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The Preservation of the Ḥadīth Literature

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The Preservation of the Ḥadīth Literature

By Muntasir Zaman

Marks of ink on one’s mouth and clothes are emblems of honor.”[1]

– Ibrāhīm al-Nakha‘ī


How has the Islamic civilization maintained the rich literary heritage of Ḥadīth developed by early Muslim scholars? What guarantee is there that the collections of ḥadīths in our possession have reached us accurately or that they were compiled by their purported authors? Far from being exhaustive, this article intends to provide answers to these questions.

It begins by examining the procedures scholars instituted to ensure accurate transmission of Ḥadīth books.

It then proceeds to study the practice of oral/aural transmission (samā‘ سماع) and public reading sessions and their influence in preserving the Ḥadīth literature.

Thereafter, the article builds on three arguments that Ibn al-Wazīr al-Yamānī (d. 840 AH) posits in response to those who doubt the authorship of the major Ḥadīth collections.


Before concluding, it sheds light on the usage of wijādah وجادة in terms of transmission and practice. The appendix contains diagrams on the transmission of aī al-Bukhārī.

Procedures for Preservation

The attention and care scholars gave to the vast literature of Ḥadīth to ensure that the efforts of their predecessors were not in vain is truly awe-inspiring. They were methodical in their treatment of the Ḥadīth literature. They laid out guidelines on issues like book authorization, auditions, and the handling of manuscripts and registers. Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ’s (d. 544 AH) al-Ilmā‘ ilā Ma‘rifat Uūl al-Riwāyah wa Taqyīd al-Samā‘ is among the most prominent titles on the subject.[2] Although an oft-cited authority on the subject, Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ was by no means the first to address this topic. He drew extensively from earlier works like al-Rāmahurmuzī’s (d. 360 AH) al-Muaddith al-Fāil and al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī’s (d. 462 AH) al-Kifāyah fī‘ ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah and al-Jāmi‘ li Akhlāq al-Rāwī wa Ādāb al-Sāmi‘.

At times, scribes would devise creative techniques to prevent confusion when reading their manuscripts. For instance, Shu‘bah ibn al-Ḥajjāj (d. 160 AH) narrated the ḥadīth of Abū al-Ḥawrā’ to a student who wrote the ḥadīth and further added the word “ḥūr ‘īn” (wide-eyed damsel) as a note beneath the name Abū al-Ḥawrā’. The reason for this peculiar note was the presence of a narrator by the name Abū al-Jawzā’ in the same generation as Abū al-Ḥawrā’. To avoid confusing the two similar yet distinct narrators, the student diligently wrote ḥūr as a note to remind him of al-Hawrā’, which is the singular form of ḥūr.[3]

Muslims rightfully pride themselves in the countless volumes Ḥadīth scholars produced in order to detail the lives of the narrators whose names fill the chains of transmissions of ḥadīths. But they did not stop there. They also wrote biographical dictionaries on the lives of the narrators who transmitted the collections that contained these ḥadīths.

A researcher can easily access the biographical details of the narrators Abū Dāwūd (d. 275 AH), for instance, cites in his Sunan when transmitting a ḥadīth. He could also find the biographical details of those who transmitted the Sunan from Abū Dawūd and of those who in turn transmitted it from them, et cetera,[4] in works written for this purpose like Abū Bakr Ibn Nuqṭah’s (d. 629 AH) al-Taqyīd li Ma‘rifat Ruwāt al-Sunan wa al-Masānīd.[5] As such, the major Ḥadīth collections were transmitted by people whose lives are well documented.[6]

The tradition of oral/aural transmission (samā‘) ensured the preservation of the Ḥadīth literature. Ḥadīth scholars disseminated their works by teaching them to students, who in turn taught them to their students, ensuring scholarly supervision of these books as they were being transmitted down the generations.[7] Prior to the canonization of the Ḥadīth corpus,[8] to transmit a book for which one did not have oral/aural transmission was an offence not taken lightly in Ḥadīth circles.[9] Muḥammad ibn Ṭāhir al-Maqdisī (d. 507 AH) impugned Abū ‘Abd Allah al-Kāmikhī because he transmitted the Musnad of Imām al-Shāfi‘ī from a non-samā‘ copy.[10] Abū Bakr al-Qaṭī‘ī’s (d. 368 AH) copy of a book was destroyed in a flood, so he rewrote it from another copy. Despite having heard the original from a teacher, he was criticized for transmitting the second copy only because it lacked oral transmission.[11] Al-Ḥākim al-Naysābūrī (d. 405 AH) announced that he was in possession of a copy of al-Naḍr ibn Shumayl’s Gharīb al-adīth, but dutifully added that it lacked oral transmission.[12]

