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What is the difference in narrations (ahadith) used for history, fiqh and credal matters?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English Language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Historical narrations are treated differently from narrations which we can depend on to deduce the creed or legal rulings. Classical scholars in dealing with each category introduce different methodologies depending on the nature of each categories.
For historical narrations, scholars used to gather all the related evidences on the table (avoiding clearly fabricated ones); understanding the nature and the context of such an event; gather and order all the present evidences and see where they agree, disagree or neutral and draw a general structure of what most probably happened; present a hypothesis makes sense of all the present evidences; write you hypothesis and gather all the evidence support it in a logical sequence leading to the conclusion you want.

Introduction

From an Islamic perspective, all the events took place in the past are fallen into different categories in terms of their nature. For example, from the life of the Prophet and his companions, we can deduce:

  • Creedal (Aqadi);
  • Legal rulings (Ahkam);
  • Virtue acts (Fada'il al-A'amal);
  • Historical Stories, and others.
There are some contemporary Muslim researchers (mostly Wahabis and modern Salafies) try to apply the same required conditions of legal ruling narrations on the historical narrations and even the linguistic meanings. But they ended up losing all the seerah events and found no enough stories to picture the seerahو nor a language to understand the rest because scholars of each field did not use the same methodologies and each field is relatively unique.

For example, Muhammad al-Ghushin authored a book called 'Ma Sha'a wa Lam Yathbut fi al-Seerah al-Nabaiyah' trying to exclude the known seerah events that their narrations don't match the conditions of accepted isnad (such unbroken chain of narrators) in legal matters.

On the contrary, classical scholars approach these categories differently and measure them with variant criterions depending on the nature of their transmission and don't subjugate them to the same method of authenticity.

Assumption

Scholars in dealing with creedal they must deduce their understanding from Qat'i (absolute certain, conclusive and definite) evidence in terms of historical reliability, so this belief must have been authored by the Prophet (saw); legal ruling could be deduced from Dhani (more probable and presumptive) evidences; virtue acts are deduced from all of the above as well as other (legally considered) weak narrations; historical stories are based on all of the available sources and narrations putting on the table (from all of the above, avoiding the clearly fabricated narrations or historical documents) trying to draw the picture of what most probably happened.

Evidences

This assumption is one of the key notions presented by most prominent classical scholars. I am going to include the statements of some of them.

For example, the second-century famous muhadith Sufyan al-Thawri said:

لَا تَأْخُذُوا هَذَا الْعِلْمَ فِي الْحَلَالِ وَالْحَرَامِ إِلَّا مِنَ الرُّؤَسَاءِ الْمَشْهُورِينَ بِالْعِلْمِ، الَّذِينَ يَعْرِفُونَ الزِّيَادَةَ وَالنُّقْصَانَ، وَلَا بَأْسَ بِمَا سِوَى ذَلِكَ مِنَ الْمَشَايِخ
"Don't take this knowledge of halal and haram except the head (scholars) known with (firmed knowledge in the field), whose who know what has been added or deleted. Other than (the halal and haram), there is no problem with taking them from the other sheikhs (less in knowledge)." (Khatib, al-Kifayah, p. 134)
The second-century jurist and muhadith Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi said:



إِذَا رُوِينَا عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيه وَسَلَّمَ فِي الْحَلالِ وَالْحَرامِ وَالْأَحْكَامِ: شَدَّدَنَا فِي الَأسَانِيدِ، وَاُنْتَقَدْنَا الرِّجَّالَ، وَإِذَا رُوِينَا فِي فَضَائِلِ الْأَعْمَالِ، وَالثَّوابِ وَالْعِقَابِ، وَالْمُبَاحَاتِ وَالدَّعَوَاتِ: تَسَاهَلْنَا فِي الَأسَانِيدِ

"If we were told (through narrations) from the Prophet (saw) about halal, haram and legal rulings, we used to intensify (the conditions) for accepting the isnad and criticizes (as possible) the narrators.
But if the narrations focus on the virtue acts, reward and punishment, permissible matters (have no contrary ruling in shari'ah) and supplications, we used to be lenient in accepting the isnads." (Mustadrak al-Hakim 1801)
When Ahmed ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali madhab, was asked about Ibn Ishaq (the famous historian of the life of the Prophet) said it is okay to write his narration and accept it regarding historical narrations and understanding, but when it comes to legal rulings, we need more specialized people. (Duri, Tarikh ibn Ma'ieen, Vol. 3, p. 60)

