Islamic Traditions (Ḥadīth)
ISLAMIC TRADITIONS (ḤADĪTH)
Ḥadīth, the general term for news or narrative, has a technical religious meaning for Muslims, usually rendered by "tradition." More accurately it signifies either an account of a saying or action of Muḥammad or his early companions handed down by a chain of competent relators, or the total collection of these narrations found in the six canonical books of the Sunni Orthodox (see sunnites). The relation and criticism of these traditions is called ’ilm ’an-hadith (the science of tradition).
Nature and Importance. These traditions, containing legal, ritual, religious, or moral matter, are cast in a particular form comprising a chain of relators ideally extending back unbroken to the Prophet Muḥammad and referred to as the isnād (support); the content of the tradition is called the matn (text).
The normative value of hadith for the Muslim is derived from the fact that it contains, though not exclusively, the sunna (practice) of the Prophet. In pre-Islamic Arabia the sunna of the ancestors set the pattern for society. Muḥammad, breaking from the tradition, established a new sunna. But in the early development of islam the sunna followed was that of the community comprising the teaching and prescriptions of Muḥammad along with local customs and adaptations.
Given the basic Muslim outlook that man's incapacity requires revelations through the prophets, it was natural that religious logic should halt this rather free development of Muslim society and recast it on a religious base. This attitude appeared in two forms and gave rise to a wealth of traditions attributed to the Prophet and his companions. First, the pious opposition to the umay yads (661–750) based its objections on the practice of the early community. This in turn prompted some traditions in support of the ruling faction and others justifying a middle position. Secondly, the divergences in the schools of law in Iraq, Syria, and Medina, stemming from local customs and personal opinions, caused some friction. Medina, as the center of Muḥammad's activity and the capital of the first four caliphs, made claims to traditional practice that finally crystallized in al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 820). He established the sunna of the Prophet, not the sunna of the community or the living tradition of the law schools, as the primary source of law alongside the qur’Ān.
The emphasis on tradition, spurred by these conflicts, and the political concern that the ’abbĀsids (750–1258) professed for religion and law had produced many traditions of a conflicting nature. Further, al-Shāfi‘ī's insistence on traditions going back to the Prophet forced traditionalists to lengthen their chain of authorities and to put the traditions on the lips of the Prophet. Inventions were patent and recognized as such; the discrimination of the orthodox community was never dormant.
Authoritative Collections. In the 3d Islamic century, the appearance of the two Ṣaḥiḥ's (the "correct" ones) by al-Bukhārī (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875) marked the culmination of the critical religious spirit and established the foundation of the science of tradition. The title of the two collections, "The Sound Traditions," indicated their critical nature. It is related that al-Bukhārī chose less than 3,000 traditions out of some 600,000. Traditions were now criticized mainly on the basis of their isnād. To pass criticism, all the relators of the tradition had to be reliable witnesses extending back in an unbroken chain to the companions of the Prophet. In addition, the isnād had to have internal consistency, that is, the possibility of any one relator's having heard the tradition from his predecessor had to be established. This criteriology has been criticized as formalistic, since the concentration on the isnād led to the acceptance of traditions whose matn were in clear conflict. However, the consensus of the community was instrumental both in establishing the reliability of the witnesses and in allowing otherwise weakly supported traditions to be accepted; thus the apparent formalism was tempered.
The two Ṣaḥiḥ's were early accepted as authoritative precisely because they reflected this consensus. Four other collections were ultimately received as canonical. They are referred to as the four Sunan of Abū Dāwūd (d. 888), al-Tirmidhī (d. 892), Ibn Māja (d. 896) and al-Nasā’ī (d. 915). In these a more liberal critique led to the acceptance of many traditions discarded by the two Ṣaḥiḥ's.
The studied criticism of hadith gave rise to the genre of biographical literature known as the Book of Classes (Kitāb al-ṭabaqāt ). From these works came a detailed classification of men in technical terminology, indicating their reliability, and a parallel technical classification of traditions. The custom of traveling to hear and collect traditions died out only slowly, but the six canonical books remained at the base of the later collections, abridgments, and commentaries.
The shĪ’ites have their separate collections of traditions in which ali, Muḥammad's son-in-law and cousin, is the main focus of attention.
Bibliography: a. guillaume, The Traditions of Islam: An Introduction to the Study of Hadith Literature (Oxford 1924). i. goldziher, Muhammadanische Studien (Halle 1888) v.2., Fr. tr. by l. bercher, Études sur la tradition Islamique (Paris 1952). j. schacht, Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford 1953). h. a. r. gibb, Mohammedanism (2d ed. New York 1962). o. houdas and w. marÇais, Les Traditions Islamiques, 4 v. (Paris 1903–14). m. muhammad ali, A Manual of Hadith (Lahore 1958). m. ibn ‘abd allĀh, Mischat al-Masabih, Or a Collection of the Most Authentic Traditions Regarding the Actions and Sayings of Muhammed, tr. a. n. matthews, 2 v. (Calcutta 1809–10).
[j. j. donohue/eds.]