History of Compilation of the Sunnah
The Sunnah of the Prophet (saw) was written down during his lifetime, the process was started. The fact that the Sunnah was being written down while he was still alive is established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Once Abdullah ibn Amr ibn Al-As when he used to write down the ahadeeth, a doubt came to him and he thought should I write everything that the Prophet (saw) says, even when he jokes. So Abdullah asked the Prophet (saw) and the Prophet pointed to his own tongue and said “uktub” or write, for I swear by Allah nothing comes from this tongue except the truth. In other words, even when the Prophet joked, he would joke the truth. So Abdullah used to write down the ahadeeth during the Prophet’s lifetime.
The Prophet (saw) commanded certain Companions to write down his ahadeeth. For example a man came to the Prophet (saw) after a khutbah and said to the Prophet, I want this to be written down. So the Prophet commanded that the khutbah be written down for Abu Shah, the man’s name, and they gave it to him. Over 60 Companions would act as the Prophet (saw)’s scribes during the Prophet’s lifetime, either Quran or ahadeeth. After the Prophet’s death the Companions understood the responsibility in preserving the narrations and in narrating the Sunnah and we find therefore that the major Sahaba narrated 1000s of ahadeeth. The Sahaba would have halaqahs and duroos, and they would narrate ahadeeth.
There are 4 or 5 Sahaba that have narrated more than 1000 ahadeeth. Of them is:
1. Jabir ibn Abdullah
2. Abdullah ibn Abbas
4. Anas ibn Malik – the servant of the Prophet (saw)
5. Abdullah ibn Umar
6. Abu Hurayrah – the Sahabi who narrated the most ahadeeth ever. He narrated over 4000 ahadeeth.
The Prophet (saw) made a special dua for Abu Hurayah is a reason why he narrated the most. Abu Hurayrah once came to the Prophet (saw) and complained, I memorize your ahadeeth but I forget them. So he asked the Prophet to pray to Allah (swt) that he memorize them and not forget them. Once when a sahabi asked Abu Hurayrah, how come you narrate more than many Companions yet you were only a sahabi for about 3 years. Abu Hurayrah came to Madinah around 7 or 8 Hijri. Abu Hurayrah responded, the other Sahaba they have their businesses and farms and as for me I would eat, live, and sleep in the masjid. He was of the Suffa, the Prophet’s Masjid had a section in the back for poor people, Ahlus Suffah. The Ahlus Suffah didn’t have any specific job except to accompany the Prophet (saw), they just wanted to live with the Prophet and see what he did. So because Abu Hurayrah was with the Prophet so often he became the most prolific narrators of ahadeeth, and also because he passed away at a later date than other Sahaba, 57 hirjah.
The Sahaba spent their time and energy in collecting and narrating ahadeeth to the Tabieen, the generation after them. Also, each of the major Sahaba established their own school, not a physical building but they had well known students who they trained and taught. The science of ahadeeth developed primarily during the time of the Tabioon and Taba Tabioon, the second and third generations of Islam, during this time the science of ahadeeth reached its peak and flourished.
A phenomenon of the early generations of Islam it was understood that if you wanted to learn ahadeeth you would have to travel, in other words traveling for knowledge became a standard. If you wanted to become an alim or talib ul ilm, you would study with your ulema in your city then you would go to other ulema in other cities and come back to your city later in your life. For example, Imam Bukhrari and Muslim went all around the Muslim world to gain and seek knowledge. Different Sahaba went to different places, such as Madinah, Makkah, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, etc, the ahadeeth got scatterd to all these different places. So when traveling for ahadeeth came the scholars of ahadeeth could quote from all over the Muslim world.
However, the actual writing down of ahadeeth to form a book did not start until Imam Malik wrote his Al-Muwatta. Ahadeeth were written before Al-Muwatta for their own personal notebook, they didn’t intend it for mass distributed. Imam Malik was the first person to think of writing down ahadeeth for other people as a real book, Imam Malik died 179 Hijri and the Muwatta was written around 130 Hijri; so this was about 120 years after the Prophet (saw).
