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On the Sunnah (السنة) and Hadeeth ( الحديث)
The word Sunnah (السنة) has various meanings depending on the context. Sometimes it has a more general meaning of all that which was brought by Muhammad the Prophet of Allah, peace and blessing of Allah be upon him, of his words, deeds, practices and acknowledgements. The study of all available historical material to differentiate between the reliable and authentic as opposed to the unreliable and spurious is called the science of Hadeeth. Sometimes in discussions of Islamic law and jurisprudence the word Sunnah is used to mean the practices of the Prophet that are supererogatory and voluntary and not Rukn (essential pillar) nor Wajib (obligatory) and in this meaning of the word Sunnah becomes similar to other words to note this lesser degree of rewarded action, like Mustahab (beloved and desired), and Nafilah (voluntary, supererogatory).
The science of Prophetic narrations is a comprehensive system of interrelated sciences to determine the reliability and authenticity of various narrations and historical reports referring back to Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Although the books are numerous, for our purposes, there are six major collections reporting these traditions, collectively called the “six books,” which are as follows:
- Sahih al-Bukhari (authentic) [sometimes shortened to Imam Bukhari, b.194- d.256 Hijri corresponding to 809-869 CE].
- Sahih Muslim (authentic) by Imam Muslim b. 204 – d. 261 Hijri corresponding to 819-874 CE.
- Sunan Abu Da`ud (mixture of authentic, acceptable, and weak traditions) by Imam Abu Da`ud b.202 – d. 275 Hijri corresponding to 817-888 CE.
- Sunan at-Tirmidthi (mixture) Imam at-Tirmidthi b. 210 – d. 279 Hijri corresponding to 825-892 CE.
- Sunan an-Nasa`e (mixture) by Imam an-Nasa`e b. 215 – d.303 Hijri corresponding to 830-915 CE.
- Sunan Ibn-Majah (mixture) by Imam Ibn-Majah b. 209 – d. 273 Hijri corresponding to 824-886 CE.
The first two are called the “Sahihain” the two books of reliable, sound and authentic narrations. If the narration is in both of these two books, it is “agreed upon”, meaning reported by both these two scholars in their respective books of authentic traditions. The four that follow after them are the four “Sunan” (plural of Sunnah), sometimes referred to by saying reported by “the four.” Although they contain many authentic and good traditions, they also may contain narrations that are weak and unreliable, which the collectors themselves are aware of and often note in their commentary about these narrations. Thus any narrations from these books need to be studied to verify and confirm their reliability. Added to these four above, is the book called the Musnad (reports attached to their narrators) by Imam Ahmad (b.164 – d. 241 H corresponding to 780-855 CE), which has numerous authentic traditions and a special status. When the scholars say reported by “the five” they mean the four plus this book. Some other books often referred to in discussions about Sunnah, Hadith, and Fiqh, include the Muwata’a of Imam Malik (b. 93 – d. 179 Hijri corresponding to 711-795 CE, the “Sahih” of Imam Ibn Habban b.270 – d.354 Hijri corresponding to 883-965 CE., the “Sahih” of Ibn Khuzaimah, the “Sunan” of ad-Darami, the “Mustadrak” of al-Hakim, the “Sunan” al-Darqutni, the “Sunan of al-Baihaqi, the “Ma’ajam” at-Tabarani, and many others, that may be referred to in their respective places.
Historical reports and narrations (sometimes called “traditions”) are “Hadith” and are classified as either (1) Sahih (2) Hasan (3) Da’eef, or (4) Maudu’u. The first two categories are acceptable and last two rejected, and the meanings are as follows:
(1) Sahih (authentic, sound,) (2) Hasan (good, acceptable)
A narration is classified as Sahih when it conforms to the highest degree of reliability and accuracy in both the Sanad (chain of narrators) and all the “links” in the chain which are the narrators themselves. The narration must meet five criterion for soundness and authenticity and undergo intense scrutiny in these criteria, namely: an unbroken chain of narrators; each narrator in the linked chain must be of the highest degree of integrity and trustworthiness; each narrator in the chain must be of firm remembrance and retention of what he narrates; there are no discrepancies between this narration and other versions that may render it of less historical value; there is no anomaly in the narration. A narration is Hasan (good) when it is determined to be reliable and confirmed as acceptable although it does not reach up to the same epitome of authenticity and accuracy as the Sahih. These two are within the range to be used as acceptable proofs by a Muhaddith (Scholar of Prophetic traditions or “Hadith”) or a Faqih (Scholar of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence) in scholarly discussion and Islamic legal research and examination. Two classifications of narrations are rejected and unacceptable. They are:
(1) Da’eef (weak, non-acceptable) (2) Maudu’u (fabricated, a lie and a falsehood)
The weak Hadith is problematic and rejected since there is a break or defect in the chain of narrators, and/or one or more of the narrators are untrustworthy either in their exactness, their memory or their trustworthiness. A fabricated tradition is often proven to be by a narrator or narrators who are extremely untrustworthy and who lie and fabricate narrations and chains of narrators to propagate their lies.