Failure to understand this culture of transmission has led Alphonse Mingana (d. 1937) to erroneously criticize the authorship of aī al-Bukhārī. Based on a manuscript—perhaps the earliest extant[13]—via the recension of Abū Zayd al-Marwazī (d. 371 AH) from al-Firabrī (d. 320 AH), the prime transmitter from al-Bukhārī, Mingana argues that since the chains of transmission include the name of al-Bukhārī,[14] the Ṣaḥīḥ could not have been authored by him, but rather by a later source like al-Firabrī or al-Marwazī.[15] Apart from the fact that this objection indicates a lack of awareness regarding the methodology of transmitting Ḥadīth books, it is problematic on several grounds.

To mention one, in addition to al-Firabrī, there are multiple recensions of aī al-Bukhārī like that of Ibrāhīm ibn Ma‘qil (d. 295 AH) and Ḥammād ibn Shākir (d. 311 AH);[16] likewise, besides al-Marwazī, there are other routes from al-Firabrī, such as Abū Isḥāq al-Mustamlī (d. 376 AH) and Abū al-Haytham al-Kushmīhanī (d. 389 AH). Based on the chains found in the aforementioned manuscript, if it is argued that al-Firabrī or al-Marwazī authored the Ṣaḥīḥ, how does one account for parallel chains through the other recensions/routes from al-Bukhārī that mention the same ḥadīths?[17]

Public reading sessions of Ḥadīth books also helped to ensure their textual integrity. Apart from the cross-analysis of the audited books, details about the participants in these reading sessions were methodically documented. Based on information detailed in manuscript notes and reading certificates, a recent study restructured a micro-history of the reading sessions of Ibn ‘Asākir’s (d. 571 AH) mammoth Tārīkh Madīnat Dimashq in Damascus, determining thereby “the background of individual participants in terms of the cultural milieu, social position and status.”[18] Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī’s multi-volume compendium, al-Sunan al-Kubrā, is another prime example.[19] Abū ‘Amr Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ (d. 643 AH) dictated the entire book to a congregation of scholars over 757 sessions. The following are some of the points that were noted after he dictated the eighth volume: the number of sessions held; personal details of the attendees, e.g. names, lineages, and honorifics; the state of the attendees, e.g. who spoke during the dictation; the date of completion; the venue; and the name of the registrar.[20]

Considering the minutiae noted down about the attendees, one gets a sense of how scrupulous Ḥadīth scholars were in their analysis of the books they were dictating. That Tārīkh Madīnat Dimashq and al-Sunan al-Kubrā are not from the six canonical books is significant as it demonstrates the care given to more important, and less voluminous, collections.

The proverbial audition of aī al-Bukhārī in Damascus around the year 666 AH headed by the celebrated Ḥadīth scholar, Sharaf al-Dīn al-Yūnīnī (d. 701 AH), and the renowned linguist, Ibn Mālik (d. 672 AH), in a gathering of scholars who utilized critically acclaimed manuscripts and recensions of the Ṣaḥīḥ for cross-referencing is a case in point.[21] ‘Abd Allah ibn Sālim al-Baṣrī (d. 1134 AH) is on record for his meticulous treatment of the six canonical books and Musnad Amad, spending twenty years in refining and cross-referencing his personal copy of aī al-Bukhārī with other manuscripts.[22]

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Ibn al-Wazīr’s Rejoinder

Ibn al-Wazīr al-Yamānī (d. 840 AH) responds to a skeptic by discussing in length why it is unreasonable to doubt the attribution of the major books of Ḥadīth to their purported authors. It is beyond the scope of this article to present his entire exposé, but we will build on three of his main arguments.

