Recording of Ahadith

Recording of Ahadith

Muhammad Mustafa Al-A’zami رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ


In the previous chapter, I have discussed the methods used by early scholars in teaching and learning the ahadith of the Prophet.

In seven methods of learning out of eight, from two to eight depend almost totally on the written material. I have also mentioned that the most common were the first and second methods. In many ways, even the first method, that is reading or dictation by the teachers, involved written material in many cases, while the second method, that is reading by students to their teachers required almost exclusively written materials.

However, it is generally believed that the ahadith were transmitted orally for one hundred years at least. Then Zuhrl recorded them by order of Caliph ‘Umar b. ‘Abdul ‘Aziz. And in the view of some ‘scholars’, even his recording was lost. Both these assumptions are based on lack of knowledge of the early literary history of ahadith and their literary style. Therefore the problem of recording of ahadith needs special attention. Meanwhile, it ought to be remembered that mere recording of material is not complete guarantee of its safe preservation (P. Auvray. A. Barueq etc. Introduction A La Bible, P. 111.). For example, we know that in the existing Greek Bibles there are some 200,000 variants, some of them minor and some of them very important, which is sufficient to prove that mere recording of a subject is not a sure guarantee of its safe preservation.1 However, a text can be kept fully preserved even without recording. For example, even if all the books on the earth were destroyed, the holy Qur’an would still remain safe because millions of Muslims have memorized it completely or in parts.


Recording of Hadith in the Life of the Prophet and the Companions

We know that certain companions wrote down ahadith in the life of the Prophet and in some cases the Prophet dictated it to them. No doubt their numbers must have been smaller than those of the later scholars who wrote down ahadith. I will try to give a summary of the work of some Companions who took part in diffusion of hadith and devoted great deal of time to it.

It is a well-known fact that not all the Companions had equal number of ahadith for transmission. The proportion of the ahadith varied. While some of them transmitted more than a thousand most of them transmitted a hadith or two only. The names of Companions who transmitted ahadith in large numbers is as follows: The first name is that of Abu Hurairah, who transmitted, according to Baqi b. Makhalad, 5374 ahadith. Actually, this is not the number of hadith, but the number of channels through which ahadith were transmitted. The most recent research shows that the number of ahadith transmitted by him is 1236 only. He is reported to have had books of hadith in his possession. At least nine of Abu Hurairah’s students wrote ahadith from him.

Next to Abu Hurairah comes the name of Ibn ‘Umar, who according to Baqi, transmitted 2630 hadith. The number of ahadith mentioned with the names of other Companions do not refer to the actual number of ahadith. The actual number would be much smaller, as we have seen in the case of Abu Hurairah, but there is no extant study of the subject.

We have authentic reports that he had a written collection of hadith. At least eight of his students wrote ahadith from him. Others who transmitted large numbers of hadith were:

Anas ibn Malik, who served the Prophet for ten years and transmitted 2286 hadith. At least sixteen persons have hadith from him in written form,, though some of them are not fully reliable.

Ummul-Mu’minin Aisha who transmitted 2210 hadith. At least three persons had her ahadith in written form including her nephew, ‘Urwah, one of the greatest scholars amongst the successors.

Ibn Abbas, who transmitted 1660 hadith. At least nine of his students had ahadith from him in written form.

Jabir b Abdullah who transmitted 1540 hadith. At least fourteen of his students had his ahadith in written form.

Abu Sa’id al-Khudrl who transmitted 1170 hadith. He seems to have been opposed to the writing down of ahadith, though according to Khatib he himself wrote a few ahadith.

Ibn Mas’ud who transmitted 748 hadith. We have no information about his students who wrote down hadith from him, but his own book was in the possession of his son.

Abdullah b. Amr b. Al-As, who transmitted 700 hadith. We know that he used to write hadith while the Prophet was alive and titled his books by the name of ‘al-Sahifah al-Sddiqah’. At least seven of his students have hadith from him in written form.

The second Caliph, ‘Umar, 537 ahadith have been transmitted by him. He used to quote ahadith in official letters and in this way many hadith were recorded by him.

