Hadith: Discussion of validity and authenticity


Because hadith is “the basis for most” Islamic laws and codes “at the detailed level”, which pertain “to people’s life, honour and property”, and because many (especially revivalist and conservative Muslims) consider these not just inspirational or informational but laws “sacrosanct or immutable Shari’ah” to be enforced, and because to others (especially modernist and liberal Muslims) the laws thus developed are “contrary to the intent and spirit of the Qur’an and Islam’s fundamental commitment to justice and fairness”, the “problem of the authenticity of the Sunnah” or hadith has become an issue for those (especially modernist and liberal Muslims) who believe there is a conflict between the “intent and spirit of the Qur’an” and “centuries-old” hadith-based jurisprudence.

Traditions of the life of Muhammad (PBUH) 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 Caliphate, or third successor of Muhammad), is generally believed to urge Muslims to record the hadith just as Muhammad suggested to some of his followers to write down his words and actions. However, no sources survive directly from this period so we are dependent on what later writers tell us about this period.

According to British historian of Arab world, Alfred Guillaume, it is “certain” that “several small collections” of hadith were “assembled in Umayyad times.”

In Islamic law, the use of hadith as now understood (hadith of Muhammad with documentation, isnads, etc.) came gradually. According to scholars such as Joseph Schacht, Ignaz Goldziher, and Daniel W. Brown, early schools of Islamic jurisprudence used rulings of the Prophet’s Companions, the rulings of the Caliphs, and practices that “had gained general acceptance among the jurists of that school”.

According to the scholars Harald Motzki and Daniel W. Brown, the earliest Islamic legal reasonings that have come down to us were “virtually hadith-free”, but gradually, over the course of second century A.H. “the infiltration and incorporation of Prophetic hadiths into Islamic jurisprudence” took place.


John Esposito notes that “Modern Western scholarship has seriously questioned the historicity and authenticity of the hadith”, maintaining that “the bulk of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad were actually written much later.” According to Esposito, Schacht “found no evidence of legal traditions before 722,” from which Schacht concluded that there is no scientific evidence that the Hadith or Sunna attributed to the Prophet are actually his words and deeds, but apocryphal material dating from later.

Henry Preserved Smith and Ignác Goldziher also challenged the reliability of the hadith, Smith stating that “forgery or invention of traditions began very early” and “many traditions, even if well authenticated to external appearance, bear internal evidence of forgery.” In particular, the influence of the ruling class such as the Umayyads and the Abbasids and the clergy they supported led to certain traditions which denigrated those who opposed the ruling class, such as the descendants of Muhammad (from his daughter Fatima) and Ali who were treated as enemies within because of their non-allegiance to the ruling caliphs.

Goldziher writes that “European critics hold that only a very small part of the ḥadith can be regarded as an actual record of Islam during the time of Mohammed and his immediate followers.” In his Mohammedan Studies, Goldziher states: “it is not surprising that, among the hotly debated controversial issues of Islam, whether political or doctrinal, there is not one in which the champions of the various views are unable to cite a number of traditions, all equipped with imposing isnads.”

Patricia Crone noted that early traditionalists were still developing conventions of examining the chain of narration (isnads) that by later standards were sketchy/deficient, even though they were closer to the historical material. Later though they possessed seemingly impeccable chains, but were more likely to be fabricated particularly when they were known to support the ideology of the ruling class.

Bernard Lewis writes that “the creation of new hadiths designed to serve some political purpose has continued even to our own time.” In the buildup to the first Gulf War, a “tradition” was published in the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Nahar on December 15, 1990, “and described as `currently in wide circulation`” It “quotes the Prophet as predicting that “the Greeks and Franks will join with Egypt in the desert against a man named Sadim, and not one of them will return”. Similar traditions were either fabricated or weak traditions quoted to support the holy war in India (Ghazva-tul-Hind).

Islamic Schools and Context

Within Sunni Schools, it was Abū ʿAbdullāh Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (150-204 AH), known as al-Shafi’i who emphasized the final authority of a hadith of Muhammad, so that even the Quran was “to be interpreted in the light of traditions (i.e. hadith), and not vice versa.” While traditionally the Quran is considered above the sunna in authority, Al-Shafi’i “argued” that the sunna stands “on equal footing with the Quran”, (according to scholar Daniel Brown) for (as Al-Shafi’i put it) “the command of the Prophet is the command of God.”