There is a PhD dissertation done by Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa Azami, a modern scholar done in Cambridge University. It’s called Studies in Early Hadeeth Literature and printed in English. This is one of the few works that has been translated from English to Arabic because of its benefit; it is now a standard reference for modern students of knowledge. In the book, he compiled the names of 100s people who wrote down ahadeeth in the first 200 years of Islam, before Bukari’s and Muslim’s time. He compiled the names, the authors, how their books were, the personal manuscripts, etc. The Kafir orientalists and the modern Muslims say that ahadeeth were not preserved for 250 – 300 years, so Shaykh Azami refuted this argument by proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that there were 1000s of works that were written in the first few centuries of Islam.
The old works of ahadeeth were not preserved because they were not real books for the masses of people but these old works were absorbed into later works. The smaller works of 1 or 2 centuries of Islam were absorbed into the later works of the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Hijrah. The sahif of Hammam ibn Munabih, sahif means the manuscripts or small book. Hammam was a student of Abu Hurayrah, Hammam wrote down about 110 ahadeeth from Abu Hurayrah. Hammam died around 110 Hijri. Hammam’s collection of ahadeeth exists to this day. A modern scholar named Muhammad Hamidullah discovered Hammam’s manuscript in a museum in France around 1920s – 1930s. Every single one of Hammam’s 110 hadeeth was found in Bukhari and Muslim. Hammam wrote these ahadeeth in the 40s or 50s of the Hijrah and Bukhari and Muslim came around 250 Hijrah. So we have a physical manuscript of Hammam from Abu Hurayah that are narrated by Bukhari or Musilm or both of them. In addition when Imam Muslim narrates the hadeeth, he mentioned it is from the sahif from Hammam. Imam Ahmad also narrated Hammam’s 110 ahadeeth in his Musnad. In other words Imam Ahmad took Hammam’s book and added it to his Musnad.
This shows that the earlier works of ahadeeth were incorporated in to the later works, such that there was no need to narrate or preserve the earlier works. Most of the books of ahadeeth were written in the 3rd century (200 – 300 hijrah) of the hijrah.
The earliest to appear after the Muwatta; the Muwatta does not really fit in to a specific hadeeth categorization that the scholars of hadeeth used to categorize. The musnad works appeared first. The musnad works wished to arrange the ahadeeth according to the Sahabi that narrated them. The most famous musnad is by Imam Ahmad, Musnad Imam Ahmad. Imam Ahmad compiled over 30,000 ahadeeth; it is one of the largest collections ever to be written. Another famous musnad is the Musnad of Baqee ibn Makhlud who died 276 Hijri, this book was the largest book of ahadeeth ever written, far surpassing Imam Ahmad’s. Unfortunately ibn Makhlud’s was not preserved fully especially after the Kuffar invaded the Muslim lands and took away the manuscripts. The reason why many manuscripts are in Germany and France, it is because after WWI and WWII they were stolen from the Muslims, they can be found in Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, etc.
After the Musnad works, a category of Sahih works started to appear. Only sahih ahadeeth were included in these works. The two most famous are Al-Jamia As-Sahih of Muhammad ibn Ismaeel Bukhari who died in 256 Hirjah and As-Sahih of Imam Muslim ibn Al-Hajjaj who died in 261 Hijrah. The more authentic of the two is Sahih Bukhari, but Sahih Muslim is better organized. It is more convenient to look up a hadeeth in Sahih Muslim, there are many ahadeeth repeated in Bukhari but not in Muslim. Any hadeeth in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim is authentic 110% beyond a shadow of a doubt. The vast majority of the ulema in Islamic history have accepted Bukhari and Muslim to be authentic. This is the blessings of Allah upon our Ummah that He has granted us this and a blessing upon Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim that after the Quran their names are mentioned. And these two Imams were so sincere; they had so many trials, tribulations and struggles in their lives.
