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Muslims believe that the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the second of the two revealed fundamental sources of Islam, after the Glorious Qur'an. The authentic Sunnah is contained within the vast body of Hadith literature.

A hadith (pl. ahadith) is composed of two parts: the matn (text) and the isnad (chain of reporters). A text may seem to be logical and reasonable but it needs an authentic isnad with reliable reporters to be acceptable; 'Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181H), one of the illustrious teachers of Imam al-Bukhari, said, "The isnad is part of the religion: had it not been for the isnad, whoever wished to would have said whatever he liked."

During the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH) and after his death, his Companions (Sahabah) used to refer to him directly, when quoting his sayings. The Successors (Tabi'un) followed suit; some of them used to quote the Prophet (PBUH ) through the Companions while others would omit the intermediate authority - such a hadith was later known as mursal. It was found that the missing link between the Successor and the Prophet (PBUH) might be one person, i.e. a Companion, or two people, the extra person being an older Successor who heard the hadith from the Companion. This is an example of how the need for the verification of each isnad arose; Imam Malik (d. 179H) said, "The first one to utilise the isnad was Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri (d. 124H)." The other more important reason was the deliberate fabrication of ahadith by various sects which appeared amongst the Muslims, in order to support their views (see later, under discussion of maudu' ahadith). Ibn Sirin (d. 110H), a Successor, said, "They would not ask about the isnad. But when the fitnah (trouble, turmoil, esp.civil war) happened, they said: Name to us your men. So the narrations of the Ahlus-Sunnah (Adherents to the Sunnah) would be accepted, while those of the Ahlul-Bid'ah (Adherents to Innovation) would not be accepted."


A Brief History

As time passed, more reporters were involved in each isnad, and so the situation demanded strict discipline in the acceptance of ahadith; the rules regulating this discipline are known as Mustalah al-Hadith (the Classification of Hadith).

Amongst the early traditionists (muhaddithin, scholars of Hadith), the rules and criteria governing their study of Hadith were meticulous but some of their terminology varied from person to person, and their principles began to be systematically written down, but scattered amongst various books, e.g. in Ar-Risalah of ash-Shafi'i (d. 204H), the introduction to the Sahih of Muslim (d. 261H) and the Jami' of at-Tirmidhi (d. 279H); many of the criteria of early traditionists, e.g. al-Bukhari, were deduced by later scholars from a careful study of which reporters or isnad were accepted and rejected by them.

One of the earliest writings to attempt to cover Mustalah comprehensively, using standard (i.e. generally-accepted) terminology, was the work by ar-Ramahurmuzi (d. 360H). The next major contribution was Ma'rifah 'Ulum al-Hadith by al-Hakim (d. 405H), which covered fifty classifications of Hadith, but still left some points untouched; Abu Nu'aym al-Asbahani (d. 430H) completed some of the missing parts to this work. After that came Al-Kifayah fi 'Ilm ar-Riwayah of al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (d. 463H) and another work on the manner of teaching and studying Hadith; later scholars were considered to be greatly indebted to al-Khatib's work.

After further contributions by Qadhi 'Iyad al-Yahsubi (d. 544H) and Abu Hafs al-Mayanji (d.580H) among others, came the work which, although modest in size, was so comprehensive in its excellent treatment of the subject that it came to be the standard reference for thousands of scholars and students of Hadith to come, over many centuries hitherto: 'Ulum al-Hadith of Abu 'Amr 'Uthman ibn As-Salah (d. 643H), commonly known as Muqaddimah Ibn As-Salah, compiled while he taught in the Dar al-Hadith of several cities in Syria.


Mustalah al-Hadith

Mustalah books speak of a number of classes of hadith in accordance with their status. The following broad classifications can be made, each of which is explained in this series of ours:

1-      According to the reliability and memory of the reporters; the final judgment on a hadith depends crucially on this factor: verdicts such as sahih (sound), hasan (good), da'if (weak) and maudu' (fabricated, forged) rest mainly upon the nature of the reporters in the isnad.

2-      According to the reference to a particular authority, e.g. the Prophet (PBUH), a Companion, or a Successor; such ahadith are called marfu' (elevated), mawquf (stopped) and maqtu' (severed) respectively.

3-      According to the links in the isnad, i.e. whether the chain of reporters is interrupted or uninterrupted, e.g. musnad (supported), muttawasil (continuous), munqati' (broken), mu'allaq (hanging), mu'dal (perplexing) and mursal (hurried).

