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What is Hadith?

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Contemporary Western scholars of hadith include: Herbert BergFred M. Donner and Wilferd Madelung. Madelung has immersed himself in the hadith literature and has made his own selection and evaluation of tradition. Having done this, he is much more willing to trust hadith than many of his contemporaries. Madelung said of hadith: "Work with the narrative sources, both those that have been available to historians for a long time and others which have been published recently, made it plain that their wholesale rejection as late fiction is unjustified and that with [not without] a judicious use of them, a much more reliable and accurate portrait of the period can be drawn than has been realized so far.


Qur’an (literally means; ‘Recitation’) is the sacred scripture of Islam, the infallible word of God, a perfect transcription of an eternal tablet preserved in Heaven and revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) during his 23 years of his apostolic mission (610-632 C.E) for the guidance of humanity (Qur’an;12:104, 25:1, 38:87, 68:52, 81:27, 73:19). God says:
“Blessed is the One Who has revealed Al-Furqan (the criterion to distinguish right from wrong: The Qur’an) to His servant, that he may be a Warner to the worlds”(Qur’an;25:1)
“O Prophet, surely We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, for the instruction of Mankind. He who follows the Right Way shall follow it for his own good; and he who goes astray shall do so at his own peril. You are not set up as a guardian over them.”(Qur’an;39:41);
Qur’an is immutable in both form and content; the translations are just paraphrases to facilitate understanding of the actual scripture, in no way substitute to the original Arabic script.  Qur’an is eternal guide for those who ponder. Allah says:
“This Book (Al-Qur’an) which we have sent down to you (O Muhammad) is highly blessed, so that they may ponder upon its verses and the men of understanding may learn a lesson from it.”(Qur’an;38:29).
The Qur’an!  Backed up with practical demonstration of its application by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) available in the form of written and oral record of Traditions (Hadith and Sunnah).Qur’an, reveled through Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) provides the basic guide lines, the details of its explanation, the way of living acceptable and pleasing to God are provided through the practical life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He received the inspiration (wahi) of two categories, Wahi Matlu, the exact words of God, Qur’an also to be recited in prayers and ‘Wahi Ghair Matlu’, not to be recited but practiced as told and demonstrated by the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the matters of faith and Din. God says:
“And (O Muhammad) follow that which is inspired in thee, and forbear until Allah give judgment. And He is the Best of Judges.”(Qur’an;10:109); “… O Muhammad, tell them: "It is not possible for me to change it myself. I follow only what is revealed to me…”(Qur’an;10:15); “nor does he speak out of his own desire.” (Qur’an;53;2).
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the role model, Allah says:
“You have indeed, in the life of Messenger of God, the 'Best Model' for him whose hope is in God and the Day of the Hereafter, and who engages himself much in the remembrance of God.”(Qur’an;33:21).
“O ye who believe! obey Allah and obey the Messenger and make not vain your deeds!”(Qur’an;47:33)
“We sent not a messenger, but to be obeyed, In accordance with the will of Allah…”. (Qur’an;4:64).
Obedience of Messenger has been repeatedly emphasized in Qur’an; 3:31,32,132, 4:59, 5:92, 8:20, 9:71, 12;8, 24:52, 54, 33:21, 33:71, 47:33, 48:28, 64:12. The Messenger (peace be upon him) practically demonstrated to lead the life according to Qur’an, therefore Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is also referred as living Qur’an. Prophet (peace be upon him) had been entrusted with great responsibility; Allah says:
“We sent those Messengers with clear signs and scriptures; and now We have sent down the reminder (Qur’an) to you (O Muhammad), so that you may explain clearly to mankind as to what was sent to them so that they may think about it”(Qur’an;16:44).
Both Qur’an and Traditions (Sunnah) of Prophet (peace be upon him) serve as the primary source of Islamic law (Shari’a).


The term Hadith derives from the Arabic root hdth, meaning "to report,"  "to happen," and so, "to tell a happening," to speak of” or "to have, or give, as news." Hence the traditions are seen as narrative and record. From it comes Sunnah (literally, a "well-trodden path," i.e., taken as precedent and authority or directive), to which the faithful conform in submission to the sanction that Hadith possesses and that legalists, on that ground, can enjoin. Tradition in Islam is thus both content and constraint, Hadith as the biographical ground of law and Sunnah as the system of obligation derived from it.

