Evolution of Hadith Reliance in Sunni Islam – Join islam

In Arabic, the word “fiqh” (فقه) means “understanding” or “comprehension.” In the context of Islamic jurisprudence, it specifically refers to the understanding and interpretation of Islamic law and religious principles. Islamic scholars study and apply fiqh to derive legal and ethical guidelines for matters such as worship, morality, family, finance, etc.

There are currently four primary Islamic schools of Sunni jurisprudence (fiqh).

  1. Hanafi School was founded by Imam Abu Hanifa (697-767 CE, 80-150 AH)
  2. Maliki School was founded by Imam Malik ibn Anas (711-795 CE, 93-179 AH)
  3. Shafi’i School was founded by Imam Al-Shafi’i (767-820 CE, 150-204 AH)
  4. Hanbali School was founded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855 CE, 164-241 AH)

These four schools, also known as madhabs, represent distinct approaches to Islamic jurisprudence and have their own interpretations of Islamic law, practices, and principles. While there were other Sunni jurisprudential schools, these four madhabs are considered the most prominent and widely followed within the Sunni branch of Islam. Each madhab has its own rules, legal principles, and ways of coming to conclusions.

Madhabs and Hadith Dependency

An interesting observation is that historically, each succeeding school put more emphasis on Hadith in determining their legal rulings than their predecessor. In other words, the Hanafi school, which is the oldest, initially relied less on Hadith than the Maliki school, which relied less than the Shafi’i school, and finally, the Hanbali school depended the most on Hadith for its legal rulings. This means that as time passed, each progressing school considered Hadith more and more significant in forming their laws.

For example, the Musnad of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 241 AH) contains ~40,000 hadith. While the Musnad of al-Shafi’i (d. 204 AH) contains ~2000 hadiths, and the Muwatta of Imam Malik (d. 179 AH) contains ~1,720 narrations, of which only ~600 hadith have an isnad that goes all the way to the prophet.

It is peculiar that Imam Malik, who lived a whole lifetime before Ibn Hanbal and lived among the direct descendants of the prophet’s companions in Medina, had only ~600 narrations from the prophet. Yet Ibn Hanbal, who was born and died 1400 km away in Baghdad, attributed over 40,000 Hadith from the prophet.

Aside from the Muwatta of Imam Malik containing much fewer Hadith than his successors, it is clear he put much less emphasis on Hadith for determining his legal rulings than his successors. For example, his Muwatta contained more references to statements from others or his own logic and reasoning rather than narrations attributed to the prophet. Below is a breakdown of ~1,720 narrations found in his Muwatta.

  • 600 marfu` hadith, which means it has a chain of narrators that goes to the prophet
  • 613 mawquf hadith, which means its chain ends with a companion or a successor (tabi’i) and not the prophet
  • 285 maqtu’ hadith, which means that its chain ends with a successor of the tabi’i
  • 222 mursal hadith, which means that it is missing people in the chain of narrators

Additionally, even when the Abbasid Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur (d. 158 AH) ordered Imam Malik to make his compilation the standard book that could be promulgated as law in all the Muslim regions. Stating:

“It should be a compendium of the agreed upon views of the Companions and the elder imāms on the religious and legal issues. Once you have compiled such a work then we would be able to unite the Muslims in following the single fiqh worked by you. We would then promulgate it in the entire Muslim state. We would order that no body acts contrary to it.”

But Imam Malik refused to allow his book to be spread to other lands as the defacto source of Fiqh because he believed that his book was only applicable for the people of his region in the Hijaz, that of Mecca and Medina. Obviously, the Imam did not have the same view towards the Quran, which was readily circulated to all the Muslim regions.

Al-Shāfi‘ī, on the other hand, emphasized the final authority of a hadith so that even the Qur’an was “to be interpreted in the light of traditions, and not vice versa.” While earlier madhabs believed that the Quran is considered above the Sunna in authority, Al-Shafi’i “forcefully argued” that the sunna stands “on equal footing with the Quran.” For these extreme views, he had severe clashes with Maliki and Hanafi schools of thought during his life. So much so that it is believed that after a particular debate with a Maliki follower, he was beaten by Maliki supporters, which led to his eventual death.

