Hadith is the Arabic word for “story” or “news”; in ISLAM, reliable reports about the prophet MUHAMMAD. All Muslims profess, “There is no god but GOD, and MUHAMMAD is God’s messenger.” The second part of this statement means ﬁ rst of all that Muhammad received God’s revelation in the QUR’AN. It also means that, as God’s messenger, Muhammad exempliﬁ es the ideal response to God’s revelation. As a result, his life takes on religious signiﬁcance.
Hadith are for the most part records of what the prophet Muhammad said, did, and allowed. They are second in importance only to the Qur’an. Together with the Qur’an, Hadith are the traditional sources from which Muslims determine what is religiously true and proper. They deﬁ ne what Muslims call sunnah, “tradition.”
Many reports about Muhammad circulated in the decades after his death. Because the prophet’s example was valuable, some Muslims invented Hadith to support their views or practices. They may not have done so with the deliberate intention of deceiving others. They may have honestly felt that they were reporting what the prophet had said or done. In time, the number of Hadith proliferated. It became necessary to distinguish authentic from inauthentic reports.
To do this, ancient scholars examined the way in which a Hadith had been handed down. To be acceptable, a Hadith had to originate from a reputable person who was in a position to have reliable knowledge about what the Hadith claimed. It also had to have a known chain of transmission: For example, A learned from B, who learned from C, who learned from D, the companion of the prophet who was an eyewitness. Finally, the chain of transmission had to be able to withstand the strictest scrutiny. Scholars of Hadith studied each individual mentioned in the chain of transmission to determine whether that person was reliable. They also studied the process of transmission from one person to the next. For example, if A and B were both reliable witnesses, but A had never left Spain and B was never farther west than Egypt, the report was clearly false.
In the late ninth and early 10th centuries C.E., scholars of SUNNI ISLAM made six authoritative collections of Hadith. Their collections represent considerable effort: Scholars traveled widely to gather as many Hadith as possible. The collections also represent considerable sifting. For example, alBukhari, who made the most important collection, is said to have examined hundreds of thousands of Hadith from all over the Islamic world. His ﬁ nished collection contains a little over 7,000. SHI’ITE ISLAM has its own collections of Hadith. They were made 400 to 500 years after the prophet lived, and derive especially from the prophet’s cousin Ali and his supporters.
Each Hadith has two parts: the chain of transmission and the report itself. Many Hadith deal with Muhammad’s pronouncements on central Islamic practices. For example, a large number tell in detail how to observe the ﬁ ve pillars of Islam: profession of faith, formal daily prayer ( SALAT), almsgiving, FASTING during the month of RAMADAN, and PILGRIMAGE to MECCA. Others deal with matters that seem less important, for example, what kind of dates one can sell, how not to react when someone breaks wind, and the relative merits of sneezing and yawning (cf. Sahih Bukhari 3.34.400; 8.73.68; 8.73.245).
In the 20th century Muslims had varying attitudes to Hadith. Some Muslims with an interest in “modernizing” Islam questioned the authenticity of Hadith. In doing so, they also questioned their authority. Other Muslims defended the Hadith staunchly.