(Introduction to the translation of Ibn Hajar’s commentary on selected hadith, published as a booklet by the Muslim Academic Trust.)
The booklet intends to introduce non-Arabic speakers to one of the most seminal genres of Muslim religious literature, namely, the hadith commentary. It is surprising that no serious translations at present exist from this voluminous and influential body of writing, given that there are few hadith which can be understood adequately without reference to the often complex debates which have taken place concerning them between the scholars. These discussions have included investigations of the precise linguistic and lexicological meaning of the Prophetic speech, studies of the isnad, debates over the circumstances surrounding the genesis of each hadith (asbab al-wurud), and issues of abrogation by stronger or later hadiths or by Qur’anic texts. Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, the great early hadith scholar, used to remark: al-hadith madilla illa li’l-‘ulama’: ‘the hadith are a pitfall, except for the scholars.’ For this reason no Muslim scholar of repute uses a hadith before checking the commentaries to ascertain its precise meaning, context, and application.
The importance of this literature may be gauged by the fact that at least seventy full commentaries have been written on Imam al-Bukhari’s great Sahih. The best-known of these include al-Kawakib al-Darari by Imam Shams al-Din al-Kirmani (d. AH 786), ‘Umdat al-Qari by Imam Badr al-Din al-‘Ayni (d.855), and the Irshad al-Sari by Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Qastallani (d.923). However the most celebrated is without question the magnificent Fath al-Bari (‘Victory of the Creator’) by Imam Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, a work which was the crown both of its genre and of the Imam’s academic career. It is appreciated by the ulema for the doctrinal soundness of its author, for its complete coverage of Bukhari’s material, its mastery of the relevant Arabic sciences, the wisdom it shows in drawing lessons (fawa’id) from the hadiths it expounds, and its skill in resolving complex disputes over variant readings. For Bukhari’s text has not come down to us in a single uniform version, but exists in several ‘narrations’ (riwayat), of which the version handed down by al-Kushmayhani (d.389) on the authority of Bukhari’s pupil al-Firabri is the one most frequently accepted by the ulema. This is, for example, why the new and definitive edition of the Sahih, through the authorised narration of the best-known hadith scholar of recent times, Shaykh al-Hadith ‘Abdallah ibn al-Siddiq al-Ghimari, uses the Firabri version (for this text see www.thesaurus-islamicus.li). Ibn Hajar frequently uses the Kushmayhani variant as his standard text, but gives his reasons, often in complex detail, for preferring other readings where these seem to have particular merit. In doing this he makes it clear that he is authorised, through the ijaza-system, for all the riwayat he cites.
Ibn Hajar considered the hadith collection of Imam Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-Bukhari (AH 194-256), entitled al-Jami‘ al-Sahih (‘The Sound Comprehensive Collection’), to be the most reliable of all the hadith collections of Islam. His respect for the compiler was no less total, as is evident from the short biography which he offers of him, which portrays him as a saint as well as a scholar. He recounts, on Firabri’s eye-witness authority, how the imam would make ghusl and pray two rak‘as before including any hadith in his work, and always carried on his person one of the hairs of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). He collected his Sahih in Khurasan, and arranged it in the sanctuary at Mecca, and completed it while seated between the minbar and the Blessed Prophetic Tomb in Madina. His miracles (karamat) are numerous and well-attested. Once, after helping to build a fortress to defend the Muslim community, he provided the labourers with three small coins’ worth of bread, but even though there were a hundred labourers, there was enough for all. Despite his abstemious personal habits, he was endlessly generous to his students. One of his scribes, Muhammad ibn Abi Hatim, said: ‘When I was with him on a journey we would stay in a single room together, and I would see him rising fifteen or twenty times in a night to light the lantern, and work on an isnad, after which he would lie down again. I asked him: “Why do you impose all of this on yourself instead of waking me?” and he would reply, “You are a young man, and I don’t wish to interrupt your sleep.”’ Ibn Abi Hatim further related: ‘I once saw al-Bukhari in a dream. He was walking behind the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), setting his feet directly in the Prophet’s footsteps.’ And when he was lowered into his grave, a perfume like musk poured out from it. ‘So many people took dust from his grave,’ recalled another of his students, ‘that we had to place a wooden fence around it.’
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrated that ‘Abd al-Wahid ibn Adam said: ‘I once saw the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), with a group of his companions, in a dream. He was standing, and I greeted him, and when he returned my greeting, I said: “Why are you standing here, O Messenger of Allah?” and he replied: “I am waiting for Muhammad ibn Isma‘il.” A few days later the news of al-Bukhari’s death reached me, and when I checked I realised that he had died at the moment when I beheld that dream.’
Abu’l-Fadl Ahmad ibn Hajar’s family originated in the district of Qabis in Tunisia. Some members of the family had settled in Palestine, which they left again when faced with the Crusader threat, but he himself was born in Egypt in 773, the son of the Shafi‘i scholar and poet Nur al-Din ‘Ali and the learned and aristocratic Tujjar. Both died in his infancy, and he was later to praise his elder sister, Sitt al-Rakb, for acting as his ‘second mother’. The two children became wards of the brother of his father’s first wife, Zaki al-Din al-Kharrubi, who entered the young Ibn Hajar in a Qur’anic school (kuttab) when he reached five years of age. Here he excelled, learning Surat Maryam in a single day, and progressing to the memorisation of texts such as the Mukhtasar of Ibn al-Hajib on usul. By the time he accompanied al-Kharrubi to Mecca at the age of 12, he was competent enough to lead the Tarawih prayers in the Holy City, where he spent much time studying and recalling God amid the pleasing simplicity of Kharrubi’s house, the Bayt al-‘Ayna’, whose windows looked directly upon the Black Stone. Two years later his protector died, and his education in Egypt was entrusted to the hadith scholar Shams al-Din ibn al-Qattan, who entered him in the courses given by the great Cairene scholars al-Bulqini (d.806) and Ibn al-Mulaqqin (d.804) in Shafi‘i fiqh, and of Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi (d.806) in hadith, after which he was able to travel to Damascus and Jerusalem, where he studied under Shams al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d.809), Badr al-Din al-Balisi (d.803), and Fatima bint al-Manja al-Tanukhiyya (d.803). After a further visit to Mecca and Madina, and to the Yemen, he returned to Egypt.
When he reached 25 he married the lively and brilliant Anas Khatun, then 18 years of age. She was a hadith expert in her own right, holdingijazas from Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi, and she gave celebrated public lectures in the presence of her husband to crowds of ulema among whom was Imam al-Sakhawi. After the marriage, Ibn Hajar moved into her house, where he lived until his death. Many noted how she surrounded herself with the old, the poor and the physically handicapped, whom it was her privilege and pleasure to support. So widely did her reputation for sanctity extend that during her fifteen years of widowhood, which she devoted to good works, she received a proposal from Imam ‘Alam al-Din al-Bulqini, who considered that a marriage to a woman of such charity and baraka would be a source of great pride.
Once esconced in Egypt, Ibn Hajar taught in the Sufi lodge (khaniqah) of Baybars for some twenty years, and then in the hadith college known as Dar al-Hadith al-Kamiliyya. During these years, he served on occasion as the Shafi‘i chief justice of Egypt.
It was in Cairo that the Imam wrote some of the most thorough and beneficial books ever added to the library of Islamic civilisation. Among these are al-Durar al-Kamina (a biographical dictionary of leading figures of the eighth century), a commentary on the Forty Hadith of Imam al-Nawawi (a scholar for whom he had particular respect); Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (an abbreviation of Tahdhib al-Kamal, the encyclopedia of hadith narrators by al-Mizzi), al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-Sahaba (the most widely-used dictionary of Companions), and Bulughal-Maram min adillat al-ahkam (on Shafi‘i fiqh).
