Were the traditions recorded in the time of the prophet himself?
The first written compilations of Traditions were made during the
caliphate of ‘Umar ibn ‘Ad al-‘Aziz, at the beginning of the second century
of Hijra. However, though all the Traditions that would be collected and
arranged in book form were in oral circulation, most of them had already
been re-corded in individual collections either by some Companions or their
The overwhelming majority of the ‘Arabs were unlettered. When the Qur’an
began to be revealed, a desire to learn to read and write was aroused in
them. The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, encouraged them to do
so; it is worthy of note that among the prisoners of war taken at the Battle
of Badr those who were literate were released after each taught ten Muslims
how to read and write.115 It should also be kept in mind that the first
Revelation was the command: Read, in the name of your Lord, Who has created.
He created man from a clot suspended (on the wall of the womb). Read, Your
Lord is the All-Munificent, Who taught (to write) with the pen. He taught
man what he had not known (al-‘Alaq, 96.1-5).
Despite the importance attached to knowledge and learning, in the early
period of his Messenger-ship, the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings,
did not allow his Companions to write down what they heard from him. For
example, as related in the Sahih al-Muslim, he said: Do not write anything
belonging to me. Whoever has written something received from me outside the
Qur’an let him destroy it.116 This was because it was quite possible that
the Companions might confuse the Qur’anic verses with the sayings of the
Prophet. The Qur’anic Revelations were coming and recorded on sheets or on
fragments of leather or wood. Since the Qur’an was continuing to be
revealed, it had not yet been arranged as a complete book. Therefore, God’s
Messenger did not want, as a necessary precaution, his sayings to be written
down beside the Qur’anic verses. He feared lest people should be unable to
distinguish the Qur’an from his sayings and ultimately might go to
perdition, as is explicit in the following hadith.
Abu Hurayra narrates:
God’s Messenger once came near us while some friends were writing down
what they had heard from him. He asked what they were writing. ‘We are
writing what we heard from you’, they answered. The Messenger warned: ‘Do
you know that the communities preceding you went astray because they wrote
down from others beside the Book of God.’117
Another point worthy of note in this connection is that, as most of the
Qur’anic Revelations came on different occasions and there are in it concise
and sometimes – seemingly – ambiguous verses be-sides the clear and detailed
ones, and the allegorical verses beside the explicit and incontrovertible
ones, and also, during an evolving movement leading to the establishment of
a purely Islamic community, some commandments came to replace earlier ones,
so too God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, spoke on different
particular occasions, and to persons of different temperaments and levels of
understanding, and also to new converts as well as to those who had accepted
Islam long before. For example, when a new convert asked him what the best
deed was, he answered that it was belief and performing the five prescribed
prayers. When the same question was asked when Jihad had priority, the
answer came that the best deed was Jihad in the way of God. Further, since
his Message included all times and peoples until the Last Day, he frequently
resorted to allegories, similes, parables and metaphors. All these factors,
besides many others, might have led the Messenger, upon him be peace and
blessings, to forbid certain individuals from writing down his sayings. If
everyone had written down or narrated whatever he heard from or witnessed in
God’s Messenger, without being able to distinguish between the real and
metaphorical, between the concrete and the abstract, between the abrogated
and the abrogating, between the general and the particular and occasional,
it would have caused great confusions and misunderstandings. It is because
of the same fear and concern that ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him,
sometimes warned people against careless narration of the Prophetic
However, there are many Traditions which state that God’s Messenger, upon
him be peace and blessings, did allow his Companions to write down his
sayings. A time came when the Companions attained the intellectual and
spiritual maturity to distinguish between the Qur’an and Hadith, giving to
each the attention and importance necessary and particular to each, and to
understand the circum-stances relevant to each Tradition, and God’s
Messenger then encouraged them to write down his Tra-ditions.
