By  Mohsen Haredy

Shari`ah Editor — English IslamOnline.net

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Of the four main sources of Islamic Shari`ah, Hadith occupies a place second only to the Qur’an. It is, therefore, not surprising to note that the Hadith debate is not new. Towards the end of the 20th century the study of Hadith has made considerable progress and received increasing attention in both Muslim and Western worlds. This is due to the discovery of new sources and to developments in the field of methodology.(1)Many early Hadith manuscripts have seen the light of day for the first time. Some of the published works have been edited by renowned Hadith scholars and published afresh.

Included among the newly discovered sources are the Musannaf (11 volumes, Beirut 1391/1972) of `Abdur-Razzaq ibn Hammam As-San`ani (d. AH 211/827 CE), Al-Kitab al-Musannaf fi al-Ahadith wa al-Athar(15 volumes, Hyderabad 1386/1983) of Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. AH 235/849 CE), and Tarikh al-Madina al-Munawwara (4 volumes., Jidda, n.d.) of `Umar ibn Shabba.

These three sources and many others have been considered as of eminent importance in the field of Hadith discussions.(2) Among the new methodologies advanced in Hadith studies two approaches must be distinguished: the isnad (chain of transmission) analysis of single hadiths, which has proved to be, as Harald Motzki called it, a powerful research tool.(3) This methodology has been extensively applied by the Dutch scholar G. H. A. Juynboll.(4) The second approach has concerned itself with the matn (text) analysis of the hadiths, which has been developed by the investigation of textual variants and by the combination of this approach along with the isnadanalysis. Belonging to this camp are Juynboll, Gregor Schoeler, and Motzki.(5)

On the other hand, Wael B. Hallaq of McGill University has observed that

since Schacht published his monumental work in 1950, scholarly discourse on this matter (i.e., the issue of authenticity) has proliferated. Three camps of scholars may be identified: one attempting to reconfirm his conclusions, and at times going beyond them; another endeavoring to refute them and a third seeking to create a middle, perhaps synthesized, position between the two. Among others, John Wansbrough, and Michael Cook belong to the first camp, while Nabia Abbott, F. Sezgin, M. Azami, Gregor Schoeler and Johann Fück belong to the second. Motzki, D. Santillana, G.H. Juynboll, Fazlur Rahman and James Robson take the middle position.(6)

From the statement of Hallaq it becomes clear how much ink had been spilled in modern discussions in commenting on the problem of authenticity. It was also the bone of contention of early Muslim scholars. This problem has commanded the intensive attention of western scholars. Gustav Weil suggested, as early as 1848, that “a substantial bulk of the Hadith should be regarded as spurious.”(7) In 1861 Aloys Sprenger voiced the same view.(8) Ignaz Goldziher concluded that the great majority of Hadith constitute evidence of much later periods. In a similar vein, Joseph Schacht argued that as far as legal hadiths are concerned, they must be assumed fictitious until the contrary is proven.(9) In order not to go in detail on this issue, one has to agree with Hallaq when he argued that the scholarly output concerned with authenticity since Weil raised the issue a century and a half ago is largely, if not totally, pointless.(10)

The comments I have made so far are meant to place the topic in its proper perspective. Of course, a study on Hadith cannot, of necessity, avoid the study of Hadith criticism. In this article I will give a brief account on the discussions on Hadith textual criticism. First I will highlight the approach of some Orientalists to the issue, followed by Muslim discourse on the same issue.

The State of Orientalist Scholarship on Hadith Textual Criticism

From the Orientalists’ side, I will present only the example of the Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher. This is due to the fact that most of his views were supported by almost all Orientalists such as Leone Caetani, T. W. Juynboll, Gaston Wiet, Joseph Schacht, N. J. Coulson, Alfred Guillaume, H. A. R. Gibb.

