Hadith: A Historical Case

The debate regarding the reliability of the Hadith Method is a popular debate of many grave implications today. In contemporary Islamic discourse, it is common to observe the absolute/partial rejection of hadith. Some Muslims, for various reasons, end up dismissing the content of numerous authentic reports, implicitly dismissing the methodology behind the verification of those reports. A careful observation of such approaches will show that they mostly do not stem from a coherent standard that is devised to objectively scrutinize reports. Rather, many of these dismissals are simply biased rejections of reports due to their  “contradiction” with the said individual’s perception of key historical events or figures.

The problems that arise from such a defective approach to history are many, and perhaps they can be addressed in another context; however, many of these defective approaches to Islamic history stem from a lack of understanding of the methodology behind the verification of hadiths and historical reports employed by Muslim scholarship.

A simple analysis of the Hadith Method, even according to “non-Islamic standards”, is enough to display the objectivity and validity of the rigorous standard set by the hadith critics of the 1st – 4th centuries AH. In this paper, the Islamic Hadith Method will be evaluated in light of some protocols within the Western Historical Method.

Background

Textual criticism of reports attributed to the Prophet ﷺ goes all the way back to the 1st century AH. Evidence from that period suggests that the criticism of reports along with their transmitters was common practice among the hadith critics. For example, the renowned tabi’i, Ibn Sirin (d.110 AH), said :

They [the muhaddithin] used to not ask about the isnad [when transmitting reports]; however, once the fitnah occurred, they would demand: “list your transmitters.” [1]

Thus, it is evident that due to certain events that occurred within the 1st century AH, early transmitters of hadith deemed it necessary to question and ascertain the reliability of reports that were attributed to the Prophet ﷺ.

Another great example is what the notable muhaddith and hadith critic, al-Tirmidhi (d. 279 AH) , said in his book, al-‘Ilal al-Saghir :

Some uninformed individuals have disapproved of the hadith critics’ criticism of transmitters. However, we have found that several scholars from among the tabi’in had criticized the transmitters of hadith, such as al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 AH) and Tawus (d. 106 AH) , who both criticized Ma’bad al-Juhani. Sa’d b. Jubair (d. 95 AH) criticized Talq b. Habib. Ibrahim al-Nakha’i (d. 96 AH) and ‘Aamir Al-Sha’bi (d. ~100 AH) both criticized al-Harith al-A’war. Similar endeavors are reported through Ayyub al-Sikhtiyani (d. 131 AH), ‘Abdullah b. ‘Awn (d. 151 AH), Sulayman al-Taymi (d. 143 AH), Sho’ba b. al-Hajjaj (d. 160 AH) , Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161 AH) , Malik b. Anas (d. 179 AH), al-Awza’i (d. 157 AH), ‘Abdullah b. al-Mubarak (d. 181 AH)  Yahya b. Sa’id al-Qattan (d. 198 AH), Waki’ b. al-Jarrah (d. 197 AH) , Abdurrahman b. Mahdi (d. 198 AH), and many others from the people of  knowledge who had weakened and criticized transmitters. [2]

Thus, it is evident that Islamic scrutiny of hadith is a rich tradition inherited from the earliest centuries of Islamic scholarship and one the earliest forms of textual criticism to be implemented on historical reports and traditions. These critics seemed to think that there was a crucial need to scrutinize and evaluate the authenticity of reports attributed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Eventually, a universal standard was set by the hadith critics, and many books were authored in clarification of their objective methodology.

Overview

The discussion in this paper primarily revolves around the standard used to determine hadiths as sahih (authentic). Ibn al-Salah in his famous primer, Ma’rifat Anwaa ’Ulum al-Hadith, lists the criteria of an authentic hadith saying:

It is the hadith which:

  1. Has a connected chain of transmission
  2. Is transmitted through reliable and trustworthy transmitters
  3. Is not contradictory to what other reliable transmitters have reported regarding the same account
  4. Does not span any ‘illahs (hidden defects) [3]

Not only did the early hadith critics scrutinize the chains of transmission of hadiths and historical reports, as many contemporary skeptics claim; rather, they also carefully evaluated the content of those reports.

