10.2 Historical background of Hadiths

10.2 Historical background of Hadiths1

To understand the background to the development of Hadith literature one must sift through the history of Islam from about 250 years after the time of our Prophet for it is towards the end of this period that the Hadith literature was produced. The problem is that there are many conflicting historical accounts about what was happening at that time. The picture one gets is more of Muslim political history than the real history of Islam. From the sheer mass of contradictory stories one must assume that the real history of Islam for that period is lost. The thing one may say for certain however is that during the time of the Prophet and his companions the policy was not to write down hadiths (i.e. hearsay accounts of what the Prophet said and did). The Qur’an was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet but ‘the Hadith’ was never written down and any attempt to do so was addressed by those who knew the Prophet, fought alongside him, and upheld his honour. There are two reasons for this. The first is that such human scribblings would have found their way into and thus corrupted the Qur’anic scriptures. The second is that people would have concentrated on ‘the Hadith’ – i.e. what the Prophet said – and therefore ignored the Qur’an. Hence, the Prophet and his companions who ruled for about thirty years after him, made sure that nothing was written down as far as the Prophet’s sayings and practices were concerned. The surprising thing is that even after the companions (i.e. after Hazrat Ali’s period, which was about 41 Hijra) hadiths as such were not written down. In fact, during the first century of the Prophet’s era no hadiths were written down whatsoever. Stories circulated by word of mouth but they were never written down because the view was well known that the Prophet and the companions did not want anything of the kind to be done, and so there was a very strong feeling against the writing of any sort of ‘Hadith’ literature.

Looking at the written hadiths, the first well-known collection that appeared was by Malik Ibn Anas (d. 179 A.H.). This was during the first part of the second century of the Prophet’s era. He collected hadiths mainly for legal purposes as he was only interested in the application of Hadith in law. His work is known as the Muwatta. He makes references to two small collections but these were more or less at the beginning of the second century and there is no trace of them except for his reference.

The next important collection is by Hanbal in the third century. There is a gap between his writings and those of Malik’s, during which there was a tremendous number of hadiths in circulation, not in writing, only by word of mouth, among which there had accrued many clearly false ones. So the question arose: how to distinguish the good hadiths from the bad? Ahmed bin Hanbal resolved this to his own satisfaction by apparently tracing each hadith right up to the source (i.e. right up to the period when the Prophet was alive) and each hadith accordingly was called a Masnad (i.e. a Tradition which is traceable). His writings are known as the Masnad of Ahmad bin Hanbal. He collected about 30,000 hadiths but they are not arranged in any proper order.

The next important collection was in the third century, by Bukhari, who died in 257 A.H. He collected 7275 hadiths out of some 600,000 which he is supposed to have gathered. His collection is also known as Sahih Hadith i.e. Correct Hadith. He was the first to arrange hadiths in chapters, and the chapters were divided according to the subject matter. His work contains material on historical, ethical, theological, legal and various other aspects. A contemporary of Bukhari was Muslim who died in 261 A.H. He collected 4348 hadiths out of some 300,000. His hadiths are not arranged in the same way as Bukhari’s. His intention was to purify the hadiths that were available, in other words he put stress more on the purity rather than collecting a large quantity of hadiths. His collections are also known as Sahih Hadith. It must be stressed that many Muslims regard these two Hadiths (Bukhari and Muslim) so highly that in a case of contradiction with the Qur’an the Hadith overrides the Qur’an in their judgement. There are four other collections which were written more-or-less towards the end of the third century Hijra and these are by Abu Daud (d. 275), Ibn Maja (d. 303), Al-Tirmidi (d. 279), and Al-Nasai (d. 303). They deal almost entirely with legal traditions (i.e. with what is permitted and what is forbidden); and so do not give information on religious or theological subjects. These six collections together are known as Sahih Satta or the six correct hadiths, of which Bukhari and Muslim are regarded as most important, the other four occupying second place.

The Hadith collection went through a selection procedure in which the following conditions were used for the acceptance of a hadith.

