Historical Geography and Timeline of Early Fiqh and Hadith

Note: insha’Allah, I intend to update this article over time with more details

You’ll notice a few things from looking at this map. There’s a complex interplay of time and location between these scholars, which had a significant influence on how they approached their deen. Let’s take a look.

Different Eras

Imam Abu Hanifa and imam Malik were born earlier than the rest, in a completely different era and generation than these later scholars and muhadithun. Imam Abu Hanifa’s generation, in comparison, was imam Ahmad’s grandfather’s generation. So they walked among tabieen and even some sahaba. This also means their hadith chains were much shorter. For example, in sahih Bukhari there’s about 23 hadith with three narrators between imam Bukhari and the prophet (ﷺ), the rest are four or five narrators. In the Muwatta’, imam Malik’s golden chain has only two, Nafi’ and Abdullah ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with them). It’s also possible that a later hadith scholar, like the ones we read today, may say a hadith has a weakness in its chain, but that weakness appeared later on in the chain after these fuqaha’, who had a sahih isnad in their era for this hadith.

Today, after over 1400 years, it is not possible for us to determine whether the narrations that we have before us have exactly the same chain of narrators as the narrations of the people of the past. Nor is it possible for us to verify whether the reasons for the rejection of a certain hadith which we are aware of or that imams Bukhari and Muslim mention are the only reasons for the rejection of that hadith, or if there are other reasons.

The status and era of the mujtahid imams precedes that of the major hadith scholars like imams Bukhari and Muslim etc. If this is the case with these two imams, what about those that came after them, like imam Abu Dawud, imam Tirmidhi, imam Nasa’i, and imam ibn Maja (Allah have mercy on all of them). As for those who came even after them, like Daraqutni (d. 385 AH) and Bayhaqi (d. 458 AH), what status do they hold relative to the imams? Despite their magnificence in the field of hadith, they still were Shafi’is in fiqh. Memorizing a hadith is one thing, but to extract a fatwa from that hadith is another matter.

Different Places

In hubs like Medina and Kufa, you had large numbers of sahaba and then tabieen and tabi tabieen living out their lives. Medina was the first capital and then imam Ali (RA) moved the capital to Kufa. These hubs were great sources of the sunnah. In Maliki fiqh, since 10,000 sahaba lived and died in Medina, imam Malik (RA) considered the practice of the people of Medina to be a source of fiqh itself.

When you look further right of the map, you’ll notice all of these hadith scholars came from regions that had recently come under the banner of Islam and were much further than the major hubs of scholarship, like Iraq and Arabia. When the caliphate expanded, these new regions had less access to tabieen, tabi tabieen, and the wealth of scholarship and narrators offered in these hubs. So they relied more on the textual tradition, versus the oral tradition. This doesn’t mean the oral tradition didn’t have texts, but their approach to fiqh and usul al-fiqh was different, especially when it came to hadith. So these later scholars cared more about whether or not a hadith was sahih. You’ll notice in Hanafi fiqh, by comparison, there is preference for one hadith over another due to a certain narrator being known for his fiqh, whereas the narrators in the other sanad are not known for fiqh. Or a certain sahabi was with the prophet (ﷺ) for more of his life than another narrator. Or other particular details about the narrators within the hadith. Whereas in Shafi’i or Hanbali fiqh, their system of preference may be different or they may only just care if it’s sahih. So the result is the usul is different. Also in Hanafi fiqh, imam Abu Hanifa’s statements are given preference to other jurists or hadith scholars because, among other reasons, there are fewer links in the chain between him and the prophet (ﷺ).

Also different sahaba (may Allah be pleased with them all) lived, moved, and died in different places. The sahaba themselves differed, and therefore their students also differed. Those differences contributed to the differences between the mujtahideen of later generations.

It’s notable that fiqh developed in the 2nd Hijri century and hadith really developed in the 3rd century.