In 851 the rationalist Mu`tazila school of thought fell from favor in the Abbasid Caliphate. The Mu`tazila, for whom the “judge of truth … was human reason,” had clashed with traditionists who looked to the literal meaning of the Quran and hadith for truth. While the Quran had been officially compiled and approved, hadiths had not. One result was the number of hadiths began “multiplying in suspiciously direct correlation to their utility” to the quoter of the hadith (Traditionists quoted hadith warning against listening to human opinion instead of Sharia; Hanafites quoted a hadith stating that “In my community there will rise a man called Abu Hanifa [the Hanafite founder] who will be its guiding light”. In fact one agreed upon hadith warned that, “There will be forgers, liars who will bring you hadiths which neither you nor your forefathers have heard, Beware of them.” In addition the number of hadith grew enormously. While Malik ibn Anas had attributed just 1720 statements or deeds to the Muhammad, it was no longer unusual to find people who had collected a hundred times that number of hadith. Abu Huraira, for example, spent only two or three years with the Prophet, was punished by the second caliph Umar as a result of him going too far in forging hadiths from the Prophet but yet is credited with narrating at least 5374 Hadith.

The Ahlus Sunnah or Sunni School was favored by the Abbasids and the Hanafi sharia law was gradually adopted by the Abbasid state. This also affected the quality and direction of the hadith literature.

Faced with a huge corpus of miscellaneous traditions supported differing views on a variety of controversial matters—some of them flatly contradicting each other—Islamic scholars of the Abbasid sought to authenticate hadith. 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. In modern times, the revisionists are seeking to validate Hadith in order to support their own ideology disregarding the historical narratives and chains of events. These may be described as ahistorical revisionists and, in the Subcontinent, include the likes of Hamiduddina Farahi, Amin Ahsan Islahi, Ghulam Ahmed Parwez and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi. Several scholars have highlighted their links with the imperialist powers (Farahi was chosen by Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy in India, for a special assignment in the Middle East while Ghamidi fled from Pakistan and established his centre in the US), their ahistorical and ideological leanings and and limited understanding of the Hadith and Arabic language.


Critics have complained that, contrary to the description above where the matn is scrutinized, the process of authenticating hadith “was confined to a careful examination of the chain of transmitters who narrated the report and not report itself. ‘Provided the chain was uninterrupted and its individual links deemed trustworthy persons, the Hadith was accepted as binding law. There could, by the terms of the religious faith itself, be no questioning of the content of the report; for this was the substance of divine revelation and therefore not susceptible to any form of legal or historical criticism,'” according to scholar N.J. Coulson. However, considerable problems arose when scholars of the later centuries (e.g. 4ht Hijra century and afterwards) started questioning the authenticity or sanad of hadiths from earlier centuries based on the material written in later centuries.

The major points of intra-Muslim criticism of the hadith literature is based in questions regarding its authenticity. However, Muslim criticism of hadith is also based on theological and philosophical Islamic grounds of argument and critique. Muslim scholars have a long history of questioning the hadith literature throughout Islamic history. Western academics also became active in the field later, starting in 1890, but much more often since 1950.

Perhaps the most famous collector of hadith, Muhammad al-Bukhari, reportedly devoted 16 years to sifting nearly 600,000 narrations, and arrived at approximately 7400 authentic hadith. Experts, in general, have estimated the number of full-isnad narration at 7,397, and without considerations to repetitions or different versions of the same report, the number of Prophetic traditions reduces to approximately 2,602.

According to Daniel Brown, the major causes of corruption of Hadith literature are:

  1. political conflicts (and the influence of the ruling class),
  2. sectarian prejudice (particularly when the historians or narrators were aligned with the state), and
  3. the desire to translate the underlying meaning, rather than the original words verbatim.

Other criticisms made of hadith include:

  • that the primary tool of orthodox ʻilm al-ḥadīth (Hadith studies) to verify the authenticity of hadith is the hadith’s isnad (chain) of transmitters. But in the oldest collections of hadith (which have had less opportunity to be corrupted by faulty memory or manipulation) isnad are “rudimentary”, while the isnads found in later “classical” collections of hadith are usually “perfect”.
  • That whatever the motive, there are indisputable contradictions in hadith, meaning some sahih hadith must be wrong.
  • That hadith are a major source of Islamic law that involve the honor, property and lives of Muslims, and that although sahih hadith are defined as “authentic”—rated above hasan (good) and daif (weak) hadith—this class of hadith do not provide “certainty of knowledge” needed for law making. Mutawatir hadith (meaning reports from “a large number of narrators whose agreement upon a lie is inconceivable”) do meet that criterion, but their extreme scarcity limits their use in development of Islamic law.

Some Western academics have also been critical of the “revisionist” approach as a whole, for instance Harald Motzki, who according to Jonathan Brown demonstrates “convincingly” that studies of early hadith and law by Joseph Schacht and the late G. H. A. Juynboll “used only a small and selective body of sources”, “based on sceptical assumptions which, taken together, often asked the reader to believe a set of coincidences far more unlikely than the possibility that a hadith might actually date from the genesis of the Islamic community.”

