When did the documentation of Sunnah begin?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الحمد لله وحده و الصلاة و السلام على من لا نبي بعده و على آله و أصحابه أجمعين

A research paper analyzing the development of written record of sunnah

by Gabriel Keresztes

1. Introduction

“There will be a man to whom my hadith will reach him, while he is sitting comfortably, and he will say: between me and you is the book of Allah, whatever we find in it that is halaal we will make it halaal, and whatever we find in it haraam we will make it haraam”.[1]

It is without surprise that such a prophecy has come to pass, and we find today many so called intellectuals, both Muslims and non-Muslims denying the narrations of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) without any proper scientific grounds for doing so. It is a matter of desire and non-conformation, an epidemic influence from western ideologies of godlessness and moral disintegration. However, intellectuals will never admit the reality of the problem and they will always attempt to throw stumbling blocks in the path of the masses in hope of misguiding them to their own ideologies and philosophies. In attempting to do so, many Orientalists and Muslim liberals have come up with different ways of attacking Islam, in an attempt to reform it or stop it from spreading its pure and unaltered ways. When dealing with the Quran, such people have realized that it is very hard if not impossible to attack, however they have found that the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) might be an easier target. They could have not been more wrong. Organizations of Quraniates[2], Orientalists, and Muslim Women Leagues have propagated ideas through their writings and media, that the ahadith are narrations that have been compiled much later after the death of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and that such are not reliable and should be discarded.[3] In this paper I will prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that such an accusation is baseless in the light of objective research and sincerity, and that the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not a later invention as people claim. Contrary to this, it was during the life of Muhammad (peace be upon him) that such a science of ahadith began, being collected, propagated and guarded by his companions till today. I have split this paper in four sections: in the first section I will deal with the Muslim methodology of preserving information and authenticity. Second I will show historical examples and proofs of documentation of the Sunnah during the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Third, I will discuss the proliferation and documentation of the Sunnah after the death of Muhammad (peace be upon him). Last but not least I will discuss the crystallization of the science of hadith, and the different stages that this science went through.

2. The Muslim Methodology of Preserving Information

The Jewish and Christian Scriptures suffered at the hands of the very people who should have guarded them. Because of this, the Muslim community felt a pressing need to safeguard the knowledge that was entrusted to them. To write a book using a false name is tremendously easy; in the literary world the use of pen names is commonplace. Similarly, it is possible to tamper with someone else’s work then republish it under the original author’s name...Muslims devised a working solution long ago, developing a watertight system which they employed faithfully for eight or nine centuries.[4] Starting from the time of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) him receiving the firs revelation, knowledge proliferation has been at the core of the Muslim nation. Upon reaching Madinah the prophet (peace be upon him) arranged schools and ordered scribes to write whatever he dictated. Many companions had copies of his letters dispatched to different people.[5] Not only those things were written down with the outmost care, but also at the same time information was being checked for reliability and content. From the affairs of the government during the reigns of the three caliphs to the administrative lessons, religious rulings, political and military strategies and all of the prophet’s traditions were passed on through a very strict system.[6] The Muslims methodology of gathering information, verifying it and passing it on had no match. The isnad systems that were developed to make sure that each incident or rapport is reported by an unbroken chain back to the original narrator[7]. Evidence for the transmission of knowledge in this manner comes from thousands of ahadith bearing identical wordings but coming from different corners of the Islamic world, each tracing its origin back to a common source – the Prophet, a Companion, or a Successor.[8] For example the hadith of Abu Huraira about the obligation of following the Imam is recorded at least 124 times, and reported by 26 third-generation authorities that unanimously trace its origin to Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him).[9] However the isnad system was only the first step in establishing authenticity and preserving information. Establishing trustworthiness (morality, ability, memory etc.) of the narrator was another important step in the Muslim methodology of preserving information. Umar Al Khatab and Abu Bakr, when collecting the Quran in one book, they followed the instructions of Allah the Almighty:

“…and take for witness two persons from among you, endued with justice.”[10]

The people of ahlul suffah (companions of the rows) used to dedicate their whole lives just to record and propagate the teachings of Islam during the time of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Many companions such as Uthman, Ali, Umar and others memorized not only the sayings of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) but also the whole Quran. The knowledge they preserved was passed on in the forms of books through a very stringent system that involved different levels of information delivery such as Sama’ (teacher reading to student), Ardh (student reading to teacher), Munawala (hading someone a text and allowing transmission), Kitaba (a form of correspondence), and Wasiyya (entrusting someone with knowledge to be delivered). These are just a few examples of the strict methods taken by Muslims to preserve information and the early stage in which such began being implemented[11]. Now we turn our attention to the proofs of the documentation of the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) during his time.

