The Hadith: The Traditions of Islam


1. The Six Accredited Collections and the Muwatta.

After numerous collections of Hadith had been made during the third century of Islam six works became recognised as authoritative. Two of them are believed to be completely authentic, namely the Sahih al-Bukhari and the Sahih Muslim. The other four are also highly esteemed but it is allowed by the Muslims that some of the Hadith in them are suspect and may not be genuine. We shall outline these works in more detail shortly but a general reference to them will serve to show what status they enjoy in this field today. The following outline summarises the general Muslim attitude towards these six major works:

The importance of these six major collections for the heritage of Islam can hardly be overestimated. They have become highly regarded throughout the Muslim world and are second only to the Qur'an itself as sources of authority for the laws and customs of Islam.

There is another work, however, which should be mentioned in this context and that is the Muwatta of Imam Malik. It is a group of traditions of chiefly legal import put together by the founder of one of the four major schools of law in Islam. Because it is chiefly a corpus juris rather than a corpus traditionum, a collection of legal traditions rather than a general historical work, a veritable Hadith al-Akham (body of juristic hadith assembled as a foundation for the fiqh, the jurisprudence of Islam), it has not been as highly regarded as the two Sahihs. Its contents are also largely repeated in them and it has therefore been overlooked and is not included with the six major works.

Furthermore this great jurist of Islam, the Imam Malik did not adopt the same dogmatic approach that his colleague Shafi'i took towards the Sunnah, declaring that the only true sunnah was found in the Hadith and not in the ijma of Muslim scholars, no matter how unanimous it might be, when it could not produce relevant traditions to support it. A Western writer comment's on Malik's Muwatta:

He adds: "Consideration of the Medinian ijma was so much the predominating point of view for Malik that he does not even hesitate to give it preference when it is in conflict to traditions incorporated as correct in his corpus" (p.199). For Malik the value of the tradition literature lay not in supplying a foundation for the laws of Islam but rather in illustrating the application of the legal maxims obtained through the ijma of the scholars of Islam. To Shafi'i each tradition was a ratio decidendi, the root and foundation on which any question of law was to be based or decided. To Malik the illustrative use of each tradition counted more than anything else. For him each tradition took the form of an obiter dictum, a passing reference which could help to elucidate a legal principle rather than become the authority on which such principles were to be based. Nonetheless, as his Muwatta is one of the earliest collections of traditions and as most of them were approved by Bukhari and Muslim, his work has an important place in the field of Hadith literature studies even to this day.

2. The Sahihs of Bukhari and Muslim.

Of all the works of Hadith the Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are regarded as the most authentic and authoritative. Indeed the very word sahih means "accredited". Of these two the collection of Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari has pride of place as the most highly regarded work of Hadith literature.

Bukhari's complete collection was only recently translated into English for the first time by one Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan of the Islamic University at Medina. His most welcome contribution has increased the English-speaking student's access to the historical records of Islam. The whole collection has been published in an interlinear Arabic-English form in nine volumes.

Although Bukhari's work is chiefly a general compilation of all known traditions of Muhammad's life considered to be authentic (it contains 7275 individual hadith, many of which are duplications, selected out of 600,000 allegedly known to him), he also concentrated in many cases on the juristic side of the tradition literature, except that in his case he grouped the traditions under various headings dealing with specific points of Islamic law. In his time the schools of law had been generally established and his objective was to catalogue the traditions he regarded as authentic in relation to their respective topics of jurisprudence. The final work significantly has many headings unsupported by any hadith. He either could not obtain the relevant hadith for these points or, more likely, he sought to demonstrate that there were no known traditions relating to them which he considered authentic. He clearly chose his headings first and thereafter grouped the various traditions under them.

The other great collector, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, also sought not so much to complement the issues at stake in the fiqh, the lslamic jurisprudence, but rather to produce a collection of sound traditions, an authentic record, on which future studies of Hadith could be based.

Like Bukhari he sought chiefly to provide a reference work for authoritative decisions of Muhammad rather than a direct statutory foundation. The legal emphasis and objective of these works nevertheless resulted in each one being considered one of the Musannaf, the collections in which the traditions were grouped under specific topical headings (as opposed to the Musnad works which concentrated on grouping them under their isnads going back to their earliest transmitters). Muslim records most of the hadith found in Bukhari's collection but, whereas the former placed parallel versions of the same tradition under various headings relating to various points of law, Muslim put them all together under their own topical headings. The former made the traditions fit his subject-titles, the latter made his subject-headings fit the subject-matter of the traditions.

While Bukhari's compilation is considered the more reliable of the two, Muslim's arrangement of his material has been recognised as superior, and rightly so. While Bukhari made the traditions in his collection testify to his own schedule of various points of law, Muslim left them to speak for themselves. His work has also recently been translated for the first time into English in a four-volume edition.

3. The Sunan Works of Abu Dawud and Others.

The remaining four works are called sunan (the word has the meaning "path" or "way") because they concentrate on the example of Muhammad's actions and decrees insofar as these provide the ultimate foundation of all Islamic law. The work recognised as the best of these collections is the Sunan of Abu Dawud which contains many of the hadith in the two Sahihs but which also includes traditions not found there. He likewise was a scrupulous collector and although some of his traditions are regarded as weak and suspect, he was aware of the problem and was careful to distinguish between sound and weak hadith in his work.

His work has also very recently been published in English (so, incidentally, has the Muwatta of Imam Malik. One can only commend and sincerely appreciate the efforts of Muslim scholars to make the great works of Hadith accessible to the English-speaking world at this time. Hopefully the remaining three Sunan works, which can very easily be published in a few volumes like the other three, will also soon be available in English).

Two collections very similar to Abu Dawud's are the Sunan works of at-Tirmithi and an-Nasai. The former is called a Jami ("collection") because it covers not only legal traditions but also, like Bukhari and Muslim, historical and other hadith as well. Nevertheless Tirmithi confined himself to traditions on which the principles of Islamic law had already been based and did not venture to record such as might lead to new interpretations. His collection is therefore primarily a reference work as well.

The Sunan of an-Nasai is more comprehensive than the former two insofar as he deals with the legal material available to him. Unlike Tirmithi he did not limit himself to recording individual hadith as a resource work for issues concerning the jurists of his day but sought to catalogue all the variant editions of each hadith known to him as Muslim had done before him. His work accordingly has a place of its own in the heritage of the tradition literature.

The last work, the Sunan of Ibn Maja, is regarded as the weakest of all the six major works of Hadith literature and some traditionists prefer the Sunan of ad-Darimi to it. Nonetheless, although a great many authorities have openly declared some of the traditions found in this collection to be forged, it has established itself among the approved works.

In the eighth century after Muhammad's death a fine combination of the major hadith found in all six works, the two Sahihs and the four Sunans, was put together by one Shaikh Wali ud-Din and entitled Mishkat ul-Masabih, the "niche of lights . Various editions of this collection have appeared in English and it serves as a most useful guide to practically all the truly relevant hadith preserved in the kutub as-sitta the "six books", though most of the traditions recorded in it are purely juristic. It therefore serves as the Islamic equivalent of the Rabbinical Mishnah in Talmudic Judaism.

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