Imam Hanbal put even more weight on Hadith than al-Shafi’i. While Imam Shafi’i held a stricter guideline than Ibn Hanbal in authenticating Hadith, he also considered the consensus of scholars (Ijma) and analogical reasoning (Qiyas) as important sources of Islamic law. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, on the other hand, believed that Hadith, even if weakly authenticated, should be followed in the absence of stronger evidence to the contrary. So unlike al-Shafi’i, Ibn Hanbal’s method of determining legal rulings was predominately spent searching for a Hadith that covered the condition rather than relying on other sources, such as analogical reasoning or consensus. Therefore, he believed even a weak Hadith had more merit than any rulings made by logic and reason.

In the book “Misquoting Muhammad,” Jonathan Brown writes on page 44,

“Although Ibn Hanbal acknowledged that there were many Hadiths in his Musnad that suffered from some flaw or weakness in their Isnads, he felt they were all admissible in elaborating some area of the Shariah. He explained that, as long as a Hadith was supported by an Isnad reliable enough to show it was not a patent forgery, “then one was required to accept it and act accordingly to the Prophet’s words.’ ‘A flawed Hadith is preferable to me than a scholar’s opinion or Qiyas,’ he added. Muslims were, Ibn Hanbal reminded his students, commanded to take their religion from on high and not rely on the flawed faculty of reason.”

So we see that each succeeding madhab put more and more reliance on Hadith for determining their rulings, yet we haven’t even looked at the oldest Madhab of Abu Hanifa (d. 120 AH). If it is true that each progressive madhab put more emphasis on Hadith than their predecessors, then we should see that Abu Hanifa put even less emphasis on Hadith than even Imam Malik. And this is precisely what we find.

Abu Hanifa

There are only three books to date that are attributed to Abu Hanifah:

The Musnad of Abu Hanifa is said to contain ~500 hadiths, and there were several versions, which were collected in a single volume by Aby al-Mu’ayyad Muhammad bin Mahmud al-Khawarizmi (d. 665 H). Here is an extract from his Preface:

“I heard a number of ignoramuses in Syria say that Imam Abu Hanifah was not well versed in Hadith, which, according to them, explained why there was no book by him on the subject. This was a challenge to my sense of loyalty, in answer to which I decided to compile together all the musnads which have been composed by different ‘ulama on the basis of traditions narrated by Abu Hanifa.”

The book, “Imam Abu Hanifah: Life and Work” by Shibli Nomani and translated by M. Hadi Hussain discusses these three works attributed to Abu Hanifa. In Chapter 8, entitled “Abu Hanifah’s Writings,” on page 101, it states:

“The truth, however, is that it is extremely difficult to establish the Imam’s authorship of them [the musnads attributed to Abu Hanifah].”

The book concludes that there is no legitimacy to the claim that the Musnad attributed to Abu Hanifa came from him. For example, it states on page 103:

“Al-Khawarizmi lived in the seventh-century Hijra, and the musnads he compiled are mostly from the third or fourth century or even later. It is also noteworthy that no one has mentioned any of these musnads until Al-Khawarizmi.”

The second book attributed to Abu Hanifa is called Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, and this is a brief treatise outlining the foundational articles of the Sunni faith whilst refuting the beliefs of those groups that were considered to be outside orthodox or mainstream Islam, namely the Muʿtazila, Qadariyah, and Khawarij amongst others.

The book has the following to say regarding this work on page 103.

“Al-Fiqh al-Akbar has been ascribed to the Imam by Fakhr al-Islam al-Bazdawi, ‘Abd al-‘Ali Bahr al-‘Ulum and those who have written commentaries on it. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to accept this. The style in which the book is written had not yet come into existence at the time it is said to have been written. It is a regular text with brevity and orderliness characteristics of books of a later period. Again, there occur in it the words jawhar and ‘ard, which are philosophical terms that had not yet come into use.”

