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The Book is Two Books

Two Basic Categories of Ḥadīth Works1

By: Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Translated from the original Arabic by Ustadh Dr Abu Zayd


They asked: The compilations and works of the noble Prophetic ḥadīth from the first century to our day have become numerous, including the Ṣaḥīfah collections of the Companions and Followers2; the Jāmiʿ3 collections of Maʿmar4, Sufyān al-Thawrī5, Awzāʾī6, Ibn ʿUyaynah7 and Wakīʿ8; the Muwaṭṭaʾ9 collections; the Musnad10 compilations of Abū Dāwūd al-Ṭayālisī11, Musaddad b. Musarhad12, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal13, Baqīyy b. Makhlad14, and Abū Yaʿlā15; the two Muṣannaf16 compilations of ʿAbd al-Razzāq17 and Ibn Abī Shaybah18; the Ṣaḥīḥ compilations of Bukhārī19 and Muslim20; and the Books of the Sunan21. Are all of these books related to one another, similar in their methodologies and alike in their aims, or do they differ plainly?

I replied: They actually represent many kinds of works, but I will divide them for you into two basic classifications. Recognising their distinction, with respect to what is unique to each type and distinguishes it from the other, is indispensable. Not doing so drags one into error and confusion, afflicting even great people, not to mention other than them.

They asked: What are these two types?

I replied: Listen and understand.

1. Ḥadīth Registers

These are compilations in which scholars simply recorded their ḥadīth narrations and those of their teachers. Their only goal was to record these ḥadīth, either in their entirety or by way of selection. These were compiled without any particular arrangement, or with an arrangement without any specific intent. They were devoid of practical application or comprehension, without any regard for the subtleties of the principles of ḥadīth study or analysis, and without presenting any section introductions inclusive of proofs or supports.

The authors relied on these records for the purposes of audition and recital.22 These were often intermingled with the commentaries of their teachers, which included their deriving specific benefits, extracting specific meanings or clarifying potential defects in narrations. The teachers then presented these works to those taking ḥadīth from them, through narration or dictation. These books were recorded for a specific time and for specified individuals. The only ones who were able to benefit from these works are those who took them from their teachers, hearing from them directly or reading the texts back to them.

2. Ḥadīth Works Proper

These were written by scholars as fully authored books, independent from time and space, and inclusive of practical application, comprehension and clarification of potential defects. They placed therein prefaces and headings containing proofs and supporting evidences, aimed to have clear order, and elaborated on many matters. They observed due consideration for deriving rulings and extracting benefits, and linked subsidiary matters with their foundational principles. These are not merely records of ḥadīth but rather, designed to fulfill the goals and pursue the aims and objectives intended by their authors.

They asked: Elaborate for us what these two types are, with examples.

I replied: The first type includes the books of al-Thawrī, Awzāʾī, Ibn ʿUyaynah and Wakīʿ, in which they recorded their ḥadīth narrations, which their students in turn heard from them or read back to them. Their companions in turn recorded personal copies for themselves or made selections therefrom, and over time, these books eventually became parts of subsequent works in later generations.

The best examples of the second type are the Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī and Muslim. Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī is a work separated from time and space, whose author gathered within it ḥadīth narrations upon specific conditions, which are explained within the book. He divided the book with division headings that included the extrapolation of benefits and rulings, extracted in such intricate ways that astonished scholars and thinkers alike. Its astounding arrangement leaves jurists and scholars in wonder and amazement, reinforcing the notion that sound ḥadīth are sufficient for our religion.

His book encompasses two aims:

  1. Collecting sound ḥadīth and clarifying what is necessary regarding their [potential] defects or other issues relating to their chain or text, as well as reinforcing his own views and choices with supporting narrations.23
  2. Demonstrating the applications of ḥadīth and elaborating on their meanings through their arrangement, division and chapter headings, relying on proofs and evidences, as well as affirming and laying out basic principles in the fundamentals and peripherals of religion, along with repeating ḥadīth and distinguishing various textual wordings in order to bring new benefits.24

