The Hadith is the record of the Prophet Muhammad's precepts, actions, and life, which constitute his Sunna, or example. It is accepted as a chief source of Islamic belief and practice and is second in authority only to the Qur'an (Koran). The six canonical Sunnite collections of Hadith, which date from the 9th century, and the corresponding Shiite collections of the 10th and 11th centuries delineate the various relationships among individuals and between the individual and God. They include provisions of law, discussions of theological matters, such as methods of fasting and prayer, and codes of personal, social, and commercial conduct.
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The six correct or authentic collections of Traditions that are accepted
by Sunni Muslims, are the compilations by:
(again, Muhammad died in 632 AD)
One more name is often added to this list, that of Ahmed ibn Hanbal (early 800s AD), whose Musnad contains around 29,000 Traditions.
One of the important aspects of any such Tradition that was collected around 200 years after the death of Muhammad was the isnads associated with each Tradition. An isnad is a list of the transmitters of that information, essentially the equivalent of a modern paper trail, to show the actual validity by tracking the individuals from Muhammad to the end recipient of the Tradition. When a Tradition had an uncertain isnad, it was apparently removed from consideration as being part of the Hadith collection.
An extremely thorough researcher, Ignaz Goldziher, studied the Traditions from around 1870 to 1920, and those studies are still considered among the best research ever done. Goldziher, with absolutely impeccable research, including extremely solid documentation, showed that a vast number of hadith contained in the six collections were outright forgeries, which meant that the meticulous isnads supporting them were also forgeries and fictitious.
Since Goldziher's documentation is so compelling, Islamic historians began claiming that legal traditions and historical traditions were entirely distinct, in order to maintain their absolute trust in the validity of all hadith. Goldziher's results seem to imply that the majority of hadith are NOT valid, and so only a minor fraction of hadiths are.
It is rather well established that, during the reigh of the Umayyads (beginning in 661 AD), a group of men recognized that the Caliphs were not particularly interested in doctrine, which was allowing the people to drift away from proper beliefs. As a result, they felt it necessary to fabricate many Traditions "for the good of the community" and they claimed isnads that seemed to show that the Prophet Muhammad had initiated them. Since these people were in effect operating as opponents to the ruling Umayyads, the rulers soon started "finding" hadiths to support whatever purpose they had. As a result, two different groups of people were manufacturing fake Traditions during that time. Some of those Traditions later found their way into one or more of the authentic collections of Traditions.
Later, during the Abbasid Caliphs, this process multiplied. The Abbasids and the Alids created extremely large numbers of Traditions to try to get legitimacy for their own cause and to remove legitimacy from the other. This situation kept growing, until good storytellers came to be able to make a good living in creating entertaining Traditions, which the people immediately accepted as being true of the Prophet Muhammad. Goldziher shows that storytellers eventually expressed the desire to be paid in cash for hadiths rendered. The very best storytellers became rather prosperous, in making up Traditions that seemed believable!
This situation had gotten so bad that individuals like al-Bukhari began insisting on isnads for each hadith, with the intention of confirming the validity. The storytellers often became very good at presenting believable isnads along with their entertaining false stories.
After these six collections were accepted as authentic, their texts did not remain static. At one point, there were more than a dozen variations of the Bukhari text, and deliberate attempts to alter them also occurred, to benefit the credibility of the forces then in power.
An interesting observation of Goldziher and Schacht and other Islamicist scholars is that, commonly, isnads that were more elaborate and seemingly technically correct tended to be associated with spurious hadiths! One of the brilliant ways that the scholars have shown that specific hadiths did not exist at specific times is that they were not used to support legal doctrines, where their presence would most certainly have been used as central evidence.
More recent massive scholarly research, particularly by John Wansbrough, concludes that virtually none of the hadiths are actually directly associated with the Prophet Muhammad. Those researchers have various opinions of the consequences of that.
Unfortunately, we are not aware of any scholarly texts on this subject which have yet been translated into English. We know that a number of Arabic scholars have written wonderful texts in Arabic, and look for the day when we will be able to add higher quality texts to this presentation.
Some Books of these Hadiths collected by al-Bukhari are presented in their entirety, translated into English, in the following links.
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