Translated by Recep Senturk and GF Haddad ©
(Revised and expanded version of an earlier post)
"He is not an imam in `ilm who follows anomalous positions (al-shâdhdh). He is not an imam in `ilm who narrates from each and everyone. He is not an imam in `ilm who narrates all that he hears. Memorization (al-hifz) means precise mastery (al-itq�n)." - `Abd al-Rahman ibn Mahdi.2
"Shaykh al-Islam," as inferred from its use as a term among the authorities, is a title attributed to that follower of the book of Allah Most High and the example of His messenger ﷺ, who possesses the knowledge of the principles of the Science (of Religion), has plunged deep into the different views of the scholars, has become able to extract the legal evidences from the texts, and has understood the rational and the transmitted proofs at a satisfactory level.
At times, this title is given to those who have attained the level of friendship with Allah (wilâya), and from whom people derive blessings both when they are alive and when they are dead. Similarly, whoever has tread the true path of the People of Islam and has come out unscathed from the folly and ignorance of youth; and whoever has become a living apparatus for others in solving difficulties or winning a struggle, and a refuge in every difficulty: these are the meanings of the word as used by the general public.
At times, this title is also given to those who get old in the fold of Islam and become outstanding among their peers for long life, entering into the meaning of the hadith "There will be a light for those who grow old in the fold of Islam."3
This title was not common among the earlier generations after the two Shaykhs, al-Siddiq and al-Faruq, and we know that `Ali applied it to them - Allah be well-pleased with all of them. Al-Muhibb al-Tabari (d. 694) related in his book al-Riyad al-Nadira ["The Resplendant Groves"], without providing a chain of authorities, that Anas radyAllahu `anh said that a man came to `Ali ibn Abi Talib radyAllahu `anh and said: "O Commander of the Faithful, I heard you saying on the pulpit `O Allah, help me as you helped the rightly-guided and enlightened caliphs.' Who are they?" Anas said: Tears welled in `Ali's eyes and began to pour down, then he replied: "Abu Bakr and `Umar, may Allah be well pleased with them, the two leaders of rightful guidance and the two shaykhs of Islam, the two men of Quraysh, the two who are followed after the Messenger of Allah - Allah bless and greet him -. Whoever follows these two gains respect; whoever lives up to the legacy of these two is guided to a straight path; whoever sticks with these two is from the party of Allah, and the party of Allah - these are the successful."4
Al-Dhahabi reported in al-Kashif on the authority of Ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181) - mark him, O Reader, as one who was a Shaykh al-Islam: "The only one to carry the title Shaykh al-Islam is Abu Bakr al-Siddiq radyAllahu `anh, who preserved the zakât and fought against the apostates. Know him very well." The report ends here.
Abu Isma`il al-Harawi (d. 481) came to be known with this title. His full name was `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad [ibn `Ali ibn Matt] al-Ansari, a Hanbali scholar and the author of Manazil al-Sa'irin and Dhamm al-Kalam. Abu `Ali Hassan ibn Said al-Mani`i al-Shafi`i and Abu al-Hassan al-Hakkari were also known with this title. Ibn al-Sam`ani said about the latter that he was called Shaykh al-Islam. He also was a Shafi`i.5
Among the scholars of the Hanafi school the following carried this title:
- Abu Sa`id al-Khalil ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Khalil al-Sijzi, who died after 370; - Abu al-Qasim Yunus ibn Tahir ibn Muhammad ibn Yunus al-Basri - Ibn Mandah mentions him - who died in 411; - The judge Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Muhammad al-Sughdi who died in 461 - also called Rukn al-Islam (Pillar of Islam); - Abu Nasr Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Sa`id al-Sa`idi. Al-Dhahabi said about him: "He is one of those who are called Shaykh al-Islam." He died in 482; - Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Ismail ibn Ali al-Isbijabi, who died in 535; - His student, the author of al-Hidaya, Burhan al-Din Ali ibn Abu Bakr `Abd al-Jalil al-Farghani, who died in 593; - Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Halabi [d. 817]; - al-`Imad Mas'ud ibn Shaybah ibn al-Husayn al-Sindi; - Abu Sa`d al-Mutahhar ibn Sulayman al-Zanjani; - Sadid ibn Muhammad al-Hannati.
