Hadith studies

Hadith studies (علم الحديث ʻilm al-ḥadīth “science of hadith”, also the science of hadith, or science of hadith criticism or hadith criticism) consists of several religious scholarly disciplines used by Muslim scholars in the study and evaluation of the Islamic hadith—i.e. the record of the words, actions, and the silent approval of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.

Determining the authenticity of hadith is enormously important in Islam because along with the Quran, the Sunnah of the Islamic prophet—his words, actions, and the silent approval—are considered divine revelation (wahy), and the record of them (i.e. hadith) provides the basis of Islamic law (Sharia). In addition, while the number of verses pertaining to the law in the Quran is relatively few, hadith give direction on everything from details of religious obligations (such as Ghusl or Wudu, ablutions for salat prayer), to the correct forms of salutations, and the importance of benevolence to slaves. Thus the “great bulk” of the rules of Islamic law is derived from the hadith, rather than the Quran.

Because hadith were passed down orally and not compiled in written works until around the third century of Islam, there is no ancient written documentation to examine. Thus, according to the classical science of hadith, there are three primary ways to determine the authenticity (sihha) of a hadith: by attempting to determine whether there are “other identical reports from other transmitters”; determining the reliability of the transmitters of the report; and “the continuity of the chain of transmission” of the hadith.

Traditional hadith studies has been praised by some as “unrivaled, the ultimate in historical criticism”, and heavily criticized for failing to filter out a massive amount of hadith “which cannot possibly be authentic”.

Masjid Nabawi Masjid Madinah Medina Prayers Muslim

Islamic Books in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi


It has been described by one hadith specialist, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, as the science of the principles by which the conditions of both the sanad, the chain of narration, and the matn, the text of the hadith, are known. This science is concerned with the sanad and the matn with its objective being distinguishing the sahih, authentic, from other than it. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani said the preferred definition is: knowledge of the principles by which the condition of the narrator and the narrated are determined.


Some of the disciplines in the science of hadith, according to scholar İsmail Lütfi Çakan, include:

  • the “study of the circumstances surrounding the genesis of each hadith,” i.e. the reasons for why the hadith was uttered;
  • the study of the gharib al-hadith, whose works provide “a kind of hadith glossary” of uncommon words found in hadith;
  • the study of ilel al-hadith, which examines deficiencies in the text and/or the chain of a hadith;
  • study of al-hadith al-muhtelif, which attempts to reconcile the contradictions of hadith;
  • the study of naskh or nasikh and mansukh in hadith, which also attempts to reconcile contradictions in hadiths, but by determining which of the contradicting hadith abrogates the other;
  • study of sharh al-hadith, which are commentary on hadith that attempt “to explain the intentions Prophet Muhammad”;
  • study of ʿilm jarḥ wa taʿdīl (wounding and rectifying), which attempts to verify the reliability of transmitters of hadith, their deficiencies and virtues;
  • study of transmitters of hadith, ʿilm al-rijāl (science of men) which provides biographies of the narrators and the different categories they fall under.


Main article: History of hadith

After the death of Muhammad, his sayings were preserved in both written and memorized form. According to Islamic tradition, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, started the process of collecting all the hadiths together into one unified volume, but gave up the endeavor “for fear the Quran would be neglected by the Muslims” (according to Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi).

The Umayyad caliph, Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (aka Umar II, who reigned from 717-720 CE) also started an effort to collect all the hadiths. Teaching and collecting hadiths was part of a plan of his to renew the moral fiber of the Muslim community. He supported teachers of fiqh, sent educators to ignorant Bedouin tribes, ordered weekly hadith lectures in the Hejaz, and sent out scholars of hadith to Egypt and North Africa, (according to Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi).

Umar also ordered the great scholar of Madinah, Abu Bakr ibn Hazm to write down all the hadiths of Muhammad and Umar ibn al-Khattab, particularly those narrated by Aisha. He had these hadiths collected in books which were circulated around the Umayyad Empire. Although these books are lost today, commentaries on them by Ibn al-Nadim reveals that they are organized like books of fiqh, such as the Muwatta of Imam Malik, the first large compilation of hadiths. Imam Malik himself probably followed the general plan of the early books of hadith ordered by Umar.

