, Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Muslim offers the best material to the students.
The third distinctive quality of Ṣaḥīḥ of Muslim is that the author informs us whose wordings among the narrators he has used. For example he says: ḥaddathanā fulān wa fulān wallafẓ lifulān (A and B has narrated this ḥadīth to us and the wording used here is by A). Similarly he mentions whether, in a particular ḥadīth, the narrators have differed over the wordings even over a single letter of zero semantic significance. He also informs the readers if narrators have differed over a specific quality, surname, relation or any other fact about a narrator in the chain. This proves the trustworthiness, integrity and memory of the author. This helps the student of the prophetic aḥādīth to learn who among the narrators was more careful in guarding the language of the earliest authorities.
It needs to be appreciated that Imām Muslim has been accused of showing leniency in accepting aḥādīth from the innovators. The same allegation, though in a lesser degree, has been put on Imām Bukhārī. This information can prove helpful in explaining away the problems of some difficult narratives.
These three books, the primary sources in the ḥadīth literature, contain sufficient material of the prophetic knowledge that can be used to base and construct the entire system of the religion. I do not hold that the other ḥadīth compilations are dispensable. Yet, however, in our effort to construct a proper structure of the religious teachings of Islam and explain them, these three works, in addition to the Qur'ān- the word of God - can suffice as the source material. No other work on the prophetic ḥadīth can equal these works.
A full command over these three works makes one comfortably differentiate between sound and unsound narratives contained in other works. A thorough knowledge of these renders it sufficient for one to merely glance through remaining works. It is no more necessary for the researches to study the rest in equal depth.
Those seeking to ponder over aḥādīth have to remain on guard. The condition of alertness and vigilance in studying aḥādīth is as important for the student of the prophetic knowledge as in any other discipline. Our great scholars and muḥaddithūn have, using their abilities, with utmost perfection and quality, accomplished the task of ḥadīth investigation. They have compiled the ḥadīth works and established the discipline of ḥadīth criticism. The scholars in the present day can improve this discipline in the light of the principles set by the muḥaddithūn. They can add to them some other natural principles. The only obligation on the scholars, however, is that they should not think that the process of ḥadīth criticism and analysis has been perfected and accomplished fully by these great pioneers and that we have only to study the content of aḥādīth. The scholars should, on the contrary, target improving on the accomplishment of these great scholars of the past.