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What is a Hadith?

In Arabic the word hadith means ‘that which is new from amongst things’ or ‘a piece of information conveyed either in a small quantity or large’. The Arabic plural is aḥādīthHadith also refers to the speech of a person. As tahdith is the infinitive, or verbal noun, of the original verb form; hadith is, therefore, not the infinitive,rather it is a noun.

In Islamic terminology, the term hadith refers to reports of statements or actions of Muhammad, or of his tacit approval of something said or done in his presence.Classical hadith specialist Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani says that the intended meaning of hadith in religious tradition is something attributed to Muhammad, as opposed to the Qur’an. Other associated words possess similar meanings including: khabar (news, information) often refers to reports about Muhammad, but sometimes refers to traditions about his companions and their successors from the following generation; conversely, athar (trace, vestige) usually refers to traditions about the companions and successors, though sometimes connotes traditions about Muhammad. The word sunnah (custom) is also used in reference to a normative custom of Muhammad or the early Muslim community.

Hadith are regarded by traditional Islamic schools of jurisprudence as important tools for understanding the Qur’an and in matters of jurisprudence. Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day. The two main denominations of Islam, Shiʻism and Sunnism, have different sets of Hadith collections.

Components

The two major aspects of a hadith are the text of the report (the matn), which contains the actual narrative, and the chain of narrators (the isnad), which documents the route by which the report has been transmitted. The sanad, literally ‘support’, is so named due to the reliance of the hadith specialists upon it in determining the authenticity or weakness of a hadith. The isnad consists of a chronological list of the narrators, each mentioning the one from whom they heard the hadith, until mentioning the originator of the matn along with the matn itself.

The first people to hear hadith were the companions who preserved it and then conveyed it to those after them. Then the generation following them received it, thus conveying it to those after them and so on. So a companion would say, “I heard the Prophet say such and such.” The Follower would then say, “I heard a companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet.’” The one after him would then say, “I heard someone say, ‘I heard a Companion say, ‘I heard the Prophet…” and so on.

 

Usage

The overwhelming majority of Muslims consider hadith to be essential supplements to and clarifications of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, as well as in clarifying issues pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence. Ibn al-Salah, a hadith specialist, described the relationship between hadith and other aspect of the religion by saying: “It is the science most pervasive in respect to the other sciences in their various branches, in particular to jurisprudence being the most important of them.The intended meaning of ‘other sciences’ here are those pertaining to religion,” explains Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, “Quranic exegesis, hadith, and jurisprudence. The science of hadith became the most pervasive due to the need displayed by each of these three sciences. The need hadith has of its science is apparent. As for Qur’anic exegesis, then the preferred manner of explaining the speech of God is by means of what has been accepted as a statement of Muhammad. The one looking to this is in need of distinguishing the acceptable from the unacceptable. Regarding jurisprudence, then the jurist is in need of citing as an evidence the acceptable to the exception of the later, something only possible utilizing the science of hadith.

 

History

Traditions of the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam were passed down mostly orally for more than a hundred years after Muhammad’s death in AD 632. Muslim historians say that Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (the third khalifa (caliph) of the Rashidun Empire, or successor of Muhammad, who had formerly been Muhammad’s secretary), was the first to urge Muslims to record the hadith. Uthman’s labours were cut short by his assassination, at the hands of aggrieved soldiers, in 656. No sources survive directly from this period so we are dependent on what later writers tell us about this period.

By the 9th century the number of hadiths had grown exponentially. Islamic scholars of the Abbasid period were faced with a huge corpus of miscellaneous traditions, some of them flatly contradicting each other. Many of these traditions supported differing views on a variety of controversial matters. Scholars had to decide which hadith were to be trusted as authentic and which had been invented for political or theological purposes. To do this, they used a number of techniques which Muslims now call the science of hadith.

 

 

 

 

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