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Excellence and Inherent Limitations of the Isnad
Hadith & Sunnah
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)

Any Hadīth of the Prophet (sws), in its first instance, is reported by, at least, one of his Companions (rta). Passing through the chain of narrators down the subsequent generations, it reaches the compilers of the traditions. The chain of guarantors from the Prophet (sws) to a compiler is called the isnād. By the compilers, we mean the individuals from the earlier generations who have, owing to their services to record the oral tradition, become a milestone in the passage of Aḥādīth from the Prophet (sws) to the subsequent generations. These compilers accomplished an unparalleled task regarding the Muslim tradition. Imām Mālik, Imām Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, Imām Bukhārī, Imām Muslim and others belong to this group of the compilers. Since the compilation of the major Hadīth works, the student of the prophetic traditions has no choice but to turn to these sources. It is now only these sources which form an authority on the transmission of the Hadīth literature.

The status, importance and station of the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws) in the chain of the narrators have been discussed in the previous chapter. The Companions (rta) indubitably are ever shining flowers, a source of blessing for this ummah. Their reliability is established and cannot be analyzed and criticized unlike other narrators of a Hadīth. Their truthfulness and veracity is acknowledged by all Muslim scholars. The muḥaddithūn have set perfectly sound principles concerning the role and reliability of the Companions (rta). The muḥaddithūn hold that: al-ṣaḥābah kulluhum ‘adūl (all Companions (rta) are just and reliable). It has been narrated on the authority of ‘Umar (rta) that the Prophet (sws) said:

My Companions are like stars. Whoever of them you follow, you shall be rightly guided. (Mishkāt al-Maṣābiḥ, No: 6018)

This prophetic testimony entails what the Companions (rta) report from the Prophet (sws) is true. We must acknowledge that it has been transmitted honestly and sincerely and must not cherish any doubts regarding their reports without any sound proof.

The rest of the narrators in the isnād, according to the muḥaddithūn, are to be subjected to rigorous critical analysis. Their reliability, truthfulness, scholarly expertise, ability to keep something in memory and religious attitude, in short, everything has to be gauged and analyzed. Views of the experts of the science of Hadīth criticism, on each of the narrators, have to be collected and collated. In this exercise, the aim should be to make sure that a Hadīth one accepts as genuine and sound is free of all possible blemishes. This research was, later on, developed into a mature discipline of science of men (asmā’ al-rijāl) by the scholars and experts in the science of traditions.

The Isnād and Asmā’ al-Rijāl

Muslim scholars were fully intent upon safeguarding the treasure of the prophetic traditions. They decided that the narrators of acceptable traditions should be known historical figures. The science of men (asmā’ al-rijāl) was introduced to fulfil this end. This accomplishment of Muslims is acknowledged as an unparalleled one in the whole human history. No other nation has introduced and established such a science. The Companions (rta), the successors, the successors of the successors, and the people of the later generations living in the third century have been involved in receiving, narrating and compiling the sayings, acts, history and circumstances of the Prophet (sws). The process culminated in a formal compilation of the literature in the form of books in the third century AH. If carefully assessed, the number of persons involved in this process reaches hundreds of thousands. The muḥaddithūn recorded the life history of twelve thousand persons who saw the Prophet (sws) in their lifetime. The number of transmitters from the next generations is many times greater.

Thousands of Muslim scholars devoted their lives in collecting life account of the narrators and categorizing the collected data. They visited every major town and reached every small settlement. They met their contemporaries and collected all available biographical information about the narrators. In their effort to learn about the life histories of the narrators from the previous generations, they met all such people who had possibly been in contact with them directly or indirectly. The factual data about the life history of these narrators was then collected and critically analyzed to the extent humanly possible. This is how the unparalleled and great science of men (asmā’ al-rijāl) was developed. Scholars working in this field recorded names, surnames, titles, life history, reliability and truthfulness of all the narrators involved in Hadīth transmission. The views of the great scholars concerning character, memory and understanding of these narrators were also recorded. The status of the narrators, in terms of reliability and truthfulness, was ascertained. They were then categorized in the light of this data. We can safely say that every person who ascribed anything to the Prophet (sws) put his entire life to the rigorous critical analysis of straightforward, uncompromising and unaccommodating critics and in a way faced the final accountability in this very world.

