On the Retention of the Companions

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On the Retention of the Companions

By Muntasir Zaman

To evaluate the reliability of a narrator, Ḥadīth scholars examined two integral characteristics: probity (ʿadālah) and retention (ab).[1] After studying the probity of the Companions (Allah be pleased with them), a person is left with the following question: companionship with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) does not enhance one’s memory,[2] so even if it is accepted that the Companions were upright, how sure are we that they adequately retained ḥadīths before transmitting them? In other words, did they meet the required standards of memory to transmit ḥadīths? The following explanation does not preclude the fact that they occasionally forgot or erred. It aims to shed light on factors that allowed them to satisfactorily retain the ḥadīths they heard and then transmit them to their students.

It may be difficult to recognize a relationship between a narrator’s probity and his retention, but functionally they are definitely intertwined. This is because an upright transmitter will only narrate material the authenticity of which he is certain. Towards the end of his life when Anas ibn Mālik was asked a question, he replied, “Go and ask our master al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī]. Indeed, we heard and he heard, but he remembers and we forgot.”[3] A narrator exercises caution when narrating ḥadīths proportionate to his probity; since the Companions possessed the highest level of uprightness, their caution was correspondingly firm.[4] This is more so given their familiarity with the Prophet’s warning, “Whoever lies about me should prepare his abode in the Fire.”[5] Companions like ʿAbd Allah ibn Masʿūd (d. 32 AH) and Abū al-Dardāʾ (d. 32 AH) are on record for following their narrations with phrases such as “similar to this” and “more or less”[6]  which they expressed out of caution, not out of doubt. Their cautious attitude even influenced Successors like Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. 96 AH) and ʿĀmir al-Shaʿbī (d. c.103 AH).[7] From this angle, there is a relationship between one’s probity and retention. Read the rest of this entry »