For background, in Islamic philosophy and metaphysics, the terms “jawhar” and “‘ard” have specific meanings:

  1. Jawhar (جوهر): Jawhar is an Arabic term that translates to “substance” or “essence.” In Islamic philosophy, it refers to the fundamental, unchanging, and indivisible substance or reality that underlies the physical world. Jawhar is often associated with the concept of existence and is considered the opposite of ‘ard.
  2. ‘Ard (عرض): ‘Ard is another Arabic term that translates to “accident” or “attribute.” In Islamic metaphysical thought, ‘ard represents the changeable and transient qualities or attributes of things. These attributes are contingent and can change over time. ‘Ard is linked to the concept of attributes or accidents that exist in connection with the fundamental substance (jawhar).

The relationship between jawhar and ‘ard is a central theme in Islamic philosophy, particularly in understanding the nature of reality, existence, and change, and these concepts were not developed until centuries after Abu Hanifa.

In historical analysis, this is an anachronism, when something is placed or depicted in a time or era where it doesn’t belong. It happens when a person, object, event, or idea is out of place in a historical context. For instance, in a movie set in ancient Greece, if you spot characters wearing timepieces, that’s an anachronism because wristwatches simply didn’t exist in ancient Greece. Recognizing anachronisms helps historians uncover the real-time periods of works rather than just depending on heresay.

The book continues with this analysis on page 104:

“Even from the point of view of historical criticism, it is not established that Abu Hanifah was the author of al-Fiqh al-Akbar. There is no mention of the work in writings of the second and third centuries. The earliest book in which, as far as I know, al-Fiqh al-Akbar is mentioned is Fakhr al-Islam al-Bazdawi’s Kitab al-Usul, which was written in the fifth century. The imam had thousands of disciples, most of whom were masters in their own right; and each of these in turn had thousands of disciples. It is highly improbable that if there had existed a work by the Imam, not one of the hundreds of thousands of his direct and indirect disciples should have made reference to it. There is no mention of al-Fiqh al-Akbar in any of the well-known books on dogmatics and allied subjects, such as Saha’if, Sharh al-Maqasid, Sharh al-Mawaqif and al-Milal wa al-Nihal. All the commentaries on the book were written in or after the eighth century [Hijra].”

Abu Hanifa and Hadith For Legal Rulings

This leaves the only book that can be attributed to Abu Hanifa that we have today as al-Alim wa al-Muta’allim, (The Scholar and the Teacher). This book is a dialogue between Abu Hanifa and one of his students covering a number of theological matters. The book with commentary is 250 pages long and consists of 44 sections. It discusses topics like prophethood, traits of the prophet, faith, abrogation, worship, disobedience, and many other issues.

If Hadith were central to Abu Hanifa’s rulings and understanding of the religion, we would expect that there would be many references to the Hadith of the prophet in this book, yet in the entire book, Abu Hanifa only cites a single Hadith to emphasize that on the Day of Judgment there will be no injustice for the people. Yet in his responses, Abu Hanifa directly quoted 68 verses of the Quran 59 times, not including many references he made to the verses of the Quran without directly quoting them.

Additionally, Abu Hanifa had the following to say regarding Hadith, which can be found on page 175:

“If a group of three men come with a hadith that we do not know or we cannot relate it with knowledge by experience or analogical reasoning, we refer the knowledge to Allah and we stop.”

The commentary explains that to stop meant to not act upon the Hadith.

Aside from that, the student asked Abu Hanifa about a statement made by a group known as the Khawrij that they attributed to the prophet, claiming he said that someone who commits fornication is no longer a Muslim. For background, the Khawrij believed that sin made someone no longer a Muslim, and if someone is no longer a Muslim, they are an apostate and should be attacked or killed unless they “return to justice.” The student’s statement can be found on page 181, where it states:

“the people narrate, ‘If the believer commits illegal fornication, he has taken faith from his head like removing a shirt. If he repents, then his faith returns to him.” Do you have doubt in their speech or truthfulness? As for the truthfulness of their speech, this is according to the speech of the Khawarij. If you doubt their words, then you doubt words according to the opinion of the Khawarij and return to justice as was described. If you deny their words, they say, ‘You deny the speech of the Prophet of Allah, upon him peace and blessings.’ As they reported this from men who reached the Messenger of Allah.”