It is apparent that such a definition certainly does entail a high degree of objectivity when analyzing historical reports. An example of a contemporary method that is analogous to the Hadith Method in several aspects is the protocol devised by Gilbert Garraghan in his book, “A Guide to Historical Method”.

 In his book, he lists several conditions that must be satisfied before an oral tradition is deemed reliable. Garraghan lists 2 broad conditions and 6 particular conditions :

Broad conditions stated:

  1. The tradition should be supported by an unbroken series of witnesses, reaching from the immediate and first reporter of the fact to the living mediate witness from whom we take it up, or to the one who was the first to commit it to writing.
  2. There should be several parallel and independent series of witnesses testifying to the fact in question.

Particular conditions stated:

  1. The tradition must report a public event of importance, such as would necessarily be known directly to a great number of persons.
  2. The tradition must have been generally believed, at least for a definite period of time.
  3. During that definite period it must have gone without protest, even from persons interested in denying it.
  4. The tradition must be one of relatively limited duration.
  5. The critical spirit must have been sufficiently developed while the tradition lasted, and the necessary means of critical investigation must have been at hand.
  6. Critical-minded persons who would surely have challenged the tradition – had they considered it false – must have made no such challenge. [4]

Analysis

A simple comparison of these 2 methodologies shows that there is significant (if not absolute) overlap between both approaches:

  1. Ibn al-Salah’s first condition is identical to Garraghan’s first broad condition.
  2. Ibn al-Salah’s second condition is analogous to Garraghan’s second broad condition, since trustworthy and reliable transmitters are only identified through regular corroborations of their reports.
  3. Ibn al-Salah’s third and fourth condition satisfies Garraghan’s third and sixth particular condition.
  4. Garraghan’s fifth particular condition is obviously satisfied, as shown earlier in al-Tirmidhi’s quote.

The rest of Garraghan’s particular conditions are indicators (qara’in) employed by the hadith critics when evaluating reports:

  1. Garraghan’s first particular condition is an indicator hadith critics take into account when analyzing reports. If the report pertains to a wide-spread public event yet is exclusively transmitted, the critics may question the reliability of this transmission depending on the reliability and status of the transmitter involved.  The notable hadith critic, al-Jawzajani, precisely does this in his analysis of a specific report in his book, Ahwal al-Rijaal. [5]
  2. Garraghan’s fourth particular condition is analogous to the concept of ‘uluww/nuzul. Ibn Al-Salah stated that ‘uluww is sought in the transmission of hadith such that the transmitter is closer to the Prophet ﷺ in time. Similarly, the longer the chain of transmission is, the more naazil it becomes; thus, the weaker it is. This is due to the fact that shorter chains of transmissions entail that there are less transmitters between the initial eyewitness and the primary source where the report is documented. The smaller number of transmitters ensures that there is less of a possibility that an error is made during the transmission of the report. However, as the amount of transmitters increases, the occurrence of an error in transmission increases as well. Thus, the Muhaddithin always sought shorter chains of transmission when possible, as stated by Ibn al-Salah.

The different criteria placed by the early hadith critics have resulted in an objectively reliable, sophisticated and fairly accurate methodology for the analysis of historical reports. The principles this methodology is based on certainly are not arbitrary nor are they theologically-biased. The appeal to Garraghan’s protocol is not to substantiate the validity of the Hadith Method; rather, it is to demonstrate the corroboration of hadith principles in other protocols devised to scrutinize the reliability of historical reports.

The historical arguments that substantiate the validity of the Hadith Method are many, and they all point to the vigorous and shockingly accurate preservation of the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ  due to the meticulous efforts of the notable muhaddithin and hadith critics across the centuries.

 

[1] Sahih Muslim 1/15

[2] Al-‘Ilal al-Saghir 738

[3] Ma’rifat Anwaa’ ‘Ulum al-Hadith p. 79

[4] A Guide to Historical Method p. 261-262

[5] Ahwal al-Rijal p. 36

 

 

 

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