Book Review: Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī’s al-Madkhal ilā ‘Ilm al-Sunan

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Book Review: Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī’s al-Madkhal ilā ‘Ilm al-Sunan

By Muntasir Zaman

[Al-Madkhal ilā ‘Ilm al-Sunan, by Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī, 2016, 1st ed. Muhammad ‘Awwāmah, pp.969 + 94, vol.2, $35 (hardback), ISBN 978-9933-503-59-8]

Covering nearly one-hundred topics, it is no wonder the disciplines of Hadīth are one of the few sciences that are ‘ripe’ (nadaj) and ‘roasted’ (ihtaraq), that is, they were clearly elucidated and thoroughly researched (al-Jazā’irī, Tawjīh al-Nażar, vol.2, p.903). Obviously, this accomplishment was not the doing of a few scattered scholars; it was the result of relentless effort from an unbroken chain of scholars over a millennium. In his authoritative commentary, Nuzhat al-Nażar, Hāfiż Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalānī (d. 852 AH) briefly outlines the most prominent installments to the genre of Hadīth nomenclature, starting with al-Ramahurmuzī’s (d. c. 360 AH) al-Muhaddith al-Fāsil and culminating with Abū ‘Amr Ibn al-Salāh’s (d. 643 AH) Ma‘rifat Anwā‘ ‘Ilm al-Hadīth. There is, however, a conspicuous gap as one key figure does not feature on this list: the 5th century Hadīth expert and prolific author, Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī (d. 458 AH), whose monumental work al-Madkhal ilā ‘Ilm al-Sunan serves prima facie as merely an introduction to his compendium, al-Sunan al-Kubrā, but in essence is a phenomenal work in its own right.

Al-Madkhal was first edited in 1984 by Dr. Diyā’ al-Rahmān al-A‘żamī and published by Dār al-Khulafā’, but it was based on an incomplete manuscript. In 2016, Dār al-Minhāj published the book in two volumes with annotations from Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah, who cross-examined it with two early manuscripts, one complete and the other partly incomplete. To create awareness of this valuable work, we will briefly summarize its contents, highlight certain salient passages, and examine the editorial work of Shaykh ‘Awwāmah.


For our purposes, al-Madkhal can broadly be categorized into an introduction and three parts. The introduction comprises an expose of Imām al-Shāfi‘ī’s (d. 204 AH) status as a scholar and mujtahid. Towards the end, the author dedicates several passages to explain the reason for compiling al-Sunan al-Kubrā and the modus operandi of citing hadīths therein (pp.3-45). This is followed by two chapters on the virtues of studying, and the obligation of following, the Qur’ān and the Sunnah, respectively (pp.46-74). The first part covers essential and peripheral discussions concerning Hadīth (pp.75-406). These include introductory topics, such as the authoritativeness of the Sunnah and the veracity of isolated-transmission; it further delves into the disciplines of Hadīth proper with chapters on paraphrased transmission, tadlīs, the traits of a reliable transmitter, and the use of mursal reports. The second part of al-Madkhal covers discussions on legal theory, such as consensus, ijtihad, Mafhūm al-Mukhālafah, and ostensibly conflicting hadīths (pp.407-669). The third part covers the virtues of acquiring knowledge, the rank of scholars, and the etiquettes of students (pp.670-886). Read the rest of this entry »

The Life and Thought of Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī

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The Life and Thought of Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī 

By Muntasir Zaman

 “What cosmic soul is imprisoned in that human body?” mused the learned Abū Zahrah (d. 1974 AH) in utter admiration—indeed, “it is the soul of al-Kawtharī!” he proclaimed. [1] In recent memory, relatively few scholars have managed to synthesize expertise in, not merely acquaintance with, the vast majority of Islamic sciences. Shaykh Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī (or Mehmet Zahit Kevsari) is arguably theletter-2 foremost contender for that accolade; his polymathic oeuvre leaves one hard-pressed to pinpoint his forte, [2] from the intricacies of philosophy[3] to the minutiae of Arabic grammar,[4] not to mention his undisputed command of theology,[5] Hadīth,[6] and Islamic law.[7] The ripple effect of his peerless intellectual contributions is strongly felt in Islamic seminaries throughout the world till this day.