The master Abu `Uthman Isma`il ibn `Abd al-Rahman ibn Ahmad al-Sabuni al-Shafi`i (d. 449) was also known by this title. Ibn al-Sam`ani gave it to him in al-Dhayl. Also known by this title was Taj al-Din al-Firkah, who was a Shafi`i. Ibn Daqiq al-`Id (d. 702) gave this title to his master Ibn `Abd al-Salam. He said: He is Shaykh al-Islam. Also known by this title were Abu al-Faraj [Shams al-Din] ibn Abi `Umar the Hanbali - the first who held the judgeship for the Hanbalis [in Mecca] - Ibn Daqiq al-`Id himself, and Ibn Taymiyya. Abu al-Hajjaj al-Mizzi (d. 742) did not give this title to anyone else among his contemporaries besides Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Abi `Umar, and Taqi al-Din al-Subki.6 In the latter's time and in his son's time the use of this title increased, especially in Damascus. Later, Siraj al-Din al-Bulqini (Ibn Hajar's shaykh) was given this title. I read in Ibn `Ammar's own hand that it was used exclusively for him...
Since the beginning of the eigth century innumerable people have been given this title, to the extent that even the chief judges came to be called with it even if they lacked the knowledge and the age. Indeed, ignorant writers and other than they took to attributing individuals all manners of qualities which nowadays exist only among selected persons. Those who confirm them in this abuse are the strangest of all. Verily we belong to Allah and to Him do we return.
Ibn Hajar, may Allah have mercy on him, entirely merits being called with this title because he had most of the qualities that are mentioned above, and when that title was used by the authorities in his time he was meant and no-one else. Even if he was not an authority in everything, in the field of the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ he was, beyond question, Shaykh al-Islam. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, whose piety is beyond question, called Abu al-Walid al-Tayalisi and Ahmad ibn Yunus Shaykh al-Islam although they had only the knowledge of hadith, whereas Ibn Hajar's authority was not limited to this one field only. May Allah have mercy on them and us!7
As for the hadith scholar (al-muhaddith), he is the one who  knows the masters of hadith in his homeland as well as other lands;  has a precise knowledge of their date and place of birth and death, their ranking in the Sciences, and the various types of narratives they have in their possession;  differentiates those with longer chains of transmission from those with shorter ones;  is able to spot the hadith masters (al-huffâz) in the layers and the chains;  records them in writing;  recognizes the handwritings of the masters even if the same person's handwriting varies;  examines critically the narratives of the masters and extracts what he considers good from their narratives as well as his own, keeping aware of such qualities of chains as badal, muwâfaqât, musâwât, and the like (types of sound grades);  keeps a record of the names of his auditors even if their number is one thousand;  is an expert in the names of narrators, particularly those apt to be confused for one another, and obtains this discernment from the leaders in the discipline;  knows with precision the unusual words or names one comes across within the texts of hadith, or at least most of them, to avoid misspelling;  knows enough Arabic grammar to protect himself from language mistakes in most cases;  masters the terminology of experts in such way as is sufficient for teaching and explanation, and  keeps the proper terminology with respect to this and other disciplines.
The general practice is in accordance with this approach, although some were sometimes called muhaddith without actually having all of these qualifications.
There is a code of conduct for the muhaddith. Our masters have written about it and the most remarkable book on this is al-Jami` li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami` ("Compendium of the Desirable Manners of the Hadith Narrator and Inveterate Practices of the Auditor") by al-Khatib. I read it and heard Ibn Hajar say - apparently reporting it from some one else: "And he (the muhaddith) must be fast in writing, reading, eating and walking." His words end here.
The hadith master Abu al-Fath ibn Sayyid al-Nas (671-734) - may Allah have mercy on him! - gave this definition of the muhaddith: "The muhaddith in our time is he who busies himself with the oral narration of hadith and its writing, collecting information about the narrators, and getting to know many of the narrators and narrations in his time. He gains expertise in these matters to the extent that his handwriting becomes known and he becomes reputed for accuracy."