Perhaps, people who should have competed Muslims in this field are the People of the Book. They have, however, failed even to show required carefulness with regards to preserving the Books of God revealed to their Prophets, not to speak of actions and sayings of their Prophets. They have indeed proved to be very careless followers. Even their sacred scriptures do not equal Muslims’ works on history. Students of the Islamic studies know that every narrative recorded in the Muslims’ historical works appends a chain of warrantors. This chain, in turn, is critically analyzed and approved by well-defined principles. As to the People of the Book, even their most sacred books are not recorded that carefully. Though the Gospels are ascribed to some of the disciples of Jesus Christ (sws), yet, the biographical data about their earliest authors is unknown. Identity of the persons involved in transmitting the Gospels from the disciples of Jesus to the earlier compilers is also a mystery. A people who have shown laxity in preserving the word of God cannot be expected to have shown the least care in preserving the sayings and actions of their Prophets and Messengers.

It needs to be appreciated that in the present day, the students of the prophetic Hadīth, in determining veracity and falsity of the narrators, depend solely upon the research work of the pioneering experts in the science of men (asmā al-rijāl). It is only in the light of their work that one can now ascertain status of the narrators of Aḥādīth. Soundness or weakness of Aḥādīth can only be judged in the light of the data collected, recorded and judged by these authorities. This is because we have been, with the passage of time, left with no means to access the resources of research in this regard. Thanks to the pioneers in this field who have touched the highest level of scholarship and served the discipline to all possible extent.

The Isnād: one of the Criteria

In deciding authenticity of a Hadīth, isnād plays the most important role. Obviously, the first thing to study and analyze in the exercise of judging the status of a Hadīth is the isnād. The study of the matn (text) comes later. We can only decide the degree of reliability of the narrative in the light of this entire scrutiny.

The above discussion shows that we cannot ignore importance of the isnād in the transmission of Aḥādīth. However, many of the scholars hold that if the isnād in a Hadīth is proved sound on the principles of isnād criticism, the narrative must be accepted as a genuine prophetic saying. To them, a sound isnād always carries a sound narrative. This means that, according to these extremist scholars, a Hadīth has to be declared sound if its isnād is reliable for, to them, the soundness of an isnād guarantees soundness of the Hadīth transmitted through it. Such extremist position is a mere naivety. I believe that this view eclipses the unparalleled research by the pioneers of the science of Hadīth criticism. This calls for an explanation which follows.

Importance, beauty, intricacies and grandeur of isnād as well as its status as a criterion to judge the authenticity and soundness of Aḥādīth cannot be denied. However, one must remain clear that there are certain inherent limitations in the isnād. This makes it incumbent upon a researcher not to rely merely on the isnād. He must adopt some other principles which can help lead him to the truth. Deciding the soundness and weakness of a Hadīth merely on isnād is not a satisfactory and certain method. An example can best explain this point. In our efforts to study a tree, we cannot merely rely on our knowledge of its roots. On the contrary, it is only after a thorough study of its stem, branches, leaves, flowers and fruits that we can conclude a comprehensive and sound view.

First Limitation of the Isnād

A little analysis can help us understand the inherent limitations of the isnād. The first limitation, for example, is that it is not easy to fully cover religious beliefs, character, knowledge, conduct, relations and dealings of hundreds of thousands of unrelated strangers living in very remote places and time. Certain and definitive knowledge of these facts cannot be obtained. Our research cannot guarantee that we have obtained unblemished knowledge regarding ability of the transmitters to obtain and transmit reports from the Prophet (sws). We do not deny that the pioneering muḥaddithūn have accomplished unparalleled tasks. We, however, appreciate that this job is extremely difficult. If we start investigating the character and life of even our contemporaries living in our hometowns and villages, it would not be an easy task, not to speak of researching the lives and characters of people living in remote time and place. With regard to the people who lived centuries before us, the most careful stance we can adopt is that we have collected overall information regarding their lives. Their persons are not unidentified. But our view regarding their life and character cannot be declared as final and conclusive. To declare it final is to show overconfidence in our knowledge and understanding.

