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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Sacred Texts

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Eventually, as the numbers of scholars grew, biographies were arranged alphabetically, into biographical dictionaries. At first, however, biographical compilations were arranged chronologically. That is, a biographical compilation would be collected and arranged according to generations, starting with the Companions of Muhammad. One of the most relied upon such compilations was by Ibn Sa‘d al-Baghdadi, who died in 845, and wrote the Tabaqat al-Kubra, which is divided into eight books:

  • Books 1 and 2 comprise the biography of Muhammad.
  • Books 3 and 4 comprise biographies of the Companions.
  • Books 5, 6, and 7 comprise biographies of later Islamic scholars.
  • Book 8 comprises biographies of Muslim women.

Ibn Sa‘d composed another work that extends to subsequent generations, as well. The formalization of hadith sciences was taking place at around the same time as Ibn Sa‘d was making his compilation, so his Tabaqat reflects his collection of pivotal figures, as well as other medieval Muslim personalities. 

The "Science of hadith," a methodological approach for classifying the relative strength and weakness of traditions about the Prophet, was firmly established by a scholar named Ali ibn al-Madani (d. 834).  One of his students, al-Bukhari (d. 870) would go on to compile one of the six recognized canonical collections, now known as the Sahih Bukhari. While not universally accepted by Sunni hadith scholars until the early 11th century, his approach marks the onset of the real formalization of hadith canonization. According to these methods, nearly all hadith were adjudged to be authentic (sahih), fair (hasan), or weak (da‘if). Another, much narrower category, was mutawatir, designating hadith that had been transmitted by so many witnesses and through so many different isnads it was considered impossible for them to be inauthentic. Taken together, the "canonization" of the six authentic hadith collections, aided by the evolution of the biographical genre ‘ilm al-rijal (literally, "the science of men"), constitute a kind of auxiliary scriptural tradition, though not a literal one, that characterizes Sunni Islam. The Science of Men was an elaborate system of collecting and analyzing the biographies and scholarly reputations of people who transmitted hadith.


Study Questions:
     1.    Why is the oral tradition of scripture important to Sunnism?
     2.    What “scripture” distinguishes Sunnis from Shi’as?
     3.    What are the hadith?
     4.    What did Ali ibn al-Madani contribute to Sunni scripture?

 

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