Fiqh and Hadith

One of the considerations in usul al-fiqh is the soundness (صِحَّة) of a hadith. But the sihhah of a hadith alone does not dictate the authority that it has in our deen and fiqh. The criteria for sanad verification is not the same as the criteria for fiqh. They’re not apples to apples, it’s apples and oranges. The early scholars had the majority of not all of the narrations that we have accessible to them, but they may have taken a different opinion because another hadith is more applicable to the situation at the time.

Imams Malik and Abu Hanifa did not focus on a specific hadith that has one narrator for the sunnah. They wanted what the sunnah was, which was a compilation of the practices of the sahaba. The prophet (ﷺ) implemented the sunnah in Medina. So the practice within the borders of Medina was a living sunnah. So this was more important to imam Malik than a single hadith with a single narrator. Rulings can be abrogated, and you may pick up a hadith that was abrogated. Or one narrator is stronger in fiqh or observed something for a shorter period of time. Kufa was also a hub once imam Ali (RA) moved the capital to Kufa, which was later the hub of imam Abu Hanifa. So imam Abu Hanifa and imam Malik actually had narrations with much shorter chains, and many if not all of the narrations that appear later in history with the later hadith scholars, from which we have our compilations today. The claim that the early fuqaha did not know every hadith is actually a very recent claim, in the past 50-100 years.

The Hanafi Approach

From “The Differences of the Imams” by Kandhlawi

Occasionally, the Hanafi school of thought awards preference to those hadiths which have a weaker chain of narrators, of even to those hadiths whose chains of narration may not be as superior to the others. This is so because the narrations may possess some otehr more superior preferential factors. For example, the fact that a hadith is in greater conformance with the text of teh Qur’an is one of the most noteworthy preferential factors that render a particular hadith superior to those that contradict it, according to the Hanafi school. This makes a great deal of sense, because the words of many of the hadiths are not the actual words of Allah’s messenger (ﷺ). In most cases, they are the words of the narrators who narrated the meaning of the hadith (as explained in the book). On the other hand, the words of the Qur’an are the actual words (of Allah) transmitted by the narrators. Therefore, from two conflicting narrations, the narration which is in greater conformance to the text of the Qur’an will obviously gain more preference over the other narration.

In one example of the above principle, the Hanafis award preference to the narration that does not mention raising of the hands in salat over the narration which does mention it. This is so simply because the Holy Qur’an declares, “And stand before Allah with ease and tranquility” (Surat al-Baqara 2:238). Hence, from among the conflicting narrations, the Hanafis award preference to those hadiths which conform more closely to this form of tranquility.

This ruling is also established from other previous occurrences. In the early days of Islam, it was permissible to speak (and to make salam) in salat, but this was gradually abrogated and the salat metamorphosed into a more tranquil action. Hence, the narrations which conform more to tranquility are more juridically preferable in the Hanafi school.

In addition, the narrations which do not mention any recitation while performing salat behind the imam are awarded preference over those narrations which mention this practice. This is so because of the Qur’anic verse, “And when the Qur’an is being recited, listen to it attentively and remain silent” (Surat al-‘Araf 7:204).

Similarly, it is better to delay the Fajr and ‘Asr prayers because it is in greater conformance with the Qur’anic verse, “And glorify the praises of your Lord before sunrise and before sunset” (Sura Qaf 50:39). “Before sunrise” and “before sunset” means a time which is close to them. A period of three to four hours before sunrise or sunset is not normally referred to as being “before” sunrise or “before” sunset. Hence, the Hanafis are of the opinion that it is better to delay the Fajr and ‘Asr prayers. Furthermore, the Hanafis have chosen the qunut (a du’a made in the witr prayer) of “Allahumma inna nasta’inuka…” in the witr prayer because they were considered as two surahs of the Holy Qur’an.

