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Hadith (الحديث; pl. ahadith) literally translates to mean "talk", but is most commonly used as an Islamic term that refers to the orally-transmitted accounts of Muhammad's life, wherein Muhammad does, says, or tacitly (that is, silently) approves of something. The hadiths, passed down orally before being written down, for the most part, some 150-200 years after Muhammad's death, are second in their religious authority only to the Qur'an and, since the collections of hadith are far, far vaster (and more detailed) than the (at times vague) Qur'an, they form the basis for the great majority of Islamic law and the Sunnah. Indeed, even the details regarding the Five Pillars of Islam are found only in the hadith (the Qur'an, focused more on matters of belief, simply mentions these rituals every once in a while without providing anything in the way of clear details).

More broadly, the word "Hadith" refers to the statements and actions of Muhammad as well as his companions. In the Shi'ite tradition, the term "Hadith" extends to include the statements and actions of the ahl al-bayt (Muhammad's descendants through Fatima, as well as the twelve Imams).

Compilation and authenticity according to traditionalists

Oral traditions and early sectarianism

Though the authenticity of any of the Hadith has come under increasing scrutiny in modern times (in light of scholarship on the reliability of oral traditions, virtually unending political conflicts after Muhammad's death, frequent internal contradiction, and, often, clear cases of fabrication), the early scholars of Islam responsible for the transcription of the hadith did themselves employ a seemingly sophisticated method of verification that relied on the plausibility of: the "chains" of transmission (or asaneed; sing. isnad) allegedly connecting the hadith back to the prophet, the reliability of the narrators' morals and memory, and, indeed, the matn, or text, of the hadith itself (that is, the plausibility of the prophet actually having said/done what the report attests to).

Despite this apparent rigor, the hadith would ultimately be compiled along sectarian, political, and polemical lines, generally with narrations supporting the compiling group's point of view (matn-based analysis playing no small part in this outcome). Today, Sunnis and Shi'ites have separate collections of hadiths. That the meaning of "hadith" extended to include the sayings and doings of Muhammad's companions, many of whom would be deeply embroiled in the political turmoil that would follow Muhammad's death (prominently, Ali and Aisha), only facilitated the splitting of the tradition.

Degrees of authenticity

While circumstances surrounding and preceding the compilation of the hadith cast the entire corpus in a dubious light, the hadith cannot be viewed as entirely reliable or unreliable, as even hadith scholars themselves differentiate(d) between what they grade(d) as:

Sahih (authentic),

Hasan (good),

Da'if (weak),

Mawdu' (fabricated hadith),

and Munkar (rejected; referring usually to less reliable hadith that contradict more reliable hadith).

Consequently, even from an Islamic standpoint, the vast, vast, majority of hadith floating around prior to the compilation of the hadith are considered unreliable. Most famously, the Sunni scholars Imam Bukhari (d. 870) and Imam Muslim (d. 875) are said to have sifted through hundreds of thousands of narrations to ultimately decide only a few thousand were truly reliable. Slightly earlier collections of hadith do exist, famously the collections of Imam Malik (d. 795) and Imam Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), but these are not considered as altogether reliable (even if individual traditions within these works are reliable) as the collections of Bukhari and Muslim.

Collections of hadith, unlike the Qur'an, are generally grouped topically, chronologically, or by the companion who is alleged to have narrated them (this last type of organization within a collection of hadith renders the work a musnad, such as the Musnad of Imam Ahmad).[1]

Reference in the Qur'an

He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah: But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds).
Say: "O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided."


