There are six principles which can help
us decide between the sound and the unsound Aḥādīth. These principles are
foundations of the discipline of Hadīth criticism. Taking guidance from these
principles makes it easy for us to sift the reliable reports from the unreliable
ones. It is extremely important for the student of the Hadīth literature to take
help form them and consider them in his effort to properly understand and fully
benefit from the prophetic knowledge. Since this is a very delicate issue, I
shall try to base my discussion on the prophetic sayings and views of the pious
elders (salf ṣāliḥīn). I shall not add anything to it on my own. Here I intend
only to bring such points in a set order and properly organize the discussion so
that it becomes clear and observable to the reader.
Khaṭīb Baghdādī is the most important
figure among the scholars who has dealt with the principles of Hadīth criticism.
He has carefully put all the important discussions in his book, al-Kifāyah fī
‘Ilm al-Riwāyah. My discussion here is based on the following chapters of this
1. Bāb fī wujūb iṭrāḥ al-munkar wa
al-mustaḥīl min al-aḥadīth (On the obligation of rejecting the aḥādīth which
contain munkar and improbable things)
2. Bāb dhikru mā yuqbalu fīhi khabar
al-wāḥid wa mā lā yuqbalu fīhi (Issues which are decided on the basis of the
individual narratives and matters which are not affirmed on the bases of such
Khaṭīb has discussed this issue
exhaustively. According to him, the following is the first criterion to
differentiate between the reliable and the unreliable reports.
1. Religious Taste of the Believers and
those Grounded in Knowledge
If a Hadīth does not match the taste and
understanding of the believers and of those grounded in knowledge, it should not
be accepted. The Prophet (sws) has guided us to this principle as is evident in
the following Hadīth:
[You should accept] a Hadīth
[ascribed to me] which your heart finds familiar and it affects your hair and
skins and corresponds to the call of your heart and mind for I am ever closer to
such a statement than you. When something is ascribed to me which your hearts do
not recognize and from which your hair and skins coil and which you find quite
remote from your usual disposition [it cannot be my statement] for I am the more
remote from such a thing than you.
The Arabic word julūd (singular jild)
In this instance, however, it connotes hair. The word has been used in the
Qur’ān in this sense.
Whereat does creep the hair (julūd)
of those who fear their Lord. (Q 39:23)
This usage is perfectly conventional and
accords with the rules of Arabic language. In Arabic, we can use metonymy. One
could speak of a container to refer to what it contains. The word abshār is
plural form of bashr (skin). I believe that the most accurate translation of the
word would be “body”. Skin covers the body and is a part of it.
Let us now study the sayings of the
pious elders on this issue. Rabī‘ Ibn Khuthaym says:
There are Aḥādīth which give light
like that of a clear day. We can easily recognize them [as the sayings of the
Prophet (sws)]. There are, however, Aḥādīth which are shrouded by the blackness
of the dead of a night. Our hearts are averse to them.
Walīd Ibn Muslim says:
I heard Awzā‘ī say: “We would hear a
Hadīth and present it before our companions just like we present dīnārs to a
goldsmith in order to learn if they are counterfeit or pure. We accept what our
companions accept as genuine and we reject what they reject as defected.
Jarīr expresses his attitude in this
regard in the following words:
Whenever I heard a new Hadīth, I
would go to Mughīrah and narrate it to him. Whichever Hadīth he asked me to
abandon, I would.
These historical narratives bring to
light some important points which follow:
First, the question whether a narrative
is actually the saying of the Prophet (sws) is to be decided on the basis of its
contents also. It is not merely accepted on the basis of an imposing chain of
narrators. This exercise of studying and analyzing the matn can be carried out
by only those who have developed a taste for the prophetic speech. They can, on
the basis of their expertise, decide the true Aḥādīth from spurious
fabrications. Such people can, after listening to a narrative ascribed to the
Prophet (sws), judge and decide its origin from the effects it creates on their
hearts and minds. Such a taste cannot be developed by everyone. It can only be
developed by a person whose nature is without blemish, whose perception of the
prophetic speech is very sharp, whose mind is pure of absurdities, and who has
remained in the company of the Prophet (sws) or, otherwise, has lived in the
prophetic speech (Hadīth).