A modest amount of literature is available on the life and thought of al-Kawtharī (henceforth Kawtharī), To add to the existing material, particularly for an English-speaking readership, the present article aims to delineate the most salient features of his scholarly career, provide a synopsis of his modus operandi vis-à-vis prophetic and non-prophetic reports, and examine the merits of two major points of contention. Relevant details on certain passages have been relegated to the footnotes for the purpose of brevity. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: The Reports of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History: The Era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs

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Book Review: The Reports of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History: The Era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, a Critical Appraisal

Reviewed by Muntasir Zaman

[Marwiyyāt Abī Mikhnaf fī Tārīkh al-Tabarī: ‘Asr al-Khilāfah: al-Dirāsah Naqdiyyah, by Yahyā ibn Ibrāhīm al-Yahyā, Riyadh: Dār al-‘Asimah, 2011, 528 pp., $9.50 (hardback), ISBN 978-603-8057-11-7]


The rapid expansion of Islam’s borders from a fledgling state to a massive empire is arguably one of the greatest military feats. By 30 AH/650 CE, the entire Arabian Peninsula and the area spanning from Egypt on the west to the Iranian plateau on the east were all under Muslim rule.[1] The annals of Islamic history are replete with extraordinary accomplishments by Muslims throughout this vast landscape. In the same breath, however, one comes across pages blemished with internecine conflict and political strife. Reports of this nature prima facie are clearly troubling, but this can be assuaged to a considerable extent by probing their authenticity.[2] Sieving the reliable from the unreliable is of greater importance in regards to the formative period of Islam,[3] particularly the Prophet’s life and the decades that immediately proceeded his demise, as it serves as a window to Islam in its most pristine form.[4]

One method of carrying this out is to critically examine influential historians who played a key role in shaping the dominant narrative of early Islamic history, specifically those who were the center of heated contention, such as Muhammad ibn Ishāq (d. 151 AH),[5] Sayf ibn ‘Umar al-Tamīmī (d. ca. 180 AH),[6] and Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Wāqidī (d. 207 AH).[7] To this end, Shaykh Yahyā Ibrāhīm al-Yahyā in his landmark study Marwiyyāt Abī Mikhnaf fī Tārīkh al-Tabarī sets out to examine a historian of ill repute, the Kūfan Abū Mikhnaf (d. 157 AH). The present study—based on the author’s M.A dissertation submitted to the Islamic University of Madīnah under the supervision of the renowned historian, Dr. Diyā’ al-Umarī—analyzes the historical accounts of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History, with specific reference to the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (r. 11-40 AH). This short review aims to summarize the author’s research, explore certain points of importance, and make brief comments in the relevant footnotes. The driving impetus for this review is to draw the attention of students and scholars to this phenomenal study; hence, a digital copy of the book is provided here. Read the rest of this entry »

The Science of al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl: Separating Wheat from Chaff

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The Science of al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl: Separating Wheat from Chaff

By Muntasir Zaman

“And true virtue is what critics cannot help but acknowledge” goes the popular adage.[1] A case in point is where the renowned Orientalist Aloys Sprenger (d. 1893 CE) humbles his pen to write, “There is no nation, nor has there been any which like them [Muslims] has during twelve centuries recorded the life of every man of letters.”[2] The exclusivity of Muslims vis-à-vis the isnādimage system, as explained earlier, lies in their detailed evaluations of the transmitters who form the chains of transmission, better known as al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl (lit. criticism and accreditation). In this article, we will briefly outline the origins and development, basic nomenclature, procedures, and relevant literature in the science of al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl (henceforth narrator criticism).