Sunnah (Traditions):

The Sunnah (Traditions) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a broader term which include his sayings, actions, approvals and disapprovals. Even if some action was performed in the presence and knowledge of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and he kept quite; then it is considered as his approval, because he would not tolerate wrong. There are repeated commands in Qur’an, for the believers to offer Prayer and pay charity: “Therefore establish Salah (prayer), pay Charity (Zakah) and obey the messenger, so that you may be shown mercy.”(Qur’an;24:56). But the detailed procedure to offer the Salah (prayer) and details for payment of obligatory Charity (Zakah) are not found in Qur’an; but in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He laid down exceptions as elaborations of Qur’anic injunctions; for example it is prohibited to eat dead animals (Qur’an;5:3); Prophet (peace be upon him) specified the exception of fish and locust. Prohibition of  donkey meat is not mentioned in Qur’an, but in Sunnah it is found to be prohibited and zebra as permissible. Marriage with aunt of wife is not mentioned in Qur’an, but Sunnah prohibit it. It is normal to say Prayer Call (Adhan) for Salah, but in Sunnah it is found that there is no Adhan for Eid and some other types of prayers. The authentic (Sahih) Hadith do not conflict with Qur’an, any apparent conflict could be  due to misunderstanding by an individual, which will get reconciled if one goes in to the details and background.


The Traditions (Hadith and Sunnah) have been protected from corruption through record of continuous chain of reliable authentic narrators. It is through Hadith, that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has shaped and determined the behaviour patterns of the household of Islam by the posthumous leadership his personality exercised and will continue to exercise till eternity, Allah says in Qur’an: “It is He who has sent His Apostle with Guidance and the Religion of Truth to proclaim it over all religion: and enough is Allah for a Witness.”(Qur’an;48:28).
While the Qur’an was being received, there had been reluctance and misgiving about recording the words and acts of the Prophet, lest they be confused with the uniquely constituted contents of the divine scripture. At times Prophet (peace be upon him) prohibited some thing, which was later permitted; like initially women were prohibited to visit graves, as they used to make a lot of hue and cry but with more maturity they were later allowed. Although there was no formal system of recording of Hadith like the one followed for Qur’an, but there is also no authentic prohibition: Abu Saed Khidhri was reportedly prohibited by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to write Hadith along with Qur’an, to keep Qur’an pure. This incidence appears to have been quoted out of context, because some companions had been writing the sayings of Prophet (peace be upon him) in his lifetime with his permission; like Abdullah bin Umro bin Al As, Abu Rafi, Anas Bin Malik, Abu Hurairah; who had kept written record of Hadith in the form of many books, from which he used to teach many of his pupils, ‘Humam bin Minbah’ being one of them, the book named after him; translated by Dr.Hamid Ullah.
The 1st Caliph Abu Bakar wrote 500 Traditions on request of his daughter Aysha, but washed them fearing that some of them which he had listened from others might not be accurately narrated, he did not want to be accused for any doubtful Hadith. Aysha (the mother of believers) herself a great scholar, used to refer Traditions in her correspondence on theological matters.
Umar, the 2nd Caliph discussed the writing of Traditions but discarded due to the fear, people mixing it up with or relegating Qur’an as done by the Jews and Christians with their scriptures. The 3rd Caliph Ali is reported to have asked the people to bring paper (costing one Dinar), then he dictated the Traditions. This is sufficient to establish that there were no prohibitions of writing of Traditions, which were transferred from father to son and from teacher to the pupils. The huge record of written letters and instructions of Prophet (peace be upon him) has been preserved in the books of history. The oldest collection of Hadith ‘Sahifa Hamam bin Manba through Abi Hurairah’ have been researched and authenticated by Dr.Hamidullah, has now been published.

The Science of Attestation of Traditions:

A tradition had to be sustained by an expert "The Science of Attestation” be able to satisfy rigorous formal criteria of their connection with the person of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through his "companions," by an unbroken sequence of "reportage". This science became so meticulous that there was no possibility of any error. Among the pioneers in Hadith in second century Hijra were historian Ibn Ishaq (died AH 150/C.E 767) and Malik ibn Anas, (died AH 179/C.E 795): The most revered of all traditionalists was Muhammad ibn Isma'il al- Bukhari (AH 194-256 /C.E 810-870 ), His Sahih occupied 16 years of editorial pains and scrutiny. He collected 300,000 Ahadith, and he memorized 200,000 of which some were unreliable. He included approximately 7,275 traditions with full isnad. Allowing for repetitions, the net total was 2,230, for which there was no doubt about their authenticity. He arranged the whole into 97 books and 3,450 chapters or topics, repeating the traditions that bore on several themes.
The others compilers of Hadith  are Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (AH 202-261/C.E 817-875), Abu Da`ud al-Sijistani (AH 202-275/C.E 817-889), Abu 'Isa Muhammad at- Tirmidhi (died AH 279/C.E 892), Abu' Abd ar-Rahman an-Nasa’i (AH 216-303 /C.E 830-915]) and Abu 'Abdallah ibn Maja (AH 210-273/C.E 824-886). Nor did they oust the earlier collection of Malik ibn Anas, but they formed the sources of later popular editions, intended to conflate material for didactic purposes. One such was the work of Abu Muhammad al-Baghawi (died AH 516/C.E 1122) called Masabih as-Sunnah ("The Lamps of the Sunnah"). Commentaries on all these classical musannafat, or compilations, were many, and important in education and piety. The Shi’a collection of Traditions was prepared by Abu Ja'far Muhammad al-Qulini (died AH 328/C.E 939) with the tilte of  Kafi fi 'Ilm ad-Din (All You Need About the Science of Religious Practice).

