A concern that regularly surfaces amidst discussions on the reliability of early Islamic primary sources is whether the authorship of those sources was under direct influence of governments and political authorities of the time. Such appeals put the integrity of those sources into question: how can we rely on sources that were prone to influence by a multitude of external factors that may have compromised the integrity and sanctity of their contents?
Such concerns, in my opinion, are understandable. The next step, however, would be to evaluate this claim and directly assess Islamic primary sources for indicators that may give us further insight on this matter. If the early hadith collections were authored under direct supervision and influence of past governments, then one would expect to observe certain trends along with a variety of indicators and phenomena in these texts, such as:
- The abundance of “pro-government” reports that promote the interests of governments that existed when these primary sources were authored.
- A lack/scarcity of “anti-government” reports that conflict with the interests of those governments.
- Strong ties between the authors of hadith collections and their respective government authorities.
- The wide-scale (and arbitrary) authentication of “pro-government” reports by early hadith authorities.
The absence of these phenomena in the classical hadith corpus perhaps may be sufficient of a reason to reevaluate the merit behind the claims presented above. In fact, the existence of antithetical phenomena in these sources may even serve to dispel this entire narrative regarding the hadith corpus.
The Abundance of “Anti-Government” Reports in the Hadith Collections
It is not in the interest of governments to disperse and circulate reports that conflict with their interests. Such “anti-government” reports span reports that may potentially undermine the governments’ authority, legitimacy or influence. Thus, the abundance of such reports in early Islamic sources would serve as an indicator that that the authorship of these sources was not under direct influence of political authorities of the time.
A careful analysis of the various early hadith collections will present a vast array of reports that could be labeled as “anti-government” reports. These reports vary in nature: some are directed at Muslim rulers, holding them to a higher standard and emphasizing on their accountability. Other reports are directed at the Muslim public, encouraging them to shun corrupt leaders and to disobey political authorities that command them to do things that displease Allah. Such reports also often emphasize openly enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil.
Tareq b. Shihab reported that a man once asked the Messenger of Allah ﷺ: “What is the best jihad?”
The Prophet replied: “A word of truth uttered in front of a tyrannous ruler.”
(Ibn Hanbal, Musnad Ahmed 126)
Ka’b b. ‘Ajrah said: The Messenger of Allah once came to us, and we were a group of nine: 5 and 4. One of those numbers consisted of Arabs, and the other one consisted of non-Arabs. The Messenger of Allah then said: “Listen. Have you heard that there shall be rulers after me? Whoever enters upon them and believes them in their falsehood and assists them in their tyranny, then he is not from me and I am not from him; and he shall not approach me at the pond [of Al-Kawthar]. Whoever does not enter upon them, does not assist them in their tyranny, and does not believe them in their falsehood, then he is from me and I am from him; and he shall approach me at the pond [of Al-Kawthar.]”
After transmitting this report, Al-Tirmidhi comments saying: “This hadith is Sahih Gharib…”
Tareq b. Shihab said: The first man to carry out the Khutbah before the Salah on Eid was [the governor] Marwan b. Al-Hakam. Thus, a man stood up and told him: “You have went against the Sunnah!”
Marwan responded saying: “It has already been left.”
Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri thus said: “Regarding this man [who stood up], he has fulfilled his duty. I heard the Messenger of Allah say: ‘Whoever sees an act of evil, then let him change it with his hand. If he cannot do so, then with his tongue; and if he cannot do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest of Eman.’ “
Al-Hasan Al-Basri said: “We visited Ma’qal b. Yasar [when he was ill]. Then, ‘Ubaydullah b. Ziyad (the governor of Basrah) entered upon us, and Ma’qal told him: “I shall tell you of a hadith I heard from the Messenger of Allah. He said: ‘There is not a ruler who assumes leadership over Muslim subjects and dies while he is deceiving them, except that Allah shall make Jannah forbidden for him.”
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
“Every one of you is a guardian and every one of you shall be asked about his duties. A governor is a guardian, and he shall be asked about his subjects. A man is a guardian of his family, and he shall be asked about it. A wife is a guardian of her husband’s house, and she shall be asked about it. A slave is a guardian of his master’s property, and he shall be asked about it. Indeed, all of you are guardians and you shall all be asked about your duties.”
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “It is obligatory upon the Muslim to obey and listen to [the ruler] in what he likes and dislikes, so as long as he is not commanded to commit a sin. If he is commanded to commit a sin, then he needs not obey or listen [to the ruler.]
(Ibn Abi Shaybah 543)
The Criticism of “Pro-Government” Reports
Another notable phenomenon in the hadith corpus is the criticism of “pro-government” reports by the early hadith critics. Had the Muhaddithin been part of a greater conspiracy to fabricate and circulate hadiths that promoted their respective governments’ interests, then one would not expect to see the hadith critics criticizing and weakening such reports in their works, as that would be counterintuitive. Rather, we would expect to see them arbitrarily authenticating these accounts, since they bolstered government interests.
In the books of hadith, however, we find the Muhaddithin and hadith critics weakening and criticizing such reports on many occasions.
In ‘Ilal Al-Hadith, Ibn Abi Hatem said:
I asked my father about a hadith transmitted by Khaled b. Khidash, from Abu ‘Awn b. Abi Rukbah, from Ghaylan b. Jarir, from Anas that the Messenger of Allah said:
“The Sultan is the shade of Allah on His land.”
Abu Hatem commented saying: “This hadith is munkar (disapproved), for Ibn Abi Rukbah is unknown.”
(Ibn Abi Hatem, ‘Ilal Al-Hadith 538)
On another occasion, Ibn Abi Hatem also said:
I asked my father about a hadith transmitted from Abu Samir, from ‘Abdulmalik b. ‘Umayr, from Al-Rabi’ b. ‘Umaylah, from ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
“You shall be ruled by rulers who shall cause corruption, but the good that Allah conduct through them is greater [than their corruption.] Thus, whoever of them does good, then they shall have their reward and you must be thankful. Whoever of them does otherwise, then the sin is upon them, and you must be patient.”
Abu Hatem responds saying: “This hadith is munkar (disapproved), and Abu Samir is abandoned [in hadith.]”
(Ibn Abi Hatem, ‘Ilal Al-Hadith 554)
In Al-Muntakhab min ‘Ilal Al-Khallal, Al-Khallal is quoted quoting Muhanna b. Yahya saying:
I asked Yahya [b. Ma’in] about Habib b. Khaled Al-Tahhan.
He said: “I have met him and heard hadith from him, and he is a Kufan who has a hadith we heard from him.”
I asked: “How is he?”
Yahya responded: “I was informed that he transmitted a disapproved (munkar) hadith from Al-A’mash. He transmitted it from Al-A’mash, from Zayd b. Wahab, from Hudhayfah that he said: ‘It is not from the Sunnah to bear arms against the Sultan.’
This hadith is not known as a report from Al-A’mash; rather, it is from the transmission of Sufyan, from Habib b. Abi Thabet, from Abu Al-Bakhtari, from Hudhayfah.”
Muhanna said: I asked Ahmed [b. Hanbal] and Yahya [b. Ma’in]: “Did Abu Al-Bakhtari ever hear from Hudhayfah?”
They said: “No.”
Then I asked: “Did Zayd b. Wahab hear from Hudhayfah?”
They said: “Yes.”(Ibn Qudamah 171)
In the example above, Muhanna b. Yaha quotes Yahya b. Ma’in declaring a redaction of the report, “It is not from the Sunnah to bear arms against the Sultan”, to be munkar (disapproved). Yahya then proceeds to list the correct rendition of the report, which he (and Ahmed) proceed to weaken due to a disconnection in its chain of transmission.
When addressing the report where the Prophet is quoted saying: “Listen to and obey [the ruler], even if he strikes your back and usurps your wealth”, Al-Daraqutni said:
Muslim transmitted the hadith of Mu’awiyah b. Sallam, from Abu Sallam, who said: Hudhayfah said: “We were in a state of evil, then Allah brought to us good…..”
Al-Daraqutni then said: “In my opinion, this hadith is mursal (disconnected), for Abu Sallam did not hear from Hudhayfah nor did he hear from any of his contemporaries who settled in Iraq. That is because Hudhayfah died a few nights after the murder of ‘Uthman….”
In these few examples (among many), we see some of the most notable hadith critics criticizing reports that are directly in-line with government interests. Such reports may have otherwise been employed by rulers and government authorities to promote those interests. The fact that these hadiths were criticized and even dismissed by the early hadith critics is indicative that these muhaddithin were not motivated by a supposed “pro-government” bias when grading reports.
Hadithists’ Relationships with Government Authorities
When evaluating the claim that the compilation of the hadith corpus was under direct influence of past government authorities, one must take into account the relationship the muhaddithin had with their respective governments. Had the authors of the hadith collections been part of a greater government conspiracy to fabricate and circulate reports that promoted government interests, we would thus expect to observe a very strong relationship between the hadithists and their governments.
The reality of the matter, however, is that major transmitters and compilers of hadith often varied in their political/theological leanings. This variation manifests in the diversity of sources from which the Sunni hadith corpus draws its material. Consequently, the hadithists were not a monolith with respect to their relationship with government authorities.
In his PhD thesis, Al-Muhaddithun wal-Siyasah, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Ajlan divides hadithists into 5 broad categories with respect to their relationship with government authorities:
- Transmitters who openly interacted and cooperated with government authorities to ensure public interests. (Al-Ajlan 48)
- Transmitters who avoided any form of interaction or association with government authorities and institutions. (Al-Ajlan 59)
- Transmitters who criticized and advised government officials.(Al-Ajlan 65)
- Transmitters who rejected gifts and appointments to official posts from government officials. (Al-Ajlan 87)
- Transmitters who participated in armed revolts against authorities. (Al-Ajlan 96)
In each of the categories, Dr. Al-Ajlan lists many eminent and prolific transmitters of hadith. To demonstrate this point, I shall list some of the names Al-Ajlan included in the last category, which spans transmitters who participated in armed revolts against authorities. Under this category, he lists a plethora known figures, such as: Sa’id b. Jubayr, ‘Amer Al-Sha’bi, ‘Abdurrahman b. Abi Layla, Jaber b. Zaid, ‘Abdulaziz Al-Darawardi, Muhammad b. ‘Amr b. ‘Alqamah, Muhammad b. ‘Ajlan, Yazid b. Harun, Abu Khaled Al-Ahmar etc.
These different categories serve to demonstrate the fact that such blanket generalizations made against the hadith corpus are not accurate nor representative of reality. Rather, many of the most eminent hadithists and compilers of hadith across history were in direct clash with their respective governments. Notable prolific compilers of hadith, such as Malik b. Anas, Sufyan al-Thawri, Ahmed b. Hanbal and others, were even persecuted by their governments at various points in history.
The Criticism of Transmitters Who Were Involved in Government Affairs
Another noteworthy phenomenon that must be studied when evaluating the relationship the muhaddithin had with their respective governments is the hadithists’ perception of transmitters who were directly involved in government affairs. In Muslim biographical sources, one observes several examples of notable hadith critics criticizing certain transmitters for being involved with “the Sultan” and other government institutions. The fact that associating oneself with a benign government institution was enough for a transmitter to be criticized by some hadith critics may perhaps give insight regarding the relationship the muhaddithin had with government authorities in their time.
Yahya b. Ma’in said:
“Al-Mansur’s transmission from Ibrahim, from Al-Aswad, from ‘A’isha is more preferable to me than Hisham b. ‘Urwah’s transmission from his father, from ‘Aisha.
Yahya was then asked: “What about Al-Zuhri’s transmission from ‘Urwah from ‘Aisha?”
He responded: “They are the same, but Mansur is more preferable to me because Al-Zuhri was a Sultani (intertwined with authorities) .”
(Ibn Al-Junaid 355)
‘Abdullah b. Ahmed said:
“I asked my father about Khaled Al-Tahhan and Hushaym; which one of them is better?”
Ahmed said: “Khaled is more preferred to us, for he was not involved in any of the affairs of the Sultan.”
(Ibn Hanbal, Al-‘Ilal wa Ma’rifat Al-Rijal 434)
Dr. Ibrahim Al-‘Ajlan, in his thesis, lists other examples I had not encountered (Al-Ajlan 260):
Yahya b. Sa’id said: “Muhammad b. Sirin used to not approve of Humayd b. Hilal”
Ibn Abi Hatem then said: I mentioned this to my father, and he said: “He was involved in the affairs of the Sultan, and that is why he did not approve of him; and he was reliable in hadith.”
(Ibn Abi Hatem, Al-Jarh wal-Ta’dil 230)
Abu ‘Arubah described Ibn Al-Banna’ saying: “He is not trustworthy in and of himself.”
