THE COMPILATION AND SYSTEMATISATION
OF THE TRADITIONS
WE have seen, in the preceding chapters, that Muhammadan tradition was at first transmitted orally; and we have further noticed how that fact gave unlimited opportunities for the falsification of old, and the fabrication of new, traditions. It was not until nearly a hundred years later that any systematic attempt was made to gather the then existing traditions into a regular written collection. Then the obvious falsification that was taking place roused the Umayyad Khalifa, ‘Umar II, who occupied the Khalifate at Damascus during the years 99-101 A.H., to try and prevent further loss by preserving in written form the traditions then current. His reason for so doing is stated very clearly to be the fact, that with the death of the first companions and the scattering of their successors,
قلَّ الضبط، واتسع الخرق، وكاد الباطل يلتبس بالحق.
‘Exactness (in transmission) grew less, untrustworthiness increased, and the false began to be mixed with the true.’ 96 Bukhari tells us that,
كتب عمر بن عبد العزيز إلى أبي بكر بن حزم انظر ما كان من حديث رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم فاكتبه فإني خفت دروس العلم وذهاب العلماء.
‘Umar wrote to Abu Bakr bin Hazam (and said), Look out what you can find of the traditions of the prophet of God, and write them down; for I fear the destruction of knowledge and the passing away of the learned.’ 97
This man, Abu Bakr, we are told, was the deputy of ‘Umar at Medina, and died in the year 120 of the Muslim era. The collection made by him, unfortunately, no longer exists. We only know that it was made, and that it was quickly followed by others; but no authentic collection of traditions of an earlier date than the middle of the second century now exists.
The idea of collecting the traditions having once been mooted, enthusiasm for the task spread in every direction, and soon the most extraordinary zeal was developed for the search after alleged sayings and anecdotes of the prophet. A class of men arose, called ‘collectors’, who devoted their lives to the business of collecting traditions, and who scoured the whole Muslim world in search of what was represented to them as authentic reports of what Muhammad had said or done. Little or no critical selection appears to have been made, and the collectors accepted without demur anything and everything which purported to come from the prophet, provided only the silsilah, or chain of reporters, satisfied their requirements. So far as can be ascertained, it was Bukhari who first adopted rules of critical selection. The canons, however, which guided him, were scarcely worth the name, and left ample room for the inclusion of false traditions in his collection. Thus, speaking of Al Bukhari and the collectors who preceded him, the author of a work frequently quoted in these pages says,
وكانت الكتب قبله ممزوجاً فيها الصحيح بغيره.
‘In the books which preceded him (Bukhari), sound traditions were mixed up with non-sound.’ 98
It will be well, before we proceed to note briefly some of the principal collections of traditions which came into existence during the next two hundred years, to look once again at the facts as they have been brought before us. Here we have a great mass of tradition, produced largely by unscrupulous forgers, and handed down orally for nearly a hundred years, before any systematic attempt is made to reduce it to writing and compile it into a collection. During this time various influences, political, social and religious, had been at work to bias the judgment of both reporters and collectors; and when at last an authoritative collection was ordered, it was ordered by an Umayyad Khalifa at Damascus, who would, without doubt, have suppressed all traditions favourable to the claims of the rival house of ‘Ali. The story of the unfortunate Abu ‘Abdu’r-Rahmanu’n-Nasa’i throws a flood of light upon this subject. An Nasa’i, to give him the name by which he is best known, was a famous collector of traditions, and the author of one of the six great standard collections still used to-day. He was born in Khorasan in 214 A.H., and subsequently journeyed to Cairo, and thence to Damascus. At the latter place he stirred up mob violence against himself by compiling a book of traditions on the virtues of ‘Ali. The Umayyad mob interrupted his recital by asking him whether he knew similar traditions in favour of Mu’awiyah, ‘Ali’s political rival. Upon his replying that he did not, he was so severely beaten that he died soon after from the effects. This incident is eloquent of the extent to which political influences were brought to bear on the compilation of the traditions.
The earliest collections of traditions, still extant, were works on Muslim jurisprudence. These were founded largely upon the traditions of Muhammad. Thus each great theological school came to have its own collection, upon which the laws of its own particular system were founded. The earliest of these was the Muwatta of Abu ‘Abdullah Malik bin Anas of Medina, who died in 179 A.H. 99 This great scholar is deservedly renowned; and many of the later collectors and compilers made use of the material brought together by him. He was at one time the teacher of the famous Harunu’r-Rashid.
