[By Bilal Mohammed]
The science of grading chains (rijal) is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is one of the greatest achievements of Islamic scholarship. Islam was the first religion to critically evaluate the biographies of narrators and transmitters of religious knowledge. It did so with rigorous detail — citing birth and death dates, character flaws, and varying opinions of scholars. The Talmud cited rabbinical discourses, but without chains of narrators, and with a subjective hermeneutical dependence on the views of Hillel.
With this in mind, we should note that in the last century especially, there has been a radical shift in how rijal is used. The system was designed to be cautious, but not hyper-skeptical. One of the hallmarks of modernity is to be hyper-skeptical about all religious and traditional concepts. The Quranists went to the extreme of doubting the historicity of the hadith corpus altogether based on their (quasi-naturalist) skepticism. Some like Abu Layth (Nahiem Ajmal) use rijal to even cast doubt in entire books and traditional positions.
What the radical rijalists have done is made Ibn Hajar or Najashi the crux, nucleus, and criterion of the Islamic tradition: whatever is strengthened through their methods is haq, and whatever is weakened through their methods is batil. It is arguable that this was not even the intention of Ibn Hajar et al: he makes it very clear in his introduction that rijal is only necessary for ‘aqa’id and aHkam, but that weak hadiths are still accepted in the study of history, tafsir, and in muwa’ith (da’wa, preaching, and bringing up the faith — ironically — of the Muslims). Ibn Taymiyya et al have even used “weak hadiths” in some of their aHkam (like the issue of female imamah).
The modernist usage of rijal has created a Protestantization of Islam, where much of the Islamic tradition was affectively destroyed, including most of the asbab an-nuzul genre. If you open modern prints of Ibn Kathir’s tafsir, you’ll see most of it missing, because the editors thought it was mostly “weak.” If you open up a modern copy of Tirmidhi, you’ll find the gradings of “Darussalam”, which weaken many of the traditions that he himself strengthened.
We should acknowledge that the system has its inherent flaws and circular reasoning. The rijal scholars give mostly posthumous, melodramatic evaluations that cast one group of narrators as always trustworthy / always honest (even if they were involved in some heinous acts), and another group of narrators as always unreliable. This scheme itself is unrealistic, as most fallible human beings fall somewhere in the middle; or they enter phases of guidance and misguidance, which is selectively highlighted or ignored.
Next, there’s the anomaly that rijal gradings are sometimes themselves not based on isnads or sihha, and even if they are, that sihha would be paradoxical. So we are asked to be certain in a system that is itself based in uncertainty.
Then there’s the issue of lost books, including many lost rijal books. Their rediscovery would change the entire evaluation system and make our current evaluations moot. The same goes for the discovery of manuscripts of existing books, as there are always discrepancies between manuscripts. Some books like Ibn Ghada’iri are lost for centuries and rediscovered, how can we guarantee that there hasn’t been tampering?
Furthermore, who is to say that Dhahabi’s rijal views should override Tirmidhi’s, or Najashi’s should override Kulayni’s? It’s natural that scholars will disagree when dealing with thousands of narrators. But sometimes the later views are subjectively preferred over the earlier views. Sometimes the earlier hermeneutics, which are closer to the period we are investigating, are actually more lenient — such as accepting the tadlees of Sa’eed b. Musayyib in the Sunni tradition. Strong narrators often relied on and narrated from weak narrators, implying that they also believed in what they were narrating.
If you read Dr. Jonathan Brown’s paper on matn-criticism, it is clear that at least some of the evaluations in rijal are not based on the character of narrators, but on the content of their hadiths. In other words, the narrators that confirmed the dominant views may have been strengthened over narrators that espoused “deviant” views.
It is noteworthy that no historian worth his salt takes rijal seriously enough to base historical events entirely on it. Much of the biographical information we have is not transmitted by isnad.
Even the rijal vocabulary is not as dramatic as people make it out to be. Hasan, dha’if, and even mawdu’ do not mean “fabricated”. Hasan is one of the best words in the Arabic language, but we treat it like it’s not enough for our stingy attention.
This is a man-made system. It is not an exact science like math, but more of a soft science or art. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we have to acknowledge that it was not revealed to us, yet it is treated better than revelation. It encourages a su’ ath-thann outlook on our tradition, where our immediate reaction to all hadith is suspicion, and where we assume that the early Muslim community was ridden with liars and fabricators.
This is not a case for blind naïveté. Religion is the pursuit of truth, and the rijal sciences were established to get us to that end. But in the same way that a wrench can’t be used to fix an essay, an incorrect usage of rijal will just create doubt and destruction. I have found over the last few years that rijal can be useful in dealing with contradictions in fiqh, but I also found that a flexible thinker can usually reconcile hadiths that may seem to conflict on the apparent.
This is also not a case for taking every single tradition ever written to their most literal conclusions. Matn criticism (which is more nuanced and scholarly) should be encouraged, so long that it is based in sound presuppositions. Till now so much of our fiqh is ‘uthr-oriented rather than kashf-oriented. We should also have holistic views of each genre of hadith — tawatur bil ma’na, identifying hadiths that are shadh by matn and not just isnad. The ethos of Islam is submission and husn al-thann of the Muslims.