Sunni Islam


Sacred Texts

It is important to remember that Islamic culture was initially an oral one, based not on the written word but on the memorization and recitation of all types of knowledge, from poetry to the Quran to battle stories and hadith themselves. It is unclear precisely when the transition from oral to written culture took place, but there is some evidence that suggests people were compiling notes and "books" as early as the mid-1st century of Islam, or the beginning of the 7th century of the Common Era. The earliest recorded fragments of the This copy of the Quran is believed to be the oldest one, compiled during Caliph Uthman's reign: Public DomainQuran are not from books, but from verses painted or inscribed on artifacts such as camel bones that date from the mid-7th century.

Sunnis, like all Muslims, believe that the Quran is the only actual "scripture" revealed to Muhammad by God, and they consider the text to be the inimitable and uncorrupt record of God's communication with humans during the twenty-three years of the Prophet's career. What distinguishes Sunni Islam, however, is its reliance upon hadith within the broader historical and literary traditions. The hadith elucidate, clarify, and even emend some of the legal rulings and prescriptions contained in the Quran, and Sunni jurists developed methodologies for approaching hadith in order to apply this second body of texts to rulings and interpretations based or stemming from the Quran itself. Thus the hadith and their accompanying literary genres are crucial for the formation of Sunni doctrine.  They serve as secondary sources for the interpretation of the Quran. Different schools of law and different sects have devised varied methods for interpreting this body of texts.

Every hadith is accompanied by an isnad, or list of names also called a "chain of transmission" that details who heard and passed down a particular narrative report. Therefore the credibility and scholarly pedigree of those men and women listed in an isnad was of vital importance for determining the veracity and accuracy of any given hadith. Over time, certain transmitters developed reputations ranging from "extremely trustworthy" to "well intentioned, but of faulty memory" to outright "deceitful." Analyzing the names in given a isnad thus provided medieval scholars with technical criteria for determining the utility, either for determining doctrine and practice, or for applicability in legal rulings, of a given hadith.  Credibility and scholarly pedigree comprised the essential information of a given transmitter or scholar. This information was contained in biographies of these men and women, which were in turn collected into biographical compilations. ‘Ilm al-Rijal, the "Science of Men" was a study of the biographies and training of Muslim scholars, and was applied to discerning the reliability of people who transmitted information about the Prophet and the first four Sunni caliph. The genre eventually expanded to encompass scholars who learned from and passed on hadith.

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?

Back to Religion Library