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Isnad, btw, refers to the chain of men who report a narrative or support an authority, primarily associated

with hadith reporting. So when Imam Bukhari says, "Abdullah ibn Ahmad told me that Malik told him that
Nafi' told him that Ibn Umar told him that the Messenger of Allah icon_saws.gif said, "Such-and such...",
the isnad (or sanad) is Bukhari - Abdullah ibn Ahmad - Malik - Naf'i - Ibn Umar - Messenger of Allah. Its
importance is that the chain itself estbalishes the veracity or authenticity of the statement being reported
from the Messenger icon_saws.gif.

The Role of Isnad in the Preservation of the Islamic Civilisation

Kamal Abu Zahra


The Islamic ideology derives from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Legislation in Islam is also derived from these
two sources. Therefore if any one of these sources is lost or distorted then the risk is to the ideology as a
whole. In this respect the study of Isnad is not a peripheral discipline in Islam but fundamental to the
preservation of the ideology itself. Without Isnad the Sunnah as a source of ahkam would cease to exist.
Without Isnad we would lose the ability to elaborate, specify and restrict the ambivalent, general and
absolute import of the Quranic text since the role of the Sunnah is to clarify the Qur’an. Without Isnad,
extraction of Shari’ah rules for new realities from the Sunnah would cease to exist. Without Isnad foreign
elements could have been incorporated within the ideology due to their false attribution to the Prophet

Thus, Isnad is crucial for the purity, clarity and crystallization of the Islamic ideology and its ability to solve
new problems from its legislative source. That is why ‘Abdullah b. Mubarak, the teacher of Imam al-
Bukhari, (rahmatullahi ‘alayhim) did not exaggerate when he said: "The isnad is part of the Deen: had it
not been for the isnad, whoever wished to would have said whatever he liked."

It is also precisely for this reason that the Orientalists, have sought to create doubt in the efficacy of the
Isnad. The wholesale rejection of hadith as a historical source was first argued by an Orientalist named
Ignaz Goldziher in volume 2 of his book Muslim Studies. Goldziger was then followed by Joseph Schact
who developed his ideas and tried to present a substantial body of proof to this effect in his work ‘The
Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence’ which was published in 1950, and more recently Gautier Juynboll
in his Muslim Tradition: Studies in chronology, provenance and authorship of early hadith has developed
further techniques to prove the false nature of the hadith literature.

The general thrust of orientalism since Goldziher has tended to impute doubt, in various degrees, on the
corpus of hadith literature. For them the elaborate isnad which the Muslims adduce as proof of
authenticity have either been doctored or embellished such that the hadith literature is more a reflection of
the time in which they were fabricated, i.e. the political and sectarian milieu of the 2nd and 3rd centuries,
than the time they are supposed to go back to which is the time of the Prophet and his noble companions.
This is one of the more serious and fundamental attacks by Orientalists on the Islamic ideology. By
throwing doubt on these sources it would be possible to demolish the whole edifice which rests upon
them. It was in this vein that attempts were made to discredit the historicity of the hadith literature.

In addition we see the influence of this thought on modernism and modernist thinking where the Sunnah
as a source of legislation is markedly absent in the political field. Hence we see amongst some Muslims
an attitude which considers the Sunnah of lesser importance than the Qur’an simply because the hadith
requires further study and scrutiny as compared to the Qur’an. This has led to people either disregarding
or neglecting ahkam simply because it is not found explicitly in the Qur’an. Hadiths discussing the unity of
the Muslims, the obligation to appoint a Khalifah, or the ruling that a woman cannot be ruler to name but a
few are brushed aside or not given their due weight because they are ‘hadith’ and not an ayah of the

Dr Asghar Ali Engineer in his book The Islamic State says: ‘There is no fixed concept of an Islamic state –
much less a divinely ordained one to be treated immutable. The Koran, as pointed out, elucidates a
concept of society, not of a state. The theory of Islamic state, as we have seen in the preceding chapters,
changed and conformed more to the concrete situations than to any a priori concept.’[1] The hadiths
discussing the Khilafah, he opines, were fabricated by the rulers to justify their rule: ‘In the
metamorphosed state set-up there was nothing more Islamic than the fact that the ruler professed Islam
and enforced certain provisions of the Shari’ah in personal and criminal matters. It was the result of such
circumstances that a number of traditions were coined justifying any regime which did as little as
enforcing the Islamic way of prayer.’