It is important to note that there are
people who have not enjoyed the privileged company of the Prophet (sws).
However, they develop an expertise in the prophetic discourse (Hadīth). They
have deep insight and profound understanding of the religion. They make full
efforts in training themselves in the religious disciplines. Their taste for the
prophetic language can be of great help as well. Their understanding of the
prophetic language may, in a degree, be inferior to that of the Companions (rta),
and indeed this difference is only natural, yet, however, we must appreciate a
relevant Qur’ānic statement. The Almighty says that in the later part of the
life of this ummah, there shall emerge people who will be just like the first
generation. (Q 56:13-4) This entails that God raises people of such fine and
pure taste, even today, who have command of the prophetic language through
God-given knowledge and understanding. They are able to decide the origin of a
statement ascribed to the Prophet (sws). They can judge if it is a genuine
prophetic saying or not.
Second, every prophetic Hadīth creates
an ihtizāz (sensation) in the heart of the listener if it is not dead. This
ihtizāz can be of the nature of glad tiding if the Hadīth gives positive news.
It can also be a sense of fear of God if the Hadīth warns of something. This
applies to all aḥādīth. Similarly, a Hadīth creates satisfaction, conviction
and peacefulness (sakīnah) if it relates to the category of wisdom (ḥikmah).
After all, man of pure heart and untainted nature cannot remain unmoved upon
listening a Hadīth for it creates a tumult in the inner self of the listener if
is not already dead.
Third, it is commonly acknowledged that
the language of the Qur’ān is distinctively superior to the ordinary human
speech. It cannot be compared to the language of human beings. Similarly, the
language of prophetic Aḥādīth is superior to the language of common men.
However, there is a little difference between the Qur’ānic and the prophetic
speech. This minor difference between these two sources is only natural. The
prophetic speech cannot, after all, match the Divine speech. Still, however, it
is an observable reality that the prophetic speech is marked with such depth and
vastness, such exaltedness and sumptuousness as cannot be observed in the speech
of the ordinary humans. Although one cannot speak such language, one can feel
and sense it. On hearing a genuine prophetic Hadīth one’s heart cries out that
it must be the word of the Prophet (sws).
The prophetic Aḥādīth, it should be
noted, is not only marked with beauty of thought, it is also adorned with a
palpable beauty of expression. However, this beauty can be noticed only by those
who have made themselves acquainted with it. Experts of the language of Aḥādīth
can discern beauty of expression in the prophetic speech even if it is not
apparent to the ordinary people. When they find a Hadīth devoid of this
characteristic beauty, they can easily understand that the narrative is not
genuine. They come to know that it is a piece of stone being passed for a pure
gem. Similarly, if they confront a statement originating from someone other than
the Prophet (sws), falsely ascribed to him, they can, after listening to it,
understand that this is not the speech of the Prophet (sws) even though it
contains some beauty of expression. If such a fabrication, being passed as the
prophetic saying, is abhorrent to his pure understanding of the religion, he
rejects it outright. He cannot even imagine that the Prophet (sws) could have
uttered something inappropriate.
The Prophet (sws) is the most eloquent
of all mankind. Take a look at the supplications ascribed to him. Even a person
with only a little understanding of and taste for the classical Arabic language
can observe the excellence of the prophetic speech in them and appreciate that
it originates from the Prophet (sws). Similarly he can appreciate the origin of
some parts added to the treasure at a later stage. This line of examination will
show that the grandeur, greatness, simplicity embedded in style, and beauty and
attraction for hearts are such characteristics of the wise sayings of the
Prophet (sws) which cannot be found in the speech of the ordinary people. Such
stylistic beauties are the adornment of only the prophetic speech.
