History and Sources

What other early texts are especially important for Muslims?

Second only to the Qur’an in both authority and antiquity is the large body of works containing sayings attributed to Muhammad, along with hundreds of anecdotes about him. This material is known collectively as Hadith (sayings or traditions, pronounced haDEETH). When Muhammad died, neither the scripture nor the Prophet’s words and deeds had been formally committed to writing. And even long after the Qur’an had been carefully edited, Muslims hesitated to produce written versions of Muhammad’s sayings. Custodians of these Prophetic Traditions kept them by heart, much as the earliest followers preserved the Qur’anic revelations.

Not until over two centuries after Muhammad died did his community deem it necessary to gather and edit the Hadith. The impetus to do so came in part from legal scholars, who believed that the only way to interpret the spirit of the Qur’an faithfully in cases not explicitly treated in the scripture was to have a sound testimony of the Prophet’s own views. Through much of the ninth century, Muslim religious scholars undertook the massive task of traveling widely and gathering and recording thousands of Hadiths from countless individuals known for their reliable memories. These scholars, often working independently and at some distance in time and space, then sifted through what they had gathered. Since the very existence of this treasure trove depended on its oral transmission from one generation to another, scholars looked first at the chains of transmission to see whether all individuals listed were trustworthy. If not, one likely could dismiss the Hadith itself as not entirely reliable. By the end of the ninth century half a dozen authoritative collections of Hadith were available, and many lesser ones as well, complete with scholarly evaluation as to the relative soundness of each saying and anecdote. Muslims traditionally consider the content of the Hadith to be divinely inspired, only expressed in Muhammad’s own words, unlike the Qur’an, which is in God’s own diction.


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