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Hadith (Arabic: الحديث al-ḥadīth, pronounced: /ħadiːθ/; pl. aḥadīth; lit. "narrative") are narrations originating from the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith are regarded by traditional schools of jurisprudence as important tools for understanding the Qur'an and in matters of jurisprudence.[1] Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections mostly during the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day. The two main denominations of Islam, Shi`ism and Sunnism, have different sets of Hadith collections.

Definition and usageEdit

In Arabic the word hadith means that which is new from amongst things or a piece of information conveyed either in a small quantity or large. The Arabic plural is aḥādīth. Hadith also refers to the speech of a person. As tahdith is the infinitive, or verbal noun, of the original verb form; hadith is, therefore, not the infinitive,[2] rather it is a noun.[3]

In Islamic terminology, the term hadith refers to reports of statements or actions of Muhammad, or of his tacit approval of something said or done in his presence.[4] Classical hadith specialist Ibn Hajar says that the intended meaning of hadith in religious tradition is something attributed to Muhammad, as opposed to the Qur'an.[5] Other associated words possess similar meanings including: khabar (news, information) often refers to reports about Muhammad, but sometimes refers to traditions about his companions and their successors from the following generation; conversely, athar (trace, vestige) usually refers to traditions about the companions and successors, though sometimes connotes traditions about Muhammad. The word sunnah (custom) is also used in reference to a normative custom of Muhammad or the early Muslim community.[4]

Components of a hadithEdit

The two major aspects of a hadith are the text of the report (the matn), which contains the actual narrative, and the chain of narrators (the isnad), which documents the route by which the report has been transmitted.[4] The sanad, literally 'support', is so named due to the reliance of the hadith specialists upon it in determining the authenticity or weakness of a hadith.[6] The isnad consists of a chronological list of the narrators, each mentioning the one from whom they heard the hadith, until mentioning the originator of the matn along with the matn itself.

The first people to hear hadith were the companions who preserved it and then conveyed it to those after them. Then the generation following them received it, thus conveying it to those after them and so on. So a companion would say, “I heard the Prophet say such and such.” The Follower would then say, “I heard a companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet.’” The one after him would then say, “I heard someone say, ‘I heard a Companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet …’’” and so on.[7]


The overwhelming majority of Muslims consider hadith to be essential supplements to and clarifications of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, as well as in clarifying issues pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence. Ibn al-Salah, a hadith specialist, described the relationship between hadith and other aspect of the religion by saying: "It is the science most pervasive in respect to the other sciences in their various branches, in particular to jurisprudence being the most important of them.”[8]“The intended meaning of ‘other sciences’ here are those pertaining to religion,” explains Ibn Hajar, “Quranic exegesis, hadith, and jurisprudence. The science of hadith became the most pervasive due to the need displayed by each of these three sciences. The need hadith has of its science is apparent. As for Quranic exegesis, then the preferred manner of explaining the speech of Allah is by means of what has been accepted as a statement of His Prophet. The one looking to this is in need of distinguishing the acceptable from the unacceptable. Regarding jurisprudence, then the jurist is in need of citing as an evidence the acceptable to the exception of the later, something only possible utilizing the science of hadith.”[1]

Sacred hadithEdit

Hadith Qudsi' (or Sacred Hadith) are a sub-category of hadith, which are sayings of Muhammad. Muslims regard the Hadith Qudsi as the words of God (Arabic:Allah), repeated by Muhammad and recorded on the condition of an isnad. According to as-Sayyid ash-Sharif al-Jurjani, the Hadith Qudsi differ from the Qur'an in that the former were revealed in a dream or through revelation and are "expressed in Muhammad's words", whereas the latter are the "direct words of God".

An example of a Hadith Qudsi is the hadith of Abu Hurayrah who said that the Messenger of God said:

"When God decreed the Creation He pledged Himself by writing in His book which is laid down with Him: My mercy prevails over My wrath."[9]


History of hadith
Science of hadith
Hadith terminology
Biographical evaluation
People of hadith

Traditions of the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam were passed down mostly orally for more than a hundred years after Muhammad's death in AD 632. Muslim historians say that Caliph Uthman (the third khalifa, or successor of Muhammad, who had formerly been Muhammad's secretary), was the first to urge Muslims to write the Qur'an in a fixed form, and to record the hadith. Uthman's labours were cut short by his assassination, at the hands of aggrieved soldiers, in 656. No sources survive directly from this period so we are dependent on what later later writers tell us about this period.[10]

By the 9th Century the number of Hadiths had mushroomed. the wide acceptance that many of these traditions were fabricated stimulated the development for assessing Hadith.[11] Scholars of the Abbasid period were faced with a huge corpus of miscellaneous traditions, some of them flatly contradicting each other. Many of these traditions supported differing views on a variety of controversial matters. Scholars had to decide which hadith were to be trusted as authentic and which had been invented for political or theological purposes. To do this, they used a number of techniques which Muslims now call the science of hadith.