4-      According to the number of reporters involved in each stage of the isnad, e.g. mutawatir (consecutive) and ahad (isolated), the latter being divided into gharib (scarce, strange), 'aziz (rare, strong), and mashhur (famous).

5-      According to the manner in which the hadith has been reported, such as using the words 'an ("on the authority of"), haddathana ("he narrated to us"), akhbarana ("he informed us") or sami'tu ("I heard"). In this category falls the discussion about mudallas (concealed) and musalsal (uniformly-linked) ahadith.

6-      According to the nature of the matn and isnad, e.g. an addition by a reliable reporter, known as ziyadatu thiqah, or opposition by a lesser authority to a more reliable one, known as shadhdh (irregular). In some cases, a text containing a vulgar expression, unreasonable remark or obviously-erroneous statement is rejected by the traditionists outright without consideration of the isnad: such a hadith is known as munkar (denounced). If an expression or statement is proved to be an addition by a reporter to the text, it is declared as mudraj (interpolated).

7-      According to a hidden defect found in the isnad or text of a hadith. Although this could be included in some of the previous categories, a hadith mu'allal (defective hadith) is worthy to be explained separately. The defect can be caused in many ways; e.g. two types of hadith mu'allal are known as maqlub (overturned) and mudtarib (shaky).

In this first series, we will be looking at the first category only.


Rijal al-Hadith

Mustalah al-Hadith is strongly associated with Rijal al-Hadith (the study of the reporters of hadith). In scrutinising the reporters of a hadith, authenticating or disparaging remarks made by recognised experts, from amongst the Successors and those after them, were found to be of great help. Examples of such remarks, in descending order of authentication, are:

  • "Imam (leader), Hafidh (preserver)."
  • Thiqah -"Reliable, trustworthy."
  • Saduq Yahim -"Makes mistakes."
  • Da'eif -"Weak."
  • Matruk -"Abandoned (by the traditionists)."
  • Kadhdhab-"Liar, used to fabricate ahadith."

Reporters who have been unanimously described by statements such as the first two may contribute to a sahih (sound) isnad. An isnad containing a reporter who is described by the last two statements is likely to be da'if jiddan (very weak) or maudu' (fabricated). Reporters who are the subject of statements such as the middle two above will cause the isnad to be da'if (weak), although several of them relating the same hadith independently will often increase the rank of the hadith to the level of hasan (good). If the remarks about a particular reporter conflict, a careful verdict has to be arrived at after in-depth analysis of e.g. the reason given for any disparagement, the weight of each type of criticism, the relative strictness or leniency of each critic, etc.

Among the earliest available works in this field are Tarikh of Ibn Ma'in (d. 233H), Tabaqat of Khalifah ibn Khayyat (d. 240H), Tarikh of al-Bukhari (d. 256H), Kitab al-Jarh wa't-Ta'dil of Ibn Abi Hatim (d. 327H) and Tabaqat of Muhammad ibn Sa'd (d. 320H).

A number of traditionists made efforts specifically for the gathering of information about the reporters of the five famous collections of hadith, those of al-Bukhari (d. 256H), Muslim (d. 261H), Abu Da'wud (d. 275H), at-Tirmidhi (d. 279H) and an-Nasa'i (d. 303H), giving authenticating and disparaging remarks in detail. The first major such work to include also the reporters of Ibn Majah (d. 273H) is the ten-volume collection of al-Hafiz 'Abd al-Ghani al-Maqdisi (d. 600H), known as Al-Kamal fi Asma' ar-Rijal. Later, Jamal ad-Din Abu'l-Hajjaj Yusuf ibn 'Abdur-Rahman al-Mizzi (d. 742H) prepared an edited and abridged version of this work, punctuated by places and countries of origin of the reporters; he named it Tahdhib al- Kamal fi Asma' ar-Rijal and produced it in twelve volumes. Further, one of al-Mizzi's gifted pupils, Shams ad-Din Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn 'Uthman ibn Qa'imaz adh-Dhahabi (d. 748H), summarised his Shaykh's work and produced two abridgements: a longer one called Tadhhib at-Tahdhib and a shorter one called Al-Kashif fi Asma' Rijal al-Kutub as-Sittah.


The Classification of Hadith


·                     According to the Reliability and Memory of the Reporters

The final verdict on a hadith, i.e. sahih (sound), hasan (good), da'if (weak) or mawdu' (fabricated, forged), depends critically on this factor.

