Introduction to Hadith

All praise is Allah almighty, the most merciful and kind. Peace be upon His last prophet Muhammad who is a mercy and guidance to all creation till the end of days. Blessing be upon all the companions who held on to the way of the prophet with conviction. Mercy be upon those who followed them relentlessly and preserved the din unscathed.

Introductions to hadith are available in many works. Depending on the objective of the work, the introduction differ in their coverage and focus as well as their length and detail. In this article I will attempt to concisely summarise the main points found in all the key works as well as allude to issues of note in this topic. I pray that this succinct primer is insightful to the initiates and is an invaluable reminder to the veterans.

Introductions to a field of study generally contain eight matters known as the ru’us thamaniyah. These are the (1) definition, (2) etymology, (3) subject matter, (4) aim and outcome, (5) virtue, (6) classification (7) genre and (8) history.


The broad definition of hadith as stated by Imam Sakhawi1 is that which is attributed to the prophet (peace be upon him) in terms of his statements, actions, tacit approvals2 or state (be it movement or stillness whilst awake or asleep). This is the definition of the muhaddithin.

The fuqaha have a more specific definition in that they confine it to be the statements, actions and tacit approvals of the prophet (peace be upon him) but do not include the ‘state’.

The difference between the two is that the muhaddithin consider both conscious (khasa’il) and unconscious (shama’il) aspects as being hadith whilst the fuqaha primarily focus on conscious behaviour. For example, the skin colour of the prophet (peace be upon him) will be within the scope of the muhaddithin but not the fuqaha as there are no actionable rulings pertaining to it. Hence, the difference is merely operational with no real disparity or denial of the other


Hadith/ pl. Ahadith / literally means utterance irrespective if it is a lot or less. Alternatively, it can also mean ‘the opposite of qadim (time immemorial)’. The first is more compatible with the technical meaning of hadiththan the latter.

There are four other terms which closely denote hadith; riwayat, khabr, athar, and sunnah. In practice all of these are synonymous especially amongst the earlier scholars who used them interchangeably. The prophet (peace be upon him) referred to any narration relating to himself be it utterance or action as hadith.

However, some have made distinctions between these terms. Riwayat and khabr are considered more general than hadith in that it includes any narrative which is linked to the prophet (peace be upon him) be it direct or remote such as the narratives about the sahabah or tabi’un. Comparatively, Khabr is assumed to focus more on remote narratives but not exclusively so. In contrast, Athar in theory is considered exclusive to the narratives about the sahabah and tabi’un.

Sunnah is argued to be specific only to the actions and according to some only the statements of the prophet (peace be upon him). The usage of the term sunnah differ amongst the fuqaha. The Shawafi’ et al. consider sunnah to denote that which should be emulated by the following generations whilst the ahnaf consider the sunnah to refer to that which is established from the prophet (peace be upon him) irrespective if it should be emulated or not. For instance, the prophet (peace be upon him) directed Hadrat Abd Allah b. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) that if he wished to divorce, he may do so by giving one divorce in every tuhr. Although permissible, none of the fuqaha consider this to be a preferable method and consider it contrary to the general practice of the sahabah. However, as it is proven from the prophet (peace be upon him) the ahnaf term the divorce of this type as talaq sunnah as in proven through the sunnah even though it is not normally meant to be practiced or emulated. In contrast, the shawafi’ do not consider it to be sunnah at all as it was never meant to be emulated and was stated merely to show permissibility. In a manner of speaking, the ahnaf use the term sunnah as the opposite of bid’a. An action which is not bid’a is not automatically preferable rather it may just be permissible. According to the ahnaf, sunnah which should be emulated (sunan huda) is determined through further analysis or on inspection of the practices of the sahabah. Nevertheless, semblance of the prophet (peace be upon him) is undisputedly an admirable pursuit but that is a separate discussion.

Subject matter

The broad subject matter of hadith is ‘the prophet of Allah (peace be upon him)’. The fuqaha being more focused in scope may consider the subject matter to be ‘the prophet in terms of him being the prophet’. The former will include the state (ahwal) such as skin colour etcetera which do not have an overt relationship with prophethood per se as opposed to the latter.

Aim and outcome

The primary aim of the study of hadith is to understand how to follow the prophet of Allah (peace be upon).3 This effectively will also requires that one be able to refrain from making false attributions to him. The ancillary aim is to obtain the virtues stated for studying hadith.

