Presented below is a case study on the reliability of Abu Dawud, and the authenticity of his Sunan. While the subject is obviously Abu Dawud, a greater principle may be derived from the essay: Trust in the major hadith compilers is based upon reason, not arbitrary, blind faith. If Allah so wills, this essay will be followed with more essays, in greater detail.
A common talking point in modern Islamic discourse that constantly comes up when referring to the hadith Critics and Compilers is about their status. Why should we trust them? The short answer is they are reliable! This answer, as sound as it is, doesn’t provide a reasonable justification. In this short essay, I will take Abu Dawud Al-Sijistani, of Sunan fame, as a case study through which we will answer this question.
I will begin by highlighting his status according other hadith critics, establishing his reliability in theory, and then following it up by looking at the question in light of his Sunan.
Abu Dawud in the Eyes of the Hadith Critics
Sulayman b. Al-Ash’ath Al-Sijistani, (b. 202 – d. 275 A.H) was a third century hadith critic, and prolific author. His mention in a time when it would have been easy to be overshadowed by the likes of Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Zur’ah, and others, is indicative of his status in hadith. After all, the era of in which he was born is regarded as the “golden era” of hadith transmission and criticism.
Muhammad b. Makhlad, a contemporary, said about him, “The people of his time affirmed his hifz, and seniority in it” (qtd. In Al-Mizzi 365).
Ibn Hibban said of him:
Abu Dawud is one of the leading authorities (A’immah Al-Dunya) in terms of law, knowledge, memorization, worship, piety, and accuracy. He authored, compiled, and defended the Sunnah (qtd. In Al-Mizzi 365).
Ibn Mandah wrote:
Those who recorded and distinguished the established [reports] from the defective are four: Al-Bukhari and Muslim, and after both of them: Abu Dawud Al-Sijistani, and Abu ‘Abdir-Rahman Al-Nassa’I (qtd. In Al-Mizzi 365).
I will end this section with Al-Hakim’s stated opinion, “Abu Dawud is the leading figure amongst the hadith specialists (Ahl Al-Hadith) during his time period with no competition” (qtd. In Al-Mizzi 366).
Abu Dawud Through his Sunan
Abu Dawud was thought of highly by the hadith Critics, as can be clearly seen from the preceding section. This may be followed by a (valid) question: why was he held in such a regard? The claim of reliability and honesty, is it a mere claim? Or may it be backed up by sound reasoning?
To answer these questions, I surveyed the first chapter of the Sunan: Kitab Al-Taharah which consists of 390 hadith reports. While some results of this study were expected (e.g. accuracy in reproducing hadith from his sources), others were not (e.g. meticulousness in transmission), which changed my image of Abu Dawud.
There are many indications of Abu Dawud’s reliability and honesty, after surveying the chapter, all of which fall under seven main types of indicators.
- General Corroboration and Attestation
To begin with, the first indicator to be looked at is the most obvious: the general corroboration and attestation for the hadith reports in his Sunan. Using two critical editions of the book, one by ‘Easam Musa Hadi (“Al-Sunan”) and the other by Shu’ayb Al-Arna’ut, and his team (“Sunan Abi Dawud”), I followed up all the hadith reports mentioned in Kitab Al-Taharah. Of the 390 hadith reports contained therein, only 12 (3.1%) may be exclusively found in Abu Dawud’s Sunan. These hadith reports are numbered as follows in both editions: #52, 102, 197, 256, 271, 299, 302, 310, 339, 350, 381, and 388. It should be noted that not all of these hadith reports are prophetic hadith, with two being opinions of early authorities in Islamic law (#102, and 350), and two others being opinions of companions (#299, and 302). This is important to consider, as there was less reason to transmit those types of opinions, hence exclusive transmission in such a case would be expected.
This proves that Abu Dawud isn’t simply a forger making up these hadith reports; they actually existed and were being transmitted widely.
- Accuracy in Citing Material.
Abu Dawud cites Al-Humaydi’s transmission of a hadith without an addition:
Al-Humaydi has transmitted this hadith from Ibn ‘Uyaynah but he did not mention, “She leaves prayer in the days of her cycle” (Al-Humaydi 241).
Abu Dawud is correct in his assertion. Al-Humaydi doesn’t transmit the hadith with that addition in his Musnad. It is noteworthy that Al-Humaydi isn’t a “teacher” of Abu Dawud, nor has Abu Dawud ever met him. Since he cites Al-Humaydi’s transmission (accurately), it indicates that Abu Dawud consulted sources in his Sunan’s compilation that he didn’t directly transmit.
In short, this is an example that shows Abu Dawud’s honesty, as he didn’t make up the reference to Al-Humaydi, and his reliability, as his assertion about how Al-Humaydi transmitted it was accurate; in accordance with reality.
