In a previous entry some weeks back was a very brief explanation of what a Hadith consists of and its various degrees of authenticity. It is best for a Muslim to have even the vaguest idea of what a Hadith is to guide him along the way – though this does not automatically make him a scholar. This is an error that many of us make and few are aware of.
In order to understand the requirements of the Sahih, for example, one must inquire the history of the Islamic oral tradition – the conditions in which it thrived, as well as its developments over centuries and centuries of civilization. It is mainly the ever-changing state of Muslims that has driven this field to become what we see today. The demand for precision and authenticity rose to a critical height as Islam spread over wide expanses of cultures, ethnicities and former beliefs.
According to the Muhadditheen (scholars of Hadith) the history of the Islamic oral tradition is generally divided into 7 eras. Each era has a certain nature of development. For example, the collections of Bukhari and Muslim did not appear until the 3rd era, which is roughly 3-4 centuries after the Prophet’s (Pbuh) death. This is because they were dependent on the developments of the preceding era, where the foundations of ‘Ulum al-Hadeeth were laid down. Examples of this are Al-Jarh wa At-Ta’deel and ‘Ilal Al-Hadeeth the inception of these owing to scholars like Shuhbah ibn Al-Hajjaj, Sufyan Ath-Thawri, ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Mahdi and Imam Al-Zuhri. It is also in this second era that Imam Ash-Shafi’ee wrote his famous treatise on Usul al-Fiqh titled Al-Risalah, in which he also explains various criterions of accepting Hadith.
This entry will only focus on the first era. The rest will be explained in consequetive entries, insha-Allah.
The first era begins with the death of the Prophet (Pbuh) and ends simultaneously with the closure of the 4 Rightly Guided Caliphs’ honourable reign. The companions were all extremely cautious about expressively attributing anything to the Prophet (Pbuh). Because all of them have had direct experience with the Prophet (Pbuh) himself, their actions could be justified and directly traced back to him, where it mattered.
Where narrations were required, the companions were very strict and highly skeptical about Ahadith that they have never heard of before (and rightly so, because they spent the most time with the Prophet pbuh). In such a situation, they would require an oath or a witness to verify that the narration was true – even if it was between the 4 Khulafa’ themselves. An example of such an incident was when Sayyidina ‘Ali (r.a) accepted Sayyidina Abu Bakr’s (r.a) oath on the hadith, “Whomsoever performs ablution and then proceeds to perform 2 Raka’ah, Allah will forgive his sins”. This does not, in any way, allude to any inadequacy on Abu Bakr’s part. It only goes to show the strictness of the Sahaba at the time. The ones who were most stringent were the 4 companions themselves.
Relating to this, it should also be noted that not all Hadith is meant for public consumption. The Prophet (Pbuh) is very wise and gives specific advice to specific people. This means that one’s state, faith and piety are all precursors to the level of knowledge on which such advice is given. This is most common amongst the Ghareeb Hadith. An example is a Hadith narrated by Mu’az ibn Jabal, where the Prophet (Pbuh) said, “whoever proclaims ‘la ilaha illa Allah with a sincere heart, Allah will prevent him from falling into the fire”. Mu’az then asked the Prophet (Pbuh) if he could spread this to the others, which the Prophet (Pbuh) forbade him from doing, for fear that it might be misunderstood, and people would neglect their deeds upon hearing it.
And Allah knows.
Al-Jarh wa At-Ta’deel : literally means ‘discrediting and accrediting’ – also known as ‘Ilm al-Rijal, meaning ‘knowledge of men’. This is a form of biographical evaluation used in discerning authenticity.
‘Ilal al-Hadeeth : literally means ‘flaws in Hadeeth’, a field first established by Imam Al-Zuhri, a renowned collector of Seerah (history).
Usul al-Fiqh: literally means ‘the origins of Fiqh’, focused on jurisprudence, and the methodology of deriving laws from the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Ghareeb: Ahadith with only a single narrator at a point of transmission.