Hadith Qudsi:

There are special Ahadith  attributed to Allah, called Hadith Qudsi, in which the Prophet says, “Allah says so and so”. The meaning of these Hadith was revealed to the Prophet but he put them in his own words, unlike the Qur’an which is the direct word of Almighty Allah and the Prophet conveyed it exactly as it was revealed to him.  To quote one as an example, the Prophet says the Allah says: “I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of having an associate.  Thus he who does an action for someone else's sake as well as Mine will have that action renounced by Me to him whom he associated with Me.”(Hadith Qudsi 5). The status of Hadith Qudsi is next to Qur’an but they can not be recited in prayer (salah). Thus along with Qur’an, the Traditions (Hadith &Sunnah) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are the source of guidance for the humanity for ever. After Qur’an the authenticity of Hadith literature is much higher, compared to any religious scripture, including the Bible, where even the names of authors are not known what to talk of the chain of transmission.
Ijtihad means ‘independent reasoning’ as opposed to taqlid (imitation). In the absence of direct guidance from Qur’an or Sunnah for a given situation, the exercise of rational judgment by a competent authority is termed as Ijtihad. It is a unique and important component of Shari’a. Ijtihad  started during the life of the Prophet  (peace be upon him), who while sending ‘Muadh ibn Jabal’ to Yemen, asked him: "According to what will you judge?" "According to the Book of God," replied Muadh. "And if you find nothing therein?" "According to the Sunnah of the Prophet of God." "And if you find nothing therein?" "Then I will exert myself (exercise Ijtihad) to form my own judgment." The Prophet was pleased with this reply and said: "Praise be to God Who has guided the messenger of the Prophet to that which pleases the Prophet." The rules of Ijtihad were framed by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. He laid down the principle that in deciding a case he would obtain guidance the first instance from the Holy Qur’an. If the Holy Qur’an was silent in the matter, he would look for guidance to the traditions of the Holy Prophet as duly authenticated. If the traditions were also silent he was to decide the case according to his best judgment He held: "If my decision is just then it will be from God. If it is erroneous, it will be mine, and may God pardon me." Ijtihad is fallible since more than one interpretation of a legal issue is possible.
Dr. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) is the first modern Muslim philosopher to deal with the intellectual challenges faced by Muslim Ummah in any comprehensive manner. He made an effort to address the real issues, by saying: “With the reawakening of Islam, therefore, it is necessary to examine, in an independent spirit, what Europe has thought and how far the conclusions reached by her can help us in the revision and if necessary, reconstruction, of theological thought in Islam”.  Iqbal attempted to urge the scholars for the reinterpretation of Islamic doctrines in the present age through ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ without compromising on the fundamentals. He argued that a rightly focused man should unceasingly generate vitality through interaction with the purposes of the living God.


Hadith-The Other [Non Traditional] View

There are many scholars; without denying the importance of Hadith, prefer to keep only Qur’an as the source of guidance. According to them every claim of the Qur’an is based on reason and knowledge, and its truths are beyond space and time. Hence in order to comprehend Qur’anic truths, it is essential to keep abreast of the advances made in human knowledge. And since God has endowed human beings with the ability to conquer the forces of nature, it is necessary that these forces be conquered only to fulfill God’s program for humanity.

The life and character of the Prophet (pbuh) represents the pinnacle of human dignity, decency, and greatness. His exemplary life is the best role model for humanity. They consider that there is no doubt about that part of the Prophet’s life which is preserved in the Qur’an. However, in regard to the part which is outside the Qur’an, if there are historical narrations which contradict the Qur’an, or if they go against the high moral character of the Prophet (pbuh), then these narrations are to be questioned and should not be attributed to the Prophet (pbuh). The same applies to the lives of his companions (Allah may be pleased with them). 