The most satisfactory view regarding the life and character of an individual can only be concluded if we ourselves have had dealing with him. This view has been ascribed to ‘Umar (rta), a person of great knowledge and understanding. It has been narrated that once someone praised another person in his presence. ‘Umar (rta) asked the man whether the person in question had been his neighbour. He replied in the negative. Then ‘Umar (rta) asked him whether he accompanied the other person in some business tour. At this too the man replied in the negative. ‘Umar (rta) was surprised.

This anecdote teaches us that we should not bear witness to someone’s character if we are not related to him. We may testify regarding only those with whom we have dealt with. We know our business partners, co-travellers and neighbours but not strangers. We can only be clear about the conduct of those whom we meet daily in the mosque or whom we help and seek help from for we live in common circumstances. No judgment regarding a stranger should easily be passed. Even a very intelligent person can be deceived at times.

Second Limitation of the Isnād

The second inherent limitation in the isnād criticism owes itself to the intricacies involved in the exercise of judging the reliability of the narrators. Every researcher does not know what characteristics should be judged as a negative trait in one’s character (jarḥ) and what characteristics should invite positive appraisal (ta‘dīl). Not every individual can decide what characteristics invite criticism and which ones entail approval. What are the foundations of a good character? What are the foundations of a bad one? These things are not so easy to decide. Therefore, not every second person can come to a just decision in this regard. Many examples in the past prove that people have shown laxity in this regard. The pioneers in the science of ḥadīth criticism have mentioned such examples. The difficulty involved in this practice can easily be observed by extremism in love and hatred for people, something so common today.

The exercise of jarḥ wa ta‘dīl requires sound knowledge, profound understanding, sufficient experience and much of brainpower. Our ancestors were humans after all. People were never elevated to the status of angels in any period of human history. We know that the level of moral conduct, knowledge and understanding of the experts of the science of asmā’ al-rijāl was superior to that of ours. Still, however, they were humans. The information they have provided around the life history of the narrators of Aḥādīth and their views based on such information cannot be expected to be absolutely neutral. They suffered from human weaknesses like biasness which is inherent in human nature. This biasness we know is reflected in our views both for and against people.

One of the basic qualifications for a person who engages himself in the practice of jarḥ (disapproving) is that he should be a balanced personality. The individuals who take upon themselves the task of ta‘dīl (approving) need to be even more balanced; they need to show more intelligence.

The most careful approach with regards to jarḥ wa ta‘dīl, a surely difficult task, is that we conclude an overall view of the narrators in a chain of transmission, in the light of the data about their life and character. This general opinion regarding their character and conduct should never be considered final and conclusive. Consequently, it must not be taken as the only basis of judging the sound and the unsound Aḥādīth.

Third Limitation of the Isnād

No doubt the experts in the science have generally observed great care, yet they showed laxity in accepting Aḥādīth from ahl al-bid’ah (the innovators) including the rawāfiḍ (the extremist Shī’īs). It is obvious that with regards to the issue of innovators – the Shī’ī and rawāfiḍ for example – the muḥaddithūn have greatly compromised their principles. It has, however, been reported that Imām Mālik showed great care in this regard. Other great compilers and expert jurists including Imām Shāfi’ī, Imām Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and Imām Muslim, it is clear, did not hesitate from accepting narratives from ahl al-bid‘ah. The only care they observed was that they did not accept the narratives on the authority of those who not only innovated beliefs and practices but also openly professed their innovations and called upon people to follow them. This means that, to these scholars, it is not unacceptable to take a Hadīth transmitted by an innovator; what makes it unacceptable is an open profession and propagation of one’s innovations.

The truth of the matter is that, according to the Qur’ān, Aḥādīth and the overall teachings of the Prophet (sws), merely innovating something in the religion renders a person unreliable. That an innovator does not profess the innovation he practices is not relevant. The reason for this is that the Shī’ī, rawāfiḍ, esoteric and other similar schools are founded on deviance from the true religion. They cannot fulfill their duties to their sects unless they prove their deviant views by mixing untruth with the true teachings of the religion of God. They need to rely on Aḥādīth in their efforts to bring proofs validating their deviant views. They cannot help committing dishonesty in narrating Aḥādīth. The sects they belong to are after all based on innovations. They are not based on the received knowledge. They do not merely differ with the mainstream ummah over the interpretation of some verses of the Qur’ān or a few Aḥādīth. They, on the contrary, mostly differ with the ummah on the sources of religious knowledge in Islam. If someone is intent upon showing brotherly attitude and establishing positive relations with such people, they may well do so. However, in matters of religion of God this philosophy of co-existence and tolerance is evidently wrong and unacceptable.