To ensure the accurate transmission of the Prophet’s teachings, the science of narrator criticism inherently involves an exposition of a narrator’s personal details. [3] Disclosing a narrator’s faults for a greater need can be justified by verses from the Qur’ān,[4] the practice of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him),[5] and the higher objectives of Islamic law.[6] Since this permission was granted as an exception, it is limited to disclosing relevant information that has a direct bearing on transmission.[7] Consequently, when a narrator’s status can be made apparent by highlighting one flaw, it is unlawful to mention a second.[8]

Narrator criticism began early in Islamic history.[9] Among the Companions, the names of ‘Umar, ‘Alī, Ibn ‘Abbās, and ‘A’ishah (Allāh be pleased with them) feature prominently among the first group of narrator critics.[10] This practice was then inherited by the subsequent generation of senior Successors, such as Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab (d. 94 AH),[11] ‘Amir al-Sha‘bī (d. 103 AH), and Ibn Sīrīn (d. 110 AH).[12] Like other Islamic disciplines, the material on narrator criticism during the first century is fairly minimal. This owes itself to the fact that transmitters at the time were either Companions, who were collectively upright, or senior Successors, among whom were relatively few impugned transmitters.[13] Read the rest of this entry »

The Isnād System: An Unbroken Link to The Prophet

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The Isnād System: An Unbroken Link to The Prophet

By Muntasir Zaman

Pause for a moment, and ask yourself: what are the greatest accomplishments of the Muslim civilization? At first thought, a number of things will probably come to mind, ranging from mathematics to medicine to architecture—perhaps even coffee.[1] But unfortunately we tend to overlook one of the greatest accomplishments, if not the greatest: the isnād system. That a person, till this day, can attribute a hadīth to the Prophet and then follow it with a list of authorities reaching back successively to the source is what scholars as early as Abū Bakr al-Thaqafī (d. 309 AH)[2] described as an exclusive accomplishment of the Muslim civilization.[3]DSCN9800

The word sanad (lit. base)[4] refers to the chain of transmitters leading to the text of a hadīth while isnād refers to the mentioning of the chain.[5] Majority of scholars, however, use both terms interchangeably.[6] Al-Bukhārī (d. 256 AH), for instance, mentions, “Makkī ibn Ibrahīm—Yazīd ibn Abī ‘Ubayd Allāh—Salamah: I heard the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) say, ‘Whoever lies about me should prepare his abode in the fire.’”[7] In this example, the names leading to the text form the sanad of the hadith.[8]

The usage of isnād began simultaneously with the transmission of the Prophet’s hadiths. Companions like Abū Salamah al-Makhzūmī (d. 3 AH),[9] and Ja‘far ibn Abī Tālib (d. 8 AH),[10] who passed away during the Prophet’s lifetime,[11] transmitted hadiths citing the Prophet as their source.[12] Furthermore, Companions who were preoccupied with their daily responsibilities would take turns to attend the gathering of the Prophet. When the present partner would relate the day’s teachings to the absent partner, he would obviously preface his words with “The Prophet said so and so.”[13] The shortness of the chain­, i.e. direct transmission from the Prophet, makes this first rudimentary usage of isnād unnoticeable. During this time, transmitters were not required to disclose their sources. That is why we find Companions like Anas ibn Mālik, who lived during the Medinan period, relate incidents from the Meccan period without citing their sources.[14] This was not an issue because even the thought of lying about the Prophet was inconceivable to the Companions.[15] Read the rest of this entry »

Sixty Years in The Making: A Closer Look at Shaykh ‘Awwāmah’s Edition of Tadrīb al-Rāwī fī Sharh Taqrīb al-Nawāwī

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Sixty Years in The Making: A Closer Look at Shaykh ‘Awwāmah’s Edition of Tadrīb al-Rāwī fī Sharh Taqrīb al-Nawāwī

By Muntasir Zaman

When an expert assures you that he invested sixty years of experience in a given project, it should come as no surprise that such a work deserves undivided attention. That is the case with the latest edition of Imām Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī’s (d. 911 AH) magnum opus Tadrīb al-Rāwī fī Sharh Taqrīb al-Nawāwī, which was critically edited by the Syrian Hadīth scholar Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah. Shaykh ‘Awwāmah prefaces the work by saying, “I have written therein the crux of sixty years of dedication to thisislamic field.”[1] In this article, we will take a closer look at this new edition by going through a general overview of the work and by highlighting three salient aspects of it, namely, the editor’s style of writing, method of tracing sources, and personal insights.


