On Hadith Authentication

How do hadith scholars grade ahadith? Do they all share the same criteria or are there different views? Have they restricted their efforts to scrutiny of the chain of narration (isnad), or did they take the content (matn) into consideration too? What should I do if I am troubled by the content of a particular hadith?

There is general agreement amongst hadith scholars on the criteria for hadith authentication. Some criteria relate to the transmission (isnad), and others to the content (matn).

Transmission Criteria

There are five principal conditions which must be satisfied for the isnad. Lack of any of these conditions generally implies weakness in the narration. (However, weakness does not necessarily imply uselessness or total rejection of the narration. There are different grades of weak narration. As in a court of law, even a dubious witness’ testimony, though not totally credible, might still cast some light on matters.)

  1. Continuity of the chain (i.e. each narrator must actually have had contact with the narrator ‘above’ him, from whom he is claiming to narrate).
  2. Moral uprightness of each narrator (an inobservant or sinful Muslim, who is evidently careless even about his religious practice, cannot be expected to be careful enough to reliably transmit hadith).
  3. Retention of each narrator (someone with a poor memory cannot be relied upon to transmit hadith accurately, unless he writes down hadith upon hearing them and narrates only from his manuscript).
  4. Freedom from irregularities (if A, B, C, D, E and F all heard a hadith from X, but F narrates it differently than A, B, C, D and E, then even if F is upright and generally reliable, this particular narration of his will be considered irregular.)
  5. Freedom from flaws (there are other, more subtle flaws in the isnad, which can be detected by experts in hadith science, who have familiarity with information about the narrators, and with a large corpus of narrations and the correlations and divergences between them.)

Of course, the above is just an overview, and there are many more details. These five criteria are universally accepted by hadith scholars, although they may differ on some finer points, and they may also vary in their proficiency in applying the criteria. Some examples:

  • al-Hakim al-Naysaburi’s judgments (in his Al-Mustadrak) are generally lax perhaps largely a result of his being prone to error in his old age, while Bukhari was more stringent and careful.
  • Imam Daraqutni, a contemporary of Imam al-Bukhari, disagreed with Imam Bukhari’s authentication of several ahadith.
  • More recently Shaykh al-Albani judged a handful of ahadith from Saheeh Muslim to have weak transmission. In both this and the preceding case, other experts have undertaken scholarly refutations of the objections.

It is true that there may be disagreements about the status of some narrators (was he reliable or not?), but there are also many whose status (whether good or bad) is undisputed. And, even for those about whom there are conflicting judgments, the mere existence of such differing statements should not detract us from investigating further to determine the facts. (To illustrate this further: remember that on the surface, a non-Muslim might even find conflicting statements about Islam and religion in general, but this should not detract him from seeking the truth.) Sometimes discreditations of a person arise from personal grievances or malice, in which case they do not carry weight. Scholars have deduced principles for judging accreditation and discreditation, and resolving pronouncements which may superficially seem to be contradictory. Again, the details can be pursued in the specialized literature of the field.

So, in short, the scholars of hadith developed an amazing science of isnad-criticism which no other nation has been blessed with. But they did not restrict their efforts to only the isnad (contrary to the claims raised by some Orientalists – such as Goldziher and Gaston Wiet – and some Muslims of recent times – such as Ahmad Amin in his book Fajr al-Islam.)

Content Criteria

Before we get to the criteria themselves, we mention a couple of related points:

1) As we have seen above, some of criteria for analyzing transmission also impact on the content. A narration which comes from a normally reliable narrator, but which is contrary to what others (more numerous and/or more reliable than him) have narrated from the same source, is classified as irregular (shaadh). If further the conflicting narrator is unreliable, the narration is termed munkar (objectionable or unrecognized or wrong). Sometimes, the error is in ascription rather than content: e.g. a narrator might mistakenly cite a saying as a hadith, while other narrators’ versions present it as the saying of a Companion, or vice-versa.

2) Scholars have also been precautious in labeling narrations which satisfy the transmission criteria. Hence, ahadith with sahih isnad are further classified into confident-but-tentative (Zannee) and certain (qaT`ee). A sahih hadith might fall short of absolute certainty, because a small chance of error still exists. Nevertheless, the level of confidence in it is considered sufficient to act based on the hadith (provided it satisfies the criteria for content.). A narration can reach the level of certainty through multiple, independent corroborations – as is the case with mutawatir (mass-narrated) hadith.