In his book Muslim Studies and in a chapter entitled “Reaction Against the Fabrication of Hadiths,” Goldziher discussed how the Muslim method of criticism reacted to the phenomenon of Hadith fabrication. He summarized the signs and expressions of this reaction in three different ways. Then he came up with this conclusion:

There was therefore a real danger of the smuggling in the Hadith, a danger which threatened all fields of the Sunna in religion and public life. Those circles who wished to protect the Hadith from such falsification had to pay particular attention to the character of the authorities and informants on whom the claim of authenticity for each Hadith was based. Only such Hadiths were to be accepted as expressing correctly the religious spirit of the whole community as has been handed down by men whose personal honesty as well as their attitude to the orthodox confession were beyond doubt. Less attention is paid to the contents of the tradition itself than to the authorities in theisnad.(11)

Moreover, Goldziher held the view that

Muslim criticism had chiefly formal points of departure. It is mainly formal points which are decisive for judgment about credibility and authenticity or, as Muslims say, ‘health’. Traditions are only investigated in respect of their outward form and judgment of the value of the contents depends on the judgment of the correctness of the isnad. If the isnad to which an impossible sentence full of inner and outer contradictions is appended withstands the scrutiny of this formal criticism, if the continuity of the entirely trustworthy authors cited in them is complete, if the possibility of their personal communication is established, the tradition is accepted as worthy of credit.(12)

Further, Goldziher argues

Nobody is allowed to say: ‘because the matncontains a logical or historical absurdity I doubt the correctness of the isnad.’ And if under correct isnads contradictory traditions are handed down, there begins—if it is not possible to impugn the correctness of one isnadin favor of the other—the work of a subtle harmonistic, which often extends to the smallest details.(13) If the contents cannot be reconciled at all an attempt is made—where legal traditions are concerned—to achieve this by the theory ofnasikh wa-mansukh(abrogation) or mere formal principles are stated which—as it is expressed—are designed to heal ‘the illness of the Hadith’ (`ilal al-Hadith) … Muslim critics have no feeling for even the crudest anachronisms provided that the isnadis correct.(14)

Departing from the general paradigm of Western scholarship, I cite some impartial attitudes regarding Hadith textual criticism. R. Marston Speight recognizes the contributions of early traditionists to authenticating the Hadith. In the entry “Hadith” in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Modern Islamic World, Speight holds the view that the text of the hadith constituted another criterion for testing the authenticity of the material in addition to isnad criticism.

John L. Esposito has undertaken the same impartial attitude. Esposito agreed with the most dominant Muslim view that the evaluation of Hadith focused on the chain (isnad) of narrators and the subject matter (matn).

Writing along the lines of Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), Harald Motzki of the University of Nijmegen tries to challenge the low esteem in which Goldziher and Schacht held the Muslim isnad in tackling the problem of dating a hadith by his research approach which may be called “tradition-historical” (“Uberlieferungsgeschichtlich”).

Recently Motzki edited a book on the biography of the Prophet. He collected some articles read before a colloquium organized on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Middle East of the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in 1997. He presented an article in which he applied his methodology of isnad-cum-matn analysis. Motzki, among others, advanced this approach of Hadith criticism to put the thesis that neither the isnad analysis alone nor the matnanalysis alone is sufficient to sift the authentic traditions from the spurious.

Modern Muslim Discourse on Hadith Textual Criticism in Egypt

It is unfortunate that well-known Muslim writers have seen fit to indulge in the discussions concerned with the issue of textual criticism designed to discredit the existing records of the Hadith. It is a pity that they have unwittingly, and in good faith, fallen victims to the views of non-Muslim writers whose intentions and motives are not altogether free from suspicion.(15)

Rashid Rida (1865–1935)

Discussions of matn criticism can be traced back to Rashid Rida. Rida contends, in an answer to a question sent to Al-Manar about, among others, some of the hadiths in Al-Bukhari (d. AH 256/870 CE) and Muslim (d. AH 261/875 CE) that themuhaddithun (scholars of Hadith) seldom scrutinized the matn of hadiths with regard to their meanings and rulings. They focused much on the isnad and the context of thematns.(16) Rida maintained the view that many hadiths of sound isnadshould be submitted to criticism of their contents.(17) Based on this view, he rejected hadiths if they appeared to him to be rationally or theologically objectionable, or if they conflicted with broad principles of the Shari`ah.