Hadith studies developed in part because forgery “took place on a massive scale”, with perhaps the most famous collector of hadith and practitioner of ʻilm al-ḥadīth—Muhammad al-Bukhari—sifting through nearly 600,000, over 16 years before eliminating all but approximately 7400 hadith.

Traditional accounts describe “the systematic study of hadith” as being motivated by the altruism of “pious scholars” seeking to correct this problem. Some scholars (Daniel W. Brown, A. Kevin Reinhart) shed doubt on this. Brown believes the theory “fails” to adequately account “for the atmosphere of conflict” of at least early hadith criticism. The “method of choice” of partisans seeking to discredit opposing schools of Islamic law was to discredit the authorities (transmitters) of their opponent’s hadith—to “tear apart” their isnads”. (To do this required developing biographical evaluations of hadith transmitters—ʿilm al-rijāl and ilm jarh wa ta’dil). Reinhart finds descriptions of famous companions of Muhammad in Ibn Sa’d’s Kitāb aṭ-ṭabaqāt al-kabīr “recording hadith and transmitting it, asking each other about precedents, and reproaching those who disregarded this authentic religious knowledge” in suspicious conformity to the “mythology of the pristine early community”.

As the criteria for judging authenticity grew into the six major collections of ṣaḥīḥ (sound) hadith (Kutub al-Sittah) in the third century, the science of hadith was described as having become a “mature system”, or to have entered its “final stage”.

Further information: Hadith terminology § Terminology relating to the authenticity of a hadith

The classification of Hadith into

  • sahih, sound or authentic;
  • hasan, good;
  • da’if, weak,
  • (another rating is mawḍūʿ, fabricated).

was utilized early in hadith scholarship by Ali ibn al-Madini (161–234 AH). Later, al-Madini’s student Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–870) authored a collection, now known as Sahih Bukhari, commonly accepted by Sunni scholars to be the most authentic collection of hadith, followed by that of his student Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj. Al-Bukhari’s methods of testing hadiths and isnads are seen as exemplary of the developing methodology of hadith scholarship.

Evaluating authenticity

An elaborate system was developed by scholars of hadith to determine the authenticity of traditions based on “two premises”:

  1. that the authenticity of a hadith report is “best measured by the reliability of the transmitters” (known as rāwī pl. ruwāt) of the report;
  2. consequently, “carefully scrutinizing” the “individual transmitters” of the hadith (ilm jarh wa ta’dilʿilm al-rijāl) and “the continuity of their chains of transmission” is the best way to measure hadith reliability.

A basic element of hadith studies consist of a careful examination of the chain of transmission (sanad سند, also isnād اسناد, or silsila سِلْسِلَة), relaying each hadith from the Prophet to the person who compiles the hadith. The isnād and the commentary are distinct from the matn (متن), which is the main body, or text, of the hadith, These two terms are the primary components of every hadith.

According to the person most responsible for elevation of the importance of hadith in Islamic law, Imam Al-Shafi‘i,

“In most cases the truthfulness or lack of truthfulness of a tradition can only be known through the truthfulness or lack of truthfulness of the transmitter, except in a few special cases when he relates what cannot possibly be the case, or what is contradicted by better-authenticated information.”

The first people who received hadith were Muhammad’s “Companions” (Sahaba), who are believed to have understood and preserved it. They conveyed it to those after them as they were commanded; then the generation following them, the “Followers” (Tabi‘un), received it and then conveyed it to those after them, and so on. Thus, the Companion would say, “I heard the Prophet say such and such.” The Follower would say, “I heard a Companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet say’” The one after the Follower would say, “I heard a Follower say, ‘I heard a Companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet say’” and so on.