Muhammad ibn Sireen one of the most noteworthy scholars of the Taba’een (followers), may Allah have mercy upon him, said in a famous statement reported by Imam Muslim in his introduction in the chapter about Isnad (chain of narrators) and taking only the narrations that are trustworthy: إن هذا العلم دين فانظروا عمن تأخذون دينكم
“This knowledge is religion so see to from whom you take your religion.” And he said as Muslim also reports:
لم يكونوا يسألون عن الإسناد. فلما وقعت الفتنة، قالوا: سموا لنا رجالكم. فينظر إلى أهل السنة
فيؤخذ حديثهم وينظر إلى أهل البدع فلا يؤخذ حديثهم.
“They were not accustomed to ask about the Isnad (chain of narrators) but when civil strife took place they then said: “Name for us your men (from which you took this knowledge)”, and then they scrutinized, if they were from the people of Sunnah they took it and if they were of the people of innovation (Bid’ah) they did not take it.”
The eminent early scholar Abdullah ibn Mubarik, may Allah have mercy upon him, also said as Muslim reports:
الإسناد من الدين. ولولا الإسناد لقال من شاء ما شاء.
“The chain of narration (Isnad) is of the Religion (Deen), and if it wasn’t for the Isnad anyone could say (in religion) as they wished.”
The eagerness of many early Muslims to hear reliable first hand information directly about the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, is illustrated by what the Taba’ee (follower) Shu’ba said to the companion Fatimah bint Qais, may Allah be pleased with her:
عن شعبة أنه سأل فاطمة بنت قيس أخت الضحاك بن قيس. وكانت من المهاجرات الأول. فقال حدثيني حديثا سمعتيه من رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم. لا تسنديه إلى أحد غيره. فقالت لئن شئت لأفعلن. فقال لها : أجل. حدثيني. فقالت..
Amru ibn Sharahil Shubi narrated that he asked about Fatimah bint (daughter of) Qais, the sister of ad-Dahhak ibn Qais, and she was the first amongst the emigrant women: ‘Tell me a narration you heard from the Messenger of Allah, may peace and blessing of Allah be upon him, and do not link any chain of narrators to anyone else (but narrate the words directly as you heard it by him). She said: If you want, I will. He said: Yes certainly! She said… and then she mentioned her lengthy story… “ Reported by Muslim no. 2942.
The essential point is that we must always be vigilant and beware of liars and tricksters or the misinformed and those who pass on falsehood even if it is done unintentionally, for the narration of Abu Hurairah, may Allah be pleased with him, explains that the Messenger, peace and blessing be upon him, said:
يكون في آخر الزمان دجالون كذابون، يأتونكم من الأحاديث بما لم تسمعوا أنتم
ولا آباؤكم فإياكم وإياهم لا يضلونكم ولا يفتنونكم
“At the end of times there will be great tricksters and falsifiers. They will bring to you narrations that you nor your fathers have ever heard, so beware of them so that they do not misguide you and tempt you.” Reported by Muslim 1/12 no.6, 7 and others.
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, warned against attributing lies and falsehood to him, and notified us that whoever did this crime will meet a dreadful punishment, when he said:
من كذب علي متعمدا فليتبوأ مقعده من النار ”من تعمد علي كذباً فليتبوأ مقعده من النار“
“Whoever intentionally fabricates a lie upon me: then verily let him take his seat in the Hellfire.” Reported by al-Bukhari 1/4 , no.108 and Muslim 1/7, no. 2.
Even those who relate the falsehood knowingly without exposing it as falsehood are warned about the punishment, as the Prophet said, peace and blessings be upon him:
من حدث عنى بحديث وهو يرى أنه كذب فهو أحد الكاذبين
“Whoever transmits a saying ascribing it to me and he knows that it is a lie, then he is one of the liars.” Reported by Imam Muslim, Ahmad, Ibn Majah and others.
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