First, doubting the ascription of the major Ḥadīth compilations to their respective authors if carried to its logical conclusion will lead to doubting the ascription of transmitted books in all other fields.[23] If a person maintains such a profound level of skepticism of written sources, it becomes nearly impossible for him to function effectively in the world. Al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salām (d. 660 AH) posits a similar argument and then states, “Whoever assumes that all these people erred in that [i.e. transmitting these books] has in fact himself erred. Were it not for the permissibility of relying on these books, countless benefits in medicine, grammar, and language would be obstructed.”[24] It is disingenuous to accept the authorship of books on history and language, for example, and not the Ḥadīth literature when the Islamic civilization has given unprecedented care to maintain the latter.[25]

Second, overall knowledge that these books were compiled by their respective authors is definitively known (ma‘lūm bi al-arūrah) to the point that there is no reason to doubt their ascription.[26] Two centuries earlier, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ (d. 643 AH) had already noted that the major Ḥadīth books have circulated too widely to be tampered with or interpolated,[27] let alone have their authorship doubted.[28] A brief survey of the Muwaṭṭa’’s immediate transmission may help to understand this better. Muḥammad al-Zurqānī (d. 1122 AH) writes that the following number of narrators, distributed geographically, have transmitted the Muwaṭṭa’ directly from Imām Mālik: seventeen from Madinah, two from Makkah, ten from Egypt, twenty-seven from Iraq, thirteen from Andalusia, two from Kairouan, two from Tunis, and seven from the Levant.[29] More than the their numbers, the staggering geographical diversity of the narrators demonstrates the point being made here. Taking aī al-Bukhārī as a case study, the appended diagrams illustrate how widely it has been transmitted.[30]

Finally, the fact that countless manuscripts of these Ḥadīth collections in various parts of the Muslim world concur on the presence of their ḥadīths,[31] as well as multifarious commentaries,[32] secondary sources, and supplementary works throughout history all converging on referencing these ḥadīths to their respective compilations establishes confidence in the credibility of their authorship.[33] Moreover, there are numerous cases of inter-textual and contemporaneous citations of early compilations. In al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr, al-Bukhārī makes reference to his Ṣaḥīḥ;[34] in his Sunan, al-Tirmidhī also makes reference to the Ṣaḥīḥ.[35] According to Ockham’s Razor, when provided with two competing explanations, a person should opt for the simpler one. Given the preponderance of evidence, it is more reasonable, and a simpler proposition, to accept the ascription of the major Ḥadīth collections to their purported authors than believe in a wide-spread collusion of false attribution.

The Usage of Non-Samā‘ Copies

It may be useful to shed light on the concept of وجادة wijādah, that is, to find and then transmit ḥadīths from a collection for which one does not have transmission or authorization.[36] When studying the debate on the usage of wijādah as a mode of transmission,[37] one needs to bear in mind the bifurcation of the history of Ḥadīth studies into the era before the crystallization of ḥadīths in books and the era after it. [38] By the early 5th century, it was untenable that a person could exclusively transmit a narration not recorded in any earlier Ḥadīth work.[39] Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī (d. 458 AH) writes that during his time if someone were to present a ḥadīth that was not already recorded, it would be rejected.[40] After this point, the primary function of chains of transmission and authorizations was to uphold the revered tradition of isnād, which “is a unique source of ennoblement,” and attain blessings by remaining connected to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), because the main corpus of ḥadīths was already stabilized.[41] This explains why overtime scholars became relatively lenient on the stringent conditions that early scholars placed on the oral/aural transmission of Ḥadīth collections. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date when this shift took place, an incident involving Abū Ṭāhir al-Silafī (d. 576 AH) and ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Maqdīsī (d. 600 AH) hints to this transition. [42]

In order to transmit ḥadīths from a collection, scholars now turned their focus to the authenticity of the copy and its correct ascription.[43] The process of evaluating manuscripts is more than just relying on their chains of transmission or dating their parchment; rather, Miklos Muranyi explains, it is judged by “wholistic study of structure, technique, and scribal notes in addition to comparative analysis of cross-references and collated texts.”[44] In the 8th century, Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH) raised the question of a person who transmits a Ḥadīth collection like aī al-Bukhārī from his teacher and then finds a copy of that collection, which was not cross-referenced with the teacher’s copy nor does he find an attestation of his audition on it, but he believes it to be an authentic copy—can he transmit from it? Although the majority of early Ḥadīth scholars prohibited such a practice, Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī (d. 131 AH) and Muḥammad al-Bursānī (d. 203 AH) held that there was dispensation for him to transmit from it.[45] Ibn Kathīr adds that this is the position he inclines towards.[46] He was not alone in his inclination. Al-Dhahabī (d. 748 AH) and Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī (d. 795 AH) state that latter-scholars maintained much dispensation in this regard.[47] It is, therefore, anachronistic to apply the negative scholarly attitude towards the usage of non-source copies for transmission before the crystallization of ḥadīths to the subsequent era.