To recant his views, Rida stated that Al-Bukhari and Muslim had compiled their most authentic collections with special attention to investigating theirisnad and matns.

Mahmoud Abu Rayyah (1889–1970)

Abu Rayyah adduced many arguments from different sources to undermine the position of Hadith literature. The result of his research was a book which, as Juynboll noted, tore the Hadith literature to pieces.(18) In the beginning of his career, Abu Rayyah devoted his attention to Arabic belles lettres. Then he read some hadiths narrated by Abu Hurairah, but the interpretation of the hadiths bewildered him. He spent some time investigating these hadiths and came to the conclusion that “the entire Tradition literature should be submitted anew to an extensive examination as to its textual reliability.”(19)

The book referred to above on the Sunnah was entitled Adwa’ `ala as-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyyah.(20) In this book Abu Rayyah argues that the method of investigating and studying the Hadith was unchangeable. The early traditionists formulated these methods restricting themselves to knowing, as much as they could, the character of the transmitters and their biography. They did not care about whether what they transmitted is correct or not, reasonable or unreasonable.(21) Moreover, Abu Rayyah contends that the traditionists did not go beyond the isnad; the text was not of much importance. The late traditionists, as well, did not go beyond these limits forwarded by early traditionists. The sequence of such commitment to the early criteria of testing the authenticity of traditions was that the science of transmission became rigid since the early centuries of Islam and it was not subjected to change.(22)

Ahmad Amin (1886–1954)

In his book Fajr al-Islam, Ahmad Amin devoted a chapter to the study of Hadith. Amin stated that

The scholars laid down various meticulous rules for criticizing and evaluating the Hadith which are too detailed to deal with here. But the significant point is that they have devoted more attention to evaluating the reporter rather than to the report itself. Only rarely do they argue, for example, that what had been attributed to the Prophet Muhammad could not have been authentic because it did not seem reasonable, having regard to the circumstances of the case, that the Prophet would have said such a thing or that the reported thing was in contradiction with well-known and established facts: or that what had been reported as having been said by the Prophet Muhammad was strange having regard to what is known about the background and character of the Prophet. Very little of this type of argument was used and emphasis was placed mainly on attacking personalities and impugning their truthfulness.(23)

Isma`il Ahmad Adham (1911–1940)

Adham was another transmitter of orientalists’ views on the Muslim Tradition. After he had settled in Egypt in 1935, Adham published a book entitled Min Masadir at-Tarikh al-Islami.(24) Among the opinions expressed in this treatise is that the scholars of Hadith and its critics did not criticize the texts of hadiths scientifically. This stems from the fact, asserts Adham, that such criticism contradicts their primary principles and their established realities about Hadith. This also, according to Adham, draws doubts on the characters of the hadiths’ transmitters including the Companions.(25)

The Reaction of Muslim Scholars

Muhammad Abdul Rauf of the Islamic Center, Washington, pointed that the remarks about the classical books of Hadith and certain revered narrators made by a modern author(26) brought down on him the wrath of numerous essayists and journalists. Hundred of pages have been written on defending the Sunnah against its deniers, especially with regard to the question of matn criticism. However, the most frequently cited writings on defense of the Sunnah are the works of As-Siba`i,As-Sunnah wa makanatuha fi at-Tashri` al-Islami and the work of Abu Shuhba, Difa` `an As-Sunnah wa Radd Shubah al-Mustashriqin wa al-Kuttab al-Mu`asirin. The work of As-Siba`i is considered to be the best treatise on the subject of Sunnah and Hadith. Such writers asserted that themuhaddithun did not neglect criticizing the contents of hadiths while investigating the chain of transmission.

