(Written in reponse to a query about the project of re-compilation of Hadith going on in Turkey)
In order to understand any research being conducted on Hadith, it is essential to comprehend the fact that Muhammad (sws) is the sole source of religion. From him, this religion has reached us in two forms: Qur’an and Sunnah. Both these sources provide certitude and do not require any research to validate their authenticity. They have been transferred by every generation of Muslims though their concensus (ijma‘) and concurrence (tawatur). These terms mean that every generation of Muslims acquired these sources from their previous generation and transferred it to the next one without any difference of opinion and this process is continuing till today ever since the time of the Prophet (sws).
The whole of religion is found in these two sources and all its directives are derived from them. At times, we are faced with some difficulty in understanding them. Moreover, guidance is also needed in matters which are left to our discretion. For this we turn to the scholars of this religion. Muhammad (sws) was a prophet of God. Hence, he was the first and greatest scholar – in fact, the imam of all scholars. A distinctive feature of his religious knowledge which makes him stand apart from other scholars is that it is infallible. This was because if any mistake occurred in it, the Almighty would correct it through divine revelation. If this knowledge exists anywhere, then every Muslim must seek guidance from it the foremost.
We are fortunate enough that this knowledge of the Prophet (sws) is available and a vast part of it has reached us. It was acquired from him by his companions. However, since communicating it to others was a matter of great responsibility, some companions were very cautious and some were bold enough to do so. It contained those things which they heard from the Prophet’s tongue or saw him following and those practices also which were followed before him and he would not stop people from continuing to do so. All this knowledge is called Hadith. It is the greatest source of knowing the history of the Prophet (sws). It does not add to any belief or deed in religion. It is only an explanation and elucidation of the religion which is confined in the Qur’an and Sunnahand also describes the exemplary way in which the Prophet (sws) followed this religion.
How did this knowledge reach us? History tells us that it was the Companions who foremost narrated it before other people in the form of Ahadith (plural of Hadith). Then those who heard these Ahadith from them narrated them to others. These were narrated orally and at times in the written form as well. This process continued like this for one or two generations. However, it then became evident that some errors were creeping in while reporting them and some people were intentionally mixing lies in them. It was on this occasion that some noble souls took upon themselves to research into these Hadith. These people are called the muhaddithun (scholars of Hadith). They were very extra-ordinary people. They looked into each and every narrative and its narrator and as far as was possible for them ascertained the correctly and wrongly ascribed ones and sifted truth from falsehood. Then some among them also compiled books about which one can quite safely say that the Ahadith recorded in them is the knowledge of the Prophet (sws) which the narrators have reported mostly in their own words. In religious parlance, they are called akhbar ahad. They refer to reports which are transmitted by a few people. Unlike the Qur’an and Sunnah, it cannot be said that Ahadith have been transmitted through concensus (ijma‘) and concurrence (tawatur). Thus it is generally accepted that the knowledge gained through them does not give certitude. At best it can be called probable knowledge.
The books of Hadith just referred to are all very important; however, the books of Imam Malik (d. 179 AH), Imam Bukhari (d. 256 AH) and Imam Muslim (d. 261 AH) occupy fundamental status and are regarded to be very authentic. This is because they have been compiled after a lot of research. However, this does not mean that their compilers never committed any mistake in recording them. The experts of this field know that they did commit mistakes. For this reason, these experts have continued to evaluate and assess these books. So when they see that the narrators of a Hadith are not reliable with regard to their character and memory, or there is no possibility that they have met one another, or the contents of a Hadith narrated by them have something against the Qur’an and Sunnah or against established facts derived from knowledge and reason, they clearly tell people that this Hadith cannot be attributed to the Prophet (sws) and has been erroneously ascribed to him. Similar is the case of understanding Ahadith and their explanation. Various scholars have continued to critically evaluate them.
This research work on Ahadith has been conducted in every period of time. Not very long ago, in the last century, Nasir al-Din al-Bani (d. 1999) has done extra-ordinary service in this regard: he resarched afresh into most books of Hadith and once again tried to sift out the rightly ascribed narratives from the weak ones. The task which the scholars of Turkey have embarked upon is very similar. As yet, their conclusions have not come to the fore; hence, they cannot be commented upon. However, the details that have come to surface show that apparently there is nothing that is objectionable in them. How can it be objected to if while giving due regard to the status of Hadith delineated above it is assessed in the light of its established principles of evaluation or is compiled afresh or if efforts are made to understand it and separate its transient from the eternal? The door to research in this regad can never be closed. Even if some errors are committed in this work, this should not be a cause of worry. Other scholars will point them out through their critique. There is no way for the advancement of knowledge but to leave people to work with freedom. This opens up new frontiers and it also becomes a means to correct any mistake committed by past authorities. The endeavour of the Turkish academics should be viewed in this light and people who for the first time in Muslim history are trying to do such an activity in an institutionalized way should be encouraged. If their work is of the required of standard nature, then this should be counted as a great service, and if it is substandard, it will not survive in the realm of knowledge and will be consigned to oblivion. The court of knowledge is ruthless. Sooner or later, it delivers its verdict. In such matters, we should wait for its verdict.
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)