al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl

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 »