In short, a very important tool of
deciding between the reliable and spurious Aḥādīth is the pure taste for the
prophetic speech. An obtuse person cannot develop such a taste and understanding
nor can this ability be borrowed. This taste is a product of pious nature, firm
belief, deep insight and living in the prophetic Aḥādīth. Those blessed with
this taste and understanding of the prophetic speech cannot only spot the beauty
of a saying genuinely ascribed to the Prophet (sws) but also the ugliness of the
fabrications. A man in the possession of gems would never settle on stones in
At this point, it would not be out of
place to explain that people blessed with this kind of taste for the prophetic
Aḥādīth seldom doubt their judgement. Doubts and uncertainty cannot, however,
be ruled out. It is understandable. Such uncertainly and doubts faced in this
exercise, at times, open ways for further understanding. Therefore, a few
experiences of this nature, if at all, do not negate the applicability of the
relevant prophetic statement mentioned above.
The ability to differentiate the genuine
prophetic statement from the fabrications, granted to the true believers and the
people of knowledge and understanding, is further explained with the help of the
following Hadīth. Abū Hurayrah (rta) narrated:
They [Companions (rta)] asked the
Prophet (sws): “O Prophet of God, how would you recognize those among your ummah
whom you have not seen?” He replied: “Will not some owner of horses with white
foreheads and white legs be able to recognize them if mixed with the black
ones?” They responded: “Certainly he would.” At this the Prophet (sws) said:
“Then know that the people of my ummah will have white faces and white hands and
feet, a product of their habit of ablution.” (Muslim, No: 249)
In my view, this parable equally applies
to the distinction between the speech of the Prophet (sws) and that of other
people. The prophetic speech is discernable from a distance provided the
observer has a pure taste and inquisitive mind.
2. The Ma‘rūf Practice
The second measure between the genuine
and the spurious aḥādīth is the knowledge and understanding of the ma‘rūf
(known and customary practices). This principle is obtained from the following
saying of the Prophet (sws):
Muḥammad Ibn Jubayr Ibn Muṭ‘im
narrates from his father who narrates that the Prophet (sws) said: “If anyone
ascribes something to me which is ma‘rūf and well-known to you, take it [as my
statement]. If something which you do not acknowledge as ma‘rūf is ascribed to
me then you should reject it. For I do not utter munkar (abhorrent) things nor
am I one of those who give munkar statements.
This means that if a narrative accords
with what is ma‘rūf then it may be accepted as a genuine prophetic word. If,
however, it contradicts what is customary then it should be rejected. In other
words, the Prophet (sws) has guided us to keep the religion pure of the
undesirable things. He has directed us to judge something presented to us as
part of the religion with the help of the established religious teachings. The
religion is pure and unadulterated. If the new thing reported to us accords with
the earlier established religious teachings in form and spirit then we can
accept it as part of the religion. If, however, it does not match them, we
should reject it outright. This Hadīth also guides us to the true disposition of
the Prophet (sws). The Prophet (sws) says that he does not utter munkar things.
This means that it is not possible for anyone to ascribe any munkar to the
Prophet (sws). He cannot be imagined to say good things and then, God
forbidding, add munkar to them. Whatever he utters is pure. All he says is
marked by perfect unity of thought. He does not wander in every wadi like poets.
If we are able to defend this unity of the prophetic teachings then satans
cannot mix pebbles (i.e. fabrications) in the gems (i.e. true prophetic
knowledge). To ignore this unity of the prophetic knowledge and to lose its
awareness results in the loss of everything. This clarification from the Prophet
(sws) was important, rather necessary. If it is possible to imagine, God forbid,
that the Prophet (sws) at times uttered munkar things then the munkars would
surely have constituted a great part of the religion. We would then accept all
the munkar things ascribed to the Prophet (sws). Similarly, on hearing a munkar
ascribed to the Prophet (sws), one would be right to claim that the Prophet (sws)
In this prophetic statement, ma‘rūf
means the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. The term munkar refers to things that do not
accord with the fundamentals of the religion, sayings, and directives issued by
the Prophet (sws). If we apply this principle to some of the isrā’īliyyāt
and exegetical narratives, usually held sacrosanct, their assumed status is
abolished. Consider, for example, the edified description of earlier Prophets
and Messengers of God as depicted by the Qur’ān and sound prophetic Aḥādīth.
Keeping this in mind, let us analyze the condemnable picture of these persons
emerging from some of the historical narratives. We shall learn that the latter
directly hurt the stature of the great Prophets of God including Abraham, Lot,
David and Solomon (sws). We consequently learn that all such narratives fall
under the category of munkar. These are worthy of rejection. Fabrications mixed
in the Hadīth literature damage the status of even the Prophet Muḥammad (sws).
Another rather bitter reality is that
such munkar narratives mixed in the Hadīth literature have caused attacks from
the Orientalists on the Prophet of Islam (sws) and the great religious persons.
The crime of the Orientalists is nothing more than that they added colour to
some weak Aḥādīth. The original material has thus been provided by the
unreliable and careless narrators. They, therefore, must bear the burden of this
If we keep in mind this criterion of
ma‘rūf and munkar while deciding the sound from the spurious narratives, the
spurious ones can never deceive us. Guided by this principle, an expert can
easily and clearly see that such a narrative contradicts the Qur’ān or it goes
against the prophetic practice transmitted through generality-to-generality. On
the basis of this observation one should reject these narratives.
3. The Qur’ān
In the practice of judging the sound
from the spurious Aḥādīth, the third criterion is the Qur’ān itself. In this
regard the Prophet (sws) has been reported to have said:
Contradictory narratives [ascribed to
me] shall soon reach you. Whatever of these accords with the Book of God and my
Sunnah originates from me and whatever of it is against the Qur’ān and my Sunnah
cannot be my word.
This Hadīth gives us two principles.
However, we shall confine our discussion to the Qur’ān as the criterion and
leave the Sunnah for the next section. The above Hadīth teaches us to reject any
narrative as contradicting the Qur’ān in any aspect. On the discussion of the
interrelationship of the Qur’ān, the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth, we have thoroughly
discussed this issue. I explained that in matters of the religion, the Qur’ān is
the custodian over everything else and a criterion for distinguishing between
truth and falsehood. Nothing contradicting it can ever be tolerated. Some
extremist ahl al-Ḥadīth dare to posit that the Ḥadīth is custodian over the
Qur’ān. Their view has been fully refuted in the light of the following saying
of the most learned exponent of the Ḥadīth, Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal himself. It has
I heard Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal respond to
a question regarding the traditions which say that the Sunnah overrules the
Qur’ān: “I dare not say so. However, the Sunnah explicates the Book, defines and
While referring to the status of the
as the criterion and distinguisher between the sound and unsound narratives,
Khaṭīb Baghdādī writes:
A khabar-i wāḥid (an
individual-to-individual report) shall not be accepted if it offends (manāfāt)
commonsense, thābit and muḥkam (clear and established) Qur’ānic directives, the
known Sunnah, the practice which is as current as the Sunnah and any definitive
The word manāfāt employed by Khaṭīb
connotes complete negation. Here I shall confine our discussion to the part of
the statement that relates to the status of the Qur’ān in this regard. The
Aḥādīth which negate and contradict the Qur’ān are discarded. The reason is
that the Qur’ān is the criterion for gauging everything in religious matters for
it is absolutely authentic and sound. It has been transmitted through qawlī
tawātur (oral or documentary) of the ummah. This is why khabar-i wāḥid, the
probable truth, cannot be acceptable if it goes against the Qur’ān. Khabar-i
wāḥid can neither abrogate the Qur’ān nor change its directives nor affect its
rulings and statements in any way.
4. The Known Sunnah
According to the last quoted Hadīth, the
treasure of the known Sunnah (sunnah ma‘lūmah) with the ummah is itself a
criterion to judge the sound Aḥādīth from the unsound ones. Anything
contradicting or alien to the Sunnah shall not be accepted. This is because the
Sunnah is historically established for it has reached through tawātur-i ‘amalī.
