Introduction to Hadith:
The “Traditions” of the Prophet Muhammad
- Hadith Components
- Evaluation Criteria
- Hadith Classifications
Introduction: As the final Messenger of Allah, Muhammad has a special place in the history and culture of Islam. Not only was Muhammad the leader of the Muslim community, and the vehicle through whom the Qur`an was revealed, but he was also considered, by virtue of his status as a Messenger of God, to be close to God and to be a suitable model for human behavior. Because of this, Muhammad’s leadership guided the community while he was alive, but his example was believed to be normative long after his death. Given this importance, the Muslim community recorded his words and actions for posterity, and as the number of these reported conversations grew exponentially in the century after his death, the community developed sophisticated methods for evaluating their veracity. Since these Hadith were an important source for the development of Islamic law, the community had to know which traditions were reliable, and which were clearly fraudulent. The two most important compiler/evaluators were Bukhari (d. 870 CE) and Muslim (d. 875), although four other collections are accepted by all Sunni Muslims (by al-Tirmidhi, Abu Da’ud al-Sijistani, al-Nasa’I, and Ibh Majah).
A Hadith is composed of two major parts, the text (which gave the actual content) and the chain of transmission (which named the people who had reported this, going back to the time of the Prophet.
A. Text (matn)The text or matn gave the actual account of the Prophet’s words or behavior (“The Prophet said….”). A particular Hadith’s text was usually not questioned in itself, unless it was contradicted by a more authoritative source--either the Qur`an, or a better-attested Hadith.
B. Chain of Transmission (isnad)
The reliability of Hadith were usually judged by evaluating the chain of transmission, according to the criteria below.
Evaluating Hadith: Criteria include
A. The source to whom attributed
1. Allah (Hadith Qudsi): A limited number of sayings are attributed directly to Allah, and relayed through the Prophet Muhammad
2. Muhammad: Reports a narration from the Prophet himself (e.g., “the Prophet said…”)
3. Companion: Reports a narration from a companion alone (e.g., “we were told to…”). This is less authoritative, but still eyewitness experience.
4. Successor: Narrator comes a time after the Prophet. These cannot be authoritative, since these people could not have had direct contact with the Prophet.
B. The Number of Reporters in each Generation
1. Multiple Reporters: If many people in each generation report and transmit an identical Hadith, it is unlikely that they could have all colluded to support a false Hadith, and thus this Hadith is deemed reliable, unless the Hadith contradicts the teaching of the Qur'an or a better-attested Hadith. Hadith with multiple reporters in every generation seem to have been uncommon.
2. A Few Reporters in one or More Generations: In cases when only a few people (or in the extreme case, one person) in a generation report a Hadith, it must be examined with greater care, since fewer people attest to it. Here the examiners focused on the character of the speaker(s)--in particular, whether they were pious and learned, trustworthy, and whether they had good memories--in short, whether they would have been able to understand what they said, and to transmit it unchanged. If all of these were true, the traditions can still be reliable, but if any of these are deficient, the tradition is much weaker.
C. Links of the Isnad
1. "Supported": The most authoritative. This is a Hadith reported by a person who learned it from a teacher at an age suitable for learning, who had learned it from his teacher (etc.)…. who heard it from a Companion of the Prophet, who reported it of the Prophet himself. This is authoritative for reporting the Prophet’s actual words and deeds.
2. “Continuous”: a Hadith with an uninterrupted chain of transmission back only to a companion of the Prophet.
The other types of isnad (all invalid) all omit one or another of the people somewhere in this chain between the reporter and the Prophet—and this omission means that the direct link back to Prophet has been broken.
Final Hadith Classifications
Except for the rejected Hadith at far right, these classifications reflect the probability that these Hadith are genuine, and do not presume to tell w/certainty.
A. Sahih (“exact”)
Sahih Hadith (the most reliable) are of two sorts:
1. If the isnad has many transmitters in every single generation.
2. If a Hadith with an unbroken isnad has only a few transmitters (one, two, etc.) in any generation, it is reliable if and only if the transmitters were pious Muslims, truthful, reliable, of an age to understand exactly what they were learning, and reported the Hadith’s text verbatim.
B. Hasan (“Fair”)
Hasan Hadith are less reliable than the Sahih Hadith.
These are Hadith in which the isnad is reliable and unambiguous, but the tradition is not as strong as for a Sahih Hadith
C. Daif (“Weak”)
These are unreliable traditions, either because
1. The isnad is interrupted, and thus the chain of eyewitness testimony does not go all the way back to the Prophet, OR
2. One or more of the reporters is considered unreliable (e.g., lacking true piety, being a liar, drinking alcohol, poor memory, or any other factor impugning that person's testimony).
A Hadith reported by a weak narrator, whose content runs counter to a better-attested Hadith; this has no authority, and is denounced.
This clearly has no authority.
One of the sub-disciplines of Hadith criticism was extensive biographical information for the people mentioned in the Hadith. One reason for this was to list the “character” factors that would be necessary to be a reliable transmitter, but the biographies also listed biographical information about people’s eras and native places, contacts, travels, and personal habits. These latter were done to help establish an unbroken isnad, since if a Hadith claimed that Person A had learned it from person B, but if these two people did not live in the same era or in the same place, that Hadith was clearly unreliable. The energy and vigor that the early Muslim community put into this is a clear sign of how important “getting this right” was to them.
Acknowledgements: The Arabic terms here (since I know very little Arabic) come from “The Science of Hadith,” an article from Perspectives posted on the USC Islamic server at
http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/scienceofhadith/brief1/. Other information (primarily historical background) comes from chapter nine in Frederic Denny’s An Introduction to Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1994).