As transmitters of hadith are categorized on the basis of reliability with respect to their retention and recollection of reports, many contemporary skeptics of hadith find themselves questioning the utility of such a categorization. These contemporary concerns give rise to a plethora of questions: Are “reliable” transmitters infallible? How can one ensure that “reliable” transmitters had not erred in their transmission of apparently authentic traditions? On that basis, why should one believe that allegedly authentic reports were truly uttered by the Prophet? If the hadithist framework cannot properly address the aforementioned questions and concerns, then that would be of serious implications on the veracity of the discipline as a whole.
These concerns, in reality, are totally valid and understandable concerns. Nevertheless, if we can demonstrate that the early muhaddithin had posed and addressed those very same questions as they laid out the hadithist framework, then we can be assured that this contemporary objection to hadith simply stems from ignorance in the methods and ways of the early hadithists and hadith critics. Ideally, one would expect to observe the muhaddithin addressing this matter in theory and application throughout their works.
A careful survey of hadithist literature demonstrates that the earliest muhaddithun recognized that the reliability and retention of a transmitter was a dynamic quality that was prone to influence by a variety of relevant internal and external factors. Thus, they acknowledged that their verdicts pertaining to the reliability of a transmitter did not necessarily entail a wholesale acceptance or rejection of his/her reports. In his renowned treatise, al-Tamyiz, Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (d. 261) addresses a questioner saying:
“And among those whom I had mentioned to you their ranks and levels in memorization, there is not a single transmitter of a report or carrier of a tradition from the early predecessors except that error and forgetfulness are a possibility in his transmission…” (Ibn Al-Hajjaj 170)
The fourth century hadithist, Ibn Hibban (d. 354) further elaborates on this phenomenon in Kitab al-Thiqat, where he said:
“An individual does not deserve abandonment [in hadith] for minute errors and rare delusions in his transmission until they become a foul habit of his. That is because error is inseparable from humans. Had we espoused this approach, then we would have been obliged to abandon the transmission of a plethora of reliable transmitters who were imams. That is because they were not inerrant. Rather, the correct approach is to abandon transmitters whose errors in transmission were habitual and to rely upon transmitters whose errors were of the type that is inseparable from humans.” (Ibn Hibban 278).
Thus, it is clear from the aforementioned statements that the hadith critics recognized that even the most reliable of transmitters had erred in their transmission of hadith. Many other statements from other figures similarly reiterate this theme. Such statements demonstrate that the hadith method has (at least theoretically) posed and addressed the concerns cited in the introduction of this article. Do these theoretical statements, however, translate to an applicatory paradigm in early hadithist literature? That is another important question to be answered.
A careful survey of hadithist literature will similarly demonstrate that early muhaddithun took this reality into account as they graded the authenticity of hadiths and the reliability transmitters. From their works, it is apparent that they acknowledged that the retention and recollection of all transmitters were often altered and influenced by a variety of internal and external factors, such as (1) traumatic experiences, (2) disease/sickness, (3) changes in circumstances, and (4) age etc. That is, of course, including minute every day errors that are to be expected of any human.
Below, I shall list a few examples to demonstrate how the aforementioned theoretical statements manifested in the application of the hadith method by the muhaddithun:
Abu Hatem al-Razi (d. 277) described Abu Bakr b. Abi Maryam saying: “He is weak. Bandits intercepted him and robbed his belongings, and his retention thus mixed up.” (Al-Razi 2:405)
The early critics recognized that the memory and retention of transmitters was prone to influence by a transmitter’s physical health. Many examples can be found demonstrating this phenomenon.
Al-‘Ijli (d. 261) described Yahya b. Yaman saying:
“He was among the senior companions of Sufyan al-Thawri, and he was reliable and acceptable in hadith, a worshipper known for [his transmission] of hadith], and a truthful transmitter. However, he later suffered from a stroke, so his memorization changed….” (Al-‘Ijli 360)
Ibn Hajar described the renowned muhaddith and compiler of hadith, ‘Abdurrazzaq al-San’ani, saying: “A reliable hafiz and renowned compiler. He became blind near the end of his life, and his retention changed…” (Ibn Hajar 354)
Changes in Circumstances
The early critics noted that the retention and memory of reliable transmitters often changed as they traveled or pursued similar endeavors. That is because travel often limited a transmitter’s access to his notes, which often resulted in an increase in the incidence of errors in his transmission in certain regions/cities. Similarly, some transmitters, when traveling, were not as meticulous when acquiring traditions as they were in their homelands. The muhaddithin thus carefully noted such changes and developments in a transmitter’s transmission.
