45. On the Science of Islamic Traditions

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45. On the Science of Islamic Traditions


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December 16, 2011
Jayson Casper
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This third and final article on Shaykh Usāmah al-Qūsī focuses on a matter closest to his heart and specialization of study: The sunna of Muhammad, that is, what he said and did outside the recorded testimony of the Qur'ān. Whereas article one provided his life history in pursuit of this knowledge, and article two pertained to its implications for Egypt and its governance following the Arab Spring, this article is an introduction to the study itself – ‘ilm al-hadīth (the study of tradition) – especially in their proper determination. In technical parlance this is called ‘ilm al-jarh wa al-ta’dīl, roughly translated as the science of criticizing and praising.

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There are thousands upon thousands of historical records which state Muhammad said or did this or that. How is anyone to know if these collections are accurate or invented? Muslims themselves admit great swaths of these testimonies are not trustworthy, or are at least subject to significant doubt. Long before modern academic criticism informed Biblical study, Muslims developed means to judge their religious sources. Though the Qur'ān was sacrosanct – and remains so – scholars insisted the sunna of the prophet be examined closely. Many recognize, as al-Qūsī stated, that the Qur'ān is dependent upon the sunna for the elucidation of its meanings. Yet while the Qur'ān was a collected and established document early in Islamic history, the sunna were simply scattered recollections from Muhammad’s companions. Their accuracy was of paramount importance in determining Islamic morality and jurisprudence. As one tradition records, Muhammad said his community would divide into seventy-three groups; the only one to avoiding hellfire is the one that takes up what he and his companions did. These are those who follow the sunna – that is, Sunnis – and perhaps more specifically, Salafīs, those who follow the ‘pious ancestors’.

This text will present the views of Shaykh Usāmah al-Qūsī, first providing the history of sunna collection, then some of its technical aspects. It will also describe some of those who fault this technique, ending with why Sunnis represent a middle way among all those who criticize it from various directions.


Shaykh al-Qūsī compared the beginnings of sunna collection to the process of assembling the Qur'ān. Following the wars of apostasy which cemented his political authority, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, recognized many of those who had memorized the Qur'ān were now dead. He ordered Zayd ibn Thābit to consult all authorities and collect all fragments, from which the Qur'ān should become a recognized written text. The third caliph ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān then standardized this work further, creating six copies to be mailed to each corner of the empire, and then burned all others.

Somewhat in contrast, as opposed to the centralization of the Qur'ān the sunna proliferated in fragments and collections. The second caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb began the process of gathering these testimonies and written fragments about Muhammad, but the effort began in earnest with a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, ‘Umar ibn Abd al-‘Azīz, in 99 AH. Now considered as a ‘rightly guided’ caliph alongside the first four, ‘Umar used his short two and a half year reign to collect all extant sources.

‘Umar authorized ‘Alī Maynī to supervise this work, and he relied principally upon two other scholars, al-Zuhrī and Abu Bakr ibn Hazm. The work was difficult as by this time the empire had grown significantly, with a corresponding scattering of scholars. Nevertheless, after ‘Umar’s death in 101 AH Imam Mālik ibn Anās produced the first collection of traditions, entitled al-Muwatta’ (The Approved).

Building on this work, the widely respected al-Muslim (d. 875 AD) and al-Bukharī (d. 870 AD) produced their collections of traditions, and were followed by al-Tirmīdhī (d. 892 AD), ibn Māja (d. 887 AD), al-Nisa’ī (d. 915 AD), and abu Dawūd (d.889 AD), all in the 3rd Century of Islam. These six collections are still considered ‘canonical’ by Sunni Muslims to this day. Yet these collections also establish the necessity of tradition evaluation. al-Muslim’s and al-Bukharī’s works are distinguished over their contemporaries as they only record those traditions deemed reliable. Others simply recorded all the traditions they found, and in other works, al-Bukharī did the same. His three part work, al-Tarīkh al-Kabīr, al-Saghīr, and al-Wasat (The Large, Small, and Medium History) includes traditions considered less than reliably demonstrated. Further influential collections were assembled by ibn Hibān (d. 965 AD) and ibn Khūzaymah (d. 923 AD).

Technical Aspects

Each of these scholars engaged the evaluation of traditions at various levels, yet the process of jarh wa ta’dīl was not fully standardized until the 5th Century AH, when it assumed the form which continues today. Every tradition is evaluated on its two parts, the matn (body or content) and the isnād (ascription or chain of authorities).

The matn is the meat of the tradition, describing what Muhammad and his companions said or did in a certain circumstance. The isnād is its guarantee, describing how the recorder of the tradition heard it from so-and-so, who heard it from…, and so on, until the chain reaches back to the one who witnessed it directly.

Within jarh wa ta’dīl, jarh concerns itself with the matn, to evaluate if the content of the tradition is consistent with greater Islamic history and teaching. Yet more important is ta’dīl, to determine the trustworthiness of each person mentioned in the isnād. ‘Adālah (justice) relates to whether or not he was a moral person in his conduct, while dabt (certification) relates to his power of memory. That is, does each mentioned authority possess both the faculty to record accurately what he heard, and the character to pass it on unadulterated? If so, the text of the matn is generally accepted, which can create interesting dilemmas, as will be presented below.