In 817, Ibn Hajar commenced the enormous task of assembling his Fath al-Bari. It began as a series of formal dictations to his hadith students, after which he wrote it out in his own hand and circulated it section by section to his pupils, who would discuss it with him once a week. As the work progressed and its author’s fame grew, the Islamic world took a close interest in the new work. In 833, Timur’s son Shahrukh sent a letter to the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay requesting several gifts, including a copy of the Fath, and Ibn Hajar was able to send him the first three volumes. In 839 the request was repeated, and further volumes were sent, until, in the reign of al-Zahir Jaqmaq, the whole text was finished and a complete copy was dispatched. Similarly, the Moroccan sultan Abu Faris ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hafsi requested a copy before its completion. When it was finished, in Rajab 842, a great celebration was held in an open place near Cairo, in the presence of the ulema, judges, and leading personages of Egypt. Ibn Hajar sat on a platform and read out the final pages of his work, and then poets recited eulogies and gold was distributed. It was, says the historian Ibn Iyas, ‘the greatest celebration of the age in Egypt.’
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Hajar departed this life in 852. His funeral was attended by ‘fifty thousand people’, including the sultan and the caliph; ‘even the Christians grieved.’ He was remembered as a gentle man, short, slender, and white-bearded, a lover of chess and calligraphy, much inclined to charity; ‘good to those who wronged him, and forgiving to those he was able to punish.’ A lifetime’s proximity to the hadith had imbued him with a deep love of the Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), as is shown nowhere more clearly than in the poetry assembled in his Diwan, an original manuscript of which has been preserved at the Egyptian National Library. A few lines will suffice to show this well:
By the gate of your generosity stands a sinner, who is mad with love,
O best of mankind in radiance of face and countenance!
Through you he seeks a means [tawassala], hoping for Allah’s forgiveness of slips;
from fear of Him, his eyelid is wet with pouring tears.
Although his genealogy attributes him to a stone [hajar],
how often tears have flowed, sweet, pure and fresh!
Praise of you does not do you justice, but perhaps,
In eternity, its verses will be transformed into mansions.
My praise of you shall continue for as long as I live,
For I see nothing that could ever deflect me from your praise.
Any Muslim can benefit from reading hadiths from al-Bukhari and Muslim, whether on his own or with others. As for studying hadith, Sheikh Shuayb al-Arnaut, with whom my wife and I are currently reading Imam al-Suyuti’s Tadrib al-rawi [The training of the hadith narrator], emphasizes that the science of hadith deals with a vast and complex literature, a tremendous sea of information that requires a pilot to help one navigate, without which one is bound to run up on the rocks. In this context, Sheikh Shuayb once told us, “Whoever doesn’t have a sheikh, the Devil is his sheikh, in any Islamic discipline.”
In other words, there are benefits the ordinary Muslim can expect from personally reading hadith, and benefits that he cannot, unless he is both trained and uses other literature, particularly the classical commentaries that explain the hadiths meanings and their relation to Islam as a whole.
The benefits one can derive from reading al-Bukhari and Muslim are many: general knowledge of such fundamentals as the belief in Allah, the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the Last Day and so on; as well as the general moral prescriptions of Islam to do good, avoid evil, perform the prayer, fast Ramadan, and so forth. The hadith collections also contain many other interesting points, such as the great rewards for acts of worship like the midmorning prayer (duha), the night vigil prayer (tahajjud), fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, giving voluntary charity, and So on. Anyone who reads these and puts them into practice in his life has an enormous return for reading hadith, even more so if he aims at perfecting himself by attaining the noble character traits of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) mentioned in hadith. Whoever learns and follows the prophetic example in these matters has triumphed in this world and the next.
What is not to be hoped for in reading hadith (without personal instruction from a sheikh for some time) is two things: to become an alim or Islamic scholar, and to deduce fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) from the hadiths on particulars of sharia practice.
Without a guiding hand, the untrained reader will misunderstand many of the hadiths he reads, and these mistakes, if assimilated and left uncorrected, may pile up until he can never find his way out of them, let alone become a scholar. Such a person is particularly easy prey for modern sectarian movements of our times appearing in a neo-orthodox guise, well financed and published, quoting Quran and hadiths to the uninformed to make a case for the basic contention of all deviant sects since the beginning of Islam; namely, that only they are the true Muslims. Such movements may adduce, for example, the well-authenticated (hasan) hadith related from Aisha (Allah be well pleased with her) by al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, Shirk (polytheism) is more hidden in my Umma than the creeping of ants across a great smooth stone on a black night . . . (Nawadir al-usul fi marifa ahadith al-Rasul. Istanbul 1294/1877. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 399).
