Do the words of hadiths belong to the Prophet too?

The Details of the Question

​Are the hadiths that we believe to belong the Messenger of Allah definitely the exact words of the Prophet? Do all words and sentences in hadiths belong to him? Or, do hadiths belong to the Prophet in terms of meaning, not in terms of words?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

What is essential related to hadiths is their narration with the exact words that came out of the blessed mouth of the Prophet.

As a matter of fact, the phrase “in the same way as he hears” in the hadith “May Allah brighten a person who hears my word, understands it well and passes it on to others in the same way as he hears” (Musnad, 1/437; Abu Dawud, Ilm, 10) and the warning by the Prophet when Bara recited the word “rasulika (Your messenger)” instead of “nabiyyika (Your prophet)” in the supplication that the Prophet taught by saying, “No, say ‘nabiyyika’!” (Bukhari, Wudu, 75; Muslim, Dhikr, 56) show that it is essential to preserve and report hadiths as they were uttered.

However, there are some scholars who say that it is valid to report hadiths in terms of meaning if certain conditions are met.

After that short information, we will move onto the details:

Riwayah means to report a hadith by attributing it to its source.

When the Prophet (pbuh) was alive, riwayah generally took place in the form of the Companions’ reporting what they heard from the Prophet to others, learning from others what they did not hear from him and reporting them.

The activity of riwayah, which started in the form of hadith and ilm (knowledge/science) studies in Masjid an-Nabawi after the Migration, started to become systemized when the Messenger of Allah started to send inviters and teachers of Islam to tribal chieftains in the Arabian Peninsula and the rulers outside the peninsula after the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. Similarly, it was important in terms of the activities of riwayah that the Companions, especially Ahl as-Suffah, reported to the people and delegations that came to Madinah what they learnt from the Messenger of Allah and that they taught them to their people when they returned to their homeland.

After the death of the Prophet, the Companions took it as a principle to report as few hadiths as possible so as not to make mistakes, to demand witnesses to accept riwayahs, to make the person reporting a hadith to vow if necessary and to give importance to riwayah with exact words of the Prophet.

On the one hand, hadiths were reported to the generation of Tabiun, who came after the Companions; on the other hand, some Companions and members of Tabiun started to write the hadiths; thus, pages in which riwayahs were compiled formed.  

The written riwayahs that the Companions had and the hadiths that were reported orally were transferred to the scholars of Tabiun; Activities of compilation of hadiths were started by Zuhri upon the directive of the Caliph Umar b. Abdulaziz at the end of the first century of the Migration (the beginning of the eight century).

Following the way of Zuhri, many scholars of the second century of the Migration (the eight century) started to collect and classify hadiths along with reporting them.

Ibn Jurayj in Makkah, Ibn Ishaq and Malik b. Anas, in Basra Said b. Abu Aruba, Rabi‘ b. Subayh and Hammad b. Salama in Madinah; Sufyan ath-Thawri, in Damascus Awzai, in Wasit’ta Hushaym b. Bashir and Shu‘ba b. Hajjaj in Kufa, Abdullah b. Mubarak in Khorasan, Ma‘mar b. Rashid, in Ray Jarir b. Abdulhamid in Yemen and Ibn Wahb in Egypt are pioneers of the activities of compilation of hadiths.

At first, the riwayahs (narrations) were compiled in the form of pages and booklets without based on any methods; afterwards, they started to be classified, and two types of classification emerged: one based on topics, the other based on rawis (narrators). The first hadith books classified based on topics are Mamar b. Rashid’s al-Jamiʿ, Malik’s al-Muwatta and similar ones. They were followed by the works like Kutub as-Sittah, which were classified in the form of books and chapters.  

A riwayah needs to meet some conditions in terms of the chain of narrators and the text in order to be regarded as acceptable and reliable. Those conditions can be summarized as follows: The chain of narrators must be uninterrupted; the narrators must be just and have a good memory; the riwayah must not be contrary to the riwayahs of reliable narrators; it must not have defects, which are detected as a result of deep research; in addition, the riwayah must be received through one of the ways of hadith reporting determined by hadith scholars.

Hadith scholars laid some conditions called “sifatu riwayatil-hadith” (shurutur-riwayah) in order to ensure the hadith narration to be carried out in a sound way and to prevent mistakes during riwayah.

Those conditions, related to which some hadiths scholars acted very strictly while others acted tolerantly and which can change from person to person, can be summarized as follows:

1. The narrator that deals with narrations must write his book correctly and properly and answer with the original; if he narrates by heart, he must have the original copy with him all the time.

2. A narrator who is blind from birth must have a reliable scribe write the hadiths and narrate them after they are read to him.

3. In case of a difference between what the narrator has in his memory and in his book, it is necessary to accept the book if the narrator narrates by memorizing from the book and to accept what he has in his memory if he narrates through the words of a reliable hadith scholar.   

4. If a narrator does not remember hearing a hadith that is in his book from his teacher, it is not permissible for him to narrate it according to many scholars.

5. If a narrator is not a person who knows the words of a hadith and what is meant by those words, he must not narrate based on the meaning; he must narrate it exactly as he has heard it.