The author of Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim compiled it to gather sound ḥadīth, which, according to him, are those that were narrated by the transmitters of the first rank who possessed moral uprightness, steadfastness, strong memories and expertise of the likes of Imām Mālik, Shuʿbah25, Sufyān al-Thawrī, Ḥammād b. Zayd26 and others. The ḥadīth of this generation are exhausted comprehensively.27 The author then follows up these ḥadīth with those of the second rank, who are lesser than the first in memory and expertise while being similar in moral uprightness. This material was not exhausted entirely, but he chose from them what he needed for supporting evidences. And if there were some potential defects in the primary-tier ḥadīth28, he would clarify that at the ends of the chapters. Muslim highly excelled in the arrangement of ḥadīth and originated methodologies not used previously, making it the single best work of ḥadīth craftsmanship. He demonstrated the wonders of this discipline in the best way and manner possible. He surpassed those who preceded him and frustrated those who came after him, leaving behind a singular, unique book in its field.

Those who examine these two works should really understand their aims, features and distinctions, and not treat them like the ḥadīth registers.

They asked: Which of the two types does the Muwaṭṭaʾ fall into?

I replied: Into the first type.

They asked: Is this not an insult to the Muwaṭṭaʾ that it be placed among the ḥadīth registers?

I replied: Of course not. What kind of insult would this be? Rather, it is from the merits of Mālik—and those who were like him—that he did not restrict people to his book nor compel the ummah to it. This was the way of the scholars of Islām as well as those of other traditions. Even the books of Aristotle and other philosophers were nothing but lessons and lectures delivered to their pupils, who in turn restricted them [to specific works].

They asked: So what then is the benefit of the ḥadīth registers?

I replied: They are compilations of the narrations of their authors, clear and precise, which the students heard and read upon their teachers. They did so without necessarily confining themselves to their teachers’ understandings and manners of extrapolation and derivation, but at the same time benefiting from them in the two matters (simple narration as well as comprehension).29 Later, the students compiled for those after them the lessons of their teachers in the application and extrapolation of ḥadīth texts.30 And it was from this same starting point that even Aristotle began his own philosophical school, and some of the most intelligent people followed him.31

They asked: What is the confusion and error that results from not being aware of the difference between these two types?

I replied: Many people treated ḥadīth works like the ḥadīth registers, studying them and commenting upon them as mere collections of ḥadīth, without pointing to the special features and characteristics that were placed therein by their authors. For example, the commentaries of the two Ṣaḥīḥ collections are merely explanations of their individual ḥadīth narrations, as are texts like Baghawī’s Sharḥ al-Sunnah32 and Khaṭṭābī’s Maʿālim al-Sunan33. There would be no real difference if one were to replace the commentary in these works with commentaries from other works concerning the same ḥadīth.

They asked: Is there any commentary that is an exception to this?

I replied: I refuse to accept any exception to this other than Fatḥ al-Bārī,34 for it is a commentary of the entirety of Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, inclusive of all of its features and characteristics.

They asked: Do you find in it any faults at all?

I replied: Which single book is free of errors and mistakes? If the Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī is the soundest book after the Book of Allah, then Fatḥ al-Bārī is the best commentary, with the highest and noblest rank. Truthful was the one who said, “There is no migration after the Fatḥ.”35


1 The literal phrase of the title: “The book is actually two books,” is used as an eloquent reference to the notion that ḥadīth works are actually two basic types. In that sense, it would mean, “The basic ḥadīth work is actually two types of works.” Its usage is taken from the commentary of the following verse:

يَمْحُو اللَّهُ مَا يَشَاءُ وَيُثْبِتُ وَعِندَهُ أُمُّ الْكِتَاب

Allah eliminates what He wills or confirms what He wills, and with Him is the Mother of the Book. [Qurʾān al-Raʿd 13:39]

Ṭabarī relates from ʿIkrimah as well as from his teacher Ibn ʿAbbās that this verse means that the Book of God’s decree is actually two different Books (al-kitābu kitābān): one that He changes as He pleases and one “source” Book that is unchanging.

2 Many Companions and Successors were known to have kept written compilations known as Ṣaḥīfah collections, which survived for many years but were mostly absorbed into later compilations. These early ad hoc collections, written on papyrus, parchment and early materials, followed no uniform pattern or methodology, and were primarily memory aids for their writers, containing skeletons of ḥadīth, often mixed with supplications and notes. The emphasis on this stage was mostly oral transmission. At least 50 Companions were known to have possessed such collections. —Dr. Jonathan AC Brown, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oneworld Publications. 2009.

