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Authoritativeness of the Akhbar-i Ahad
Hadith & Sunnah
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)

The ḥadīth literature basically consists of individual-to-individual reports (akhbār-i āḥād). It is, therefore, necessary for us to properly grasp the issue of the authenticity of akhbār-i āḥād. The extraordinary importance the Ḥadīth holds as the source of the religion and the sharī‘ah, requires that we fully appreciate the implications of akhbār-i āḥād. The Islamic law of evidence, in most cases, requires that a claim may only be established if two witnesses testify to it. This makes one think whether a narrative transmitted by a single man in each or any of the layer of the chain of transmission gives the kind of knowledge which binds us to accept it without exception. Many akhbār-i āḥād are transmitted by a single narrator in each or some of the layers. Do we have to believe that a Muslim cannot go against the teachings of such a narrative? Should an individual, for example, on receiving a khabar-i wāḥid (singular of akhbār-i āḥād), conclude that he has got the exact command of the Prophet (sws)? Before taking up these issues, it is necessary to define the term khabar-i wāḥid.

Akhbār-i Āḥād

An individual-to-individual report (khabar-i wāḥid) is a report transmitted by one or more narrators in each or any of the layers of transmitters while short of becoming a mutawātir (concurrent) report. This means that akhbār-i āḥād include the traditions narrated by a single narrator or more than one in any or all of the layers in its isnād. They, however, always remain short of the number that renders a narrative mutawātir.

The authenticity of akhbār-i āḥād is disputed by fuqahā (jurists). A brief survey of the views of the jurists and an exposure to the nature of their difference of opinion follows:

Mālikī View

Imām Mālik and his followers do not attach any importance to akhbār-i āḥād against the consensical practice of the people of Madīnah. They consider the practice of the people of Madīnah as the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws) because, according to them, Madīnah was the city of the Prophet (sws) and his Companions (rta). A practice adopted by the habitants of Madīnah with consensus becomes the Sunnah and, as such, it has to be preferred over akhbār-i āḥād.

The view that a practice collectively adopted by the people of Madīnah is the Sunnah and is preferable is understandable. However, the Mālikīs are not justified in saying that a practice adopted and adhered to by the Muslims living in other centres is not the Sunnah. This I say because once the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws) settled in other cities, the Sunnah reached there too. It was disseminated among the population in those cities. People living in those centres were well acquainted with the practices. How can then we hold that practices adopted and adhered to by people living in other centres is not the Sunnah?

To hold that the Sunnah in a single issue cannot be different is not tenable. The Prophet (sws) is reported to have offered a single practice differently. This difference in forms and observances of the practices was communicated to different cities through the Companions (rta). Thus, people living in one centre adopted one form or method while those of other centres adopted a different yet acceptable way. There is nothing strange with observing a single practice differently. Such minor differences can easily spread and be adopted in different centres.

In cases where a practice was offered differently by people in different cities and centres, the majority of fuqahā did not seek conclusiveness. They always accepted the possibility that the other ways might also be equally normal. I believe that this is the only correct and rational view. Flesh of many animals, for example, is allowable in the Islamic sharī‘ah. But there are innumerable kinds of animals. It is not possible to conclusively declare and label status of all of them. Some water animals are considered eatable by people of one locality while the same animals are detested as food by people of other geographical regions while there is no express legal ruling. Keeping in mind the above mentioned principle of the jurists we cannot validly declare such animals ḥarām. It would rather be better to hold that they are not ḥarām but we do not like to eat them.

Ḥanafī View

On the question of authenticity of akhbār-i āḥād, the Ḥanafī scholars have adopted a different stance. They do not attach much importance to akhbār-i āḥād in matters concerning ‘umūm-i balwā (general and every day human issues).

The Ḥanafīs reject individual narratives in these matters on purely rational grounds. Why should a matter involving the entire community be left to be narrated by only one or two individuals, they ask. Therefore, in such issues they prefer ijtihād (personal reasoning) and qiyās (analogy) over a khabar-i wāḥid. For they do not believe that, in this case, the khabar-i wāḥid establishes the sunnah which rules over ijtihād and qiyās. In such cases, they give a mujtahid (legal expert) the right to use his personal reasoning and conclude a ruling based on analogy. This is because, they believe, the Prophet (sws) himself has taught his followers to use analogy and conduct ijtihād in matters regarding which no direct Qur’ānic directive or the prophetic Sunnah is available. The following famous narrative ascribed to the Prophet (sws) contains this teaching:

