Earlier Hadith Books: What Happened to Them?

Earlier Hadith Books: What Happened to Them?

Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa Al-A’zami رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ 


After extensive research, it has been found that in the pre-Islamic era some Arabic poetry and some sayings of wise men were recorded. But it is quite safe to assume that the history of Arabic literature begins with the holy Qur’an, the first book in the Arabic language.

As far as hadith literature is concerned, I have established in my doctoral thesis Studies in Early Hadith literature that even in the first century of the Hijra many hundred booklets of hadith were in circulation. If we add another hundred years, it would be difficult to enumerate the quantity of booklets and books which were in circulation. Even by the most conservative estimate, they were many thousands.


Nature of the Books

The books or booklets which appeared in the first, or even in the early second century, might be put in two categories:

  • Books containing the ahadith of the Prophet only, mere collections, without any sort of arrangement of the material.
  • Booklets containing ahadith of the Prophet mixed up with legal decisions of the rightly guided Caliphs and other Companions as well as Successors. These materials were also not arranged systematically and formed only some sort of collections.

From the middle of the first century of Hijra, books on separate subjects of practical interest began to appear. The booklet of the famous Companion and the Scribe of the Prophet, Zaid b. Thabit (d. 45) on Fara’id (share of inheritance) deserves mention here. Later on we find books mentioned by authorities relating to judicial problems such as marriage and divorce, compensation for injuries etc. Thus in the early era when systematic compilation began the books mixed the ahadith of the Prophet with the judicial decisions of Muslim authorities and scholars. At this stage it seems that every book was about a single subject.

In the second century, the trend changed a little and books covering al- most all the legal problems began to appear. The book of Imam Malik called al-Muwatta’ belongs here. It was arranged according to chapters on law covering the whole range of human life, from worship, zakat) hajj, marriage, divorce, to agriculture and trade etc. It is a compilation of the ahadith of the Prophet as well as the opinions of the Companions and Successors.

It is safe to assume that thousands of books in hadith literature, which were in circulation in the 2nd century, were not arranged chapterwise. The books which were arranged according to chapters contained a mixture of ahadith of the Prophet and the sayings and decisions of the Companions and Successors. However, from the end of the second century the literary trend began to change and books containing only the ahadith of the Prophet with certain systematic arrangement began to appear. Later on in the third and fourth centuries most of the books which appeared contained the ahadith of the Prophet only. Some books appeared in this period as well which were compiled on the pattern of the second century, such as Musannaf of ‘Abdur Razzaq and Ibn Abu Shaiba (d. 235 A.H.) or al-Awsat of Ibn al-Mundir (d.319) . However, the bulk of the literature which was produced by the Muhaddithin contained the ahadith of the Prophet only. These books were compiled with different patterns and were called musnad, Jami’, Sahih, Sunan, mustakhraj, or Mu’jam. Besides the pure ahadith literature, hundreds of other books on the subjects relating to ahadith of the Prophet were compiled. We shall discuss some of the ahadith books with special reference to one important book of each kind. Some of the books relating to the subjects concerning hadith of the Prophet will be listed.

No doubt most of the early books have either been lost or absorbed by the later encyclopedic literature of hadith, and thus did not retain their separate entity. But if we understand the literary style of that period correctly we can still locate or rather reproduce many early books. Of course, we may not be entirely sure of their form, but we can produce with certainty the original materials belonging to the early authorities. Let us see the literary style of that period.

What Happened to the Earlier Hadith Literature?

I have mentioned earlier that hundreds and thousands of books of hadith were in circulation in the first and second century. Only a very small amount of this hadith literature has survived. It could be said that either what I have described is totally wrong, or these books were in existence at some time but were lost later. This second hypothesis raises another problem, i.e. of the negligence of the hadith of the Prophet by Muslim scholars. Is it possible that they did not feel any necessity of hadith literature and so it was destroyed? 

As a matter of fact, my position is precise and correct. These books were not destroyed nor did they perish, but were absorbed into the work of later authors. When the encyclopedia-type books were produced, scholars did not feel the necessity to keep the early books or booklets, and so, slowly, they disappeared. To explain this point I will describe the method of quotations in early days which would prove my point.

Methodology of Quotations in Hadith Literature

No doubt the hadith literature at our disposal belongs mostly to the third century. There was a gap of more than two centuries between the authors of these books and the Prophet. What was the level of literary honesty in the learned circle? It is indeed astonishing that they had developed a system of references and of quotations which is unsurpassed even by modern researchers.

The modern method of references and quotations consists of:

  • Quotations word by word and exact copying put between double quotation marks.
  • Quoting exactly word by word, but making necessary interpolations enclosed in square brackets.
  • Quoting exactly but dropping irrelevant details indicating material left out by three dots.
  • Quoting by paraphrasing, in one’s words and expressions.