Other works of sahih are Sahih of Ibn Khuzaymah, he died 311 Hirji. Much of Ibn Khuzaymah’s sahih went missing (perhaps 3/4 of it) after his death. Ibn Hajar (852 Hijri) states that he only came across ¼ of it. Amazingly Shaykh Azami found in Turkey ¼ of Ibn Hajar’s find of Ibn Khuzaymah’s Sahih in the 1970s. This work was published in 100s of years in 4 volumes. But not every hadeeth in Sahih Ibn Khuzaymah is authentic because he was not as particular as Bukhari and Muslim, but the general rule is that it is authentic but not 100%.
Another book of sahih is by Ibn Khuzaymah’s student, Ibn Hibban who died 354 Hijri. Sahih Ibn Hibban is a very large work; it is printed now in 16 volumes. Not every hadeeth in it is authentic but the majority of them are. The reason being Ibn Khuzaymah and Ibn Hibban had a unique idea, and that is that if someone is mentioned in the chain and we don’t know anything about him, he is acceptable. As long as no one said anything bad about that narrator but no one said anything good either he is acceptable. None of the ulema of ahadeeth agreed with this idea but because of this rule of theirs, they made many ahadeeth sahih which were not sahih.
After this came another concept known as sunan works. In the sunan works the authors wanted to emphasize the fiqhi aspect of the hadeeth. So they arranged it according to the chapters of fiqh. For example starting with taharah, salah, zakah, hajj, jihad, transactions, marriage, etc. In other words they tried to get a logical sequence of chapters to understand fiqh easier and they compiled the ahadeeth in the appropriate places of the fiqh. The important works are Sunan Ad-Darimi (died 255 Hijri), Sunan Abu Dawud (died 275 Hirji), Sunan Ibn Majah (died 279 Hijri), the Sunan of An-Nasaee (died 303 Hijri), the Sunan of Ad-Daraqutni (died 385 Hijri), and the Sunan of Al-Bayhaqee (died 458 Hijri). As for the Sunan of At-Thirmidee the proper name is Al-Jami but in reality it is closer to the sunans. So many of the ulema say the 4 sunan meaning, Sunan Abi Dawud, Sunan At-Thirmidhi, Sunan Ibn Majah and Sunan An-Nasaee.
Another category of hadeeth of literature is Mujum works. These works are arranged according to the Shaykhs we heard them from. For example, you would go to Iraq and listen to some shaykhs and write down the ahadeeth from the shaykhs you heard them from, and then you’ll go to Syria and write down what you heard there, then Yemen, so you would arrange it according to the shaykhs you heard it from. One alim, At-Tabarani (died 360 Hijrah), made this method famous, he wrote three books called Al-Mujum Al-Kabeer (big mujum), Al-Mujum Al-Awsut (medium mujum), and Al-Mujum As-Sagheer (small mujum).
These are the four main ways of compiling ahadeeth, Musnad, Sahih, Sunan, and the Mujum. There are other ways as well but these are the four main ones. The six books famous books of ahadeeth are Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, At-Thirmidhi, An-Nasaee, and Ibn Majah. Except for Bukhari and Muslim there is no preference over the other works of ahadeeth. These are the six most important books of Sunnah and Allah (swt) has written for them acceptance in the sense that it is easy to buy a copy of At-Thirmidhi but to buy a copy of At-Tabarani would be difficult. Regarding the six books, many people have discussed them, talked about them, explained them, wrote commentaries about them, but these six aren’t the only works of the Sunnah. One of the reasons these six where so famous is because they were comprehensive, if we were to put these six works together basically we would have the Sunnah preserved in them.
*Note: The difference between Sunan and Jamia is that Jamia is more comprehensive. Sunan only talks about legal aspects, fiqh. The Jami will include Seerah, Tafseer, etc.
