The Hadith: what do they contain and how do they help a Muslim?
The Hadith appeared during the Prophet’s lifetime. These were the stories told by his companions who stayed in touch with him about what the Prophet said (‘The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said this and that…’), did (‘The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, did this and that…’), approved of (‘Before The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, this and that was done…’) or how he was described by other people (‘The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, was of the purest disposition among all men…’) In all these words and deeds of the Prophet was Divine Inspiration from Allah.
The words and deeds of the Prophet were the continuation of the Divine Revelation bestowed on men in the Quran. Collectively, they became the Sunnah, the Holy Tradition which detailed practical applications of the general commandments of the Quran. This division was brought forward by the Almighty Allah Humself. Its deepest meaning is in keeping the basic and global revelations about the foundations of this world and the universe and about the Omnipotent Allah as the Basis, the Beginning and the End of all that exists distinctly separate from the manifestation of these universal laws of Creation in a man’s day-to-day life.
This is quite logical. Allah ordains to us: one must do the namaz. This is said in the Quran. Then the Messenger of Allah goes on to say how exactly this needs to be done, for example, how many rakats there will be in each namaz depending on the time of day etc. The Almighty Allah must not stoop to petty administration, this is the job of His Deputy. “And whatever the Messenger has given you – take; and what he has forbidden you – refrain from.” (59:7)
Each Hadith consists of two parts: the isnad (the chain of narrators) and matn (the contents proper of a particular edification, word, deed or assessment made by the Prophet). Both parts are important. The isnad helps determine if the Hadith did indeed proceed from the Prophet. It keeps the purity of Islam intact. “Beware of narrating from me except what I taught you, for whoever lies about me on purpose, then let him take his seat in the Fire.” (Jami at-Tirmidhi, 2951)
The Hadith can be either authentic (sahih), good (hasan) or weak (daif). The authentic Hadith are those in which the chain of narrators can be traced to the Prophet without doubt. Ascertaining the Hadith’s authenticity in the times when most of the Prophet’s companions were still alive and the umma did not extend beyond limited territory was not difficult. When the ummah had expanded and the companions had departed to faraway corners of the Caliphate, the job became more challenging. It was then that the Caliph Umar ordered to have all of the existing Hadiths collected and recorded so that the sacred knowledge could be kept fast.
The authenticity of the Hadith is studied in the Hadith science, a complex scientific discipline, in which there is considerable research undertaken and a great number of scientific works that have been written since the times of Caliph Umar.
There is a great amount of the Hadith collections. Those of the highest authority among them are the collections of imams al-Bukhari, Abu Dawood, Muslim, at-Tirmidhi, an-Nasai and Ibn Majah. These collections are considered canonical and are known as the Six Books (Kutub al-Sittah). These are the Hadith that have the most wide-spread use and application in the matters of faith and law.
For a Muslim, the Hadith hold an invaluable treasury of knowledge and wisdom which can be applied to any issue at hand. And that holds true not only for the authentic Hadith (such as we find in al-Bukhari) but also to even the weak Hadith (which we often find in Ibn Majah). The weak Hadith can be a good guide in the matters of righteous faith, whereas it is best to use authentic Hadith which clearly stems from the Prophet in the matters of prohibitions and daily rules. In any case, the Hadith are worthy and useful reading for any Muslim.