Among the early traditionists, mostly of the first two centuries, ahadith were classified into two categories only: sahih and da'if; at-Tirmidhi was to be the first to distinguish hasan from da'if. This is why traditionists and jurists such as Ahmad, who seemed to argue on the basis of da'if ahadith sometimes, were in fact basing their argument on the ahadith which were later to be known as hasan.

We now examine in more detail these four important classes of ahadith.



Ash-Shafi'i states the following requirement in order for a hadith which is not mutawatir to be acceptable:

"Each reporter should be trustworthy in his religion; he should be known to be truthful in his narrating, to understand what he narrates, to know how a different expression can alter the meaning, and report the wording of the hadith verbatim, not only its meaning. This is because if he does not know how a different expression can change the whole meaning, he will not know if he has changed what is lawful into what is prohibited. Hence, if he reports the hadith according to its wording, no change of meaning will be found at all. Moreover, he should be a good memoriser if he happens to report from his memory, or a good preserver of his writings if he happens to report from them. He should agree with the narrations of the huffadh (leading authorities in Hadith), if he reports something which they do also. He should not be a mudallis, who narrates from someone he met something he did not hear, nor should he report from the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) contrary to what reliable sources have reported from him. In addition, the one who is above him (in the isnad) should be of the same quality, [and so on,] until the hadith goes back uninterrupted to the Prophet (PBUH) or any authority below him."

Ibn As-Salah, however, defines a sahih hadith more precisely by saying: "A sahih hadith 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)."

By the above definition, no room is left for any weak hadith, whether, for example, it is munqati', mu'dal, mudtarib, maqlub, shadhdh, munkar, ma'lul, or contains a mudallis. The definition also excludes hasan ahadith, as will be discussed under that heading.

Of all the collectors of hadith, al-Bukhari and Muslim were greatly admired because of their tireless attempts to collect sahih ahadith only. It is generally understood that the more trustworthy and of good memory the reporters, the more authentic the hadith. The isnad: ash-Shafi'i --- Malik --- Nafi' --- 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar --- The Prophet (PBUH), is called a "golden isnad" because of its renowned reporters.

Some traditionists prefer Sahih al-Bukhari to Sahih Muslim because al-Bukhari always looked for those reporters who had either accompanied or met each other, even if only once in their lifetime. On the other hand, Muslim would accept a reporter who is simply found to be contemporary to his immediate authority in reporting.

The following grading is given for sahih ahadith only:

  1. those which are transmitted by both al-Bukhari and Muslim;
  2. those which are transmitted by al-Bukhari only;
  3. those which are transmitted by Muslim only - those which are not found in the above two collections; but
  4. which agree with the requirements of both al-Bukhari and Muslim;
  5. which agree with the requirements of al- Bukhari only;
  6. which agree with the requirements of Muslim only; and
  7. those declared sahih by other traditionists.



At-Tirmidhi means by hadith hasan: a hadith which is not shadhdh, nor contains a disparaged reporter in its isnad, and which is reported through more than one route of narration.

Al-Khattabi (d. 388H) states a very concise definition, "It is the one where its source is known and its reporters are unambiguous."

By this he means that the reporters of the hadith should not be of a doubtful nature, such as with the mursal or munqati' hadith, or one containing a mudallis.

Ibn As-Salah classifies hasan into two categories:

  1. One with an isnad containing a reporter who is mastur ("screened", i.e. no prominent person reported from him) but is not totally careless in his reporting, provided that a similar text is reported through another isnad as well;
  2. One with an isnad containing a reporter who is known to be truthful and reliable, but is a degree less in his preservation/memory of hadith in comparison to the reporters of sahih ahadith.

In both categories, Ibn As-Salah requires that the hadith be free of any shudhudh (irregularities).

Adh-Dhahabi, after giving the various definitions, says, "A hasan hadith is one which excels the da'if  but nevertheless does not reach the standard of a sahih hadith."


Example of a Hasan Hadith

Malik, Abu Dawud, at-Tirmidhi and al-Hakim reported through their isnad from 'Amr ibn Shu'ayb --- his father --- his grandfather, that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, "A single rider is a devil (i.e. disobedient), two riders are two devils, but three makes a travelling party."

At-Tirmidhi declares this hadith to be hasan because of the above isnad, which falls short of the requirements for a sahih hadith.


