Departure of Scholars from the Way of the Ḥadīth Imāms

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi and translated by Dr Abu Zayd

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They asked: We attend your lectures and you point out all sorts of scholarly mistakes in the treatment of the Prophetic sunnah and the failure to fully grasp the approach of the Imāms of ḥadīth. So please inform us of the roots and origins of this fault and error.

I replied: There are two matters: that which most scholars fell into and that which only some of them did

They asked: What affected most of them?

I replied: Two matters.

They asked: What are they?

I replied:

Need to Treat Ḥadīth as Historical Reports

First, there is failure to fully discern the meaning of ḥadīth authentication, whose underlying factor goes back to not apprehending the real nature of ḥadīth. Ḥadīth is basically a historical report, and you cannot arrive at an understanding of its reality or depth without familiarity with the discipline of history: through examining and analyzing reports of its events and occurrences, and keeping in view the causes, multifold dimensions and subtle deficiencies of those reports. The Imāms of ḥadīth were thoroughly and utterly proficient in the science of history. Contemplate their reports, discussion and discourse, and you will indeed find my claim to be truthful and correct. Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn, Ibn al-Madīnī, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Bukhārī, Muslim, Nasā’ī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim and others wrote on history and biographies. Bukhārī wrote on history before working on his Ṣaḥīḥ. Reports can often be contaminated by mistakes and errors, insertions and additions, fabrication and falsehood, and other types of deficiencies. These Imāms exerted their efforts in distinguishing and scrutinizing them with precision and proficiency. They reached the furthest extents of caution and diligence in their treatment of narrations, such that scholars of no other discipline managed to reach. Those luminaries did well to classify ḥadīth into ṣaḥīḥ (sound), ḥasan (fair), daʿīf (weak), munkar (rejected), and mawḍūʿ (fabricated); and authored great works on ʿilal (hidden defects of reports) which bore witness to their skill and proficiency in this craft, while yet others even surpassed them and excelled over them in this domain.

Not All Narrators are the Same

It is quite obvious that memorizing one or two legal rulings does not make one a jurist, nor does dealing with an issue or two of logic makes one a logician, nor possessing one or two dirhams makes one rich. This matter is self-evident and does not even deserve to be pointed out. At the same time, unfortunately, most scholars did not observe this crucial difference for the narrators of ḥadīth. They deem equivalent those who were specialists and those who narrated a report or two. How many reports were narrated solely by non-specialists while seasoned experts deemed them suspicious or even rejected them, and yet they attained acceptance among scholars who began to narrate them in their books until the public took them fully? For that reason, the Imāms of ḥadīth stipulated for a narrator conditions such as accuracy, prolonged tutelage under their teachers, and proficiency in this discipline. They were particularly attentive to the discrepancies among narrators, especially when one of them differed from others in a solitary manner. They ruled on the strength or weakness of the accuracy of narrators. They frequently described reports as gharīb (solitary), shādh (anomalous), or munkar (rejected), while later scholars frequently elevated these same reports to ṣaḥīḥ or ḥasan based upon the multiplicity of their chains or their being widespread among people.

Recognizing Intra-Narration Mistakes

Similarly, those who reject entire ḥadīth due to such conflicts fail to recognize the nature of this science. A report could fall into discrepancy in one of its peripheral portions while its core remains sound. How many sound reports are found in the books of Bukhārī and Muslim while they have minor discrepancies in some of their portions? So scholars compiled supporting and witnessing reports for these discrepancies, which they sought to point out with these reports. For evidencing purposes, they intended to rely on only the established portions of these narrations. Imām Ibn Taymiyyah, God have mercy on him, says in his introduction to the Principles of Tafsīr:

“The point here is that when a lengthy ḥadīth is narrated through two different chains without collaboration, then it cannot be a mistake or lie. A lengthy story cannot be one big mistake, but parts of it can contain errors. Therefore, if a person narrates a long and detailed story, and another narrates the exact same story without collusion then both stories cannot be a mistake, just as they cannot be lies. As such, mistakes which occur can be within certain portions of the story, like the ḥadīth in which the Prophet, peace be upon him, bought a camel from Jābir. Whoever contemplates the different chains of this ḥadīth will realize that the ḥadīth is authentic, even though the narrations differ concerning the exact price of the camel. This is also explained by Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ.”

Individual Sunnahs and Ḥadīth are Not Sources of Religion

The second mistake of most scholars was their view of specific sunnah practices as independent sources for this religion, and their forgetting that they were explanations of the Book of God which delineate its generalities and expound on its difficulties. So they fell into mistakes which resemble the error of those who divorce commentaries from their original texts or a structure from its foundation. The erudite scholar ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Farāhī states in al-Takmīl fī Uṣūl al-Taʾwīl:

“From them were those, like most people of narration, who were satisfied with ḥadīth despite scrutiny, because they realized that since the speech of the Prophet must agree with the Qurʾān, and the speech of the Companions with the speech of the Prophet, they found in ḥadīth great latitude. So they made it a foundation due to their lack of comprehension and used it to explain the Qurʾān, until the reigns of the Qurʾān began to be taken by the hands of ḥadīth. They cared little to understand the meaning of the Qurʾān but began to explain it with that which contradicted its verses. They should have, rather, understood ḥadīth in light of the Qurʾān. Contradictory narrations would have become harmonious if we were to understand them by referring them to the Qurʾān.”

al-Takmīl fī Uṣūl al-Taʾwīl

They asked: What is the error that only some scholars fell into?

I replied:

Danger of Treating Prophetic Speech Like Ours

They failed to comprehend the nature of Prophetic speech but relegated it to the speech of ordinary men. The worst offenders in this regard were two types of scholars:

  1. The theologians who applied ḥadīth to their theological and creedal views, accepting some ḥadīth which agreed with their views while rejecting those that clashed with them. They began to pit ḥadīth narrations one against another. So the Qadarite (advocates of free will) accepted some ḥadīth and rejected others, while the Jabarites (predeterminists: advocates of divine destiny) did the same. And even others followed them in this manner, differentiating between the statements of the Prophet, peace be upon him, on their own. Were they to exercise their minds, they would realize that the Prophetic ḥadīth is harmonious and congruous, while their own conflicting views were the ones that needed to be sorted out, separating the sound from the deficient, and the correct portions from the mistakes.
  2. The jurists who treated the Prophet as a legal scholar (muftī) and converted his ḥadīth to legal verdicts (fatwā) and religious rulings, while the Prophet himself was the furthest person from utilizing the terminology of these individuals.

They asked: How would you advise us then?

I replied:

The Way Forward

I advise you to study the books of history and learn the approach of historians. Then you should contemplate over the Book of God, and then the Sunnah as an explanation of the Book. You should be familiar with the speech of the prophets and not treat ḥadīth as matters of theology, fiqh or other views. You should adhere to consulting the books of biographies (rijāl) and hidden defects (ʿilal), examining them deeply so that perhaps God may open for you some of this noble and blessed knowledge.

Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator