AskDefine | Define Hadith

Dictionary Definition



1 (Islam) a tradition based on reports of the sayings and activities of Muhammad and his companions
2 (Islam) the way of life prescribed as normative for Muslims on the basis of the teachings and practices of Muhammad and interpretations of the Koran [syn: Sunnah, Sunna]

Extensive Definition

Hadith ( , pl. aḥadīth; lit. "narrative") are oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith collections are regarded as important tools for determining the Sunnah, or Muslim way of life, by all traditional schools of jurisprudence.

Definition and usage

Linguistically the word ‘hadith’ means: that which is new from amongst things or a piece of information conveyed either in a small quantity or large. The Arabic plural is . In English academic usage, hadith is often both singular and plural. And hadith is what is spoken by the speaker. Tahdith is the infinitive, or verbal noun, of the original verb form . Therefore, hadith is not the infinitive, rather it is a noun.
In Islamic terminology, the term hadith refers to reports about the statements or actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, or about his tacit approval of something said or done in his presence. Classical hadith specialist Ibn Hajar says that the intended meaning of "hadith" in religious tradition is something attributed to Muhammad, as opposed to the Qur'an. Other associated words possess similar meanings: "khabar" (news, information) often refers to reports about Muhammad, but sometimes refers to traditions about his companions (sahāba) and their successors from the following generation (tābi'īn); conversely, "athar" (trace, vestige) usually refers to traditions about the companions and successors, though sometimes connotes traditions about Muhammad. The word sunnah (custom) is also used in reference to a normative custom of Muhammad or the early Muslim community. The sanad consists of a ‘chain’ of the narrators each mentioning the one from whom they heard the hadith until mentioning the originator of the matn along with the matn itself. The first people who received hadith were the companions; so they preserved and understood it, knowing both its generality and particulars, and then conveyed it to those after them as they were commanded. Then the generation following them, the Followers received it thus conveying it to those after them and so on. So the companion would say, “I heard the Prophet say such and such.” The Follower would then say, “I heard a companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet .’” The one after him (after the Follower) would then say, “I heard someone say, ‘I heard a Companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet …’’” and so on.


Hadiths were originally oral traditions of Muhammad's actions and customs. From the first Fitna of the 7th century people questioned the sources of hadiths. This resulted in a list of transmitters, for example "A told me that B told him that Muhammad said."
Hadith were eventually written down, evaluated and gathered into large collections mostly during the reign of Umar II (bin Abdul Aziz, grandson of Umar bin Khattab(RAA)2nd Caliph) during 8th century, and also in the 9th century. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and History to this day.


Traditions of the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam were passed down orally for more than a hundred years after Muhammad's death in AD 632.
Muslim historians say that caliph Uthman (the third caliph, or successor of Muhammad, who had formerly been Muhammad's secretary), was the first to urge Muslims to write the Qur'an in a fixed form, and to record the hadith. Uthman's labors were cut short by his assassination, at the hands of aggrieved soldiers, in 656.
The Muslim community (ummah) then fell into a prolonged civil war, which Muslim historians call the Fitna. After the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib was assassinated in 661, the Umayyad dynasty seized control of the Islamic empire. Ummayad rule was interrupted by a second civil war (the Second Fitna), re-established, and ended in 758 when the Abbasid dynasty seized the caliphate, and held it, at least in name, until 1258.
Muslim historians say that hadith collection and evaluation continued during the first Fitna and the Umayyad period. However, much of this activity was presumably oral transmission from early Muslims to later collectors, or from teachers to students. If any of these early scholars committed any of these collections to writing, they have not survived. The histories and hadith collections we have today were written down at the start of the Abbasid period, more than a hundred years after Muhammad's death.
Scholars of the Abbasid period were faced with a huge corpus of miscellaneous traditions, some of them flatly contradicting each other. Many of these traditions supported differing views on a variety of controversial matters. Scholars had to decide which hadith were to be trusted as authentic and which had been invented for political or theological purposes. To do this, they used a number of techniques which Muslims now call the science of hadith.


