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What is Hadeeth

The word ḥadeeth (حديث‎‎), also anglicized hadith, the plural of which is ahadeeth (أحاديث), means a report, an account or a narrative". It is a noun and can also refers to the speech of a person.

The classical hadith scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani said that the intended meaning of hadeeth in religious tradition is something attributed to Prophet Muhammad but that is not found in the Quran.

Other associated words possessing a similar meaning to hadeeth include:

  • Khabar (news, information): This often refers to reports about Prophet Muhammad, but sometimes refers to traditions about his companions and their successors from the following generation;
  • Athar (trace, vestige): This usually refers to traditions about the companions and successors, though sometimes connotes traditions about Prophet Muhammad.
  • Sunnah (custom): This is used in reference to a normative custom of Prophet Muhammad or the early Muslim community. Please see the articles on the Sunnah for details.

The hadeeth is broken into 2 major components, which are:

  • The Matn: This is the text of the report, the actual narration itself
  • The Isnad: This is the chain of narrators, which documents the route by which the report has been transmitted until it was recorded. 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.

For example, the hadeeth: It is Narrated from 'Adi bin Hatim that the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, "There is not one among you except that he will be spoken to directly by his Lord with no translator or any barrier separating them." [Sahih Bukhari].

The Matn of the hadeeth is: The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, "There is not one among you except that he will be spoken to directly by his Lord with no translator or any barrier separating them." [Sahih Bukhari].

The isnad of this hadeeth is: Al-Bukhari writes: it was narrated to us by Yusuf bin Musa: it was narrated to us by Abu Usamma: it was narrated to me by al-A'mash, from Khaythama, from the Companion 'Adi bin Hatim, who said that: 

The hadeeth are categorized according to the memory or reliability of the reporter as:

  • Saḥīḥ - sound or authentic
  • Hasan - a good hadeeth, this is an otherwise sahih hadeeth except for some minor deficiency, or a weak report strengthened due to numerous other corroborating reports;
  • Daʿīf - a weak hadeeth
  • Mawdu - a fabricated hadeeth

Both sahīh and hasan hadeeth, reports, are considered acceptable for usage in Islamic legal discourse.

Classifications of hadeeth may also be based upon the scale of transmission, i.e. number of people reporting the same hadeeth:

  • mutawatir: These are reports that pass through many reliable transmitters at each point in the chain of narration, isnad, up until their collection and these transcription are known as mutawatir. These reports are considered the most authoritative as they pass through so many different routes that it is not possible for all to them to have agreed upon a lie or falsehood.
  • Aahad: Reports not meeting the standard of mutawatir are classed as aahad. Aahad hadeeth are of 3 types:
    1. Gharib (scarce, strange): A gharib hadeeth is that in which a single reporter is found relating it at any point in the chain of narration (isnad). The hadeeth may have 10 reports at the beginning and end but at some point that number drops to just one reporter.
    2. Aziz (rare, strong): An aziz hadeeth is one in which at any point in the chain of narration there are only two reporters. The hadeeth may have 10 reports at the beginning and end but at some point that number drops to just two reporters.
    3. Mashhur (famous): A mashhur hadeeth is one in which the minimum number of reporters at any point in the chain of narration is more than two but not enough to meet the level of mutawatir.

An aahad hadeeth is not necessarily a weak hadeeth and its strenght as with any form of hadeeth depends not just upon the content but upon the reporters in the chain of narration, i.e. its isnad.

Hadeeth can also be categorized according to their reference to a particular authority. There are four types of authority:

  • Qudsi - Divine, sacred; a revelation from Allah (سبحانه و تعالى); relayed with the words of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم).
  • Marfu - elevated; a narration from the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم), e.g., I heard the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) saying ...
  • Mauquf- stopped: a narration from a companion only, e.g., we were commanded to ...
  • Maqtu - severed: a narration from a successor, i.e. a tabaeen, a student of a companion.

Hadeeth Qudsi is a sub-category of hadeeth where the meaning of the words is from Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) but the words expressed are those of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم), unlike the Quran where both the meaning and the words are those of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى). Hadeeth Qudsi are not necessarily mutawatir, and can be sahih, daif or maudu depending upon the chain of narration, the isnad, they reach us from. The Quran, however, has reached us in a mutawatir form and is thus sahih.

An example of a hadith qudsi is the hadeeth of Abu Hurairah who said that the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: "When Allah decreed the Creation He pledged Himself by writing in His book which is laid down with Him: My mercy prevails over my wrath." [Related by al-Bukhari, Muslim, an-Nasa'i and Ibn Majah.]

Hadeeth Collections

The most authentic collection of hadeeth is generally regarded as that of Sahih Bukhari and then the other collections. The following is a list of the canonical works of hadeeth: 

  • As-Saheehayn: These are the two collections of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. They are regarded as the generally being the highest authority on hadeeth.
  • Sahih Sittah: These are the six books of the most established collections and include within them the Saheehayn of Bukhari and Muslim. They are: Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Jami at-Tirmidhi, Al-Sunan al-Sughra and Sunan ibn Majah.

Other collections though not a part of the above are the Muwatta Imam Malik and Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal.