For the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah on him, and later generations of Muslims, the words and actions of the last and final Messenger of Allah to mankind served as an ideal, and hence a precedent (sunnah); every word he uttered was a law to them, while his moral choices, so different from those of their age, yet so immediate in their impartial wisdom, provided them with a system of personal and social virtue which they tried to follow faithfully. Given this intense devotion to the Prophet, inspired by his charisma and integrity, the Companions made a point of observing his life and recording for posterity everything they could.
The Prophet Muhammad himself attached the utmost importance to knowledge of his hadith (prophetic statements) and encouraged his followers to be attentive. Often he would repeat his words to ensure they had been correctly retained. The Companion, Anas ibn Malik, declared:
"Whenever the Prophet spoke a sentence, he used to repeat it thrice so that the people could understand it properly from him."
He also asked his Companions to make his hadith widely known, instructing them:
"It is incumbent upon those who are present to inform those who are absent ... "
and he would also say:
"May God make joyful a person who heard my saying and preserved it, then transmitted it from me ... "
In this regard, the various letter that the Prophet dictated and had delivered to the leaders of neighbouring countries are no different from his hadith. They represent a true record of his words, advice and instructions. One could also mention the famous Constitution of Madinah, drawn up soon after the Muslim migration from Makkah to Madinah. It too contains the instructions of the Prophet. In describing the Constitution, R. S. Humphreys writes, " ... a document of almost unchallenged authenticity ... The Constitution of Medina ... As we shall see, this text is a very remarkable one both in content and language. Even more remarkable, no doubt, is that both Western and Muslim scholars agree unanimously that the piece is authentic ... " [Humphreys, Islamic History - Revised Edition, Princeton Univ Press, 1995, pp.91-95]
The Companions did not simply commit hadith to memory. They also collected them in books known as sahifas, which were later preserved by their families and the following generation of Muslims - the Successors. The Companion Abu Hurayrah himself describes that a book was kept by 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr al-As [Al-Bukhari 1/113] and about which Nabia Abbott concluded, "The sources are unanimously emphatic that 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr al-As from the start recorded hadith and sunnah." [Abbott, Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, vol.II, p.37] M. M. Azami details fifty Companions who at one time or another preserved hadith in writing. [Azami, Studies in Early Hadith Literature, pp.34-60]
The writings compiled by the Companions and preserved by their families led to numerous family chains of transmission. Nabia Abbott writes, "Family isnads of several generations of literate traditionists imply continuous written transmission - an implication that is reinforced by the large number of traditions accredited to the members of such families and by the appearance of clusters of such traditions in the standard collections." [Abbott, Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, vol.II, p.37] She also concludes that, "The development of the family isnad and continuous written transmission lead to the third inescapable conclusion, namely that the bulk of the hadith and sunnah as they had developed by about the end of the first century was already written down by someone somewhere ... " [ibid, p.39]
The death of the Prophet signalled the end of Revelation. With this the importance of hadith inevitably increased. The Companions settled themselves in the various towns and provinces of the Islamic empire where they were surrounded by large numbers of Muslims who had not met the Prophet and were eager to hear reports from those who had associated with him. James Robson writes, "It may safely be assumed that from the very beginning Muslims were interested in what the Prophet said and did, and that after his death, when Islam spread widely, new converts would be anxious to hear about him. Those who associated with him would be listened to eagerly as they told about him. While this was largely conveyed by word of mouth, there is reason to believe that some men made small collections for their own use. These can hardly be called books, but nevertheless the material they contained was incorporated in later works." [Robson, Mishkat al-Masabih, Vol.1, p.iii, Lahore, 1991]
The Companions themselves were no less anxious in seeking out and acquiring those hadith which they might have missed during the Messenger's lifetime. 'Abdullah ibn 'Abbas (himself a Companion) relates:
"When the Messenger of Allah died, I said to one Ansari, 'Let us ask the Companions of the Prophet as there are still a lot of them.' He replied, 'Quite curious, don't you think, O Ibn 'Abbas, that people will be in need of you while a great number of the Companions of the Prophet are still surviving?' So I left him and started asking the Companions. Sometimes when a hadith was reported to me by anyone of them, I used to approach their houses and found them taking rest at noon. So I would rest my head on my cloak at their door while the wind blew dust on my face till the man came out and said: 'O cousin of the Prophet, what brought you here? Why did you not call for me so that I could come to you myself?' I would say: 'No, you deserve to be visited by me.' Then I asked him concerning hadith."
