An Excerpt from The Authority of Sunnah By Justice Muhammad Taqi Usmani
The Criticism of Ahādīth
Although the task of preserving the ahādīth through all the four ways mentioned earlier, including compilations in written form has been performed with due diligence throughout the first four centuries of Islamic history, yet it does not mean that all the traditions narrated or compiled in this period have been held as true and reliable.
In fact, in the same period in which the work of the compilation of ahādīth was going on, a very systematic science of criticism was developed by the scholars of hadīth in which numerous tests were suggested to verify the correctness of a narration. All these tests were applied to each and every tradition or report before holding it reliable. The different branches of knowledge which have been introduced by the scholars of the science of hadīth has no parallel in the art of historical criticism throughout world history. It is not possible for us to herein present even a brief introduction of these different branches and the valuable works produced in this respect. It may be said without any fear of exaggeration that thousands of books have been written on these different branches of knowledge regarding the science of hadīth.
It will be pertinent, however, to give a brief example of the nature of the criticism of ahādīth carried on by scholars and the different tests applied by them to ascertain the veracity of a hadīth.
The traditions viewed from different angles have been classified into hundreds of kinds. Relative to their standards of authenticity, the traditions are ultimately classified into four major categories:
(a) Sahīh (sound)
(b) Hasan (good)
(c) Daīf (weak)
(d) Maudū (fabricated)
Only the first two kinds are held to be reliable. Precepts of the Shariah can be based on and inferred from only these two kinds. Hence, only the ahādīth of these two categories are held to be the source of Islamic law. The other two kinds have little or no value especially in legal or doctrinal matters.
Before declaring a hadīth as sahīh or hasan, the following tests are applied:
(a) Scrutiny of its narrators.
(b) Scrutiny of the constancy of the chain of narrators.
(c) Comparison of its chain and text with other available paths of narration in the same manner.
(d) Examination of the chain and the text of the hadīth in the light of other material available on the subject, and to ensure that there is no defect in the chain or in the text.
We will try to give a brief explanation of these four tests as they are applied by the scholars of hadīth to scrutinize the veracity of a tradition.
1. Scrutiny of the narrators
The first and foremost test of the correctness of a hadīth relates to the credibility of its narrators. This scrutiny is carried out on two scores: firstly, examination of the integrity and honesty of a narrator, and secondly, examination of his memory power.
To carry out this scrutiny, a separate complete Science has been introduced which is called Ilm-ur-Rijāl (the knowledge of men). The scholars of this science devoted their lives for the thorough enquiry about each person who has reported a hadīth. For this, they used to go to his place and enquire about him from his neighbors, pupils, and friends so that no scholar would be impressed by his personal relations with a narrator. Ali ibn al-Madini, the famous scholar of Rijāl, when asked about his father, first tried to avoid the question and replied, Ask some other scholar about him. But when the question was repeated with a request for his own opinion, he said:
It is the matter of Faith, (I, therefore, reply) he is a weak narrator.
Waki ibn Jarrāh, the well-known Imām of hadīth, held his father as weak in hadīth, and did not rely on his reports unless they are confirmed by some reliable narrator.
Imām Abu Dāwūd, the author of one of the Six Books, has opined about his son Abdullāh (this is the same Abdullāh whose work, Kitāb-ul-Masalif, has been published by some orientalists), that he was a great liar.
Zaid ibn Abi Unaisah has said about his brother Yahya, Do not accept the traditions of my brother Yahya, because he is reputed in lying.
Similar opinions are recorded in the books of the Ilm-ur-Rijāl. Hundreds of books have been written on this subject. Here are only a few examples:
Tahdhīb at-Tahdhīb by Hāfiz Ibn Hajar: Printed in twelve volumes, this book has been designed to give a brief account of all the narrators whose narration is found in the famous Six Books of hadīth only. It contains the life accounts of 12,455 narrators, arranged in alphabetical order. (This is the total of the members given in each volume separately. Sometimes, the same narrator has been mentioned in different places with different names. So, the actual number of the narrators may be less, but not less than 10,000.)
You can pick up any name from any chain of any hadīth in any book from the Six Books. This name will certainly be found in the Tahdhīb at-Tahdhīb recorded in its place in alphabetical scheme. There you can find his dates of birth and death, the list of his teachers, the list of his pupils, important events of his life, and the opinions of the scholars about his credibility.
There are several other books meant for the narrators of the Six Books exclusively, and after consulting them one can easily reach a definite conclusion about the veracity of a narrator.
Lisān al-Mīzān by Hāfiz Ibn Hajar: This book is meant exclusively for those narrators whose names do not appear in any chain contained in any of the Six Books. It means that the traditions reported by them are found only in some books other than the Six Books.
This book consists of seven volumes and embodies the introduction of 5,991 narrators.
Tajīl al-Manfaah by Hāfiz Ibn Hajar: This book is confined to the introductions of the narrators whose traditions are found in the books of the four Imāms: Mālik, Abu Hanīfah, Shāfii, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and are not among the narrators of the Six Books. Thus, it contains the introduction of 1,732 narrators.