Following the legal collections of traditions came a class known as musnads. These were collections in which the traditions were arranged under the respective names of the first relators, such as ‘Ayesha, Abu Huraira, etc., without any reference whatever to the subject-matter. We have already referred to the musnad of Ibn Hanbal, who died in 241
Still later came the great collections known as the Musannaf, the arranged or classified. In these collections the traditions were arranged strictly according to their contents, and were divided into chapters in which the various subjects, legal, ritual, etc., were grouped together. Of these latter six great collections stand pre-eminent to-day.
The first is that of Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad bin Isma’il Al Bukhari. This scholar was born in Bukhara in 194 A.H. and died in 256 A.H. He is said to have conceived the idea of collecting traditions from a dream which he had. ‘I saw in a dream,’ he said, ‘the prophet of God, from whom I brushed away flies. When I awoke, I enquired of one skilled in the interpretation of dreams the meaning of the vision. He said to me, You shall keep lies from him.’ Thus encouraged Al Bukhari set out upon his search for traditions, and for sixteen years is said to have wandered over Iraq, Arabia, Syria and Egypt. He collected during that period the enormous number of 600,000 traditions, but, as we have already indicated, rejected all but 7,275. It is also related of him that of 40,000 men who professed to relate to him traditions of the prophet, only 2,000 of them were acknowledged by him as trustworthy! Bukhari’s great collection, known as the Sahihu’l-Bukhari is, perhaps, the most popular of all extant collections of traditions. Yet there is no guarantee whatever that this man was more successful than others in separating the true from the false. If it be remembered that Bukhari died in the middle of the third century of the Hijra, or Muslim era, the reader will be able to arrive at a just appreciation of the difficulties of his task. How could he, we ask, or any other man, after such a lapse of time, decide amongst the multitude of traditions as to which were true and which false? Moreover, the very canons of criticism adopted by Bukhari differed from those of Muslim, his celebrated disciple. Hence some traditions which would be considered as genuine according to the canons of the one would be rejected as spurious if judged by the standards set up by the other. Thus we read with regard to a certain tradition,
قالوا فيه هذا حديث صحيح على شرط مسلم وليس بصحيح على شرط البخاري لكون هؤلاء عند مسلم ممن اجتمعت فيهم الشروط المعتبرة ولم يثبت عند البخاري.
‘They said with regard to it: This is a sound tradition according to the canons laid down by Muslim, but it is not sound according to the canons of Bukhari, by reason of the fact that these (relators) are, in the estimation of Muslim, of the number in whom all the important conditions required by Muslim are fulfilled. But it is not attested (as sound) in the opinion of Bukhari.’ 100
This fact is important; for if the two greatest of all the traditionists, Bukhari and Muslim, disagree as to the canons of criticism to be employed in ascertaining the authenticity and credibility of the traditions, then what value can be attached to their respective collections?
An excellent illustration of the way traditions were invented to give authority and precedence to certain collections is given by Al Qastalani. The story is as follows: Abu Zaid Al Maruzi said, ‘I was sleeping between the pillar and the place (of prayer) when I saw the prophet of God in my dream. He said to me, O Abu Zaid, how long will you continue to study the book of As Shafi’i and not study my book? So I said, O Apostle of God, and what is thy book? He said, The collection of Muhammad Isma’il (i.e. al Bukhari).’ 101
Of practically equal authority with the collection of Bukhari is that of Muslim bin Hajjaj who was born at Nishapur in Khorasan in 204 A.H., and died in 260 A.H. Out of 300,000 traditions collected by this man, only some 4,000, after deleting repetitions, were retained by him as genuine. Even these, upon his own admission, are open to grave suspicion. Thus his commentator, An Nawawi, reports him as frankly admitting,
وضع فيه أحاديث كثيرة مختلفاً في صحتها لكونها من حديث من ذكرناه ومن لم نذكره ممن اختلفوا في صحة حديثه.
‘He (Muslim) placed in it (i.e. the Sahih of Muslim) many traditions about the truth of which people differed, by reason of the fact that they belong to the traditions of those whom we mentioned, and whom we did not mention, about the truth of whose traditions people differed.’ 102
Moreover, it is known that Muslim relied almost entirely upon the judgment of one man, Abu Zar’ah al Razi, in his choice of traditions. Thus it is related by An Nawawi that
قال مكي بن عبدان سمعت مسلماً يقول عرضت كتابي هذا على أبي زرعة الرازي فكل ما أشار أن له علة تركته وكل ما قال إنه صحيح وليس له علة خرجته.
