The Sunnah (traditions) of the Prophet SAWS, along with Quran, is the cornerstone of the teachings of Islam. Among majority of the scholars, the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad SAWS is defined as the sayings (Hadith Qauli or the verbal order), actions (Hadith Fa’lee or the action) or approval of actions (Hadith Taqreeri) that are related to the beliefs as well as rulings of the Islamic faith – both in terms of rituals as well as daily life actions. The Sunnah has one of three roles when it comes to a ruling.

  1. It emphasizes what is mentioned in Quran. e.g., the emphasis in many aHadith (Plural of Hadith) on the importance of prayers similar to what is mentioned in the Quran;
  2. It explains what has come as a ruling in Quran. e.g., the number of daily prayers and the number of rakaa’h in each prayer.
  3. It initiates a ruling that is binding upon the followers of the religion of Islam. e.g., forbidding eating the flesh of donkey.

Throughout the history, people attacking the validity of Islam as well as some who believed in Islam have questioned the authenticity of the traditions and sayings of the Prophet SAWS. Some of the points that they raise are:

  • Accuracy of the text being narrated
  • Forgetfulness of the narrators
  • Deceit on part of the narrators


Establishing the Science of Sunnah and Hadeeth

To answer the questions raised above, one would need to visit the history of the development of this science. Islamic scholars have been concerned and involved with the authenticity of Hadith from the days of the Prophet SAWS. The Prophet in the beginning of the days of revelation would ask the companions not to write down his sayings. Some of the reasons for this were the following:

  • The companions would confuse the verses of the Quran with his sayings as they had yet to memorize the Quran
  • They might leave the teachings of Quran and emphasize more on the Sunnah
  • The original list of companions was small and the Arabs were known to have a very sharp memory

Later, as time passed, the Prophet SAWS allowed the companions to write down his sayings on different media such as skins, rocks, etc. The Prophet SAWS personally vouched for the truthfulness of his companions and as one of the companions himself described:

We were a nation where no one would lie to each other. But when the Prophet SAWS passed away and lying became more prevalent, we would ask the narrator to name the source from where he was quoting the Hadith

The companions of the Prophet SAWS would be very careful in narrating a Hadith and many would refuse to do so for many reasons including:

  • The fear of accidentally falsifying the Hadith – Abu Bakar once said: “Which sky will cover me and which earth will refuge me if I say something in this religion which is not true” (i.e. what if I make a mistake and people start following it)
  • Fear of forgetting the text – When one of the companions was asked to narrate a hadeeth, he said: “We grew and we forgot and the Hadith of the Prophet SAWS is difficult” (i.e. its memorization)

Science of the narrators (Ilm Alrijaal)

As the companions started to pass away, the era of Tabi’een (generation after companions that never saw the Prophet SAWS) began. During this time, the scholars became very careful in narrating the traditions and the scholars would emphasize on naming the source before accepting any narration of hadeeth. Many scholars of this generation were known to travel many miles and take on arduous journeys to even collect one Hadith from the companions of the Prophet SAWS. When a person would narrate a Hadith, some of the steps that scholars would take to establish the authenticity of the Hadith would include the following.

  1. They would review the history of the narrator to ensure that he did not have a history of lying.
  2. Some of the scholars would ask the narrator of their source and then would travel themselves to confirm the source and thus the authenticity of the Hadith.
  3. They would evaluate the text against the verses of the Quran as well as other Ahadith to ensure that it did not violate any other established text.

The first two actions came to be known as Ilm Alrijaal or the science of the narrators. During this time, they started documenting both the Ahadith as well as the science of narrators. The documenting of Hadith would consist of documenting the actual text along with the whole chain of narrations. A sample Hadith would look something like:

“On the authority of person X, who heard from the companion Y that the Prophet SAWS said ‘text goes here’ “

Merely documenting the text would not guarantee the authenticity of the Hadith. Rather, it would document what the narrator collected and would leave the judgment to the reader. The readers would present this to established scholars of the time who would comment on the authenticity as they would have already spent a lifetime in this effort and would be fully knowledgeable of the science of narrators. Any text without the narrations would not be looked at and simply discarded when it came to passing a ruling.

The science of narrators consisted of documenting the names of the narrators and their attributes. An example would look like:

“Person X: Dependable, truthful as described by person A, person B, person C

Person Y: Falsifier, liar known for his deceit as described by his actions and W, K, L”

While Islam forbids backbiting, the scholars would not consider this as such. They maintained that the people have a right to know the authenticity of the narrator to be able to judge the Hadith.

The science of narrations and the narrators continued on this trend until scholars like Bukahri, Muslim, Ibn Hibban, Hakim, Ibn Majah, Nasai, etc. took upon themselves to compile these Ahadith into books. The scholars took various routes to these compilations such as:

  • Compile only the Sahih (Authentic) Ahadith. Examples would be Bukhari, Muslim and Hakim. While all these scholars strived to compile the authentic Ahadith, they were still reviewed by the contemporary scholars as well as scholars after them. While all the past and contemporary scholars of Ahadith agree upon the authenticity of Bukahri and Muslim, they did not grant the same status to other books such as Sahih Ibn Hibban and wrote commentaries on the Ahadith contained in those books.
  • Compile the sayings that were related only to jurisprudence. Such a book would only include the sayings related to rituals of worship and daily life without including the sayings related to the Islamic creed (Aqeedah). Such books would not comment on the authenticity but rather give the full narrations including the chain of narration. The authenticity of those narrations were left to the established authorities such as Bukhari, Muslim and others after them.

The above list is not meant to be exhaustive by any means as the students of this science spend many years trying to master these concepts.

Taxonomy and classes of Ahadith

Before concluding this piece of writing, it will be beneficial to list the taxonomy of Ahadith that have been compiled. Please note that only the most famous types are listed below.

Sahih: This is a Hadi
th which has a chain of narration that is composed of trusted narrators and the text of the Hadith is unqualified (Example of qualifications would be the ruling in the text being revoked by a later ruling such as the fasting of the tenth of Muharram used to be mandatory but later became voluntary when the fasting during the month of Ramadhan was mandated).

Hasan: This is similar to above, but the chain of narration is not quite as pristine.

Note: Any rulings contained in Ahadith that fall under the above two categories are considered as binding upon the Muslims by many scholars.

Mauquf: Such a narration is by the companion and not by the Prophet SAWS.

Mawdu: Such a narration is a falsified account due to either false text and / or one or more narrators who has been known to falsify narrations.

Mursal: This is a narration in which the Tabi’ee (generation after the companion) narrates a Hadith directly from the Prophet SAWS without mentioning the companion.

Maqtu: This is a narration in which there is a break in the chain of the narration. Since the era of existence and the dates of deaths of various narrators is known in the science of narrators, scholars can easily point out the missing links in the narrations.

The above Ahadith (with the exception of Sahih and Hasan) are not considered binding in determining a religious ruling and the scholars would not decide anything based on them.

The science of Hadith authentication is very comprehensive and includes numerous checks and balances. This post was meant to provide the readers an overview only.

Your feedback, ideas and knowledge on this topic are very welcome !