Abu Hurayra relates:
Among the Companions there is no one, except ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn
al-‘As, having as many Traditions as I do. I did not use to write down the
sayings of the Prophet, but ‘Abdul-lah did.118
As reported from himself, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr used to write down whatever
he heard from God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. Some people
said to him: ‘You are writing down every-thing coming from the mouth of
God’s Messenger. The Messenger is a human being. There are times when he is
angered and times when he is pleased.’ ‘Abdullah referred the matter to
God’s Messenger, who answered him, pointing to his mouth: Write down, for, I
swear by Him in Whose hand is my life, nothing comes out from this except
Whether angered or pleased, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and
blessings, never spoke on his own; out of personal caprice or whim. Whatever
he spoke, is a Revelation [explicit or implicit] revealed (al-Najm, 53.4).
Every word and action of his has some bearing on the religion of Islam.
Therefore, his words and actions had to be recorded. The Companions did this
holy task, either by committing them to memory or writing them down. There
is not, in the world, another person, next to God’s Messenger, whose life is
known down to its minutest details, and has been handed down through
generations so accurately. This is why we should feel indebted to the
Companions and the two or three generations after them, including the great
Traditionists especially, who recorded his words and actions and transmitted
them to future generations.
A man came to God’s Messenger and complained about his memory, saying: ‘O
Messenger of God: We hear many things from you. But most of them slip our
minds because we cannot memorize them’. God’s Messenger replied: Ask your
right hand for help.120 The Messenger meant that he should write down what
When Rafi‘ ibn Khadij asked God’s Messenger whether they could write what
they heard from him, the answer came: Write, no harm!121
As recorded in the Sunan of al-Darimi, God’s Messenger advised: Record
knowledge by writ-ing.122
During the conquest of Makka, God’s Messenger gave a sermon. A man from
the Yemen, named Abu Shah, stood up and said: ‘O God’s Messenger! Please
write down these [words] for me!’ The Messenger ordered: Write down for Abu
‘Ali, the fourth Caliph, carried, attached to his sword, a sheet in which
were written the commandments about the blood money to compensate for
injuries and the sanctification of Madina and some other matters.124 Ibn
‘Abbas left behind a camel-load of books, which mostly contain what he had
heard from God’s Messenger and other Companions.125 God’s Messenger sent a
letter to ‘Amr ibn Hazm, which contained commandments about the blood money
for murders and injuries and the law of retaliation.126 This letter was
handed down to his great grandson, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad. Like-wise, a
scroll transferred from God’s Messenger to Abu Rafi‘ was handed down to Abu
Bakr ibn ‘Abd Al-Rahman ibn Harith, belonging to the first generation after
the Companions.127 One of the leading scholars of this generation, Mujahid
ibn Jabr, saw the compilation of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr, called al-Sahifa al-Sadiqa.
Ibn al-Athir, a renowned historian, writes that this compilation contained
around a thousand Traditions. Half of them were recorded in authentic books
of Tradition, with the chain, from ‘Amr ibn Shu‘ayb, from his father, from
his grandfather respectively.
Like Ibn ‘Abbas, Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ansari left behind a voluminous
book containing the say-ings he had heard from God’s Messenger, upon him be
peace and blessings.128 Al-Sahifa al-Sahiha is another of the important
sources of Hadith from that earliest period. Hammam ibn Munabbih, the
compiler of that Sahifa, followed Abu Hurayra whenever he went and wrote
down the Prophetic say-ings reported by him. This compilation has recently
been published by Muhammad Hamidullah, and proven, through carbon dating, to
belong to the period thirteen centuries ago. Almost all of the Tradi-tions
contained in it can be found either in Musnad ibn Hanbal or the Sahihayn,
Bukhari and Muslim.
