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The Sayings of the Prophet and the Fortunes of Salafism

Prophet Muhammad resolves a dispute over the Black Stone [© Rashid al-Din - Wikimedia Commons]

Although subject to different trends and assessments, the Hadīth continues to play a leading part in contemporary Islam, too

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-06 11:32:18

Although subject to different trends and assessments, the Hadīth continues to play a leading part in contemporary Islam, too. Preserved in the most prestigious medieval works, the most famous episodes in Muhammad’s life enjoy a fame comparable to some passages of the Qur’an and are cited and used in every context. They are an inescapable point of reference for every aspect in the life of believers and the community. 



Alongside the Qur’an, Sunni Islam reserves a particular role to what the Prophet Muhammad did and said. These individual testimonies are called hadīths, the name being taken from an Arabic term meaning “account” or “story:” during the first centuries of Islam’s existence, the word caught on as a technical term designating the traditions that reported the Prophet’s deeds or sayings. In their totality, Muhammad’s sayings collectively constitute what is called the Sunna, another Arabic term meaning “custom” or “conduct.” Hence the concept of “Sunnis,” which derives precisely from the status reserved to Muhammad’s Sunna as the model of inspiration for believers.



The origins, authenticity and dissemination of the hadīths (ahādīth in the Arabic plural) have been subject to varying assessments both from Muslims and Western academics, who nevertheless have a common starting point: the absence of contemporary testimonies at the time of Muhammad (570-632) and the difficulties in finding one’s way through an almost unlimited literature that only compiles the prophetic traditions in any considerable number from the end of the second century after the hegira (c. 800 AD) i.e. almost two centuries after Muhammad’s death. This time gap and the absence of any preserved works dating back to the first generations of Muslims have sparked various debates and comments about the acceptability and historicity of these data and, above all, about the reasons why the words attributed to Muhammad assumed, alongside the words of the Qur’an, such importance in the construction of the Islamic tradition in the broad sense of the term.






Cultivation of the Memory



The first reason for the growing interest in the Hadīth must be attributed to the very role of the Prophet Muhammad as a religious and political guide constantly evoked in every matter concerning the community. Cultivation of a founder’s memory through the recording of logia and words attributed to him is not something limited to Islam, but the rapidly mutating reality of the nascent Islamic empire, with all the demands that that produced, made the memory of Muhammad a distinguishing element of Muslim identity right from the very first generations. Almost certainly, this memory was essentially based on the testimonies of those who had witnessed his pronouncements and passed them on, thereby perpetuating the fame of the founding Prophet’s feats and actions. The figures most committed to such an enterprise were not necessarily the most significant historical personalities to have lived in close contact with Muhammad but, rather, those who, decades after his death, had a greater interest in preserving his memory and passing it on to others. In an era when the community was busy with its conquests, they very quickly started paying particular attention to handing on the signs of his religious authority, whereas the caliphs and political authorities (between the Umayyad dynasty, 661-750, and the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty, 750 onwards) were generally not very interested in strictly religious issues unless they directly concerned their exercise of power.






The Oral Nature of the Tradition



 Muhammad’s memory was certainly communicated and circulated orally, during the early phases, just as the mnemonic method was the preferred way of learning the Qur’an. Various factors such as the cost of parchment, defective or unclear Arabic writing and pre-Islamic customs all played their part. It was probably the freshness of the Prophet’s memory that rendered transcription of his words and deeds superfluous in the beginning: his figure lived on for a long time in the memory of many of his companions and their followers (the “Successors”).



Some studies emphasize that the first written form of dissemination occurred only during the eighth century, when the first experts in Muhammad’s sayings made their appearance. Groups of their pupils began gathering notes and creating anthologies of traditions and sayings according to what they had been taught by these eminent figures. All this happened at a regional level, ranging from the Arabian peninsula to the first centres affected by the Muslim expansion into North Africa, Iran and central Asia, where personalities well known for their knowledge of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life transferred, together with the conquering armies. With the passing on to subsequent generations during the course of the eighth century, these first forays into writing gradually resulted in the creation – under the authority of eminent figures – of the first collections of what was handed down about Muhammad.