The Sunni canon of hadith took its final form more than 230 years after the death of Muhammad (632 AD). Later scholars may have debated the authenticity of particular hadith but the authority of the canon as a whole was not questioned. This canon, called the Six major Hadith collections, includes: Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan al-Sughra, Sunan al-Tirmidhi and Sunan Ibn Majah. Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are considered the most reliable of these collections.[12]

Science of hadithEdit

The science of hadith, (Arabic: `Ulum al-hadith), is a method of evaluation developed by early Muslim scholars in determining the veracity of reports attributed to Muhammad. This is achieved by analyzing the text of the report, the scale of the report's transmission, the routes through which the report was transmitted, and the individual narrators involved in its transmission. On the basis of these criteria, various classifications were devised for hadith. The earliest comprehensive work on the science of hadith was Abu Muhammad al-Ramahurmuzi's al-Muhaddith al-Fasil, while another significant work was al-Hakim al-Naysaburi's Ma‘rifat ‘ulum al-hadith. Ibn al-Salah's `Ulum al-hadith is considered the standard classical reference on the science of hadith.[4]

Hadith terminologyEdit

By means of Hadith terminology, hadith are categorized as sahīh (sound, authentic), da‘īf (weak), or mawdū‘ (fabricated). Other classifications used also include: hasan (good), which refers to an otherwise sahīh report suffering from minor deficiency, or a weak report strengthened due to numerous other corroborating reports; and munkar (ignored) which is a report that is rejected due to the presence of an unreliable transmitter contradicting another more reliable narrator.[13] Both sahīh and hasan reports are considered acceptable for usage in Islamic legal discourse. Classifications of hadith may also be based upon the scale of transmission. Reports that pass through many reliable transmitters at each point in the isnad up until their collection and transcription are known as mutawātir. These reports are considered the most authoritative as they pass through so many different routes that collusion between all of the transmitters becomes an impossibility. Reports not meeting this standard are known as ahad, and are of several different types.[4]

Biographical evaluationEdit

Another area of focus in the study of hadith is biographical analysis (‘ilm al-rijāl, lit. "science of people"), in which details about the transmitter are scrutinized. This includes analyzing their date and place of birth; familial connections; teachers and students; religiosity; moral behaviour; literary output; their travels; as well as their date of death. Based upon these criteria, the reliability (thiqāt) of the transmitter is assessed. Also determined is whether the individual was actually able to transmit the report, which is deduced from their contemporaneity and geographical proximity with the other transmitters in the chain.[14] Examples of biographical dictionaries include: Abd al-Ghani al-Maqdisi's Al-Kamal fi Asma' al-Rijal, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani's Tahdhīb al-Tahdhīb and al-Dhahabi's Tadhkirat al-huffaz.[15]


Views of other Islamic denominationsEdit

While the above is representative of Sunni Islam, these are the views regarding hadith according to other denominations.

Shi'a viewEdit

Although Twelver Shi'ism is by far the largest branch of Shi'i Islam, there are various branches within Shi'ism and within each branch, various traditions of scholarship. Each branch and scholar may differ as to the hadith to be accepted as reliable and those to be rejected.[citation needed]

Shi'a Muslims do not use the Six major Hadith collections followed by the Sunni, instead, their primary hadith collections are written by three authors who are known as the `Three Muhammads`.[16] They are: Usul al-Kafi by Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni al-Razi(329 AH), Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih by Muhammad ibn Babuya and Al-Tahdhib and Al-Istibsar both by Shaykh Muhammad Tusi. Unlike Akhbari Twelver Shi'a, Usuli Twelver Shi'a scholars do not believe that everything in the four major books are sahih.[citation needed]

Ibadi viewEdit

Ibadi Islam (found mainly in the Arabian kingdom of Oman) accepts many Sunni hadith, while rejecting others, and accepts some hadith not accepted by Sunnis. Ibadi jurisprudence is based only on the hadith accepted by Ibadis, which are far less numerous than those accepted by Sunnis. Several of Ibadism's founding figures - in particular Jabir ibn Zayd - were noted for their hadith research, and Jabir ibn Zayd is accepted as a reliable narrator by Sunni scholars as well as Ibadi ones.

The principal hadith collection accepted by Ibadis is al-Jami'i al-Sahih, also called Musnad al-Rabi ibn Habib, as rearranged by Abu Ya'qub Yusuf b. Ibrahim al-Warijlani. Most of its hadith are reported by Sunnis, while several are not. The rules used for determining the reliability of a hadith are given by Abu Ya'qub al-Warijlani, and are largely similar to those used by Sunnis; they criticize some of the companions, believing that some were corrupted after the reign of the first two caliphs. The Ibadi jurists accept hadith narrating the words of Muhammad's companions as a third basis for legal rulings, alongside the Qur'an and hadith relating Muhammad's words.

