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Modern Historical Methodology vs. Hadeeth 3-5

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Modern Historical Methodology vs. Hadeeth 3-5


Description: A comparison between modern methods of recording history and that used in hadeeth. Part Three: The methodology of hadeeth.

By Reem Azzam

A Prophetic hadeeth is a narration from or about the Prophet Muhammad (may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him), and it is through the ahadeeth (plural of hadeeth) that Muslims know about the Prophet’s way of life, the Sunnah. Such knowledge is a necessary prerequisite for fulfilling the Muslim’s most basic religious requirements, and the Prophet naturally made it a point to spread this knowledge about himself during his lifetime.

The Prophet sought to teach his Companions through different ways such as repetition, questioning, dictation, and practical demonstration. After teaching them he would listen to what they had learnt. Along with his Companions, deputations from outside were educated in both the Quran and the Sunnah. The Prophet would question them as well to see what they had learnt (Azami 9). Furthermore, the letters sent by the Prophet, some of which were quite lengthy and dealt with a wide range of legal matters, also constituted a means of teaching his Sunnah. Apparently there must have been a great deal of writing in general as it is said that he had at least forty-five scribes at one time or another (Azami 10). He also would dictate to different companions such as Ali b. Abu Talib, and he is known to have sent copies of his sermons to certain people. Last but not least was the practical example he lay for his followers with his clear instructions to do as he does (i.e., “Pray as you see me praying” [Bukhari, Vol. 1, Book 11, No. 604] and “Learn from me the rituals of pilgrimage” [Sahih Muslim, Book on Hajj, No. 310]). He was known to advise a questioner to stay with him and learn by observing him (Azami 10).

Other measures were taken by the Prophet to spread knowledge of his Sunnah, such as the establishment of what may be regarded as schools. It is known that these were established in Madinah soon after his arrival, and that he would send teachers to various places outside of the city. He emphasized to his Companions to pass on knowledge about him, and among his sayings are “Pass on knowledge from me even if it is only one verse” (Azami 10). In his famous farewell sermon he is reported to have said, “Those who are present (here) should convey the message to those who are absent.” [Bukhari, Vol. 2, Book 26, No. 795] Consequently it was a common practice among his Companions to inform those who were absent about the Prophet’s sayings and actions. Additionally, the Prophet would specifically instruct delegations to teach their people what they had learnt upon their return. He encouraged all this activity by informing on the great rewards for teaching and learning, as well as the possible punishment for refusing to do so (Azami 12).

On the part of the Prophet’s Companions, it should be remembered how people take care to watch and imitate the actions and sayings of one they love and admire. It is well known the extent of love the Prophet’s Companions had for him and that many would unhesitatingly die to protect him. Given this and their excellent memories, as well as the various methods the Prophet himself employed to teach his Sunnah, it would seem safe to assume that they did indeed know his Sunnah. In fact, reports show that they not only tried to learn it, but they tried to preserve it through various means such as memorization and recording. There are various examples of the Companions of the Prophet memorizing together and cultivating what they had just learned from the Prophet (Azami 13). Many of them are known to have recorded the hadeeth, and following the Prophets instruction, they would emulate him based on what they had learned. After the Prophets death, there are several reports showing that they continued in their efforts to memorize, practice, and preserve what they had learned from him. Furthermore, there are reports showing Companions such as Ali b. Abu Talib, Ibn Masud, and Abu Sa’id al-Khudri advising the people who came after them (the Successors) to memorize the hadeeth, which they would do either individually or collectively in groups (Azami 15).

After the Prophets death, Islam spread beyond Arabia to distant lands. As the Companions of the Prophet were the ones who pioneered the expansion, it follows that the knowledge of hadeeth that they had went with them, and that not all of it remained in Madinah. Therefore, it is possible that a certain Sunnah was known to particular Companions who had left to settle in some distant land. As was previously mentioned, the Companions saw to it that those who came after them, the Successors, continued in the learning and preservation of hadeeth so that the knowledge would not be lost. However, now that the knowledge of the Sunnah was not concentrated in one place but had spread to different parts of the Muslim world, the likelihood of making errors arose, and consequently techniques for criticism had to be developed, especially after the first fitnah (Azami 49). Additionally, with the spread of the Sunnah, new techniques had to be developed for learning hadeeth.