According to M.O. Farooq, despite the widespread belief that sahih hadith are authentic hadith and thus provides “certainty of knowledge” of what Muhammad said, in fact it is only the much rarer subset of sahih — mutawatir hadith—that provide certain knowledge. Mutawatir means the report “of a large number of narrators whose agreement upon a lie is inconceivable. This condition must be met in the entire chain from the origin of the report to the very end.”

However, according to Wael Hallaq, “the bulk of hadith with which the traditionists dealt, and on the basis of which the Jurists derived the law” were known as ahad—i.e. non-mutawatir hadith; Hadith without “textually identical channels of transmission which are sufficiently numerous as to preclude any possibility of collaboration on a forgery” Jurists disagreed on how many channels of transmission there had to be for a hadith to be mutawatir.

According to Daniel Brown questioning the authenticity of the Hadith goes back to the time of Al-Shafii when a group known as Ahl al-Kalam, who argued that “first and foremost” the Prophetic example “has to be found … in following the Qur’an”, rather than hadith. Later, a similar group, the Mu’tazilites, also viewed the transmission of the Prophetic sunnah as not sufficiently reliable. The Hadith, according to them, was mere guesswork and conjecture, while the Quran was complete and perfect, and did not require the Hadith or any other book to supplement or complement it.”

According to Racha El Omari, early Mutazilites believed that hadith were susceptible to “abuse as a polemical ideological tool”; that the matn (content) of the hadith—not just the isnad—ought to be scrutinized for doctrine and clarity; that hadith “supported by some form of tawātur”, i.e. by a large number of isnād strands, each beginning with a different Companion, were valid.

In writing about mutawatir (transmitted via numerous chains of narrators) and ahad (any hadith that is not mutawatir) and its importance from the legal theoretician’s point of view, Wael Hallaq notes the medieval scholar Al-Nawawi argued that any non-mutawatir hadith is only probable and cannot reach the level of certainty that a mutawatir hadith can. However scholars like Ibn al-Salah (d. 1245 CE), al-Ansari (d. 1707 CE), and Ibn ‘Abd al-Shakur (d. 1810 CE) found “no more than eight or nine” hadiths that fell into the mutawatir category

Modern era

Later, in nineteenth century British Raj in India, Syed Ahmed Khan “questioned the historicity and authenticity of many, if not most, traditions, much as the noted scholars Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht would later do.” His student, Chiragh Ali, went further, suggesting nearly all the Hadith were fabrications. Allama Muhammad Iqbal argued that the hadith should be taken contextually and circumstantially. Ghulam Ahmed Pervez asks why, if hadith were divine revelation (wahy), were they “neither written down, nor memorized, nor systematically collected or preserved”, as Muhammad and/or his immediate followers made sure the Quran was. While Pervez outrightly rejected the hadith, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi uses isnad (based on biographical account from much later centuries) to doubt narrators in a selective manner to reject a wide majority of the hadith literature.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi (d. 1920) of Egypt wrote an article titled ‘al-Islam huwa ul-Qur’an Wahdahu’ (‘Islam is the Qur’an Alone) that appeared in the Egyptian journal al-Manar, which argues that the Quran is sufficient as guidance: “what is obligatory for man does not go beyond God’s Book. … If anything other than the Qur’an had been necessary for religion,” Sidqi notes, “the Prophet would have commanded its registration in writing, and God would have guaranteed its preservation.” Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi “held that nothing of the Hadith was recorded until after enough time had elapsed to allow the infiltration of numerous absurd or corrupt traditions.”

According to Jonathan A.C. Brown, “by far the most influential Modernist critique” of Sunni hadith tradition comes from Mahmoud Abu Rayya of Egypt. Abu Rayya wrote Lights on the Muhammadan Sunna (Adwa` `ala al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya) which argued that the basis of Islam was intended to be only “the Quran, reason and unquestionably reliable mutawatir accounts of the Prophet’s legacy”. In particular Abu Rayya undermined the credibility of “the single most prolific” transmitter of hadiths from among the Companions, one Abu Hurairah. Abu Rayya used reports of transmitter criticism to characterize Abu Hurayra as a “dishonest opportunist”. Having joined the Muslim community only three years before the Prophet’s death, it is highly unlikely he heard the thousands of hadiths he claimed to transmitted, nor did he learn the details of ritual and law to avoid mangling the meanings of hadiths on these issues he reported. Abu Hurayra was also known to be obsessed with isr’iliyyat, i.e. tales from Jewish lore about earlier prophets.

According to author Israr Ahmed Khan, traditional methods used to establish authenticity of hadith rely almost entirely on the personal characters of the reported narrators, and fail to pay enough attention to the actual content of the hadith being evaluated. Among the problems he sees in the traditional hadith analysis are: the inability of some narrators to maintain preciseness of the report, textual conflicts among reports, ignoring textual analysis when the hadith was reported by a narrator of good character, and probability of fabrication of hadith.

