IN ORDER TO appreciate the underpinnings of the Islamic sources (the Ḥadîth, in addition to the Quran), we must have some acquaintance with the Islamic Science of Ḥadîth (‘science’= organized observational and analytical technical apparatus for systematic study), which was developed in the early centuries of Islam in order to authenticate some—and reject others—of the hundreds of thousands of accumulated reports dealing with what Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him had been observed to say and do.

Elsewhere, we look at khabar al-âhâd (solitary reports) after first introducing the overall Science of Ḥadîth (Muṣṭala Al-Ḥadîth), and then explaining what constitutes the category of the mutawâtir (widely transmitted”) report.

Under the heading of khabar al-â ḥâd, it is noted that reports of the “single [line of] transmission” (ââd), (= any reports not meeting the multiple line standard of the mutawâtir category) are categorized according to the number of people, at each level who have transmitted any given report:

Mashhûr (“well known”): reported by three or more people at every level of its adîth chain

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ʿAzîz (“rare” or “strong”): reported by no less than two people at every level of its hadîth chain

Gharîb (“strange” or “alien”): one or more levels of its adîth chain having only one reporter

A (vertical) ‘chain’ of transmission links one (ââd )or more (mutawâtîr) transmitter(s) from among one generation of reporters to the next, starting from those who were eye-witnesses of the Prophet’s words or acts and ending with the final reporter/compiler of a adîth, centuries later. The horizontal ‘width’ of reporting has to do with the plurality of people who heard the report from someone at the earlier level in the vertical chain and thus created other branches of [vertical] chains— of the same event using the same reported wording.

Horizontally-speaking, a widely-reported (=mutawatîr) event has greater weight than does a singularly-reported (=âhâd) one—since many within one generation of people have heard and in turn passed on the report in the first (mutawâtîr) case and only one reporter within the a generation has heard and reported the event in the second (ââd) case.

In general, the greater number of [reliable] transmitters that a report has associated with it, at each level, the higher is its rating of authenticity. The project of cataloging transmitters and evaluating their reliability was another—and extensive—early activity within the Islamic Science of adîth. From the standpoint of end result, any âhâd adîth falls under one of two categories: 

Maqbûl (“accepted”)

Mardûd (“rejected”)

—whether the ââd hadîth in question be mashhûr, ʿazîz, or gharîb (whereas all mutawâtir reports are accepted).

There is consensus that any maqbûl adîth, (accepted report) is part of divine revelation and is of a binding nature, meaning it must be followed and obeyed and can be used as proof for or against a jurisprudential ruling. Now, any maqbûl adîth falls under either one or the other of two categories: aî or asan.

What Is A “Sahih Hadith”? 

The word ‘ ṣaî in the Arabic language means ‘sound.’ Hence, a “adîth aî” is a “sound report,” meaning that adîth experts (Muaddithîn) have taken a critical look at both (A) the chain of reporters (sanad), and (B) the text, or subject matter, (matn), and adjudged that report to be structurally sound and of verified content.

(A)  Chain Of Reporters (Sanad)

When the adîth experts (Muaddithîn) inspect the chain of reporters (vertically=from the eye-witness(es) of the Prophet down to the collector of adîth), they examine it against three criteria:

Criterion One

The Chain Of Reporters Is Unbroken – This means that every reporter identifies the one from whom he received the report, such that there is no missing link. For example, imagine five people: [1] Omar, [2] Ahmad, [3] Osama, [4] Khalid, and [5] Muhammad.

Omar [1] said to Ahmad [2]:

“There was heavy traffic on the main street Thursday afternoon.”

Then Ahmad [2] told this to Osama [3].

Then Osama [3] told it to Khalid [4].

Then Khalid [4] told the same to Muhammad [5].

Unbroken Chains

With the above scenario in mind, suppose that Khalid [4] had said to Muhammad [5]

“Osama [3] told me [4] that Ahmad [2] had told him [3] that Omar [1] had         said: “There was heavy traffic on the main street Thursday afternoon.”

Such a report would be considered to have an unbroken chain. It has no missing links. Links [1], [2], [3], [4] and [5] are all represented. Every transmitter in the chain is accounted for and identified.

Broken Chains

By contrast, suppose

[A] that Khalid [4] had said to Muhammad [5],

“Omar [1] said [such and such]”

or,    [B] that Khalid [4] had said to Muhammad [5],

“Ahmad [2] said that Omar [1] said [such and such]”

Each of the two above supposed cases exemplifies a report with a broken chain. In the first case, there were two missing reporting links, namely [2] and [3]. In the second, there was one missing link, namely [3].

One can see that the links need not be presented in chronological order, [1], [2], [3], [4] and [5]—or even [5], [4], [3], [2] and [1]; however, it is the case that the Arabic wording in the sanad does represent all parts of the chain that are actually present, even if some parts are in inverted order.