As another example there’s a very prominent story narrated by Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna:

Imam Abu Hanifa and imam Awza’i (may Allah be pleased with them) once met in one of the bazaars of the blessed city of Mecca. Imam Awza’i said to imam Abu Hanifa, “why do you–the Hanafis–not observe the raising of the hands (raf al-yadayn) while proceeding toward ruku and while rising from ruku?” Imam Abu Hanifa replied, “we do not observe this because its veracity is not established from Allah’s messenger (ﷺ).” Imam Awza’i then narrated the following hadith: “Zuhri narrates from Salim from Ibn Umar (RA) that Allah’s messenger (ﷺ) used to observe the raising of the hands while beginning the salat, proceeding towards ruku, and rising from it.” Imam Abu Hanifa replied, “Hammad narrates from Ibrahim al-Nakha’i from ‘Alqama and Aswad and they narrate from ibn Mas’ud (RA) that Allah’s messenger (ﷺ) would not raise his hands in salat except at the beginning of the salat while observing the opening takbir (tahrima).”

Upon this, imam Awza’i commented, “there are only three links of narrators between me and Allah’s messenger (ﷺ) in the hadith I have narrated, whereas there are four links in the hadith you have narrated. (Hence, the shorter link of narrators renders my hadith more authentic).” Then Imam Abu Hanifa, comparing the two chains of narrators, said, “Hammad is a more superior faqih (jurist) than Zuhri, Ibrahim al-Nakha’i is also superior to Salim, and ‘Alqama is also not inferior to ibn Umar (RA) in jurisprudence. If ibn Umar (RA) has the virtue of being a companion, then ‘Alqama also has certain virtues. As for the final link in my chain of narrators–Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (RA)–there is no need to mention his virtues.” Imam Awza’i was then compelled to remain silent.

Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi (RA) writes in his commentary of Sunan al-Tirmidhi, “if there are any contradictions in the views of Ibn Mas’ud (RA) and Ibn ‘Umar (RA), then the view of ibn Mas’ud will be awarded preference.”

Notes on the Early History of Hadith Compilation

Marwan ibn al-Hakim (d. 65AH) wanted to compile hadith. So he compiled the hadith of Abi Hurayrah. He called Abi Hurayrah (d. 58 AH) to his house and he had a scribe write down everything he says from behind a curtain. He asked Abu Hurayrah to narrate many hadith to him. The scribe wrote it all down. 1 year later he called up Abu Hurayrah and asked him to recite those same hadith to him again. And so he recited the exact same hadith and the scribe checked it all off.
This is a proof that many scholars use to show the strength of the memory of the sahaba.

Abdul Aziz ibn Marwan (85 AH) was the son of Marwan ibn al-Hakim. He wanted to follow his father’s legacy of compiling hadith. He wrote a letter to Kathir ibn Murrah (d. 80-90AH) and asked him to compile hadith, except what Abu Hurayrah has because his father already had it compiled. We don’t have any proof that Kathir ibn Murrah actually compiled anything. It seems that Abdul Aziz ibn Marwan passed before he could collect this compilation. But there was a desire to compile in an organized fashion.

Umar ibn Abdil Aziz (d. 101AH) & ibn Shihab az-Zuhri (124 AH). Umar ibn Abdil Aziz was the son of Abdil Aziz and grandsom of Marwan. He wanted to follow in the legacy of his father and grandfather. He was so pious it is said that many consider him the 5th rashidun. He sent out letters to many different scholars of hadith and one of them, ibn Shihab, received it and started compiling hadith as directed. This is the one that is commonly quoted. And many orientalists say that hadith collection started here, around 100 hijri, and they’ll claim that we didn’t have anything going on until 100AH. But there was not only an oral tradition of course, but also even a written tradition before this point.

Further Reading

Atharul Hadith ash-Shareef by Muhammad Awwamah: Arabic PDF https://archive.org/details/WAQ121417
In English “Influence of The Noble Hadith Upon Differences of Opinion Amongst The Jurist Imams:” Turath (UK): https://turath.co.uk/shop/influence-noble-hadith-upon-differences-opinion-amongst-jurist-imams/
Mecca Books (US): https://www.meccabooks.com/913-athar-al-hadith-al-sharif-the-influence-of-the-noble-hadith-upon-the-differences-of-opinion-amongst-the-jurist-imams-9781906949259.html

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