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Riwayah bi al-Ma‘na (Transmission by Meaning)
Hadith & Sunnah
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)

A prophetic ḥadīth has two parts, the isnād (chain of narrators) and matn (text). Therefore, in deciding the soundness or spuriousness of a ḥadīth, both isnād and matn are studied for each holds equal importance. In the process of ḥadīth investigation and understanding, the position of neither can validly be denied.

[My focus in this essay is] the matn, the actual text of the narratives, and explain some of the weak points in it and shall try to determine methods which can be helpful in reaching the truth in this regard.

We shall start this discussion with an analysis of the process of ḥadīth transmission by meaning (riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā). We will try to ascertain what it means to say that the ḥadīth literature is mostly narration of meaning. We will also point out some necessary consequences of this fact. This is important to discuss because most aḥādīth have been transmitted in this very way. They are not verbatim transmission of the words of the Prophet (sws).

It is well known that most of the narratives have preserved the meaning of the original rather than the words. It is not something strange and no rational being can object to that. If it were held absolutely necessary to narrate the traditions verbatim as in the case of the Qur’ān, that would have made it impossible for the Muslims to transmit aḥādīth at all. The Qur’ān and the Ḥadīth have different religious status and position in Islam. The mode of transmission of each is, therefore, different. It is necessary to transmit the Qur’ān verbatim. If the same condition was attached to the transmission of aḥādīth, that would have made its reporting impossible. We would then have been deprived of a very important source of the prophetic wisdom.

As for the Qur’ān, the angel Gabriel, the Prophet (sws) and the scribes of revelation, all were involved in its initial recording. The angle Gabriel brought and revealed it to the Prophet (sws). The Prophet (sws) appointed his scribes to write it down. The case of aḥādīth is different. The Prophet (sws) always did and said things. He set examples in his deeds and actions. His words contained guidance for the ummah. He was indeed doing or saying something all the time. He spoke while sitting, standing, walking, resting, while being in company or solitude, in the bazaar, with his family, at home, in the mosque, during the wars, while journeying; at every moment in every place. He was always stating something or doing a practice, giving tacit or express approval to others’ actions in the presence of people. The witnesses to his sayings, actions and tacit approvals reported these things to those who did not witness them so that every Muslim could learn from them. This was necessary because the Prophet (sws) was not only a lawgiver but also a perfect exemplar regarding the observance of religious rulings and practices. His every act, small or big, ordinary or unusual, becomes a model for the Muslims to emulate. The way he turned his face to look at something and the way he took a morsel in his mouth has been emulated by the followers. If witnesses of his sayings and actions were obliged to pass on his sayings verbatim and report his acts exactly, it would have been impossible to transmit this wealth of knowledge. In that case, I am afraid hardly five percent of the total wealth of the prophetic knowledge would have reached us. This would then have caused irrecoverable loss to the Muslim ummah.

I believe that this condition was neither necessary nor important in the presence of the basic criterion, the Qur’ān. If, contrarily, the compilation of the Qur’ān remained faulty, that would have destroyed the foundations of every tenet of religion. The least possible mistake in the process of recording, preserving and disseminating the Qur’ān would have produced greatest harms. On the contrary, any shortcoming in the transmission of aḥādīth could be corrected in the light of the firm criteria provided by the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. For the dissemination of the prophetic Sunnah, the only practical process was to preserve his ways, actions, sayings and tacit approvals in the form of traditions. Any defect and shortcoming found in a tradition is corrected by putting it against the criterion of the Qur’ān. This made it possible that most aḥādīth preserve the meaning of the prophetic sayings rather than words.

Conditional Allowance of Riwāyah bi al-Ma‘nā

The author of al-Kifāyah fī ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah, has quoted some aḥādīth in the chapter titled dhikr al-ḥujjah fī ijāzah riwāyah al-ḥadīth ‘alā al-ma‘nā (a mention of the proofs for the allowance for the transmission of aḥādīth by meaning). These aḥādīth show that the Prophet (sws) has given conditional approval of riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā. It has been reported thus:

We asked the holy Prophet (sws): “O Messenger of God, our parents be sacrificed for your sake, we listen to your aḥādīth but cannot reproduce it exactly.” The Prophet (sws) replied: “There is no harm in narrating my sayings this way as far as you do not make the allowable as unallowable and the unallowable as allowable.”1

This proves that unless a narrator changes the purport of the original prophetic saying, he may opt for riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā.

A similar saying of the Prophet (sws) has been narrated on the authority of ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas‘ūd (rta) in the following words:

Someone asked the Prophet (sws): “O Messenger of God, when you tell us something we do not find it possible for us to narrate it to others verbatim. What should we do?” The Prophet (sws) replied: “You may narrate from me if you can correctly reproduce the meaning of the original statement.”2

This means that the Prophet (sws) has left it upon the narrator to decide whether he can retain and convey the meaning of the original. This falls in the category of ijtihād. This shows that the Prophet (sws) has given a principle allowance to do riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā.

