How are hadiths classified in various aspects? How can we understand whether a hadith is sound or not?

The Details of the Question

It is stated that some hadiths that are narrated are not sound. Can the soundness of a hadith be strong or weak?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Not everybody can decide whether hadiths are weak or not. This classification was done by hadith scholars. A person who has not studied hadith, especially hadith methodology, cannot understand it.


In terms of their soundness:

Sahih: A hadith that has the following three criteria is called sahih (sound):
- It does not have any breaks in the chain of narrators
- All of the narrators are reliable
- It has no illah (a defect that cannot be seen easily) and it is not shazz (reported by one reliable person).
It is very difficult to search the last criterion; only great hadith specialists like Bukhari have profound knowledge about this criterion. The state of illah and being shazz means a hadith seems sound in terms of the chain and narrators at first glance but there is a defect in the text or the chain. If the hadith has an illah or if it is shazz, it is reduced to the degree of weak hadiths.

Hasan: The criteria for sahih hadiths are also valid here. The only difference is this: one of the narrators is all right but he is not at the level of reliance due to an aspect like the power of his memory; then, this hadith is called hasan. Hasan hadiths are lower than sahih hadiths but close to them; they are higher than weak hadiths.

Weak: A hadith that does not meet the criteria necessary for the sahih and hasan hadiths because of a break in the chain of narrators, because one or a few of the narrators are weak, because of illah and some other reasons.

Mutawatir: It is a hadith that is narrated by a group of people who are impossible to agree on a lie. This criterion is necessary in all levels. A mutawatir hadith is regarded as definite; therefore, it is regarded risky to deny it. However, the number of mutawatir hadiths is a few. 

Mawdu: They are fabricated hadiths. According to some hadith scholars, mawdu hadiths are at the lowest level among weak hadiths. According to another view, mutawatir and mawdu hadiths are not included among hadith researches since the former is definite and the latter is fabricated.

In terms of their owners:

Marfu: It is a hadith that belongs to the Prophet (pbuh).

Mawquf: It is a hadith whose words or deeds belong to the Companions.

Maqtu: It is a hadith whose words or deeds belong to the Tabiun.

If a hadith is marfu, it does not mean that it is definitely sound. A marfu hadith can be sound, hasan or weak.

In terms of the length of the chain:

Ali: It means the chain has no breaks but it consists of few narrators.

Nazil: It means there are a lot of narrators in the chain.

It is definitely preferred for a hadith to reach the muhaddith through a small number of people. However, it is possible for a nazil hadith to be sounder than an ali hadith.

The decree based on the soundness of hadiths:

Sahih and hasan hadiths are regarded to be suitable for ijtihad. Weak hadiths are either accepted or refused based on the method of the mujtahid, the degree of the weakness of the hadith and whether there are other hadiths supporting that hadith. Weak hadiths are not generally deemed to be suitable for ijtihads but they can be used in order to encourage people to do good deeds. For, weak hadiths are not fabricated like mawdu hadiths; they are hadiths that are not so strong as to be used for ijtihad regarding important issues like halal and haram. This difference between mawdu hadiths and weak hadiths should be remembered.

As for mawdu hadiths, hadith scholars say it is haram to write or print them without stating that they are fabricated. For, a person who sees such a hadith will think that it comes from the Prophet. Mawdu hadiths can be written and printed by stating that they are fabricated in order to warn people against them.  

Critique of the text and chain of hadiths:

The investigation whether a hadith is acceptable or not is carried out through two stages: 

- Critique of the text
- Critique of the chain (of narrators)

Critique of the text is involved in the examination of the text of the hadith, whether it includes any discrepancies and whether it contradicts with sounder and more common hadiths.

Critique of the chain is involved in the examination of the structure of the chain, determining whether there is a break between the narrators by checking historical data and the life spans of the narrators and whether the narrators are authorized to report hadiths or not.

By the way, it should be known that a hadith consists of a text and narrators in the eye of muhaddiths in order to eliminate some doubts. When great muhaddiths are mentioned, it is sometimes stated that one muhaddith wrote seven hundred thousand hadiths, one million hadiths, etc.; they are approximate figures but might seem exaggerative to readers. In fact, when the number of the years of the prophethood and especially the number of the days after the Migration are considered, those figures are large. However, if it is known that each hadith is regarded as a whole by muhaddiths with its text and narrators, it will be understood better. For instance, Ahmed Naim states the following in the translation of Tajrid Sarih:

Hafiz Abu Ismail al-Ansari al-Harawi recorded the hadith "Actions are dependent upon their intentions" through seven hundred different chains that reach Yahya b. Said al-Ansari only."

That is, only this hadith has more than seven hundred chains; since a hadith is regarded as a whole with its chain and text, it means this text has more than seven hundred hadiths. When the other hadiths are also considered, the large number of the hadiths can be imagined. Another issue that increases those numbers is the fact that the words and deeds of the Companions and Tabiun are also called hadiths (The mawquf and marfu hadiths mentioned above). Thus, it becomes clear that the numbers like one million, several hundred thousand are not exaggerative.

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