This is easier than what the savant and judge Taj al-Din Abu Nasr [Ibn] al-Subki (727-771) said in his book Mu`id al-Ni`am wa Mubid al-Niqam ("The Renewer of Favors and Allayer of Trials"), as the master al-`Izz Abu Muhammad al-Qadi (Ibn `Abd al-Salam), the last of the narrators of chains, reported from him:
The muhaddith is the one who knows the chains, their defects, the names of the narrators, the short and long chains, and, in addition, has memorized an abundant amount of the hadith texts (as distinct from the chains), and heard (directly from a teacher) the Six Books, the Musnad of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Sunan of al-Bayhaqi, the Mu`jam of al-Tabarani, and at least a thousand more monographs on hadith. After he has heard what we have mentioned, and written on all the layers of the narrators, and travelled far and wide to see the masters, and lectured about hadith defects, dates of birth and death, and chains of transmission - at that time he attains to the beginning level of hadith narrators. After that Allah increases those He wants with what He wants.
The opinion of the savant (and hadith master Abu `Abd Allah `Ala' al-Din Ibn Qalih al-Bakjari al-Turki al-Misri al-Hanafi) Mughaltay (689-762) resembles [Ibn] al-Subki's view: "In the usage of hadith narrators those who are given the title of muhaddith must have written, read, heard, memorized, travelled to cities and villages, inferred from the sources, and expanded the branches from the books of hadith compilations and manuals on hadith defects and histories, from about a thousand books." His words end here.
The one who focuses exclusively on audition of hadith is not called a muhaddith. Imam Taj al-Din Ibn Yunus (al-Mawsili 598-670) said in the commentary on al-Ta`jiz fi Ikhtisar al-Wajiz ("The Inimitable Discourse On the Abridgment of al-Ghazzali's "Synopsis of the Jurisprudence of the Shafi`i School" [al-Wajiz fi Fiqh Madhhab al-Imam al-Shafi`i]): "If someone bequeaths something `for the Muhaddiths,' the will concerns those who know the various chains by which a hadith is established and the integrity of its narrators known, for whoever exclusively focuses on listening is not a hadith scholar."
This is supported by al-Rafi`i's (557-623) opinion in keeping with that of the companions [of al-Shafi`i] regarding the person who made a will "for the scholars (al-`ulamâ')": Those who merely listen to hadith without knowledge of the chains nor of the details pertaining to the narrators and the texts are not included here, for listening alone is not scholarship.
Similar to this is the view of [Ibn] al-Subki: "Those who focus exclusively on listening do not enter the community of hadith. This is also what some of the later scholars said: for the jurists (al-fuqahâ'), the word muhaddith can be used only for those who memorize texts of hadith and those who know the reliability or unreliability of the different narrators. Those who focus exclusively on listening fall in neither category."
Al-Fariqi said: "The term should not be used for those who know chains of hadith but not the legal rulings derived from them. For one cannot be counted among the scholars of the law with only the former amount of knowledge." His student (Sharaf al-Din `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad) Ibn Abi `Asrun (al-Tamimi al-Shafi`i 492-585) also followed him in his book al-Intisar ("The Victory"). Ibn Hajar stopped short of this view and said: "This is overemphasis because the divisions [of hadith sciences] are fourfold, the highest of which being the abundance in audition (samâ`) and the knowledge of chains and their defects." I say: Perhaps the first two refused to call such a person a muhaddith only because, literally speaking, he is a musnid, i.e. one who simply conveys chains of authorities [without critiquing them]. The rest, however, use the term muhaddith figuratively.
What are the "ways or paths of the hadith" (turuq al-hadîth)? The author of al-Dhakha'ir [perhaps al-Basa'ir wa al-Dhakha'ir by Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi] states that this is the knowledge of the rulings comprised in the hadiths along with the knowledge of their narrators. This view is inconsistent with the terminology of the experts because what they mean by "the ways of hadith" is the mere enumeration of its chains of transmission, and the various aspects in which a hadith is transmitted. The author of al-Wafi [fi al-Furu`, a manual of Hanafi law] (Abu al-Barakat `Abd Allah ibn Ahmad ibn Mahmud al-Nasafi al-Hanafi d. 701) said: "What is meant by "the ways of hadith" is the sound hadith (sahîh), the weak (da`îf), the rare (gharîb), knowledge of the names of narrators, their reliability and unreliability, and knowledge of its meanings. Then he becomes a scholar (`âlim) unlike the reciter of Qur'an, for it is not a science but a transmission." Towards the end of his words, the author of al-Wafi points to al-Mawardi's view in al-Waqf: "It [the word `scholar'] should not be used for the reciters of the Qur'an nor the community of hadith, because knowledge resides in meaning, not in what is memorized for recitation."
