A hadith (pl. aḥādīth) is a report of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. These reports include commands or legal edicts given by the Prophet, descriptions of his behavior, actions that took place in his presence and of which he implicitly approved, and his predictions of future events. Hadiths have served as the main sources for Muslim scholars studying the teachings and precedent (sunna) of the Prophet. As such, hadiths have been central to understanding the message of the Qur’an and providing Muslims with supplemental material on the legal, dogmatic, ethical, and political issues dealt with in Islamic thought but not found explicitly in the Qur’an.
Each hadith consists of two components: the matn and the isnād. The matn is the text of the report (e.g., the Prophet said, “Deeds are judged by their intentions”), and the isnād is the chain of transmitters who narrated the report from the Prophet to the scholar who wrote the hadith in a book or transmitted it to others (e.g., “Malik reported from Nafi’, who reported from Ibn ‘Umar, that the Prophet said …”).
During the lifetime of the Prophet, his followers (known as Companions) preserved his teachings either by recounting orally what they had heard him say or by recording their observations in primitive notebooks composed of papyrus, parchment, or even more basic materials. An early private collection like this was known as a ṣaḥīfa.
There was a great deal of debate during the Prophet’s life and after his death over whether it was appropriate to preserve his words in writing, with some Muslims insisting that he had forbidden the recording of any words except the Qur’an and others stating that he had permitted his followers to record his teachings and even ordered the compilation of his rulings on taxation issues. This debate reflects a tension in the Islamic intellectual tradition, which values highly the oral transmission of knowledge, encourages the reading aloud of a written text, and is suspicious of reading books privately without having their contents explained by one’s teacher. This focus on orality was due partly to the primitive nature of the Arabic alphabet and the real possibility for misreading a written text, as well as to the importance of oral recitation in Islamic religious culture.
Under the Umayyad dynasty, leading Muslim scholars like Ibn Shihab al- Zuhri (d. 742) compiled collections of hadiths on specific topics, with the state encouraging the collection of ṣaḥīfas into more comprehensive forms on issues such as taxation and administrative law. Soon, senior scholars like Malik b. Anas (d. 795) in Medina collected hadiths from the Prophet, the rulings of Companions, and the opinions of other early scholars into topically organized books of law known as muṣannafs, the most famous of which is Malik’s The Well- Trodden Path (al- Muwatta’).
Within a few decades of the compilation of muṣannafs, Sunni scholars limiting their collections to hadiths from the Prophet instead of a variety of reports from later scholars organized their material according to isnāds— that is, they ordered them according to the Companion who narrated the hadith from the Prophet. Such works were called musnads, the most famous of which is the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal (d. 855). The organization of such works allowed hadith scholars to engage in criticism of the authenticity of hadiths more easily. By this time, inexpensive paper had replaced rare papyrus in the Middle East, and scholars could afford to record many different transmissions of the same hadith in a musnad.
Musnads were limited to hadiths from the Prophet, but they were difficult to use as reference works. Soon scholars began producing books known as sunan, which were organized like muṣannafs but included only reports from the Prophet. Five sunan works in particular became widely read: those of Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim (d. 875), Abu Dawud (d. 889), Nasa’i (d. 915), and Tirmidhi (d. 892). By the mid- 11th century, these hadith collections had become the heart of the Sunni hadith corpus. Although the last three included some hadiths that Muslims considered unreliable, these five books were taken as an acceptable representation of the body of hadiths commonly used by Sunnis. Some scholars included the Sunan of Ibn Majah (d. 887) as well, and together this canon became known as the “Six Books.” Bukhari’s and Muslim’s works were specifically limited to hadiths that the two authors felt were the authentic sayings of Muhammad and are thus called the “Two Authentic Collections” (al- Sahihayn). They are the most revered books in Sunni Islam after the Qur’an.
The religious and political authority of the Prophet was peerless in the community he founded. This meant that even within Muhammad’s lifetime, people abused his authority by misquoting or misrepresenting his words for their own purposes. The widespread forgery of hadiths emerged in the decades after the Prophet’s death