Criteria to be a ṣaḥīḥ hadith

To be ‘ṣaḥīḥ (“sound”) hadith, an isolated hadith (Mutawatir hadith were exempt from these tests) “must pass five tests”:

  1. “continuity of transmission”;
  2. ʿadāla of transmitters, i.e. transmitters must be of good character;
  3. “accuracy (ḍabṭ) of the process of transmission, i.e. narrators must not be prone to carelessness or known to have poor memories”;
  4. absence of “irregularities” (shadhūdh), i.e. hadith must not contradict a “more reliable source”;
  5. “absence of corrupting defects(ʿilla qādiḥa), i.e. inaccuracies in reporting the actual chain of transmission.”

Biographical evaluation

Main article: Biographical evaluation

An important discipline within hadith studies is biographical evaluation, the study of transmitters of hadith, ʿilm al-rijāl, (literally “science of men”) mentioned above. These are the narrators who make up the sanadIlm ar-rijal is based on certain verses of the Quran.

Transmitters are studied and rated for their “general capacity” (ḍābititqān) and their moral character (ʿadāla).

  1. General capacity is measured by qualities such as memory, linguistic ability. Transmitters that have good memories and linguistic ability “might be considered competent (ḍābit)”.
  2. ʿadāla transmitters must be “adult Muslims, fully in control of their mental faculties, aware of their moral responsibilities, free from guilt for major sins, and not prone to minor sins”. Examples of ratings of transmitters include “trustworthy” or thiqa for ones that possess both ʿadāla and ḍābit. Transmitters that are ʿadāla but show signs of carelessness are rated honest or ṣudūq. The result of this study were “vast biographical dictionaries” to check against the isnads of individual hadith.

Not all transmitters were evaluated for these characteristics and rated. Companions of the prophet (ṣaḥāba) were traditionally considered to possess collective moral turpitude or taʿdīl, by virtue of their exposure to the Prophet, so that they all possessed ʿadāla without needing to be evaluated. (This quality was similar to that of Prophetic infallibility (ʿiṣma) but of course lower in level.)

Shaykh Muhammad Zakariya al-Kandahlawi has mentioned that Imam Bukhari (the famous compiler of “sound” hadith) listed the following as criterion for a muhaddith:

  1. The four things which one must write are:
    1. The hadith of the Prophet and his rulings
    2. The sayings of the Sahaba and the status of each sahabi (companions of the prophet)
    3. The sayings of the Tabieen (i.e., the Salaf-us Salaheen who met the Sahaba, but did not meet the Blessed Prophet). The level of each of the Tabieen. Who amongst them was reliable and who was unreliable
    4. Knowledge of all the narrators who narrate hadith and their history
  1. The history of the narrators must include four things:
    1. Their Isma-ul-Rijjal (biographies)
    2. Their kunniyaat (nicknames)
    3. Their place of settlement
    4. Their date of birth and date of death (to verify whether this person met the people whom he narrated from)

Traditional importance of the sanad

The second criteria after judging the general ability and moral probity of the transmitters, is the “continuity” of the chain of transmission of the hadith. The transmitters must be shown to have received the accounts of the prophet “in an acceptable manner from the preceding authority in the chain”.

Transmitters must have lived during the same period, they must have had the opportunity to meet, and they must have reached sufficient age at the time of transmission to guarantee their capacity to transmit.

Early religious scholars stressed the importance of the sanad. For example, according to an early Quranic exegete, Matr al-Warraq, the verse from the Quran, “Or a remnant of knowledge,” refers to the isnad of a hadith.

