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Early Hadith Literature: II



There were efforts on the part of some companions to write down whatever they had heard personally from the Prophet. But they did not write everything that the Prophet said as they were not in his company 24 hours.

The Prophet initially discouraged his companions to write down words coming from him other than the Quran. Later on, the Prophet permitted the companions to write down his explanations in addition to the divine revelation. The early caliphs discouraged the writing of ahadith and did not leave any collection of hadith described as an officially approved collection of ahadith.

When we read the Quran, we never say before an aya, from Abu Bakr, or Umar, or Usman, or Ali, or Ayesha or Khadeeja (May Allah be pleased with them all) who heard it from the Prophet. Even though they listened to the Quran directly from Prophet Muhammad, no one mentions their names for a straightforward reason. The Prophet verified every letter of the Quran and ensured that every single aya is in the written format we see today. The evidence is so strong that there is no need for the chain of narrators to prove the authenticity of an aya. Even though some of the anecdotes mentioned in some books of ahadith would argue the contrary, the verdict of the Quran that Allah revealed it and he would ensure its protection is final and supreme. He fulfilled it during his lifetime. Abu Bakr or Uthman did not compile the Quran; the Prophet did. Moreover, if we say that the first and the third Caliph compiled the Quran, we accuse the Prophet of not fulfilling his responsibilities in preserving the Quran in his lifetime. No Muslim can ever claim to be a Muslim if he denies the fact that the Quran, as we see it, was compiled during the lifetime of the Prophet.

However, when we read the hadith, we see a long chain of narrators before the narration that “thus said the prophet, or as we believe was said by the Prophet.” The Prophet did not leave any collection of his sayings like the one we see in the compilation of Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Bukhari, Muslim, Nasai, etc.

Some of the companions often wrote what they heard the Prophet saying in several situations. Yet, so far, there is no concrete and conclusive empirical evidence that the companions asked the Prophet to verify what they had attributed to him. In the initial stages of prophethood, the Prophet prohibited his companions from writing anything other than the Quran. As a result, a substantial part of what the Prophet had said in those early days was not written down. Many of the early companions had passed away when the Prophet removed this restriction in later days. Thus we would never know their narrations of the prophetic teachings.


Musnad Imam Ahmed, a book of ahadith is considered authentic by many, and it includes the following passage in its contents, “The companions said that we used to write down whatever we would hear from the Prophet. Then, one day the Prophet came and asked us what you are writing; we told him that whatever we hear from you, we write that down. He exclaimed, any other book besides the book of Allah! Keep the book of Allah clean; keep it purified; keep it away from all skepticism. We then brought out in an open space everything that we had written and burned it.” (Masnad Ahmed as quoted by Manazar Ahsan Gilani in his work Tadween Hadith, page #249, also reported in Tazkiratul Huffaz by Zahabi) So whatever was compiled by the companions until then was burned. How many ahadith were there and on what subject, no one can even guess.


In Zahabi’s Tazkiratul Huffaz, during his Caliphate, the first Caliph Abu Bakr assembled people after the death of the Prophet and told them that you attribute statements to the Prophet and then differ about them. Therefore, the people who would come after you would have differences much more expansive than yours, so you should not attribute any statement to the Prophet. If anyone questions you about that, tell him that we have the book of Allah amongst us. Thus, you should consider halal what this book has declared halal and consider haram what the book has stated haram.”

Zahabi also notes that Umm ul Momineen (the mother of the believers) Aisha said that “once my father, Caliph Abu Bakr, collected some 500 ahadith of the Prophet and I noticed that he was restless during his sleep. I asked him the reasons for this condition, and he did not respond. In the morning, he asked me to bring all those ahadith that he had collected and instructed me to burn them all.” So the first Caliph burned a substantial number of ahadith. No one can even guess what those ahadith were all about.

Ibn Abdul Birr, in his book Bayanul Ilm says that the second Caliph, Umar bin Khattab consulted the companions of the Prophet about compiling the ahadith, but he was not sure about their advice that the ahadith should be in written format. So after a month of reflection, he told people to abandon the idea of compiling ahadith as it would confuse people between the importance of the Quran and hadith.


In Tabaqat ibn Sa’d, Umar bin Khattab instructed the people to bring to him all the ahadith they had written down as far as ahadith, and he burned them all. (Tabaqat ibn Sa’d, volume V P# 141)

Ibn Abdul Bir further narrates that the second Caliph then sent the instructions in districts and other towns asking people to destroy whatever they had collected in the name of ahadith. (Jami Bayanul Ilm, Vol. I, P# 65)

If the intent of the Prophet were the preservation of his words, he would have ensured that whatever he was instructing the people besides the Quran should be written down. So, likewise, his closest companions should have confirmed that every word coming out of his mouth is in written form. Moreover, they would have left a collection of his instructions to save the succeeding generation from compiling books of ahadith.