Several Weak Ahadith may Mutually Support each other to the Level of Hasan

According to the definitions of at-Tirmidhi and Ibn As-Salah, a number of similar weak ahadith on a particular issue can be raised to the degree of hasan if the weakness found in their reporters is of a mild nature. Such a hadith is known as hasan li ghayrihi (hasan due to others), to distinguish it from the type previously-discussed, which is hasan li dhatihi (hasan in itself). Similarly, several hasan ahadith on the same subject may make the hadith sahih li ghayrihi, to be distinguished from the previously-discussed sahih li dhatihi.

However, in case the weakness is severe (e.g., the reporter is accused of lying or the hadith is itself shadhdh), such very weak ahadith will not support each other and will remain weak. For example, the well-known hadith, "He who preserves forty ahadith for my 'Ummah will be raised by Allah on the Day of Resurrection among the men of understanding", has been declared to be da'if by most of the traditionists, although it is reported through several routes.



A hadith which fails to reach the status of hasan is da'if. Usually, the weakness is one of discontinuity in the isnad, in which case the hadith could be mursal, mu'allaq, mudallas, munqati' or mu'dal, according to the precise nature of the discontinuity, or one of a reporter having a disparaged character, such as due to his telling lies, excessive mistakes, opposition to the narration of more reliable sources, involvement in innovation, or ambiguity surrounding his person.

The smaller the number and importance of defects, the less severe the weakness. The more the defects in number and severity, the closer the hadith will be to being mawdu' (fabricated).

Some ahadith, according to the variation in the nature of the weakness associated with its reporters, rank at the bottom of the hasan grade or at the top of the da'if grade. Reporters such as 'Abdullah ibn Lahi'ah (a famous judge from Egypt), 'Abdur-Rahman ibn Zayd ibn Aslam, Abu Bakr ibn Abi Maryam al-Himsi, Faraj ibn Fadalah, and Rishdin ibn Sa'd attract such types of varying ranks as they are neither extremely good preservers nor totally abandoned by the traditionists.



Adh-Dhahabi defines mawdu' (fabricated, forged) as the term applied to a hadith, the text of which goes against the established norms of the Prophet's sayings (PBUH), or its reporters include a liar, e.g. the forty ahadith known as wad'aniyyah or the small collection of ahadith which was fabricated and claimed to have been reported by 'Ali ar-Rida, the eighth Imam of the Ithna 'Ashari Shi'ah.

A number of traditionists have collected fabricated ahadith separately in order to distinguish them from other ahadith; among them are Ibn al-Jawzi in al-Mawdu'at, al-Jawzaqani in Kitab al-Abatil, as-Suyuti in al-La'ali al-Masnu'ah fi'l-Ahadith al-Mawdu'ah, and 'Ali al-Qari in al-Mawdu'at.

Some of these ahadith were known to be spurious by the confession of their inventors. For example, Muhammad ibn Sa'id al-Maslub used to say, "It is not wrong to fabricate an isnad for a sound statement." Another notorious inventor, 'Abdul-Karim Abu'l-Awja, who was killed and crucified by Muhammad ibn Sulayman ibn 'Ali, governor of Basrah, admitted that he had fabricated four thousand ahadith declaring lawful the prohibited and vice-versa.

Mawdu' ahadith are also recognised by external evidence related to a discrepancy found in the dates or times of a particular incident. For example, when the second caliph, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab decided to expel the Jews from Khaybar some Jewish dignitaries brought a document to 'Umar apparently proving that the Prophet (PBUH) had intended that they stay there by exempting them from the jizyah (tax on non-Muslims under the rule of Muslims); the document carried the witness of two Companions, Sa'd ibn Mu'adh and Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. 'Umar rejected the document outright, knowing that it was fabricated because the conquest of Khaybar took place in 6H, whereas Sa'd ibn Mu'adh died in 3H just after the Battle of the Trench, and Mu'awiyah embraced Islam in 8H, after the conquest of Makkah.

The author, in his Criticism of Hadith among Muslims with reference to Sunan Ibn Majah, has given more examples of fabricated ahadith under the following eight categories of causes of fabrication:

  1. political differences;
  2. factions based on issues of creed;
  3. fabrications by zanadiqah (enemies within spreading heretical beliefs);
  4. fabrications by storytellers;
  5. fabrications by ignorant ascetics;
  6. prejudice in favour of town, race or a particular imam;
  7. inventions for personal motives;
  8. proverbs turned into ahadith.


Similar to the last category above is the case of Isra'iliyat ("Israelite traditions"), narrations from the Jews and the Christians which were wrongly attributed to the Prophet (PBUH).



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