This cannot be affected by something reported as khabar-i wāḥid. The Sunnah
predates akhbār-i āḥād.
Here the reader should refresh what I
have mentioned in the discussion about difference between the Ḥadīth and the
Sunnah. I mentioned that there could be more than one sunnah in a given matter.
Mere difference of form is not contradiction. This fact should be fully grasped.
The Sunnah is established by tawātur-i
‘amalī (continuity of practice). This means that there is no question of its
acceptance and rejection. It is known of necessity. However, the scholars have
clarified that khabar-i wāḥid is fully rejected in certain cases. I have
thoroughly discussed this issue under the topic ‘ḥujjiyyat of khabar-i wāḥid’
(finality of khabar-i wāḥid). As has been mentioned above, Khaṭīb Baghdādī too
holds that all akhbār-i āḥād that contradict the known Sunnah or practices that
are followed like a sunnah shall be rejected. Similarly narratives that
contradict “the practice which is as current as a sunnah” shall also be
By “the practice which is as current as
a sunnah” the author of al-Kifāyah fī ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah probably means what the
Mālikī jurists term as “al-‘amal ‘indanā hākadhā” (our normative way goes thus).
It means that a particular practice is customary and is followed by the people
perpetually. Such a customary practice, according to the Mālikī jurists, is
practically equal to the Sunnah. Something practiced by the community
perpetually must have acquired the Prophet’s (sws) approval. On this basis, the
Mālikī jurists do not affirm a khabar-i wāḥid contradicting a perpetual (mutawātir)
customary practice in Madīnah refusing to accept it as a satisfactory source to
rely on. In like manner, they reject practices current in other centres if
found against the Sunnah current in Madīnah. Another analogical case is the
stance of the Ḥanafī jurists regarding khabar-i wāḥid. In issues which relate
to everyday life of the believers, they do not rely on khabar-i wāḥid. In such
cases, they prefer the views of the scholars based on reasoning and analogy. In
matters of ‘umūm-i balwa,
they consider conducting ijtihād a more careful attitude than following a
khabar-i wāḥid. This is perhaps because it is easier to mend an erroneously
concluded ijtihād but extremely difficult to reject something invalidly accepted
as a saying of the Prophet (sws) or erroneously practiced as his action.
5. Reason and Commonsense
Reason and commonsense (‘aql-i kullī)
functions as the fifth criterion in the practice of sifting the sound from the
unsound Aḥādīth. I have already mentioned the view of Khaṭīb Baghdādī in this
Why are the Aḥādīth that offend
commonsense rejected? I believe that the religion, as explained earlier, is
entirely based on reason and fiṭrah. It is only the dictates of reason and
fiṭrah that have been highlighted in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. The Almighty
Allah and the Prophet (sws) accomplished itmām-i ḥujjah on the people only on
the grounds of reason and fiṭrah. Those who opposed the religion of fiṭrah,
following desires of the flesh, were declared as the enemies of reason. In this
perspective, there remains no chance for us to accept a khabar-i wāḥid that
negates the foundation of the religion. Therefore, a khabar-i wāḥid
contradicting reason must be rejected.
It needs to be appreciated that by
reason we do not mean reasoning by a particular individual. On the contrary, it
refers to human reason, the greatest blessing of God on man. We know that many
people believe in most absurd things and negate most exalted facts. Such are not
under consideration. Here we refer only to reason which decides matters
absolutely and whose judgments are supported by all those endowed with power to
reason in this world. The decision of reason cannot be rejected on the basis of
something which cannot be considered the saying of the Prophet (sws) with
It is important to note that the author
of al-Kifāyah has used the word munāfāt. As explained earlier, munāfāt signifies
complete negation. In some cases, with a little deliberation, one can reconcile
between reason and a khabar-i wāḥid which apparently negates reason. It should
then be accepted as valid. There is nothing wrong in reinterpreting a narrative
and making it to accord with reason. The problem, however, arises when we find a
khabar-i wāḥid completely contradicting reason while neither of these two
accepts reinterpretation to make it accord with the other and nor can either be
preferred to the other. In case of a real contradiction, we have to reject one
of these two.