What we report from al-Hafiz al-Silafi should be understood in this context. He said: "I enquired from our master al-Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Tabari also known as al-Kiya (450-504) about someone who made a will stipulating that one third of his wealth be distributed to the scholars and jurists: are the scribes of hadith included in this stipulation? He said: Yes, how can it be otherwise? The prophet ﷺ said: "Whoever in my community memorizes forty hadiths pertinent to his religious life, Allah will resurrect him in the Day of Judgement as a learned wise man (faqîh) and a scholar (`âlim)."8
I say, the following is reported from Malik: "The Science cannot be taken from him who exclusively focuses on audition-and-memorization (samâ`)." The exact wording of his view as reported by the qadi `Abd al-Wahhab (ibn `Ali al-Tha`labi al-Baghdadi 362-422) in al-Mulakhkhas ("The Summary") through `Isa ibn Aban is: "There are four from whom the Science cannot be taken," and he counted them and continued: "Nor from him who does not know this matter." The qadi explained that what he meant by this is one who neither knows narrators nor if anything was added in or abstracted from the narrative.
The practice in our time contradicts this view. In our time, the reliance is for the most part on the reader-reciter (qâri'). For this reason I advocate preventing students from doing a lot of reading-and-reciting when they do not first master texts and chains, nor have any idea who among the narrators has no analytical thinking or whose hadith can be accepted as reliable in the first place.
How well did the hadith master Abu `Abdullah al-Dhahabi (d. 748) speak in what I read by his own handwriting about the above - even if he exaggerated, nevertheless he is excused:
Most of the hadith scholars have no understanding, no diligence in the knowledge of hadith, and no fear of Allah regarding it. Worse, the sound and the forged look alike to them. The narrators do not correct their manners according to the ethics of hadith, and never wake up from the stupor of audition. At one and the same time a scholar hears a book and his ego entertains the prospect of teaching it, in fifty years perhaps? Woe to you! How long is your hope, how evil your works! Verily Sufyan al-Thawri is excused for saying according to the narration of Ahmad ibn Yusuf al-Taghlabi: Khalid ibn Khidash narrated to us that Hammad ibn Zayd narrated to us that Sufyan al-Thawri said: "If hadith was a good it would have vanished just as goodness has vanished."
By Allah! he has spoken the truth. What good is there in hadith where the sound is mixed with the unreliable, while you do nothing to sift one from the other, or to research its narrators, and you do not practice it nor fear Allah concerning it? Today, in our time, the quest for knowledge and hadith audition no longer means for the muhaddith the obligation of living up to it, which is the goal of hadith. The basis of hadith audition has become the prestige of narrating hadith. This, by Allah, is not for the sake of Allah! I am only addressing you, O hadith narrator - not those who do not listen, think, keep the five daily prayers, shun corruption and intoxicants, and strive for perfection in speaking the truth: O listener! Do not become a criminal like me (says the corrupt man), for we feel the worst afflictions.
Today, the student of hadith should first copy by hand al-Jam` Bayn al-Sahihayn ("The Convergence of the Two Sound Books i.e. al-Bukhari's and Muslim's Sahihs"), `Abd al-Haqq's (ibn al-Kharrat al-Ishbili 509-580) al-Ahkam al-Shar`iyya ("The Legal Rulings"), and al-Diya' ("The Illumination"). He should master these books. Also, he should frequently study the works of al-Bayhaqi, for they are beneficial. He should also study no less than a concise book like (Ibn Daqiq al-`Id's) al-Ilmam fi Ahadith al-Ahkam ("The Acquaintance with the Prophetic Narrations That Serve as a Basis for Legal Rulings"), and teach it.