He then proceeds to quote the rigorously authenticated hadith in Sahih Muslim as example of such
fabrication. The text of that hadith is: ‘In the near future there will be Amirs and you will like their good
deeds and dislike their bad deeds. One who sees through their bad deeds (and tries to prevent their
repetition by his hand or through his speech), is absolved from blame, but one who hates their bad deeds
(in the heart of his heart, being unable to prevent their recurrence by his hand or his tongue), is (also)
safe (so far as God"s wrath is concerned). But one who approves of their bad deeds and imitates them is
spiritually ruined. People asked (the Prophet): Shouldn't we fight against them? He replied: No, as long as
they say their prayers.’ This is exactly the view held by Goldziher who claimed that the political hadith
literature was a product of the political and sectarian background of the Umayyad caliphate. Recently Dr
Engineer gave a presentation in which he sought to prove gender equality and his approach was solely
his own personal interpretation of the Qur’an without any recourse to the Hadith. His reason for this is that
hadith was recorded a hundred years after the event, they are contradictory or contradict his own reading
of the Qur’an and therefore not a reliable source for Tafseer of the Qur’an.

This attitude is dangerous as it is tantamount to disregarding the revelation of Allah (swt) and the reason
for this reverts back to the pragmatic view of the Shari’ah and a sense that Hadith is somehow of lesser
worth due to the difficulties posed in establishing its authenticity.

Therefore the aim of this article is to establish the firm conviction in Sunnah as a source of legislation by
demonstrating the sophistication and success of the hadith methodology in preserving the Sunnah.
However, the way I will be discussing this topic is not to present it as discipline of Musatalah al-Hadith as
has been traditionally done but to take relevant aspects of the discipline to give us an outline and
conception of the methodology and system itself. As for a detailed refutation of Orientalist arguments and
proofs, this will not be possible here, but it is thoroughly dealt with in my forthcoming work: ‘The Role of
Isnad in the Preservation of the Islamic Civilization’.

Posted by: Othman Jun 13 2007, 07:06 PM

Historical background and the Birth of Isnad

But before we discuss the key aspects of the hadith methodology I wish to recount the historical
background of Isnad so that we can appreciate the context in which the Isnad was born and the problems
and challenges Muslims faced in protecting the ideology from the pernicious activities of fabricators.

If we start with the time of the Messenger (saw) we find that questions of authenticity was not an issue
since the Prophet was amongst them and the Sahabah (who were all trustworthy as it is) were able to
correct each other if any mistakes were made in narration. So for example ‘Umar once narrated that the
Messenger (saw) said: ‘The deceased is punished due to the weeping of his family’ but ‘Aisha corrected
him by saying: ‘The Prophet (saw) said this regarding a Jewess that she was punished whilst her family
were crying for her’ meaning that she was punished due to dying upon kufr while the family wept and not
because the family was weeping for her.[2] At this time Isnad was at its rudimentary stage because of the
proximity to the Prophet (saw) but this did not stop the Sahabah from checking strange attributions or
corroborating reports when in doubt.

The earliest record of fabrication of hadith started after the first civil war between Ali and Mu’awiya from
35 A.H following the murder of Uthman. According to Ibn Sirin who died in the year 110 AH: ‘They did not
ask about the isnad, but when fitna arose they said: Name to us your men; those who belong to Ahl al-
Sunnah, their traditions were accepted and those who were innovators their traditions were neglected.’
After this time the fabrications increased with varying motivations. Initially the false attributions reflected
political differences. According to Ibn Abi al-Hadid: ‘Lies were introduced in Hadith on merits originally by
Shi’a. They in the beginning fabricated many hadith in favor of their man motivated by enmity towards
their opponents. When the supporters of Abu Bakr found out what the Shi’a had done they fabricated on
their part hadith in favour of their man.’

Disagreements in aqaa'id also led the unscrupulous to fabricate hadith in support of their sectarian
positions. So there are one set of narrations which say that the Prophet (saw) said that Iman increases
and decreases wile another set say Iman does not increase or decrease and all of them are fabricated.