As-Siba`i mentioned, for instance, 15 criteria forwarded by early Hadith critics to sift the authentic hadiths from the spurious as to their contents. For example,

Hadith reports must not conflict with fundamental principles of reason, general principles of wisdom and morality, facts known by direct observation, or fundamental principles of medicine. They must not contain absurd statements or statements contrary to the teaching of more authoritative sources as the Qur’an. They should coincide with historical conditions during the time of the Prophet, and reports of events that have been widely known should be rejected if only a single witness reports them. Finally, they should not encourage vice, contradict reason, or promise large rewards or grave punishments for insignificant acts.(27)

Abu Shuhba criticized both Abu Rayyah and Rida for giving the reason of neglecting the criticism of the contents of the hadiths to the fact that it was not the task of theologians and jurists. Early muhaddithun were well informed in both riwayah (the science of the chain of transmission) and dirayah (the science of the contents of the Hadith). The fact that some jurists attacked some hadiths and refuted them is not because they were more knowledgeable than themuhaddithun, but because of their lack of the knowledge of the science ofriwayah and its criteria and their little practice of it.(28) If there were, proceeds Abu Shuhbah, some transmitters who had been more concerned with compiling and learning by heart the hadiths than understanding the contents, they were very few in number and themuhaddithun condemned them for doing so.(29)

Abdul Rauf criticized also the orientalists’ allegation and argued that the main purpose of scrutinizing theisnad was to preserve the credibility of the matn.(30) Therefore, earlymuhaddithun collected the authentic hadiths with utmost care and refused to accept the hadiths which contradicted reason.

Subhi as-Salih devoted a chapter of his interesting study on Hadith to the issue of the form and content of hadiths. He stresses that the early Hadith critics believed that their study of the contents of hadiths and their preservation of Hadith collections were insignificant if they were not corroborated by dirayah.(31) It is the science which entails the analytical and historical study of the sayings and doings of the Prophet. It was meant to investigate the conditions of therawi (transmitter) and the marwi(transmitted). He excluded the notion which might come out to the beginning researcher that they scrutinized the isnad more than thematn.(32)

He went on to show that the classification of Hadith into different categories is based primarily of theisnad and the matn. He referred to the role of the matn in sifting out the forged hadiths, since such hadiths are figured out on the basis of the matn, for example, weak language, contradicting reason and sense, and expressions of later periods.(33) The same manner of defending the Muslim thesis on matn criticism has been followed by As-Siddiq Bashir Nasr of the Faculty of Islamic Da`wah, Tripoli.(34)

Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali (1917–1996), a prominent spokesman for moderate Islamic revivalism in Egypt, published a book on the Sunnah entitled As-Sunnah an-Nabawiyyah bayna Ahl al-Fiqh wa Ahl al-Hadith.(35) To show his commitment to classical Hadith criticism, Al-Ghazali cites the following two principles of Hadith matn criticism: First, the matnmust be free from shudhudh, which he interprets to mean contradictions with more reliable sources. Second, the matn must be free from `illah qadihah (serious defect)(36) These conditions, Al-Ghazali asserts, are eminently trustworthy and a fully sufficient guarantee of the soundness of Hadith, but only if they are rightly applied.

We have seen in the preceding discussion that many orientalists and some modern Muslim writers and critics have argued that the earlymuhaddithun placed emphasis on the chain of transmission while criticizing the hadiths and devoted their concern to serve this purpose, and that they ignored criticizing the contents of hadiths themselves. As I have shown, their views did not find general acceptance and many rejected their propositions and endeavored to show their fallaciousness. We have seen also the reaction of orthodox scholars who tried their best to prove the opposite thesis of such orientalists and modern scholars—that is, that themuhaddithun devoted as much attention to the study of the quality of the contents of the hadith as to the chain of reporters.


* This article is based on the first chapter of the author’s master’s thesis, “Hadith Matn Criticism: A Reconsideration of Orientalists’ and Some Muslim Scholars’ Views,” Leiden, 2001. The author gratefully acknowledges the extreme care, proficient advice, and generous help received from his supervisor, Prof. Dr. P. S. Van Koningsveld, chairman of the Department of History of Religions and director of the Leiden Institute of the Study of Religions.

Mohsen Haredy is the editor of Shari`ah Special Pages at IslamOnline.net. He graduated from Al-Azhar University and has an MA in Hadith literature from Leiden University, the Netherlands. You can reach him at[email protected].