The outcome is to acquire success through gaining honour in both realms. True honour is with Allah almighty alone. This is gained through His pleasure, obedience to His laws and the adherence to His prophet (peace be upon him)



Hadith is classified under ‘ulum naqliyyah ‘aliyah. Naqliyyah refers to knowledge discovered through reports as opposed to ‘aqliyyah which is knowledge discovered via thought alone. ‘Aliyah (عالية) with an ayn refers to higher order knowledge which is pursued as an objective in itself as opposed aliyah with a hamzah which is a means to an objective or higher order knowledge.

Allm. Ibn Akfani (may Allah have mercy upon him) classifies the study of Hadith into two disciplines; (1) Ilm Riwayat al-Hadith, and (2) Ilm Dirayat al-Hadith. The first focuses on the reporting of the hadith with preserved contiguous sanads4. The second focuses on the analysis of hadith5. The latter has two sub-disciplines which are of note. Ilm usul hadith in which the reliability of the sanads and narrations are examined and ilm fiqh hadith in which the meaning and rulings are extracted.

Hadith is classified in the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC 23) as 271.125 with the heading ‘Hadith (tradition)’. In the Islamicised version of the DDC it is classified as 213 under the heading hadith sharif and in another version between 230-39. In the Library of Congress Classification (LC) it can be found from KBP135.A1 to KBP136.8 under Islamic Law (KBP).


Ahadith are collated and organised by genres which fall broadly in to four groups; (1) themes, (2) sanads, (3) texts and (4) analysis. The first three groups primarily relate to ilm riwayat hadith whilst fourth group mainly relates to ilm dirayat al-hadith. Nevertheless, a collection may have multiple genres or fit into more than one of these groups.

The first group is formed of hadith collections collated in terms of themes. These mainly cover eight major areas namely siyar, adab, tafsir, aqa’id, fitan, ashrat, ahkam and manaqib. The jawami’ (sing. Jami’) are general collections which encompass all the major subject areasin contrast to the ajza (sl. juz) and rasa’il which are very specific and focus on a single issue in detail. Alternatively, there are collections which centre on one or some of the areas but not all such as the sunan and musannaf which cover ahadith primarily relating to ahkam (musannaf generally includes more athar). There are subgenres which focus on a particular angle and take elements from all or some chapters such as targhib wa tahib, azkar and masahif. Thematic collections are often edited, aggregated, summarised or reordered. In Tajrid existing collection(s) are removed of their sanad and repetitive narrations. In Jam’ (pl. Majami’) multiple collections are aggregated to form a super-collection. Contrary to this, in the arba’inat subject matters are summarised and whittled down to only 40 ahadith to capture their essence6. In tartib a collection is reordered according to a theme.

The second group is formed of hadith collections which are organised according to narrators. There are two main approaches in this group. The first approach focuses on people. In a Mu’jam (pl. M’ajim) ahadith are arranged according tothe sahaba, a particular narrator or many narrators. The order may be alphabetic, chronological, or by status although the first is more common. A musnad (pl. Masanid) is arranged exclusively according to the sahabah (peace be upon them) whilst a mashikhah is arranged according to a shaykh or many shuyukh (Gharib and mufrad cover the narration of only one shaykh). There are also subgenres to this approach that focus on a niche such as wuhdan which is comprised of narrations from those who have narrated only one hadith. The second approach focuses on the sequence of the sanad. In atraf,the sanads of a hadith are collated from a number of collections in one place7. As opposed to a mustakhraj in which independent corroborating sanads are collated for a single hadith collection. This is different from a takhrij in which the sanad is referenced for ahadith quoted in a work withouta sanad. Even more specific are the tarajim in that they contain numerous ahadith via a single sanad on a subject. The length of the sanad at times is used to prioritise between a given set, hence, short sanads have been compiled such as the thulathiyat (sanads with only three links between the author and the prophet). There are other approaches also such as the musalsalat which focus on the patterns or form of delivery between narrators in a sanad.

The third group is formed of hadith collections which are organised according to text. The faharis are arranged by ordering the beginning or main part of the hadith text alphabetically. In contrast to gharib al-hadith which are organised by keywords.

