Nothing historically has received more scathing attacks from the kuffaar than hadeeth literature, that is, the preserved body of narrations related to the Prophet's صلى الله عليه وسلم sayings, actions and conduct. Originally, manykuffaar attempted to stir doubt in the genre of hadith literature by spreading dubious lies about the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and highlighting supposedly contradictoryahadeeth. Orientalists then took up the mantle of destroying the credibility of the Prophetic traditions by carrying out extensive research on the wholesale rejection of hadeeth as a historical source. This was initiated by Orientalists such as Goldziher and Schact, an attack that continues to this day at the hands of modern-day Orientalists.
There exist many misunderstandings about the reality of hadeeth even amongst the Muslim Ummah. Amongst some, there is an attitude that the Sunnah is of much less importance than the Qur'an. From this a mentality has emerged disregarding or neglecting legislation (ahkaam) simply because it is not found explicitly in the Qur'an. Unfortunately, many Muslims have criticised the use of ahadeeth (pl. Hadeeth) by using the very same arguments non-Muslims have used against the authenticity of the Sunnah. In 1977 Colonel Gaddafi, ruler of Libya, announced that the ahadeeth mentioned by the tongue of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم are of doubtful authenticity because they were compiled two hundred years after the death of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. He gave an example of a contradiction in the hadeeth by quoting ‘Aisha رضي الله عنها which says, "Aisha رضي الله عنهاis deficient in mind and Deen." He also mentioned another hadith were we read, "Take half your Deen from the mouth of ‘Aisha رضي الله عنها." Gaddafi concluded that it is not allowed to accept ahadeeth because one cannot be certain whether they are authentic or fabricated. He thus concluded that the Sunnah cannot be taken as a source of legislation.
At the time of the Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم questions of authenticity were never an issue since the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was living amongst Muslims and his companions were able to correct each other if any mistakes were made in narration. ‘Umar رضي الله عنه once narrated that the Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم said, "The deceased is punished due to the weeping of his family." ‘Aisha رضي الله عنها corrected him, saying, "The Prophet صلى الله عليهوسلم said this regarding a Jewess that she was punished whilst her family were crying for her," meaning that she was punished due to dying upon disbelief (kufr) whilst the family wept and not because the family was weeping for her. Due to their proximity to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, the Sahabah would check strange attributions and reports when they felt doubt.
The earliest record of fabrication of ahadeeth started after the first civil war between Ali رضي الله عنه and Mu'awiya from 35AH following the murder of Uthman رضي الله عنه. According to ibn Sirin (d.110AH), "They did not ask about the isnad (chain of narration) but when civil war (fitna) arose they said: Name to us your men; those who belong to Ahl al-Sunnah, their traditions were accepted and those who were innovators, their traditions were neglected."
After this time the fabrications increased with varying motivations. Initially the false attributions reflected political differences. According to ibn Abi al-Hadeed: "Lies were introduced in hadeeth on merits originally by Shi'ah. They in the beginning fabricated many ahadeeth in favour of their man, motivated by enmity towards their opponents. When the Bakriyya (i.e. supporters of Abu Bakr رضي الله عنه) found out what the Shi'ah had done they fabricated on their part ahadeeth in favour of their man."
From this problem arose the challenge to authenticate and verify the narrations being attributed to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. There were thousands of transmitters of ahadeeth scattered throughout the Islamic lands and an even greater number of reports to sift through. What was required was for the sound narrations to be separated from the weak and then to be compiled. This was all in the days when the best form of data storage was the human memory.
Understanding the Hadeeth methodology
The essential argument for the rejection of ahadeeth is that they were a human construct and not revelation. The discussion of the Shari'ah begins with its sources, which in origin is the Qur'an. The other legislative source is the recorded sayings, actions and conduct of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم which are termed ahadeeth. The ahadeeth are a collection of around 600,000 authenticated narrations comprised of the sayings, actions and consent of Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. A hadeeth is always composed of two parts: the matn (text) and the isnaad(chain of reporters).