Abu Ayyub al-Ansari travelled to Uqba ibn Amir to enquire about a single hadith that no one that remained alive had heard direct from the Prophet other than them. He said to the Governor of Egypt, "A hadith which I heard from the Prophet and now from those left alive no one except for me and Uqba heard it from the Prophet direct. So please provide me with anyone who can guide me to his house." The Governor sent for someone who directed him to Uqba's house who, on hearing the news of Abu Ayyub's arrival, came out hurriedly, saying, "What brings you here, O Abu Ayyub?" He replied, "A hadith about protecting a believer that I heard from the Prophet and no one else except me and you are left who heard it from him." Uqba said, "Yes, I heard the Prophet saying, 'Whoever protects a believer from being disgraced, Allah will protect him on the Day of Resurrection.' " Abu Ayyub said, "You have told the truth." [Al-Hakim, Marifat, pp.7-8]
The earlier dispersion of the Companions throughout the Muslim lands and their imparting the narrations known to them over such a wide area soon resulted in an extensive proliferation of the hadith. Abbott says, " ... using geometric progression, we find that one to two thousand Companions and senior Successors transmitting two to five traditions each would bring us well within the range of the total number of traditions credited to the exhaustive collections of the third century. Once it is realised that the isnad did, indeed, initiate a chain reaction that resulted in an explosive increase in the number of traditions, the huge numbers that are credited to Ibn Hanbal, Muslim and Bukhari seem not so fantastic after all." [Nabia Abbott, Studies, Vol.II, p.72] She also finds that, " ... the traditions of Muhammad as transmitted by his Companions and their Successors were, as a rule, scrupulously scrutinised at each step of the transmission, and that the so called phenomenal growth of Tradition in the second and third centuries of Islam was not primarily growth of content, so far as the hadith of Muhammad and the hadith of the Companions are concerned, but represents largely the progressive increase in parallel and multiple chains of transmission." [Abbott, Studies, Vol.II, p.2]
In the period of the Successors, extensive journeys to gather the Prophetic narrations was commonplace. The Caliph 'Umar ibn 'Abdul-'Aziz (d. 101H) took steps to bring about their collection. He wrote to the great Traditionist of Madinah, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn Hazm (d. 120H) asking him to write down the hadith for him [Al-Bukhari, Vol.1, p.79]. He also asked Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri (d. 124H) to collect ahadith in writing so as to have these circulated throughout his dominions. According to Abu Nu'aym's History of Isfahan, 'Umar also wrote a circular letter asking the hadith scholars living in the various parts of his country to collect in the form of books as many hadith as were available. At the same time individual scholars were themselves travelling to gather hadith for their own collections.
Makhul (d. 112H) travelled through Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Hijaz, gathering the hadith that he could obtain from the Companions who lived there. He used to boast that for the sake of knowledge he had "travelled around the world" [Dhahabi, Tadhkira, 1/71]. When asked how he had gathered the knowledge of such a voluminous quantity of ahadith, Ash-Sha'bi (d. 104H) replied, "By hard work, long travels, and great patience" [Ibn Abdul-Barr, Jami, 1/95]. Masruq (d. 63H) travelled so widely for the sake of learning that he was known as the father of travelling.