- Accuracy in Reproducing Hadith from his Sources
Contrary to the majority of the other hadith writers in his day, Abu Dawud wrote a letter to the people of Makkah serving as an introduction to his Sunan. One of the topics discussed therein is his sources in compiling the Sunan. He says:
And in the book of Al-Sunan, is a good amount [of hadith] from the Muwatta’ of Malik b. Anas, as well as the compilations of Hammad b. Salamah and Abdur-Razzaq. A third of these chapters (i.e. of his Sunan), in my estimation, isn’t found in books of all of them– I mean the compilations of Malik b. Anas, Hammad b. Salamah, and Abdur-Razzaq (Risalah Abi Dawud 26-27).
As Muwatta’ Malik is the earliest of the sources mentioned, I chose his transmission of Muwatta’ Malik in Kitab Al-Taharah to be studied. The 19 places where Abu Dawud transmits from the Muwatta’ are numbered as follows: #12, 75, 79, 83, 118, 140, 181, 187, 207, 221, 238, 274, 283, 301, 341, 351, 361, 374, and 383.
All of these hadith can be found in the most popular edition of Muwatta’ without significant variation – the expected variation that occurs as a natural result of the nature of transmission. The fact that Abu Dawud’s quotes from the sources match up with the source itself goes to show that Abu Dawud is honest in reproducing hadith material from earlier sources, doing so with integrity and accuracy.
- Large Pool of Sources
Abu Dawud draws from a large pool of sources or informants: his direct “teachers” from whom he had acquired hadith. In the chapter I surveyed, he directly transmits from the likes of Musaddad b. Musarhad, Muhammad b. Al-Muthanna, Musa b. Isma’il, Qutaybah b. Ismail, and many others. The pool he draws from, not only are there a number of names in it, but many of the names, like the ones mentioned, were well known during their lifetimes, and had many students. Fictitiously attributing reports to well known authorities with many students who would and could easily expose a person is an unlikely strategy for a forger to take.
- Admission of Uncertainty
We also find Abu Dawud admitting to being more confident in his transmission of a report from a certain teacher, contrary to another.
Muhammad b. Yahya b. Faris told us: ‘Abdullah b. Yazid Al-Muqri’ told us…and Musaddad told us: ‘Easa b. Yunus told us – both saying-: ‘Abdur-Rahman b. Ziyad told us – Abu Dawud Says: I am more proficient in the version of Ibn Yahya -: From Ghutayf – and Muhammad said: from Abi Ghutayf al-Hudhali who said: I was with ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar, and when the call was made for Dhuhr, he performed wudu’ and prayed, and then, when it was called for ‘asr he performed wudu’ [again] so I asked him about it. He said: The Prophet used to say, “Whoever performs wudu’ while in a state of purity, ten good deeds will be recorded for him.” Abu Dawud said: This is the version of Musaddad, and it is more complete (Al-Sunan 67-68)
Several points must be made about this passage from the Sunan. Firstly, Abu Dawud admits to being more proficient in Muhammad b. Yahya’s version of the report. Had Abu Dawud been a forger, what interest would he have in casting doubt on his own transmission? He admits being less proficient in Musaddad’s version, which according to him is more complete. The fact that he admits to this – something less than flattering about one’s transmission – is indicative of Abu Dawud’s honesty. Secondly, he quotes a conflict between Muhammad b. Yahya, and Musaddad about a transmitter’s name, was it Ghutayf as said by Musaddad, or Abu Ghutayf Al-Hudhali as Muhammad b. Yahya said? This in itself is indicative of honesty. The existence of conflict between the transmitters is a place where errors begin, thus if Abu Dawud was a forger, or not entirely honest, he would have hidden the existence of a conflict between the two transmitters on this. Thirdly, this practice also shows precision on the part of Abu Dawud, as he is able to differentiate between the versions of his teachers, and the differences of each one. The meticulousness exhibited here in differentiating between the different versions will be looked into more below. Fourthly, Abu Dawud’s assertion that in Muhammad b. Yahya’s version he named the transmitter “Abu Ghutayf” is accurate. Ibn Majah, in his Sunan also transmits the same hadith from Muhammad b. Yahya and affirms the transmitter’s name as Abi Ghutayf Al-Hudhali (Al-Qazwini 170). This further shows Abu Dawud’s reliability and honesty in transmission.
- Meticulousness in Transmission
As mentioned in the previous point, Abu Dawud exhibits a meticulousness and precision in transmission second only to Muslim b. Al-Hajjaj (d. 261 A.H.) in his Sahih.
Ahmed b. ‘Amr b. Al-Sarh and Ibn ‘Abdah told us – among others, and this is the wording of Ibn ‘Abdah-: Sufyan informed us… (Al-Sunan 139)
In this example, Abu Dawud informed the readers that there are different versions of the report, and the version he selected the wording of Ibn ‘Abdah.