A study of the accounts of later developments shows that the people engaged in the process of ḥadīth transmission have followed this principle. I cite some sayings of the authorities in this field: Wāthilah ibn al-Asqā‘ responded to a question in the following words: “Look, if we narrate a saying by meaning, you should consider it sufficient.”3

Abū Sa‘īd narrates:

We would sit in the company of the Prophet (sws) (with a purpose of listening to him). At times, ten people would listen to the Prophet (sws) but not even any two of them could reproduce the saying verbatim. However, all would retain and narrate the meaning of the saying.4

Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn says:

I would hear a single ḥadīth from ten different persons. All would narrate the same meaning in different words.5

Ḥasan narrates:

If you are able to reproduce meaning of aḥādīth, then there is nothing wrong with changing the order of the words.6

Shu‘ayb ibn al-Ḥujāb narrates:

Ghaylān ibn Jarīr and I went to Ḥasan. Ghaylān asked him: “O Abū Sa‘īd, what should I do if I find someone narrating a [prophetic] ḥadīth adding or omitting something and failing to narrate exactly what he learned?” Ḥasan replied: “[It is acceptable.] We may only consider someone a liar if he does so knowingly.”7

Consider the following fact about Anas (rta):

After narrating a prophetic tradition he would add the following words: aw kamā qāla rasūl allāh (or as the Prophet (sws) said).8

The above shows that the Prophet (sws) himself clarified that it is not necessary to narrate a tradition verbatim. The narrator, however, has to reproduce the meaning of the original. In a nutshell, the Companions (rta) and the muḥaddithūn have accepted the traditions that were not reported verbatim provided that the meaning of the original was retained.

Vulnerability of Riwāyah bi al-Ma‘nā

A competent narrator can, no doubt, sufficiently communicate the meaning of a report without using the exact received wording. If, however, he fails to communicate the message contained in the original, he, at least, can explain the report in his own words. In this manner he actually explicates and explains the original received report. However, there are always chances of error in riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā.

The inherent weaknesses in this method are obvious. Numerous examples of errors resulting from this mode of narration were detected even during the lifetime of the Prophet (sws). For example many Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws) learnt from him the supplication made before going to sleep at night. Later on, different people reproduced it differently. Some people even changed the meaning of the supplication they had learnt:


Barrā’ ibn ‘Ādhib (rta) narrates that the Prophet (sws) said: “When you go to bed, you should make wuḍū the way you make wuḍū for the prayer. Then you should lie on the right side of your body and make the following supplication: ‘My Lord, I submit myself to you. I submit all my affairs to your lordship. I take you as refuge while I dread from your punishment and anticipate your mercy. There is no refuge and safety from you except you. I believe in the Book you have revealed and the Prophet you have appointed as your messenger (wa bi nabiyyika alladhī arsalta).’” Then the Prophet (sws) said: “If you died while asleep, you shall die on the fiṭrah (nature). You should make sure that these are the last words you utter (before your death).” Barrā’ (rta) says that he repeated the words as follows: “I believe in the rasūl you have sent (wa bi rasūlika alladhī arsalta)” [instead of “bi nabiyyika alladhī arsalta, the nabī you have sent”]. The Prophet (sws) corrected: “No. Say wa bi nabiyyyika alladhī arsalta (the Prophet (nabī) that you have sent) as a rasūl.” (Bukhārī, No: 244)

We learn that the Prophet (sws) taught his Companions (rta) the etiquette of going to bed as well as some supplications to be said on the occasion. He asked Barrā’ (rta) to repeat the words of the supplication. Barrā’ (rta) replaced the words wa bi nabiyyika alladhī arsalta with wa bi rasūlik alladhī arsalta. The Prophet (sws) corrected him. Barrā’ (rta) had changed the words of great significance. The meaning of the words implied a great religious reality. The words wa bi rasūlik alladhī arsalta do not clearly indicate the true status of the Prophet (sws), that he was a nabī raised to the status of rasūl. I have written extensively on the difference between a nabī and a rasūl in my commentary on the Qur’ān entitled Tadabbur-i Qur’ān. Every Messenger of God is a nabī. Some nabīs, however, are also rasūl. The status of the rasūl is superior to that of a nabī. A rasūl is sent as a Divine judge for his people. The fate of his nation is definitely decided herein. His addressees are annihilated in this very world if they do not hearken towards his warnings and admonitions. If, however, they accept his call, they are granted dominion. This is not the case with the mission of a nabī. Now consider the words of the tradition which the Companion Barrā’ (rta) used wrongly. The words the Prophet (sw) taught him were wa bi nabiyyik alladhī arsalta (in the nabī you have sent as a rasūl). These words highlight the true status of the Prophet Muḥammad (sws) while the words wa bi rasūlik alladhī arsalta do not make this distinction clear. Furthermore, in this phrase, the words alladhī arsalta are redundant. Contrarily, the same words put in the phrase wa bi nabiyyik alladhī arsalta give a very profound meaning.

The above exemplifies a case in which the Prophet (sws) himself corrected a narrator about one of his sayings. The Prophet (sws) prompted the narrator because the mistake was serious. It could have led to a misunderstanding concerning a very fundamental philosophical religious tenet. Riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā can cause other similar or graver differences in the religious directives of practical nature. Consider the following example.