Here is Abu Hanifa’s response:

“I believe in everything the Prophet spoke. However, the Prophet never spoke of tyranny or opposed the Quran. This opinion of them is belief in the Prophet and the Quran and freeing oneself from opposing the Quran. If they claim that the Prophet opposed the Quran then they speak untruths about Allah, Allah will not leave them until He seizes them by the right hand and cuts their aortas, as Allah the Exalted said in the Quran:

(٤٤) وَلَوْ تَقَوَّلَ عَلَيْنَا بَعْضَ ٱلْأَقَاوِيلِ

[69:44] Had he uttered any other words.

(٤٥) لَأَخَذْنَا مِنْهُ بِٱلْيَمِينِ

[69:45] We would have seized him by the right hand.

(٤٦) ثُمَّ لَقَطَعْنَا مِنْهُ ٱلْوَتِينَ

[69:46] We would have severed his aorta.

(٤٧) فَمَا مِنكُم مِّنْ أَحَدٍ عَنْهُ حَـٰجِزِينَ

[69:47] None of you could have helped him.

“The prophet of God did not dispute the Book of God, Most Exalted, for a disputer of the Book of God would not be a prophet of God.”

“What they reported is against the Quran because Allah the Exalted said “The female fornicator and the male fornicator (24:3). There is no negation of the term faith. Allah the Exalted said, ‘Those two of you’ (4:16). He said from ‘you’ and this is not about the Jews or Christains, rather it is only about the Muslims.”

Abu Hanifa is claiming that there is no indication in the Quran that if someone commits adultery, they are no longer a Muslim, like the Khawarij claim. He continues:

Every man [of the Khawarij] rejects the speech about the prophet by opposing the Quran. It is not rejecting of the Prophet and they lie about it. Rather, the rejection of falsehood is about the speech of the Prophet. The accusation enters it and it is not about the Prophet of Allah.”

In a nutshell, Abu Hanifa is claiming that the Khawrij accuses him of leaving Hadith, but he accuses them of leaving the Quran. He is saying they are attributing lies to the prophet and ascribing falsehood to him by their accusation, and his method of proving this is by showing that their statement contradicts the verses of God in the Quran.

It is also worth noting that neither the zealot Khawrij nor Abu Hanifa claim that the punishment for illegal fornication is stoning, as depicted in the future Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim. If this was the case, there would be no chance for redemption, like each party asserts, as the illegal fornicator would have been put to death if stoning was actually understood to be Sunnah at that time.

In one of the last questions posed to Abu Hanifa by his student, he is asked regarding another Hadith on page 189,

“[I]nform me about the claim that drinking wine [means] forty nights of prayer is not accepted from him or forty days. Explain to me if this nullifies and ruins good actions.”

Abu Hanifa responds by saying,

“I do not know the explanation of that which they say, that Allah does not accept forty prayers in the night or forty days of a person inebriated with intoxicants. I do not lie as long as it is not explained correctly, and we do not recognize the opposition to justice.”

Abu Hanifa then cites numerous verses from the Quran regarding God’s justice and that no one will suffer injustice. So his response is that he doesn’t recognize the Hadith and therefore cannot act upon it, but can only say there is no injustice with God as per the verses of the Quran. So again, he refers back to the Quran to make his rulings and not the Hadith.

Why Lie About Abu Hanifas Use of Hadith?

Based on these findings, one has to ask why followers of the Hanafi madhab would fabricate Musnads and books to claim that Abu Hanifa put more emphasis on Hadith in making his rulings than he actually did. This shows that the Hanafis of today are in complete opposition to the actual teachings and example of Abu Hanifa. While Abu Hanifa made his rulings almost entirely based on the verses of the Quran, Hanafis of today put their focus on the Hadith corpus over the Quran and are now more closely aligned with Shaifi and Hanbali schools of thought.

