Introduction Introduction

In Islam, the sacred text called the “Hadith,” which is Arabic for “narrative” or “report,” is a record of Islamic tradition: It is a record of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), his family, and his companions. It is the second most important text in Islam next to the Quran. Although not regarded as the spoken Word of God like the Quran, the Hadith is an important source of doctrine, law, and practice.

It is “revered in Islam as a major source of religious law and moral guidance” {1} and has been studied in Muslim religious colleges since the Middle Ages by both male and female scholars. {2} The word “Hadith” technically refers to a single piece of tradition (ahadith is the Arabic plural), but in English it is used to refer to the entire body of Muslim tradition as well.

Each Hadith consists of two parts: the tradition itself, or matn (for instance, the words of the Prophet) and the isnad (chain of authorities). The isnad indicates the human transmitters through which the tradition was relayed. For example, one Hadith reads:

Narrated Hisham Ibn ‘Urwa from his father who said: [isnad] While I was a youngster, I asked ‘Aisha the wife of the Prophet. “What about the meaning of the Statement of Allah… [matn] {3}

Collections of Hadith were compiled in the first three centuries of Islamic history, with the above literary form taking shape early in the second Islamic century (c. 720 CE). As might be expected, many Hadiths arose, with varying degrees of authenticity.

Muslim scholars soon set about the task of scrutinizing Hadiths and distinguishing those which were sound (sahih), from those that were only good (hasan) or weak (da’if). Hadith criticism was solely based on the authenticity of the isnads, not on a scrutiny of the tradition itself.

The question was not, “Is this the sort of thing Muhammad might credibly be imagined to have said or done?” but “Is the report that he said or did it well supported in respect of witnesses and transmitters?” The first question would have introduced too great a danger of subjective judgment or independence of mind. {4} Several such scholars compiled collections of Hadith. The earliest is the Musnad of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, arranged by isnad, but the collections of six other scholars, arranged by matn, came to be recognized as canonical in Sunni Islam:

– Al-Bukhari (d. 870 CE)
– Muslim Ibn Al-Hajjaj (d. 875)
– Abu Da’ud (d. 888)
– Al-Tirmidhi (d. 892)
– Ibn Maja (d. 886)
– Al-Nasa’i (d. 915)
Of these six books, the Sahih (Sound Collection) of al-Bukhari (see Note 3) and the Sahih of Muslim are the best known and most quoted. These two are known as the “two Sahih,” and “enjoy a prestige that virtually eclipses the other four.” {4}