It was also narrated he said a very similar statement of al-Mahdi above:

إِذَا رَوَيْنَا عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَّ فِي الْحَلَالِ وَالْحَرَامِ وَالسُّنَنِ وَالْأَحْكَامِ تَشَدَّدْنَا فِي الْأَسَانِيدِ وَإِذَا رَوَيْنَا عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَّ فِي فَضَائِلِ الْأَعْمَالِ وَمَا لَا يَضَعُ حُكْمًا وَلَا يَرْفَعُهُ تَسَاهَلْنَا فِي الْأَسَانِيدِ
"If we were told (through narrations) from the Messenger (saw) about halal, haram, sunan and legal rulings, we used to intensify (the conditions) for accepting the isnad. But if the narrations focus on the virtue acts, and what does not prescribe a legal ruling or prohibits it, we used to be lenient in accepting the isnads." (Khatib, al-Kifayah, p. 134)
The fourth-century hadith scholar Khatib al-Baghdadi authored a book in the fields of narrations and made a chapter for the difference in acceptance between narrations from which we will deduce legal rulings and the other categories:

بَابُ التَّشَدُّدِ فِي أَحَادِيثِ الْأَحْكَامِ، وَالتَّجَوُّزِ فِي فَضَائِلِ الْأَعْمَالِ: قَدْ وَرَدَ عَنْ غَيْرِ وَاحِدٍ مِنَ السَّلَفِ أَنَّهُ لَا يَجُوزُ حَمْلُ الْأَحَادِيثِ الْمُتَعَلِّقَةِ بِالتَّحْلِيلِ وَالتَّحْرِيمِ إِلَّا عَمَّنْ كَانَ بَرِيئًا مِنَ التُّهْمَةِ، بَعِيدًا مِنَ الظِّنَّةِ، وَأَمَّا أَحَادِيثُ التَّرْغِيبِ وَالْمَوَاعِظِ وَنَحْوُ ذَلِكَ فَإِنَّهُ يَجُوزُ كَتْبُهَا عَنْ سَائِرِ الْمَشَايِخِ
"Chapter of intensification in accepting hadiths of legal rulings and indulgence regarding virtue acts: more than one of the classical scholars argued it is not permissible to narrated the hadiths has to do with halal and haram except from the one who is (absolutely) inculpable, contrary to the culpable.
But the hadiths have to do with urging and exhortation (of people to do good deeds) and its likes, it is permissible to narrate it on the authority of the other sheikhs." (Khatib, al-Kifayah, p. 133)
Similar affirmation was argued by other leading scholars in the field such as Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, Ibn Uyaynah, Ibn Ma'ieen, ibn Addi, ibn Abd al-Bar and others. (Abdullah al-Maghrabi, Rad I'tibar, pp. 33-34)

So, the isnad is not that important in dealing with the historical narrations (even if it takes the superiority but not necessary the reliability), but we have to be sure:

  • We don't have a very weak or fabricated narration;
  • Only deduce it historical narrative not legal rulings or beliefs;
  • Ensuring the audiences know you are talking about what more likely took place and it is not for certain the Prophet (saw) said or did this; (Maghrabi, p. 34)
  • In addition, we need to do our best to reach such conclusions.

How to Deal with Historical Narrations (Seerah as an Example)

Historians try to fill the gaps in the stories by all the available means in order to draw a plausible picture of what exactly could have happened. Theoretical historians present a number of stages to accomplish such a task. I am going to present the steps and give an example of research I had done a while ago 'how did the Prophet (saw) call people to Islam in Mecca?
'.

1.    Al-Taqmeesh (collecting): the first step was first named by Abu Hatim al-Razi which is to gather literally all the relating evidence (strong and weak) for the target of your research without excluding any type of evidence. Don't leave any stone unturned. (Ibn al-Salah, al-Muqadimah, p. 211)

So, I want to know how each companion converted
and how he knew Islam and his relationship with the Prophet (saw).

2.    Seek the other fields that could help your understanding of the nature and the context of such events, such as learning their language, the socio-political environment, and every aspect helps in elaborating the hypothesized story.

So, as an Arab, I then check the social, tribal, and political environment of Mecca
and Arabia
to see which climate such events took place.

3.    Checking the sources you have got and see whether there is something historically unreliable that you have its reliable alternative or not, whether there is any reason we could doubt the reliability of any narration; then organize the rest of sources into categories and sub-categories reaching the general structure of a reasonable story in your mind.