Writing had become popular at the time of the Prophet. As Ibn Hazm in his book Kitabul Fisl writes, there were about 100,000 copies of the Quran at the time of Caliph Umar, yet Caliph Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab prevented the people from compiling a book of ahadith. The second Caliph went a step forward as he put in prison companions such as Abdullah ibn Masood, Abu Darda, and Abu Masood Ansar for narrating ahadith in abundance (Tazkiratul Huffaz)

The compilation of the ahadith in written form was not the hallmark of the earliest period of Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet or his immediate successors. If the earlier companions had preserved the sayings of the Prophet, we would undoubtedly be in a better position to understand the full extent of what the Prophet said and did. This lack of early written material indicates the monumental efforts that many later day scholars had to do to compile the ahadith through a very vigorous and rigorous method of scrutiny. Whatever criterion they applied, it was to determine the accuracy of the statement that could alone be confined in specific terms by none other than the Prophet who was not there to verify them. It is this reality that differentiates the authenticity of the Quran from the ahadith. From the methodological perspective, the two cannot be the same and equal. The Prophet verifies one, and the other is on the narrations attributed to him through a chain of narrators who repeated whatever they could remember from the Prophet.

Earlier companions preserved his Sunna of prayers, almsgiving, fasting, charity, Hajj, relations with non-Muslims, etc.

There are many narrations in books such as Tirmidhi, Tabarani, and Hakeem that quote many companions of the Prophet saying that they had the permission of the Prophet to write down whatever they heard him saying. Rafey bin Khadeejreports that the Prophet told him to write down his words. Abdullah bin Umar bin Aas noted that “Whatever I heard from the Prophet, I wrote down and then the Quraysh prohibited me from writing it. They told me that the Prophet is a human and often says words when he is in a state of anger or happiness, so I stopped writing. I mentioned this to the Prophet, and he pointed his finger towards his mouth and said, you should write down, I swear by the one who has my life in his control; nothing but the truth comes out from it.” (Abu Dawood and Masnad Darmee)

How much of what the companions wrote survived at Caliph Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab time, who prohibited people from reporting the ahadith. We do not know if the ahadith written down by Abdullah bin Umar bin Aas or Rafey bin Khadeej used by the two Caliphs in their governing decisions is unknown.

Today, several written decrees and letters attributed to the Prophet exist in their original form in books of ahadith. The book Letters and Treaties by the Prophet (published by the Islamic Society of Nevada, Las Vegas in cooperation with Iqra International Trust) lists those letters and treaties.

In Sahih Bukhari and Sunan Tirmidhi, Abu Hurayrah reported that during the opening of Makkah, the people of the tribe of Khaza killed a person from Bani Laith. The Prophet learned about it and raised the sanctity of the Kaaba and the reparation for murder. After the khutbah, one Yemeni companion, Abu Shah, asked the Prophet to make the sermon available to him in writing, so the Prophet asked his companions to write it down for Abu Shah.

HafizIb Abul Bir, in his Jame Bayan, writes that the Prophet dictated instructions to be written down about charity, obligations, prophetic traditions, and other matters for Umr bin Hazm in the 10th hijra when he was sent to Najran as a governor. This writing is included in Sunan Nasai and other books of ahadith.

Sunan Dar Qatni mentions that according to Abdullah Ibn Umar the Prophet sent a decree to the people of Yemen that explained the rules of zakat on agricultural production.

Imam Shaabi also mentions a written decree on zakat by the Prophet in his book Az Zakat.

Sunan Abu Dawood and Tirmidhi mention that Abdullah bin Umar narrated that the Prophet dictated a book called Kitab us Sadaqat that would be sent to his governors when the death overtook him. Both Abu Dawood and Tirmidhi have included many ahadith from this book in their compilations.

Abdullah bin Hakeem is reported to have said that the Prophet sent a set of instructions about the hide of dead animals to the tribe of Juhaina. (Sunan Abi Dawood, Jame Tirmidhi, Sunan Nasai, Sunan Ibn Maja)

Abu Jafar Muhammad bin Ali reported that in the sword case of the Prophet, we found a Saheefa that had many ahadith of the Prophet written down. (Jame Bayanul Ilm)

The Prophet has written some 379 letters to different tribes besides treaties and invitations to Islam to several rulers. There is also a written account of a census conducted by the Prophet in Medina.


