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The Origins of Isnad and Its Application By Hadith

This short essay seeks to discuss the assertion that the isnad is a Muslim invention which was
created to legitimise the authority of hadith. The word isnad linguistically means a thing on which
another relies. In hadith literature the term refers to the chain of narrators of a particular hadith. The
muslims placed great emphasis on the isnad system as illustrated by the infamous statement of
Abdullah ibn Mubarak when he said:
The isnad is part of the religion.Were it not for the isnad, anyone could say anything they
The implementation of the isnad system, in its full sense, began as a reaction to the fabrication of
hadith which became prevalent after the death of the Prophet Muhummad. During the period of the
rightly guided caliphs the community divided into different factions, some of these factions forged
narrations in order to advance their own interests. Groups such as the khawarij and zanadiqa
fabricated ahadith for the sake of personal and sectarian gains. Others, such as the storytellers and
devout traditionalists often fabricated narrations with the noble intentions of inviting people to the
path of God. Imam Ahmad highlighted the wide spread problem of hadith fabrication when he said,
hadith has been more affected by forgery than any other branch of literature. 2 The Muslim
scholars faced a dilemma, the question arose of how to establish the authenticity of a hadith. It was
in response to this question we find the introduction of the isnad system in hadith literature. Ibn
Sirin says regarding the development of isnad:
They did not ask about isnad, but when civil war - fitnah - broke they said Name us your
men; those who belong to Ahl al-Sunnah, their traditions were accepted and those who
were innovators their traditions were neglected.3
The exact date at which the isnad system came into existence in terms of its application to hadith
literature is a matter of scholarly difference. J. Robson holds the view that the isnad came into
existence during the middle years of the first century of Islam. 4 Horovitz is of the opinion that the

1 Brown, Jonathan, (2009), Hadith Muhummads Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, NC, USA;
Oneworld Publications, p 28

2 Siddiqi, Muhummah Zubayr, (1993). Hadith Literature Its Origin, Development & Special Features, Oxford;
The Islamic Texts Society, p. 31


first appearance of isnads was no later than the last third of the first Muslim century.5 Others such as
Caetani argue that the beginning of the isnad system may be placed in the period between Urwah
(d. 94) and Ibn Ishaq (d. 151), thus the first half of the second century AH. 6 J. Burton argues that
although the system of isnad was in place by the turn of the second century AH, at this point it was
a rather rudimentary and imprecise system. He states that the true founders of isnad were men from
the generation of Abdul Rahman b. Mahdi (d. 193) and Ali b. Abdullah al-Madini (d. 234). 7
Regardless of the exact date in which the isnad came into existence, its importance as a core pillar
of islamic hadith literature is unquestioned.
Professor Schacht has a different view altogether. He is a strong proponent of the notion that hadith
literature, along with hadith isnads, were fabricated by hadith scholars in the second and third
centuries in an attempt to justify their views. He states in his Introduction to Islamic Law: The
traditionalists produced detailed statements or traditions which claimed to be reports of ear- or
eye-witnesses on the words or acts of the Prophet, handed down orally by an uninterrupted chain
(isnad) of trustworthy persons. Hardly any of these traditions, as far as matters of religious law are
concerned, can be considered authentic8 He argues that isnads were gradually improved by
fabrication and incomplete isnads which contained gaps in the chain were filled in by the time of
the classical collections, all of this done with the aim of legitimising the authority of ahadith.
Schachts theory, however, appears to lack the scholarly evidence to support such assertions. In
responding to Schachts claims, Azami argues that it is highly unlikely ahadith with substantially the
same wording or meaning could spring up in widely separated localities. Furthermore, it cannot
rationally be accepted that each of the narrators of hadith independently traced their sources back to
a common source, or they were all conspirators in a vast confidence trick.9

4 Azami, Muhummad Mustafa, (2000), Studies in Early Hadith Literature, Malaysia; Islamic Book Trust, p.

5 Siddiqi, Muhummah Zubayr, (1993). Hadith Literature Its Origin, Development & Special Features, Oxford;
The Islamic Texts Society, p. 79

6 Azami, Muhummad Mustafa, (2000). Studies in Early Hadith Literature, Malaysia; Islamic Book Trust, p.

8 Introduction p 34

9 Origins pg 166

It has also been argued that the system of isnad pre dates Islam in that it was used to transmit preIslamic poetry.10 Orientalist Scholars such as Horovitz opined that the isnad system was known to
the Jews before the Arabs and was employed in Jewish literature as far back as the Mosaic period. 11
It has also been argued that the isnad system was employed long before islam by Hindus and
Buddhist. Dr Philips, in his book Usool al-Hadith, provides and extract from Mahabharata:
Vysda composed it, Ganesa served as a scribe, and the work was handed down by Verism
payana, who communicated it to King Janamejaya. Sauti, who was present at the time, heard
it and narrated it to the assemble of sages.12
Thus, the research of Horovitz and Philips contradicts the assertion that the isnad is a Muslim
invention as the concept of isnad was in practice prior to its usage in Islamic literature. However,
what can not be disputed is the isnad system was developed, refined and expounded upon by
Muslim hadith scholars.
In this short essay i sought to address the assertion that the isnad was a Muslim invention to
legitimise the authority of hadith. I believe this is inaccurate on two counts, firstly, as established,
the isnad was not a Muslim invention. Secondly, it is clear the Muslims utilised and developed the
already existing isnad system, not to legitimise the authority of hadith as asserted by Schacht and
others, but rather to ascertain the authenticity of ahadith.

10 al sunnah qabl tadween pg 146

11 Siddiqi, Muhummad Zubayr, (1993). Hadith Literature Its Origin, Development & Special Features, Oxford;
The Islamic Texts Society, p.

12 Philips, Bilal, (2007). Usool al-Hadeeth, The Methodology of Hadeeth Evaluation, Riyadh; IIPH, p.