Mujahid b. Musa and ‘Abbas b. Abdil-‘Athim – in meaning – told us -both saying-: ‘Abdur-Rahman b. Mahdi told us: Yahya b. Al-Walid told me…’Abbas said: Yahya b. Al-Walid told us (instead of “told me.”) (Al-Sunan 138)
In this example Abu Dawud informs the readers that he is paraphrasing the version of a transmitter and points out a variation in the way each transmitter denoted how ‘Abdur-Rahman b. Mahdi received the hadith report from Yahya b. Al-Walid.
Abu Dawud said: “The hadith of Muhammad b. Salamah is more complete, and Hammad didn’t mention the words of Abu Hurayrah” (Al-Sunan 133)
In this example Abu Dawud points that one version is more complete than another, and that Abu Hurayrah’s words were not mentioned in one of them.
Abu Dawud: Except Bukayr didn’t mention ‘Abdur-Rahman [in the chain], and said about the perfume, “Even if it is from perfume of women” (Al-Sunan 133).
Abu Dawud points out that Bukayr left out a transmitter – ‘Abdur-Rahman – from the chain and transmitted an addition in the text.
These examples are a display of Abu Dawud’s efforts in honestly, and accurately the hadith texts as he acquired them from his sources.
- Other Textual Inferences
There other textual inferences once can make that show Abu Dawud’s honesty, reliability, and even impartiality in his transmission of hadith, and its inclusion in his Sunan. I will only mention one example, otherwise, there are many examples that are suitable of mention.
‘Uthman b. Abi Shaybah told us: from Waki’, from Sufyan Al-Thawri, from Abi Qays Al-Awdi, from Huzayl b. Shurahbil, from Al-Mughirah b. Shu’bah, that the Prophet performed Wudu’, and wiped over his socks and shoes. Abu Dawud said: Abdur-Rahman b. Mahdi used not to transmit this hadith, as what is well known from Al-Mughirah that the Prophet used to wipe over the khuf. Abu Dawud said: and it is transmitted from Abi Musa Al-Ash’ari, and it is neither connected, nor strong. Abu Dawud said: And ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Abu Mas’ud, Al-Bara’ b. ‘Azib, Anas b. Malik, Abu Umamah, Sahl b. Sa’d and ‘Amr b. Hurayth wiped on socks. It is also transmitted from ‘Umar b. Al-Khattab, and Ibn ‘Abbas (Al-Sunan 88-89).
There are several points worthy of being noted from this text. Firstly, Abu Dawud seems to regard the hadith of the chapter as being weak. This can be seen from him quoting ‘Abdur-Rahman b. Mahdi’s criticism of the hadith, without commenting on it. Secondly, it also seems that Abu Dawud has no contention with the content of the hadith from a legal perspective. This can be seen from his citing precedence for the practice (wiping over socks) from a number of companions, without commenting on it. Thus, it may be concluded that Abu Dawud didn’t let his personal opinion on the legal implications of the hadith effect his overall ruling on the hadith’s authenticity, or lack thereof, hence it indicating his impartiality.
After surveying Kitab Al-Taharah from Abu Dawud’s Sunan, Abu Dawud’s reliability, honesty and integrity becomes quite clear. Not all of these indicators are the same. Some indicate that forgery as highly unlikely, others clearly indicate honesty and reliability, while others indicate either one of them.
Besides showing Abu Dawud’s status himself, a worthy cause in itself, the hope was to highlight a greater principle: Abu Dawud’s status, and the statuses of other hadith Critics and writers is not arbitrary, but founded in reason, and based on facts; the realities of their status in hadith transmission.
Al-Humaydi, Abu Bakr Abdullah b. Al-Zubayr. Musnad Al-Humaydi. Edited by Husayn Salim Asad, Vol. 1, Damascus, Dar Al-Saqa, 1996.
Al-Mizzi, Jamal Al-Din Yusuf. Tahdhib Al-Kamal Fi Asma’ Al-Rijal. Edited Bashar ‘Awwad Ma’ruf, Vol. 11, Beirut, Mu’assasah Al-Risalah, 1980.
Al-Sijistani, Abu Dawud Sulayman b. Al-Ash’ath. Al-Sunan. Edited by ‘Easam Musa Hadi, Al-Jubail, Dar Al-Siddiq, 2013.
—. Sunan Abi Dawud. Edited by Shu’ayb Al-Arna’ut et al, Vol. 1, Damascus, Dar Al-Risalah Al-‘Aalamiyyah, 2009.
—. Risalah Abi Dawud ila Ahl Makkah fi Wasf Sunanih. 4th ed., Beirut, Al-Maktab Al-Islami, 1405.
Al-Qazwini, Muhammad b. Yazid b. Majah. Sunan Ibn Majah. Edited Muhammad Fu’ad Abdul-Baqi, Vol. 1, Dar Ihya’ Al-Kutub Al-‘Arabiyyah.
 This point was inspired by my good friend Farid.