Al-Marrudhi (d. 275) said:
I asked him [Ahmed b. Hanbal] about about Isma’il b. ‘Ayyash, and he praised his transmission from the Shamis. He said: “Among them, he is more reliable than when he transmits from the Medinites and others.” (Al-Marrudhi 104)
Abu ‘Amr b. Abi Ja’far said:
I once asked Ibn ‘Uqdah [d. 332]: “Who is more knowledgeable: Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Bukhari or Muslim b. al-Hajjaj al-Naysuburi?” He said: “Muhammad was a scholar and Muslim was scholar.”
I repeated the question multiple times, and he responded with the same answer. He then said: “O Abu ‘Amr, Muhammad b. Isma’il may err in his transmission from the people of Al-Sham. That is because he acquired their books and then read through them. Thus, he often may refer to a man by his kunya in one spot and refer to him by his real name in another, and he would be deluded into thinking that they were two different people. Muslim, on the other hand, rarely erred in ‘’Ilal. That is because he transcribed the connected reports and he did not transcribe the mursal and disconnected reports. (Al-Naysaburi 1/34)
This is perhaps one of the most common factors that affected and altered the retention of many reliable transmitters. Nevertheless, the hadithists meticulously outlined such instances in their works.
Ibn al-Madini described Salih, the mawla of al-Taw’amah, saying:
“He was decent and reliable. However, he became senile and of old age. Some transmitters heard hadith from him while he was old and senile, and their transmission from him was thus inauthentic. Sufyan al-Thawri heard hadith from him after his senility, and Ibn Abi Dhi’b heard from him before his senility.” (Ibn Abi Shaybah 86)
‘Abdullah b. Ahmed said: My father said:
“Whoever acquired hadith from Sa’id b. Abi ‘Urubah prior to the defeat*, then his transmission is valid; and whoever acquired hadith from him after the defeat” my father used to weaken them
I asked my father: “Did Sa’id mix up in his memory?” He said: “Yes. Whoever acquired hadith from him in Kufa, such as Muhammad b. Bishr and ‘Abdah, then their transmission is sound, for Sa’id had visited Kufa twice prior to the defeat.” (Ibn Hanbal 1:484)
*The defeat refers to the defeat of Ibrahim b. ‘Abdillah b. al-Hasan following his revolt against Abbasid authorities. The event was correlated with Sa’id’s change in memory as he became of age.
The hadithists can be observed criticizing individual reports of a variety of reliable and revered transmitters.
‘Abdullah b. Ahmed said: I heard my father (d. 241) say:
“I was once with ‘Ali b. al-Madini, so we listed the most reliable transmitters to transmit from al-Zuhri.
He said: ‘Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah.’
I said: ‘Malik b. Anas has less errors from al-Zuhri, and Ibn ‘Uyaynah erred in around 20 hadiths from al-Zuhri, in this hadith and that hadith’, and I proceeded to list 18 hadiths.
I then told him: ‘Present to me Malik’s errors,’ so he came with two or three hadiths. I then reevaluated Ibn ‘Uyaynah’s errors, and I realized that they were more than twenty hadiths. (Ibn Hanbal 2:349)
Ibn Abi Hatem said:
Abu Zur’ah [d. 264] was once asked about a hadith transmitted by Abu Bishr Ja’far b. Abi Wahshiyyah, and the transmission from him differed.
Al-A’mash transmitted it from Ja’far b. Iyas (Ibn Abi Wahshiyyah), from Abu Nadrah, from Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, from the Prophet….
Shu’bah, Abu ‘Awanah and Hushaym transmitted it from Abu Bishr, from Abu al-Mutwakkil, from Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, from the Prophet.
