The Hadiths are traditions about alleged events and practices in the early Muslim community that were compiled in the first three centuries of Islamic history (1). The term “traditions” refers to the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad as he lived his life among the first Muslims (2). These stories are intended to be historical recollections of Muhammad when he went about his daily affairs and in his interactions with people. They also describe the words of the Muhammad (3) and are “revered in Islam as a major source of religious law and moral guidance” (4). However, even though these texts are revered within Muslim circles they do not possess the authority of scripture as does the Koran which is taken to be the literal and miraculous Word of God. The Hadiths do not claim to be inspired, and it also focuses on different topics from the Koran. A lot in the Koran, for instance, focuses on sermons, prophetic exclamations, and religious poetry by a prophet. On the other hand, the Hadith gives the social, moral, and legal reflections of a community.
The Hadiths are made up of sunnahs. The sunnahs are a verbally transmitted record of the teachings, deeds and sayings, silent permissions (or disapprovals) of the Muhammad that have been passed down by word of mouth down through the centuries following his death, and “have become models to be followed” by Muslims (5). According to Islamic commentator Khaled About El Fadl, “The Sunna is the orally transmitted record of what the Prophet said or did during his lifetime, as well as various reports about the Prophet’s companions. Traditions purporting to quote the Prophet verbatim on any matter are known as hadith” (6).
The historical value of the Hadiths when it comes to the Prophet Muhammad are quite limited. As I pointed out in an earlier article there is actually, quite surprisingly, little historical information on the Prophet Muhammad within a century of his life. From the Koran, Islam’s earliest and most holy text, Muhammad is only mentioned directly four times in suras 3:144, 33:40. 47:2, and 48:29. So, if we want to learn details about the historical Muhammad we need to turn to our Hadiths as well as the later Sirah literature. The problem is that the Hadiths were only collected and compiled between 720 and 900 AD (7) meaning that almost a full century, and more, had elapsed since the time of Muhammad who died in 632 AD. This is arguably one of the reasons why the historical value of the Hadith literature has been questioned (8) as the specialist in oriental studies, Bernard Lewis, remarks, “The collection and recording of Hadith did not take place until several generations after the death of the Prophet. During that period the opportunities and motives for falsification were almost unlimited” (9).
In Hadith historical criticism Islamic scholars have looked to analyze the Hadiths in order to distinguish which of them are sound (sahih), from those that were only good (hasan) or weak (da’if), “The final verdict on a hadith, i.e. Sahih (sound), Hasan (good), Da`if (weak) or Maudu` (fabricated, forged), depends critically on this factor” (10). Several Islamic scholars of history have thus compiled collections of the Hadith with the earliest of these being Al-Bukhari (870 AD) and the lastest Al-Nasa’i (915 AD). Of these six the Sahih (Sound Collection) of al-Bukhari and the Sahih of Muslim (875 AD) are the most quoted and referred to. Thus, Al-Bukhari and Muslim, known as the “two Sahih,” are seen to be the most reliable of the six Hadiths collections (11).
1. Religion Facts. Hadith. Available.
2. Carroll, J. The Quran & Hadith. Available.
3. Brown, A. 2009. Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. p. 3.
4. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2016. “Hadith.” Available.
5. Qazi, M. & El-Dabbas, M. 1979. A Concise Dictionary of Islamic Terms. p. 65.
6. Fadl, K. 2011. What is Shari’a? Available.
7. Religion Facts. Ibid.
8. Hallaq, W. 1999. “The Authenticity of Prophetic Ḥadîth: A Pseudo-Problem” in Studia Islamica, 89, p. 75–90.
9. Lewis, B. 1967. The Arabs in history. p. 37.
10. Islamic Awareness. The Classification Of Hadith: According To The Reliability And Memory Of Reporters. Available.
11. Doniger, W. 1993. Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions. p. 403.