This hadith has been used by sects from the times of the historical Wahhabi movement down to the present to convince common people that the majority of Muslims may not actually be Muslims at all, but rather mushrikin or polytheists, and that those who do not subscribe to the views of their sheikhs may be beyond the pale of Islam.
In reply, traditional scholars point out that the words fi Ummati, “in my Umma” in the hadith plainly indicate that what is meant here is the lesser shirk of certain sins that, though serious, do not entail outright unbelief. For the word shirk or polytheism has two meanings. The first is the greater polytheism of worshipping others with Allah, of which Allah says in surat al-Nisa, “Truly, Allah does not forgive that any should be associated with Him [in worship], but forgives what is other than that to whomever He wills” (Quran 4:48), and this is the shirk of unbelief. The second is the lesser polytheism of sins that entail shortcomings in one’s tawhid or knowledge of the divine unity, but do not entail leaving Islam. Examples include affection towards someone for the sake of something that is wrongdoing (called shirk because one hopes to benefit from what Allah has placed no benefit in), or disliking someone because of something that is right (called shirk because one apprehends harm from what Allah has placed benefit in), or the sin of showing off in acts of worship, as mentioned in the sahih or rigorously authenticated hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, The slightest bit of showing off in good works is shirk (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d.,1.4). Such sins do not put one outside of Islam, though they are disobedience and do show a lack of faith (iman).
Scholars say that the lesser shirk of such sins is meant by the hadith, for if the greater shirk of unbelief were intended, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would not have referred to such individuals as being in my Umma, since unbelief (kufr) is separate and distinct from Islam, and necessarily outside of it. This is also borne out by another version of the hadith related from Abu Bakr (Nawadir al-usul, 397), which has fikum or “among you” in place of the words “in my Umma”, a direct reference to the Sahaba or prophetic Companions, none of whom was a mushrik or idolator, by unanimous consensus (ijma) of all Muslim scholars. As for sins of lesser shirk, it cannot be lost on anyone why their hiddenness is compared in the hadith to the imperceptible creeping of ants across a great smooth stone on a black night; namely, because of the subtlety of human motives, and the ease with which human beings can deceive themselves.
Similarly, al-Bukhari relates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Truly, you shall follow the ways of those who were before you, span by span, and cubit by cubit, until, if they were to enter a lizards lair, you would follow them.” We said, “O Messenger of Allah, the Jews and Christians?” And he said, “Who else?” (Sahih al-Bukhari. 9 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint (9 vols. in 3). Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d., 9.126: 7320).
This hadith is also used by modern movements claiming to be a return to the Quran and sunna, to suggest that the majority of ordinary Sunni Muslims who follow the aqida (tenets of faith) or fiqh of mainstream orthodox Sunni Imams (whose classic works seldom fully correspond with their views) are intended by this hadith, while there is much evidence that the orthodox majority of the Umma is divinely protected from error, such as thesahih hadith related by al-Hakim that “Allah’s hand is over the group, and whoever diverges from them diverges to hell” (al-Mustadrak, 1.116). Such hadiths show that Quranic verses like “If you obey most of those on earth, they will lead you astray from the path of Allah” (Quran, 6:116) do not refer to those who follow traditional Islamic scholarship (who have never been a majority of those on earth), but rather the non-Muslim majority of mankind.
It is fitter to regard the previously-mentioned hadiths wording of following the Jews and Christians as referring, in our times, to the Muslims who copy the West in all aspects of their lives, rational and irrational, even to the extent of building banks in Muslim cities and holy places never before sullied by usury (riba) on an institutional basis since pre-Islamic times. Or those who promote divisive sectarian ideologies under the guise of reform movements among the Muslims, as the Jews and Christians did in their respective religions.