During the first centuries, cultivation of the Prophet’s memory through the faithful preservation of his words was not only spiritual in nature. It also satisfied a political logic and served to establish the boundaries of religious authority. Indeed, knowledge of the Hadīth in addition to that of the Qur’an and the tradition of its interpretation – very quickly became the criterion for assessing the religious knowledge of those aspiring to the office of judge or to other positions at the caliph’s court. A particular role for those who had this religious knowledge (‘ilm) very quickly began to be established in parallel, through a process that was later to lead to the emergence of the category known as ulama (‘ulamā’). Thus began that particular alliance between cultivation of the prophetic tradition and the figures embodying this knowledge. It was to become self-perpetuating and was to be decisive for traditionalism’s central place in Sunnism and, later, in Imamite Shi‘ism as well.









Literary Transcription



Consolidation of the Hadīth’s position in the religious doctrine that was later to be called Sunnism is also linked to some particular historical figures and events. The effective equalization of the Qur’an and the Sunna as sources of revelation was first fully theorized and asserted by al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 820), the eponymous founder of the Shafi‘ite school of law. But this vision only definitively triumphed in Sunnism during the course of the ninth century when the Abbasid caliphs’ attempt to impose the Mu‘tazilites’ rationalist theology as the official doctrine was defeated. This paved the way for the most fervent of the traditionists, led by those who, like Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), argued the Hadīth’s supremacy in every area of life for believers and the community. Until that moment, those who were known as the “people of Hadīth” (ahl al-hadīth) were only one of the various currents existing in the Islamic world and they often found themselves diametrically opposed to the “people of personal opinion” (ahl al-ra’y), who were much more critical of the authority accorded to Muhammad’s words. Evolution during the ninth century, fiery clashes between the various factions and a final victory for those supporting the Hadīth’s authority resulted in the definition of Sunnism as we know it today, at the end of a bitter contest with ideas having a rationalist mould or influenced by Greek learning.



Not stemming directly from this evolution but closely connected to the Hadīth’s central importance nevertheless, the birth and definitive development of the literary transcription of Muhammad’s sayings and their organization in various types of works also occurred during the ninth century. Alongside those ordered according to the names of the Prophet’s Companions who handed them on – which took the title Musnad (linked to the term isnād, which indicates the chain of transmission) – encyclopaedic works were also compiled. These gathered Muhammad’s sayings and other traditions attributed to his Companions or their followers and ordered them by subject-matter. Some of them, such as the Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzāq (d. 827) and Ibn Abī Shayba (d. 849), included more than 20,000 individual traditions. During the same period, the methods for establishing the hadīths’ authenticity (generally based on the chains of transmission) were refined in a process that was later to lead to the production of the two works destined to become the canonical anthologies par excellence: the Sahīhs by al-Bukhārī (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875). These, too, were ordered according to subject-matter and they contained only sayings of Muhammad, which numbered several thousand.



The problem of the prophetic tradition’s authenticity at the same time unites and divides Muslim and Western critics. As medieval Muslim authors themselves state, the Hadīth anthologies were drawn up by selecting from hundreds of thousands of sayings attributed to Muhammad that were circulating throughout the Islamic world, regarding the widest variety of topics. Indeed, historical Islamic testimonies tell us that every political or doctrinal dispute was expressed through words attributed to the prophet, many of which were, consequently, false. The authors who began the literary phase selected the sayings after evaluating not only the plausibility of the content but also, and above all, the credibility of the chains of transmission. Western critics, on the other hand, have always doubted whether the hadīths compiled from the ninth century onwards could reflect words actually uttered by Muhammad. They have generally analysed the emergence and dissemination of particular hadīths and other traditions as a reflection of how religious and political discourse amongst the first generations of Muslims evolved; the circulation of certain hadīths would have been the direct product of this and not vice versa. Recently, methods of analysis that combine a study of the variant content with the chains of transmission have succeeded in reconstructing the evolution of the passage from oral transmission to the first written versions, theorizing that it is possible to go back as far as the eighth century, approximately, when dating some hadīths.



In the years following the end of the ninth century various kinds of Hadīth anthologies continued to be compiled alongside commentaries on the most ancient ones. Parallel genres also developed. These included the one dedicated to the “science of men” (i.e. to biographies of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions and the hadīths’ transmitters) or to indicating the hadīths that were weak and therefore to be rejected. A meticulous technical terminology was invented to define the formal types and details. Alongside verses of the Qur’an, particular hadīths came to constitute the vehicle and point of reference for mystical and theological speculation or legal analysis, thereby giving rise to literary productions of every kind.