After these first simple compilations, the Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz,
who reigned between 99-101 after the Hijra, decided all the authentic
Traditions whether in oral or written circulation, should be compiled into
books systematically. He ordered the governor of Madina, Abu Bakr ibn
Mu-hammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hazm, to supervise this task. Muhammad ibn Shihab al-Zuhri,
renowned for his profound learning and very keen intelligence, undertook the
task, and acquired the honor of being the first ‘official’ compiler of
This movement of ‘official’ compilation launched by ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz
did not become restricted to the activities of Imam ibn Shihab al-Zuhri in
Madina. The same task was performed by ‘Abd al-Malik ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn
Jurayj in Makka. Sa‘id ibn Abi ‘Aruba in Iraq, Awza’i in Da-mascus, Zayd ibn
Qudama and Sufyan al-Thawri in Kufa, Hammad ibn Salama in Basra and
‘Abdul-lah ibn al-Mubarak in Khorasan.
This period of official and systematic compilation was followed by the
period of classification of the compiled Traditions, done by eminent
Traditionists such as Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi, Musaddad ibn Musarhad, al-Humaydi
and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who brought out their Musnads, and also ‘Abd al-Razzaq
ibn Hammam and others who formed their Musannafs. Ibn Abi Dhi’b and Imam
Malik put the title of al-Muwatta’ to their books. Yahya ibn Sa‘id al-Qattan
and Yahya ibn Sa‘id al-Ansari should also be mentioned among the pre-eminent
figures of this period.
Then came the period of the greatest Traditionists of the history of
Islam. The authors of the six world-famous books of Tradition, namely
Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Tirmidhi, and Ibn Maja, appeared in this
period. These most celebrated persons and some others almost as illustrious
as them like Yahya ibn Ma‘in, included in their collections the most
authentic Traditions which they judged according to the most strict
criteria. For example, in order to receive a hadith, Imam Bukhari went to a
man who was renowned for his reliability and piety. Nevertheless, he saw him
hold his hat towards his animal as if there were something in it to eat, to
entice it towards himself. Bukhari asked the man whether there was something
in the hat to feed the animal. The man said, ‘No!’. Bukhari left the man
without taking the hadith from him, because, in his view, one who could
deceive an animal in this way might also deceive people. Such were the
exacting criteria applied when judging the reliability of narrators.
In short, the Prophetic Traditions were either written down or memorized
during the time of the Companions. When the first Islamic century ended,
they had a wide circulation, in oral or written form. Upon the order of
‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, eminent scholars undertook the first ‘official’
compilation of ahadith in different centers. The authentic Traditions were
distinguished from fabricated ones with utmost care and according to most
sensitive criteria. Then came the period of classifi-cation. It was followed
by the most systematic and accurate compilation or collection accomplished
by the pre-eminent and most famous figures of the science of Hadith. Later,
new authentic books of Traditions were added to them. Also, the illustrious
critics of Tradition such as Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Ibn Abd al-Barr, Dhahabi,
Ibn al-Jawzi and Zayn al-Din al-Iraqi reviewed all the Traditions and
brought about large compendiums about narrators.
The Sunna of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, has thus been
handed down to us through most reliable channels. No one has the right to
cast doubt upon this second source of Islam, which approaches the Qur’an in
purity, authenticity and unquestionability.
115. I. Sa‘d, Tabaqat, 2.22.
116. Muslim, “Zuhd,” 72; Darimi, “Muqaddima,” 42.
117. Khatib al-Baghdadi, Taqyid al-‘Ilm, 34.
118. Bukhari, “‘Ilm,” 39.
119. Abu Dawud, “‘Ilm,” 3; I. Hanbal, 2.162; Darimi, “Muqaddima,” 43.
120. Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 12.
121. Hindi, Kanz al-‘Ummal, 10.232.
122. Darimi, “Muqaddima,” 43.
123. Abu Dawud, “‘Ilm,” 3; Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 12.
124. Bukhari, “‘Ilm,” 39; I. Hanbal, 1.100.
125. M. ‘Ajjaj al-Khatib, op. cit. 352.
126. Darimi, “Diyat,” 12.
127. Khatib al-Baghdadi, “al-Kifaya,” 330.
128. I. Sa‘d, 7.2; Khatib al-Baghdadi, ibid., 354.
129. Bukhari, “‘Ilm,” 34.