Pathways of Faith

'Hadith' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on hadith provides background information for Jonathan Brown's biography of Muhammad, Ingrid Mattson's The Story of the Qur'an, and other bookshelf selections. The article by R. Marston Speight is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


In Islam ḥadīth is the term applied to specific reports of the prophet Muḥammad's words and deeds as well as those of many of the early Muslims; the word is used both in a collective and in a singular sense. After the Prophet 's death, his companions collected reports of what he had said and done, and they recounted the reports among themselves in order that the living memory of Muḥammad's example might influence the community of believers. As preserved for subsequent generations these reports, or ḥadīth, take the form of usually short, unconnected pieces, each of which is preceded by a list of its authoritative transmitters. Although the reports were originally transmitted orally, some transmitters began early to record them in writing. The compilers were careful not to tamper with the texts as they received them from recognized specialists in ḥadīth transmission, and the collections reflect their spoken origins. The language is direct, conversational, active, often repetitive, with a characteristic use of formulaic expression. The ḥadīth literature is one of the best examples of Arabic prose from the period of the beginnings of Islam.

After two centuries of collecting, transmitting, and teaching ḥadīth, during which the quest for reports became one of the most respected occupations of the Muslim community, scholars intensified the work of codifying the bulk of the material. The ninth century C.E. produced six massive collections, which have won almost universal acceptance by the Sunnī community as the most authoritative. They are commonly known by the names of their compilers: al-Bukhārī (d. 870); Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj (d. 875); Abū Dāʿūd al-Sijistānī (d. 888); Ibn Mājah al- Qazwīnī (d. 887); Abū ʿĪsā al- Tirmidhī (d. 892); and Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Nasāʿī (d. 915). Two other collections as well have always enjoyed great favor with the Sunnīs, namely those of Mālik ibn Anas (d. 795) and Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855). These are only the most important examples of the large number of collections that appeared during this period and later, which classified thousands of reports according to the transmission of different authorities.

The Shīʿah use the above collections, but they are selective in their recognition of the companions as valid authorities. In addition, they consider ḥadīth from the imams as fully authoritative. From the standpoint of their particular beliefs, the Shīʿah revere four books as particularly significant, the collections by Muḥammad ibn Yaʿqūb al-Kulaynī (d. 940), Muḥammad ibn Bābūyah al-Qummī (d. 991) and Muḥammad al-Ṭūsī (d. 1068) who compiled two collections.

Science of Ḥadīth Criticism.

By the time these collections had been completed a science of ḥadīth criticism had developed, the purpose of which was to determine the authenticity of ḥadīth attributed to the Prophet and to his companions and to preserve the corpus from alteration or falsification. The scholars verified each report with a chain of authorities (sg., isnād), going back, insofar as it was possible, to the Prophet himself. In order to decide on the degree of authenticity of a text, traditionists examined the chains of transmission from three points of view: that of the number of transmitters (sg., rāwī), ranging from a great many persons, representing all generations up to the classical compilers, narrating a single report, so that its authenticity was absolutely assured (a mutawātir ḥadītir), to a limited number of narrators, and even to a single chain (āḥād ḥadīth); that of the credibility of the transmitters, which consideration gave rise to an extensive biographical investigation in which the individual narrators were judged according to their personal qualities and professional achievements (ʿilm al-rijāl, science of the sources of information); that of the continuity of the chains, ranging from an uninterrupted isnād (musnad, supported) going back to the Prophet, to chains presenting various kinds of lacunae.

The nature of the ḥadīth text (matn) constituted another criterion for testing the authenticity of the material. Scholars suspected reports that were illogical, exaggerated, or of a fantastic or repulsive character, or that contradicted the Qurʿān. They called attention to a common practice of fabricating ḥadīth (waḍʿ) carried out by those who propagated false teachings, but also by teachers of the truth who sought by inventing ḥadīth to expose heresy. Still others spread false ḥadīth for personal advantage or to express zealous piety. A voluminous literature emerged because of concern for the matn: works dealing with the historical context of ḥadīth lexicographical studies of difficult words, the study of texts which were abrogated by other ḥadīth, the explanation of apparent contradictions found in authentic ḥadīth, and the so-called “divine ḥadīth” (ḥadīth qudsī), a category of material in which the Prophet assumed the role of transmitter and reported sayings of God himself. Matn criticism also included discussion by scholars of the comparative value of reporting ḥadīth word for word as opposed to transmitting reports by their meaning only. Both of these tendencies are seen in the collections, and, as a result, many variant readings of texts exist. Although the authority of hadīth in the community is very great, its inspiration is considered to be of a lower degree than that of the Qurʿān, which is believed to be the very word of God.