If the student finds a prophetic Hadīth
incomprehensible, he must not hastily declare that it contradicts reason. If we
cannot understand something, it does not mean it contradicts reason. One can,
for example, say that he does not understand how water, fire and trees will
coexist in Hell. There could be various causes of this lack of understanding on
one’s part. Therefore, he should not reject the fact as irrational. It can, at
best, be held that human intellect lacks power to understand this reality.
A little deliberation will help us see
that there is no problem with the fact that Hell will contain fire, water and
trees together. This is because we know that God has created trees of fire even
in this world. The most powerful kind of fire, electricity, is obtained using
water. This we notice in our everyday life. All this confusion ends up with a
single point that it is only lack of one’s understanding that he cannot
comprehend how fire and water shall coexist. There is no real contradiction
between the Qur’ānic fact and the dictates of reason.
Let us now take an example illustrative
of real contradiction between the two sources of knowledge. The Qur’ān, in one
of its rhetorical questions, asks a particular group of people whether God can
be expected to treat the pious and the sinful equally. Certainly He cannot be.
To hold that it is possible would be an outrageous view. It implies that God’s
world is sheer injustice. It does not matter to God whether someone is pious and
virtuous or sinful and rebellious. He shall treat both equally. This viewpoint
obviously contradicts dictates of reason for if we accept that God will not
punish the wicked and reward the pious, we question God’s justice and, in fact,
ascribe injustice to Him.
The truth of the matter is that the
Creator and the Sustainer of this world is perfectly Just. This is supported by
the numerous phenomena we encounter at every step in this universe as well as in
the human self. To hold that God is not Just is to clearly contradict reason.
God Himself teaches justice and commands us adherence to it. This is the
teaching of all the Messengers of God and what all the Scriptures teach. It is
precisely justice upon which the heavens and earth rest. Had there been no
justice, the entire universe would have collapsed and ruined. How can it now be
possible that God equally accepts justice and injustice? Only enemies of reason
can take hold of that.
6. Definitive Evidence
The last criterion used in the practice
of sifting the sound from the unsound Aḥādīth is definitive evidence. Khaṭīb
Baghdādī, as quoted above, acknowledges this principle. He has mentioned that no
khabar-i wāḥid is acceptable if it offends any definitive evidence.
An argument and evidence, received (naqlī)
or rational (‘aqalī), is usually a more satisfactory source of knowledge than a
khabar-i wāḥid. We can never be absolutely certain whether a khabar-i wāḥid is
validly ascribed to the Prophet (sws). The same conclusion follows from
considering this issue in another perspective. We are obliged to follow the
prophetic example (sws). Definitive evidence is closer to the Prophet’s will and
decrees than khabar-i wāḥid which is at best probable truth. It is not right to
hold that we must prefer a narrative ascribed to the Prophet (sws), however
weak, to rational and inferential conclusions. Committing an error in exercising
ijtihād is safer than following lies. We can revise and correct our view
concluded through ijtihād. However, if something wrongly ascribed to the Prophet
(sws) is recognized as the part of the religion, it will create far reaching
problems for which we will have no remedy.
There are six principles, the guiding
criteria, to decide between the sound and the unsound Aḥādīth. These
fundamental principles are:
1. A Hadīth abhorrent to understanding
and religious taste of the believers and the pious scholars cannot be accepted.
2. A shādh (rare) narrative which does
not accord with the customary practice of the Muslims will not be accepted.
3. Narratives which contradict the
Qur’ān in any aspect shall be rejected.
4. Narratives which contradict the known
Sunnah are to be rejected.
5. Any narrative that contradicts the
dictates of reason shall be discarded.
6. Any narrative contradicting the
conclusive and definitive evidence and arguments cannot be accepted.
from Mabādī Tadabbur-i Hadīth by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)