The history of the compilation of Hadith may be broadly divided into four stages:
1. The first stage relates to the period of the Prophet till 10 A.H.
2. The second stage is approximately from 11 A.H. to 100 A.H. This is the period of Sahaba, the companions of the Prophet.
3. The third stage is from about 101 to nearly 200 A.H. This is the period of the Tabiun, the disciples of the companions of the Prophet.
4. The fourth stage is roughly from 200 A.H. to 300 A.H. This is the period of Taba Tabiun, the disciples of the disciples.
Compilation During the Period of the Prophet
During the life of the Prophet there was no regular compilation of the traditions, for they were not generally recorded in writing. However, they were orally transmitted, with great accuracy of detail, thanks to the Arabs’ exceptionally retentive memories.
1. Some companions had, however, prepared written collections of traditions for their own personal use. Those companions, in particular, who had weaker memories used to write them down for memorizing and preservation. These were also dictated to their disciples.
2. Then there were those companions who had administrative offices arranged for written copies of traditions, so that they might carry out their duties in the true spirit of Islam. For instance, while appointing Amr ibn Hazm as the governor of Yaman, the Prophet himself gave him a letter containing the times of prayer, methods of prayer, details of ablution, booty, taxation, zakat, etc.
3. Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-As, a young Makkan, also used to write down all that he heard from the Prophet. He had even asked the Prophet if he could make notes of all that he said. The Prophet replied in the affirmative. Abdullah called this compilation Sahifah Sadiqa (The Took of the Truth). It was later incorporated into the larger collection of Imam Ahmad ibn Hambal.
4. Anas, a young Madinan, was the Prophet’s personal attendant. Since Anas remained with the Prophet day and night, he had greater opportunities than the other companions to listen to his words. Anas had written down the tradition on scrolls. He used to unroll these documents and say: “These are the sayings of the Prophet, which I have noted and then also read out to him to have any mistakes corrected.”
5. Ali ibn Abi Talib was one of the scribes of the Prophet. The Prophet once dictated to him and he wrote on a large piece of parchment on both sides. He also had a sahifa (pamphlet) from the Prophet which was on zakat (the poor due) and taxes.
Besides these there were some other documents dictated by the Prophet himself — official letters, missionary letters, treaties of peace and alliance addressed to different tribes— all these were later incorporated into larger collections of Hadith.
Compilations of the Time of the Companions of the Prophet.
After the death of the Prophet, interest in Hadith literature increased greatly on two accounts. Firstly, the Companions who knew the Hadith at first hand were gradually passing away. Their number continued to diminish day by day. Therefore, people became more keen to preserve the precious Hadith literature that had been stored in their memories. Secondly, the number of converts was growing and they showed great eagerness to learn as much about the traditions as possible.
This was the age of the rightly guided Caliphs. In this age the Companions had settled in almost all the countries conquered by the Muslims. People flocked to them to hear traditions from them. Thus a number of centres for the learning of traditions came into existence with these Companions as the focus. When a disciple had learned all the traditions he could from one Companion, he would go to the next Companion and so on, collecting as many traditions as possible. The zeal of these disciples was so great that they undertook long journeys to collect traditions from different Companions.
In this period, there were not many regular compilations. This was rather the period of collecting traditions. The work of compilation took place on a large scale during the age of Tabiun, the disciples of the disciples.
The Age of Tabiun from 101 to nearly 200 A.H.
This is the age of the followers of the companions of the Prophet. They devoted their entire lives to collecting traditions from different centres of learning, with the result that a large number of traditions were preserved. Now it became possible to collect several memoirs in larger volumes.
Mohd. ibn Shihab Al Zuhri, the first regular compiler, was one of the most distinguished traditionists. Ibn Shihab Zuhri and Abu Bakr Al-Hazm were asked by Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, the Umayyad caliph, to prepare a collection of all available traditions. Umar bin Abul Aziz wrote to Abu Bakr Al Hazm: “Whatever sayings of the Prophet can be found, write them down, for I fear the loss of knowledge and disappearance of learned men, and do not accept anything but the Hadith of the Holy Prophet, and people should make knowledge public.”
The compilations made in this period do not exist today independently, having been incorporated into the larger collections of the later period. These collections were not exhaustive works on Hadith. Their nature was that of individual collections.
After the individual compilations of this period, comes the Al Muwatta of Imam Malik (716-795), the first regular work which contained a well-arranged collection of traditions. The number of the traditions collected by him is put at 1700. This came to be accepted as a standard work.
In this period the traditions respectively of the Prophet and his companions, and the decisions / edicts of the Tabiun were collected together in the same volume. However, it was mentioned with each narration whether it was that of the Prophet, his companions or of the followers.
The Third Age of Taba Tabiun (Followers of the Successors)
This age of the followers of the companions’ successors from 200 to 300 A.H., is the golden age in Hadith literature.
1. In this age the Prophet’s traditions were separated from the reports of the companions and their successors.
2. The authentic traditions were very carefully and painstakingly sifted from the “weak” traditions and then these were compiled in book-form.
3. Elaborate rules were framed, canons were devised to distinguish the true from the false traditions in accordance with clear principles.
The main attention of scholars who engaged themselves in the critical scrutiny of Hadith was given to the recorded chains of witnesses (isnad); whether the dates of birth and death and places of residence of witnesses in different generations were such as to have made it possible for them to meet, and whether they were trustworthy. This activity, to be properly carried out, involved some feeling for the authenticity of the text itself; an experienced traditionist would develop a sense of discrimination.
All traditions therefore fall into three general categories: (sahih) sound, having a reliable and uninterrupted isnad and a (matn) text that does not contradict orthodox belief; (hasan) good those with an incomplete isnad or with transmitters of questionable authority. (dhaif) weak those whose matn or transmitters are subject to serious criticism.
By the use of these criteria the Hadith scholars were able to classify the traditions according to their degrees of reliability.
This is the period in which six authentic collections of traditions were compiled. These works are considered standard works on Hadith, and are known as the six correct books (sihah-e-sittah). The authors’ names and book titles are as follows:
1. Muhammad b. Ismail al Bukhari, (194 A.H.-256 A.H.): Sahih. This work is next to the Quran in authenticity.
2. Muslim bin Qushairi (204 A.H.-261 A.H.): Sahih. This is the next most important work on Hadith.
3. Ibn Majah (202 A.H.-275 A.H.): Sunan
4. Abu Isa al Tirmizi (209 A.H.-279 A.H.): Jame
5. Abu Abdur Rahman an Nasai (214 A.H.-303 A.H.): Sunan
6. Abu Da‘ud (202 A.H.-275 A.H.): Sunan