The Prophet has given a promissory note to the Suraqa bin Malik Mudalji who had followed him during his migration to Medina. Similar promissory notes were also issued to a few tribes.


Among the companions, Abdullah bin Umar bin AlAas is said to have compiled a book of the ahadith of the Prophet known as Sadiqah, and he is reported to have said: “There are two things that inspire me in life, As Sadiqa and al-Wahat. Sadiqa is the book that is based on what I heard from the Prophet, and Wahat is the land that my father donated in the cause of Allah.”


His compilation was passed on to his grandson Shuayb bin Muhammad bin Abdullah, and from him, it was passed on to his son Umar. Thus all the ahadith from Umar bin Shuayb quoted in the books of ahadith are from Sahifa Sadiqa. However, it is not certain how many ahadith were included in Sahifa Sadiqa and how many were made into the current books of ahadith.

In Sahih Bukhari, there is a reference to a statement of the fourth Caliph Ali ibn Talib who himself had compiled a sahifa: “We did not write anything else from the Prophet except the Quran, and that is in this sahifa.” It is said that this sahifa had ahadith of the Prophet about Zakat, sanctity of life, boundaries of the Medina, release of prisoners, breaking of pledges, and erasings the marks on the land, etc. In several books of ahadith, including the Bukhari, there are ahadith quoted from this sahifa.

Rafey bin Khadeej is said to have written several ahadith from the Prophet. Additionally, in the books of ahadith, there are several letters written by the Caliphs to their governor that contain the sayings of the Prophet.


Thus we see two patterns distinct in the early hadith literature.

This situation led to methodological innovation and expansion on the part of latter-day scholars, including the Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik, whose books kitab ul Athar and Muwatta are the earliest attempts to be compiled ahadith. They asked questions such as who heard it directly or indirectly from the Prophet. How did they transmit it to others? How did the others preserve it and pass that on to their succeeding generation? What was the character of people who preserved the sayings or actions of the Prophet in their memory? Did all of them have the same level of memory? These any many others were the questions the scholars dealt with. They did not outright reject everything they heard, and they did not approvingly accept everything they were passed on. Each one of them developed their own methodology to reduce the probability of mistakes. Yet, they all knew that they were still dealing with a body of knowledge that was not verified by the Prophet, except for those written records that history had preserved. But the literature was vast compared to what was preserved in writing. Imam Bukhari found 600,000 ahadith, Imam Muslim 300,000, Imam Tirmidhi, e00,000, Imam Abdu Dawood, 500,000, Imam ibn Maja, 300,000 and Imam Nasai 200,000.

Each one of them made their efforts to develop their criterion to choose what they considered authentic. Their efforts must be lauded for their monumental task. Yet, they were aware that they had to undertake the task because, like the Quran, there were no huffaz of ahadith who had transmitted the hadith through memory from one generation to another.

Syed Mawdudi in his book Tafheemat sums up the situation candidly: “Suppose I give a speech today heard by thousands. Now ask those present at the meeting a few hours, not a few days or weeks or years later to repeat what I said in my speech; you would notice each narrating it in different style, tones, and words. They would not be the same in their narration. Someone would quote a full sentence, some a few words, some the gist of what I said, etc., some would paraphrase it. Some would conceptualize it, some who might not be clear in his understanding might misrepresent facts, and those whose memory is sound might repeat what I said and those who lack a good memory might repeat a portion of it in their own words.” (Tafheemat, Vol 1)

The compilers of the hadith were aware of their limitations, and each of them acknowledged it. They knew that their work could never be equal in authenticity or integrity to the Quran, the book that was received by the Prophet alone and verified by him alone. This limitation makes the development of hadith sciences part of human sciences, not the divine sciences. Thus the science of hadith is a human effort. Its purpose is to determine the accuracy of the statements or actions attributed to the Prophet. It is not the science of what the Prophet said or did but rather a science of what the scholars believe the Prophet said or did. They designed methodologies to conclude. Thus, anyone raising any question about the authenticity of the hadith is not questioning the Prophet; rather, they are questioning the methodologies and accuracy used by the compilers.


Imams, such as Malik, Abu Hanifa, Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi. Ibn Maja, Abu Dawood, and Nasaid selected the statements or actions attributed to the Prophet based on their methodology. Each one of them rejected the bulk of what they heard. For instance, Imam Malik gave preference to those narrations that came from the people living in Medina; Imam Abu Hanifa included narrations from people from different regions, and Imam Bukhari rejected some 95 percent of what he had collected.

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