Orientalist viewsEdit

Early Western exploration of Islam consisted primarily of translation of the Qur'an and a few histories, often supplemented with disparaging commentary. In the nineteenth century, scholars made greater attempts at impartiality, and translated and commented upon a greater variety of texts. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Western scholars of Islam started to critically engage with the Islamic texts, subjecting them to the same agnostic, searching scrutiny that had previously been applied to Christian texts (see higher criticism). Ignaz Goldziher is the best known of these turn-of-the-century critics, who also included D. S. Margoliuth, Henri Lammens, and Leone Caetani. Goldziher writes, in his Muslim Studies: "... it is not surprising that, among the hotly debated controversial issues of Islam, whether political or doctrinal, there is not one in which the champions of the various views are unable to cite a number of traditions, all equipped with imposing isnads.

Contemporary Western scholars of hadith include: Herbert Berg, Fred M. Donner and Wilferd Madelung. Madelung has immersed himself in the hadith literature and has made his own selection and evaluation of tradition. Having done this, he is much more willing to trust hadith than many of his contemporaries. Madelung said of hadith: "Work with the narrative sources, both those that have been available to historians for a long time and others which have been published recently, made it plain that their wholesale rejection as late fiction is unjustified and that with [not without] a judicious use of them, a much more reliable and accurate portrait of the period can be drawn than has been realized so far."[17]

Harald Motzki said: "The mere fact that ahadith and asanid were forged must not lead us to conclude that all of them are fictitious or that the genuine and the spurious cannot be distinguished with some degree of certainty."[17]

Some Muslim scholars[who?] have undergone Western academic training and attempted to mediate between the traditional Muslim and the secular Western view.[citation needed] Notable among these was Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1988) who argued that while the chain of transmission of the hadith may often be spurious, the matn can still be used to understand how Islam can be lived in the modern world.[citation needed] Liberal movements within Islam tend to agree with Rahman's views to varying degrees.[citation needed]

Orientalist literatureEdit

Contemporary Western literature dealing with hadith include:


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ibn Hajar, Ahmad. al-Nukat ala Kitab ibn al-Salah, vol. 1, pg. 90. Maktabah al-Furqan.
  2. Lisan al-Arab, by Ibn Manthour, vol. 2, pg. 350; Dar al-Hadith edition.
  3. al-Kuliyat by Abu al-Baqa’ al-Kafawi, pg. 370; Mu'assasah l-Risalah. This last phrase is quoted by al-Qasimi in Qawaid al-Tahdith, pg. 61; Dar al-Nafais.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 "Hadith," Encyclopedia of Islam.
  5. Fath al-Bari, vol. 1, pg. 193; Dar Taibah. Al-Suyuti quotes this in his Tadrib al-Rawi, vol. 1, pg. 42; Dar al-Asimah edition.
  6. Tadrib al-Rawi, vol. 1, pgs. 39-41 with abridgement.
  7. Ilm al-Rijal wa Ahimiyatih, by Mualami, pg. 16, Dar al-Rayah. I substituted the word ‘sunnah’ with the word ‘hadith’ as they are synonymous in this context.
  8. Ulum al-Hadith by Ibn al-Salah, pg. 5, Dar al-Fikr, with the verification of Nur al-Din al-‘Itr.
  9. Related by al-Bukhari, Muslim, an-Nasa'i and Ibn Majah.
  10. Roman, provincial and Islamic law, Patricia Crone, p2
  11. Islam - the Straight Path, John Eposito, p81
  12. Muqaddimah Ibn al-Salah, pg. 160 Dar al-Ma’aarif edition
  13. See:
    • "Hadith," Encyclopedia of Islam Online;
    • "Hadith," Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world.
  14. Berg (2000) p. 8
  15. See:
    • Robinson (2003) pp. 69-70;
    • Lucas (2004) p. 15
  16. Momen, Moojan, Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p.174.
  17. 17.0 17.1 The Succession to Muhammad, page xi.


  • Berg, H. (2000). The development of exegesis in early Islam: the authenticity of Muslim literature from the formative period. Routledge. ISBN 0700712240. 
  • Lucas, S. (2004). Constructive Critics, Hadith Literature, and the Articulation of Sunni Islam. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 9004133194. 
  • Robinson, C. F. (2003). Islamic Historiography. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521629365. 
  • Robson, J.. "Hadith". in P.J. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Encyclopaedia of Islam Online. Brill Academic Publishers. ISSN 1573-3912. 

Further readingEdit

  • Brown, J. (2007). The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
  • Juynboll, G. H. A. (2007). Encyclopedia of Canonical Hadith. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
  • Lucas, S. (2002). The Arts of Hadith Compilation and Criticism. University of Chicago. OCLC 62284281. 
  • Musa, A. Y. Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on The Authority Of Prophetic Traditions in Islam, New York: Palgrave, 2008

External linksEdit

Template:Sunni hadith literature

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