The True Meaning of Ṣaḥīḥ

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

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They asked: What is the true meaning of the ṣaḥīḥ (sound) ḥadīth?

I replied: Experts of this discipline have used it for a variety of meanings, all of which have in common the reliability or verification of a report’s attribution to its source.

Three-Tier Usage of Ṣaḥīḥ

They asked: What are the most notable of these meanings?

I replied: There are three broad usages of the term ṣaḥīḥ:

The first usage of ṣaḥīḥ is for a report that is attributed to the Prophet which fulfills five conditions:

  1. Contiguous chain: There must be clear continuity of the chain without any missing link or deception on the part of any narrator (tadlīs).
  2. Moral uprightness: Each narrator from the beginning to the end of the chain must be described as truthful in word and action, as known by the people of his or her era.
  3. Accuracy: There must be accuracy and precision in each narrator, whether through memory or writing, and safety from any distortion, misrepresentation, gross mistakes or negligence. Here, certain narrators distinguished themselves over others through the length of their companionship and fellowship with their teachers.
  4. The absence of contradictory elements: The narration must not be opposed by another one that is known to be stronger, either in number of chains or in its content.
  5. Being free of any hidden weaknesses: There must be reasonable certainty that the report does not contain any subtle missing links while being apparently connected, is not erroneously raised to the Prophet, or does not contain a mistaken addition to the text, or a misrepresentation, distortion, substitution, or any other similar more elusive defects.

These conditions are specific to the Ṣaḥīḥ compilations of the two great Imāms and experts Abū ʿAbdullah Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) and Abū al-Ḥusayn Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī (d. 261/875). Both of their compilations did not miss any single one of these conditions, nor did they surpass them, except in their secondary material (supporting and witnessing narrations and chapter headings).

The second usage of ṣaḥīḥ is for those reports that are narrated by trustworthy individuals through a chain that is overtly connected, as well as for some reports of unknown individuals who were otherwise accepted by early experts and critics like Mālik, Shuʿbah and their likes.
This is the meaning of the term ṣaḥīḥ when used by the majority of the early ḥadīth scholars like Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and his companions, Abū Dāwūd, Tirmidhī, and even Bukhārī and Muslim in their other works apart from their two Ṣaḥīḥ compilations.

The third usage is for any report related by transmitters who have not been accused of lying, major mistakes or gross negligence. This is the meaning of ṣaḥīḥ for Ibn Khuzaymah, Ḥākim, Ibn Ḥibbān and others.

Where Does the Muwaṭṭaʾ Fit In?

They asked: Why have you not included the Muwaṭṭaʾ in the first category?

I replied: For two simple reasons: first, because the Muwaṭṭaʾ being a more complex work can belong to this category as well as others, and second, everything that it contains from the first category of ṣaḥīḥ reports is already found in the two Ṣaḥīḥ collections

The Conditions of Bukhārī and Muslim Are in Two Tiers

They asked: Why do you believe that Bukhārī and Muslim did not miss a single of these five conditions? Is it not established that they did miss some of these conditions in their ṣaḥīḥ reports?

I replied: No, it is indeed as I have stated. Bukhārī and Muslim did not miss any of these conditions in their first-tier ṣaḥīḥ reports but only in their second-tier ṣaḥīḥ reports.

They asked: Provide an example of Bukhārī declaring a report as ṣaḥīḥ that is outside of his Ṣaḥīḥ work and does not fulfill the conditions of that work.

I replied: Tirmidhī states in his work, in the Book on Purity (Ṭahārah), Chapter: [What has been related about the one with excessive uterine bleeding that she can combine two prayers with one washing]:
Muḥammad b. Bashshār related to me: Abū ʿĀmir al-ʿAwadī related to me: Zuhayr b. Muḥammad related to me: from ʿAbdullah b. Muḥammad b. ʿUqayl: from Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ṭalḥah: from his uncle ʿImrān b. Ṭalḥah: from his mother Ḥamnah bint Jahsh, who said: I was suffering from excessive and severe bleeding, so I came to the Prophet to seek his advice . . . Abū ʿĪsā (Tirmidhī) then states: This ḥadīth is ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ . . . I asked Muḥammad (i.e. Bukhārī) about this ḥadīth and he declared that it is ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ. And this is also what Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal said.