What good is there in hadith-audition under ignorant teachers who sleep while children play and young men pratter, making jokes while reporting hadith, soon feeling sleepy, debating haughtily while their readers make spelling mistakes? They repeat meaningless words such as aw kamâ qâl ("or as he [the Prophet ﷺ] said") and yawn. For the sake of Allah, leave us alone, for we have become the laughingstock of sensible people. They look at us and say: are these the People of Hadith?!
He also said in another place:
It is reported from Sufyan al-Thawri that he said: "Pursuing the study of hadith is not part of the preparation for death, but a disease that preoccupies people." He said this verbatim. He is right in what he said because pursuing the study of hadith is other than the hadith itself. Pursuing hadith is a conventional name comprising matters that are additional to learning the meaning of hadith. Many of these matters lead to knowledge, but most are a source of pride for the narrators, such as obtaining ornamented copies of a book, or trying to find the shortest chain for a hadith, or increasing the number of one's teachers, or pleasure with titles, or hope for a long life so that he can narrate hadith (to subsequent students), or desire to become unique (infirâd, i.e. by outliving his generation-layer of narrators), and many other similar matters required for egoistic purposes but not for deeds aimed at gaining the blessing of Allah.
If your quest for hadith is surrounded by these disasters, when will be you be freed from them to gain sincerity? If the sciences of transmission (`ulûm al-athar) have become diseased, what do you think about the rational sciences which divert from faith and instill doubts that did not exist in the age of the Companions and the Successors? Their Sciences were the Qur'an, the hadith, and jurisprudence.
Imam Abu Shama (595-665) said:
Today the sciences of hadith are three. The most honorable one is the memorization of the texts, the knowledge of rare hadith, and its relation to jurisprudence.
The second [science of hadith] consists in memorizing the chains of transmission, knowing the narrators, and discerning the reliable chains from the problematic ones. This used to be paramount, but now it suffices for the student of the Science to know what is compiled and written in this branch, and there is no benefit in redoing what is already done.
The third [science of hadith] consists in collecting, writing, hearing, and learning the various chains through which a hadith has been narrated, searching for the shortest chains and traveling for this purpose. But the one who focusses on this is diverted from the most important of the useful sciences [i.e. the first], in addition to being distracted from the actions which are the primary purpose. Allah the Most High says: (I created the jinns and humankind only that they might worship me( (51:56). However, it is acceptable for those who have freed themselves from distractions to spend time in this third branch because it helps perpetuate the unbroken "from" chains (silsila al-`an`ana al-muttasila) back to the most honorable of mankind, the blessings and peace of Allah upon him. These chains are one of the pecularities of this Community.
He also said: "One should stay away from that which is commonly shared by the young and the old, the mediocre and the intelligent, the ignorant and the scholar."
Al-A`mash (Abu Muhammad Sulayman ibn Mahran al-Asadi the Tabi`i 61/-148) said: "The hadith that jurists circulate among themselves is better than that which hadith narrators circulate among themselves." Someone criticized Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, may Allah have mercy upon him, for attending the circle of Imam al-Shafi`i and leaving the circle of Sufyan ibn `Uyayna. Ahmad told him: "Keep quiet! If you miss a hadith with a shorter chain you can find it with a longer chain and it will not harm you. But if you do not have the reasoning of this man [al-Shafi`i] I am afraid you will not be able to find it." His words ends here.
Ibn Hajar said:
There is some disagreement in some of the above doctrine. Abu Shama's view that "it suffices for the student of the Science to know what is compiled and written in this branch" was rejected by the savant Abu Ja`far ibn al-Zubayr and others. The argument can be made against him in the following way. If the amount of compilations that have been written in the first branch makes reliance upon them necessary without need for pursuing its sources, then the same can be said about the first branch which Abu Shama says about the second (i.e. that "it suffices for the student of the Science to know what is compiled and written in this branch"), for the books written on the jurisprudence of hadith and the rare hadith cannot be counted. Indeed, if someone were to claim that the works in the latter fields are more numerous than the works about narrator-criticism and the works that distinguish the sound hadith from the unsound, he would not be far from the truth. To be sure this is the reality. If studying the first branch is important, then the study of the second branch becomes even more important, for it is the staircase that leads to the first. Therefore, whoever neglects the second science (according to Abu Shama's classification) is bound to mix unwittingly the unsound hadith with the sound and the narrator who is considered trustworthy with the unreliable. That is enough discredit for such a method.