‘Maka bin ‘Abdan said, I heard Muslim say, I referred this book of mine to Abu Zar’ah al Razi. Then everything which he indicated as faulty I abandoned, and everything which he said was authentic and faultless I incorporated it (into my book !)’ 103
Another famous collector of traditions was Abu Da’ud As Sijistani. He was born in Sistan in 202 A.H. and died in 275 A.H. He, like Bukhari, travelled over many countries in search of traditions, of which he collected no less than 500,000. But, like his illustrious predecessor, he found the overwhelming proportion of the traditions pure fiction; and ultimately embodied some 4,800 in his Sunan. Not all of these, however, are above suspicion; for he himself admitted the presence of doubtful traditions in his collection in the following words,
ذكرت فيه الصحيح وما يشبهه وما يقاربه.
‘I have mentioned in it the authentic, those which seem to be so, and those which are nearly so.’ 104
Ibn Majah, another of the great collectors, whose work the Kitabu’s Sunan is one of the six standard collections of traditions, was born in 209 A.H. and died in 273 A.H. He retained only 4,000 traditions in his collection, which, like those of Abu Da’ud, An-Nasa’i and Tirmidhi, deals almost exclusively with legal traditions. The collections of Bukhari and Muslim, on the other hand, cover a much wider field, and contain traditions on almost every conceivable subject, from the manner in which the prophet cleaned his teeth to the nature of the heavenly bliss reserved for the faithful.
Another renowned traditionist was Abu ‘Isa Muhammad at-Tirmidhi. He was born at Tirmidh (Termez), as his name indicates, in 209 A.H. and died in 299 A.H. His book, the Jami’, is still largely used, and is specially useful as pointing out the difference between different schools of Muhammadan law. He was the first to issue a selection of forty traditions, a practice which has been imitated by very many of his successors.
The sixth, and last, of the great collectors was Abu ‘Abdu’r Rahman an Nasa’i. This scholar was born at Nasa in Khorasan in the year 214 A.H. and died in 303 A.H. He was, therefore, the latest of the six great collectors. We have already mentioned the tragic circumstances connected with his death. His collection, as it exists to-day, is a revised and . abbreviated edition of a much larger work, and is called the Sunan An-Nasa’i, or Al Mujtaba, the selected. It deals particularly with small details of ritual.
The six great collections mentioned above exist to-day under the name of the Al Kutubu’s-sitta, or ‘six (correct) books’. They are not all regarded as of equal authority, however; for the first two, those of Bukhari and Muslim, are called sahih, sound or authentic, whilst the remainder are simply known as the sunan, ‘usages’.
The learned Sir William Muir has pointed out that these six collections all came into existence during the ‘Abbaside Khalifate, and at a time when ‘every word in favour of Muavia (the then deceased Umayyad Khalifa) rendered the speaker liable to death, and when all were declared outlaws who would not acknowledge ‘Ali to be the most distinguished of mankind.’ It is not difficult to see, how, under such circumstances, an impartial and unbiased collection was quite impossible. As a matter of fact, there were not wanting critics of the very Sahihain, the two Sahihs of Bukhari and Muslim. Thus Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali bin ‘Umar al Daraqutni, in his work entitled Al Istidrakat wa’l-tatabbu, proves the uncertainty of two hundred of the traditions accepted in the two Sahihs of Bukhari and Muslim! This author was a learned jurisconsult, and learned the traditions at an early age at the feet of Abu Bakr bin Mujahid. 105
Another scholar who criticised the works of Bukhari and Muslim was Al-Bayyi, Qadi of Nishapur. He wrote the Kitabu’l-Mustadrak as a criticism of the two Sahihs in order to prove that several traditions overlooked in these two works were perfectly authentic and had been wrongly passed over. 106
It only remains to be said that the Shiahs reject in toto the ‘six correct books’ mentioned above, and use in their place the following five collections, upon which they base their civil and religious laws:—
(1) The Kafi of Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Ya’qub who died in 329 A.H.; (2) the Man-la-Yastahzirahu’l-Faqih of Shaikh ‘Ali who died in 381 A.H.; (3) the Tahzib of Shaikh Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Husain who died in 466 A.H.; (4) the Istibsar by the same author; and (5) the Nahju’l-Balaghah by Syedu’r-Razi who died in 406 A.H. It will be noticed that the Shiah collections were all compiled later than the six collections of the Sunnis, and, generally speaking, they are regarded as of less authority and value by non-Muslim scholars—the only ones likely to exercise an independent judgment in the matter.
The collections mentioned above, however, do not exhaust the list. Indeed, it is stated in the Dictionary of Islam that, according to the Ithafu’n-Nubala’, there are no less than 1,465 different collections in existence. One of the most popular Sunni collections in use to-day is that known as Mishkatu’l Masabih, ‘the Niche of Lights’. This work was compiled by Shaikh Waliu’d-Din in 737 A.H. An English translation of it was made more than a hundred years ago; but it is long since out of print, and copies are now rare and expensive.