The Prophet (sws) asked Mu‘ādh ibn Jabal (rta) before sending him to Yemen: “How will you judge a dispute presented to you for judgement?” Mu‘ādh (rta) replied that he would decide the matter in the light of the Book of God. The Prophet (sws) asked him what if there is no directive in the Book of God concerning the disputed issue. Mu‘ādh (rta) replied that he would then decide it in the light of the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws) of God. The Prophet (sws) then asked him what he would do if there is no guidance in the Sunnah too. Mu‘ādh (rta) replied that in that case, he would conduct ijtihād and that he would exert all his might to reach a correct conclusion. Having heard this reply from Mu‘ādh (rta) the Prophet (sws) struck the latter’s chest with his hands and said: “All gratitude is due to God who guided the messenger of His Messenger to something which pleases the Messenger of God.” (Abū Dā’ūd, no. 3592)

Preferring ijtihād over akhbār-i āḥād, therefore, is a more careful religious approach. Ijtihād is based on the express directives of the sharī‘ah established by the Prophet (sws) himself. This makes it preferable to do ijtihād instead of relying on a khabar-i wāḥid about which we can never be sure if it is true or not for any khabar can be true or false. Doing ijtihād, in this case, corresponds more to the dictates of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah.

I believe that the above mentioned view of the Ḥanafī scholars is not weak and untenable. However, many people find it unacceptable. They hold that though aḥādīth are not perfectly authentic yet it is difficult to prefer ijtihād in the presence of a ḥadīth. I believe this objection does not hold much water.

Every ḥadīth is not that authentic to be preferred over ijtihād. Ijtihād has a strong religious basis. It earns reward even if one reaches a wrong conclusion through it. Contrarily, the traditions can possibly be a lie that too ascribed to the Prophet (sws), not an ordinary one. This makes it incumbent upon a careful religious scholar to adopt a path that is safer and well-guarded against any possibility of falsehood.

The above is my understanding of the worth of the objection against the Ḥanafī view. However, I do not understand the reason why Ḥanafīs insist on that every matter of the nature of ‘umūm-i balwā should be communicated by a very large number of people. Why should akhbār-i āḥād not accepted in such matters? It is possible that an issue falls in the category of ‘umūm-i balwā and it may be related to a very large number of people. Yet, in the case of the prophetic teachings, it can be related to such an aspect of the life of the Prophet (sws) which is not generally accessible. To put it in other words, there could be matters about which the Prophet (sws) did say something or set an example, but his sayings or actions were not observed and reported by a very large number of people. Thus, the problem lies with the mode of communication and not the nature of the act. It can be related to issues which are of utmost necessity in human life yet it could still be communicated by a very few individuals. Familial and marital issues are the examples. These issues cannot be reported and disseminated on a large scale. Though every believer needs to learn the marital affairs and the ways of obtaining purity after one enters the state of impurity (as in having sexual intercourse), yet the prophetic teachings of such issues could only be transmitted by the wives of the Prophet (sws). Therefore, the narratives ascribed to the wives of the Prophet (sws) like ‘Ā’ishah (rta), Umm-i Salamah (rta), Ḥafṣah (rta) and others should be binding and authoritative for the believers regarding the familial and marital issues be they akhbār-i āḥād or mutawātir. We may discuss preference of one such narrative over others but we cannot reject them as invalid aḥādīth.

Shāfi‘ī View

Imām Shāfi‘ī very emphatically states that individual narratives are authoritative without exception. He stresses that even a narrative transmitted by a single narrator in each layer of a chain of transmission (gharīb) provides definitive authority. He has so extensively written for the authoritativeness of akhbār-i āḥād in his works al-Risālah and Kitāb al-Umm that one wonders why he attaches so much importance to this issue. I acknowledge his scholarship. However, I am afraid the arguments he presents in support of his conclusions are not directly proportional to the importance he attaches to this issue.

I have repeatedly studied and pondered over the narratives which Imām Shāfi‘ī has adduced as evidence to his view on the authoritativeness of akhbār-i āḥād. These narratives do not sufficiently prove that akhbār-i āḥād are binding. Contrarily, they prove that in deciding the truthfulness or falsehood of narratives the basic factors include the nature of the reported fact, the circumstances and related indicators, and the character of the narrator. Number of narrators is not that important. Sometimes, for example, the nature of the reported fact compels one to believe in it and in some other cases, it is the character of the narrator that is decisive. The related information and (textual or extra-textual) supportive indicators sometimes prove important factors in this question. This means that the primary factor in the question of determination of the truth value of a report is not its number of reporters but the above mentioned factors.