This evolution and peculiar “construction” of traditionalism constitutes the cornerstone of Sunnism but it has also had a certain influence on Imamite Shi‘ism. From the tenth century onwards, the Shi‘ites also drew up their principal collections of the sayings of Muhammad and his successors, the imams. They used the same methodology based on the chain of transmission, although the criteria for choosing the persons were obviously different from those used by their Sunni rivals. In actual fact, many of these Shi‘ite hadīths are identical or similar to the Sunni ones, just as the central importance of the ideal reference to the Prophet and his generation of companions is similar.



During the course of Islam’s medieval history, the hadīthsrole was consolidated and a corpus of texts that were particularly authoritative in their reporting of Muhammad’s sayings was established. The works of Ibn Māja (d. 887), Abū Dawūd (d. 889), al-Tirmidhī (d. 892), and al-Nasa’ī (d. 915) were added to those of Bukhārī and Muslim, thereby forming the six collections of hadīths that are considered canonical. Alongside these, many other works were written in an on-going debate about the traditions that had been excluded or used in legal argument. The result was an infinite number of commentaries, glosses and analyses of every kind covering the various disciplines in the Hadīth science. This situation essentially continued until the modern era, when openings appeared in the Muslim world for re-discussing and reforming its own tradition.






Contemporary Salafism



In such a context, the current attributing an even more prominent role to the Hadīth has a particular significance. This line had a Hanbalite matrix that passed through the teaching of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), reached that of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792), the founder of Wahhabism, and has had repercussions first on the originally Indian movement of the Ahl-i Hadith and then on contemporary Salafism. According to its vision, the Prophet Muhammad’s words are the interpretational key and inspiring force for the true believer’s vision of the world and behaviour. Cultivation of the sciences concerning them, alongside the Qur’an, thus becomes fundamental.



Nowadays labelled Salafi, this trend has become increasingly popular in recent decades and offers some interesting elements in its re-reading and fresh discussion of the Hadīth. Authors like al-Albānī (d. 1999), who have written many works dedicated to Muhammad’s sayings, have re-analysed the hadīths’ genuineness and meaning, sometimes with results that are innovative when compared to the tradition handed down in the greatest medieval works. Contemporary Salafis follow the Hanbalite heritage closely, nevertheless, and often limit their evaluations to the testimonies produced by this school of law and theology. Thus they are gradually reducing the portion of the medieval testimony that is considered acceptable in their own formulation of religious discourse.



The Islamic community’s history has nevertheless been marked by other trends during the course of modern and contemporary history. Approaches and attitudes towards the Hadīth have differed, albeit within a framework in which Muhammad’s sayings have always been accorded a central and fundamental role. Trends in the opposite direction have not been lacking either. Such as the one supported by those advocating the absolute centrality of the Qur’an’s authority. Such advocates have been seeking, since the nineteenth century, to maintain the unique and final nature of the Qur’an’s text and the unlawfulness of the role historically reserved to the Hadīth. Similar (often isolated) trends have also been documented during the course of the twentieth century, even if they have often met with little luck. For example, those critical opinions of the (sometimes) fanciful content of some of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad presented even in the greatest works can be put in the same category. A book entitled Light on the Prophetic Sunna by Abū Rayya (d. 1970) is famous in this context. It is highly critical of certain sayings but has chosen to attack the genuineness of some hadīths and therefore the criteria that established it, rather than the Hadīth per se. Other, sometimes vaguer critical stances have not been lacking. These authors have felt it necessary to re-open the question of the Hadīth’s role in the light both of modern reality and of Orientalist criticism, but have only partially dented the role and prestige that Muhammad’s words enjoy in the Muslim religious imagination.



Although subject to different trends and assessments, Hadīth continues to play a leading part in contemporary Islam, too. Preserved in the most prestigious medieval works, the most famous sayings enjoy a fame comparable to some passages of the Qur’an and are cited and used in every context. Both in learned discussion and in the production of new Qur’anic commentaries, as much as in popular religiosity, the words of Muhammad that have been handed down are an inescapable point of reference for every aspect in the life of believers and the community. The sayings of Muhammad that have been preserved by the classical works have played an indispensable part in shaping the recent fortunes of Salafism and the re-Islamization processes that have been permeating the Islamic world for decades. And it is precisely a knowledge of these hadīths’ content that, alongside the Qur’anic text, continues to play a central part in defining what it means to be a Muslim today.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation




To cite this article

Printed version:
Roberto Tottoli, “The Sayings of the Prophet and the Fortunes of Salafism”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 73-79.

Online version:
Roberto Tottoli, “The Sayings of the Prophet and the Fortunes of Salafism”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL:

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