Authority of Ahad and Mutawatir Hadith
A mutawatir narration is one which is:
narrated by a multitude of narrators
their numbers being such that experience / common sense rules out the possibility of their all having colluded to lie, or of their all having made the same mistake or fabrication by coincidence
with such numbers being present in each generation (level) of the chain of narration
the chain ending with something which was directly sensed (e.g. seen, heard) by the initial narrator (as opposed to something s/he concluded or hypothesized).
[see: Sharh Sharh Nukhbat al-Fikr, by `Ali al-Qari, (being a commentary on Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani’s summary text and commentary), pp. 161 ff.]
We encounter this type of narration often in the mundane aspects of our lives. It is by such narrations that we have come to know about distant lands which we have never visited, and similarly about events and people in the past, yet because of the certainty conveyed by these narrations, we do not doubt the existence of these entities. For example, we know about the tyranny of certain world leaders of our day, the poverty of Haiti, and the fact that there is a US-led war going on in `Iraq, because the numerous, abundant reports we have heard about these things have served to corroborate one another to the extent that we have become convinced without doubt that these are incontrovertible facts.
How numerous must the ‘multitude’ of narrators be in order for a report to reach the level of mutawatir? Although some have suggested specific figures, these all lack clear substantiation, and hence we conclude that there is no fixed number; rather it may vary based on the circumstances. For example, a report from one or two news reporters may be sufficient to convince us that a prominent world leader, X, has died. This is because of the credibility we know news agencies and their reporters carry. But, if one member of the ordinary public bursts into our presence and tells us that leader X has died, this will not necessarily convince us; perhaps he is insane, or a prankster. If two ordinary people tell us this, we might be more inclined to believe it, but some doubt may still remain; perhaps they are colluding to play a prank; perhaps they heard it from an unreliable source. But, if we then venture into the street, and find tens of people talking about the same event having happened, then with each subsequent individual we encounter, our credulousness increases, until we reach a point where we are convinced.
Some may be convinced by the time they reach the third person, others a little later. But, if someone remains unconvinced after hearing this from ten people, say, who do not all know one another, nor have any vested interest in narrating such information, then we will normally conclude that this unconvinced individual is either incredibly stubborn, or somehow mentally deranged. The attainment of certainty can be likened to satiation; one thirsty individual might need to drink one glass of water, another might need 2, or 3. But if we give someone 10 consecutive glasses of water, and he still claims to be thirsty, we will naturally be very skeptical, to say the least. We need not, of course, put a numerical percentage on the certainty; even one who is satiated could probably still drink a few gulps more.
Let us now translate these concepts to the religious domain. Reliable narrators are, to the scholars of hadith and to those having some familiarity with the science, roughly analogous to credible news reporters. The early hadith scholars conducted extensive research into the background, morality, memory and general track record of narrators, and applied rigorous standards to classify narrators. There are also criteria for judging the content of the hadith, and these, along with the judgments on narrators, together lead to a final verdict on a hadith as authentic, fair, weak, or fabricated (these being the major classifications; there are sub-categories of course).
The early hadith scholars devoted their lives as well as a good deal of wealth to this momentous endeavor, investigating and researching, often traveling long distances for the purpose. They were known to be scrupulous and cautious in their methods, and staunch in adherence to their principles, even at the expense of impugning their own loved ones if they happened to be unreliable transmitters of hadith. It is easy to see how, as specialists in any field, they could gain a mastery and familiarity which laymen – at least those that do not acquaint themselves with the nature of this science – would be deprived of.
Hence, someone who is alien to the science of hadith might well be unconvinced by an authentic hadith, just as a fresh arrival from the Amazon jungle (in South America; not the online bookstore) might adamantly insist that he sees no reason why he should accept a single news reporter’s word as being especially credible, or even two or three independent reporters at that. (Indeed, similarly, non-Muslims may start out considering the Qur’an itself to be conveying only speculative information and not certainty.) The hypothetical Amazonian may be excused for his ignorance, but someone who lays claim to Islam, realizes the numerous directives in the Qur’an to follow/obey the Messenger, and yet steers clear of hadith and its science, we are hard-pressed to not consider her/him negligent.
