By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
The two most sound books of hadith are Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, both of which have always been studied and taught in the highest seats of learning in the Muslim world, and extensively commented on by hadith and fiqh specialists. It is true that, in respect of the soundness of the hadith selected Sahih al-Bukhari is generally preferred over Sahih Muslim. However, there are certain technical points and professional qualities for which Sahih Muslim is preferred over Sahih al-Bukhari. Muslim follows the general method of hadith experts in organizing and ordering his material. This makes his compilation more useful and practical for the student of hadith to grasp the methodology he uses and why, than Sahih al-Bukhari, which has mix of orientations, to categories of fiqh as well as hadith, so that the same hadith (or parts of hadith) will be dispersed under different fiqhi headings.
What makes it easier to follow Muslim’s methodology is that he wrote a preface in which he explained his conditions. He divided the narrators into three classes:
- Those who are the highest in their honesty, truth, strength of memory, accuracy and consistency. Their hadiths are categorised as sahih/sound.
- Those who are not as strong in accuracy and consistency but share the same qualities of honesty and truth as the first class.
- Those who have some weakness in accuracy and consistency, or about whom there has been some accusation of imperfect moral integrity.
Imam Muslim relies on the hadiths of the first class of narrators and does not leave out any of their hadiths. The hadiths in Sahih al-Bukhari are mostly from this class of narrators. As for the hadiths of the second class of narrators, Muslim selects the best from them as support texts for the narrations of the first class, but he is very clear that he never relies on the hadiths of this second class of narrators. This means that if there is a hadith that is only found among narrators from the second class of narrators, Muslim will not include it in his Sahih. As for the hadith of the third class of narrator or people lower than that, Muslim does not accept anything from them and has not included anything of their hadiths in his book.
If there is any problem in either the isnad or the matn of the hadiths of the first class of narrators, Muslim explains it as fully as necessary.
Muslim starts every chapter with the isnads of the first class, and arranges them in a proper order. If one of the isnads has someone more famous for his expertise, Muslim will begin with his isnad. If all of them are equal in that respect then he will order them by: preferring the isnad of narrators from the same town over the isnad of those where students and teachers belong to different towns; preferring the isnad of a family line over isnads where the people are not from the same family; preferring the higher (shorter) isnad over the lower (longer).
After compiling the isnads of the first class of narrators he will bring the isnads of the second class, which he mentions as support. The supportive isnads (mutaba`at) are two types: complete support (mutaba`ah tammah) and incomplete (mutaba`ah qasirah). If the support is from beginning to end of the isnad, then it is mutaba`ah tammah, otherwise it is mutaba`ah qasirah. In his order of presentation Muslim begins with mutaba`ah tammah, followed by mutaba`at qasirah.
Muslim is also very accurate in narrating every hadith in its precise wording, while pointing to differences in wording among the narrations presented.
Sahih Muslim has been served by several commentaries, the most famous being those of Qadi `Iyad and Imam al-Nawawi. However these commentaries are mainly concerned with matn not isnad in the Sahih, and in important respects they have failed to understand the methodology and technical critique deployed by Muslim in his selection and arrangement of hadiths. Accordingly, neither of these commentaries is able to defend Muslim’s work against the criticism made of his compilation, of what he includes or excludes. Again both those commentaries have added chapterization and chapter headings to Muslim’s compilation – something that Muslim himself did not do – and, in doing that, they have preferred an argument that suits the thinking of jurists rather than hadith specialists and, secondly, altered the priorities that Muslim accorded to certain narrations over others.
It is important to understand the methodology of Imam Muslim in his Sahih, otherwise we fail to appreciate the greatness of the work.