However, in all these cases one refers to the authorities from whom he quoted, mentioning either books and authors or only one of them.

Muhaddithin’s Pattern of Quotations

Going through the writing of Muhaddithin, we find almost a similar pattern of quotations. Here are a few examples.

First method of quotation:

Malik reported a hadith in Muwatta’ as follows:

Malik from Ishaq b. ‘Abdullah b. Abu Talha from Abu Murra, maula of ‘Aqil b. Abu Talib from Abu Waqid al-Laithi . . .


The same hadith is recorded by Bukhari with the same wordings, (Bukhari, ‘Ilm 8, hadith No. 66, with the omission of only one word) adding an additional authority, Isma’il, who reported this on the authority of Malik.

The same hadith is reported by Muslim on the authority of Qutaiba b. Sa’id who transmitted it on the authority of Malik with the same wordings (Muslim, Sahih, Saldm 26, page 1713, with the omission of only one word)

The same hadith is reported by Tirmidhi on the authority of Malik with the same wordings. (Tirmidhi, Sunan isti’dhan, 29, with the omission of only one word. )

The hadith has been reported several times by Ibn Hanbal and other authors as well. Though I have produced it as an example of quotations word by word, it ought to be remembered that in quoting here the book is not referred to at all. Reference is to the authority through whom this information was obtained. Needless to say that the book was used in transmitting this hadith.

We may conclude that when certain scholars transmit ahadith from a certain teacher, and their wordings are very closely similar, it means that in transmitting the information a book was used and memory was not the only basis.

Zuhrl (51-125) compiled a biography of the Prophet which was absorbed into the works of later authors and thus perished in the course of time as a work on its own. Some modern researchers have doubts about this report. Recently almost the whole work of Zuhrl, which is more than 200 pages, has been published in one of the hadith works of the third century which has came to light for the first time. Even the editor did not notice that it was the work of Zuhrl. A detailed study was carried out, and it was found that several students of Zuhrl reported portions of this book.. This
information was recorded by authors who died some 150 years after Zuhrl yet their wordings are very similar, which is almost impossible except if the original book was used.

Second method of quotation:

Quoting exactly word by word, but adding external material in the body of a book.

Most of the people who listened to ahadith and copied them out had their own books. Students felt at liberty to include additional material even in a fixed text to clarify some obscure word, or to express their own opinion. As any additional material would have a completely different isnad or the name of the inserter, there was no danger of distorting the text.

Examples for this sort of interpolation may be found in almost every book. Here is an example taken from Sahih of Muslim.

“Qatada has narrated a hadith like this with another chain of transmitters, in the hadith transmitted by Jarir on the authority of Sulaiman, Qatada’s further words are: When (the Quran) is recited (in prayer), you should observe silence, and (the following words are) not found in the hadith narrated by anyone except by Abu Kamil who heard it from Abu ‘Awana (and the words are) : Verily Allah vouchsafed through the tongue of the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) this: Allah listens to him who praises Him. Abu Ishaq (a student of Imam Muslim) said: Abu Bakr has (critically) discussed this hadith. Imam Muslim said: Whom can you find a more authentic transmitter of hadith than Sulaiman? Abu Bakr said to him (Imam Muslim) : What about the hadith narrated by Abu Huraira i.e. the hadith that when the Qur’an is recited (in prayer) observe silence? He (Abu Bakr again) said: Then, why have you not included it (in your compilation) ? He (Imam Muslim) said: I have not included in this every hadith which I deem authentic: I have recorded only such ahadith on which there is an agreement amongst the Muhaddithin on their being authentic.”

This hadith has been transmitted by Qatada with the same chain of transmitters (and the words are) : “Allah, the Exalted and the Glorious, commanded it through the tongue of His Apostle; Allah listens to him who praises Him”.

Third method of quotation

Quoting exactly, but dropping irrelevant material.

For the third type of quotation, we may refer to hundreds of places in Sahih of Bukhari. It was his habit to cut down hadith and quote the portion relevant to the chapter, though he quotes complete hadith as well.

For example:

Bukhari puts the heading of a chapter

“Women’s ungratefulness to their husbands, and disbelief is of different grades.”

Later on he recorded the following hadith on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas reporting that the Prophet said: I was shown Hell Fire, and most of its inhabitants were women, as they practise Kufr. It was asked: Do they disbelieve (Yakfurna) in Allah? He said (Not for their disbelief in Allah) but for their ingratitude (The word kufr has two senses, disbelief and ingratitude. The Prophet meant the latter but they thought that he meant the former.) to their husbands and ingratitude to kindness. Even if you were to treat one of them kindly forever, but if she later saw anything (displeasing) in you, she would say I have never seen any good in you’. (BU. Imdn, 21. For its repetition and dropping of details, see BU. hadith No. 431,
748, 1052, 3202 5197.)