In addition, Abd Allah ibn al-Mubarak said, “The isnad is from the religion; were it not for the isnad anyone could say anything they wanted.” According to Ibn al-Salah, the sanad originated within the Muslim scholastic community and remains unique to it. Ibn Hazm said that the connected, continuous sanad is particular to the religion of Islam: the sanad was also used by the Jewish community, but they had a break of more than 30 generations between them and Moses, and the Christians limited their use of the sanad to the prohibition of divorce.Ibn Taymiyyah also said that the knowledge of ” Isnaad ” is particular to the followers of Prophet Muhammad

The practice of paying particular attention to the sanad can be traced to the generation following that of the Companions, based upon the statement of Muhammad Ibn Sirin: “They did not previously inquire about the sanad. However, after the turmoil occurred they would say, ‘Name for us your narrators.’ So the people of the Sunnah would have their hadith accepted and the people of innovation would not.” Those who were not given to require a sanad were, in the stronger of two opinions, the Companions of the Prophet, while others, such as al-Qurtubi, include the older of the Followers as well. This is due to the Companions all being considered upright, trustworthy transmitters of hadith, such that a mursal hadith narrated by a Companion is acceptable.

Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, stating likewise, cited various evidences for this, from them, the Quranic verse, “And you were the best nation brought about to mankind.” The fitnah referred to is the conflicting ideologies of the Kharijites and the Ghulat that had emerged at the time of the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, his assassination and the social unrest of the Kharijites in opposition to the succeeding rulers, Ali and Muawiyah. The death of Uthman was in the year 35 after the migration.

The matn

According to scholar Daniel Brown, in traditional hadith studies, “the possibility” of criticizing the matn as well as the isnad “was recognized in theory, but the option was seldom systematically exercised”.

Syrian hadith scholar Dr. Salah al-Din al-Idlibi is expert in the relatively new field of matn criticism. Whereas traditional criticism has focused on verifying the trustworthiness of the people transmitting the hadith, matn criticism studies the contents of the hadith and compares this with the contents of other hadiths and any other available historical evidence with the aim of arriving at an objective historical reality of the event described by the hadith.

Muhaddith: scholar of hadith

The term muḥaddith (plural muḥaddithūn often translated as “traditionist”) refers to a specialist who profoundly knows and narrates hadith, the chains of their narration isnad, and the original and famous narrators.

According to the 8th century Imam, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i, a muhaddith is someone who has memorised at least 400,000 narrations along with the chain of narrators for each narration. The female equivalent is a muhadditha.

In describing the muhaddith, Al-Dhahabi raised the question, “Where is the knowledge of hadith, and where are its people?” Answering his own question, he said, “I am on the verge of not seeing them except engrossed in a book or under the soil.”

Both men and women can serve as muhaddithin (traditionists). The requirements for a muhaddith are the same requirements that apply to the reception and transmission of reports (riwayah) in the Islamic tradition more generally: truthfulness, integrity, a competent and accurate memory, being free of prejudice or compulsion that might be presumed to distort the reporting.

There are numerous women who have served as muhaddithat in the history of Islam. Nadwi counts more than 8000 based on the biographical dictionaries of the classical and medieval period. Many of these women belonged to the most outstanding scholars and traditionists of their time and men were proud to receive narration from them. One must also note that muhaddithat transmitted the same body of knowledge as their male counterparts – there were and are no restrictions on what could be transmitted by women.

The pursuit of knowledge was held above all else and was given even more importance if one travelled to seek that knowledge. Many muhaddithats were born into a prominent family that had connection with the upper class or had a male relative who had a vested interest and/or connections that enhanced the career of these muhaddithats. In many cases, muhaddithats were the last living link between older scholars and the younger generations as they tended to live longer. Their isnads were held with greater value due to this. Below are some of the most prominent muhaddithats of their times.

Shuhda al-Katiba (482-574CE)

Shuhda al-Katiba was born in Baghdad during a time of turmoil. There were refugees fleeing and the city was being attacked. Despite this, Shuhda was able to find success. Her father played a big role in her education and she has credited him to her success in the field. She began her education at the age of eight when her father began introducing her to some of the most prominent and sought after muhaddiths and scholars of their time. Her husband also gave her access to the upper class of Baghdad. She gained fame later in her career and was known to be the last living link between prominent scholars and the younger generations. This made her isnad a particularly sought after one.