Abu Zur’ah thus said: “Al-A’mash has erred in this hadith. Its [correct redaction] is from Abu al-Mutawakkil, from Abu Sa’id from the Prophet. (Al-Razi 6:328)
Even though Al-‘Amash was a pillar of the hadith corpus and one of the most reliable transmitters of the early-mid second century, Abu Zur’ah was able to identify an instance where he had erred in the transmission of a report.
It is quite evident that the muhaddithun acknowledged that even the most reliable of transmitters were prone to errors in their transmission of reports. This can be demonstrated in their theorization of the hadith method along with its application throughout their works. Not only were the hadithists aware of the fact that reliable transmitters erred in transmission, but they were also able to identify and quantify those errors for further downstream analysis and assessment. Such instances eventually became the basis of an entire science within the field of hadith, known as al-‘Ilal. Works authored in this discipline primarily focused on the identification of reliable transmitters’ subtle errors in transmission, later known as hidden defects (‘Ilal).
This reality, in my opinion, is one of the greatest strengths of the hadith method. It exemplifies how the muhaddithun appropriately dealt with hadith for what it ultimately is: a human experience. The method is one designed for humans by humans who understood the nature of oral transmission and its potential drawbacks and advantages in various contexts. Thus, one can find that the method comprehensively accounts for most (if not all) of the particularities of the human experience related to oral transmission.
How the hadithists came to these conclusions regarding the defective transmission of reliable transmitters is not my primary focus in this article. Rather, the goal of this article was to demonstrate that the skeptics’ skepticism towards the utility of authentication in light of the concerns cited at the beginning of this article has demonstrably been accounted for in theory and in practice by the muhaddithin. If one is further interested in reading about how the hadithists came to some of their conclusions, I would suggest referring to Abdullah Moataz’s e-book, In Defense of the Hadith Method. Similarly, I am currently in the process of writing a comprehensive book on hadith where I shall, God-willing, expound a lot of the matters pertaining to hadith, its history and application.
Other than that, it is quite evident that these objections to hadith, though understandable, have essentially overlooked an entire sector of hadithist scholarship that has carefully accounted for and addressed these concerns. Such brazenly inaccurate characterizations of the hadith method do nothing but demonstrate their proponents’ ignorance and detract from the quality of contemporary discourse.
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Al-Marrudhi, Ahmed b. Muhammad . Min Kalami Ahmed bin Hanbal fi ‘Ilal Al-Hadith wa-Marifat Al-Rijal. Edited by Subhi Al-Samarrai, 1st ed., Maktabat Al-Ma’arif, 1409.
Al-Naysaburi, Ahmed b. Muhammad. Al-Mukhtasar min Kitab Siyaq Tarikh Naysabur. Edited by Bahman Karīmī, Kitabkhaneh Ibn Sina, 1960.
Al-Razi, ‘Abdurrahman b. Abi Hatem. Al-Jarh wal-Ta’dil. 1st ed., Dar Ihya’ Al-Turath Al-‘Arabi, 1952.
Ibn Abi Shaybah, Muhammad b. ‘Uthman. Su’alat Ibn Abi Shaybah li-Ibn Al-Madini. Edited by Abdullah Abdulqadir, 1st ed., Maktabat Al-Ma’arif, 1404.
Ibn Al-Hajjaj, Muslim b. Al-Hajjaj Al-Tamyiz. Edited by Mustafa Azami. Wizarat Al-Ma’arif, 1982
Ibn Hajar, Ahmed b. ‘Ali. Taqrib Al-Tahdhib. Edited by Muhamamd ‘Awwamah, 1st ed., Dar Al- Rashid, 1986.
Ibn Hanbal, Ahmed. Al-‘Ilal wa-Ma’rifat Al-Rijal – Riwayat Abdullah. Edited by Wasiyyullah Abbas., 2nd ed., Dar Al-Khani, 1422.
Ibn Hibban, Muhammad. Al-Thiqat. Edited by Muhammad Khan, 1st ed., vol. 6 9, Da’irat Al- Ma’arif Al-Uthmaniyyah, 1973.