Though all the techniques were important in preserving the hadeeth, the practice of a teacher reading to their students was a particularly significant technique that was developed very early. This included reading by the teacher from the students book, which was either a complete or partial copy of the teachers book (Azami 17). Students and scholars would test their teachers knowledge by inserting hadeeth throughout the book before giving it to their teacher for reading. Teachers who didnt recognize the additions were “denounced and declared untrustworthy” (Azami 17). Additionally, it is said that from the beginning of the second century, the technique of reading by the students to their teachers became the most common practice (Azami 19). This was done in the presence of other students who would then compare with what they had in their books or listen carefully. In copying, it is said that they would usually make a circular mark after every hadeeth, and that once the hadeeth had been read to the teacher a mark would be made in the circle or elsewhere to indicate so. Also, every additional time a hadeeth was read to the teacher another mark would be made indicating so, and at times scholars would read the same book many times. The reason probably was to counter-act the challenges presented by the Arabic scriptthe reporter had to hear a particular hadeeth from the person from whom he is transmitting, and transmit exactly what he heard (thus the grading of reporters became necessary to know who did this best) (Burton 110-111). Furthermore, from a very early time, the necessity of reviewing copies became evident, and it is reported that teachers would help their students in this task to eliminate copying mistakes. It is important to know that one who did not follow the proper methods in teaching or compiling his own book could be accused of stealing hadeeth, even if the material was authentic. Hence it was critical that the hadeeth were obtained properly. There are several other techniques, but for the purpose of this paper it is important to know that the scholars of hadeeth used special terms in the transmission of a hadeeth, depending upon the technique employed in teaching it. Also worth pointing out is that these special terms such as “haddathana,” “akhbarana,” and “an,” are often mistaken to mean that the transmission was strictly oral, although it has been shown that this was not the case.


Azami, Muhammad. Studies in hadeeth Methodology and Literature. Indiana: American Trust, 1977.

Burton, John. An Introduction to the hadeeth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1994.


Description: The various categories of hadeeth based upon the strength of the chain of narrators.

The people involved in the transmission of a hadeeth constitute its isnad. The isnad informs us about the hadeeth’s source, and this information later became an essential part of the hadeeth (Azami 31). Abdullah b. Al-Mubarak, one of the teachers of al-Bukhari, is reported to have said, “The isnad is part of the religion: had it not been for the isnad, whoever wished to would have said whatever he liked” (Hasan 11). There is some indication that the isnad was used before the first tribulation, though it was not until the end of the first century of the Hijrah that it was fully developed (Azami 33). (However, John Burton in his An Introduction to the Hadith says that the isnad did not yet exist in the first century) The other part of the hadeeth that actually contains the specific saying or action of the Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, is its matn or text.

For the classification of hadeeth, there are several broad categories, of which only seven will be very briefly discussed here. The seven categories are classifications according to 1) the reference to a particular authority, 2) the links in the isnad, 3) the number of reporters involved in each stage of theisnad, 4) the technique used in reporting the hadeeth, 5) the nature of the isnadand matn, 6) a hidden defect found in the hadeeth’s isnad or matn, and 7) the reliability and memory of the reporters (Hasan 14-16).

The first category, classification according to the reference to a particular authority, pertains to whether it goes back to the Prophet, a Companion, or a Successor. A marfu’ or “elevated” narration is one that back to the Prophet, and this is regarded as the best grade (Burton 112). A mawqoof or “stopped” narration is one that goes back to a Companion, while a maqtu’ or “severed” narration is one that goes back to a Successor. This classification is significant in that it differentiates between the Prophet’s sayings and actions and that of a Companion or Successor.

The second category, classification according to the links in the isnad, makes several different distinctions. The musnad or “supported” hadeeth is the best out of the group as it contains no break in the chain of authorities reporting the hadeeth back to the Prophet (Burton 111). The mursal or “unattached” hadeeth is one that contains a gap of one generation (according to both Azami and Hasan it is a hadeeth reported by a Successor who drops the Companion from whom he learned it in the isnad). The munqati’ or “broken” hadeeth is one which is missing a link closer to the traditionalist reporting it (i.e., before the Successor). This applies even if there appears to be no break in the chain, if it is known that one of the reporters could not have heard hadeeth from the immediate authority given in the isnad, even if they are contemporaries. The term munqati’ also is used by some scholars to refer to a hadeeth in which a reporter does not name his authority and instead says, “a man narrated to me” (Hasan 22). A hadeeth is mu’dal or “perplexing” if more than one consecutive reporter is missing in the isnad. If the isnad is dropped altogether and the reporter directly quotes the Prophet, then the hadeeth is considered mu’allaq or “hanging” (Hassan 22).

Within the third category, hadeeth are classified according to how many reporters are in each stage of the isnad, i.e. in each generation of reporters. The two main classifications are mutawatir (“consecutive”) and ahad(“single”), though ahad is further divided into many subdivisions, among themghareeb (“scarce” or “strange”), ‘azeez (“rare” or “strong”), and mash’hoor(“famous”). A mutawatir hadeeth is one that is reported by a large number of people whose agreement upon a lie is not reasonably possible and in which the possibility of coincidence is negligible. The minimum number of required reporters differs among the scholars of hadeeth, and ranges from four to several hundred (Azami 43). The hadeeth may be mutawatir in either meaning or words, the former being the more common one. Al-Ghazali stipulated that the hadeeth must be mutawatir in the beginning, middle, and last stages of itsisnad (Hasan 30). A hadeeth that is ahad is one whose number of reporters does not come near to that required for a mutawatir hadeeth. A hadeeth is classified as ghareeb if at any stage (or every stage) in the isnad there is only one person reporting it. A hadeeth is classified as ‘azeez if at every stage in the isnad there are at least two people reporting it. If at least three people report a hadeeth in every stage of its isnad, then it is classified as mash’hoor, although the term is also applied to those hadeeth which start out as ghareeb or‘azeez but then end up with a larger number of reporters (Hasan 32).

In the fourth category, hadeeth are classified according to manner in which they are reported. As was mentioned earlier, there is a corresponding special term to denote a particular mode of learning or transmission when a student or scholar learned a hadeeth. “Haddathana,” “akhbarana,” and “sami’tu” all indicate that the reporter personally heard the hadeeth from his own sheikh. “‘An” and “qaala” are more vague and can signify either hearing from the sheikh in person or through someone else. Actually, “‘an” is very inferior and can signify learning the hadeeth through any one of various modes of transmission (Azami 22). A hadeeth can be labeled as weak due to the uncertainty caused by using the latter two terms, which respectively translate into “on the authority of” and “he said” (Hasan 33). One who practicestadlees, “concealing”, reports from his sheikh that which he did not hear from him, or reports from a contemporary whom he never met. This violates the principle that a hadeeth must be heard first-hand in order to be transmitted (Burton 112). Another type of tadlees, which is considered the worst among them, is when a reliable scholar reports from a weak authority who is in turn reporting from a reliable scholar. The person who is reporting this isnad may show that he heard it from his sheikh, but then omits the weak authority and simply uses the term “‘an” to link his sheikh with the next trustworthy one in the isnad (Hasan 34).

If throughout the isnad all the reporters (including the Prophet) use the same mode of transmission, repeat an additional statement or remark, or act in a particular way while narrating the hadeeth, then it is called musalsal(“uniformly-linked”). This type of knowledge is useful for discounting the possibility of tadlees in a particular hadeeth (Hassan 35).


Hasan, Suhaib. An Introduction to the Science of hadeeth. Riyadh: Darussalam, 1996.


Description: The various categories of hadeeth based upon the strength of the chain of narrators. Part 2.