Hadith-The Other [Non Traditional] View

According to the traditional majority scholars of Islam, while Qur’an is the main source of guidance for humanity, the traditions [Hadith] of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also forms the other main source of Islamic law (Shari’a) along with Qur’an.
There are many scholars who; without denying the importance of authentic Hadith, prefer to keep only Qur’an as the source of guidance. They give different arguments in support of their perceptions. Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parvaiz [Lahore, Pakistan] happened to be one of them. His views may be summarized as follows:
  1. The clear established commandments given in Qur’an should be implemented as such.
  2. The guidelines provided in Qur’an should be implemented by the Islamic Governments of the time, in line with the concept of ‘Islamic Caliphate’ based upon the model provided by the Prophet (pbuh).
  3. The knowledge of realities of Qur’anic sciences will get expanded with the evolution of human knowledge, this is related with the individual thought process but one ‘School of Thought’ should not form as basis or authority for an other. 
  4. Till the establishment of Islamic system of Caliphate, [Islamic Government] the Islamic community should continue to follow their respective systems. No individual or group has the right to change the fundamental commandments or to devise any new system, which is the right of government established as the model of Islamic system of Caliphate: Which may be called as the ‘Markaz-e-Millat’ [National Center] like 1st Caliph Abubakar Siddique formed the national centre.
He was highly criticized by the traditional scholars, to the extent of calling him Kafir (unbeliever) and Munkar-e-Hadith etc. He has written a book in Urdu named as Muqam-e-Hadith [English translation: ] to logically present his views on the subject. The preface, a letter and his reply are given below which may help to understand his perceptions Instead of supporting or rejecting the views, it may be appropriate to avoid extreme positions and follow the middle course. However it is it is up to the learned reader to carry out further studies and formulate his own independent opinion.

Gamal al-Banna (1920– 2013) was an Egyptian author, and trade unionist. He was the youngest brother of Hassan al-Banna (1906–49), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.Al-Banna was considered a liberal scholar, known for his criticism of Islamic traditional narratives rejecting 635 Hadiths of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim which he finds contradictory to the Qur'an. He was a great-uncle of the Swiss Muslim academic and writer Tariq Ramadan.

Hadiths, Authentic or Not?

Hadith literature consists of mostly raw information and a religious scholar, like a good judge, must sift through this enormous data to determine what’s applicable and more trustworthy. Truth is all that matters. If history or other Hadiths do end up proving a Hadith wrong, a Muslim should have no hesitancy in rejecting a Hadith After all, a Hadith is simply somebody’s report, passed down from generation to generation, subject to human error. The Hadith compilers did their best to pick the most authentic Hadiths, but that doesn’t mean that they were always successful. Of the 600,000 or so Hadiths that were current in his time, Bukhari chose only about 7,000. But as for those who do not know much about Islam—and that unfortunately includes many Muslims— they will keep insisting that every Muslim must accept every single Hadith. That is simply false.

Based on the information that we have available, Muslim scholars have classified various Hadiths. A Hadith can be ‘sahih'(sound/authentic), ‘hasan sahih’ (higher level than sahih but lower than sahih),’hasan'(approved), ‘hasan sahih gharib’ (hasan in regard to soundness but gharib in regard to chain of transmitters), ‘gharib’ (uncommon, number of narrators is reduced to one at any stage), ‘mutawatir’ (continuous), ‘mashhur’ (well known), ‘da’if'(weak), ‘mawdu’ (forged), ‘marsal’ (forwarded), ‘marfu’ (traced directly), ‘mudallas’ (deceptive), ‘shadh’ (isolated), ‘munkar’ (disapproved), ‘munqati’ (disjoined), ‘muttasil’ (joined), ‘maqtu’ (broken), ‘mawquf’ (suspended), ‘matruk’ (abandoned), ‘mu’aalaq’ (one or more consecutive transmitters are omitted), ‘mahfudh’ (contradictory), ‘hadith qudsi’ (holy narration). [The last classification, Hadith Qudsi, refers to Hadiths in which the Prophet was quoted as saying something that God had told him].

In addition, the Who’s Who of narrators has been developed to verify their reliability, and that too needs to be taken into account. It is not as easy as looking up a Hadith and issuing a ruling.

No Muslim scholar has ever said that the task of evaluating Hadiths has come to an end. But despite their obvious flaws, Hadith literature is helpful in many ways. It provides some necessary details that would indeed be difficult to find anywhere else. Some Hadiths have been repeated so many times and have come to us from so many different sources that it would be foolish to deny them. And, ironically, it’s contradictions within Hadith literature itself that allows one to dig deeper (consult other sources), and that sometimes sets the record straight.

Besides Quran and Hadith, there are two other sources of Islam: The Sunnah (the practice) of the Prophet has been transmitted from generation to generation, which includes the method of praying, fasting, Hajj etc. The second is history, and actually some history books such as Ibn Ishaq’s “Sira” predates most Hadith books.

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