  1. Continuity of the chain (Isnad) of transmitters. The chain of transmitters had to be unbroken in order for a hadith to be acceptable.
  2. The integrity of the transmitters. The integrity of transmitters was established in terms of their outward observance of Islam.
  3. 3. Soundness of memory of the transmitters. It had to be verified through the biographical sciences of Hadith that each transmitter had a sound memory.
  4. Conformity of the hadith with other hadith. It was important that the hadith conform with similar hadiths on the same topic.
  5. The absence of defects in the hadith. A defect is defined as a hidden defect in the hadith which can only be detected after thorough investigation.

Considering the five points in turn one can see a glaring omission i.e. there is no mention of the rejection of a hadith on the basis of its contradiction with the Qur’an. Effectively, it means that the Hadith can override the Qur’an, or in other words the Hadith is more important than the Qur’an.

Let me now examine the above five criteria. In the first case, Bukhari is supposed to have travelled widely to establish the names of the various persons in the chain, right up to the Prophet’s time. If a hadith was to be good then the chain of transmitters had to be unbroken and one had to be able to find all the links. But how did the links come about when no hadiths were committed to writing during the first century!

A lot of research has been done on the Hadiths, especially by Western historians (orientalists) in an attempt to recover history from the Hadiths. They almost unanimously find that one can recover some history of the second and the third century but almost nothing of the first. The logical conclusion given these findings is that the ‘links’ which spread over the eight generations succeeding the death of Muhammad were concocted. Therefore, the so-called ‘science of isnad‘ – the touchstone of a hadith’s authenticity – has the tremendous flaws in it.

How, then, can we go on giving credence to something that was not written down and yet which, some 250 years after the fact, Bukhari supposedly managed to trace back to its source (i.e. the Prophet) by establishing all the links in a chain which cannot possibly have been genuinely reconstructed!

The second and the third criteria to which Bukhari decided to subject his work sought to establish that the transmitters were honest persons in terms of their outward observance of Islam, and that each had a sound memory. This he did by apparently collecting the biography of each of the transmitters. How he managed to do this without written records, bridging a gap of about eight generations, and simultaneously establishing not only biographical data but also a compelling analysis of the mental faculties of his subjects defies belief! An example is called for: in a large number of hadiths Abu Huraira is taken as the last link in the chain of narration. He was not – even according to Bukhari’s extraordinary method of compilation – assigned a good memory, however. But even this unnecessary inconvenience was not a problem for Bukhari who found an explanation:

Bukhari (4:841)

Narated Abu Huraira: I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I hear many narrations from you but I forget them.” He said, “Spread your covering sheet.” I spread my sheet and he moved both his hands as if scooping something and emptied it in the sheet and said, “Wrap it.” I wrapped it round my body, and since then I have never forgotten a single hadith.

Most ingenious, I’m sure you will agree!

The fourth criterion is overall agreement within Hadith as a whole. It means that any one hadith should comply with similar hadiths which give the same sort of story and that this should be seen as a basis for accepting it as authentic. In modern parlance, it means that the various stories should ‘hang together’, that one account should not conflict with another, and if there is no conflict, we should assume that the story is, therefore, true. The intelligent and attentive reader who takes the time to read a moderate number of even so-called sahih hadith on any subject will not need to go far before he finds a distinct failing on even this count.

The Islamic clergy expends great energy trying to account for these inconsistencies and contradictions. Their answers to your common-sense observations may involve various choices of words, yet the thrust can broadly be summarised thus: in order to understand the Hadith you have to be very learned. There seem to be contradictions in the Hadith to you because you are not learned. They – the clergy – are learned. Therefore, they do not see contradictions. When you are learned like them you, too, will not see contradictions. Until you are as learned as they you cannot contend with them on this (or any) subject. The fact that you fail to perceive any of this only testifies to your own ignorance.

It should be noted that we have been discussing the sahih, or so-called authentic Hadith. There are other grades of hadith which are viewed with varying degrees of suspicion even by those who accept the ‘sahih‘. We do not trouble ourselves with them here for obvious reasons.

It is interesting to note that practically no Hadiths were written down during the reign of the Ummayads. Their rule lasted from 41 A.H. to 132 A.H. and they had embraced Islam after the Prophet conquered Mecca. The Abbasids who are descended from the Prophet’s uncle came to power after the Ummayads. Their rule lasted up to 656 A.H. and it was under their regime that the Hadiths were written and the various schools of law established. It was the Abbasids who encouraged the writing of Hadiths – especially those which were favourable to their plans and rule.