The fourth group is formed of hadith collections which are organised based on output of a particular analysis or aid towards an analysis. A sahih is a collection which is formed of reliable narrations at least according to the author. Mustadrak and zawa’id are usually extensions to this genre. The former is a compilation using the criteria set in an existing collection(s) whilst the latter is composed of hadith not mentioned in a particular collection(s). The opposite of sahih in mawdu’at and ilal. The first identifies overtly fabricated reports whilst the second identifies hidden deficiencies in a narration. There are subgenres also such as mushkil al-Hadith which includes resolutions to apparent conflict between ahadith and asbab hadith which outlines the context in which the ahadith occurred.

Note that the aforementioned genres is not a comprehensive list rather each term in usul al-hadith can form a genre8. Suffice it to say the most popular genres in hadith are jawami, sunan, masanid, ma’ajim, ajza’ and arba’inat.


The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final messenger and his message is applicable to all people9 till the end of days and to that end Allah almighty has promised to preserve the din both in form and meaning10. The Quran came with the prophet (peace be upon him) and he is its chief expounder11, executor12 and demonstrator13. As such he is always relevant and inseparable from the Quran which is for all eras. Hence, his hadith are law for all people be they the sahabah in the first generation or those who came millenniums later.

Due to its grave importance Hadith have continuously been preserved and accurately transferred since its inception. The prophet (peace be upon him) said, “من كذب علي متعمدا فليتبوأ مقعده من النار” (trans. whoever places a lie upon me knowingly, let them make their place in the fire). This hadith is mutawatir and hence undeniable.

There are three primary modes used to transfer hadith; aural, practical and written. Aural is where a person personally hears the hadith and stores it to memory. This is considered to be the most superior (azimat). Practical is where one demonstrates a hadith and this is a close second to aural if not coupled with a description by the prophet. Written is where one writes what they have heard. This is considered acceptable (rukhsat) and comparatively inferior if one relies solely on their notes and forgets the actual hearing similar to if they acquired the writing of an author with licence to transmit without listening to the entire collection.

In the first century14, the examples of aural and practical transmission are replete, however, there was some qualms about writing hadith. Note that although the prophet (peace be upon him) warned against mixing the ahadith with the Quranic text, he permitted the writing of hadith independently and many did so in his presence. Similarly, many sahabah and tabi’un frowned upon the reliance on written records without memory of the aural references but were not against writing hadith per se. Rather they themselves wrote down individual ahadith and many even had written collections of hadith they heard in the form of books (Sahifa). However, in order to maintain the distinction between Quran and hadith, the writings were kept personal in that rather than distributing official copies they conferred it directly to students or wrote it in personal correspondences. Khatib Baghdadi (may Allah have mercy upon him) in Taqyid al-‘Ilm discusses the issue of writing hadith in detail. Ml. Mustafa Azami (may Allah almighty protect him) adds to the names noted by Khatib in his work and lists around 50 sahabah and 49 elder tabi’un who wrote hadith in the early era. The sahifah sadiqah of Abd Allah b. Amr as well as the sahifah of Ali and that of Amr b. Hazam are of particular note. There was also the suhuf of Abu Hurayrah (d. c58), Anas b. Malik (d. 93), Abd Allah b. Abbas (d. 68), Jabir b. Abd Allah (d. 78) who were amongst the seven prolific narrators (mukaththirun); the others being Abd Allah b. Umar (d. 84), Aisha (d. 58), and Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (d. 74) - may Allah almighty be pleased with them all.15

In the second century, at its onset, Umar b. Abd al-Aziz (may Allah have mercy upon him) wrote to his governors calling for the formal collection of ahadith. This proposal was largely unopposed as the Quran was now distinct to the people and there was no chance of confusion. Ibn Shihab Zuhri (d. 117) was the first to present a formal collection. Subsequently, written collections became the norm and soon after by the latter part of the century genres started appearing. Abwab al-Sha’bi of Amir b. Shurahbil (d. 103) is said to be the first to include chapters16. Kitab al-Athar by Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 150) was the first to have chapters organised according to fiqh. Ma’mar b. Rashid (d. 153) and Sufyan Thawri (d. 161) each wrote a Jami whilst Ibn Jurayj (d. 150) and Waki’ b. Jarrah each wrote a Sunan. Abd Allah b. Mubarak had a juz entitled Kitab al-Zuhd. Others of note who dictated their works are Muhammad b. Ishaq (d. 151), Dastawi (d. 152), Shu’bah b. Hajjaj (d. 160), Ibrahim b. Tahman Khurasani (d. 163), Hammad b. Salamah (d. 167), Hushaym b. Bashir Wasiti (d. 183), and Isma’il b. Ulayyah (d. 193). Perhaps the most famous and authoritative work in that era is the Muwatta of Imam Malik (d. 179) – May Allah almighty have mercy upon them all.