The truth is, both the first and the second science are important in the science of hadith. There is no doubt that whoever can master both will attain the highest station, even if he is remiss in the third, while he who neglects the first and second can have no part in being called a hadith master (hâfiz). As for he who masters the first but neglects the second, he remains far from the definition of hadith scholar (muhaddith), while he who masters the second and neglects the first may still be called a muhaddith, although there is a deficiency in him with regard to the first science. End of Ibn Hajar's words.
1From al-Sakhawi, al-Jawahir wa al-Durar (p. 14-23).
2Narrated by al-`Uqayli in the introduction to his Du`afa' (1:9) and Ibn `Abd al-Barr in al-Intiqa' (p. 62).
3Narrated from `Amr ibn Abasa by al-Tirmidhi (hasan sahîh gharîb), al-Nasa'i, and Ahmad; from Ka`b ibn Murra by al-Tirmidhi (hasan), al-Nasa'i, Ahmad, and al-Daraqutni in his Sunan; from `Abd Allah ibn `Amr by Abu Dawud; from `Umar by Ibn Hibban with a strong chain (7:251 #2983), al-Tabarani in al-Kabir (1:58), Ibn Rahuyah, and Abu Nu`aym in Ma`rifa al-Sahaba; from Mu`adh ibn Jabal by al-Tabarani in al-Kabir; from Abu Nujayh al-Sulami by Ibn Hibban with a sound chain (7:252 #2984), al-Bayhaqi in the Sunan (9:161), and, as part of a longer hadith, by Ahmad with a sound chain; from Abu al-Darda' by Abu al-Shaykh; from Jabir by Ibn `Asakir; from Abu Hurayra by al-Quda`i in Musnad al-Shihab (p. 457); from Fadala ibn `Ubayd by al-Tabarani in al-Kabir (18:782-783), and Ahmad and al-Bazzar in their Musnads; and from Umm Sulaym by al-Hakim in al-Kuna; also from `Amr ibn `Abasa but as part of a longer hadith, by Ahmad with a sound chain, and al-Bayhhaqi in the Sunan (9:272).
4Muhibb al-Din al-Tabari, al-Riyad al-Nadira (1:379 #276); al-Zamakhshari, Mukhtasar al-Muwafaqa folio 23; al-Sakhawi, al-Jawahir wa al-Durar, Introduction.
5Note that al-Harawi and al-Hakkari were both anti-Ash`ari anthropomorphists.
6Cf. Ibn al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya al-Kubra (10:195).
7Ibn Hajar himself applies the title Shaykh al-Islam to his teacher, the hadith master Zayn al-Din al-`Iraqi, unless he names someone else. Cf. "Our shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam, said..." Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 1:18 #1; 1:27 #3; 1:33 #7; 1:192 #97; 1:458; 3:361 #1425; 8:223 #4278 etc.), but "Our shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam al-Bulqini said..." Ibid. (1:22 #2; 13:547 #7124; cf. 1:45). Al-Dhahabi in his monograph on titles and nicknames entitled al-Muqaddima Dhat al-Niqab fi al-Alqab (p. 74 #319-320) reserves the title to two scholars: Abu Isma`il `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Ansari of Herat and Abu al-Hasan `Ali ibn Hasan al-Hakkari. Like al-Sakhawi, al-Suyuti and most later Shafi`i scholars apply the title to Ibn Hajar, while both al-Haytami and al-Sha`rani also apply it to their shaykh, Zakariyya al-Ansari.
8Narrated from Abu Sa`id al-Khudri by Ibn al-Najjar and al-Nawawi who declared it weak in the introduction to his famous compilation of forty hadiths.
Blessings and greeting of Allah upon our Master Muhammad, his Family, and all his Companions. Wal-Hamdu Lillahi Rabb al-`Alamin.
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