In the Islamic tradition of ḥadīth sciences (a.k.a. ‘Ilm al-Ḥadīth), a typical ḥadīth consists of the maṭn (the content of the ḥadīth) and the sanad (chain of transmitters). Ḥadīth transmitters in the early Islamic period would write down a ḥadīth and attach to the beginning their "source" which consisted of writing down who told the transmitter the ḥadīth.

Essentially, you would get before every ḥadīth a list of names under whose authority the ḥadīth was narrated from in reverse chronological order from the event the ḥadīth talks about.

Example: A narrated from B, from C, from D (who witnessed the event): that the Prophet (ṣ) said "...".

In the practice of ḥadīth sciences, aḥadīth (pl. of ḥadīth) are often scrutinized by ḥadīth scholars through a method called ‘Ilm al-Rijāl (or biographical evaluation) in which every person in the chain of transmission is examined and evaluated on their trustworthiness and reliability. If everyone in the chain is considered trustworthy and reliable, the ḥadīth is considered authentic (ṣaḥīḥ or ḥasan), and if even one narrator in the chain is considered unreliable or untrustworthy, the ḥadīth is considered weak (ḍa‘īf).

Typically, there would be other methods of authenticating, but this is considered the main and most reliable method.

What do modern historians think of this method? What are some criticisms that are brought up by modern historians regarding this method? How does it compare to the modern method of citation and referencing?

My preliminary research on this topic has mainly been around reading the Wikipedia entry about criticism of ḥadīth, mainly the section "Arguments and explanations for existence of false hadith" and "Western scholarship". From there, I read that Western scholars fall into three camps regarding the general authenticity of ḥadīth; the first being mostly fabricated about 100 years after the the death of the Prophet, the second being in opposition to that idea, and the third being a middle approach.

Most of the entry however just summarizes the opinion of Western scholars' opinions on the authenticity of ḥadīth. The opinions of scholars regarding the method of transmission and the practice of ‘Ilm al-Rijāl was almost absent. The closest specific criticism came from this paragraph:

Another criticism of isnads was of the efficacy of the traditional Hadith studies field known as biographical evaluations (ʿilm al-rijāl)—evaluating the moral and mental capacity of transmitters/narrators. John Wansbrough argues that the isnads are should not be accepted, because of their "internal contradiction, anonymity, and arbitrary nature":[194] specifically the lack of any information about many of the transmitters of the hadith other than found in these biographical evaluations, thus putting into question whether they are "pseudohistorical projections", i.e. names made up by later transmitters.[195][196][194]

Also, specific criticisms regarding the method of aḥadīth were narrated from person to person were either lacking, or I just simply didn't understand it. The main brunt of criticisms were that isnād (pl. of sanad) could be faked, but the specific idea behind Person A narrating to Person B, I'm not sure if that had criticisms.

  • 3
    I think much of the question can be answered by en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Schacht, especially the "Legacy" section?
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 9:36
  • 1
    @MCW I have done pretty basic online web searching on ḥadīth criticism like just reading up on Wikipedia. However, most if not all of the reading I have done only criticizes the general authenticity of the ḥadīth tradition and I couldn't really find details. I found no specific criticism (from modern historians) about how aḥadīth were transmitted or about how Islamic scholars authenticated them (i.e. criticisms on ‘Ilm al-Rijāl). I can edit my post later to just add in links to webpages I've read on the topic. Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 18:02


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.