3. Documentation of the Sunnah during the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) time

It is agreed upon that the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not fully recorded in written form during his life time, however as we have pointed out the Muslim methodology was not restricted to writing, and it relied heavily on memorization. However much of the ahadtih have been recorded in writing and books during the lifetime of the prophet (peace be upon him). There are many evidences showing that companions (in this case Abu Shah) used to write the speeches of prophet Muhammad such as the example of the speech of the inviolability of Makkah.[12] The prophet (peace be upon him) also wrote letters to many kings inviting them to Islam, some of them still being available today. Some critics have raised an objection by quoting the hadith of Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri, who narrates that prophet Muhammad said:

“Do not take down anything from me, and he who took down anything from me except the Qur’an, he should efface that…”[13]

They claim that prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not allow hadith to be recorded, however they selectively take what suits their agenda and ignore the whole corpus of ahadith. It is clear from the wording of prophet Muhammad that such a statement was general and it was during the time when the writing of the Quran was in it’s early stages. The prophet allowed and encouraged his companions to write ahadith once the system for recording Quran was in place. He did not want companions to mix the Quran with ahadith, and indeed we see today that such genius paid off. When some companions heard that Amr ibn Al As’s had scrolls of ahadith, they reproached him, however he went and told the prophet who said:

“Write from me, for by the One Who has my soul in His hand, nothing other than the truth has ever come out of my mouth”.[14]

The same Abdullah ibn Amr ibn Al As’s collected the book called Al-Sahefah As-Sadiqah. This is a book that contained many ahdith of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and was spread amongst the companions and later generations. The Sahefah of Abu Hurayrah, which was proliferated by his student Hammam ibn Munabbih, that has survived till today and was published by Dr. Hamidullah.[15] It is without a doubt that there is sufficient information in the history of Islam to show that the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was recorded and passed on with his permission and during his lifetime. Those who say that the Sunnah was recorded only centuries after prophet Muhammad during the time of Bukhari and Muslim are far away from the historical proofs that are widely available, wishing only to escape the strict security measures that were divinely implemented in guarding not only the Quran and the Sunnah, but also Islam as a way of life.

4. Documentation of the Sunnah after the Death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

After the death of Muhammad (peace be upon him), his companions took an even stricter approach in preserving and reporting the Sunnah. In this period, a number of leading companions wrote down narrations and preserved them. Abu Hurayrah to whom 5374 channels of hadith are attributed, had many books in his possession as reported by Hasan ibn Amr ad-Damari.[16] Abdullah ibn Abbas to whom 1600 channels of narrations are attributed used to write whatever he heard and used to hire his servants to write ahadith for him.[17] Abdullah ibn Amr ibn Al Aas to whom 700 channels of narration are attributed recorded ahadith in his Sahefah, while Abu Bakr was also amongst those who used to possess written copies of the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).[18] After the companions of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), their students passed on the knowledge to their students. Abu Hurairah had nine students writing down from him, Ibn Umar had eight, Anas had sixteen, Aisha had three, ibn Abbas had nine, Jabir had fourteen, and others did the same as well.[19] The time in history is known as the era of the Tabi’oon and in this era the science of gathering ahadith became stricter, as people began inventing ahadith. It is very important to highlight here the fact that fabrication was discovered and dealt with. This shows the strict nature of the system and the strong filters it had for innovations and lies. Under the reign of Umar ibn Abdul Azeez[20] the scholars compiled books of ahadith containing biographical data on the various narrators of ahadith, exposing the liars and fabricators.[21] The hadith proliferation spread with such a great strength and precise science that the science began influencing the other branches of Islamic knowledge such as Aqeedah, Fiq and other. The people would not accept the authority of any teacher of any subject, unless he or she would possess the unbroken link till prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) coupled with the reliability criteria for that person in question. The collection of ahadith and knowledge was so intense and serious that some would not wait for the ahadith to reach them but they would travel for long periods of time to hear and verify ahadith. Jabir ibn Abdullah heard of a hadith and traveled on a mount that he had purchased, and after one moth of travel he gathered the hadith and returned back. The same happened to Abu Ayoob al Ansari.[22] The sciences have only intensified and crystallized as time advanced and following the ear of the companions, the followers and their followers came the ear of the Saheehs, which was the pinnacle of hadith sciences[23].

5. Crystallization of Hadith Sciences

The writing of hadith can be classified in four stages:[24]

· The stage of the Sahefah, which was the stage in the life of prophet Muhammad and his companions. The hadith were compiled just for the sake of collection.

· The stage of the Musannaf, which was the stage of hadith classification according to subject matter. This was the ear of imam Malik.

· The state of the Musnad, which classified ahadith under companion’s names. An example of such is the Musnad of imam Ahamad.

· The stage of the Saheeh, and this is the most important stage where ahadith were classified under the headings of different subjects (8 main subjects of Jamiha books), and particular care was paid to the reliability and content of the hadith. This is the era of imam Bukhari and Muslim.