The Madhabs’ Emphasis on Hadith Over Time

This historical revisionism took place hundreds of years after the death of Abu Hanifa during the canonization of the Sahih compilations of Bukhari and Muslim, the Sahihayn, in the fifth-century hijra and eleventh-century CE. At this time, all four Sunni madhabs accepted the books of Bukhari and Muslim for their fiqh and en masse, abandoning much of their old ways, particularly that of Abu Hanifa and his reasoning and Quran-centric approach.

We can see this detailed in the book “Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim” by Jonathan Brown.

“For over two centuries after al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s deaths, the study and collection of hadiths continued unabated. Al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s remarkable contribution came with their decision to compile books devoted only to hadiths they considered authentic (sahih). This act broke stridently with the practices of the transmission-based school and thus met with significant disapproval in the immediate wake of the authors’ careers.

In the fourth/tenth century, however, the initial controversy surrounding the Sahihayn and their authors dissipated as a relatively small and focused network of scholars from the moderate Shafi’i tradition began appreciating the books’ utility. These scholars found the Sahihayn ideal vehicles for articulating their relationship to the Prophet’s normative legacy as well as standards against which to measure the strength of their own hadith collections. Employing the Sahihayn for these purposes required intimate familiarity with the two books and thus spurred an intensive study of the works and their authors’ methodologies. Simultaneously, between the end of the third/ninth and the middle of the fifth/eleventh century, the broader Muslim community began imagining a new level of authority for Prophetic traditions.” p. 6

“This ability of al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s collections to serve as an acknowledged convention for discussing the Prophet’s authenticated legacy would serve three important needs in the Sunni scholarly culture of the fifth/eleventh century. As the division between different schools of theology and law became more defined, scholars from the competing Shafi’i, Hanbali and MaÎiki schools quickly began employing the Sahihayn as a measure of authenticity in debates and polemics. By the early eighth/fourteenth century, even the hadith-wary Hanafi school could not avoid adopting this convention. With the increased division of labor between jurists and Hadith scholars in the mid-fifth/eleventh century, the Sahihayn also became an indispensable authoritative reference for jurists who lacked expertise in Hadith evaluation. Finally, al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s works served as standards of excellence that shaped the science of Hadith criticism as scholars from the fifth/eleventh to the seventh/thirteenth century sought to systematize the study of the Prophet’s word.” p. 7

“Although occasional criticism of the Sahihayn continued even after their canonization at the dawn of the fifth/eleventh century, advocates of institutional Sunnism found it essential to protect the two works and the important roles they played. Beginning at the turn of the fourth/tenth century and climaxing in the mid-seventh/thirteenth, a set of predominately Shafi’i scholars created a canonical culture around the Sahihayn that recast the two books’ pre-canonical pasts as well as those of their authors according to the exigent contours of the canon.” p. 7

Later on, all Sunni schools expanded this corpus to what is known as the Kitab al-Sitta, which they consider the most reliable and authentic sources of hadith for Sunni Muslims.

  1. Sahih al-Bukhari: Compiled by Imam Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (d. 870 CE, 256 AH), this collection is considered the most authentic and respected among Sunni Muslims. It contains approximately 7,275 hadiths.
  2. Sahih Muslim: Compiled by Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875 CE, 261 AH), this collection is also highly regarded and considered authentic. It contains around 7,500 hadiths.
  3. Sunan Abu Dawood: Compiled by Imam Abu Dawood (d. 888 CE, 275 AH), this collection primarily focuses on the hadiths related to legal issues and practical guidance. It contains approximately 5,274 hadiths.
  4. Sunan at-Tirmidhi: Compiled by Imam Muhammad ibn Isa at-Tirmidhi (d. 892 CE, 279 AH), this collection includes hadiths and explanations of their authenticity. It contains around 4,400 hadiths.
  5. Sunan an-Nasa’i: Compiled by Imam Ahmad ibn Shu’ayb an-Nasa’i (d. 915 CE, 303 AH), this collection contains hadiths organized according to legal topics and contains approximately 5,800 hadiths.
  6. Sunan Ibn Majah: Compiled by Imam Muhammad ibn Yazid ibn Majah (d. 887 CE, 273 AH), this collection contains hadiths covering various aspects of life and contains approximately 4,341 hadiths.