The incidents Imām Shāfi‘ī has quoted include that during the annual pilgrimage offered in the ninth year of the prophetic migration, the Prophet (sws) appointed Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq (rta) to lead the pilgrims as his viceroy. Later on, the Prophet (sws) sent ‘Alī (rta) as his representative to read out to the pilgrims the first few verses of Sūrah al-Tawbah (9) which deal with those of the polytheists who did not honour their covenants with the Prophet (sws). They were told that war would be declared on them after the ḥarām months were over. Imām Shāfi‘ī holds that ‘Alī (rta) was a single man who carried a very important directive. If the individual narrator does not carry any authoritativeness, then how could the fate of such a large number of people be decided in the light of the warning issued through him?

I believe that this point is not tenable. The prophetic representatives did not work as narrators nor was the message they conveyed similar to a khabar-i wāḥid. The Muslims did not receive and accept their message as a khabar-i wāḥid. On the contrary, they were received and perceived as the representatives of the Prophet (sws). Their message was accepted on this very ground. These representatives were sent on a special mission. They were the top leaders of the Muslim community. A messenger is a representative of an authority. Even if a common Muslim were sent as a messenger and representative of the Prophet (sws), his position too would have been weighed as of ‘Alī (rta). He would not have been received as a narrator of an isolated report. Rather he would have been received as the messenger and representative of the Prophet (sws).

This position and status of messengers is recognized all over the world. Governments and states appoint their ambassadors, representatives and officials to deal with others on behalf of their governments. Their position is clear to the governments and the subjects living in the states. Their orders and messages are received in the light of their position as the representatives of the government. They possess a defined authority. The concerned people honour their status and authority. What ‘Alī (rta) and Abū Bakr (rta) did and said during the annual pilgrimage in the ninth year after Hijrah cannot be equated to a historical report transmitted by an individual. To consider their action as such and to present it as an argument to support the authoritativeness of akhbār-i āḥād is not understandable.

While arguing for the authoritativeness of akhbār-i āḥād, Imām Shāfi‘ī has also alluded to the fact that Muslims accepted the statements of Maymūnah (rta) and ‘Ā’ishah (rta) regarding the practices and actions of the Prophet (sws). By this, he intends to make the reader believe that the early Muslims accepted their statements as authentic only because they held that akhbār-i āḥād give conclusive truth. I believe that this argument too does not hold water.

People accepted the information passed on by the wives of the Prophet (sws) regarding marital issues only because of want of such information. It could not have been obtained through any other means. People did not accept such information as valid considering it akhbār-i āḥād. It was only because the wives of the Prophet (sws) had a direct access to the knowledge regarding these private and personal affairs of the prophetic life. Besides they were appointed as teachers of the Muslims in these issues. They were required to teach people the prophetic way of dealing with those affairs. The Almighty says:

[O wives of the Prophet], spread the verses of God and the wisdom which is taught in your homes. (33:34)

Therefore, in this connection, the wives of the Prophet (sws) including ‘Ā’ishah (rta) and Maymūnah (rta) acted as the divinely appointed teachers of God’s guidance under the divine command in the above mentioned verse of the Qur’ān. They were not acting as narrators of aḥādīth. In these affairs, they were the only available authority. Other believers, as I have mentioned above, did not have access to this aspect of the Prophet’s life. This shows that the religious guidance in this sphere of life was communicated to people through a special means. This special means of transmission of the prophetic knowledge was adopted so that the prophetic model or practice is made known to the world regarding all affairs including personal, familial and even conjugal. This was necessary because the Prophet (sws) was to provide a model and act like an exemplar regarding all aspects of human life and dealings. The way the wives of the Prophet (sws) fulfilled this obligation needs no explanation. The only thing that suffices as a reminder is that the performance of this duty by the wives of the Prophet (sws) cannot be termed transmission of knowledge through akhbār-i āḥād.