The fourth Caliph, ‘AH ibn Abu Talib. He transmitted 536 ahadith. At least eight of his students had his hadith in written form.

Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, transmitted 360 hadith. Some of his hadith were in the possession of Ibn ‘Abbas in written form.

Al-Bara’ ibn ‘Azib, transmitted 305 hadith. He used to dictate hadith.

I am going to stop at this point, because the instances I have given are sufficient to throw light on the problem under discussion. In the light of above-mentioned facts, it is quite safe to assume that probably most of ahadith of the Prophet, if not all, came to be written during the life of the Companions


Some Misunderstanding About the Recording of Hadith.

If what I have written concerning the early recording of ahadith of the Prophet is correct then how does one explain the general belief that the ahadith were recorded very late?

I think this mistake is due to the following reasons:

(1) Misinterpretation of the words Tadwln, Tasnif and Kitabah which were understood in the sense of record.
(2) Misunderstanding of the terms Haddathana, Akhbarana, ‘An etc. which were generally believed to be used for oral transmission.
(3) The claim that the memory of the Arabs was unique and they had no need to write down anything.
(4) Hadith of the Prophet against recording ahadith.
(5) Misinterpretation of early scholars’ statements concerning recording of ahadith.

Points four and five need some discussion.


The Hadith Against Writing Down the Ahadith.

In ‘Taqyid al-‘Ilm’, al-Khatib al Baghdadi deals at full length with the subject of the recording of ahadith and discusses whether or not it was allowed by the Prophet. The first part of the book is mainly concerned with the disapproval of writing; and the first chapter of this part mainly contains ahadith from the Prophet, transmitted by Abu Sa’Id al-Khudri, Abu Huraira and Zaid b.Thabit, forbidding writing of anything except the Qur’an.

In this first part there are the ahadith of Abu Sa’Id al Khudri which had two different versions, one of them transmitted by ‘Abd al-Rahman-b.Zaid. The authorities agree unanimously that he was a weak narrator and ac- cording to al-Hakim and Abu Nu’aim he transmitted even false ahadith; and in the words of Ibn Hibban, “He used to reverse ahadith, without knowing it, and put the full isnad for an interrupted (chain) , so he deserved to be abandoned”. Therefore, the hadlth of Abu Sa’Id al-Khudri transmitted by ‘Abd al-Rahman b.Zaid is weak and unacceptable.

The same ‘Abd al-Rahman b.Zaid occurs in the hadlth of Abu Hurariah. Therefore, this hadlth is also weak and unacceptable.

The third companion is Zaid by Thabit. His hadith is Mursal. The transmitter from Zaid is al-Muttalib b.’Abd Allah who did not learn from Zaid, therefore there is a link missing whose honesty is unknown. So this hadith is also unacceptable. Furthermore, hadith from Zaid has two versions. In one of them, his disapproval of the writing of hadith is based on the order of the Prophet, while in another statement it is said that he disapproved of it because the written materials were his personal opinions. Therefore, this statement does not confirm his disapproval of the recording of the ahadith of the Prophet.

There is only one sahih hadith (Trustworthy) transmitted by Abu Sa’Id al-Khudri, in this matter which reads, “Do not write from me anything except the Qur’an and whoever has written anything from me other than the Qur’an should erase it.” 6 This hadith, which is transmitted by Abu Sa’Id al-Khudri on the authority of the Prophet is disputed among scholars. Ac- cording to al-Bukhari and others, it is the statement of Abu Sa’Id himself, that is erroneously attributed to the Prophet, and it actually meant that nothing should be written with the Qur’an on the same sheet as this might lead someone to conclude erroneously that sentences or words written in the margin or between lines belonged to the Qur’an. It should be remembered that this command was given when the Qur’an was being revealed and the text itself was incomplete. Otherwise, there does not appear to be any sound reason to forbid the writing of ahadith.