When one wants to authenticate any incident or statement one would look at those people narrating the incident and then look at their characters. It was out of this need that an entire science, known as 'ilm al-rijaal (knowledge of the men who transmitted ahadeeth) emerged and this science evolved into an extremely sophisticated discipline. This is because if one is characterised with lying, sin or memory loss, one cannot be considered trustworthy. One can also examine how close the narrators were to a reported incident in terms of whether they actually witnessed it or spoke to another person who narrated the event. This would require the specialist inhadeeth and the scholars of Islam to check accounts of a given narrators memory, eyesight, tendency to exaggerate etc. If the people narrating the event were small in number, then it must be asked if they could have colluded in their accounts. If the opposite were the case and the numbers of trustworthy individuals relating a similar account unknown to the others incredibly numerous, the possibility of collusion diminishes accordingly.
Since each narrator related narrations to others, and so on, chains of narrators develop and we must then examine the chains themselves as well as those within the chain. A tawaatur narration (a narration confirmed generation to generation) is a hadeeth which has been transmitted from one generation to another with each generation being composed of individuals so numerous that the possibility of fabrication or lying is effectively non-existent. It would be similar to taking into account the numerous different narrations from various generations and still claiming the Second World War never took place.
The chain of narration (isnaad) and its study is where the muhaditheen (scholars who collected and categorisedahadeeth) establish the continuity of the chain of narrators i.e. they ensure that there were no gaps, inconsistencies, distortions or errors in the chain. This was achieved by cataloguing the dates of birth and death of narrators and the towns they came from in order to establish the possibility that they had met and hence were actually able to transmit ahadeeth to one another.
The second issue that had to be ascertained was the probity or mendacity of transmitters. It is not sufficient to verify an unbroken continuous chain if even one of the transmitters was known to be of unsound character. Like any chain, all that is necessary for the whole sequence to collapse is simply one weak link that would allow it to fall apart quickly and easily. So one weak link, or in the case of hadeeth literation, a liar in the chain, will weaken or nullify the report respectively even if the rest of the chain features illustrious and trustworthy transmitters. It is for this reason that the Muslims at the time gathered information about the narrators ('ilm al-rijaal) which was a colossal accomplishment since it involved assessing the character, reputation and state of mind of thousands upon thousands of transmitters. This repository of biographical material would then be used to identify each and every transmitter in the chain to ensure a valid link back to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. It is as a result of this that the genre of biographical dictionaries emerged, a genre that went on to become one of the pillars of hadeethclassification with countless books being compiled on this subject. After the study of the chains the ahadeethwere classified into strong (sahih), good/sound (hasan), not sound (da'eef) and fabricated or spurious (maw-doo'). The ahadeeth came to be further categorised into topics such as purity, prayer, charity, partnership, marriage, trade, taxation, brokerage, ruling and deputation, amongst many others. This now meant that legislation could be deduced from this basis from the Sunnah, and Muslims have been doing this for the last fourteen centuries.
The ahadeeth is confirmed as a source of law by the Qur'an itself,
مَّنْ يُطِعِ الرَّسُولَ فَقَدْ أَطَاعَ اللّهَ
"He who obeys the Messenger has obeyed God." [TMQ An-Nisa: 80]
This method became the method of verifying what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did and said. This is why the science of ahadeeth developed and became a whole discipline itself. Thus a valid hadith is one whose chain is continuous by trustworthy and meticulous transmitters whose reports contained no abnormality or defects. Thus, the conditions in this definition can be listed as the following:
1. Ittisaal as-Sanad (continuity of the chain)
2. ‘Adaalatu Al-Ruwwaah (probity or trustworthiness of narrators)
3. DabT Al-Ruwaah (The precision and accuracy of narrators)
4. The absence of conflict with stronger narrations
A wide variety of techniques were developed to detect forgery and deception. There are techniques related to thesanad (chain) and also techniques relating to the matn (text). Such techniques were many in number and are beyond the scope of this article; two such techniques are reconciling facts with narrations and mukhtalaf al-Hadeeth, reconciling seemingly contradictory hadith.
An example of reconciling facts with narrations through textual analysis is the one quoted by ibn Qayyim in hiswork, Naqd al-Manqool. He quotes a report which says that an agreement was made with the people of Khaybarthat exempted them from the payment of Jizyah. This report was declared a fabrication due to the following indications in the Matn:
The text mentions Sa'd bin Mu'aadh رضي الله عنه but Sa'd had died before then in the Battle of Ahzab.
It mentions that Mu'aawiyah wrote the letter but Mu'aawiyah had not embraced Islam until the Conquest of Makkah which occurred after this incident.