Muslims use three terms of a general nature to assess the relative validity of ḥadīth texts: ṣaḥīḥ (sound), the most acceptable; ḥasan (good), somewhat below the first in excellence; and ḍaʿīf (weak). Scholars usually apply these terms in a relative way, depending upon the type of criteria that are used to judge the ḥadīth.

Another aspect of ḥadīth science is the technique of transmission. With the passage of time the number of transmitters increased enormously. Measures of control emerged to ensure that ḥadīth were properly passed on from teacher to students or from scholar to scholar. The manuals describe eight ways whereby people could become accredited transmitters of the ḥadīth material that they learned. These mechanisms of control are applied in cases ranging from a most direct and personal exchange between teacher and student to the situation of a scholar who might discover a previously unknown or neglected written collection by a respected authority, and be authorized to transmit it.

Throughout the history of Islam the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth have functioned together to shape the life of the community worldwide. Ḥadīth provide the basic sources for the biography (sīrah) of the prophet Muḥammad, filling in details regarding events mentioned briefly in the Qurʿān and providing a wealth of information on the personality, the family, and the career of the Prophet. Also Muḥammad's example in word and deed, as recorded in the ḥadīth, helps Muslims to interpret the Qurʿān by pointing out the circumstances in which portions of the Book were revealed, by giving the meanings of obscure verses and words, and by recounting incidents in which the Qurʿānic texts were applied to situations in life.

As the record of the sunnah, or example of the Prophet, the ḥadīth literature is one of the sources of Islamic law (sharīʿah). How legal thinking evolved in the community is a complex question, but it is clear that by the early ninth century C.E. ḥadīth were officially accepted as a basic source of law. Many of the collections of ḥadīth are arranged according to the subject matter of jurisprudence ( fiqh), thus showing that these compilations early became the tools of the legal profession.

To return to the first function of ḥadīth, that of preserving the record of the Prophet 's biography, this element is of greater scope than a merely formal sīrah. The vast number of supplicatory prayers, exhortations, theological statements, practical counsels, words of encouragement and comfort, warnings, and predictions contained in the ḥadīth have always served to direct the piety of Muslims, to provide an overall framework for reflection and practice, all the more significant because by it the Qurʿān is, so to speak, embodied and exemplified in the flesh of the Prophet and his companions.

Ḥadīth have continued their multiple functions in the Muslim community through the centuries, and no one today doubts that they retain their place of supreme importance in the religious consciousness of Muslims. The formal study of ḥadīth has continued, too, although, after the period of the classical collections and the codification of rules for judging authenticity and for transmission of reports, the style of research naturally changed. Scholars examined the “Six Books” from every angle, wrote commentaries on them, gathered selected material from them for smaller, more accessible collections, and wrote treatises on all aspects of the science of ḥadīth.

As study of the written collections became more formalized, the place of teaching changed from private homes and mosques to schools dedicated to learning and transmitting the material. Muslim historians describe a certain decline in devotion to ḥadīth research beginning around the twelfth century. It was then that institutes began to be founded called dūr al-ḥadīth (sg., dār; “houses of ḥadīth”); the first was in Damascus, then spreading to many Muslim lands. Until recent centuries, they kept alive a concern for ḥadīth scholarship. In the mid-twentieth century Morocco established a modern Dār al-Ḥadīth in Rabat for graduate study in connection with the university and for research and publication. The modern universities in Muslim countries may include courses on ḥadīth in their departments of sharīʿah, in some of which the methods of the social sciences are beginning to be applied to the study of the literature. Venerable institutions such as Dār al-ʿUlūm in Deoband, India, and al-Azhar in Cairo are centers for ḥadīth studies.

Modern Approaches.

In the Arab world, as well as in India and Pakistan, the editing and publishing of ancient manuscripts have been marked features of the present scene. Scholars such as Nabia Abbott and M.M. Azami have opened new perspectives by their investigation of recently discovered material, but, in general, Muslims of today have not gone beyond the treatises and commentaries of ḥadīth scholars from former centuries. A few books are being published on rhetoric in the ḥadīth, continuing an interest that goes back to much earlier times. Ṣubḥī al-Ṣālī (ʿUlūm al-ḥadīth wamuṣsṭalaḥuh; Beirut, 1959) and Nūr al-Dīn ʿIṭr (Manhaj al-naqd fī; ʿulūm al-ḥadīth; Beirut, 1972) are representatives of a number of writers who have composed thoughtful modern restatements of the ancient manuals of ḥadīth science. They do not propose any radically new course for research, but their works show some sensitivity to modern problems. By far the most serious issue with regard to ḥadīth themselves is the attack on their authenticity. The attack has been made from two main quarters and from two different motivations.

