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The True Meaning of Ṣaḥīḥ

By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford
Translated by Dr. Abu Zayd


They asked: What is the true meaning of the ṣaḥīḥ (sound) ḥadīth?

I replied: Experts of this discipline have used it for a variety of meanings, all of which have in common the reliability or verification of a report’s attribution to its source.

Three-Tier Usage of Ṣaḥīḥ

They asked: What are the most notable of these meanings?

I replied: There are three broad usages of the term ṣaḥīḥ:

The first usage of ṣaḥīḥ is for a report that is attributed to the Prophet which fulfils five conditions:

  1. Contiguous chain: There must be clear continuity of the chain without any missing link or deception on the part of any narrator (tadlīs).
  2. Moral uprightness: Each narrator from the beginning to the end of the chain must be described as truthful in word and action, as known by the people of his or her era.
  3. Accuracy: There must be accuracy and precision in each narrator, whether through memory or writing, and safety from any distortion, misrepresentation, gross mistakes or negligence. Here, certain narrators distinguished themselves over others through the length of their companionship and fellowship with their teachers.
  4. The absence of contradictory elements: The narration must not be opposed by another one that is known to be stronger, either in number of chains or in its content.
  5. Being free of any hidden weaknesses: There must be reasonable certainty that the report does not contain any subtle missing links while being apparently connected, is not erroneously raised to the Prophet, or does not contain a mistaken addition to the text, or a misrepresentation, distortion, substitution, or any other similar more elusive defects.

These conditions are specific to the Ṣaḥīḥ compilations of the two great Imāms and experts Abū ʿAbdullah Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) and Abū al-Ḥusayn Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī (d. 261/875). Both of their compilations did not miss any single one of these conditions, nor did they surpass them, except in their secondary material (supporting and witnessing narrations and chapter headings).

The second usage of ṣaḥīḥ is for those reports that are narrated by trustworthy individuals through a chain that is overtly connected, as well as for some reports of unknown individuals who were otherwise accepted by early experts and critics like Mālik, Shuʿbah and their likes.

This is the meaning of the term ṣaḥīḥ when used by the majority of the early ḥadīth scholars like Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and his companions, Abū Dāwūd, Tirmidhī, and even Bukhārī and Muslim in their other works apart from their two Ṣaḥīḥ compilations.

The third usage is for any report related by transmitters who have not been accused of lying, major mistakes or gross negligence. This is the meaning of ṣaḥīḥ for Ibn Khuzaymah, Ḥākim, Ibn Ḥibbān and others.

Where Does the Muwaṭṭaʾ Fit In?

They asked: Why have you not included the Muwaṭṭaʾ in the first category?

I replied: For two simple reasons: first, because the Muwaṭṭaʾ being a more complex work can belong to this category as well as others, and second, everything that it contains from the first category of ṣaḥīḥ reports is already found in the two Ṣaḥīḥ collections.


The Conditions of Bukhārī and Muslim Are in Two Tiers

They asked: Why do you believe that Bukhārī and Muslim did not miss a single of these five conditions? Is it not established that they did miss some of these conditions in their ṣaḥīḥ reports?

I replied: No, it is indeed as I have stated. Bukhārī and Muslim did not miss any of these conditions in their first-tier ṣaḥīḥ reports but only in their second-tier ṣaḥīḥ reports.

They asked: Provide an example of Bukhārī declaring a report as ṣaḥīḥ that is outside of his Ṣaḥīḥ work and does not fulfil the conditions of that work.

I replied: Tirmidhī states in his work, in the Book on Purity (Ṭahārah), Chapter: [What has been related about the one with excessive uterine bleeding that she can combine two prayers with one washing]:

Muḥammad b. Bashshār related to me: Abū ʿĀmir al-ʿAwadī related to me: Zuhayr b. Muḥammad related to me: from ʿAbdullah b. Muḥammad b. ʿUqayl: from Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ṭalḥah: from his uncle ʿImrān b. Ṭalḥah: from his mother Ḥamnah bint Jahsh, who said: I was suffering from excessive and severe bleeding, so I came to the Prophet to seek his advice…

Abū ʿĪsā (Tirmidhī) then states: This ḥadīth is ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ… I asked Muḥammad (i.e. Bukhārī) about this ḥadīth and he declared that it is ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ. And this is also what Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal said.

They asked: Give us also an example of a ḥadīth authenticated by Imām Muslim which he did not include in his Ṣaḥīḥ.

I replied: Muslim states in his Ṣaḥīḥ:

In the ḥadīth transmitted by Jarīr on the authority of Sulaymān from Qatādah, there is the addition: “When [the Qurʾān] is recited [in prayer], you should observe silence.”

And the following words are not found in a hadith narrated by anyone except by Abū Kāmil from Abū ʿAwānah: “Verily God vouchsafed through the tongue of God’s Messenger this: ‘God listens to him who praises Him.’”

Abū Isḥāq (a student of Imam Muslim) said: Abū Bakr the son of Abū Naḍr’s sister has critically discussed this ḥadīth. Imam Muslim said to him: Whom can you find who is more authentic as a transmitter of ḥadīth than Sulaymān? Abū Bakr replied to him (Imam Muslim): What about the hadith narrated by Abū Hurayrah, i.e. the hadith that when the Qurʾān is recited (in prayer) observe silence? Muslim replied: That ḥadīth is ṣaḥīḥ in my estimation. Abū Bakr then asked: Then, why have you not included it (in your compilation)? Muslim replied: I have not included in this work every ḥadīth which I deem authentic, but I have recorded only such ḥadīth reports upon which there is agreement.

The meaning of “upon which there is agreement” is that it is ṣaḥīḥ with conditions that are agreed upon by the experts, which is the first type of ṣaḥīḥ we have previously alluded to.