Try to see what all the narrations agree on, where they are neutral (adding details absent from other narrations) and where they disagree. Then try to evaluate their disagreement and who is more plausible and historically reliable and putting the overall mental picture.

So, I ordered the events and tried to check the reliability of each source and put all the puzzles together having in my mind a general platform for the Prophet's (saw) method in approaching these early converts which is he did not proactively approach them directly as all of them approached the Prophet
(saw) after knowing of his dawa, not vice versa.

What worthy of reflection, the reaction of one of the prominent eighth-century classical scholars of hadith and fiqh ibn Hajar who heard of some scholars reject a historical event as it contains Gharib narrations (parts of da'eef regarding legal narrations). He condemned this attitude and presented a similar approach presented above:

فِي طُرُقٍ هَذِهٍ الْقِصَّةِ الْقَوِيُّ وَالضَّعِيفُ، وَلَا سَبِيلَ إِلَى رَدِّ الْجَمِيعِ، فَإِنَّه يُنَادِي عَلَى مَنْ أَطْلَقَهُ بِقِلَّةِ الْاِطِّلاعِ، وَالْإقْدَامُ عَلَى رَدِّ مَالَا يُعْلَمُهُ لَكِنَّ الْأوْلَى أَنْ يُنْظَرَ إِلَى مَا اخْتَلَفَت فِيهِ بالزِّيَادَةِ وَالنَّقْصِ، فَيُؤَخَّذُ بِمَا اُجْتَمَعَت عَلَيهِ، وَيُؤَخَّذُ مِنَ الْمُخْتَلِفِ مَا قَوِيَّ، وَيُطْرَحُ مَا ضَعُفَ وَمَا اِضْطَرَبَ

"The chains of narrators of these stories contain the strong (sound) and the weak and the is no way to reject them all. If you one does this, it will clearly show his lack of knowledge and his approach of rejecting something he has no idea of it.
But it is better to look at what (the narrations) disagree on in terms of adding of deleting. So, he takes what they agree on and evaluates the differences (to reach the) strongest, and leaves what appears to be weak or confused." (Zabiri, Mawsu'at al-Hafidh ibn Hajar, Vol. 4, p. 285, Quoted from MS of ibn Hajar, al-Ujab, Vol. 1, p. 343)
4.    Present a hypothesis of why this event happened in the way you suggested and what makes your understanding more likely plausible. Try to understand and make sense of all the data you have and see the thread in each.

So, I deduced I Prophet's target was not the individualistic approach seeking personal changes
, rather the total collective reform of the society in all of it aspects (social, political, religious, etc.).

5.    Gather all the evidences you backing up your hypothesis in a reasonable way and start writing your article, paper or book presenting the premises leading to your conclusion.

So, I presented the evidences of the nature of the socio-political environment of Mecca, the early companions' stories of conversion, the Prophet's dawa activities
and Qur'anic evidences including references to the dawa of the Prophet (saw)
or the previous prophets (as).


In doing all these steps, you have to be so neutral and objective (as possible) as well as being a flexible researcher who is ready to change his theory or conceptual position when evidences appear.

This methodology was deduced from two of the main theoretical books of Arabic history: Ibn Khaldoon, al-Mughadimah; Asad Rostom, Mustalah al-Tarikh.

Conclusion

Historical narrations are treated differently from narrations which we can depend on to deduce the creed or legal rulings depending on the nature of each category.

For historical narrations, scholars used gather all the related evidences on the table (avoiding clearly fabricated ones); understanding the nature and the context of such an event; gather and order all the present evidences and see where they agree, disagree or neutral and draw a general structure of what most probably happened; present a hypothesis makes sense of all the present evidences; write you hypothesis and gather all the evidence support it in a logical sequence leading to the conclusion you want.

References

Abdullah al-Maghrabi, Rad I'tibar

Asad Rostom, Mustalah al-Tarikh

Duri, Tarikh ibn Ma'ieen

Ibn al-Salah, al-Muqadimah

Ibn Hajar, al-Ujab

Ibn Khaldoon, al-Mughadimah

Khatib, al-Kifayah Fi ma'rifat al-Riwayah

Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahiheen

Muhammad al-Ghushin, Ma Sha'a wa Lam Yathbut fi al-Seerah al-Nabaiyah

Zabiri, Mawsu'at al-Hafidh ibn Hajar

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