The word 'Sunni' comes from the word 'Sunnah', and most of the world's Muslims (as many as 80-90%)[2][3][4][5][6] follow this Sunni form of Islam. There are certain Hadith collections considered by most Sunnis to be trustworthy and these are commonly known as the Authentic Six. Only two of them, however, are considered entirely authentic (sahih), and these are Bukhari and Muslim. These collections are second only to the Qur'an in authority. The others are from Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasa'i, and Ibn Majah. In strength, Malik's Muwatta' is placed just below the two Sahihs, but is not generally included among the authentic six.[7]

Online hadith collections in English


In Shi'ite Islam (approx 10-20% of the world's Muslim population)[2][8][5][6] they have their own collections and are more particular in regards to the Hadith narrations they will accept. If a narrator was not a member of the Ahl al-Bayt (Muhammad's household) or one of their supporters, then the narration is typically rejected. For example, they reject narrations from Abu Huraira. Al-Kafi is considered the most reliable collection of Shi'ite hadith.[9]

Qur'anist ("submitters", "Reformists", etc.)

This minority group rejects the Hadith altogether and are classed as heretics by mainstream Islam. This "Qur'an-only" approach to the Islamic faith is not without its criticisms, as in the absence of hadith, much of Islamic ritual and religious history lacks basis.

Historians' views on the reliability of the hadith

Ignác Goldziher (d. 1921), considered one of the "founder[s] of modern Islamic studies in Europe", wrote the following:

It is not at all rare in the literature of traditions that sayings are ascribed to the Prophet which for a long time circulated in Islam under the authority of another name. So-called ahadith mawqufa, i.e. sayings traced back to companions or even successors, were very easily transformed into ahadith marfu'a, i.e. sayings traced back to the Prophet, by simply adding without much scruple a few names at random which were necessary to complete the chain.
Ignác Goldziher, C.R. Barber; S.M. Stern, eds, Muslim Studies, II, Allen and Unwin, p. 148, ISBN 9780042900094, 1971 

Joseph Schacht (d. 1969), the leading scholar on the history of Islamic law during his time, wrote the following:

We shall have to conclude that, generally and broadly speaking, traditions from Companions and Successors are earlier than those from the Prophet.
Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Clarendon Press, p. 3, ISBN 9780198253570, 1979 
[T]he backwards growth of the isnads in particular is identical with the projection of doctrines back to higher authorities. Generally speaking, we can say that the most perfect and complete isnads are the latest.
Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Clarendon Press, p. 165, ISBN 9780198253570, 1979 

Robert G. Hoyland, Professor of Late Antique and Early Islamic Middle Eastern History at New York University and a leading historian of early Islam, writes:

Muhammad’s practice and legislation was of course important to his community: the Arabs “kept to the tradition of Muhammad, their instructor, to such an extent that they inflicted the death penalty on anyone who was seen to act brazenly against his laws,” says the seventh-century monk John of Fenek. But new laws, the Umayyads would argue, were the business of caliphs. Religious scholars soon began to challenge this view, as we have said, and some did this by claiming that the doings and sayings of Muhammad had been accurately transmitted to them. It was rare in the first couple of generations after Muhammad: “I spent a year sitting with ‘Umar I’s son ‘Abdallah (d. 693),” said one legal scholar, “and I did not hear him transmit anything from the prophet.” Not much later, though, the idea had won some grass-roots support, as we learn from another scholar, writing around 740, who observes: “I never heard Jabir ibn Zayd (d. ca. 720) say: ‘the prophet said. . .’ and yet the young men round here are saying it twenty times an hour.” A little later again Muhammad’s sayings would be put on a par with the Qur’an as the source of all Islamic law. In Mu‘awiya’s time, though, this was still far in the future, and for the moment caliphs made law, not scholars.

See also


  1. A. C. Brown, Hadith: an Introduction, 2009
  2. 2.0 2.1 Comparison of Sunni and Shia Islam - ReligionFacts
  3. Islām - Encyclopædia Britannica (2010)
  4. Sunnite - Encyclopædia Britannica (2010)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population - Pew Research Center, October 7, 2009
  6. 6.0 6.1 Tracy Miller - Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population - Pew Research Center, October 2009
  7. Various Issues About Hadiths - by Sh. G. F. Haddad
  8. Shīʿite - Encyclopædia Britannica Online (2010)
  9. Al Kafi - The Bukhari of Shi'ism - AHYA