The result of this process divides traditions into categories. Sahīh (sound), hasn (good), da’īf (weak), munkar (denounced), and mawdū’ (fabricated) are the standard listings. The collections of al-Muslim and al-Bukharī are named sahīh, reflecting their diligent work to include only those traditions which passed the test. Generally speaking, there is no need to review all the historic material again, since this was accomplished thoroughly by the early scholars and finalized by the 5th Century AH. Nevertheless, the refinement process continues, and Shaykh ibn al-Albānī of Saudi Arabia was one of the most preeminent modern specialists in ‘ilm al-hadīth, the science of traditions.

Contrary Views

As has been done with academic criticism in Christianity, modern scholars, especially but not exclusively Western, have begun to examine Islamic sources to probe their reliability. While some take aim at the Qur'ān itself, the traditions are an especially fertile field, with many scholars convinced most emerged not from the time of Muhammad, but from within the dynastic theological and political struggles of the growing empire.

Among non-Western scholars, the Egyptian Mahmūd Abu Raya takes on the reputation of one of the companions of Muhammad, Abu Hurayrah, calling him the ‘Shaykh of porridge’ for selling invented traditions to the Umayyad dynasty. Shaykh al-Qūsī is untroubled by these allegations, finding them simply to be recycled charges from earlier Islamic eras. He then proceeded to describe them.

One of the chief dangers is assaulting the reputation of Muhammad’s companions – who represent the sources of most traditions – is that this threatens to rebound upon the Qur'ān itself. It is the companions who memorized the Qur'ān and were the source of authority when the authoritative copies were issued. If their character is in question, if they freely invented tales of traditions, may they have done the same with the Qur'ān? Moreover, the Qur'ān states that God specifically chose the companions of Muhammad; to cast doubt upon them, therefore, is to cast doubt upon God.

This is the chief danger of the Shia sect of Islam, which rejects the first three caliphs in favor of the fourth, ‘Alī, who they believe to have been Muhammad’s choice for succession. They find many of the companions to have been complicit in the scheming which kept ‘Alī from power, and instead favor only the relatives of Muhammad, believing them to be the heirs and rightful leaders of Islam.

Another early critic of the sunna were a philosophical group called the Mu’tazilah. They represented the school of reason in Islam, and rejected all traditions in which it contradicted with the matn. But in matters of faith, reason only goes so far, al-Qūsī asserted. Reason is important, but where a contradiction appears, it is usually our own faculties which are deficient.

A modern example concerns a tradition in which Muhammad asserts that only God knows what is in the womb of a pregnant woman. With the advent of ultrasound technology, however, some Muslims rejected the advancement as a charade since it contradicted this saying. This is not right, believes al-Qūsī, since only minor reflection is needed to allow science and tradition to find common ground.

A modern equivalent of the Mu’tazilah are known as the Qur'āniyūn (Qur'ānists), who dismiss the traditions entirely and rely upon the Qur'ān alone. Yet they fail to realize Islam is far more than the Qur'ān; by excluding the sunna much is lost. Some members of this school pray only three times a day, for example, as the familiar five is related in the traditions, not the Qur'ān. In essence, they are substituting modern wisdom for the toils of centuries of scholars, creating for themselves a new ‘ilm al-hadīth, where the work has already been done. Every tradition has its isnād, and every character therein has been tested.

The Middle Way

Sunnism, therefore, stands in the center of divergent extreme positions. To make his point, however, Shaykh al-Qūsī introduced an Islamic sect which was powerful in history but today is nearly non-existent. The Khawārij (Outsiders) were Muslims completely dedicated to the new religion, fanatical in their interpretation, and partisan to the companions of Muhammad.

Their loyalty to the early caliphs led to a corresponding rejection of the relatives of Muhammad, whom they viewed as seeking to make Islam a family heritage. The Shia, as mentioned before, supported the family and disparaged many companions. Eventually, Sunnism developed a middle position, honoring all early Muslim pioneers, from among the companions and the family, and forbid the practice of speaking against them. After all, as the Qur'ān stated, these were chosen by God.

Similarly, Sunnism developed a middle position between the strict literalism of the Khawārij, present among some Salafīs today, and the strict elevation of reason by the Mu’tazilah, adopted by many critics of Islamic traditions. For Sunnis, reason is an important part of faith, but it should not triumph over revelation, which comes from a reason far greater than that of man.


As insightful as this conversation was, it did not treat the most important issue – reliability of the traditions. Perhaps this was inevitable, as it requires scholarship yet beyond the interviewer. Familiarity is demanded not only of ‘ilm al-hadīth, but also its modern academic critique. Shaykh al-Qūsī provided another building block from which to attain to such knowledge, but though he asserted the historical soundness of jarh wa ta’dīl concerning the traditions, he did not demonstrate it.

Should these lessons be learned in the future, they will be provided for the benefit of readership. For now, however, the value lies in comprehending not only the nature and disputes surrounding Islamic traditions, but also the presence of established guidelines in navigating them. This is the domain of Shaykh Usāmah al-Qūsī and many others, receiving a lifetime of study. Such pursuit and dedication is worthy of respect. Whether or not it deserves credence is a matter of evidence and perspective, requiring more than this simple text.

Jayson Casper also blogs regularly at A Sense of Belonging. Follow him on Twitter at @jnjcasper.