(1) Harald Motzki, “The Collection of the Qur’an: A Reconsideration of Western Views in the Light of Recent Methodological Developments”; G. H. A. Juynboll, “Some Notes on Islamic First Fuqaha’ Distilled from Early Hadith Literature,” in Arabica, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 39 (1992), p. 298.

(2) Motzki, “The Collection” p. 16; Fares, The Collection of the Qur’an, p. 81.

(3) Ibid.

(4) See his contribution “Some isnad-Analytical Methods Illustrated on the Basis of Several Women Demeaning Sayings from ­­­­­­­Hadith Literature”, in al-Qantara, 10 (1989), pp. 343-384; repr. in Juynboll, Studies on the Origins and Uses of Islamic Hadith.

(5) For the contributions of these three scholars see Motzki, “The Collection,” p. 17. However, I can observe that it is very difficult to find much matn analysis in Juynboll’s contributions except in a few cases.

(6) Wael B. Hallaq, “The Authenticity of Prophetic Hadith: A Pseudo-problem”, in Studia Islamica, 89 (1999), p. 76.

(7) Ibid., p. 75.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid. To this list I can add other western scholars such as William Muir, Alfred von Kremer and Theodore N?ldeke.

(10) Ibid., p. 77.

(11) Goldziher, Ignaz, Muslim Studies, vol. 2, tr. C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern, London, 1971, p. 134.

(12) Ibid., pp. 140-141.

(13) This statement should not pass in silence, as one can see in it one of the many criteria advanced by Muslim traditionists (muhaddithun) to investigate the correctness of the text of the Hadith. Not recognizing this method of harmonization between contradictory hadiths as a means ofmatn criticism indicates Goldziher’s difficult understanding of the various classifications of Hadith based onmatn analysis.

(14) Ibid., p. 141; see also W. H. T. Gairdner, “Mohammedan Tradition and Gospel Record”, in Muslim World, V/4 (1951), pp. 350-51.

(15) Muhammad Rajab Al-Bayyumi, “The Authenticity of the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad”, in The Islamic Review, England, March, 1967, p. 19.

(16) Rashid Rida, “Al-Ahadith as-Sahiha allati Zhahara Ghalatu ar-Ruwati fiha”, in Al-Manar, 29/1 (1928), p. 40.

(17) Ibid.; cf. Juynboll, Authenticity, p. 139.

(18) Juynboll, Authenticity, p. 39.

(19) Ibid., p. 41.

(20) Cairo: Matba`at Dar at-Ta’lif, 1958.

(21) Ibid., pp. 4-5.

(22) Ibid., p. 5.

(23) Amin, Fajr al-Islam, p. 260. The same ideas voiced by Amin are to be found in his ëuha al-Islam, vol. 2, pp. 130-137; idem, Zuhr al-Islam, vol. 2, 2nd impr. p. 48.

(24) 1st ed., Alexandria: Matba`at Salah ad-Din al-Kubra, 1936.

(25) Adham, Min Ma§adir at-Tarikh al-Islami, p. 22.

(26) He refers here to Abu Rayya. See Muhammad Abdul Rauf, “The Development of the Science of Hadith”, in Arabic Literature to the end of the Umayyad Period, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 285.

(27) As-Siba`i, As-Sunnah, pp. 250-251.

(28) Abu Shuhba, Difa`, Op. Cit., pp. 283-4.

(29) Ibid.

(30) Muhammad Abul Rauf, “Al-Mustashriqun wa al-Wahy al-Muhammadi”, in Muslim World, 58 (1986), p. 558.

(31) Subhi as-Salih, `Ulum al-Hadith wa Mustalahuh, `Arè wa dirasa, 22nd impr., Beirut: Dar al-`Ilm lil-Malayyin, n.d., p. 278.

(32) Ibid.

(33) Ibid., p. 286.

(34) As-Siddiq Bashir Nasr, ëawabit ar-Riwaya `inda al-Muhaddithin, Tripoli, 1st ed. 1402/1992, pp. 42-7.

(35) Cairo: Dar ash-Shuruq, 1989.

(36) Al-Ghazali, As-Sunnah an-Nabawiyyah, p. 19.