It must not be thought that the mere compilation of the traditions, the account of which we have been obliged to dismiss in a few lines, represents all the labour bestowed upon the subject by early Muslims. On the contrary, a new science, the science of tradition, was brought into existence in order to sift and classify the enormous mass of traditions then existing. Many men spent their lives in the study of proper names, and for this a separate science, ‘the science of men’, was invented for the criticism and examination of the authorities by whom tradition was handed down. Thus we read of one Ibn ‘Abi Hatim who compiled a work, the Kitabu’l-jarh wa’l-ta’dil, the ‘Book of criticism and correction’ in six volumes. Others wrote biographies of the collectors of traditions, or of the witnesses who handed them down. Some composed works dealing with the obscure expressions in the traditions. Others studied the subject of the abrogation of traditions, whilst others, again, drew up lists of all the traditions relating to medicine; whilst one genius arranged his collection of traditions in such a manner that those which guide to what is right appear on the right side, whilst those which counsel the avoidance of evil are ranged on the left! In another, the Jam’i as-Saghir, the traditions are arranged alphabetically according to the first letter of each tradition.
But one thing the science of tradition did not do. Its exponents did not, and would not, critically examine the traditions themselves. The chain of witnesses was, with them, the supreme test of a tradition. If that chain led up, in unbroken succession, to the prophet, then no inherent improbability, no crass absurdity, and no obvious contradiction was allowed to stand in the way of its acceptance! Yet, as we have seen, the premises upon which this reasoning was based are fundamentally unsound, inasmuch as the reporters, themselves in some cases the original companions of the prophet, were not trustworthy. It is obvious, that, under such circumstances, the existence of an unbroken chain of relators meant little or nothing.
Moreover, a well-known custom soon arose of touching up defective isnads by bridging over, as it were, the gap in the chain of witnesses, so that one would relate a certain tradition as from a ‘companion’ of the prophet, when, perhaps, he had not actually seen the person named, but had only heard the tradition from someone else, who had heard the ‘companion’ relate it. This practice, which was called tadlis, was widely adopted, and was instrumental in securing recognition for many traditions which would otherwise have been rejected.
The science of tradition further classified the traditions, either with reference to the characters of the transmitters, or with reference to the quality of the chain. An exhaustive list of these different classes of traditions is given in the introduction to the Mishkatu’l Masabih and in other works. It is too long for quotation here. With reference to the first class, however, it may be stated that traditions are roughly divided into three classes. The first is the sahih tradition, that is, one which has been handed down by a succession of trustworthy witnesses, and is, therefore, accepted as genuine. The second is the hasan, the good tradition. The transmitters in this class are not considered of such good authority as the first, but, for all practical purposes, the hasan traditions are accepted by Muslims as authoritative. The third class is that known as da’if or weak. The narrators of this class are considered of doubtful character, or of bad memory; consequently the ‘weak’ tradition has little value in the eyes of scholars.
There are many other subdivisions of traditions. Thus a tradition generally accepted by many distinct chains of narrators is called mutawatir. That which has, at least, three such chains is mashur, well-known. The gharib, poor, tradition is that having only one line of narrators, and so is of doubtful authority, whilst the maudu’a, invented, is a false traditions, the falsity of which is beyond dispute. The maqtu’, an intersected tradition, is one in the chain of transmitters of which a link is missing, and the isnad therefore incomplete.
From what has been written in this chapter it will be seen that an immense amount of labour has been devoted to the study and classification of the traditions. Owing, however, to the refusal of Muslims to subject them to any form of internal criticism, those labours have been rendered largely nugatory.
96. Al Qastalani: Sharah Sahihu'l-Imamu'l-Bukhari vol. i, p, 3.
97. Sahihu'l-Bukhari, Kitabu'l-'Ilm.
98. Tujiyahu'n-nazar ila usulu'l-athar, p. 8.
99. There is an extraordinary slip here in Muir's Mohammedan Controversy. p. 117, where the author is made to-say, One of the earliest (collections) is that of Muatta, who died in 179 A.H.
100. An Nawawi: Sharah Sahih Muslim, vol. i. p. 28.
101. Al Qastalani: Sharah Sahihu'l-Imamu'l-Bukhari, vol. i, p. 124.
102. An Nawawi: Sharah Sahih Muslim, vol. i, p. 20.
103. Ibid. vol. i, p. 27. This tradition is also given by Al Qastalani, vol. I, p. 111.
104. Tujiyahu'n-nazar ila usulu'l-athar, p. 150.
105. CLEMENT HUART: Arabic Literature, p. 223.
106. Ibid., pp. 223, 224.