3 The Jāmiʿ is a comprehensive ḥadīth compilation inclusive of not only legal rulings, but also additional topics such as tafsīr, aqīdah and heart softeners.

4 Maʿmar b. Rāshid (d. 153/770) was an early ḥadīth scholar from Baṣrah whose most famous student was ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī.

5 He was the renowned ḥadīth and fiqh scholar of Kūfah who died in 161/778.

6 ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Awzāʾī (d. 157/774) was a great jurist of the Levant (born in Syria, settled in present-day Lebanon) and founder of a legal school that did not ultimately survive.

7 Sufyān b. ʿUyaynah (d. 198/815) was the great jurist and ḥadīth scholar of Makkah, and originator of the first ḥadīth tradition—which continues to this day—of narrating to students the ḥadīth of mercy before any other.

8 Wakīʿ b. al-Jarrāḥ (d. 197/813) was a renowned scholar of Iraq known for his great piety, prodigal memory, and aloofness from the rulers, who was a student of Abū Ḥanīfah and Sufyān al-Thawrī, and, later, the teacher of Shāfiʿī and Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal among others.

9 The Muwaṭṭaʾ was famously compiled by Imām Mālik of Madīnah (d. 179/795)—with others following him—and represented a subclass of the Muṣannaf genre of ḥadīth works, which were basically topically arranged fiqh-oriented ḥadīth works that represented the first organised works of Islamic scholarship.

10 These ḥadīth works were organised by the isnād, usually grouped by Companions, and occurred in the backdrop of greater attention on the isnād in the 3rd century. These musnad works were storehouses and comprehensive collections of narrations, sometimes with little regard for authenticity. —Dr. Jonathan AC Brown, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oneworld Publications. 2009.

11 Abū Dāwūd al-Ṭayālisī (d. 203/819) was a Persian-origin ḥadīth expert of Baṣrah who authored a Musnad work, not to be confused with the more famous Abū Dāwūd, author of one of the Six Canonical Works.

12 Musaddad b. Musarhad (d. 228/843) was a great ḥadīth expert of Baṣrah who compiled a Musnad collection. Apart from Muslim and Ibn Mājah, the rest of the six authors of the ḥadīth canon related from him.

13 Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241/855) is the author of the most famous Musnad collection.

14 Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Baqīyy b. Makhlad (d. 276/889) was a ḥadīth scholar of Cordoba, Spain, who famously traveled the width of the Muslim world to learn ḥadīth from Imām Aḥmad. He compiled a 24-volume Musnad work—now lost—which was thought to possibly be the largest book of ḥadīth ever compiled.

15 Abū Yaʿlā al-Mauṣilī (d. 307/919) was a ḥadīth expert of Mauṣil, Iraq.

16 See footnote 8 above.

17 ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 211/826) was an early ḥadīth scholar of Yemen and author of many works, of which only the Muṣannaf survived.

18 Abū Bakr ʿAbdullah b. Muḥammad b. Abī Shaybah (d. 235/849) was great ḥadīth scholar of Kūfah. He inherited the teaching position of ʿAbdullah b. Masʿūd in the masjid. After Ibn Masʿūd, it was occupied by ʿAlqamah, followed by Ibrāhīm, followed by Manṣūr, followed by Sufyān al-Thawrī, followed by Wakīʿ and then Ibn Abī Shaybah.

19 Compiled over 16 years through extensive research and travel and from over 1,000 teachers and from 600,000 narrations, the Ṣaḥīḥ of Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) is the single-most authoritative ḥadīth collection in Sunni Islam, containing 9,082 ḥadīth (2,602 discounting repetitions) arranged in 106 books and 3,450 chapters. This collection stands out for the in-depth knowledge and insight it provides concerning ḥadīth. One thousand students listened to the collection from the Imām and transmitted it to posterity, though some figures put the number at 90,000.

20 Containing 10,000 ḥadīth (3,030 without repetitions) and having took 15 years to complete, the Ṣaḥīḥ of Imām Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj (d. 261/875) is considered the second most authoritative work (or ranked first by some) and described as better consolidated, with superior thematic arrangement, and easier to use than Bukhārī’s work. However, it lacks al-Bukhārī’s legal commentary and insights, as well as his use of reports from Companions and early scholars to supplement the primary material.

