Answer: Muslims believe that the Prophet (sws) communicated
the religion to the world in two forms, the Holy Qur’ān and the Sunnah. The
contents of the religion are, therefore, contained in these two sources. The
Holy Qur’ān is the Book of God which the Prophet (sws) taught to the entire
generation of the Companions (rta) who communicated it to the next generation
with their consensus and it has reached us passing from generality to generality
in each layer. This makes the Book absolutely authentic without a shadow of
doubt. The Sunnah is the set of religious practices including the worship
rituals, social customs and etiquette etc. Just like the Holy Qur’ān, the Sunnah
too was taught by the Prophet (sws) to the entire generation of the Companions (sws)
who transmitted it to the next generation through their adherence to it and it
has reached us with the consensus of all the people in each generation of the
believers. This generality to generality transmission makes it absolutely
authentic like the Holy Qur’ān. No individual or scholar can add to the contents
of the religion contained in these two sources. No doubt is entertained
regarding their historical authenticity and no one questions their origin.
The status of the Hadīth of the Prophet (sws) is different.
It has not been transmitted through generality to generality. On the contrary,
it has been transmitted by individual to individual (khabar-e wāḥid).
Therefore, it does not yield absolutely certain knowledge. Muslims scholars and
the doctors of the science of Hadīth have always considered them a ẓannī
(probable) source and it has always been considered an explanatory source.
The obvious lack of certitude of knowledge obtained through
Hadīth required that the believers not accept everything that is reported to
them through a khabar-e wāḥid (individual to individual report). This is
precisely the reason that the scholars of the science of Hadīth decided to gauge
such reports on various scales before accepting it as the word or deed of the
Prophet (sws). We must appreciate that even after great care and thorough
checking a Hadīth remains short of yielding conclusive truth and certitude.
The Muslim scholars checked the isnād (chain of
transmitters) thoroughly to make sure that a saying attributed to the Prophet (sws)
reached them through a chain of reliable transmitters without a break. They also
analyzed the text of the reports as well. For example they did not accept a
report that contradicted the Qur’ān, the Sunnah, the conclusive arguments, human
reason and common sense. A Hadīth accepted by one scholar was never always taken
as authentic by the rest. We know that a particular Hadīth was acceptable to
Imām Malik while it was not that authentic for Imām Bukhārī. Similarly, Imām
Muslim, who was also a student of Imām Bukhārī did not accept all the narratives
included by the latter in his Ṣaḥīḥ. This is because the process of Hadīth
investigation involved much subjectivity. That is why a particular narrator and
his reports are reliable for one scholar and less or unreliable for another.
The process of Hadīth criticism goes on and the scholars
continue judging the narratives on the scales established by the muḥaddithūn
themselves. However, it does not mean that the Aḥādīth are of no use. Muslims
have always given the Ḥadīth due importance. After thorough research and
careful analysis they use it as an explanatory source. Muslim scholars have
always believed that they must turn to the Prophetic knowledge transmitted
through akhbār-i āḥād for a variety of purposes and in a number of cases. For
the Ḥadīth is one of the many sources that document the life history of the
Holy Prophet (sws), the best example he set in carrying out the religious
obligations and his interpretations of the religious sources. This entails that
no serious student of Islam can do without studying them at length.