Also throwing doubt on the doctrine that common use of hadith of Muhammad goes back to the generations immediately following the death of the prophet is historian Robert G. Hoyland, who quotes acolytes of two of the earliest Islamic scholars:

  • “I spent a year sitting with Abdullah ibn Umar (d.693, son of the second Caliph, who is said to be the second most prolific narrator of ahadith, with a total of 2,630 narrations) and I did not hear him transmit anything from the prophet”;
  • “I never heard Jabir ibn Zayd (d. ca. 720) say ‘the prophet said …’ and yet the young men round here are saying it twenty times an hour”.


According to G.H.A. Juynboll, “the institution of the isnad came into existence roughly three quarters of a century after the prophet’s death” and before that hadith and “qisas (mostly legendary stories) were transmitted in a haphazard fashion if at all, and mostly anonymously. Since the isnad came into being, names of older authorities were supplied where the new isnad precepts required such. Often the names of well-known historical personalities were chosen but more often the names of fictitious persons were offered to fill the names in isnads which were as yet far from perfect. …”

Patricia Crone agrees, noting that early traditionalists were still developing the practice of detailing chains of narration (isnads) of their hadith that by later standards were sketchy/deficient, even though these early scholars were closer to the historical material. Later hadith possessed seemingly impeccable isnad, but were more likely to be fabricated. She argues it is not possible to narrow down a “core” of authentic hadith because we do not know when the fabrication of them started.

Bukhari [d.870] is said to have examined a total of 600,000 traditions attributed to the Prophet; he preserved some 7000 (including repetitions), or in other words dismissed some 593,000 as inauthentic. If Ibn Hanbal [d.855] examined a similar number of traditions, he must have rejected about 570,000, his collection containing some 30,000 (again including repetitions). Of Ibn Hanbal’s traditions 1,710 (including repetitions) are transmitted by the companion Ibn Abbas [d.687]. Yet less than fifty years earlier one scholar had estimated that Ibn Abbas had only heard nine traditions from the Prophet, while another thought that the correct figure might be ten. If Ibn Abbas had heard ten traditions from the Prophet in the years around 800, but over a thousand by about 850 CE, how many had he heard in 700 or 632? Even if we accept that ten of Ibn Abbas’ traditions are authentic, how do we identify them in the pool of 1,710? It is in this context that some scholars argue that the hadith have to be understood in the light of the historical accounts and contexts, not in an ahistorical and acontextual manner.  

Joseph Schacht states that the “whole technical criticism of traditions … is mainly based on criticism of isnads”, which he (and others) believe to be ineffective in eliminating fraudulent hadith. as they were subject to “growth, back-formation, and lateral spread” over decades.

Isnad and not Matn

If critics found fault with the traditionists examination of isnads, they were even less complementary of their evaluation (or failure to) of matn — i.e. the substance of the hadith, what the Prophet did/said/approved of.

Critics argue that a serious weakness of the study of hadith by classical Muslim scholars was that the gist/matn of the hadith could not be examined for “making sense, being logical”, as the matn were considered “the substance of divine revelation and therefore not susceptible of any form of legal or historical criticism”. N.L. Coulson “points out that, although the Muslim scholars were aware of the possibility of Hadith forgeries, their test for authenticity was confined to a careful examination of the chain of transmitters who narrated the report. ‘Provided the chain was uninterrupted and its individual links deemed trustworthy persons, the Hadith was accepted as binding law. There could, by the terms of the religious faith itself, be no questioning of the content of the report: for this was the substance of divine revelation and therefore not susceptible of any form of legal or historical criticism.

Schacht quotes Shafi’i asserting that hadith from the Prophet have to be accepted without questioning and reasoning: `If a tradition is authenticated as coming from the Prophet, we have to resign ourselves to it, and your talk and the talk of others about why and how, is a mistake …”

Goldziher also casts aspersions on isnads, saying, “judgement of the value of the contents depends on the judgement of the correctness of the isnad. … Muslim critics have no feeling for even the crudest anachronisms provide that the isnad is correct … Traditions are only investigated in respect of their outward form”.

European and non-Muslim scholars deemed this traditional type of critique inadequate. The Hadith was to be tested by its content and by the place its terms occupied in the development of legal though and institutions …'”

Another criticism of isnads was of the efficacy of the traditional Hadith studies field known as biographical evaluations (ʿilm al-rijāl) — evaluating the moral and mental capacity of transmitters/narrators. John Wansbrough argues that the isnads should not be accepted, because of their “internal contradiction, anonymity, and arbitrary nature”: specifically the lack of any information about many of the transmitters of the hadith other than found in these biographical evaluations, thus putting into question whether they are “pseudohistorical projections”, i.e. names made up by later transmitters.