What NOT to quote as a reference when writing or talking about Islam
Many times in English and urdu books you’ll find references that are not source references. A source reference is a reference is when you go back to it, it is the first time that hadeeth has been compiled. Many people, who are not qualified to write, write. When they write, they reference books that are not source references. For example, they’ll reference 40 Ahadeeth Nawawi, this is not a book to reference, Imam Nawawi won’t doesn’t quote the isnad in his book. So it is not proper to reference a hadeeth to a non-source work. Another book that is commonly referenced is Riyadh us-Saliheen. Although this book is very comprehensive and beautiful book it is not a source book. Shaykh Yasir Qadhi recommends Riyadh us-Saliheen for all laymen Muslims; it is very practical and beneficial for Muslims to read. If authors reference these types of books, we should know that that author is not really scholar. Another book that is reference is Al-Mishkat Al-Masabih by At-Tabreezee, this is not a source book, and it is more of a compilation of books. Likewise another book is Al-Munziree’s At-Targheeb Wat-Tarheeb, this book is not a source book, it is a compilation of ahadeeth from the source books. Lastly, Kanzul Ummaal by Taqi-Ud-deen Al-Hindi, this book is the largest collection of ahadeeth under two covers, it consists of over 20,000 – 30,000 ahadeeth arranged by topic. Al-Hindi tried to make a encyclopedia of all the ahadeeth that came before him, but this is not a source reference. One way to tell if a book is scholarly is it will reference to classical works such as Bukhari, Muslim, At-Tirmidhi, etc.
How to search for ahadeeth
Realistically you have to be a real student of knowledge who knows the language of Arabic and knows the sciences of ahadeeth. Just to get an idea or a feel for it, there are four main ways to do this:
1 – By the narrator or isnad
If we know for example a specific sahabi narrated the hadeeth then there are certain books we can go to (i.e. Imam Ahmad’s Musnad, or other books that have been arranged by sahabi).
2 – Look it up by the matan (text of hadeeth) alphabetically
As-Suyooti arranged over 20,000 ahadeeth alphabetically. The matan, or the exact Arabic phrase, can be looked up.
3 – By topic (longer method)
Look up books of ahadeeth (Bukhari, Muslim, etc.) or go to certain works written by the fuquhaa. For example, Bulugh Al-Maram by Ibn Hajar, is specially meant to talk about fiqh ahadeeth. In Bulugh Al-Maram for example Ibn Hajar will tell you that At-Thirmidhi narrated the hadeeth and then you can go back and look it up.
4 – By any word in the hadeeth
There is only one book that talks about this, it is called Al-Mujimal Muhfaraas in Arabic. This book was a project started by Kaafir orientalists in the beginning of the 20th century was to compile a concordance of the words of the Propeht‘s (saw) ahadeeth. This was done so if they wanted to find a hadeeth all they needed to know was one word of the hadeeth. For example, Innamal amalu binniyaat, this can be looked up by the separate words and the concordance will tell where it is narrated. The reason these orientalists did this was to refute Islam and refute the ahadeeth of the Prophet (saw). This work took over 35 years to complete in 9 volumes. This book is so good that it is a standard reference for Muslims now, every modern student of ahadeeth should have this book because of its accuracy. This book is most benefited by Muslims; nowadays the majority of orientalists don’t know how to use it. Allah (swt) changed the kufaar plans to be used against them and the scholars and students of Islam are using it to defend Islam.
The last way to look up ahadeeth is the easy way out, to look it up by computer. CD software and programs of ahadeeth are sold and can be used to search ahadeeth. But the drawback is that these programs are written by non-scholars so they are not very accurate in the hadeeth spellings and stuff like that.
How do we know the authenticity of a hadeeth?
There is no simple way to know if it is an authentic. If the hadeeth is in Bukari or Muslim then it is authentic, if it is in other books there is no way simple way to confirm its authenticity. But there is a certain priority that the other ahadeeth books have, for example Sunan An-Nasaee is the most authentic of the Sunans, followed by Sunan Abi Dawood, Jamia At-Thirmidhi and Ibn Majah. Musnad Imam Ahmad is for the most part authentic, but it has some ahadeeth that are slightly weak. The students of the modern time need to rely upon the works of the ulema of the past, what have they said about the ahadeeth. Firstly you need to know Arabic and have the books to go back to. For an English student it is practically impossible except by asking the people of knowledge. We should rely upon literature that we know rely upon sahih ahadeeth.