One author wrote, "The migration of the Companions, the scholars' open sessions in Makkah and Madinah, especially during the annual pilgrimage season, and the journeys in search of knowledge speeded the transmission of Tradition. Evidence of continuous written transmission of Tradition from the second quarter of the first century onward is available in early and late Islamic sources." [The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, p.297]
Azami (pp. 60-106) names over a hundred Successors who wrote hadith. The Successors, with the disappearance of eyewitnesses, realised the need to preserve and ensure the authenticity of the statements attributed to the Prophet. An isnad (chain of transmission) was therefore indispensable to them, though signs of its use had appeared during the time of the Companions themselves. Abbott writes, "There was no call for emphasis on source until the first Civil War, which occurred in the fourth decade, and until the Successors were brought into the chain of transmission." [Abbott, Studies, Vol.II, p.1]
We therefore have the famous statement of Ibn Sirin (d. 110H):
"They did not ask about the isnad until the fitnah (Civil War) arose, then they said, 'Name to us your men.' Those who belonged to the people of the sunnah, their traditions were accepted, and those who were innovators, their traditions were rejected."
This statement implies the use of isnad even before the Civil War, though it was not routinely considered. After the Civil War, however, asking about the isnad became a consistent policy. James Robson writes, "There is therefore reason to believe that Ibn Sirin is to be credited with the words attributed to him. If that is granted, it would support Horovitz's theory that the isnad entered the literature of tradition in the last third of the first century, as its use so early would be bound to be represented soon in writing." [Robson, Isnad in Muslim Tradition, pp.21-22]
Montgomery Watt writes, "The chains of transmitters were therefore carefully scrutinised to make sure that the persons named could in fact have met one another, that they could be trusted to repeat the story accurately, and that they did not hold any heretical views. This implied extensive biographical studies; and many biographical dictionaries have been preserved giving the basic information about a man's teachers and pupils, the views of later scholars (on his reliability as a transmitter) and the date of his death. This biography-based critique of Traditions helped considerably to form a more or less common mind among many men throughout the caliphate about what was to be accepted and what rejected." [Watt, What is Islam?, Longman Group Ltd, 1979, pp. 124-125]
An occasional use of isnad can be found in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature. In the Mahabharata, we read, 'Vysda composed it, Ganesa served as a scribe, and the work was handed down by Vaisampayana, who communicated it to the king Janamejaya; Sautim who was present at the time, heard it and narrated it to the assembly of sages.' [Mahabharata, Book 1, canto 1] The Puranas also contain some short isnads of this type. The Sutras (exegetical works of Vedic literature) contain brief chains mentioning some of the transmitters through whom they were handed down. It appears that isnad was used casually in some literature in the pre-Islamic Arabia in a vague manner. The system was also used to some extent in transmitting pre-Islamic poetry. [Asad, Masadir Shi'r al-Jahili, 2nd Edition. Cairo:1962, pp.255-267]
Western non-Muslim scholars differ as to the exact date for the commencement of the use of an isnad in transmitting Prophetic hadith. Horovitz concluded that the first appearance of isnads was not later than the last third of the first Muslim century. After adducing a series of facts to demonstrate this, he says, "Isnad in its primitive form was then - somewhere about the year 75H - already established, and one has no right, merely because it appears only incidentally in the letters, to deny to Urwa (d. 92H) without further consideration, those hadith supplied with statements of authorities for which he stands as sponsor ... isnad was, indeed, already customary in his (Urwa's) time, but it was not yet an absolute necessity." [Horovitz, The Earliest Biographies of the Prophet and their Authors, 1927, pp.550-51]
R. S. Humphreys writes, "A number of very capable modern scholars have defended the general authenticity of isnads. An important early contribution was Josef Horovitz, 'Alter Und Ursprung des Isnad', Islam, viii (1918), 39-47, 299; xi (1921), 264-65, who connected the earliest use of isnads to the turmoil of the second civil war of the 60s/680s when it became an urgent matter to be able to identify the provenance of doctrinally loaded statements concerning Muhammad and the Companions." [Humphreys, Islamic History, p.82]