The overwhelming majority of Muslims consider hadith to be essential supplements to and clarifications of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. In Islamic jurisprudence, the Qur'an contains many rules for the behavior expected of Muslims but there are no specific Qur'anic rules on many religious and practical matters. Muslims believe that they can look at the way of life, or sunnah, of Muhammad and his companions to discover what to imitate and what to avoid. Muslim scholars also find it useful to know how Muhammad or his companions explained the revelations, or on what occasion Muhammad received them. Sometimes this will clarify a passage that otherwise seems obscure. Hadith are a source for Islamic history and biography. For the vast majority of devout Muslims, authentic hadith are also a source of religious inspiration.
Non-Muslim scholars note that there is a great overlap between the records of early Islamic traditions. Accounts of early Islam are also to be found in:

Science of hadith

The science of hadith (Arabic: `Ulum al-hadith) is a method of textual criticism developed by early Muslim scholars in determining the veracity of reports attributed to Muhammad. This is achieved by analyzing the text of the report, the scale of the report's transmission, the routes through which the report was transmitted, and the individual narrators involved in its transmission. On the basis of these criteria, various classifications were devised for hadith. The earliest comprehensive work on the science of hadith was Abu Muhammad al-Ramahurmuzi's "al-Muhaddith", while another significant work was al-Hakim al-Naysaburi's "al-Ma`rifat `ulum al-hadith". Ibn al-Salah's "`Ulum al-hadith" is considered the standard classical reference on the science of hadith. Both sahīh and hasan reports are considered acceptable for usage in Islamic legal discourse. Classifications of hadith may also be based upon the scale of transmission. Reports that pass through many reliable transmitters at each point in the isnad up until their collection and transcription are known as mutawātir. These reports are considered the most authoritative as they pass through so many different routes that collusion between all of the transmitters becomes an impossibility. Reports not meeting this standard are known as ahad, and are of several different types. Examples of biographical dictionaries include Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani's "Tahdhīb al-Tahdhīb" or al-Dhahabi's "Tadhkirat al-huffāz."


Currently there is little communication between the world of Muslim hadith scholarship and Western academia. Muslim scholars reject the Westerners as Orientalists who are hostile to religion in general and Islam in particular. Western academics tend to dismiss Muslim scholars as irrelevant, bound as they are to a millennia-old technique of hadith evaluations which modern scholarship regards as out-dated.
However, some Muslim scholars have undergone Western academic training and attempted to mediate between the traditional Muslim and the secular Western view. Notable among these was Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988) who argued that while the chain of transmission of the hadith may often be spurious, the matn can still be used to understand how Islam can be lived in the modern world. Liberal movements within Islam tend to agree with Rahman's views to varying degrees.

Muslim view

Muslims who accept hadith believe that trusted hadith are in most cases the words of Muhammad and not the word of God, like the Qur'an. Hadith Qudsi forms a partial exception; these (few) hadith are said to recount divine revelations given to Muhammad but not included in the Qur'an. However, the words (as opposed to the substance) are believed to be Muhammad's own, and not divine.
While both hadith and Qur'an have been translated, most Muslims believe that translations of the Qur'an are inherently deficient, amounting to little more than a commentary upon the text. There is no such belief regarding hadith. Practicing Muslims cleanse themselves (wudu) before reading or reciting the Qur'an; there is no such requirement for reading or reciting the hadith. Even for Muslims who accept the hadith, they are lower in rank when compared to the Qur'an.
Muslims also use the Ahadith to interpret parts of the Qur'an when things are not clear. however, they are not used to determine the meaning of the whole Qur'an.

Sunni view

The Sunni canon of hadith took its final form more than 230 years after the death of Muhammad (632 AD). Later scholars may have debated the authenticity of particular hadith but the authority of the canon as a whole was not questioned. This canon, called the Six major Hadith collections, includes:
Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are usually considered the most reliable of these collections. There is some debate over whether the sixth member of this canon should be Ibn Maja or the Muwatta of Imam Malik, which is the earliest hadith canon but predates much of the methodology developed by the classic hadith scholars.
While there are still many traditional Muslims who rely on the ulema and its long tradition of hadith collection and criticism, other contemporary Sunni Muslims are willing to reconsider tradition. Liberal Muslims are most apt to trust the individual conscience, but there are also Salafis who demand the same freedom. The Salafis claim that the ordinary believer can trust his or her own judgment (even if he or she is not trained in Islamic scholarship) if he or she relies on Bukhari and Muslim, the commentators deemed to be sahih, and ignores the weak hadith.