It has been narrated that one day a Bedouin knowingly broke fast during a month of Ramadan. He came to the Prophet (sws) crying. The Prophet (sws) asked him the cause of his distress. He narrated the whole incident. The Prophet (sws) told him how he could atone for the sinful act he had committed. The narrators of the ḥadīth differ greatly over what the Prophet (sws) commanded him to do to atone for breaking the obligatory fast of Ramadan knowingly.

This whole incident has been recorded by Imām Muslim in his Ṣaḥīḥ in two different narratives. The first of these narratives is transmitted on the authority of Abū Hurayrah (rta) and the other has been ascribed to ‘Ā’ishah (rta). The narrative transmitted by Abū Hurayrah (rta) follows:

A man came to the Prophet (sws). He said: “I have been ruined, O Messenger of God!” The Prophet (sws) asked him what had ruined him. The man replied: “I have had sexual intercourse with my wife while fasting.” The Prophet (sws) asked him whether he had something to buy a slave his freedom. The man replied in the negative. The Prophet (sws) then asked him if he could continuously fast for two months. He again replied in the negative. The Prophet (sws) asked him whether he could feed sixty needy people. He again replied in the negative. Then he sat there. Meanwhile, a basket full of dates was presented to the Prophet (sws). The Prophet (sws) asked him to give away the basket of dates in the way of Allah. At this, he said: “Who would need these more than me! There is no house between these two barren plains of Madīnah needier of these dates than mine.” At this, the Prophet (sws) smiled such that his teeth could be seen. Then the Prophet (sws) said to him: “Go and feed your family with these.” (Muslim, No: 1111)

Now consider the wording of a variant transmitted on the authority of ‘Ā’ishah (rta):

The Prophet (sws) said to him: “Give in charity, give in charity.” The man explained that he had nothing to give away. Then the Prophet (sws) commanded him to stay there. Then two baskets of food were presented to the Prophet (sws) who commanded the man to give those baskets of food in charity. (Muslim, No: 1112)

If someone intends to learn how to atone for the act of breaking an obligatory fast of Ramadan in the light of the narrative transmitted on the authority of Abū Hurayrah (rta), he would certainly conclude that, primarily, it is freeing a slave. Failing this he has to continuously fast for sixty days and failing that he has to feed sixty needy persons. The narrative transmitted by ‘Ā’ishah (rta), on the contrary, does not put the issue that way. It does not specify anything. According to ‘Ā’ishah (rta), the Prophet (sws) commanded the man merely to give in charity. Some variants of the same tradition do not mention continuous fasting for two months. This shows that the method of riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā has complicated a very clear issue. This resulted in much wrangling of jurists over the atonement for breaking an obligatory fast knowingly.

The method of riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā has caused changes in the meaning of many other narratives. Taking this liberty, many people have worded various narratives differently. Many scholastics (experts in ‘ilm al-kalām) have based some of their erroneous beliefs on these variants of the aḥādīth regarding which we do not find a hint in the Qur’ān. Islamic beliefs, it should be appreciated, are based only on the clear Qur’ānic verses and not the akhbār-i āḥād.


Pursuing Verbatim Narration

Sensing the danger of loss in the meaning of the narratives if narrated by riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā, a group of scholars, from the beginning, held that the prophetic traditions may only be transmitted verbatim. They did not accept riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā. Imām Mālik was one such scholar who held and promoted this view. He has successfully met this ideal of verbatim narration of aḥādīth, at least, in the case of the statements traced back to the Prophet (sws). This ideal is well reflected in his treatise, al-Muwaṭṭā. If we read through it we would feel the grandeur of the prophetic speech at many occasions. The truth of the matter, however, is that nobody can fulfil the condition of verbatim narration, no matter how great scholarship he shows and how deep understanding he possesses. This explains why this view could not be consistently practiced later on. Only a few narrators tried to make sure that they narrate traditions verbatim. This view could hold sway had the ummah adopted and followed it. Contrarily, the ummah has, as a whole, adopted the practice of riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā. I believe that this approach was correct and practicable.



Most of the ḥadīth literature consists of the traditions which can only be termed narration of meaning (riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā). Naturally it was the only possible means of transmission of tradition. The ummah has, collectively, adopted this approach; it was widely accepted and followed. I believe that it is the only correct approach. However, while analyzing the matn (text) of aḥādīth, we have to consider the implications of the process of riwāyah bi al-ma‘nā which we have discussed in detail in the foregoing pages so that the demands and prerequisites of a proper research are fulfilled.


(Translated from Mabādī Tadabbur-i Hadīth by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)



1. Al-Khaṭīb Al-Baghdādī, Al-Kifāyah fī ‘Ilm al-riwāyah (Hyderabad: Dā’irah al-ma‘ārif al-‘uthmāniyah, 1938), 199.

2. Ibid., 200.

3. Ibid., 104.

4. Ibid., 205.

5. Ibid., 206.

6. Ibid., 207.

7. Ibid. 208.

8. Ibid. 206.


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