Hadiths: False Tales or Authentic Narrations?

Hadiths have come under lots of scrutiny and criticism during our times and many doubts have been raised against its validity.  The orientalists in particular have raised a number of doubts about its true origin and whether they truly are the words of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh).  One of the most common criticisms of hadith used to establish the hadiths as just false tales, as they claim, is that it was not written down during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.  They argue that hadiths were not written down until generations after the Prophet’s death, hence, they cannot be accurate.  This is the main crux of their arguments and the main reason, they claim, for their rejection of hadiths.

However, when we open the books of those who have researched this topic thoroughly, we find a different story.  M.M. Azami writes in his infamous work Studies In Early Hadith Literature, refuting the claim that hadiths were not written down until the mid-second or the later half of the 2nd century after the Prophet’s migration to Madinah:

“It is not clear who was the first who furnished this information, but later on all the scholars, even al-Dhahabi and Ibn Hajar, repeated the old statement without scrutinizing it, even though they themselves had provided ample evidence in their writings against this common belief.”1

Azami further elaborates and points out that this understanding is a result of the following misconceptions:2

  1. Misinterpretation of the words: Tadwin, Tasnif and Kitabah (mentioned in hadith literature) which were understood in the sense of recording.
  2. The terms Haddathana, Akhbarana, ‘An, etc., (mentioned in hadith literature) which were generally believed to be used for oral transmissions.
  3. The claim of the powers of unique memory of the Arabs so that they had no need to write down anything.
  4. Hadiths against recording hadiths.

He then spends the next few pages clarifying the above misconceptions.  And these misunderstandings are mainly a result of orientalists not being familiar with the culture and history of the muhadditheen (scholars of hadith) and how they use to deal with the Prophet’s hadiths.  Language was another barrier for the orientalists.  They tend to understand certain words of the muhadditheen in a way not intended by them.  This is common in language where certain words have one meaning in a particular context and another meaning in a different context.  For example, the word Haddathana mentioned in the chains of transmission by the scholars of hadith was understood by the orientalists to mean only oral transmission.  But this assumption is false.  Azami clarifies this understanding by stating:

“The word Haddathana was used in a very wide sense.  If a man read a book of traditions to his teacher, he could use this word.  If the teacher read to his students from a book or from memory, the same word was used to describe the channel of knowledge.  Some scholars applied different terms to these two different methods of learning.  If the teacher read to his students, then the students could use the word Haddathana whenever they transmitted that particular tradition, but if the student read to his teacher then he would use the term Akhbarana.  In general this difference was not strictly observed.”3

Azami further proves this, in the next few pages, through examples of various hadiths mentioned in the classical works that use the word Haddathana and other such words in their text and points out clearly that those scholars many times were referring to actual written records and not just oral transmissions.

Writing was a common tool used not only during the Prophet’s life but rather after it as well.  Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah in his An Introduction to the Conservation of Hadith points out many examples from the Prophet’s life in which written documents were created and have been recorded in books of history.  The most important of these written records was the constitution.  Hamidullah writes:

“After the Muslims of Mekkah migrated to Madinah, they laid there the foundations of a government and a city-state.  They Holy Prophet called for consultation of all the inhabitants of the place, Mekkan immigrants, Madinan converts, Jews and the Arabs who had not yet embraced Islam, and promulgated a state constitution.  This is the first written constitution of any state in the history of the world.”4

Among other written records he points out in his book during the Prophet’s life include a census, letters-patent, letters of proselytism, correspondence with the Jews, instruction to governors, rules and tariffs of taxes, etc.  There were also a number of companions who use to write down the prophet’s hadiths during his lifetime. They include Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, Abu Rafi’, Anas ibn Malik, and ‘Amr ibn Hazm.5  This, of course, is a partial list and not a complete one.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, many of his companions had their own personal copies of his hadiths written down.  One of the most prominent amongst the companions who is well known to have a large collection of his own writings was Abdullah ibn Abbas.  It is reported that, “when he died, he left as many of his writings as could constitute a camel-load.”6  One of the maidservants of the Prophet, Salma, said about him:

“I saw Abdullah ibn Abbas coming with tablets to (my husband) Abu Rafi’, and writing down something about the practice of the Holy Prophet.”7

It is well known that Abdullah ibn Abbas, when young, use to go to the elder companions and ask them about religious issues due to his love for seeking knowledge.  And he passed on this knowledge to his students in his own life.  For example, it is reported that, “certain men of Ta’if came to Abdullah ibn Abbas together with his books.  He began to read them out to them…Another pupil of his relates, ‘I came to Abdullah ibn Abbas and it so happened sometimes that I exhausted in writing all my stock of paper, then I wrote on (the sole of) my sandal to fill even that up, and then I wrote on my palm.’”8  As for after his death, it is well recorded that his students had access to his books.

As for other companions who either wrote the Prophet’s hadiths, had them written, or had a strong intention to do so, thereby, indicating that they did not consider it prohibited as some orientalists try to make the ignorant believe, then it includes: Jabir ibn Abdullah, Aisha, Abu Bakr, Umar, Ali, Samurah ibn Jundub, Abdullah ibn Abi Awfa, Sa’d ibn ‘Ubadah, Abdullah ibn Umar, Mughirah ibn Shu’bah, Abu Bakrah, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, and Abu Hurayrah.9

A great discovery was made recently when one of the oldest manuscripts of hadith was found compiled by one of the students of the great companion Abu Hurayrah, Hammam ibn Munabbih.  It contained about 140 hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad on moral behavior.  It was dictated by Abu Hurayrah to his student Hammam and was named al-Sahifah al-Sahihah.  It serves a great historical purpose and proves that the hadiths use to be written down during the lifetime of the companions.  What is perhaps the most intriguing discovery of this manuscript is that when it was compared to the later works of hadiths by Bukhari, Muslim, Musnad Ahmad, etc., it was discovered that, “every hadith of (this) Sahifah Hammam is not only found in the six canonical books of hadith, narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, but the sense of each of these sayings of the Prophet is found narrated on the authority of other companions of the Prophet too.”10  And the authors of these later famous hadith works had not changed even a single word of the hadiths, rather, it was similar in word and meaning exactly as the original manuscript.  Dr. Hamidullah presents the sahifah in the Arabic at the end of his book with its translation and also shows where those hadiths can be found in the well-known books of hadith.  All this affirms that the hadiths mentioned in the books of hadith are neither fictional nor baseless.  Azami put it best when he said:

“The pattern of composing books changed from the mere recording of hadiths at random or composing of booklets on a single topic, to cumulative writings incorporating scores of topics in one book…In later periods, this material was utilized by the classical authors, and edited with the utmost care, as is clear from the style of Muslim, Bukhari, etc.”11

1 Azami, M.M. Studies In Early Hadith Literature, p. 19.

2 Ibid

3 Ibid, p. 293-294.

4 Hamidullah, Muhammad. An Introduction to the Conservation of Hadith, p. 20.

5 Ibid, p. 29-35.  All the relevant references for these companions can be found in these pages in Hamidullah’s book.

6 Ibid, p. 45.

7 Ibid, p. 45-46.

8 Ibid

9 Ibid, p. 35-47.

10 Ibid, p. 54

11 Azami, M.M. Studies In Early Hadith Literature, p. 31-32.

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