According to the fifth category, a hadeeth can also be classified with respect to the nature of its text and isnad. According to Al-Shafi’i, if a hadeeth reported by a trustworthy person goes against the narration of someone more reliable than him, then the hadeeth is shadh or “irregular”. According to Ibn Hajar, if a narration by a weak reporter contradicts an authentic hadeeth, then that hadeeth is classified as munkar (“denounced”), although some scholars would classify any hadeeth of a weak reporter as munkar. A hadeeth could also be classified as munkar if its text contradicts general sayings of the Prophet. If a hadeeth reported by a reliable person contains some additional information not narrated by other authentic sources, the addition is accepted so long as it doesn’t contradict them, and the addition is known as ziyadatu thiqah (“an addition by one trustworthy”). However, if a reporter adds something to the hadeeth being narrated, then the hadeeth is classified asmudraj or “interpolated”. If this occurs in a hadeeth, then it is usually in its text and often for the purpose of explaining a difficult word. In a few examples this occurs in the isnad – a reporter takes a part of one isnad and adds it to another isnad. A reporter found in the habit of intentional idraj or interpolation is generally considered a liar, although scholars are more lenient with those reporters who may do it to explain a difficult word (Hasan 37-39).

In the sixth category, hadeeth that contain hidden defects in their isnad or text are classified as ma’lool or mu’allal (“defective”). This could be due to such things as classifying a hadeeth as musnad when it is actually mursal or attributing a hadeeth to a particular Companion when it really comes from another one. In order to detect such defects, all the isnads of a hadeeth have to be collected and examined. For example,

“Some scholars wrote works on which Successors heard hadeeth from which Companions. From this information is it known that Al-Hasan Al-Basri did not meet Ali, although there is a slight chance that he may have seen him during his childhood in Madinah. This is significant as many Sufi traditions are said to go back to Al-Hasan Al-Basri who is said to have reported directly from Ali.” (Hasan 42-43)

There can also be uncertainty about the isnad or text, in which case the hadeeth is classified as mudtarib (“shaky”). This occurs if reporters disagree about some points in the isnad or text in such a way that no opinion prevails. A hadeeth may be classified as maqloob (“changed” or “reversed”) if in theisnad a name was reversed (i.e., Ka’b b. Murra versus Murra b. Ka’b) or if the order of a sentence in the text is reversed (Azami 66). This also applies to those hadeeth whose text has been given a different isnad or vice versa, or those in which a reporter’s name was replaced with another (Hasan 41-42).

The seventh and last category to be discussed here is classification according to the quality of the reporters, upon which the final verdict on a hadeeth critically depends. Hadeeth reported by those known to be adil, hafiz,thabit, and thiqa are the highest ranked hadeeth and are classified as saheeh or “sound.” For someone to be considered adil, he had to be a very pious Muslim, honest and truthful in all of his dealings. Through careful comparison, verbal agreement found in the text of a hadeeth among various transmitters indicated who was the most accurate (thabit), the most reliable (thiqa), and who had the best memory (hafiz). If any scholar falls less than this ideal in one or more categories, but he is not criticized, then the hadeeth reported by him are judged to be less sound, or hasan (“fair”). If a reporter was known to have a weak memory or make mistakes due to carelessness, then his hadeeth are judged as da’eef (“weak”) (Burton 110-111).

Of course, there are other factors which play into the final verdict on a hadeeth, and in the words of Ibn Al-Salah, “A saheeh hadeeth is the one which has a continuous isnad, made up of reporters of trustworthy memory from similar authorities, and which is found to be free from any irregularities (i.e. in the text) or defects (i.e., in the isnad).” According to Al-Tirmidhi a hasan hadeeth is “A hadeeth which is not shadhdh, nor contains a disparaged reporter in its isnad, and which is reported through more than one route of narration” (Hasan 44-46). A hadeeth that doesn’t reach the requirements for a hasan hadeeth is classified as da’eef, and often this is due to discontinuity in the isnad. It can also be classified as da’eef if one of the reporters does not have a good reputation for whatever reason, be it because of his making many mistakes or being dishonest. If the defects are many and severe, then the hadeeth is closer to being classified as mawdu’ or fabricated. According to Al-Dhahabi the mawdu’ hadeeth is the one whose text goes against established norms of the Prophet’s sayings or whose isnad contains a liar. A hadeeth can also be established as mawdu’ due to “external evidence related to a discrepancy found in the dates or times of a particular incident” (Hasan 49).

In conclusion, the aforementioned classifications constitute only a fraction of the total number of classifications that exist. The studies in hadeeth are very complex, and it seems that the scholars thought of every imaginable angle from which to analyze hadeeth. All this was for the purpose of distinguishing between different types of narrations, especially for distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic.