THE ṬÂBIʿÎN ARE the generation after the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ. They received the Sunnah, or “way,” of the Prophet ﷺ from the Companions then transmitted this practical behavioral and conceptual knowledge from the Companions to the world. They are considered the best of generations after the Companions. They put forth great effort in the compilation and preservation of the Sunnah in two important ways.
First, they exhorted everyone around them to adhere to the Sunnah. Second, they preserved this prophetic way of life in the form of writing and in the form of its meticulously accurate, detailed, oral transmission.
Their attitude toward the Sunnah is exemplified by what they are noted to have said. For example, ʿÂmir Al-Shaʿbi used to say:
If you hear something [that is, a ḥadîth], then write it down even if [you have to] write on a wall…for, indeed, you will come to need it one day.
Ḥasan Al-Ba ṣri said:
Knowledge has never been secured by anything [as wonderful] as a book.
Saʿîd ibn Jubayr said:
I used to write every ḥadîth I heard from Ibn ʿAbbâs in my scroll until I would fill the scroll. Then I would write on the bottoms of my sandals. Then I would write on the palms of my hands.
Ṣâli ḥ ibn Kisân said:
I met with Al-Zuhri when we were students of knowledge and we said to each other: “Let us write down the Sunnah.” So we wrote down what was narrated about the Prophet ﷺ. Then Al-Zuhri said: “Let us write down what was narrated about the Companions, for indeed it is part of the Sunnah.” But I said: “It is not part of the Sunnah, so we should not write it down.” So he wrote it, and I did not, and he was successful and I failed.
The Compilation of the Sunnah in Scrolls (suhuf)
In the time of the Tâbiʿîn, the Sunnah was being transcribed on a much broader and more official scale than in the period of the Companions. Ḥalaqât al-ʿilm (study circles, basically classes) proliferated all over the expanding Muslim world and writing was an integral part of these Ḥalaqât.
Within a generation, writing had dramatically increased, and for good cause. First, narration of ḥadîth was disseminating throughout the Muslim world, and thus the chains of narrators were growing longer. So the increasing number of narrators (not to mention that often times one narrator was referred to by different names and in variant ways) was becoming too complicated for an exclusively oral tradition to sustain (though it is important to note for certain reasons of reliability that Islam and Muslims have never lost this oral tradition and that writing is an augmentation).
In addition, the generation of Companions was fast passing away, and there was genuine fear that those coming after might begin to forget some of the Sunnah.
Also, the strength of people’s memory had become, on the whole, weaker because the development of the Islamic sciences was not taking place strictly in the Arabian Peninsula where people tended to have stronger memories. It had moved out to the more established civilizations in Iraq, Syria, and Central Asia.
Another factor that encouraged the impetus to document the Sunnah was political, in that this was the period wherein intentional attempts to fabricate the Sunnah to manipulate public opinion and justify authority multiplied. Thus the need to record the authentic Sunnah and thus to prevent the fabricated narrations from creeping into the body of ḥadîth literature became both urgent and profound.
All these influences, and others, converged in the first two centuries to make documentation of the Sunnah in writing the most crucial mission in the Islamic world, and the Tâbiʿîn were the absolutely indispensable pivot in this civilizational project. It is on the shoulders of their initiative that we stand today.
Thus the era of the Tâbiʿîn witnessed the compilation of untold numbers of hadîth scrolls. Some of the more celebrated ones include the Scroll of Saʿîd ibn Jubayr, the noted student of Ibn ʿAbbâs; the Scroll of Bashîr ibn Nuhayk, the student of Abû Hurairah; and the Scroll of Al-Zubair ibn Muslim, the student of Jâbir ibn ʿAbdâllah.
‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Azîz and Ibn Shihâb Al-Zuhri
In the Hijri year 100 (8th century CE), ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz, the early Umayyad caliph, against considerable familial political pressure, commanded that the Sunnah be compiled in writing. This mandate represents the official beginning of the deliberate compilation of the Sunnah in its entirety.
Bukhâri narrates that ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz wrote a letter to Abû Bakr ibn Ḥazm stating:
Look for the a ḥâdîth of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and write them down, for, indeed, I fear for the disappearance of the scholars [of the Sunnah] and the loss of [their] knowledge.
Ibn Shihâb Al-Zuhri reports that “ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz commanded the scholars to gather the Sunnah. Thus book by book they wrote it down. Then they sent [copies of] to every land over which he reigned.”
The Tâbi ‘i Al-Tâbi ‘în
The cohort of the Tâbiʿi Al-Tâbiʿîn (Followers of the Followers) is the third generation of Muslims after the Prophet ﷺ, and the last that the Prophet ﷺ specifically testified to their being a good generation in the well-known ḥadîth: “The best of generations is my generation, then those that follow them, then those that follow them.”
Two of these reports read as follows:
Narrated Za ḥdam ibn Muḍarrib: ʿImran ibn Husain said: The Prophet ﷺ said:
“The best people are my contemporaries (i.e., the present (my) generation) and then those who come after them (i.e., the next generation).” ʿImran added: I am not sure whether the Prophet ﷺ repeated the statement twice after his first saying. The Prophet ﷺ added: “Then after them will come people who bear witness, though they have not been asked to give their witness. Moreover, they will be treacherous and none will trust them. Moreover, they will make vows but will not fulfill them, and fatness will appear among them.” (Bukhâri)
Narrated ʿAbdullah: The Prophet ﷺ said:
“The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e. the next generation). Then after them will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness.” (Bukhâri)
Additional reports on this topic occur in Ṣaḥîḥ Muslim, as well.
The point, however, is that the Tâbiʿi al-Tâbiʿîn played a key role in the transmission of ḥadîth to the world and in their identification and labeling of fabricated ḥadîth. Lying about the Sunnah by those who harbored an ill will toward Islam intensified around the year 150h. In fact, heresy became such a problem that the khalîfah of the time had to appoint someone to follow up the activities of certain people notorious for this.
During this generation, the compilation of the Sunnah took on a more organized form. In the previous generation, a person would gather what a ḥâdîth he could in a scroll without any specific order. In the third generation, however, people began to order their compilations into volumes, chapters, and sections like what we are familiar with today.
Furthermore, the Tâbiʿî Al-Tâbiʿîn developed the critical ḥadîth discipline known as the Science of Rijâl (lit. Men, though its subject matter includes women). Rijâl focuses on identifying each ḥadîth narrator and assessing his or her moral, mental, and educational integrity). This third blessed generation nurtured this science until it grew strong at their hands.
Finally, the Tâbiʿi Al-Tâbiʿîn were the ones who incorporated the sayings of the Companions as well as the fatâwa of the Tâbiʿîn into ḥadîth compilations. Before them, the compilations transcribed in writing only the a ḥâdîth of the Prophet ﷺ, everything else being left to oral transmission.
The Muwatta’ of Imam Mâlik
The most important and prevalent ḥadîth compilation of the Tâbiʿi Al-Tâbiʿîn generation is the Muwa ṭ ṭa’ of Imam Mâlik. The Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ in this context means “The Approved [Book].” Imam Mâlik stated his own reason for naming it thus by saying: “I exhibited this book to 70 jurists [fuqahâ’] of Madinah and all of them approved it. Thus I named it The Approved.”
The Muwa ṭ ṭa’ contains a ḥâdîth as well as sayings of the Prophet’s Companions and fatâwa of the Tâbiʿîn. Imam Mâlik selected its contents from 10,000 narrations that he had memorized.
There are different versions of Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ owing to the fact that for 40 years Imam Mâlik was constantly reviewing it and adjusting it. For this reason, the number of a ḥâdîth in the Muwa ṭ ṭa’ varys, based on the version’s stage of development.
An idea of the size of Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ can be gleaned from the statement of Abû Bakr Al-Abhari:
The complete Muwa ṭ ṭa’ comes to 1,720 narrations, with 822 a ḥâdîth of the Prophet ﷺ, 613 sayings of the Companions, and 285 sayings of the Tâbiʿîn.
Imam Al-Shâfiʿi said of it: “The most authentic book after the Quran is Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’. There is no contradiction between this statement and the fact that Bukhâri and Muslim are the most authentic ḥadîth books for two reasons: (1) Imam Al-Shâfiʿi passed away when Bukhâri was not yet 10 years old. Hence, the latter had not yet even begun his compilation, and Muslim was born the same year that Al-Shâfiʿi died. (2) The vast majority of what is in Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ was narrated also by Bukhâri or Muslim, and whatever was not narrated by them is found in the other four Sunan books, namely, Abû Dâwûd, Al-Tirmithî Al-Nasâ’i, and Ibn Mâjah.
The great majority of scholars agree that all of what is in Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ is ṣaḥîḥ [authentic]. Some scholars consider it the sixth of the six authentic ḥadîth books (while most consider the sixth book to be that of Ibn Mâjah).
The most important shar ḥ, commentary, of Al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ is Al-Tamhîd li mâ fi al-Muwa ṭ ṭa’ min Al-Maʿâni w’l-Asânîd. The respected fifth century Mâliki scholar Ibn ʿAbd Al-Barr Al-Andalûsi composed this 24 volume book, which was printed in Morocco.