Compilation During the Lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad
THERE IS A common misconception that only later on did it occur to the first generation of Muslims to write down the Sunnah. Thus, most people think that the official gathering and writing down of the Sunnah was delayed for that reason.
In fact, the reality is that although the idea and importance of writing down the Sunnah was immediately recognized, the official effort to gather all of the Sunnah in books was delayed for other reasons.
The writing down of the Sunnah occurred during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ. There are many aḥâdîth that confirm this, such as the narration of Abû Hurayrah when he said:
There is no companion who has narrated more aḥadîth than I have, except Abdullah ibn ‘Amr, for, indeed, he used to write and I could not write. (Bukhâri)
There is also a ḥadîth in which ʿAbdullâh ibn ʿAmr ibn Al-ʿÂṣ said:
I used to write everything that I heard from the Prophet ﷺ in order to memorize it, and (some companions) from Quraysh instructed me to stop, saying: “Will you write down everything that you hear from the Messenger of Allah even though he is a man [not an angel] who speaks [sometimes] in anger and [sometimes] in pleasure?”
So I stopped writing and I mentioned this to the Prophet ﷺ who pointed to his mouth and said: “Write! For by Him in whose hand is my soul, nothing comes out from this except truth’” (Aḥmad and Abû Dâwûd)
Reconciling Two Seemingly Contradictory Reports
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Do not write anything from me; and let him who has written anything from me besides the Quran, erase it. (Muslim)
This ḥadîth seems to contradict the previously mentioned ḥadîth in which the Prophet ﷺ instructed ʿAbdullâh ibn ʿAmr ibn Al-ʿÂṣ to write. These two reports can be reconciled thus.
- At first, the Prophet ﷺ forbade the writing down of the Sunnah for fear that it would be mixed with the Quran.
- When that fear was removed, he permitted the writing of the Sunnah.
- And so, at the end, writing of the Sunnah was made permissible before he died.
- However, after his death the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ continued to discourage the writing of the Sunnah for reasons as given below.
Reasons for the Delay in the Writing of the Sunnah
The writing of the Sunnah was delayed for two reasons.
- Firstly, the ‘standardization’ of the Quran had to take place,
- Secondly, there was no real need to have the Sunnah in written form in the years immediately after the death of the Prophet ﷺ.
The Necessity that the Standardization of the Quran Should Precede the Writing Down of the Sunnah
A. To keep a clear and distinct line of demarcation between what was Quran and what was Sunnah.
- While the Prophet ﷺ was alive, the Quran was not yet complete, in its full and final form. Allah, Most High, was adding to it and subtracting from it, meaning that verses that were Quran for a time, were no longer Quran, and the order of component parts was not fixed into set âyât and ṣuwar.So the gathering and standardization of the Quran could not begin until after the Prophet’s death, when it needed to be gathered and standardized first to prevent Ḥadîth from being mixed with Quran.
- The Quran is the Word of Allah so it is proper that it should be given first priority. Quran and Ḥadîth are both revelation, both are noble and both require meticulousness in recording.Yet the Word of God is nobler, and therefore, it was given attention first and Ḥadîth was given second priority.
- The Quran required a higher standard of verification than the Sunnah so the need to standardize it was more urgent.
- It was practical to standardize the Quran first before an official attempt to record the Sunnah because the Sunnah was going to require a greater amount of work on behalf of the ummah since it was a larger and more complicated body of literature.Whereas the compilation of the Quran required only a few years, the compilation of the Sunnah required about two hundred and fifty years.
B. There was no need for the writing of the Sunnah in the 1st century Hijri. In fact, there would have been some harm.
- The Arabs of the time had very strong memories because books were unavailable and writing uncommon, and also due to their lifestyle and eating habits.That is, the harshness of the climate prevented them from having an abundance of food, which then led to more alert and keen minds.
- The Arabs, in general, were weak in writing and so if there had been a major attempt to write the Sunnah, there would have been many mistakes.So the compilation of Ḥadîth needed to wait until Muslims, whether Arabs or non-Arabs, became proficient in writing Arabic. In regards to the Quran, there was a small number of skilled writers who were sufficient for the recording of the Quran; but as mentioned above, the area of Ḥadîth required exponentially more writing.
- The Quran needed time to settle in the minds of people before the work on Ḥadîth was begun so that it would not mix with the Quran in their minds.During that period of time, the Arabs needed to retain their strength of memory so that they could preserve the Sunnah in the form of oral traditions, until the proper time for compilation commenced.Had they been pushed to write the Ḥadîth too soon, they could have lost their powers of memory and retention.
- At the end of the First Century Hijri. there was still a short gap in time between the narrators and the Prophet ﷺ, so the fear of possibly losing the Sunnah had not become plausible.
- The dialect of the Arabs of the first century still had not changed from the time of the Prophet ﷺ, so there was no fear of misunderstanding or linguistic errors.
- The nature of the way aḥâdîth were preserved made it easy to transmit them as oral tradition for the first few centuries. That is, only one person was required to transmit a ḥadîth.So between the thousands of companions and the hundreds and thousands of tâbiʿîn and the millions of narrators who came after that, the fifty thousand or so ḥadîth that make up the body of Ḥadîth literature could easily be preserved for a few generations.
- A ḥadîth did not need to be transmitted with the same level of adherence to the verbatim text because its text is not an inimitable miracle and the verbatim word of Allah. So there was no harm in keeping Ḥadîth orally transmitted for a couple of generations.
Compilations on the Part of the Sahaba
Even though the official recording of Ḥadîth was delayed for a century, some of the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ began writing down aḥâdîth and encouraging their students to do the same. Here are some examples of these early compilations:
- Samrah ibn Jundub gathered what aḥâdîth he could and wrote them down in a letter he sent to his son Sulayman.
- Anas ibn Mâlik used to say to his children: “O My Children! Secure knowledge by writing.”
- Abû Bakr had a ṣaḥîfa (scroll) in which was written: “This is the Zakah that the Messenger of Allah obligated upon the Muslims…” and then it mentioned the amounts a person must pay.
- The tâbiʿî, Mujâhid, said: “I went to see ʿAbdullâh ibn ʿAmr ibn Al-ʿÂṣ and tried to pull out a scroll (that I noticed) from under his mattress and he stopped me. I said to him, ‘You have never stopped me from anything [of yours] before!’ He replied: ‘This [scroll I have named] ‘The Truth Teller.’ It contains everything I heard from the Messenger of Allah [directly] with no one in between us.’” The contents of this scroll of ʿAbdullâh were narrated in the Musnad of Aḥmad.
- Other well-known of the earliest scrolls were those of Abû Mûsa Al-Ashʿari, Jâbir ibn ʿAbdullâh, and Hammâm ibn Munabbih.