The study of hadeeth is one of the most noble sciences in Islam. The precision of this science, and the scholars who perfected it, is amazing and is not found in any other science–secular or Islamic. The sciences of hadeeth may be the most disputed science in Islam, simply because people do not understand the succinct process and scrutinization for only one narration to be accepted as authentic (saheeh). The Sunnah is the second source of legislation after the Qur’an, and Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) promised to protect the Sunnah:
Translation: We have, without a doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption). [Suratul-Hijr, verse 9]
So those who deny the Sunnah (for reasons such as weakness and lack of authenticity) and claim to “follow the Qur’an” are further away from the Qur’an; and they do not truly follow it, because if they did follow the Qur’an, they would automatically turn to the Sunnah.
The term saheeh literally means “sound and healthy.” Its Islamic/legal definition means: a narration that is totally authentic, with no doubt in its authenticity, and is a certified statement of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم). For a hadeeth to be taken as saheeh, five conditions must be met:
- Connected Isnaad: (isnaad is the plural of sanad, which is the chain of narrators). In Arabic: اتصال السند, ittisaal us-sanad. There cannot be a break in the chain. The narrators must have heard the hadeeth from each other, and if there is a break in the chain, the hadeeth is not authentic. (An example of a break in the chain would be a tabi’i narrating directly from the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم). The successor/tabi’i couldn’t have met the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and had to have taken the narration from a companion, yet they did not mention the companion–so this would be a weak narration.)
- The narrators must be trustworthy and righteous.In Arabic: العدالة, al-’adaalah. The sub-conditions for ‘adaalah is that the narrator fears Allah, they are not known to commit major sins or consistent minor sins, and that they avoid all that people may consider shameful (faqawaar al-maroo’a). A modern day example of this would be that the Imam of the masjid would not come lead the prayer in shorts. Although shorts are technically fine to wear, some members of the prayer may consider it shameful and inappropriate for the Imam to lead the prayer in such clothing. So the narrators leave acts that can be seen as shameful by the people, even if they are not haraam or makrooh.
- Precision and accuracy of the narrators. In Arabic: ضبط الرواة dhabt ar-rawaah. There are two sub-conditions under dhabt:
- Precision and accuracy of the memory. In Arabic: ضبط الصدر, dhabt as-sadr.
- Precision of writing. In Arabic: ضبط الكتاب, dhabt al-kitaab. In terms of writing, some scholars of hadeeth had weak memories, so they would never narrate from their memories, but rather from their scribes or notes.
- No irregularities or inconsistencies. In Arabic: عدم الشذوذ, adamu as-shuthooth. Shuthooth is plural of shaath, and it literally means something irregular or not normal. An example of a shaath narration would be a hadeeth with a reliable narrator, but he contradicts a stronger narrator. So for a hadeeth to be authentic, it must be consistent.
- No hidden defects. In Arabic: عدم العلة, adamu al-’illah. An ‘illah, or a hidden defect is hard to detect and only the top scholars of hadeeth (like Imam Bukhari and Imam Ahmad) were able to detect them. Only through knowledge and experience will someone be able to detect an ‘illah in a hadeeth. Ibn al-Salah says, “A ma’lul (defective) hadith is one which appears to be sound, but thorough research reveals a disparaging factor.” An example of an ‘illah would be a narrator saying he narrated from his shaykh (his teacher) but he never heard from him, and rather took it from another student.
These are the five conditions for a hadeeth to be considered authentic, as stated by the scholars of this science. The only difference between a saheeh hadeeth and a hasan (good, one level lower than saheeh) is that the narrators have good memories and not excellent memories, they are still reliable, but their level of memory and precision is less than saheeh.
SubhanAllah, if someone takes the time to learn even the basics of this science, they will realize that those who claim the sunnah as unreliable have no idea what they’re talking about, and have never even studied this science! Allah has promised to preserve the sunnah, and with conditions such as these, the scholars of hadeeth have lived out this promise.
A great introductory resource if you would like to learn this science is a book by Shaykh Suhaib Hasan, known as “An Introduction to the Sciences of Hadeeth,” published by Dar-us-Salam–and take the AlMaghrib course known as Chain of Command: The Sciences of Hadeeth. Also, shaykh Yasir Qadhi has a set of introductory audio lectures on this science, which can be found here.
And Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) knows best.
Abdul-Bary Yahya. Lecture. AlMaghrib Institute. Chain of Command: Hadeeth Sciences. University of Maryland, Rockville. July 2007.