Shi'a view

Shi'a Muslims trust traditions transmitted by Muhammad's descendants through Fatima Zahra. There are various branches within Shi'a Islam and within each branch, various traditions of scholarship. Each branch and scholar may differ as to the hadith to be accepted as reliable and those to be rejected.
Four prominent Shi'a hadith collections are: Shi'a scholars do not believe that everything in the four major books are sahih. Every hadith must be individually examined through the process of ilm-ul-hadith. Any hadith that conflicts with the Quran or logic is excluded.

Ibadi view

Ibadi Islam (found mainly in the Arabian kingdom of Oman) accepts many Sunni hadith, while rejecting others, and accepts some hadith not accepted by Sunnis. Ibadi jurisprudence is based only on the hadith accepted by Ibadis, which are far less numerous than those accepted by Sunnis. Several of Ibadism's founding figures - in particular Jabir ibn Zayd - were noted for their hadith research, and Jabir ibn Zayd is accepted as a reliable narrator by Sunni scholars as well as Ibadi ones.
The principal hadith collection accepted by Ibadis is al-Jami'i al-Sahih, also called Musnad al-Rabi ibn Habib, as rearranged by Abu Ya'qub Yusuf b. Ibrahim al-Warijlani. A large proportion of its narrations are via Jabir ibn Zaid or Abu Yaqub; most are reported by Sunnis, while several are not. The total number of hadith it contains is 1005, and an Ibadi tradition recounted by al-Rabi has it that there are only 4000 authentic prophetic hadith. The rules used for determining the reliability of a hadith are given by Abu Ya'qub al-Warijlani, and are largely similar to those used by Sunnis; they criticize some of the companions, believing that some were corrupted after the reign of the first two caliphs. The Ibadi jurists accept hadith narrating the words of Muhammad's companions as a third basis for legal rulings, alongside the Qur'an and hadith relating Muhammad's words.

Non-Muslim views

Early Western exploration of Islam consisted primarily of translation of the Qur'an and a few histories, often supplemented with disparaging commentary. In the nineteenth century, scholars made greater attempts at impartiality, and translated and commented upon a greater variety of texts. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Western scholars of Islam started to critically engage with the Islamic texts, subjecting them to the same agnostic, searching scrutiny that had previously been applied to Christian texts (see higher criticism). Ignaz Goldziher is the best known of these turn-of-the-century iconoclasts, who also included D. S. Margoliuth, Henri Lammens, and Leone Caetani. Goldziher writes, in his Muslim Studies: The next generations of Western scholars were also sceptics, on the whole: Joseph Schacht, in his Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (1959), argued that isnads going back to Muhammad were in fact more likely to be spurious than isnads going back to the companions. John Wansbrough, in the 1970s, and his students Patricia Crone and Michael Cook were even more sweeping in their dismissal of Muslim tradition, arguing that even the Qur'an was likely to have been collected later than claimed.
Contemporary Western scholars of hadith include:
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.
Some quotes:
  • Wilferd Madelung
Harald Motzki: Ignaz Goldziher was of the opinion that most hadeeths had been invented by the transmitters to justify certain opinions of their own. According to him hadeeths should not be seen as authentic historical accounts. Goldzihers suggestion has been refuted to a certain level by Fuat Sezgin. According to Fuat Sezgin most Hadeeths are authentic.



  • The development of exegesis in early Islam: the authenticity of Muslim literature from the formative period
  • Constructive Critics, Hadith Literature, and the Articulation of Sunni Islam
  • Islamic Historiography

Further reading

  • Brown, J. (2007). The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
  • The Arts of Hadith Compilation and Criticism
  • Musa, A. Y. Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on The Authority Of Prophetic Traditions in Islam, New York: Palgrave, 2008

External links

  • Hadith, article on Enyclopaedia Britannica Online

Hadith collections

Hadith in Arabic: حديث نبوي
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