Another faction which fabricated hadith were the Zindeeqs i.e. people who outwardly manifested Islam but
hated it and wanted to destroy it being giving an ridiculous and irrational impression of Islam through their

Some fabricated hadith to support the founder of their own school like the report which says: ‘There will
be among my Ummah a man named Abu Hanifah who will be the siraj (lamp) of my Ummah.’ Or the the
fabrication referring to ash-Shafi’i which says: ‘There will be among my Ummah a man named
Muhammad b. Idris who will be more harmful to my Ummah than Iblis.’ Other categories of people who
fabricated hadith were well intentioned pious people who wanted encourage ta’aat (obedience to Allah) or
the story tellers (Qassas) who wanted to entertain the people with their wild and amazing stories.

Posted by: Othman Jun 14 2007, 05:59 PM

The Challenges faced by the Muslims

Revival is intellectual elevation. When society is elevated in thoughts it looks at problems in an

enlightened manner and derives solutions on an enlightened basis directed by its viewpoint about life, and
hence that society progresses and solves its problems effectively and thereby achieves revival.

One of the best examples of revival or elevation in thought is the way Muslims dealt with the problem of
hadith authenticity and fabrication. From the brief account of history given above the enormous task faced
by the Muslims is clear. There were thousands of transmitters scattered throughout the Islamic lands and
even greater number of reports to sift through. From these they managed to select the sound narrations
from the weak and compile them along with their chain of transmitters in such an effective manner which
is unparalleled by any form of historiography known at the time and beyond. And this was done in the
days when the best form of data storage was the human memory or parchment and messengers on
horses were the quickest form of communication.

To appreciate how tall an order this was let us look at the difficulties the Muslims had to resolve in order to
safeguard the hadith.

The first hurdle to overcome was to establish continuity of the chain i.e. that there were no gaps in the
chain. This required that the birth and death dates of narrators had to be catalogued as well as the cities
from which they came in order to establish the possibility that they had met and hence were able to
transmit the hadith. The Second issue that had to be ascertained was the probity and mendacity of
transmitters. It is not enough to have an unbroken continuous chain if one of the transmitters is of
unsound character. Like a chain all that is necessary for the whole thing to collapse is one wobbly chink
which would allow it to fall apart easily. So one liar in the chain, or the weakest link, will weaken the report
even if the rest of the chain is littered with illustrious and trustworthy personalities.

In fact it was the names of illustrious and respected people that were used by fabricators to pass off their
dishonest material. For this reason the Muslims needed to gather information about the narrators, which if
one thinks about it is not an easy accomplishment, since it involved assessing the character and state of
mind of thousands upon thousands of transmitters. This repository of biographical material then would be
used to identify each and every transmitter in the chain. Now having amassed this information there
needs to be some criteria as to what would constitute a reliable narrator whose report could be believed.
So is it enough for the narrator to be trustworthy before we take his report or should we impose extra
safeguards? What about memory? Some people are trustworthy but prone to forget or make significant
mistakes or get their reports muddled up. How do we deal with these problems? Also, usually there is
more than one chain for a single hadith, how can we classify these to indicate the various levels of
strength and authenticity since the Shari’ah has imposed diffract criteria in respect to actions and belief?

As with all human dependencies mistake will be made so how can we avert mistakes and maintain
accuracy in transmission? What about the ostensibly sincere fabricators of hadith who are of sound
memory but concoct reports for what they believe to be well intentioned and noble aims? How do we
catch them out? What kind of techniques and approaches can be developed to detect forgery and
deception? And finally, at times we find two reports both of which are authentic according to the stringent
criteria laid out but they contain an apparent contradiction. This is not surprising when you are dealing
with reports describing sayings and actions taking place in diverse circumstances in their generic and
specific contexts spanning the prophetic lifetime of the Messenger (saw). Coupled with this is the
possibility of a mistake that has gone undetected due to forgetfulness or misunderstanding the intent of a
statement or action. How do we reconcile such seeming and apparent contradictions? Since the Wahy
(revelation), as we know, in principle does not contradict itself.

These are just a glimpse of the key issues the Muslims had to answer if the Sunnah was to be protected
from loss and corruption from foreign elements. The result was the development of 4 distinct sciences to
combat fabrication, namely:

1. ‘Ilm Tareekh al-Rowaat, which dealt with the crucial issue of the dates of birth and death of transmitters.
2. ‘Ilm Jarh wa 'l-Ta’deel, consisting of the manners of disqualification and authentication of transmitters.
3. Ilm Gharib al-Hadith, which is study of the irregular aspects of matn and isnad.
4. ‘Ilm Mukhtalaf al-Hadith, which discusses the techniques of reconciling and outweighing seemingly
contradictory hadith.

