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IslamQA: The issues surrounding the reliability of authentic narrations (al-Bukhari and Muslim)

I'm the one who asked for the explanation of how we should deal with hadiths. Thank you for your answer, it put things to perspective. Is there any book in which the author (scholar) himself has done the Quranic focused model of hadith as you described it, so I don't have to read directly from saheeh Muslim/bukhari. I read in a book that saheeh Muslim/bukhari have full isnad so how can any of them still be wrong?Also is there any book that can help me understand Qur'an better?

The science of hadith is an effort at historical reconstruction, which is an inherently subjective and error-prone effort. While hadith scholars considered the full isnād the “gold standard” of hadith reliability, early authorities like al-Hasan al-Basri are quoted saying that they did not mention full isnads for hadiths they had heard from multiple people, meaning that the hadiths they mentioned that lacked full isnāds (known as mursal hadiths) were actually more authentic because they had come down from multiple reliable sources.

Then there is the issue of the Prophet’s career . A hadith may mention something from year 15 of his career that was superseded a year or two later by a Quranic verse or a different practice. The great Egyptian 20th-century scholar of Islamic law Abu Zahra used this argument (among others) to go against the consensus of the hadith scholars in his rejection of the punishment of stoning adulterers. Imam Malik, who is considered perhaps the most reliable authority on hadith transmission in all of Islamic history, being part of something known as the Golden Chain, rejected narrations that were known to be authentic because they clashed with the practice of the devout Muslims of the city of Medina, which Malik considered more authoritative than hadith narrations.1

The majority of hadith narrations, including authentic hadith narrations, belong to a category known as āḥād (“solitary”) hadiths, which according to the field of jurisprudence (fiqh) are inherently doubtful. Scholars of hadith consider any authenticated hadith authentic, while scholars of fiqh require multiply-transmitted narrations to establish authenticity.

The practice of judging a person in an isnād trustworthy or not is sometimes extremely subjective. Hadith scholars who disliked someone for disagreeing with them on some theological or legal issue would retaliate by declaring that person untrustworthy. Sometimes a scholar would throw away the entirety of another scholar’s narrated hadith narrations after a quarrel.2

For a beginner’s guide to the issues surrounding hadith authenticity, see Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad.

As far as I know there hasn’t been an effort to create new collections of hadith based on considering the Quran more authoritative than hadith. Such a work cannot be done by one person or a dozen, it will likely require centuries of work. What can be done is studying all the narrations having to do with one particular issue that is under discussion, such as whether drawing living things should be permissible or not, or whether music is permissible or not (my opinion and that of many modern scholars is that they are permissible). Studying just a single issue can take years because you have to bring together hundreds of narrations from a dozen or more collections, then you have to study the opinions of a dozen or more hadith scholars on each of the hundreds of people involved in their transmission, then you have to study the opinions of a dozen or more scholars on the contents of the hadith narrations.

What is needed is what I call the empirical study of hadith which ignores questions of which sect or group or cult one belongs to and uses the scientific method used by historians to judge the evidence. And instead of using the simplistic authentic vs. non-authentic framework (which is not actually used by hadith scholars, who are aware of the shades of authenticity that separates different authentic narrations), we should use a framework that admits the various shades of reliability that separate narrations. One narration may be 99% likely to be true while another might be 95% likely. One “reliable” hadith transmitter can be far more reliable (having a better memory, better knowledge and understanding of the hadiths they transmitted) than another “reliable” transmitter, and these differences between different transmitters should be taken into account.

The Western Islamic studies tradition has made important progress in the empirical study of hadith, some of which can be seen in Harald Motzki’s Analysing Muslim Traditions: Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghazi Hadith. This is a completely new way of studying Islam that has the power to accomplish what I described above since the evidence is not judged according to who belongs to what camp but according to the actual historical evidence.

20th century Western scholars like Ignaz Goldziher, Joseph Schacht and Patricia Crone, despite their thorough scholarship, had a hyper-skeptical attitude toward hadith narrations, considering most of the literature potentially false and fabricated until proven otherwise. These views have been largely discredited today. Hadiths represent a true historical record rather than fabrication on an industrial scale.

As for what a Muslim should when dealing with such a complex issue, it is actually quite simple. Hold on to the Quran. The Quran contains sufficient guidance for 99% of a Muslim’s life. What remains are all side issues, such as the proper to say the aḏān and how many times one should raise their hands during the ṣalāh. In such matters, you can follow the well-established opinions of the scholars, except in cases where your reason or conscience make you think that some opinion might be false. In these rare cases, you can do research and find out the differing opinions on it and follow the one that seems most sensible. The Quran itself is usually a sufficient criterion for judging such issues. If a person says that Islam should be forced on others and has some hadith to back up this opinion, the Quran’s principle of religious freedom (in verse 2:256) should take precedence regardless of the hadith. This is a highly simplified example, but in general, the Quran’s ethics and morality should always be paramount and no hadith should be allowed to override and corrupt its teachings.

Regarding understanding the Quran better, Abdel Haleem’s translation is extremely helpful due to its large number of footnotes clarifying the verses.


  1. See Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Mālik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period , Brill, 2013.
  2. See Shahab Ahmed, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam, Harvard University Press, 2017.
And God knows best.
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