The hadeeth mentioned Jizyah but the verses (aayaat) legalising Jizyah were not revealed until after the Battle ofTabuk.
Its text mentions that certain types of taxes were levied but these were known not to exist at the time of Khaybar.
The Jews of Khaybar fought the Messenger (saws) and his Companions. What did they do to deserve being granted such an exemption from the obligation of Jizyah, when other tribes equally bellicose had not been exempted?
Had the Prophet (saws) exempted the people of Khaybar from the Jizyah, he would not have stipulated that they be expelled when he صلى الله عليه وسلم willed. This does not fit with the ruling that the Ahl al-Dhimmah cannot be expelled as long as they abide by the rules of Islam.
If the Prophet had exempted them, why did none of his companions, the Sahaabah, ever exempt them?
In this way, established facts were utilised to ascertain the validity of the content in the various ahadeeth.
When presented with two sets of contradictory hadith, one of three options is possible. Either one can resort to reconciliation of the hadeeth by considering a whole host of issues such as textual indication or, if this is not possible, then the outweighing (tarjeeh) of one report over the other if the chronology is not known and finally, accepting abrogation if the chronology is known.
Thus, the means of removing conflicts are three:
a) Jam' a (reconciliation)
b) Tarjeeh (outweighing if the chronology is not known)
c) Naskh (abrogation if chronology is known)
d) If none of the above methods are possible, then the muhadditheen revert back to the original rule and assume the contradictory texts are non-existent.
The process of reconciliation succeeds by attempting to reconcile two conflicting texts due to certain linguistic and circumstantial considerations. Here, the textual indications can assist in the reconciliation between two texts. For example, in one hadeeth, we read, "Water is pure so nothing can make it impure." (Abu Dawud). In another, we read, "If the water is enough to fill two pots (qullatayn), it carries no impurity." (An-Nasaa`ee) The first text is ‘Aam (general) for all amounts of water except the wording of the second text indicates that water can become impure if its nature is changed. This is a specification (takhsees) of the first text by the meaning of the second.
Tarjeeh (outweighing) can occur in a number of ways; one such way is if one of the conflicting hadeeth accords with another authentic hadith. For example, one hadeeth reads, "There is no nikaah (marriage) without a wali (guardian)." (Abu Dawud) This hadeeth stipulates the presence of a wali but it seems to contradict anotherhadeeth which indicates that the wali is not stipulated. That hadith is as follows, "The matron has greater right than her guardians and the virgin her permission is sought. Her permission is her silence." (Saheeh Muslim) Yet the first hadith stipulating the presence of the wali agrees with another sound narration which says, "Any woman who gets married without the permission of her guardian (Wali), her marriage will be void, her marriage will be void, her marriage will be void." (al-Haakim) Therefore, the tarjeeh here will be that thehadeeth which says that there is no nikaah without a wali is outweighed and accepted because it is supported by another authentic narration.
As for abrogation, this happens when it is not possible to reconcile a hadeeth but abrogation is possible because the chronology is known. For example, one hadeeth reads, "The one who cups blood and is cupped has broken his fast" whereas another hadeeth reads, "...that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was cupped while he was fasting." If we scrutinize the circumstances of these ahadeeth, we find that first hadeeth took place in the 8th year after Hijrah during the Conquest of Makkah while the second hadeeth is in the Farewell Khutbah in the 10th year after Hijrah. Thus, Imaam Ash-Shaafi'ee رضي الله عنه took the view that the second hadeeth had abrogated the first, allowing the cupping of blood while fasting in Ramadaan.
The Muslim scholars and experts were able to amass a database of thousands of narrators, define rigorous criteria to assess authenticity, classify and adopt a grading system for chain narrators, devise techniques to detect and avert mistakes and fabrications and adopt a methodology to reconcile the differences within certain texts. The result was the remarkably robust and effective preservation of the Islamic ideology and its legislative capacity.
If we compare the system of hadeeth collection (Isnaad) to the modern system of historical analysis, we will find the former to be much more sophisticated and successful in establishing the authenticity of historical incidents and events. What the Muslims called a da'eef hadith is perhaps stronger in historicity, in some of its forms, than modern sources such as history textbooks, numismatics or historical criticism of literary texts. This is because da'eef does not mean fabrication but simple that it does not satisfy the stringent criteria developed by themuhadditheen.