Goldziher, an Orientalist who studied under the Ottamanist scholar and revert to Islam, Arminius Vambery, wrote, "Many a Companion of the Prophet is likely to have carried his sahifa with him and used it to dispense instruction and edification to his circle. The contents of these Sahifas were called matn al-hadith (lit. text of the hadith); those who disseminated these texts named in succession their immediate authorities, and thus the isnad came into being." [Goldziher, Muslim Studies, II. London, 1967, p.22]
During this period, written and oral transmission went hand in hand. In ancient times, when writing was not used at all or scarcely used, memory and oral transmission was exercised and strengthened to a degree now almost unknown. Whether sacred or secular, the works that have given rise to a textual tradition seem invariably to have existed in some sort of oral form prior to being set down. This oral form of the work was, to a certain extent, preserved by memory and passed on by word of mouth. Such a process has long been accepted by scholars who spoke of a period of 'oral transmission' or 'oral tradition'; scholars could call in to their help the 'fantastic memories' so 'well attested' of illiterate people. They felt that a text could remain from one generation to another unaltered. The very educational systems that brought about relatively high rates of literacy amongst segments of some pre-modern societies and fostered a proliferation of the written word - Arab, Islamic civilisation for instance, the Greco-Roman world, and India - all relied heavily upon memorisation and recitation as a chief means of ensuring the acquisition and retention of knowledge. The poetry of the Arabs, in the ages which preceded the rise of Islam, was perpetuated by oral tradition, being a remarkably reliable method for the retention of information. The use of isnads for the transmission of hadith does not, however, imply that no books were present for the purpose of consultation and verification. There is a misconception that isnads imply solely oral transmission, whereas in many instances a chain of transmission actually comprised a series of books which were referred to by the author's name rather than the title of the book itself. In some instances a documents were referred to directly in the isnad. Consider the following four examples:
- In the Musnad of Ahmad (1/418) there is the isnad, "Yahya ibn Adam informed us that 'Abdullah ibn Idris dictated to him from his book." Here a book is employed yet the words "informed us" are used for this purpose.
- Abu Dawud transmits a portion of the booklet of Samurah in various chapters of his Sunan collection without mentioning the document, referring instead to the author and employing the term "he narrated/informed to us."
- In the Sunan of An-Nasa'i (1/45) the isnad, "Muhammad ibn Al-Muthni narrated to us, saying, Ibn Abi Adi narrated to us from his book and then from his memory."
- The Muwatta of Malik is a well known work. Yet authors from later generations, utilising the material of the Muwatta, referred only to Malik without mentioning the book.
Abbott writes, "Analysis of the content and the chains of transmission of the traditions of the documents and of their available parallels in the standard collections, supplemented by the results of an extensive study of the sources on the sciences of Tradition - ulum al-hadith - lead me to conclude that oral and written transmission went hand in hand almost from the start ... " [Abbott, Studies, Vol. II, p.1]
The meticulous care with which the hadith of the Prophet were treated helped to preserve for posterity the statements of God's final Messenger. Abbott concludes, "Deliberate tampering with either the content or the isnads of the Prophet's Traditions, as distinct from the sayings of and deeds of the Companions and Successors, may have passed undetected by ordinary transmitters, but not by the aggregate of the ever watchful, basically honest, and aggressively outspoken master traditionists and hadith critics." [Abbott, Studies, Vol.II, p.132]
Bernard Lewis writes, "But their careful scrutiny of the chains of transmission and their meticulous collection and preservation of variants in the transmitted narratives give to medieval Arabic historiography a professionalism and sophistication without precedent in antiquity and without parallel in the contemporary medieval West. By comparison, the historiography of Latin Christendom seems poor and meagre, and even the more advanced and complex historiography of Greek Christendom still falls short of the historical literature of Islam in volume, variety and analytical depth." [Lewis, Islam in History, Open Court Publishing, 1993, p.105]
Professor D. S. Margoliouth says, " ... its value in making for accuracy cannot be questioned, and the Muslims are justified in taking pride in their science of tradition." [Lectures on Arabic Historians, Calcutta University, 1920, p.20]