Fatimah Bint Sa’d al-Khayr (525-600CE)

Fatimah Bint Sa’d al-Khayr was born in China but later dwelled in Isfahan and Baghdad. Her father was a scholar who felt it was very important for his children to be immersed in religious studies, particularly Hadith studies. He had traveled to many places in pursuit of this knowledge and even taught some of his children himself. Fatimah was brought up fully immersed in Hadith studies. Her sister also became a prominent muhaddithat. Her husband was very wealthy, held a high position in society, and a scholar himself, though not at the same level as Fatimah. She lived in Damascus with him for some time then moved to Cairo. Fatimah’s career prospered in these two cities towards the end of her life. She had many students who traveled far and wide to recite to her and learn from her. She died when she was 78 years old. There is some mystery surrounding her life. When her husband died, he had not a penny to his name despite being very wealthy in his life. No one is aware of how this occurred.

Zaynab Bint al-Kamal (646-740CE)

Zaynab Bint al-Kamal started her career at the age of one in Damascus. It is thought that the credit for that goes to her uncle rather than her father, as seen with other muhaddithats, who took her to prominent scholars at a very young age. Damascus was prospering during her life which gave her career extra stability. She never married, which could have contributed to her extensive education as she had more time to devote to it. Her students went on to become very prominent scholars with their impressive isnads thanks to her. As mentioned with the above muhaddithats, since Zaynab started so young, she had hadiths from scholars who had died when she was teaching which made her highly sought after. People were willing to travel great distances to meet her. She died in her late 90s which is an impressive age for her time period.

A’isha Bint Muhammad (723-816CE)

A’isha Bint Muhammad came from a very prominent religious family. She started her career at four years old while Damascus was still prospering. Similar to the scholars mentioned above, she was the last link to many muhaddithats who had died which made her the last living link. Her students became prominent scholars as well. She died at the age of 93. By the time of her death, she had the reputation of a very highly regarded muhadditha.

Reporting or narrating (riwayah) must be differentiated from giving testimony (shahadah). While women are entirely equal in riwayah, many Islamic jurists place restrictions on women in shahadah – thus in several schools of law the testimony of two women is equal to that of a man.

muḥaddith or “traditionist” is not the same as one of the Ahl al-Hadith or a “traditionalist”, a member of a movement of hadith scholars who considered the Quran and authentic hadith to be the only authority in matters of law and creed.

Sunni literature for hadith studies

As in any Islamic discipline, there is a rich history of literature describing the principles and fine points of hadith studies. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani provides a summation of this development with the following: “Works authored in the terminology of the people of hadith have become plentiful from the Imaams both old and contemporary:

  1. From the first of those who authored a work on this subject is the Judge, Abū Muḥammad al-Rāmahurmuzī in his book, ‘al-Muhaddith al-Faasil,’ however, it was not comprehensive.
  2. And al-Hakim, Abu Abd Allah an-Naysaburi, however, it was neither refined nor well arranged.
  3. And following him, Abu Nu’aym al-Asbahani, who wrote a mustakhraj upon the book of the later, (compiling the same narrations al-Hakim cited using his own sanads.) However, some things remain in need of correction.
  4. And then came al-Khatib Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, authoring works in the various disciplines of hadith studies a book entitled al-Kifaayah and in its etiquettes a book entitled al-Jami’ Li Adab ash-Sheikh wa as-Saami. Scarce is the discipline from the disciplines of the science of hadeeth that he has not written an individual book regarding, as al-Hafith Abu Bakr ibn Nuqtah said: ‘Every objective person knows that the scholars of hadeeth coming after al-Khatib are indebted to his works.’ After them came others, following al-Khatib, taking their share from this science.”
  5. al-Qadi ‘Eyaad compiled a concise book naming it al-Ilmaa’.
  6. Abu Hafs al-Mayanajiy a work giving it the title Ma Laa yasu al-Muhaddith Jahluhu or That Which a Hadith Scholar is Not Allowed Ignorance Of. There are numerous examples of this which have gained popularity and were expanded upon seeking to make plentiful the knowledge relating to these books and others abridged making easy their understanding.
  7. This was prior to the coming of the memorizer and jurist Taqiyy ad-Deen Aboo ‘Amrin ‘Uthmaan ibn al-Salah ‘Abd ar-Rahmaan ash-Shahruzuuree, who settled in Damascus. He gathered, at the time he had become a teacher of hadith at the Ashrafiyyah school, his well known book, editing the various disciplines mentioned in it. He dictated it piecemeal and, as a result, did not succeed in providing it with an appropriate order. He occupied himself with the various works of al-Khatib, gathering his assorted studies, adding to them from other sources the essence of their benefits. So he combined in his book what had been spread throughout books other than it. It is due to this that people have focused their attention upon it, following its example. Innumerable are those who rendered his book into poetry, abridged it, sought to complete what had been left out of it or left out any extraneous information; as well as those who opposed him in some aspect of his work or supported him.