All other narratives that Imām Shāfi‘ī has presented as proofs to his thesis on the authority of akhbār-i āḥād need no separate rebuttal. They also clearly fall in the category of reports which I discussed above and can be interpreted in the light of the above mentioned principles. A study of those narratives will also show that the aspects of weakness inherent in akhbār-i āḥād were not absent from the minds of the people of the first generation. They had, therefore, been trying to remove these weak points. They believed that the religious knowledge could be transmitted through khabar-i wāḥid and that such knowledge could not be rejected. However, at the same time, they were aware of the weaknesses of this mode of transmission. This is evident from the famous narrative regarding the inheritance of a deceased grandmother. We learn that a Companion (rta) of the Prophet (sws) reported his knowledge concerning this issue to Abū Bakr (rta) who asked the people if someone shared that knowledge with the narrator in question. At this, one of audience rose and corroborated him. Abū Bakr (rta) was satisfied. The narrative remained a khabar-i wāḥid even after corroboration by a second narrator. Yet the corroboration added some strength to it which satisfied Abū Bakr (rta). He did his best to ensure that he received reliable knowledge. If he had been convinced of the authoritativeness of khabar-i wāḥid, he would not have sought the corroboratory evidence.

Imām Shāfi‘ī has brought a narrative ascribed to ‘Alī (rta) in this discussion who is reported to have said that if he heard some narrative ascribed to the Prophet (sws) and he felt satisfied in the report, he would accept it. If, however, he doubted the reported fact, he would ask the narrator to swear an oath and affirm that he was speaking the truth. This proves that ‘Alī (rta) had set a two point criteria to accept a khabar-i wāḥid, personal satisfaction and an oath by the narrator. I believe the real criterion for accepting something is the satisfaction of the heart. While studying the prophetic aḥādīth, sometimes we feel the Prophet (sws) must have said or done so. At the same time, there are narratives which are problematic. This forces one to remove the possibility of doubt to the best of one’s extent.

The saying ascribed to ‘Alī (rta) teaches us that a testimony of an individual is not the only criterion of accepting the authenticity of a ḥadīth. It is not sufficient to accept something as a prophetic act or saying if it is narrated by a chain of individuals. It is the nature of the reported fact, textual and historical indicators and the person and character of the narrators that help us obtain satisfaction in the reported fact. 

The Principle View

In my opinion, Islam has not tied us with the mutawātir facts in all worldly and religious issues. Most of the matters of human life are run on the basis of knowledge reported through akhbār-i āḥād. The sharī‘ah and the fiṭrah (human nature) do not require that we may not accept or follow a reported fact unless we are absolutely sure of its certainty and authenticity. Such a requirement would make life impossible. Probable truth provides us with sufficient ground to run the affairs of life. In ordinary human dealings and affairs we accept the reports and narrations by all kinds of people, Muslim and non-Muslim, pious and impious. We do not reject someone’s report unless we find something solid indicating falsehood. Therefore, in such matters, we have to follow the custom and usual behaviour of individuals without trying to ascertain the religious and moral status of a narrator.

As for the religious issues, the Qur’ānic guidance requires that, if some impious person reports something important to us, we should analyze the issue. The Almighty says:

Believers, if some impious person reports some news to you, thoroughly investigate the issue. (49:6)

The Almighty commands us to consider the personality of reporters as well as nature, indicators and characteristics of the news while deciding on its truth. If the reporter is not impious, (fāsiq) then we may not critically analyze the news and the reporter even if he gives important news. If a fāsiq reporter communicates something concerning ordinary matters of daily life, we need not critically analyze the report. However, if a fāsiq reporter narrates something important, then we have to analyse his report and his character. We shall investigate his character and ability; we shall study the nature of the news and its relevant characteristics and indicators. If all these elements favour and corroborate the report, then we may accept it otherwise not.


Akhbār-i āḥād are no doubt a major vehicle of transmission of the prophetic knowledge. However, it would not be right to hold that akhbār-i āḥād alone can sufficiently establish the veracity of the reported knowledge. Akhbār-i āḥād are not rejected as unacceptable merely because they are akhbār-i āḥād. Rather, they are relied on while being careful regarding different aspects of weakness in them. The scholars, however, must look for ways of eliminating the possibility of error in such reports using all available sources and resources of knowledge. Indicators, analogy, corroboratory evidence, oaths, and all other possible ways of removing doubts and uncertainty involved in such historical knowledge shall be employed. However, akhbār-i āḥād shall definitely be rejected if they contradict foundational religious knowledge in Islam. This principle is derived from the Qur’ān and the mutawātir Sunnah.

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



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