6. After a narrator reads a hadith that he narrates based on meaning, he must use an expression like the following immediately after reading the hadith: “aw kama qala” (or as he said), “aw nahwa hadha” (or similar to it), “aw qariban minhu” (or close to it).

7. According to some hadith scholars, it is not permissible to shorten a hadith during riwayah. If a person shortens a hadith, he must pay great attention to not moving away from the original.  

8. If a narrator narrates a hadith from two or more ways (chains) and if there is a difference in terms of words, but not in terms of meaning, he must combine the narrations in one chain of narrators and narrate using the words of one narration. In that case, the phrase “akhbarana fulanun wal-lafzu li-fulanin” (such and such a person informed us, the statement belongs to such and such a person) or “hadha lafzu fulanin” (it is the statement of such and such a person), or a similar one must be added.  

9. A narrator can make an addition in order to clarify the ancestors of the people in the chain of narrators of a hadith but he must indicate his addition somehow.

10. It is not appropriate for a narrator to add a word or a sentence to the chain of narrators or to the text of the hadith if a word or a sentence is missing. The addition must be made outside the text by referring to the relevant place. (Ibnus-Salah, Ulumul-Hadith, p. 208-236; Uğur, p. 327-329).

Riwayah took place in two ways during the period between the beginning of narrating hadiths to the time when they were compiled in books: Riwayah with exact words; riwayah in terms of meaning

Riwayah with Exact Words

Many Companions thought that hadiths had to be narrated in the same way as they were heard from the Messenger of Allah. Hz. Umar stated the following in a talk he mentioned that issue: “If a person hears a hadith and reports in the same way as he hears it, he will be saved.” (Ramhurmuzi, al-Muhaddith, p. 538) Zayd b. Arqam states that it is a hard job to narrate hadiths when the words are not preserved exactly and that it requires responsibility. (Khatib al-Baghdadi, Kifayah, p. 205)

When Abdullah b. Umar, who is very well known about his sensitivity regarding the issue saw a person who narrated the hadith “The similitude of a hypocrite is that of a sheep which roams aimlessly between two flocks” (Muslim, Sifatul-Munafiqin, 17) by changing the words but without changing the meaning, he warned the man by saying, “Do not tell lies related to the Messenger of Allah” (Khatib al-Baghdadi, p. 208); he intervened when a person listed the five principles of Islam because he changed the words of the hadith and stated that a hadith had to be narrated in the way it was heard from the Messenger of Allah. (ibid, p. 210)

Many scholars paid attention to that issue during the periods of Tabiun and Tabaut-Tabiin but discussions started to occur among hadith scholars whether it was permissible to narrate hadiths based on meaning or not.

Scholars like Tawus b. Kaysan, Qasim b. Muhammad, Ibn Sirin, Ibn Jurayj, Abdurrahman b. Mahdi, Raja b. Haywa and Malik b. Anas stated that those who studied the science of hadith had to know the features of Arabic and that they had to narrate hadiths by preserving the exact words.

The evidences of those who hold that view are the following: The phrase “in the same way as he hears” in the hadith “May Allah brighten a person who hears my word, understands it well and passes it on to others in the same way as he hears” (Musnad, 1/437; Abu Dawud, Ilm, 10) and the warning by the Prophet when Bara recited the word “rasulika (Your messenger)” instead of “nabiyyika (Your prophet)” in the supplication that the Prophet taught by saying, “No, say ‘nabiyyika’!” (Bukhari, Wudu, 75; Muslim, Dhikr, 56)

In addition, evidences that narration based on meaning would distort the depth of meaning existing in the hadiths of the Prophet, who was the most eloquent Arab, and similar ones were put forward. (for answers given to them, see Ali Hasan, al-Hadithun-Nabawi, p. 221-225)

Narration Based on Meaning

Narration based on meaning takes place in mainly three ways:  

1. Narration by replacing a word with its synonym such saying “jalasa” instead of “qa’ada” (he sat) and “arafa” instead of “alima” (he knew).

There is no disagreement that it is permissible.

2. Narration by using a word that is thought to be synonymous with another word but that does not mean exactly the same.  

Such a narration is not permissible since the meaning will be distorted.

3. Narration by a narrator who believes that he has understood the meaning of a hadith very well and uses some words and phrases that can mean the same as the words in the hadiths, but not the exact words.  

Narrating like that is debatable among scholars; Companions such as Hudhayfa b. Yaman, Ali b. Abu Talib, Abu Hurayra, Hz. Aisha, Abu Said al-Khudri, Abdullah b. Abbas, Wathila b. Asqa‘ and Anas b. Malik, Tabiun scholars such as Nahai, Shabi, Mujahid b. Jabr, Ikrima al-Barbari, Hasan al-Basri, Zuhri and Amr b. Dinar, the scholars living after them such as Waqi b. Jarrah, Yahya b. Said al-Kattan, Sufyan b. Uyayna, Abu Zura ar-Razi and many other scholars regard narration like that permissible.  

After hadiths were determined and recorded in the books, the issues necessitating narration based on meaning disappeared; therefore, it is necessary to give up narration based on meaning.

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