A mutawatir hadith, in particular, is one mass-narrated in the same way – and typically by much the same sort of people – as in the transmission of the Qur’an. Hence, a Muslim, who accepts the Qur’an, should have no hesitation that a mutawatir hadith did indeed emanate from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and that being the case that its import must be accepted by us, just as if we were hearing it directly from the Prophet’s mouth. Of course, for those self-professed Muslims who would not accept even a hadith they could hear directly from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) unless they could find the same information in the Qur’an, more fundamental reasoning is needed.
Some Muslims may, however, initially be hesitant regarding ahadith about things not mentioned in the Qur’an. In practice, however, one can always find at least an indirect reference for every authentic hadith. (e.g. the percentage of zakat is mentioned only in hadith, but zakat itself is mentioned in the Qur’an). Furthermore, if a hadith is found to be authentic (especially if it is mutawatir) such that we are convinced that the Prophet said it, then there can be no hesitation about accepting it, even if no direct or even indirect reference to it can be found in the Qur’an, provided that it is about a religious matter. Accepting such narrations clearly cannot be likened to the prohibited speculation on issues on which we have not been given information by Allah or the Messenger. This is because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is the Messenger of Allah, and is conveying and teaching on behalf of, and with the scripturally explicit and rationally implicit approval of Allah.
“And if he [the Prophet] had made up about Us some [false] sayings, We would have seized him by the right hand [or: with might]. Then We would have cut from him the aorta [i.e. struck him dead instantly].” Q[69:44-46]
Furthermore, given that virtually every authentic hadith can be tied to the Qur’an in some way, it is only reasonable to give greater weight to an interpretation which is traced to the Prophet by reliable transmission, than to a personal interpretation of the Qur’an, which is quite possibly subjective to an extent, as well as devoid of prophetic guidance, and hence even more speculative (‘Zanni’). Further, we should say that the Muslim’s religious belief and worldview must necessarily be constructed from the collective source of both Qur’an and authentic ahadith.
As Muslims, we believe that Allah has undertaken the preservation of the religion in every generation since the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) (see Q[15:9] for example), which adds a spiritual dimension of credibility to hadith narrations in general, and in particular to those that are mutawatir. The Qur’an tells us to investigate the report of a sinner Q[49:6], hence implying that the report of a reliable, pious Muslim is acceptable. Along similar lines, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has said, “May Allah bless a man who hears a hadith from us, and conveys it …” [Tirmidhi and others; a mutawatir hadith as detailed in Nazm al-Mutanathir and other compilations of mutawatir hadith.] Sufyan ibn `Uyaynah, the early jurist and muhaddith, is reported to have said, “Allah would not conceal anyone who lies in hadith.” And similarly `Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, another early scholar, says, “If someone made up his mind in the pre-dawn hours [or: in the middle of the ocean] to lie in hadith, the next morning, people would be saying, ‘So-and-so is a liar!'” In fact, Imam Ibn Hazm and some other scholars went so far as to venture that because of this divine preservation, even ahad hadith convey certain knowledge if they have satisfied the criteria for authenticity.
Finally, we can address the distinction between two categories of mutawatir narration mentioned by the scholars of hadith. Mutawatir Lafzi (mass-narrrated by wording) are those narrations which have been narrated through a multitude of separate chains of transmission, all agreeing on the same wording. Mutawatir Ma`nawi (mass-narrated by meaning) refers to a multitude of narrations, each of which is transmitted through a separate chain of transmission, and contains different wording, but are such that the contents of all of them contain a common element or concept. The ahadith about grave punishment/bliss are mutawatir in this sense, since some narrations declare the existence of these phenomena in general terms, others mention specific punishments / delight, still others mention that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to supplicate regularly for protection from grave punishment, others that he taught the Companions to supplicate for protection from it, others which interpret some verses of the Qur’an as referring to it, etc.
All praise is to Allah.