Islam / Theology /
Arabic: hadīth (sing.) 'ahadīth (pl.)
When the revelations received by Muhammed ended with his death in 632, many Muslims felt that there were questions needing explication, or simple answers, if only to shed more light on correct practice for specific situations. The knowledge of the correct practice is known as sunna, a term often used interchangeably with hadiths.
The actual collection of what today is known as hadiths, became a systematic science about 2 centuries after the death of Muhammad. Until then, there were stories on Muhammad's and his followers' lives called sira. To what extent these were used as guidance for Muslims is somewhat difficult to ascertain, but the collecting and systemizing of these stories two centuries later would not have been possible were it not for a system explaining the use of siras in the everyday life of Muslims.
When early Muslim scholars collected the siras, they used two methods. The first method weighed authenticity by testing the chain of the story's transmitters, isnad. Scholars would analyze how far back in time it was possible to trace the transmission, and whether the transmitters were reported to be honest people, etc. The other method compared stories, and the more a group of stories related to one another, the more reliable they were considered to be.
This scholarship resulted in 6 collections, or hadiths. Of these, the one assembled by the scholar Bukhari is considered to be the most scientifically accurate. Muslim's hadith is considered to be almost as good as Bukhari's. The other 4 also have high value, but most people reading the hadiths seldom venture beyond Bukhari and al-Muslim. The 4 are the following; Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud and an-Nisai.
According to the tradition, Bukhari had 7275 traditions validated out of a material of 600,000. Muslim collected 9,200 out of a total 300,000. Among of the high number of omitted traditions many were left out for being duplicates.
The value and accuracy of the hadiths should be regarded as fairly high, when judged by modern scholarship. The techniques used by these historians, resembles to a large extent that employed by cotemporary historians. Their achievement is so much the greater, however, because they had few historical models on which to rely. While several irregularities can be traced, little can be ascribed to lack of scientific honesty.
Yet, the greatest challenge of the earliest historians was that there were a large number of false traditions, reflected in the high number of unauthenticated traditions. Seen with a modern eye, it appears most likely that even among the authenticated traditions, there would be many false ones. It was all a question of the quality of the falsification; copying a good isnad would easily allow many wrong traditions into the hadiths.
The application of the hadiths is more problematic than most Muslims will admit. While the notion that the Koran is complete and all-inclusive is strong among Muslims, the hadiths are still frequently used, and the development of Muslim theology and law, Sharia, would have been impossible without them.
The development of Muslim lifestyles and theology probably relies as substantially on the hadiths as it does on the Koran. Nevertheless, the hadiths do not have the same weight and symbolic value to most Muslims as does the Koran.
The terms 'sunna' and 'hadith', sometimes even 'sira' are often mixed, simply because their meanings are so similar. Some collections of hadiths have even been titled using 'sunna'.