The third century hijri became the most important time for the sciences of hadith, and it was pioneered by the strict measures taken by imam Bukhari in compiling his monumental work Sahih al Bukhari. The ahadith were known in all circles of society, yet no one would gather or narrate without the measures put in place. So even though imam Bukhari might have known of a hadith he would apply the strictest measures to gather this hadith and put it in his book. It is recorded in one incident that he traveled for a long period of time to gather a hadith, however when he reached the person from who he was supposed to record, he saw him tricking his horse to come to him. Imam Bukhari turned around and refused to collect from him saying that if the man lies to his horse he might lie to Bukhari. It was with this strict attitude that the science of hadith reached almost infallibility and safeguarded not only the narrations of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but the narrations of companions, followers and scholars who have been passing their knowledge till it has reached us with the same rules and same methodology that prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to apply, as well as his rightly guided Caliphs after him.

6. Conclusion

It is without a doubt that Muslims and non-Muslims alike have downgraded the Muslim educational system. Western educational philosophies are considered superior and more popular. The strict method that was implied in passing down knowledge from prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) might only be available in certain institutions[25] or private study circles taking place in masajid. The reality is that most people are trying to employ modern methodologies of education, which do not take in consideration the character of the person who narrates or their religious integrity. Teachers who use foul language and are far away from morality stand in front of thousands of students who take knowledge from them as an ultimate truth. The Muslim methodology is not weaker or inferior to the current methodology. It is actually light years ahead of it, however the fault is with us, who have abandoned it. There are too many factors that have contributed to the forsaking the Sunnah, which are beyond the scope of this paper. Enough is to say that based on the information presented above, people who say that the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon it) was only recorded in the third century or later, have no leg to stand upon, and should re evaluate the position in the light of historical data and proofs.

Indeed Allah knows the best!


[1] Sunan Tirmidhi, Kitab Al Ilm 38/5 as cited by Yahya, AbdulBary. "Hadith Studies." Chain of Command. University of Windsor, Windsor. 2008. Lecture.[2] People whom only believe in Quran and reject the Sunnah.

[3] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Submitters_International#Rejection_of_hadith_and_sunnah

[4] Aʻẓamī, Muḥammad Muṣṭafá. The History of the Qur'ānic Text: From Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments. Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, 2003. Print.

[5] Aʻẓamī, Muḥammad Muṣṭafá. Studies in Early Hadīth Literature: With a Critical Edition of Some Early Texts. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1978. Print.

[6] As cited by Azami from Letters of the Second Caliph Umar Abdur-Razzaq asSanani, Musannaf, vol 1, pp.206-209.

[7] See A’zami, The History of the Qur’anic Text… pg. 170 for an example of the hadith of the prayer, and how it has been transmitted. This chart is an excellent example of the unbreakable system of isnad.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quran 65:2 Hilālī, Taqī Al-Dīn., and Muhammad Muhsin. Khan. Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qurʼān in the English Language: A Summarized Version of At [i.e. Al.]-Tabarī, Al-Qurtubī, and Ibn Kathīr with Comments from Sahīh Al-Bukhārī. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 1996. Print.

[11] For a full detailed explanation and proof of the Muslim Educational Methodology see chapter 12 in A’zami’s book The History of the Qur'ānic Text: From Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments. Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, 2003. Print.

[12] Siba'ee, Muṣṭafá. The Sunnah and Its Role in Islamic Legislation. Riyadh: International Islamic House, 2008. Print.

[13] Muslim, vo.14 nr. 5326, "Hadith (Hadis) Books (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu-Dawud, and Malik's Muwatta)." Search Engine: Search in the Quran and Hadith. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=1>.

[14] Siba'ee 93.

[15] "Greatest Living Islamic Scholar Dr. Hamidullah Passes Away, The Milli Gazette, 20 Dec 02." MG. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.milligazette.com/dailyupdate/200212/20021220a.htm>.

[16] Philips, Abu Ameenah Bilaal. Uṣool Al-Ḥadeeth: The Methodology of Hadith Evaluation = Uṣūl Al-Ḥadīth. Riyadh: International Islamic House, 2007. Print. P.23

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] 99 - 101 A.H.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Siba'ee p. 107

[23] For a detailed exposition of the companions and followers who wrote down ahadith and possessed books see M.M. A’zami p. 34 – 70.

[24] Philips p. 28

[25] We still have a few universities that follow the isnad methodology

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2 comments :

    1. Same information ,I heard from my Arabic teacher , to confirm what he said I tried to chk net and the next day while watching Peace tv I watched the same narrations. All in rwo days time Allah in his own way reinforces my belief to even greater level. Alhamdulillah

      ReplyDelete