Apart from transmission, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ explains that it is permissible to practice upon what one reliably finds in Hadīth books through wijādah.[48] Based on scholarly acceptance of a letter the Prophet had sent with ‘Amr ibn Ḥazm to the people of Yemen on almsgiving and indemnities, one can make a case for consensus upon this issue.[49] ‘Umar ibn Khaṭṭāb abandoned his own view on indemnities based on ‘Amr ibn Ḥazm’s letter that was found in the possession of his family;[50] This was also the case with other Companions and Successors.[51] As Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 463 AH) explains, Scholars from all regions have unanimously relied upon the letter of ‘Amr ibn Ḥazm.[52]

The relevance of this discussion cannot be overstated because, as Dr. Subhī al-Ṣāliḥ explains, after the advent of the printing press, usage of Ḥadīth books for the most part are through the mode of wijādah.[53] Early scholars were cautious towards the usage of non-samā‘ copies out of fear of interpolation;[54] printing has considerably assuaged this concern.[55] Shaykh Ḥatīm al-‘Awnī aptly observes, “It is ironic that critics would object to the validity of Hadīth books that are found through wijādah when the very books they cite concerning wijādah are themselves found through wijadah.”[56] That being said, the practice of oral/aural transmission of Hadīth books, particularly the six canonical works, has continued unabated in various institutions and seminars throughout the world until the present day.


Far from leaving the literary heritage of their predecessors unattended, Ḥadīth scholars expended considerable energy in maintaining its integrity. From the tradition of oral/aural transmission, to careful handling of manuscripts, to meticulous dictation sessions, the Islamic civilization’s unparalleled precision vis-à-vis the Ḥadīth literature develops within the hearts of its readers confidence in its authorship. Unwarranted skepticism of such a robust system can lead a person to doubt all transmitted knowledge. A person is required to take more leaps of faith in doubting the ascription of books that were transmitted from their authors by a multitude of narrators hailing from diverse regional backgrounds and were cited by a dizzying array of sources over a millennium.

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A central theme of this article was to establish that the major books of Ḥadīth have been transmitted so widely that it is unreasonable to doubt their authorship. Here we will take aī al-Bukhārī as a case study to better understand this phenomenon. In his doctoral thesis,[57] Dr. Jumu‘ah ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm studies in detail the various routes and recensions of aī al-Bukhārī. Adapted from his study, the following diagrams demonstrate how widely the Ṣaḥīḥ has been transmitted. To be sure, these diagrams are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the actual transmission of the Ṣaḥīḥ.

I have chosen to outline only the chains of the Mamluk era Ḥadīth master, Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (d. 852 AH).[58] While mapping out his genealogy of the Ṣaḥīḥ, he leaves out some recensions and routes. For instance, he transmits the Ṣaḥīḥ via multiple routes that culminate at four students of al-Bukhārī, viz. Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf al-Firabrī (d. 320 AH), Ibrāhīm ibn Ma‘qil (d. 295 AH), Ḥammād ibn Shākir (d. 311 AH), and Abū Ṭalḥah Manṣūr al-Bazdawī (d. 329 AH), but he does not include the transmission of Ṭāhir ibn Muḥammad al-Nasafī.[59] Furthermore, he identifies nine routes from al-Firabrī, excluding thereby the transmissions of Muḥammad ibn Khālid al-Firabrī, Aḥmad al-Firabrī (d. 371 AH), Abū Ḥāmid al-Nu‘aymī (d. 386 AH), Abū Bakr al-Ishtīkhanī (d. 388 AH), et al.[60] From a wide array of routes that Ibn Ḥajar maps out, I selected only two routes for the purpose of brevity. Hence, from a pool of twelve transmitters in the third stratum of transmission, I sufficed on the transmissions of Abū Dharr al-Harawī (d. 434 AH) and Karīmah al-Marwaziyyah (d. 463 AH).

Figure 1 details the routes from the third stratum via al-Firabrī from al-Bukhārī. Figures 2 and 3 continue further by tracing the transmissions of Abū Dharr and Karīmah al-Marwaziyyah until Ibn Ḥajar. Figure 4 traces the transmission of three non-Firabrī recensions from al-Bukhārī. The biographical information of the transmitters cited in the diagrams is easily accessible. To avoid enlarging the diagrams, their entire names were not mentioned.



Figure 1: Routes from the third stratum of transmission



Figure 2: Transmission via Abū Dharr al-Harawī (d. 434 AH)



Figure 3: Transmission via Karīmah al-Marwaziyyah (d. 463 AH)


Figure 4: Three non-Firabrī recensions from al-Bukhārī

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