All these three books are written and compiled by the same person, namely, Hāfiz Ibn Hajar. It means that he has compiled the introduction of more than seventeen thousand narrators of hadīth.
This is the effort of only a single scholar. Many other books are available on the same subject. The following table will show the large number of narrators introduced in a few famous books of Rijāl which are frequently referred to:
Name of the book
Number of narrators
Ibn Abi Hatim
Hāfiz Ibn Hajar
Hāfiz Ibn Hajar
The last book of this table has introduced only those narrators who have been held as weak narrators. Similar books are written by Ibn Abi Hatim, Dāraqutni, etc. On the contrary, there are books which deal with the reliable narrators only, like Thiqāt of Ibn Hibbān in eleven volumes.
Anyhow, if a narrator is found to be dishonest, has very weak memory or he is unknown, no trust is placed on his narrations. A large number of traditions has been repudiated on this score alone.
2. Constancy of the chain of narrators
It is well-known that no report, in the science of hadīth, is accepted unless it gives the full chain of narrators upto the Holy Prophet (Sallallaho Alaihe Wassallam). Each narrator from this chain is first scrutinized on the touch-stone of his credibility as discussed above. But even if all the narrators of a chain are found to be reliable, it is not enough to hold the tradition as authentic. It must be proved that the chain is constant and no narrator has been missed in between. If it is found that some narrator has been missed at any stage, the tradition is held to be unreliable. To ensure the constancy of the chain, it is necessary to know about each narrator whether it is possible for him historically to meet the person from whom he claims to hear the tradition.
This scrutiny is indeed very difficult and delicate. But the scholars of the science of hadīth have undertaken this task in such an accurate manner that one cannot but wonder.
While holding an enquiry about each narrator, the scholars, besides ascertaining his integrity and memory, would also survey his teachers and pupils. Thus, a detailed list of both his teachers and pupils is available in each detailed book of Rijāl. So, when deciding about the constancy of a hadīth the scholars do not only make themselves sure about the dates of birth and death of each narrator, but also examine the list of his teachers and pupils.
Not only this, they often try to fix the time-span in which a narrator had opportunities to meet a particular teacher and that in which he did actually hear ahādīth from him. On the basis of this information they derive certain important conclusions about the credibility of a narrator.
For example, Abdullāh ibn Lahiah is a well-known Egyptian narrator of hadīth. It is established that his memory was weak and he used to narrate those traditions which he wrote. At a particular time, his house was burnt by fire and all his books were also burnt. After this occurrence he sometimes used to report ahādīth from his memory. Therefore, some scholars have decided that his narrations before the accident are reliable while those narrated after it are not worthy of trust. Now, the pupils who have heard ahādīth from him in the early period, their narrations may be accepted, while the reports of those who have heard from him in the later period cannot be relied upon. The scholars have scrutinized the list of his pupils and have specified the names of his early pupils, like Abdullāh ibn Wahb, etc. and have declared that all the rest should be treated as his later pupils, and no trust might be placed on their narrations.
In short, the second type of scrutiny, which is very essential in the criticism of traditions, relates to the constancy and perpetuity of the chain of narrators. If it is found that a narrator has not heard the hadīth directly from the one to whom he is ascribing it, the tradition is said to be Munqati (broken) which cannot be treated as reliable.
3. Comparison with other narrations: The third test applied to a tradition relates to its comparison with what is narrated by other pupils of the same teacher.
Sometimes a tradition is reported by several narrators. All these reports about the same saying or event are said to be the turuq (different paths) of that tradition. While scrutinizing a tradition, the scholars undertake a combined study of all its paths. If it is found that the majority of the reliable reporters narrate the hadīth in a particular way, but one of them reports it in a version substantially different from that of the others, his report is held to be a shādh (rare) version. In such case, despite the reliability of the reporter, his version is not accepted as a sahīh (sound) one, and no trust is placed on it unless it is confirmed and supported by any internal or external evidence.
4. General analysis of the tradition:
The last, and very important, scrutiny is accompanied by the general analysis of a tradition. In this scrutiny the tradition is analyzed in the light of other relevant material available on the subject. The tradition is examined from different angles: whether the reported saying or event is at all possible; whether the reported event conforms to the established historical events; whether its text can be held as truly attributed to the Holy Prophet (Sallallaho Alaihe Wassallam); whether the chain of narrators is genuine, etc.
This is a very difficult and delicate scrutiny which cannot be undertaken successfully unless the scholar has full command over all the relevant subjects, occupies complete knowledge of hadīth, and has a great skill in the science of criticism of hadīth.
If, after this scrutiny, a strong doubt appears to a scholar about the authenticity of a hadīth, he points out that there is a defect (ilal) in the chain or in the text of the hadīth, and a tradition having this kind of illah or defect is not held as sahīh.
Thus, a sahīh (sound) hadīth has been defined by the scholars as follows:
What is reported, by a reporter who is honest and of good memory power, without any break in the chain of narrators, without any shudhūdh (rareness) and without any illah (defect).
The Authority of Sunnah
By Justice Muhammad Taqi Usmani
Published by Idratul Quran, Karachi, Pakistan