The Prophet himself sent hundreds of letters. Many of them were lengthy, containing the formulae for forms and rituals of worship. According to the Qur’an his conduct and deeds should be followed by the community. The Qur’an itself demands a record of financial transactions. Therefore, it looks as if there were no general instructions not to record the ahadith, though it might have been understood by some of the Scholars in this way. On the other hand, there is clear evidence to show that the Prophet approved of recording the ahadith. Furthermore, we find that quite a number of Companions recorded ahadith and among them were also those people who transmitted hadith which forbade its recording. Bearing all this in mind one arrives at the conclusion that the prophet’s disapproval of writing down ahadith most probably meant the writing of the Qur’an and nonQur’anic material on the same sheet because that might have led to misunderstanding.

There is another theory that it was forbidden to write down ahadith in early days because all attention should be paid to the Qur’an and its preservation, and later on, when there was no danger of neglecting the Qur’an, the previous order was abrogated and people were permitted to write down ahadith.

Misinterpretation of Early Scholars’ Statements.

There have been many scholars who wrote down ahadith, and sometimes disliked doing so, giving reasons for their attitudes which were not based on the Prophet’s teachings. In many cases, the reasons were omitted, or even when the statements were given in full they were interpreted as against writing without any serious consideration.

Some Examples

1. It is reported that Ibrahim al-Nakha’i was against writing. The reason he gave for disapproval was that “whoever writes becomes dependent on it.” According to the conception of some early scholars, books were bad stores of knowledge, and the best store was one which is kept in memory which could be used anywhere and at any time. One of the Bedouin said: a word in your memory is better than ten in your book.

2. The name of ‘Amir al-Sha’bi has been given in the lists of those against writing. If one reads his statement carefully one must reach the conclusion that al-Sha’bi was not against writing. We have two of  his statements on the subject. In one of them he says, “I neither wrote with black on white nor did I ask any man to repeat a hadith twice to me”. The purpose of this statement is to show his great power of memory so that he never needed to ask anyone to repeat a hadith and to hear it only once was sufficient for him to memorize it. The statement has no connection with the subject of the recording of hadith. In another statement he advises his students to write down everything they hear from him; if they did not have paper they were even asked to write on walls.

No doubt there were some scholars who disliked the writing down of Hadith at one time or another for reasons which were not based on any religious authority.

The most famous scholar during the late first and early second century was Zuhrl, who had written down almost everything which he had heard from his teachers. But when he began to teach he did not agree to dictate the ahadith, till pressure was exerted on him through the Caliph Hisham. Why was it so? To understand the reason thoroughly we need to see it in his own statement as well as of Malik b.Anas who was the student of Zuhri. One of the students of Malik read al-Muwatta’ to him in forty days, upon which Malik said: The knowledge which I have collected in forty years you are gaining in forty days. How little can you understand it!  Perhaps he wanted to say: How little can you appreciate it. Once al-Sha’bi transmitted a hadith, then said to the student that you are really getting it for nothing, otherwise even for less one had to make a journey from Iraq to al-Madina. Actually, it was the general attitude of that time that the teachers could hardly be brought to speak. The students had to accompany them and when their teachers spoke, they wrote it down or memorized it. Zuhri says: “People used to sit with Ibn’Umar but none dared call upon him till someone (from outside) came and asked him. We sat with Ibn al-Musayyab without questioning him, till someone came and questioned him, the question roused him to impart hadith to us, or he began to impart of his own will”. Therefore, although al-Zuhri wrote down hadith for his own use, he was not in favour of making them public. One who wants to learn must strive, and the student should not be given any ready-made knowledge in the shape of a book or dictation.

Summing up the argument regarding the reasons for disliking recording, there is no evidence that the interdiction of writing was based on the order of the Prophet. It was based at one time or another on personal prejudice. Nevertheless, the same scholars committed ahadith to writing. The recent research has proved that almost all the hadith of the Prophet was written down in the life of Companions, which stretched to the end of the first century.

If the recording is carried out for the preservation of recorded material, then no doubt ahadith were preserved in this way. However, due to the unique theory of learning which I have described in the chapter on Tahammul al-‘Ilm, a direct approach to these books by everyone was regarded as improper. It had to be through scholars authorized by proper teachers. These scholars themselves became part of the information and cannot be separated from it. In other words, sources of information became an essential part of the information, without which the information had no value. These sources of information are called isnad, the chain of the transmitters.