Criterion Two

Every Person In The Chain Is Of Upright Character – The experts look for this to rule out the possibility of falsification. A believing person of upright character would not lie about what he had seen the Prophet say or do because he would know that bearing false witness on so important a matter could mean for him punishment in Hell-fire. Nor would a reputable transmitter falsify the chain of transmission of a report.

Criterion Three

Every Human Link In The Chain Of Reporters Has A Demonstrably Good Memory And Linguistic Grasp Of Arabic – This is to rule out mistakes. Someone with a good memory, a good grasp of how the Arabic language works, and one who is attentive to detail in general is very unlikely to make a mistake in transmitting a report.

(Criteria Two and Three are established through broad and extensive critical and comparative examination of the record of their lives and reports about them from others.

(B) Text (Matn)

After testing the chain of reporters, adîth scholars take a critical look at the text of the report (matn), mainly judging by two criteria:

Criterion One

Absence Of Contradiction – The matn, or Text, of the report contains nothing that contradicts any other report transmitted by a person of stronger memory, better linguistic skills, and who is of more upright character.

Criterion Two

Absence Of Report-Weakening Flaws – The Text of the report is free of problems that compromise it and render it weak. These problems are not categorized according to hard-and-fast problem types. Rather, any type of problem in general in the Text could render it weak. This criterion obviously depends upon prodigious knowledge of Revelation and Islam overall. Thus, it is only those who are very well versed in the science of adîth that are capable of accurately recognizing these problems.

So imagine that you were able to identify every transmitter of a certain report. And imagine that you came to know for certain that none of them were likely to lie or make any technical mistakes. And imagine that you saw that the content of the report held no contradictions or anything that would make you suspect its lack of soundness—if you are able to imagine such a scenario, you will be able to understand how a ṣaî adîth is properly verified and adjudged authentic.

Formal Definition

The following is a translation of a common textbook-definition of a ṣaî hadith:

Ṣaḥîḥ Ḥadîth: A person of upright character and sound memory with a good grasp of Arabic reports to one like him (in strength of memory, character, and language) and so on from the beginning of the chain to the end without any aberration (shuthûth) or defect (ʿillah) in the Text of the report.

And here is its accompanying example: The following chain of transmitters is recorded as belonging  to a ṣaî adîth, as reported by Bukhâri. (Numbers indicating level-of-transmission  have been added for clarity.) 

* ʿAbdullah ibn Yûsuf [5] told us [6]

* that Mâlik [4] reported to us [5, 6]

* On the authority of Ibn Shihâb [3]

* On the authority of Muḥammad ibn Jubayr ibn Muṭʿam [2]

* On the authority of his father Jubayr ibn Muṭʿam [1], who [1] said:

* “I [1] heard the Messenger of Allah oe recite Sûrat Al->ûr during the Maghrib  ṣalâh

Such a ṣaî adîth chain of transmission has the following characteristics:

  1. All the reporters of this adîth have been noted as having good memory, upright character ,and good grasp of Arabic).
  2. There are no missing links in the chain.
  3. There is nothing in the Text that contradicts reason or contradicts another Text (Quran or adîth).
  4. There is nothing in the Text that seems problematic.

Accordingly, this adîth is rated as ṣaî. Once a adîth has fulfilled all the conditions for a ṣaî adîth, it is incumbent, by consensus of the scholars, on every Muslim to accept it as a part of Revelation. Grasping the concept of a ṣaîḥ ḥadîth is at the core of understanding the science of adîth (Muṣṭala Al-Ḥadîth) because everything else is a variation on this scenario.

More On Categories Of Hadith 

An “accepted” adîth (maqbûl adîth) which is not Ṣaî (“sound”) but rather belonging to the second category, asan (“good”), is to be explained elsewhere, as are the various other categories of the “single transmitter reports” (ââd)—as well as adîth having multiple transmission chains.

It is the “sound” Ṣaî adîth which are the most widely quoted since they are considered optimally authentic and trustworthy. Texts coming from the extensive adîth collections of Bukhâri and Muslim were painstakingly investigated by those Muaddithîn before rating them Ṣaî; there are other, lesser known collections of Ṣaî adîth, as well.


Omar Abdl-Haleem

Omar Abdl-Haleem is a fourth generation Muslim in America. He has a BA from Al-Azhar University in Usul Al-Din, specializing in Hadith, and was about to finish his Master’s Degree from Al-Azhar in Hadith, when he had to leave Egypt for safety reasons in the fall of 2013. He has translated most of Ibn Al-Jawzi’s book: Sayd Al-Khatir into English, which he intends to complete (some episodes of Omar’s translation of this book have appeared in Aljumuah Website). He is also working on a Hadith book for English speakers that explains and teaches Mustalah Al-Hadith (Hadith Terminology) in common terms. His Arabic is native, having studied in Egypt since he was 14, and then full time after completion of High School in the US. He is invaluable for AlJumuah in accessing scholarly texts. He intends to complete his graduate studies in Hadith.

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