21 Representing the pinnacle of ḥadīth scholarship, these later works (Ṣaḥīḥ and Sunan) combined the two earlier genres (Muṣannaf and Musnad) to produce topically arranged works with full isnāds and greater regard for authenticity. Sunan compilations are topically arranged, legal ḥadīth works. Unlike the Muṣannaf genre, they only contain Prophetic ḥadīth, reflecting their aim to collate ḥadīth rather than fiqh.

22 The traditional method of ḥadīth transmission was primarily two-fold: though audition (samāʿ), which consisted of passively hearing ḥadīth directly from the mouths of the teachers; or recital (qirāʾah), in which the ḥadīth are actively read by the students to the teacher.

23 Mutābaʿāt are those secondary narrations that represent a lower degree of authenticity and are used only as supporting evidences for the primary, more authentic ḥadīth material. Similarly, muʿallaqāt are those narrations, also of lesser authenticity, which Bukhārī quotes—often without isnād—in his chapter headings to achieve the same purpose. Lack of awareness of this secondary, lesser-tier material in Bukhārī has led to much confusion among critics.

24 The well-known saying about Bukhārī is quite apt here:

فقه البخاري في تراجمه

“The real genius of Bukhārī is found in his arrangement and chapter headings.”

The real contributions of Bukhārī are therefore manifold: providing evidences of the highest-tier of authenticity possible, providing ample secondary evidences to bolster the primary proofs, demonstrating applications of ḥadīth through their arrangements in various chapters, spelling out his views in the chapter headings, quoting other non-ḥadīth material therein, repeating the same ḥadīth throughout the work in various chapters to support multiple applications of the same texts, and bringing out multiple textual variations of ḥadīth to support more nuanced applications.

25 Shuʿbah b. al-Ḥajjāj (d. 160/777) was a prominent ḥadīth scholar of Iraq who was one of the first to earn the title the “King of Ḥadīth” (amīr al-muʾminīn fil ḥadīth). When he died, Sufyān al-Thawrī remarked that ḥadīth itself died.

26 Ḥammād b. Zayd (d. 179/795) was a Persian-origin ḥadīth expert of Baṣrah, Iraq.

27 i.e. All of this primary-tier ḥadīth material is produced in the Ṣaḥīḥ in a comprehensive and all-inclusive manner.

28 A deeper and more nuanced study of ḥadīth shows that is quite possible, and even common, for the bulk of a ḥadīth narration to be authentic, while the narration still suffers from some hidden defect in a smaller portion that does not affect the overall authenticity. Scholars like Bukhārī and Muslim fulfilled their responsibility diligently to point these out in their works. Muslim does this at the ends of the chapters whereas Bukhārī often utilises the chapter headings for this purpose.

29 To reiterate, these “register-works” were basic, skeletal compilations of ḥadīth texts, used by students to learn from their teachers face-to-face, in live instruction. They were never intended to provide the principles or methodologies of these teachers. Those principles and methodologies (i.e. comprehension) was taught in the live instruction sessions, utilising the raw material, if you will, of these skeletal texts.

30 It was later on that students added to these works, or compiled separate ones, in which they added the principles, approaches and methodologies of these great teachers.

31 Dr. Akram is pointing out that even the Hellenistic tradition had a similar origin, in that the Aristotelian school was born from initial correspondences and instructions between Aristotle and his students, and later evolving into a more coherent and systematic school.

32 Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn b. Masʿūd al-Baghawī (d. 510/1117) was a prolific scholar from the village of Bagh near Herāt who authored a number of famous works, including a tafsīr work and the above work, which is a commentary of the most widely accepted ḥadīth narrations from the various works of ḥadīth.

33 Abū Sulaymān Hamd b. Muḥammad al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 388/988) was a great Shāfiʿī scholar hailing from the Halmand province of present-day Afghanistan who wrote, among other works, Maʿālim al-Sunan as a commentary of the Sunan of Abū Dāwūd.

34 The monumental commentary to the Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī authored by the renowned ḥadīth expert Ibn Ḥajar of Aschelon (d. 852/1449).

35 This is a well-known ḥadīth of the Prophet referring to the “Opening” (Fatḥ) of Makkah, whose words were borrowed to describe this commentary, also aptly named the “Opening” (Fatḥ):

 لَا هِجرة بعد الفاتح

There is no migration after the Opening.