Now we turn to the specific criteria for judging the content of ahadith. The criteria for content criticism are usually mentioned, in the books of hadith science, under the section on “The Fabricated Narration,” (al-Hadeeth al-MawDoo`). There are various ways in which one could attempt to enumerate these criteria, and it is more difficult to exhaustively do so. This has led some to observe that the criteria for judging content are actually more numerous than those for transmission. The content criteria include:

  • Judging the content in the light of the Qur’an and other decisively-established facts about the religion. This includes:
    • Looking for contradiction with the Qur’an
    • Looking for contradiction with mutawatir ahadith
    • Looking for contradiction with decisively-established principles deduced from the Qur’an and/or mutawatir ahadith
    • Looking for implausible details, such as promise of an incommensurately huge reward or punishment for something.
    • Judging the content in the context of the entirety of hadith literature. Needless to say, this can only be attempted by a specialist with wide and intense familiarity with the sunnah developed over a long period of immersion study. It can be likened to the way in which someone who has lived with a person for a prolonged period becomes familiar with that person’s style and topics of speech, and as a result can sometimes easily recognize a saying which has been falsely attributed to the person.
  • Judging the content in the light of common sense and clear logic
  • Judging the content in the light of empirical evidence e.g.
    • Looking for contradiction with scientific facts
    • Looking for contradiction with historical facts, such as anachronisms

Application of these criteria can be found in the books which aimed to identify and collect Fabricated Narrations: e.g. various books by Ibn al-Jawzi (12th century), Ibn al-Qayyim (14th century), Suyuti (16th century), Qari (17th century), Shawkani and Laknawi (19th century). In fact, scholars even discussed the content of ahadith with weak transmission: such as whether the content is correct in meaning – for example, see al-Maqasid al-Hasanah by Sakhawi (15th century), a critical analysis of a large number of narrations in common currency amongst laymen.

There has been a strong tradition of content criticism from the earliest times, starting with scholars such as the `Aishah, the Mother of the Believers, as we find in hadith books themselves. This tradition continued through the compilation of the famous books of hadith; we see intimations to it, for example, in Imam Muslim’s (9th century) Introduction to his ‘Sahih Muslim.’ And, after the Era of Compilation, scholarly criticisms continued. For example, we find some scholars, such as Imam al-Tahawi (9th/10th century) and later Qadi Ibn al-`Arabi (11th/12th century), not accepting a particular hadith from al-Bukhari based on its content (since it suggests the Prophet prayed over a dead hypocrite, which seems to contradict the Qur’anic injunction forbidding him from doing so; Hafiz Ibn Hajar discusses the issue in detail in his commentary on Bukhari, Fath al-Baaree.) And Shaykh Muhammad Abu Zahrah, a prominent Egyptian scholar of the last (20th C.E.) century, refuses the authenticity of a narration – even though it is cited by both Bukhari and Muslim – because its content seems to contradict what we know about the Prophet’s practice from many other ahadith, and what we know of general principles of the religion. Sheikh `Abdullah al-Ghumari (d. 1993 CE), in his treatise al-Fawa’id al-Maqsudah, graded as inadmissible a number of hadith with ostensibly authentic isnads.

These are just a few examples that I remember from the top of my head; with research one could doubtless find others. Hence, when we say that Bukhari’s and Muslim’s compilations are authentic, we are not attributing infallibility to them. Rather, we mean the vast majority of the hadith in them are authentic; this does not rule out disagreement about or error in some of them. However, it is important to remember that valid criticism of content should come from someone who satisfies two qualifications:

    1. Academic credentials; s/he should have a broad and deep knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith literature, and sufficient grounding in other Islamic sciences (including principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) and logic), so that s/he will not reject a hadith based merely on a cursory glance or superficial analysis.
    2. Sincerity and piety, such that s/he will not reject ahadith on the basis of mere caprice or whim. Even some criteria that seem (or claim) to be based on ‘reason’ might actually be highly subjective, and reflective of certain pre-conceptions that may or may not have a sound basis.

This is not to say that a layman must blindly accept everything he/she finds in a hadith. The layman might (indeed, sometimes must) think and take decisions about hadith on the level of his/her personal conscience, but these decisions will typically not be scholarly criticisms. If I, as a layman find my conscience troubled by an ostensibly authentic hadith, then:

I need to immediately affirm, “I believe in Allah, I believe in His Book and His Messenger, and I believe whatever is the truth on this matter before Allah.” Thereafter:

  1. If the hadith is mutawatir, then I must accept it in principle, and then investigate, inquire, think and pray to be granted the correct understanding of it. Rejection of a mutawatir hadith – when one knows it is mutawatir – takes a person out of Islam. Mutawatir hadith generally relate to widely-known / fundamental beliefs and practices shared by all Muslims.
  2. If the hadith is not mutawatir, then I must still affirm, in general terms, that I believe whatever is true before Allah, even though the details of the hadith’s authenticity/weakness and/or correct interpretation might not be clear to me at present. I would rather not categorically reject the hadith if there is any possibility of my missing or misunderstanding something, preferring rather to suspend judgment and hoping for Allah to make the truth clear to me in the future. But if I were to reject a particular non-mutawatir hadith out of a genuine belief that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) did not say it, then I would normally not be excommunicated from the religion; i.e. I would still be considered a Muslim. (This is as opposed to someone who arrogantly rejects a non-mutwatir hadith saying he doesn’t care even if the Prophet said it; such a person might be considered to have left Islam.) Of course, if I had been negligent in seeking a resolution, then I might be a sinful Muslim, especially if, in addition, I were to make it my concern to actively campaign for others to join me in rejecting this hadith.

And Allah knows best.

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