Ibn ‘Adiyy then comments saying: Regarding Abu ‘Arubah’s statement, “He is not trustworthy in and of himself”, he [Ibn Al-Banna’] initially carried out some affairs of the Sultan, such as the docks and other affairs. Abu ‘Arubah merely referred to his involvement with the Sultan.”
(Ibn ‘Adiyy 570)
These examples serve to demonstrate the fact that some of the most prominent hadithists and hadith critics were not fond of transmitters who cooperated and regularly interacted with government institutions.
There are a plethora of other general statement from many renowned hadithists where they further express their sentiments regarding the cooperation and interaction with government authorities; however, these examples shall suffice to exemplify this phenomenon. Had the hadithists, quoted above, been part of a greater government conspiracy to fabricate and circulate reports that promoted government interests, then their statements would be rendered pointless and even counter-intuitive.
When evaluating the claim that the authorship of extant Islamic primary sources was under direct influence of government authorities of the time, we find that the data contradicts these conspiratorial claims. The numerous indicators cited in this paper (along with many others) cumulatively dispel this inaccurate narrative that misconstrues the integrity of early Islamic primary sources. Rather, it is evident that many of the most notable hadithists operated independently of government authorities across their works.
Al-Ajlan, Ibrahim bin Salih. Al-Muhaddithun Wal-Siyasah. 1st ed., vol. 1 1, Risalat Al-Bayan, 2017.
Al-Bazzar, Ahmed b. ‘Amr. Musnad Al-Bazzar. Edited by Adel Saad, 1st ed., vol. 12 18, Maktabat Al-Ulum Wal-Hikmah, 2009.
Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma’il. Sahih Al-Bukhari. Edited by Muhammad Zuhayr Al-Naser, 1st ed., vol. 9 9, Dar Tawq Al-Najah, 2001.
Al-Daraqutni, Ali b. ‘Umar. Al-Ilzamat Wal-Tatabbu’. Edited by Muqbil bin Hadi Al-Wadi’i, 2nd ed., vol. 1 1, Dar Al-Kotob Al-Ilmiyah, 1985.
Al-San’ani, ‘Abdurrazzaq. Al-Musannaf. Edited by Habib Al-Rahman Al-Azmi, 2nd ed., vol. 3 11, Al-Maktab Al-Islami, Beirut, 1983.
Al-Tirmidhi, Muhammad b. ‘Isa. Al-Jami’ Al-Kabir. Edited by Bashar Awwad Marouf, vol. 4, Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami, 1998.
Ibn Abi Hatem, ‘Abdurrahman. Al-Jarh Wal-Ta’dil. 1st ed., vol. 3 9, Dar Ihyaa’ Al-Turath Al-‘Arabi, 1952.
—. ‘Ilal Al-Hadith. Edited by Saad Al-Humayyid and Khalid Al-Juraysi, 1st ed., vol. 6 7, Matabi’ Al-Homaidhi, 2006.
Ibn Abi Shaybah, ‘Abdullah. Al-Musannaf Fi Al-Ahadith Wal-Athar. Edited by Kamal Al-Hoot, 1st ed., vol. 6 7, Maktabat Al-Rushd, 1988.
Ibn ‘Adiyy, ‘Abdullah. Al-Kamil Fi Du’afaa’ Al-Rijaal. Edited by Adel Abdulmawjood and Ali Mawadh, 1st ed., vol. 7 9, Al-Kotob Al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1997.
Ibn Al-Junayd, Ibrahim. Su’alat Ibn Al-Junayd Li-Abi Zakariyya, Yaha b. Ma’in. Edited by Ahmed Saif, 1st ed., vol. 1 1, Maktabat Al-Dar, Medina, 1988.
Ibn Hanbal, Ahmed. Musnad Ahmed. Edited by Shuayb Al-Arnaout and Adel Murshid, 1st ed., vol. 31 45, Muassasat Al-Resalah, 2001.
—. Al-‘Ilal Wa Ma’rifat Al-Rijal, Riwayat ‘Abdullah. Edited by Wasiullah Abbas, 2nd ed., vol. 1 3, Dar Al-Khani, 2001.
Ibn Qudamah, ‘Abdullah. Al-Muntakhab Min ‘Ilal Al-Khallal. Edited by Tareq Awadallah, 1st ed., vol. 1 1, Dar Al-Rayah, 1998.