Tag Archives: history of hadith

Series on Hadith Part 2 – Is Hadith Reliable?

Click here to read the introduction to this series. Click here to read part 1.

Once the ‘hadith is the mother of sects’ argument is refuted, the selective rejecters of hadith move on to the next attack. Their second argument against Hadith is as follows:

  • Prophet (SAW) forbade the writing of Hadith so those who wrote it down did something against his orders. Hadith should never have been written in the first place.
  • Hadith was written 200 years after the death of the Prophet (SAW) and those 200 years without the presence of hadith literature were the most glorious in Islamic history. So the Muslim Ummah does not need to refer to hadith.
  • Hadith is man-made scripture. After all, it came through a chain of narrators so even though hadith cannot be denied completely, its authenticity is in question.

The problem with rejecters of hadith is that their dislike of hadith prevents them from studying it or reading about its history. This is the reason why they are not well-informed about hadith literature and how it developed over time, or even what the source of that literature was. We will talk about these issues now and answer the above arguments.

Prophet (SAW) did not forbid the writing of hadith

Initially, the Prophet (SAW) did not allow the writing of anything other than the Qur’an since Muslims had not developed enough familiarity with the Qur’anic text to be able to see the differences with other types of text. However, we find authentic reports from the Prophet (SAW) where he recommends writing hadith for future reference. This permission to write is sufficient to refute the argument that the writing of hadith was forbidden.

A member of the Ansar community complained of having a poor memory due to which he had difficulty in remembering the words of the Prophet. The Prophet (SAW) recommended that he seek help from his right hand (i.e. write it down). [Tirmidhi].

………. And one whose fellow is killed is allowed to opt between two alternatives: either he should receive blood-money or get the life of the (murderer) in return. He (the narrator said): A person from the Yemen, who was called Abu Shah, came to him and said: Messenger of Allah, write it down for me, whereupon he (Allah’s Messenger) said: Write it down for Abu Shah. One of the persons from among the Quraish also said: Except Idhkhir, for we use it in our houses and our graves. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Except Idhkhir.  (Sahih Muslim, Book #007, Hadith #3143) [latter half of report]

Ali (RA) had his own manuscript of hadith which he used to consult:

Narrated Ash-Sha’bi: Abu Juhaifa said, “I asked Ali, ‘Have you got any book (which has been revealed to the Prophet apart from the Qur’an)?’ ‘Ali replied, ‘No, except Allah’s Book or the power of understanding which has been bestowed (by Allah) upon a Muslim or what is (written) in this sheet of paper (with me).’ Abu Juhaifa said, “I asked, ‘What is (written) in this sheet of paper?’ Ali replied, it deals with the Diyya (compensation or blood money paid by the killer to the relatives of the victim), the ransom for the releasing of the captives from the hands of the enemies, and the law that no Muslim should be killed in Qisas (equality in punishment) for the killing of (a disbeliever).  (Sahih Bukhari, Book #3, Hadith #111)

We also find that the companions of the Prophet (SAW) recommended writing hadith:

……Anas said: This hadith impressed me very much and I told my son to write it down.  (Sahih Muslim, Book #001, Hadith #0052) [last sentence of hadith]

Warrad, the scribe of Mughira b. Shu’ba, reported: Mu’awiya wrote to Mughira: write to me anything which you heard from the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). So he (Mughira) wrote to him (Mu’awiya): I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) uttering (these words) at the completion of prayer:” There is no god but Allah. He is alone and there is no partner with Him. Sovereignty belongs to Him and to Him is praise due and He is Potent over everything. O Allah! no one can withhold what Thou givest, or give what Thou withholdest, and riches cannot avail a wealthy person with Thee.”  (Sahih Muslim, Book #004, Hadith #1234)

If there was such a strict prohibition on writing hadith would the companions of the Prophet (SAW), who were such pious Muslims, stand against his order (naudhubillah)?

