In modern times Hadith is often subject to a variety of misconstrued analyses which aim to undermine the historical authenticity of the Muslim Hadith corpus. Most of these analyses usually conclude with accusations, allegations and conspiracy theories where dishonest contentions are presented as valid arguments. However, a careful review of these contentions is enough to illustrate that most of them simply stem from baseless claims that have little to do with reality.
One of the more interesting conspiracy theories that is presented in this context is the claim that the early hadith critics condemned or approved of transmitters simply due to a supposed collective bias they had all possessed. Essentially, it presents the early Muḥaddithīn as a team of bigots who all indulged in the criticism of transmitters for the sole purpose of upholding certain values or narratives. The implication of this conspiracy theory is that hadith authentication is arbitrary and worthless, and that there is no actual difference between ‘authentic’ and ‘weak’ reports.
Going through the early works authored by the Muslim Muḥaddithīn allows one to observe a totally different reality. Though there are a variety of points and arguments that can be presented in this context to dispel such a conspirative narrative, in this paper, I am primarily interested in one main phenomenon I have observed in the books of rijāl, authored by the renowned scholars of hadith.
In the books of rijāl, one encounters several examples where the Muḥaddithīn and hadith critics criticized each other due to various errors they had made in the transmission of hadith and criticism of transmitters. This is a very valuable point that must be cited in this context: had the early hadith critics been a group of bigots who biasedly graded hadiths for the sake of some ultimate agenda, then it would be counterproductive for them to criticize each other and cite each other’s errors in transmission.
Rather, such examples demonstrate the objectivity and impartiality of the Muḥaddithīn: they did not uphold a double standard when it came to the criticism of transmitters.
Here are just a few examples I have compiled that display the hadith critics acknowledging/pointing out their own errors in transmission:
- Ahmed b. Hanbal describes the renowned muḥaddith and critic, Yahya b. Sa’id al-Qattan (d. 198 AH), saying:
I have never seen a transmitter with less errors in transmission than Yahya, even though he did err in some hadiths. (Ibn Hajar 4: 358)
- Al-‘Ijli describes the early critic, Sho’ba b. al-Hajjaj (d. 160 AH), saying:
He was a reliable and assured transmitter (thiqatun thabt); however, he used to rarely err in the names of transmitters. (Ibn Hajar 2: 169)
- Yunus b. Habib shared an in incident that occurred between him and the major muḥaddith, Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi (d. 204 AH), saying:
Abu Dawud once visited us, and he relayed to us 100,000 hadiths out of his memory, and he had erred on 70 occasions. When he returned to Basra, he wrote to us saying: “I have erred in 70 spots, so correct the mistakes.” (Ibn Hajar 2: 91)
- ‘Ali b. al-Madini said:
Whenever Yahya b. Sa’id and ‘Abdurrahman b. Mahdi both agreed to dismiss a transmitter, then I would avoid transmission from him. However, whenever they’d disagree, I’d adopt ‘Abdurrahman’s position, since he was the fairest, while Yahya was a bit too strict. (Ibn Hajar 2:557)
- Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi has a biographical entry for the great hadith critic, Abu al-Fatḥ al-Azdī (d. 374 AH), in Tārīkh Baghdad. In it, he says:
His hadith contained exclusive and objectionable reports (ghara’ib wa manakir), and he was a Ḥāfiẓ who had authored books in the hadith sciences. I asked Muhammad b. Ja’far about him, and he cited his memory and knowledge of hadith, and praised him. ‘Abdulghaffar b. ‘Abdulwahid said: “I saw the people of Mosul extremely weaken Abu al-Fatḥ al-Azdī and deem him worthless.” (Al-Baghdadi 36)
In conclusion, it is evident that the early hadith critics possessed a certain degree of objectivity and impartiality such that they were able to identify, acknowledge and openly admit to their own errors in hadith transmission. Had they been a party of bigots whose sole purpose was to push a certain agenda by biasedly criticizing transmitters, then their acknowledgement and presentation of their own errors would be absolutely counterproductive and pointless in this context. This is merely one of many arguments that can be cited to substantiate the authority and reliability of the early Muslim hadith critics who laid the foundation for the textual criticism of historical reports within an Islamic framework.
Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr. Tarikh Baghdad. Edited by Bashar Awwad Maruf, 1st ed., vol. 3 16, Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami, 2002.
Ibn Hajar, Abu Al-Fadl Ahmed. Tahdhib Al-Tahdhib. Edited by Ibrahim Al-Zibaq and Adil Murshed, 1st ed., Mu’assasat Al-Risalah, 2014.