While the Qur=an is at the core of Islamic faith, it is not the only source for Islamic religious beliefs.
After the reign of >Abd al-Malik came to an end in 705 C.C., there were legal, ascetic, and philosophical movements that exerted some influence on Muslim thought. None of them, however, adequately interpreted the nature of Islamic corporate identity. The creed of Abu Hanifa did emphasize the importance of knowing God and publicly professing faith in him, but it was probably not widely accepted before 750 C.C. What needed to emerge to provide a genuine basis for solidarity was a scriptural authority complementary to the Qur=an but more specific in detail, avowedly Arab in content yet also Islamic in tone.
Toward the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 C.C., a group of pious Muslims emerged who began to develop a core of Muslim thought which advanced the principle of jama=a. These pious Muslims were known as Qur=an reciters. They were trained to intone the scriptural core of Islamic faith on ritual, public occasions. They also circulated among themselves reports about what the Prophet and his companions had said or done that would be relevant for those attempting to lead a fully pious Islamic life.
The reports that were circulated by the Qur=an reciters soon became a body of literature that is today known as the hadith. These reports, with their text and verifiable line of transmitters, became the basis for constructing the biography of Muhammad. Some of the reports provided background information for the occasions on which passages in the Qur=an had been revealed to Muhammad. Others described the Prophet=s reaction to skirmishes and battles in which Muhammad had participated. These reports -- these hadith -- thus became supplementary to the Qur=an in detail and complementary to the Qur=an in authority.
However, the original hadith were not immediately evaluated, arranged, and compiled as independent books of particular importance for Islamic jurisprudence -- for fiqh. The potential of the hadith for defining Muslim corporate and private modes of conduct was still unrealized. Extraordinary fluidity in range of material and scope of interpretation continued to characterize legal, doctrinal, ascetic, and philosophical issues to the end of the Umayyad period.
The literal translation of the Arabic word Ahadith@ is Atalk, speech or narrative@. In Islam, the hadith is a narrative -- a Atradition@ -- which reports what Muhammad said, did, approved or disapproved. The hadith also reports what Muhammad was like in appearance or character.
Hadith refers not only to a single tradition, but as a collective noun also to the entire corpus of tradition preserved and recorded by Muslims. Technically, the term applies to the unit composed of the matn, or text, of the report and the isnad, or supporting Achain@ of transmitters through which the text has been handed down from the Prophet=s time to that of the latest transmitter.
Among Muslims generally, and especially among Sunnis, the hadith has served together with the Qur=an as the major source of authoritative guidance for human affairs, both in more narrowly Alegal@ issues and in all other aspects of communal and personal life. If the function of the Qur=an in Muslim life can be likened to that of Christ in Christian life, one Islamic analogy for the Christian New Testament would be the hadith. Historical information, legal precedents, exhortations to piety, rules for personal hygiene and ritual action, and stories about God, his angels, his prophets, and the Last Day are all contained in the hadith. Thus, the hadith is a detailed supplement and guide to the Qur=anic message upon which Islamic ideas and institutions, faith and society, have been founded and flourished for fourteen hundred years.
With the death of the Prophet, active Islamic revelatory and prophetic guidance came to an end. The only recourse for interpretation of the vision of human life and community that had created the Muslim umma -- the Muslim community -- was now to the Qur=anic Arecitations@ and the remembered words and actions of Muhammad. It was thus logical that traditions -- narratives concerning the Prophet -- would be early sought after, collected and passed on within the Islamic community and that these narratives would come to serve as the vehicle of the Sunna -- as a surrogate for Muhammad, in much the way that the Qur=an as a book served as surrogate for active revelation after the Prophet=s death. Similarly, where the caliphs became the temporal Asuccessors@ to Muhammad, those Muslims who dedicated themselves to conserving the hadith alongside the Qur=an became the spiritual Asuccessors@ of the Prophet.
The first 150 years of Islam saw ever increasing attention devoted to preservation of the extra-Quranic heritage of Muhammad and the early Medinan umma, which in practice meant the preservation of hadith. Although the first half of this period is hard to reconstruct in detail, it now seems certain that written records went hand-in-hand with oral reports, and by the mid-second century of Islam both the use of the isnad and the evaluation and collection of hadith reports were well established. The Ajourney in search of knowledge@ had become a respected institution by which the diparate centers of learning in the Islamic empire were bound together in the cultivation of hadith and associated scholarship.
By the third Islamic century (during the 800s of the Christian calendar), the Acomprehensive@ collections of tradition made their appearance. Some of these compilations have been so widely relied upon by later Islam that they can be called in some sense Astandard@. Sunnis have at least nine and Shi=ites three standard hadith. The major Sunni works are the Asix books@ of Bukhari, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasa=i and Ibn Majah. In some locales, the hadith of Darimi replaces that of Ibn Majah while in
the hadith of Malik ibn Anas is relied upon in lieu of Darimi=s.
The Musnad of Ibn Hanbal is also of major importance, although not considered as rigorous in its criteria for selection as the others. Among Shi=ites, where many hadiths are traced back to Ali and the imams, the most revered collection is al-Kafi of al-Kulini. The works of al-Qummi and al-Tusi are also well respected.
Traditional Muslim scholarship devoted massive energy to the study and criticism of hadith. Concern for the probity of the transmitters in the isnad was a major stimulus to stunning achievements in biographical lexicography: careful evaluation of individual transmitters in each generation after Muhammad, and complex classification of isnads and hadiths according to their qualities and defects. Although such interests, especially the biographical ones, date from at least as early as the second Islamic century, it was only two hundred years later that the formal Asciences of tradition@ -- >ulum al-hadith -- in these areas began to receive full scholastic elaboration by Ramahurmuzi, al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, and others.
It is difficult to overemphasize the role of hadith in Muslim life and history. As a literary form, the isnad-matn unit became the fundamental element in the major genres of Islamic writing. Biography, history, scriptural exegesis, mystical exposition, theological argument, and legal disquisition all consist substantially of, or are interlaced with, discrete reports in hadith format. Afte the Qur=an, the hadith basic source for Aproof texts@ in Islamic writing.
Theologically, the hadith is held to be divinely inspired, albeit according to sense rather than word-for-word like the Qur=an. There are even some words of God reported by Muhammad in the hadith, although such a Adivine saying@ -- hadith qudsi -- has no special status above that of a normal Aprophetic tradition@ -- hadith nabawi. Only the Qur=an has higher authoritative status than the hadith. However, since the Qur=an can only be interpreted by reference to the hadith, there is functional validity to the hadith.