Brief history of Hadith

We know from the above discussion that hadith manuscripts existed at the time of the Prophet (SAW) and after his death these were consulted by Muslim leaders to resolve administrative matters (see hadith above about blood money). These manuscripts then became the original sources which were gathered together by great scholars like Imam Malik, Imam Muslim and Imam Bukhari, whose collections we have with us today. They did not pluck hadith reports out of thin air; they collected reliable reports from manuscripts kept by the Sahaba (RA) and the Tabi’een, and those reports which were memorised and passed on from teacher to student. The motivation of the great Imams was to preserve the Sunnah: this treasure was getting lost because people were forgetting hadith reports, or hadith was getting ‘muddied’ by those who felt no shame in creating fake reports.

Francois Deroche tells us:

“The Qur’an codex [document] underwent significant alteration around the start of the second/eighth century: the original vertical format was replaced by an oblong format. The reasons behind this modification have not been recorded in any existing documentation and thus several hypotheses have emerged: two of these theories are very similar and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. According to the first, the decision indicates the desire to clearly distinguish the Qur’an from the Christian codex and from the Jewish Torah scrolls. The second theory considers this modification to relate to the initial writing down of the hadith and the resultant desire to distinguish the book of God from all other texts.” [1]

The above historical account refers to the writing down of Hadith in the second century, which means that hadith existed at that time.

The Muwatta of Imam Malik was the first hadith compilation and it was put together around 163AH. This compilation is considered to be the most authentic amongst hadith collections and is unique in combining juristic opinion with hadith. Thus it is a crucially important text in the study of Fiqh (Islamic law). [2]

Herbert Berg cites George Schoeler, who has argued that the second generation of Muslims was the first to get concerned about gathering hadith reports, which they collected from the Sahaba (RA). ‘Urwa bin Zubayr (who died around 93AH) used to recite hadith from memory but he did have some written materials with him. [3]

So there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that the writing down of hadith started around the end of the Prophet’s mission and certainly Sahaba (RA) kept records of Prophet’s words to consult on legal matters. The efforts became more organised with time, eventually resulting in the magnificent works of great scholarship that are with us today.

Hadith as man-made scripture….and the narrators

This particular argument against hadith is actually the weakest one.

The Arabs had a great memory. Very few Arabs at the time of the Prophet (SAW) knew how to write. Arabs were great poets but we do not find many written works from 7th century Arabia. They simply committed everything to memory.

When the Qur’an was revealed the Sahaba (RA) committed it to memory and wrote some of it down. The Qur’an was compiled at the time of Caliph Uthman (RA) but the text of the Qur’an itself was memorised and recorded by the Sahaba (RA). It is strange that the rejecters of hadith trust the Sahaba (RA) to memorise the Qur’an and preserve it but the same individuals (transmitters) cannot be trusted for hadith reports!

The rejecters do point out that Allah has promised to save the Qur’an for all eternity. This is a valid point but we need to remember that our reliance on this promise is simply a matter of faith. Why is it that, when it comes to the words of the Prophet (SAW) which were uttered from the same blessed tongue and were memorised by the same companions, they do not exercise this faith?

Allah tells us in the Qur’an that the Prophet (SAW) forbids Al-Munkar (evil) and allows what is At-Tayyib (good and pure). So the Prophet (SAW) explains Allah’s laws: these explanations have been stored as hadith by the best followers of Islam, i.e. the Sahaba (RA) and the Tabi’een. Eventually, the great scholars spent their lifetimes recording these explanations. This last point has a direct implication for the concept of obedience to the Prophet (SAW) which is fard on a Muslim; we will write about that later in this series.

We will inshAllah look into the nature of hadith literature next.


[1] Deroche, Francois. 2009. Written Transmission. In: A. Rippin, ed. The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 176.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muwatta_Imam_Malik

[3] Berg, Herbert. 2009. Context: Muhammad. In: A. Rippin, ed. The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 197.

[Emphases added]


Filed under Belief (Aqeeda), Fiqh, Hadith, Points to ponder