This edition was jointly published by Dār al-Yusr and Dār al-Minhāj in five volumes. The first volume comprises of a forward by Shaykh ‘Awwāmah, a description of the manuscripts used for Tadrīb al-Rāwī (the commentary) and al-Taqrīb wa al-Taysīr (the text),[2] the thabat of Ahmad Ibn al-‘Ajamī,[3] detailed indices for the entire book,[4] and the bibliography. The remaining four volumes comprise of the text of al-Taqrīb wa al-Taysīr and its commentary Tadrīb al-Rāwī, Ibn al-‘Ajamī’s marginalia, and Shaykh ‘Awwāmah’s footnotes, and each volume has its own table of contents. Read the rest of this entry »

Give It a Second Thought: Guidelines on How to Approach Seemingly Problematic Hadīth

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Give It a Second Thought: Guidelines on How to Approach Seemingly Problematic Hadīth

By Muntasir Zaman

“The example of the intellect is sight free of defects and illnesses, and the example of the Qur’ān is the sun with rays spread-out. Hence, the seeker of guidance that dispenses with one of them in lieu of the other is most fit to be included in the deluge of fools. The one turning away from the intellect, sufficing with the light of the Qur’ān, his example is one exposed to the light of the sun, while closing the eyelids, so there is no difference between him and the blind. Thus, the intellect with the sharī‘ah is light upon light. The onlooker with an eye blind to one of them specifically is drawn in by a deceptive rope.”

– Imām al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH) [1]

In numerous places, the Qur’ān calls on man to use his intellect and to contemplate over the perfection of Allah’s creation. Allah says, “We have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention. Then will you not reason?”[2] In other verses, the Qur’ān reprimands those who do not use their reasoning, such as, “But those who disbelieve invent falsehood about Allah, and most of them do not reason.”[3] Therefore, there exists no incongruity between reason and revelation; rather, reason leads one to appreciate and understand revelation.[4] But it should be ensured that the reasoning is sound and the revelation is authentic.[5]

From the formative period of Islamic history, scholars have written books to address apparently contradictory hadīths, a field known as Mukhtalif al-Hadīth,[6] and hadīths that seem to imagesconflict with other evidences or external realities, a field known as Mushkil al-Hadīth.[7] In this regard, Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204 AH) authored Ikhtilāf al-Hadīth,[8] regarded as one of the earliest works on the subject, Ibn Qutaybah al-Dīnawarī (d. 276 AH) authored his pioneering monograph Ta’wīl Mukhtalif al-Hadīth, Abū Ja‘far al-Tahāwī (d. 321 AH) authored his peerless compendium Sharh Mushkil al-Āthār,[9] and Abū Bakr Ibn Fūrak (d. 406 AH) authored his masterpiece Mushkil al-Hadīth wa Bayānuhū (Allah have mercy on them all). Scholars have also dealt with narrations of this nature in their Hadīth commentaries. Abū Bakr Ibn Khuzaymah (d. 311 AH), a leading authority in Hadīth, states, “I am unaware of any two authentic narrations of the Prophet that are contradictory. If anyone comes across such narrations, let him bring it to me so that I can reconcile between them.”[10]

The surge of criticism in recent times towards supposedly problematic hadīths has arisen because critics claim that these reports are absurd, unscientific, impossible, or contradictory. Many of the narrations that have been cast into the spotlight for allegedly problematic content were already discussed in detail by the greatest Islāmic minds. The difference, however, between classical Muslim scholars and modern critics is the perspective with which the two groups view the objection. Traditional scholars were not oblivious to scientific realities nor were they blind to logical fallacies. They were simply more charitable in their readings of scriptural texts whereas modern critics are not willing to do so.[11]

It will be beneficial to keep a few broad guidelines in mind when dealing with narrations of this nature. By no means are these guidelines meant to be exhaustive. But keeping them in mind can help to provide a more charitable reading of hadiths that may appear problematic. Read the rest of this entry »