To accept the Aḥādīth transmitted by the innovators is to open a door of dissension in the ummah. It has indeed caused great problems in the past. Merely being an innovator is sufficient proof of one’s unreliability as far as the narration of Aḥādīth is concerned. No one should accept the Aḥādīth transmitted by a follower of these sects even if he swears by God that he has stated the truth. I believe this is the correct view which accords with the Qur’ān and the Sunnah.

Fourth Limitation of the Isnād

The fourth inherent limitation of isnād is that major compilers have knowingly shown laxity with regards to the narratives containing exhortations and expressions of excellence of good deeds. They confined rigorous investigation to narratives dealing with the allowable and the forbidden (ḥalāl wa ḥarām). Khaṭīb has reported that Imām Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal said:

When we narrated from the Prophet (sws) something dealing with allowances, prohibitions, practices (sunan), and the commands, we applied strict criteria on the isnād and when we reported something dealing with the excellence of certain religious deeds, something which neither established nor cancelled any ruling, we showed laxity. We abandoned strict measures concerning the latter category of the narratives.1

This shows that the reports which contained some kind of religious rulings were important and crucial. They were put through harder test. Contrarily, the weak and unsound narratives were accepted in exhortations and warnings. The narratives of the latter category were thought to be very useful in calling people to practice religious observances and avoid the forbidden acts. The muḥaddithūn believed that these narratives would make the believers adopt piety. Similarly, the narratives on excellence of religious deeds were believed to encourage people on adopting virtue and piety. This notion made the muḥaddithūn record such weak and unreliable narratives in their works. We, however, need to analyze if this approach was justified or not.

An in-depth study and long analysis over the issue have led me to the conclusion that this view of the muḥaddithūn proved disastrous. The deviant views, myths and practices of the sufis and mystics (ahl-i taṣawwuf) are a product of laxity shown by the muḥaddithūn in this regard. Their acceptance of the weak narratives opened up doors to libraries of weak and unreliable narratives. Such weak reports gave birth to all unfounded religious concepts. People could pick up narratives to support a religious belief they cherished. Thus the “fruits” of the weak narratives did not remain confined to moral and religious improvement. These narratives negatively affected the basic beliefs and fundamental teachings of Islam. This trend, later on, got so current that new practices, beliefs and moral codes were innovated and passed on as part of the religion. The muḥaddithūn belatedly realized the encroachment of the mystics and declared it a great wrong to the religion of God. However, damage had already been done. The state of affairs were then beyond correction. The muḥaddithūn met with a pungent response that they had nothing better to do than to engage in backbiting. The activity of jarḥ wa ta‘dīl was merely based on backbiting, a ḥarām act, they were told. The mystics and the sufis were not bothered in the least by the findings of the muḥaddithūn. The view that the narratives containing directives, sunan and ḥalāl wa ḥarām should be critically analyzed and the narratives on targhīb wa tarhīb may not be rigorously investigated eventually proved wrong, rather poisonous and detrimental.

In reality, the laxity shown in accepting weak Aḥādīth in certain religious issues resulted in influx of unsound narratives. The books on sufism are replete with unfounded reports. It is no more a secret that these narratives have disfigured the true religion. It would not be an exaggeration to declare that a parallel concept of the religion has been erected on the mass of fabricated and weak narratives. This concept of the religion finds no basis and support in the practice and teaching of the Prophet (sws) and the rightly guided caliphs.


The isnād provides one of the fundamental criteria to help us in deciding the soundness or spuriousness of a Hadīth. However, it is not the only criterion in this exercise because, in spite of its intricacies, beauties, grandeur, and proximity to the ideal, the isnād remains short of objective data. It has its inherent limitations which cannot be overcome. It is, therefore, necessary that in order to find the truth, we continue judging the isnād and, in addition, use all other natural ways and methods to properly ascertain the true status of Aḥādīth.

(Translated from Mabādī Tadabbur-i Hadīth by Tariq Hashmi)







1. Khaṭīb Baghdādī, al-Kifāyah fī ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah (Haydrabad Deccan: Dā’irah al-Ma‘ārif al-‘Uthmāniyah, 1938), 134.

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