The same hadith has been repeated by Bukhari at least six times in different places. In the chapter of ‘Prayer at the time of solar eclipse, it is given in full detail, and the portion which has been recorded here appears at the end of that hadith. (BU. Khusuf 9)

Fourth method of quotation

Fourth type of quotation was that of paraphrasing.

It is called in the term of Muhaddithln: Riwaya bil Ma’na which means to transmit a hadith using one’s own words and expressions. Some of the scholars disapproved of this method while the majority accepted it with the following conditions:

1. The narrator must be a scholar in Arabic language, who knows the words of hadith and their full implications and then relates it with some other expression which gives the same sense and meaning though the words were changed. However, it was accepted only in the early days.

After the books were compiled transmission of hadith after translation into one’s own expression was forbidden.

The early scholars were not fond of paraphrasing. They tried to stick to the words they learned from their teachers, but due to failure of memory they used a synonymous word or an expression equivalent to what they heard.

We have described how the Muslim scholars specially Muhaddithln in the first century introduced the system of quotations with complete literary honesty. However, there is a fundamental difference between the present day literary style of quotations and theirs. The methodology applied by Muhaddithln did not allow anyone to quote any hadith verbally or from any book, except if he had obtained permission from relevant authorities to use it, by one of the recognized methods of learning hadith. Thus the terms used in isnad such as Haddathana and Akhbarana. etc. are a kind of certificate of permission by which a narrator explains how he got this piece of information and is entitled to pass it on to others. But if a scholar has no permission from the authorities, and  he obtained the book by buying or copying or as a gift from some unauthorized person and began to quote or transmit hadith from it he was named a liar. The scholar must mention that he found it in such and such book but even then the piece of information coming by this way had no value till it is proved by some other means, owing to the possibility of a false copy or statements attributed to authorities. The authenticity of most modern documents would be doubtful if the strict criteria of Muhaddithln were applied to them.

In conclusion, there remains one more point. Under certain conditions, the use of one’s own expression was permitted and thus there was always a chance of a slight change in the sense. As it is permissible to select only a portion of the hadith on condition that it’s meaning, sense and impression did not change, there was always a chance that the original document might contain some more information. To make sure of these points constant checks were made through methods called mutabi’at and shawahid. Thus in case some extra information was found in the narration of a scholar while his colleagues were silent, then if the narrator was of “A” grade this extra information may be accepted, otherwise, it would be rejected. This is called Ziyaddt ath-Thiqah (extra information from a trustworthy narrator). Meanwhile, if after cross-reference it was found that a scholar’s paraphrase of a hadith had made its sense wider, it was rejected.

Publishing the Books

The appearance of several editions of the same book with minor alterations, deletion and additions is a common phenomenon in modern times. Similar was the situation in the era of the early scholars various editions of their work contained variations. Let us take the work of Bukhari on the biographies of Muhaddathln: Al-Tarikh al-Kabir which has about 20,000 entries of names with some information about each. The first version was copied by Al-Fadl b. ‘Abbas al-Sa’igh. The second version was transmitted by Muhammad b. Sulaiman b. Faris al-Dallal (d.312) . The third and perhaps final version, was transmitted by Muhammad b. Sahl al-Muqri’. These three versions naturally differ at a few places but the difference is not significant. Sometimes a student read these different versions to the author. For example Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Lu’Lu’i put a note after hadith No. 911 in sunan Abu Dawud that the author did not read this hadith in the fourth reading, even though he recorded it. (Abu Dawud Sunan 1, 331) Ali b. Hasan b. al-‘Abd says that he learned Abu Dawud’s sunan from him six times. But the sixth time he was not able to complete it. Thus students read in different ways and recorded accordingly. As a result there were differences in versions of the same book. It was easy to recognize when this difference was due to a different student who transmitted the work. But when there was a single transmitter from the author and different students of this rawi or transmitter differed among themselves here and there, putting a heading or dis- carding it, or mentioning a hadith or eluding it, why and how did it happen? 

In the case of Lu’lu’i we have seen how he explicitly admitted that the author did not read hadith No. 911 in the fourth reading, yet he put it into the book and transmitted it. He thought that the authors earlier permission to transmit this hadith entitled him to do this though the author did not retain it in the later version. Therefore, when a student had a version of a book different from the author’s, and he had permission to publish it, then the new version of the book does not cancel the early permission. Therefore this transmitter or Rawi, transmitted a different version of the book to different students causing some variation in this way.

Sometimes mistakes in copying, a word or sentence dropped or a word erroneously used caused this difference. Anyone who has experience of compiling books knows how even after every care some mistakes remain.

Some other problems concerning the methods of early scholars of the problems of authorship and the ‘get up’ of the books, have been discussed in my work on early hadith literature.

Now I shall give brief descriptions of some important authors and their books in hadith literature.