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. 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) described as an exclusive accomplishment of the Muslim civilization.
The word sanad (lit. base) refers to the chain of transmitters leading to the text of a hadīth while isnād refers to the mentioning of the chain. Majority of scholars, however, use both terms interchangeably. 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.’” In this example, the names leading to the text form the sanad of the hadith.
The usage of isnād began simultaneously with the transmission of the Prophet’s hadiths. Companions like Abū Salamah al-Makhzūmī (d. 3 AH), and Ja‘far ibn Abī Tālib (d. 8 AH), who passed away during the Prophet’s lifetime, transmitted hadiths citing the Prophet as their source. 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.” 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. This was not an issue because even the thought of lying about the Prophet was inconceivable to the Companions. Read the rest of this entry »