The Muwatta contains many of the elements common to the literary style of the time. It included narrations regarding the prophet (peace be upon him) as well as the sahabah and the tab’un. Imam Malik also included his conclusions and fatawa; a practice not found in all work rather some even discouraged it17. It should be noted that at the time hadth and fiqh was treated as one subject and whilst every muhaddith may not have been a faqih but every faqih was required to be a muhaddith. A mere muhaddith was called ahl al-hadith whilst a faqih muhaddith were sometimes called ahl al-rai. Imam Muhammad b. Hasan Shaybani (d. 189 - may Allah have mercy upon him) was considered the archetype of the latter as he was the first to be popularly known for writing a book composed mainly of fatawa.

Aural transmission or at the very least a licence to transmit a particular work was still a requisite. Hence, the narrator was required to disclose their mode and chain of acquisition. Failure to do so was considered a form of theft and dishonesty. Consequently, the field of ilm rijal became formalised during this period. Subsequently, the sanads in these works were often lengthy and repetitive forming the bulk of the book. A person complained to Abd Allah b. Mubarak (may Allah have mercy upon him) regarding this to which he responded, “Had it not been for the isnad, whoever wanted would have said what they pleased.”

In the third century, as fiqh became a field of study in its own right, works of hadith started becoming more focused. Large collections were curated to form a representative subset. This in turn gave rise to many genres. Some works were of particular note from that time. The Musnads of Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241.) and Abu Dawud Tayalisi (d. 204). The Musannafs of Abd al-Razzaq (d. 211) and Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235). The Sunans of Nasa’i (d. 303), Abu Dawud Sajistani (d. 275), Tirmidhi (d. 279) and Ibn Majah(d. 273). This Sahihs of Bukhari (d. 256) and Muslim (d. 261) – May Allah have mercy upon them all. The latter six are known as the kutub sittah (or sihah sitta in the subcontinent) and have been widely studied in formal settings for centuries.

Muhammad Saifur Rahman Nawhami
4 Rabi I 1435
27 December 2014

[Article is pending the section on virtue]

  • 1. Fath al-Mughith v. 1 p. 14
  • 2. Tacit approval (taqir) is when action is done in the presence of the prophet (peace be upon him) and did not object.
  • 3. اشار الخطيب في خطبة المشكوة ان غرض علم الحديث: معرفة كيفية الإقتداء بالنبي صلي الله عليه و سلم
  • 4. علم رواية الحديث هو علم بنقل اقوال النبي صلي الله عليه و سلم و افعاله و احواله بالسماع المتصل و ضبطها و تحريرها
  • 5. علم دراية الحديث هو علم يتعرف به انواع الرواية و احكامها و شروط الرواة و اصناف المرويات واستخراج معانيها
  • 6. Imam Nawawi’s Arba’in is the best known in which he attempts to cover all the pertinent matters of din with 40 ahadith
  • 7. The hadith is partially stated, hence, the name.
  • 8. cf. Nukhbat al-Fikr
  • 9. A’raf: 158
  • 10. Surah Hijr: 9
  • 11. Surah Nahl: 44
  • 12. A’raf: 157
  • 13. Ahzab: 21
  • 14. This encompasses the time of the prophet (peace be upon him), the sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them) and the tabi’un (may Allah almighty have mercy upon them) who spent significant time with the sahabah.
  • 15. Fath al-Mughith.
  • 16. Tadrib al-Rawi. Some have stated that Rabi’ b. Sabih and thereafter Sa’id b. Abi Arubah were the first to include chapters, however, Allm. Ibn Salah qualifies the claim and limits them being the first in Basrah – “awwal man sannafa wa bawwaba fima a’lamu al-Rabi’b. Sabih bi Basrah thumma Sa’id b. Abi ‘Arubah biha”.
  • 17. cf. discussion relating to ashab al-rai and ashab al-hadith



Nawhami, Muhammad Saifur Rahman. (2014). Introduction to Hadith. Islamic Studies Bulletin (DIBAJ), Number 3. Available at