From one side, the Orientalists, headed by Ignácz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht, called into question the attribution of ḥadīth to the Prophet and the reliability of the chains of transmission. They did so in the interest of scientific historical research. Muslims have almost unanimously rejected the orientalists ’ critique, but only a few have gone beyond negative counterattacks. Fuat Sezgin (Buhârîʿnin kaynaklari: hakkinda araştirmalar; Istanbul, 1956) has done original work on the written sources of al-Bukhārī, in partial refutation of the orientalists’ positions. The critics have pointed out that Muslim ḥadīth scholars through the centuries dwelt almost exclusively upon the evaluation of the isnād (chain of authorities) to the neglect of the matn (text). Nūr al-Dīn ʿIṭr takes this criticism seriously in the work cited above, and he proposes a new enterprise of research in which equal attention is given to matn and isnād. He points out that the canons of matn criticism have always existed. Modern research in the direction that he suggests would involve simply the reestablishment of the equilibrium needed in an integral program.

From another side, some Muslim reformers have called ḥadīth into question as a part of their struggle to overcome taqlīd (slavish conformity to ways of the past) and to promote the use of reason. Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (d. 1898) in India, Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1935) in Egypt, and others wrote with varying degrees of forcefulness to decry the way traditional Muslim thinking had refused to apply a rigorous critique to the ḥadīth literature. Their writings influenced others, and one, Maḥmūd Abū Rayyah, published a highly critical book in 1958 (Adwāʿ ʿalā al-sunnah al-muḥammadīyah, Cairo) that provoked much discussion in the Middle East. G. H. A. Juynboll has written a useful account (The Authenticity of the Tradition Literature: Discussions in Modern Egypt; Leiden, 1969) of the course of these and other exchanges among the intellectual elite. However sharp the attacks may have been there was no basic opposition to ḥadīth. Critics only wanted Muslims to be more discerning in their acceptance of material attributed to the Prophet. As yet, however, no comprehensive program has emerged for a revival in ḥadīth study along the lines proposed by the reformers.

In the 1990s Islamic political and ideological movements were in the ascendancy. The theoreticians of these parties used ḥadīth to support their arguments without taking the time to discuss the problem of how to approach the literature. Among the masses, attachment to the ḥadīth constitutes a veritable ethos, and popular leaders depend on carefully chosen ḥadīth texts to give prophetic authority to their directives.

A few voices give promise of new directions in ḥadīth research. They represent no movement, no school of thought, but their views are respected by many. Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), a Pakistani who spent many years at the University of Chicago, points out the crucial fact that ḥadīth provide the only access Muslims have to Muḥammad and the Qurʿān. To facilitate this access for the present generation, Fazlur Rahman feels that scholars should study, using modern techniques, the connections between Muḥammad and the early Muslim community, between the evolution of thought and practice and the growth of ḥadīth (see his Islam; 2d ed., Chicago and London, 1979, pp. 66, 67). 

The Algerian philosopher Mohammed Arkoun, of Paris, describes ḥadīth as a “cultural expansion” of the phenomenon of Holy Scripture (Qurʿān); as such it is far more than an intellectual achievement. To understand it adequately requires an integrated approach taking into account both the rational development of the community and its creative imagination (see his “The Notion of Revelation: From Ahl al-Kitāb to the Societies of the Book,” Die Welt des Islams, 28 [1988]: 75–76). 

Modern technology has facilitated the cataloging and publication of manuscripts that have lain unused for centuries. Also Muslims are using the computer to gain better physical access to the thousands of reports that make up ḥadīth collections. One of the most concrete results of several recent international conferences on ḥadīth and sīrah has been to put in motion a project to computerize ḥadīth. In 1991M.M. al-Azami reported (“A Note on Work in Progress on Computerization of Ḥadīth,” Journal of Islamic Studies, 2, no. 1 [Jan. 1991]: 86–91) that prototype CD-ROM discs were produced in 1990 containing the material of seven collections of ḥadīth and translations of selected texts in ten languages, seventy-five thousand ḥadīth in all.


  • Abū Dāʿūd Sulayman ibn al-Ashʿath al-Sijistānā. Sunan Abū Dawūd. 3 vols.Translated by Ahmad Hasan. Lahore, 1984. English rendering of one of the “Six Books” of ḥadīth. Only the first guarantor of each chain of authorities is given. Contains many explanatory notes by the translator.
  • Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-. The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari. 9 vols.4th ed.Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Chicago, 1979. Generally considered by Muslims to be the most authoritative collection. The complete Arabic text is included in columns parallel to the English translation. Only the first guarantor of each chain is given in the translation. Contains a few explanatory notes.
  • Mālik ibn Anas. Al-Muwaṭṭaʿ. Translated by ʿĀʿisha ʿAbdarrahman at-Tarjumana and Yaʿqub Johnson. Norwich, U.K., 1982. Excellent translation of one of the most important early collections. Especially significant for the development of Islamic law. Includes a glossary and a good index.
  • Muslim ibn Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: Being Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muḥammad as Narrated by His Companions and Compiled under the Title Al-Jāmiʿ-uṣ-Ṣaḥīḥ by Imām Muslim. 20 fasc. Translated by ʿAbdul Hamid Siddiqi. Lahore, 1971–1975. Extensive notes by the translator accompany this rendering of the second most authoritative work of the “Six Books.” Only the first guarantor of each text is mentioned.
  • Nawawī, Yaḥyā ibn Sharaf al-. Gardens of the Righteous: Riyadh as-Salihin of Imam Nawawi. Translated by Muḥammad Ẓafrullah Khān. London, 1980. Topically arranged collection by one of the greatest scholars of hadīth (thirteenth century C.E.). Contains selections from the canonical collections.
  • Nawawī, Yahya ibn Sharaf al-. Al-Nawawī 's Forty Hadith. Translated by Ezzedin Ibrahim. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.
  • Ṭabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. A Shiʿite Anthology. Translated with explanatory notes by William C. Chittick. Albany, N.Y., and London, 1981. One of the few collections available in English of sayings from the imāms of Shīʿī Islam. Good notes and references by the translator.
  • Abbott, Nabia. Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, vol. 2, Qurʿānic Commentary and Tradition. Chicago, 1967. Working with previously unpublished material and examining the literature on ḥadīth science, the author breaks new ground by showing the importance of early written collections of hadīth.
  • Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflection on Qurʿan, Hadith and Jurisprudence. Oxford, 2006.
  • Ali, Muhammad Mustafa. Studies in Ḥadīth Methodology and Literature. Indianapolis, 1977. Concise and clearly written introduction to the field of ḥadīth.
  • Azami, Muhammad Mustafa. Studies in Early Ḥadīth Literature, with a Critical Edition of Some Early Texts. Indianapolis, 1978. Another original investigation into early ḥadīth collections.
  • Brown, Jonathan. The Canonization of al-Bukhārī and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon. Leiden, Netherlands, 2007.
  • Cleary, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Prophet: The Sayings of Muhammad. Boston, 2001.
  • Dickinson, Eerick, trans. An Introduction to the Science of Ḥadīth: Kitāb Maʿrifāt Anwaʿ ʿIlm al-ḥadīth of Ibn al-Salah al-Shahrazuri. Ithaca, N.Y., 2006.
  • Goldziher, Ignácz. Muslim Studies (Muhammedanische Studien), vol. 2.Edited by S. M. Stern. Translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern. Chicago and New York, 1971. Probably the most important modern book on ḥadīth written by a non-Muslim. Investigates the entire field with remarkable erudition. A basic reference, although Muslims often regard it as excessively negative in its assessment of the nature of ḥadīth.
  • Graham, William A. Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam: A Reconsideration of the Sources, with Special Reference to the Divine Saying, or, Ḥadīth Qudsī. The Hague and Paris, 1977. Discussion of the early Muslim understanding of divine revelation and how the hadīth qudsī fits into the picture. Outstanding description and analysis of this particular kind of ḥadīth.
  • Guillaume, Alfred. The Traditions of Islam: An Introduction to the Study of the Hadith Literature (1924). New ed.Kessinger Publications, LLC, 2003. Quite old, but still the most accessible general introduction to the field.
  • Kamali, Mohammed Hashim. A Textbook of Hadith Studies. Islamic Foundation, 2007.
  • Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford, 1950. Second only in importance to the work of Goldziher (mentioned above) as to its influence on modern thought regarding the ḥadīth. Deals with legal material and reaches negative conclusions as to the authenticity of the chains of transmission supporting legal ḥadīth.
  • Siddiqi, Muhammad Z.Ḥadīth Literature: Its Origin, Development, Special Features, and Criticism. New ed.Calcutta, 1996. Reliable and clear survey by an Indian scholar. A mine of quickly accessible details, but somewhat difficult to obtain.
  • Speight, R. Marston. “The Function of Ḥadīth as Commentary of the Qurʿān, as Seen in the Six Authoritative Collections.” In Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qurʿān, edited by Andrew Rippin. Oxford, 1988. Description, with examples, of how each of the “Six Books” presents material on the Qurʿān.
  • Tuynboll, G. H. A.Encyclopedia of the Canonical Hadith. Leiden, Netherlands, 2007.
  • Wensinck, A. J.A Handbook of Early Muhammadan Tradition, Alphabetically Arranged. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960. Topical index covering eight collections of ḥadīth. Includes a list of book (section) titles in each of the eight collections.


Speight, R. Marston. "Ḥadīth." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #195: 'Hadith' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024