When it comes to Hadith, one will usually mention it in the same breath as Sunnah. Although majority of the scholars are of the view that they bring the same meaning, there are some who differentiate between the two. These scholars define Hadith as speech, actions, appearance, and approvals that are attributed to Rasulullah (pbuh), whereas Sunnah is classified as Hadiths which include legislative rulings. The Sunnah is considered as the second source of derivation of Islamic Jurisprudence, following the Qur’an.
وَأَطِيعُواْ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلرَّسُولَ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تُرۡحَمُونَ
“And obey Allah and the Messenger that you may obtain mercy.”
(Ali Imran: 132)
وَمَآ ءَاتَٮٰكُمُ ٱلرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَٮٰكُمۡ عَنۡهُ فَٱنتَهُواْ
“And whatever the Messenger commands you, then do it, and whatever he forbids you, then avoid it.”
During the life of Rasulullah, the Quran was memorised by heart and written on parchments. However, aside from a few personal manuscripts of some sahabahs, the hadith was only memorised as they feared the writings of hadith may get mixed up with the writings of the Quran. Due to the sahabahs’ exceptional memory, these transmissions were preserved with great accuracy.
As time went by, the sahabahs who witnessed the hadith delivered first-hand from Rasulullah passed away one after another. In addition, there were also parties fabricating hadiths to support their personal agendas.
During the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz in the beginning of the second Hijri century, the texts of Hadiths were ordered to be committed to writing. The rules and criteria developed by Hadith scholars regulating their study of Hadith were meticulous. Ulum al-Hadith (the sciences of Hadith) emerged, for the purpose of sifting and organising these texts. Scholars made well-defined classifications of narrators and hadiths. This science serves as a tool in regulating the immense Hadith literature, deducing whether an isnad (chain of transmission) or a matan (hadith text) is to be accepted or rejected according to an extensive classification system. Works of compilers were subjected to vigorous scrutiny, even for Imam Al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim.
Thus, the science of Hadith is not a simple matter of quoting a Hadith, but is one that requires knowing and understanding the details of the text, the context, and the characteristics of each person in all the chains of narration. It is a strict procedure to verify a narration and an authentic chain of transmission up to Rasulullah (pbuh).
Many early collections were fragmentary, and later incorporated in the more comprehensive collections. Imam Malik’s Al-Muwatta’ was the first comprehensive and systematic compilation of Hadith. Following that would be the Musnad of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal. A musnad is a collection of hadith which are at times arranged alphabetically under the names of the sahabahs on whose authority these hadiths were reported.
There are also books in which hadiths are compiled and recorded under various headings dealing with juridical subjects. This includes the Kutub Sittah (The Six Books of Hadith):
- Sahih Al-Bukhari
- Sahih Muslim
- Sunan Abi Dawud
- Sunan At-Tirmidhi
- Sunan An-Nasa’i
- Sunan Ibn Majah