They asked: Give us also an example of a ḥadīth authenticated by Imām Muslim which he did not include in his Ṣaḥīḥ.

I replied: Muslim states in his Ṣaḥīḥ: In the ḥadīth transmitted by Jarīr on the authority of Sulaymān from Qatādah, there is the addition: “When [the Qurʾān] is recited [in prayer], you should observe silence.” And the following words are not found in a hadith narrated by anyone except by Abū Kāmil from Abū ʿAwānah: “Verily God vouchsafed through the tongue of God’s Messenger this: ‘God listens to him who praises Him.’”
Abū Isḥāq (a student of Imam Muslim) said: Abū Bakr the son of Abū Naḍr’s sister has critically discussed this ḥadīth. Imam Muslim said to him: Whom can you find who is more authentic as a transmitter of ḥadīth than Sulaymān? Abū Bakr replied to him (Imam Muslim): What about the hadith narrated by Abū Hurayrah, i.e. the hadith that when the Qurʾān is recited (in prayer) observe silence? Muslim replied: That ḥadīth is ṣaḥīḥ in my estimation. Abū Bakr then asked: Then, why have you not included it (in your compilation)? Muslim replied: I have not included in this work every ḥadīth which I deem authentic, but I have recorded only such ḥadīth reports upon which there is agreement.

The meaning of “upon which there is agreement” is that it is ṣaḥīḥ with conditions that are agreed upon by the experts, which is the first type of ṣaḥīḥ we have previously alluded to.

The Acceptability of Some Reports of Unknown Narrators

They asked: How have you included in the second type some ḥadīth reports of unknown narrators?

I replied: I have only included the reports of those unknown narrators who were accepted by the likes of Mālik and Shuʿbah. Tirmidhī states in the Book of Purity (Kitāb al-Ṭahārah), Chapter: [What Has Been Related About Sea Water That It is Pure]: Qutaybah narrated to us from Mālik . . . And al-Anṣārī Isḥāq b. Mūsā also narrated to us: Maʿan narrated to us: Mālik narrated to us from Ṣafwān b. Sulaym from Saʿīd b. Salamah—of the family of Ibn al-Azraq—that al-Mughīrah b. Abū Burdah—and he was from the clan of ʿAbd al-Dār—informed him that he heard Abū Hurayrah say: A man asked God’s Messenger “O Messenger of God! We sail the seas, and we only carry a little water with us. If we use it for ablution we would go thirsty. So shall we perform ablution from the water of the sea?” God’s Messenger replied: “Its water is pure, and its dead are lawful.” Abū ʿĪsā (Tirmidhī) said: This ḥadīth is ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ.

Those others than Tirmidhī have also deemed it ṣaḥīḥ. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr says: Muḥammad b. ʿĪsā Tirmidhī asked Bukhārī about it and he replied that it is a ṣaḥīḥ ḥadīth.

I also said: Saʿīd b. Salamah and al-Mughīrah b. Abū Burdah both are unknown to some extent. Ibn al-Madīnī said: al-Mughīrah b. Abū Burdah was a man from the tribe of ʿAbd al-Dār who heard ḥadīth from Abū Hurayrah, but he only heard this one ḥadīth. Despite that, they authenticated this ḥadīth notwithstanding the unknown status of some of its narrators, because it was a ḥadīth related and relied upon by Mālik

They asked: Why do you say about the second type, “overtly connected”?

I replied: Because they authenticated ḥadīth of those who were known for tadlīs without fully investigating the reasons for that tadlīs, and examples of these are abundant in Tirmidhī and others.

The Laxity of Third-Tier Ṣaḥīḥ Reports

They asked: Why have you omitted all of the conditions of authenticity in the third type?

I replied: It is indeed as I have mentioned, and if you want to uncover the truth then look into those books for yourself and you will find them filled with ḥadīth of weak and even accused narrators.

They asked: Where are the reports of the historians with respect to these three types of ṣaḥīḥ?

I replied: They are in the third category, or even lesser than that, because they are filled with narrations that are disconnected at single or multiple levels, spuriously discovered, contradictory, extremely weak, and even fabricated, a fact which is not hidden from anyone who looks into them.

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