Traditional scholarship is protected from such misguidance by the authentic knowledge it has preserved, living teacher from living teacher, in unbroken succession back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). To return to our question, without such a quality control process, the unaided reader of hadith cannot hope to become a sort of homemade alim, giving fatwas on the basis of what he finds in al-Bukhari or Muslim alone, because the sahih hadiths related to Islamic legal questions are by no means found only in these two works, but in a great many others, which those who issue judgements on these questions must know. I have mentioned elsewhere some of the sciences needed by the scholar to join between all the hadiths, and that some hadiths condition each other or are conditioned by more general or more specific hadiths or Quranic verses that bear on the question. Without this knowledge, and a traditional sheikh to learn it from, one must necessarily stumble, something I know because I have personally tried.
When I first came to Jordan in 1980, someone had impressed upon my mind that a Muslim needs nothing besides the Quran and sahih hadiths. After reading through the Arabic Quran with the aid of A.J. Arberry’s Qur’an Interpreted and recording what I understood, I sat down with the Muhammad Muhsin Khan translation of Sahih al-Bukhari and went through all the hadiths, volume by volume, writing down everything they seemed to tell a Muslim to do. It was an effort to cut through the centuries of accretions to Islam that orientalists had taught me about at the University of Chicago, an effort to win through to pure Islam from the original sources themselves. My Salafism and my orientalism converged on this point.
At length, I produced a manuscript of selected hadiths of al-Bukhari, a sort of do-it-yourself sharia manual. I still use it as an index to hadiths in al-Bukhari, though the fiqh conclusions of my amateur ijtihads are now rather embarrassing. When hadiths were mentioned that seemed to contradict each other, I would simply choose whichever I wanted, or whichever was closer to my Western habits. After all, I said, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was never given a choice between two matters except that he chose the easier of the two (Sahih al-Bukhari, 4.230: 3560). For example, I had been told that it was not sunna to urinate while standing up, and had heard the hadith of Aisha that anyone who says the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) passed urine while standing up, do not believe him (Musnad al-Imam Ahmad. 6 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 6.136). But then I read the hadith in al-Bukhari that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) once urinated while standing up (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.66: 224), and decided that what I had first been told was a mistake, or that perhaps it did not matter much. Only later, when I began translating the Arabic of the Shafi’i fiqh manual Reliance of the Traveller did I find out how the scholars of sharia had combined the implications of these hadiths; that the standing of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to pass urine was to teach the Umma that it was not unlawful (haram), but rather merely offensive (makruh)–though in relation to the Prophet such actions were not offensive, but rather obligatory to do at least once to show the Umma they were not unlawful–or according to other scholars, to show it was permissible in situations in which it would prevent urine from spattering one’s clothes.
In retrospect, my early misadventures in hadith enabled me to appreciate the way the fiqh I later studied had joined between all hadiths, something I had personally been unable to do. And I understood why, of the top hadith Imams, Imam al-Bukhari took his Shafi’i jurisprudence from the disciple of Imam Shafi’i, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr al-Humaydi (al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi’iyya al-kubra. 10 vols. Cairo: Isa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1383/1964, 2.214), and why Imams Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, and al-Nasai also followed the Shafi’i school (Mansur Ali Nasif, al-Taj al-jami li al-usul fi ahadith al-Rasul. 5 vols. Cairo 1382/1962. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 1.16), as did al-Bayhaqi, al-Hakim, Abu Nuaym, Ibn Hibban, al-Daraqutni, al-Baghawi, Ibn Khuzayma, al-Suyuti, al-Dhahabi, Ibn Kathir, Nur al-Din al-Haythami, al-Mundhiri, al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Taqi al-Din al-Subki and others; why Imams such as Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzifollowed the madhhab of Ahmad ibn Hanbal; and why Abu Jafar al-Tahawi, Ali al-Qari, Jamal al-Din al-Zaylai (the African sheikh of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, thought by some to have been even more knowledgeable than him), and Badr al-Din al-Ayni followed the Hanafi school.
These facts speak eloquently as to the role of hadith in the sharia in the eyes of these Imams, for whom it was not a matter of practicing either fiqh or hadith, as some Muslims seriously suggest today, but rather, the fiqh of hadith embodied in the traditional madhhabs which they followed. There would seem to be room for many of us to benefit from their example.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995