In the ensuing discussion I will highlight the key features of the above sciences to show how the problems
posed above were tackled.
Posted by: Othman Jun 15 2007, 06:39 PM

The Biographical (Rijal) Literature

The first step in verifying a report is to know the reality of the person reporting a piece of news. That is
why Allah (swt) says: ‘O you who believe! If a Fasiq comes to you with a news, verify it, lest you harm
people in ignorance, and afterwards you become regretful to what you have done.’ [49:6]

Here the ‘illah for verifying or scrutinizing a report is the potential harm that will be caused by accepting a
false report. It is on the basis of this ayah that the Muhadditheen began to seek out information about
narrators in order to verify their narration. But what about recording and publicising the defects of such
narrators, what is the shar’i justification for doing this?

Al-Bukhari reported on the authority of ‘Aisha that: ‘A man asked permission to enter upon Allah's Apostle.
The Prophet said, "Admit him. What an evil brother of his people or a son of his people." But when the
man entered, the Prophet spoke to him in a very polite manner. (And when that person left) I said, "O
Allah's Apostle! You had said what you had said, yet you spoke to him in a very polite manner?" The
Prophet said, "O 'Aisha, the worst people are those whom the people desert or leave in order to save
themselves from their dirty language or from their transgression.’ [3] This hadith teaches us that in
warning the Muslims from a harm it is allowed to backbite because the man Rasulullah was warning
about is one man named ‘Uyaynah b. Hisn who outwardly showed that he was a Muslim thought in reality
he was not a Muslim. Rasulullah wanted to warn the people about this man so he said what an evil man
he is. This is indicated by the Prophet’s answer to A’isha when she asked him why he used bad language,
he replied that he one who used bad language is the worst of people yet he (saw) used bad language to
describe this man. Therefore the reason must be that he wanted to warn the people and not to abuse the
man and hence when he met him he was very polite to him.
Imam al-Qurtubi commenting on this hadith said: ‘The Hadith contains the permission to backbite the one
who publicly shows his fisq or fahsh and the like from unjust rulers or those who call to innovation though
its allowed to do it in a polite manner as long as long as it does not lead to compromising the Deen of
Allah’. [4] Thus, when we come to narrators of hadith it is clear that unscrupulous hadith narrators are not
only harmful to Muslims but to Islam itself and therefore their faults must be recorded so no hadith will be
accepted from them.

The endeavor to verify the reports gave rise to the science of Rijal (i.e. the knowledge and collation of the
biography of narrators) and the science of Jarh (disparagement) and Ta’deel (attestation). Information
regarding the probity and precision of narrators was recorded whether the information was disparaging or
confirmed their reliability. The honest defamation or ta’n was considered part of the deen since it was
necessary to protect the deen. In collecting this material the Rijal critics spared no one to the extent that
the son would criticise his father. It is reported that, 'Some people asked ‘Ali b. al-Madini, the great rijal
scholar about his father. He said, "Ask somebody else." They repeated the question. He fell silent and
then lifted his head and said: This (is part of) the Deen. He (my father) is weak (da’if).’ It is for this reason
that people like the great Tabi’i ‘Ata b. as-Saa`ib and well known Seerah writer Ibn Ishaq were not spared
from criticism. Yayha b. Ma’in said: ‘We disparaged people who had already been admitted to Jannah
more than a hundred years ago.’ Their prime motivation for doing this was fear of Allah and not the fear of
the people. It is reported that Yahya b. Sa’eed al-Qattan was asked, "Do you not fear that those people
whose hadith you have rejected will dispute against you before Allah?" He said, "No, that these people
should dispute with me is better than the Messenger of Allah (saw) disputing with me by saying: Why did
you narrate a hadith which you thought was a lie?’

Posted by: Othman Jun 16 2007, 11:38 PM

The Stringent Isnad Criteria

Five strict conditions were set to rigorously assess the authenticity of a hadith. The early pioneer in this
field, as in so many other fields of Islamic learning, was the great Imam Shafi’i who spelt out a
methodology to verify authenticity. Before Shafi’i people were taking munqati and mawquf hadiths until he
came along and established the indispensability and supremacy of the muttasil (continuously linked)
narration over all other forms of transmission. They were rejecting certain traditions because they seemed
to contradict with other narrations. It was Shafi'i who devised a system of jam’ and tarjeeh to reconcile
and outweigh the narrations. The two jurisprudential approaches prevalent in his time was the Ahlul hadith
and Ahl ar-Ra’i who were either taking hadith which they should not take due to their weakness or
rejecting sound hadith in favor of qiyas. Shafi’i reconciled both approaches and set out a systematic
methodology which was referred to by all the Mazaahib from that time onwards. So no one should
underestimate the significance of following quote from ar-Risaalah which had such a profound influence
on how the Ummah referred to the Sunnah in subsequent generations. In the chapter on ‘Proof of the
Khabar al-Wahid’ Shafi'i states:

"Each reporter should be trustworthy in his religion; he should be known to be truthful in his narrating, to
understand what he narrates, to know how a different expression can alter the meaning, and report the
wording of the hadith verbatim, not only its meaning. This is because if he does not know how a different
expression can change the whole meaning, he will not know if he has changed what is lawful into what is
prohibited. Hence, if he reports the hadith according to its wording, no change of meaning is found at all.
Moreover, he should be a good memoriser if he happens to report from his memory, or a good preserver
of his book if he happens to report from it. He shouId agree with the narrations of the huffaz, if he reports
something which they also do. He should not be a mudallis, who narrates from someone he met
something he did not hear, nor should he report from the Prophet contrary to what reliable sources have
reported from him. The same qualification must be possessed by transmitters preceding him until the
transmitter relates back to the Prophet or to him who carries it back to closest to him, for each of them
vouches for the tradition as he received it and verifies it for him to whom he passes it. So none of them
should lack the qualifications I have just described."
In other words a sahih hadith is a report ‘whose chain is continuous by the trustworthy and meticulous
transmitters whose report contain no abnormality (shudhudh) or defects (‘illah).’ [5] Thus, the conditions in
this definition can be listed as the following:

1. Ittisal as-Sanad (continuity of the chain)

2. ‘Adalat al-Ruwaah (probity or trustworthiness of narrators)
3. Dabt al-Ruwaah (The precision and accuracy of narrators)
4. The absence of shudhudh and any ‘illah i.e. the absence of conflict with stronger narrations and hidden
defects (‘ilal).

Posted by: Othman Jun 18 2007, 01:31 PM

The Continuity of the chain of transmission (Ittisal as-Sanad)

Isnad is the backbone of any report. Imam ash-Shafi’I used to say: ‘The one who looks for a hadith
without Isnad is like the one who looks for firewood in the night.’ In other words he is groping in the dark
and does not know what he is picking up.

One of they key methods establishing continuity was the science of dates of birth and death of
transmitters. Sufyan ath-Thawri said: "when they (the fabricators) used lies we used dates." [6] By
identifying when a narrators was born and when died it is possible to ascertain of there was a likelihood
that he met the narrator from whom he claims he got the report.

Look at the following example given by al-Khatib in his al-Kifayah fee ‘Ilm al- Riwayah: "Once a man
named ‘Umar b. Musa came to Homs. The people gathered round him in the mosque and so he began to
speak: ‘We were informed by your pious Shaykh such and such hadith. When he kept mentioning him
‘Afeer b. Mi’daan asked him: Who is our pious Shaykh? Give us his name so we can identify him. Umar b.
Musa replied, "He is Khalid b. Mi’daan."

‘Afeer asked him, "Which year did you meet him?"

He said, "I met him in the year 108 AH."

So he asked, "Where did you meet him?"

He replied, "I met him in the battle of Armenia."

So 'Afeer said, "Fear Allah O Shaykh and do not lie. Khalid b. Mi’daan died in the year 104 AH but you
claim that you met him after his death by four years. Let me add he did not just fight in Armenia only but
also fought the Byzantines."

The weakest link in the chain is what makes or breaks the credibility of a report. So the Muhaddithin set
out the classification of broken chains depending on where they occur and discussion of their value. For
example a mu'allaq isnad is where one or more transmitters is missing at the beginning of the chain and
the mursal is when the Tabi’i omits the name of the Sahabi. A mu’dal chain is where two or more
transmitters are missing in one more places, whilst the munqati’ is any break excluding mu’allaq, mursal
and mu’dal. All of these chains are rejected [mardud] except the mursal about which there is some
difference of opinion. Some reject it, others like Abu Hanifah accept it because the omission of the Sahabi
who is trustworthy is inconsequential whilst others accept it with certain conditions like Imam ash-Shafi’i.
The usefulness of cataloging such chains is that it may be possible to fill the gap afterwards if other
chains come to light which establish the continuity.