Discussion of validity

See also: Criticism of hadith

The science of hadith has not been without critics. According to Muhammad Husayn Haykal, “despite the great care and precision of the Hadith scholars, much of what they regarded as true was later proved to be spurious.” He goes on to quote Al-Nawawi (1233–1277), who stated that “a number of scholars discovered many hadiths” in the two most authentic hadith collection Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim “which do not fulfill the conditions of verification assumed by these men” (i.e. by the hadith collectors Muhammad al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj).

Among the criticisms made (of non-sahih as well as sahih hadith) of is that there was a suspiciously large growth in their number with each generation in the early years of Islam; that large numbers of hadith contradicted each other; and that the genre’s status as a primary source of Islamic law motivated the creation of fraudulent hadith.

Modern Western scholars in particular have “seriously questioned the historicity and authenticity of the hadith“, according to John Esposito, maintaining that “the bulk of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad were actually written much later.” According to Esposito, Schacht “found no evidence of legal traditions before 722,” from which Schacht concluded that “the Sunna of the Prophet is not the words and deeds of the Prophet, but apocryphal material” dating from later.

Henry Preserved Smith and Ignác Goldziher also challenged the reliability of the hadith, Smith stating that “forgery or invention of traditions began very early” and “many traditions, even if well authenticated to external appearance, bear internal evidence of forgery.” Goldziher writes that “European critics hold that only a very small part of the ḥadith can be regarded as an actual record of Islam during the time of Mohammed and his immediate followers.” In his Mohammedan Studies, Goldziher states: “it is not surprising that, among the hotly debated controversial issues of Islam, whether political or doctrinal, there is not one in which the champions of the various views are unable to cite a number of traditions, all equipped with imposing isnads“.

Patricia Crone noted that early traditionalists were still developing conventions of examining the chain of narration (isnads) that by later standards were sketchy/deficient, even though they were closer to the historical material. Later though they possessed impeccable chains, but were more likely to be fabricated. Reza Aslan quotes Schacht’s maxim: the more perfect the isnad, the later the tradition, which he (Aslan) calls “whimsical but accurate”.

Bernard Lewis writes that “the creation of new hadiths designed to serve some political purpose has continued even to our own time.” In the buildup to the first Gulf War a “tradition” was published in the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Nahar on December 15, 1990, “and described as currently in wide circulation” It “quotes the Prophet as predicting that “the Greeks and Franks will join with Egypt in the desert against a man named Sadim, and not one of them will return”.

Others have praised the tradition for its ingenuity:

Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a Senior Lecturer and an Islamic Scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, clarifies what he feels supports the validity of hadith studies:

There is a basic distinction between Islam and other religions in this regard: Islam is singularly unique among the world religions in the fact that in order to preserve the sources of their religion, the Muslims invented a scientific methodology based on precise rules for gathering data and verifying them. As it has been said, ‘Isnad or documentation is part of Islamic religion, and if it had not been for isnad, everybody would have said whatever he wanted.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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