In our examination of the historical development of Sunni Islamic schools, a truly intriguing pattern emerges, where we observe a chronological succession in which each school incrementally elevated the significance of Hadith in determining their legal principles. Starting with the Hanafi school, the oldest of them all, where Hadith initially played a relatively minimal, if almost non-existent role, followed by the Maliki school, and thereafter, the Shafi’i school further heightened the importance of Hadith. This evolution culminated with the Hanbali school, which arguably depended the most on Hadith for their legal rulings over logic, reason, and, most notably, the Quran.

As time progressed, the Hanafi and Malaki schools emphasized using Hadith in legal rulings. A pivotal juncture occurred from the fifth century to the eighth century Hijra when these divergent schools began to coalesce, converging toward a more Shafi’i and Hanbali perspective. This marked a crucial turning point, wherein Hadith assumed a central role in formulating their fiqh, and a de-emphasis of the Quran can be seen across all four schools of thought.

To deal with this dissonance, followers of the Hanafi school fabricated Musnads and books attributing them back to their founder Abu Hanifa to try to portray him as more Hadith focused on determining his legal rulings as he actually was, and thus fulfilling the quranic prophecy.

[25:27] The day will come when the transgressor will bite his hands (in anguish) and say, “Alas, I wish I had followed the path with the messenger.

 وَيَوْمَ يَعَضُّ ٱلظَّالِمُ عَلَىٰ يَدَيْهِ يَقُولُ يَـٰلَيْتَنِى ٱتَّخَذْتُ مَعَ ٱلرَّسُولِ سَبِيلًا

[25:28] “Alas, woe to me, I wish I did not take that person as a friend.

 يَـٰوَيْلَتَىٰ لَيْتَنِى لَمْ أَتَّخِذْ فُلَانًا خَلِيلًا

[25:29] “He has led me away from the message after it came to me. Indeed, the devil lets down his human victims.”

 لَّقَدْ أَضَلَّنِى عَنِ ٱلذِّكْرِ بَعْدَ إِذْ جَآءَنِى وَكَانَ ٱلشَّيْطَـٰنُ لِلْإِنسَـٰنِ خَذُولًا

[25:30] The messenger said, “My Lord, my people have deserted this Quran.”

 وَقَالَ ٱلرَّسُولُ يَـٰرَبِّ إِنَّ قَوْمِى ٱتَّخَذُوا۟ هَـٰذَا ٱلْقُرْءَانَ مَهْجُورًا

Thus, whatever argument they com up with God provided us with the best tafsir by means of the Quran.

[25:33] Whatever argument they come up with, we provide you with the truth, and a better tafsir.

(٣٣) وَلَا يَأْتُونَكَ بِمَثَلٍ إِلَّا جِئْنَـٰكَ بِٱلْحَقِّ وَأَحْسَنَ تَفْسِيرًا

*Additional Notes

For background, a “Musnad” is a type of collection of hadiths (sayings, actions, and approvals of the Prophet Muhammad) where the hadiths are organized based on the names of the companions of the Prophet who narrated them. The term “Musnad” means “supported” or “backed,” indicating that the hadiths in this collection are backed by the names of those who transmitted them from one generation to the next. Alternatively, another form of Hadith compilation is called a “Musannaf” where rather than being organized by transmitter, it is organized by subject.

Imam Hanbal believed that while all his narrations were not authentic, every authentic Hadith was contained in his Musnad.

It is also worth noting that there are currently sixteen different versions of the Muwatta, of which the most famous is the one transmitted by Yahya ibn Yahya al-Laythi, who studied and received the Muwatta in the last year of Malik’s life. Al-Laythi’s recension is considered the ‘vulgate’ or standard version in the Maliki school of law. The recension of the Muwatta produced by Ahmad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri is approximately five to ten percent larger than the recension of al-Laythi. According to al-Ghafiqi, the total number of hadiths across all twelve versions of the Muwatta he analyzed is 666, out of which 97 differ in the different versions of the book, while the rest are common to all the various recensions.


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