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Guidelines on Evaluating Historical Reports

By Shaykh Sharīf Hātim al-‘Awnī

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

[Translator’s preface: The following paper outlines an approach to evaluating the authenticity of historical reports. The author begins by emphasizing the merits of the Hadīth methodology, but makes sure to point out that not every science is obliged to adopt such a rigorous method. Drawing on statements from Hadīth experts like Ibn al-Mubarak and al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī, he proves that Hadīth scholars themselves were nuanced in their treatment of non-prophetic reports.

After a lengthy preamble, he presents a maxim that can be applied to such reports: every report that, directly or indirectly, forms the basis of a religious ruling will be accepted only through the rigorous methods of the Hadīth scholars used for the Sunnah; otherwise, their methods will not be applied. He then explains the theoretical application of this maxim in all areas from Sīrah to Companion statements to stories of the following generations; to illustrate its practical application, he provides two case studies.

To be sure, this paper is not a license to cite unsubstantiated stories. As the author himself explains, “Taking certain liberties when assessing transmitted information besides Hadīth is not tantamount to authenticating what is inauthentic; instead, every transmitted information is to be evaluated with a relevant scale.” Note: a paraphrased translation was adopted and subtitles were added to facilitate an easier read.]


There has been an increasing demand to refine Hadīth studies in the fields of Sīrah, history, and prosopography. These demands have been made for a diverse set of methodologies, the most pure and cautious being the methodology of the Hadīth scholars. As a result, numerous research projects and books were produced, which is a blessed endeavor and a sign of great good. These studies have corrected many academic errors and refined some of the most integral primary sources. Nonetheless, these were human endeavors and therefore prone to error. An error in a peripheral issue is a light matter that can be easily resolved, but a methodological error is dangerous and its findings are difficult to remedy.

Varying Methods of Evaluation

It is clear from the words and practice of the Hadīth scholars that they would differentiate between prophetic reports and non-prophetic reports and between those related to matters of faith and those that were not. Even prophetic reports were further categorized: legal and theological hadīths were treated differently from hadīths on virtues and softening of hearts. In fact, legal hadīths themselves were divided into primary reports on a given subject and mere attestations, each being treated differently. In all these areas, Hadīth scholars worked wonders that humbles the intellect.

A flaw in some of the studies mentioned earlier is they were conducted by non-specialists in the field of Hadīth – who lack actual expertise, not mere degrees and titles. Consequently, at times, these studies failed to implement the nuances of the Hadīth methodology, thereby opposing the very methodology they set out to implement. The following statements explicitly establish this nuance. In al-Jāmi‘ li Akhlāq al-Rāwī wa Ādāb al-Sāmi‘, under the chapter “Writing that which does not require a chain of transmission,” al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī’s writes, “Chains of transmission are a mere adornment and not a prerequisite when citing anecdotes of the righteous, stories of the ascetics, advices of the eloquent, and aphorisms of the poets.” He relates from Yūsuf ibn al-Husayn al-Rāzī (d. 304) that he said, “The chain of transmission for a wise saying is its existence.”[1] He further relates:

Ibn al-Mubārak was asked, “Should we read the advices found in books [without chains to their respective sources]?” He replied, “If you find advice inscribed on a wall, read it and take heed.” When asked if the same applies to law, he replied, “It must be studied from a teacher.”

He then mentions the story of a Khurāsānī man who would attend the gathering of Yazīd ibn Hārūn and write information without their chains of transmission. When the attendees criticized him, Yazīd said:

There is no problem if the Khurāsānī man is writing stories of asceticism and anecdotes of admonition and morals. However, he has erred if he wrote legal hadīths on what is lawful and unlawful without their chains, because that is the only method of verification. He is, therefore, required to ask and evaluate their authenticity.

It should be noted that every discipline has specific methods to evaluate the transmitted and rational information therein. It is an egregious error to conflate distinct methodologies, as this will to lead to the deconstruction of each science. For example, applying the critical methods of the Hadīth scholars to pre-Islamic, early Islamic, and even general collections of poetry will do little more than deconstruct the Arabic language. Scholars of language have formulated adequate standards to critique their science and methods to assess transmitted language, and in doing so, they exerted much effort, fulfilling the responsibility on their shoulder towards the language of the Qur’ān and Sunnah.[2] It is essential that we respect experts of each field with regards to their respective fields and value the expertise of the specialists. So long as we are not experts in a given field, we will not compete with them, particularly the leading specialists, from the scholars of the various Islamic sciences.

The purpose of the above explanation is to point out that although the Hadīth methodology is the only method to evaluate transmitted religious knowledge, it is not necessarily the most efficient method for other sciences even though both sets of information are accompanied by chains of transmission. The presence of a chain of transmission should not lead one to evaluate it as per the Hadīth methodology used for prophetic hadīths, since the inclusion of a chain was part and parcel of all Islamic sciences. The presence of a chain, therefore, does not always mean it is to be scrutinized to evaluate the reliability of the report.

Having established that Hadīth scholars critique hadīths differently from historical reports, it is an opportune moment to emphasis that the Hadīth methodology is characterized by extreme caution and intense scrutiny and skepticism. Had it not been for the indescribable amount of care the Muslim civilization gave to the transmission, study, teaching, preservation, and writing of the Sunnah – it was their greatest preoccupation – such caution and skepticism would have removed authentic parts of the Sunnah. Their profound attention towards transmission allowed Hadīth scholars to be extremely meticulous without harming the Sunnah. As such, applying this rigorous methodology to sciences besides Hadīth is harmful because they do not require that degree of rigor and neither has the Muslim civilization given them attention that would facilitate such rigor without dismissing reliable information. Taking certain liberties when assessing transmitted information besides Hadīth is not tantamount to authenticating what is inauthentic; instead, every transmitted information is to be evaluated with a relevant scale.

Allow me to illustrate this theoretical expose with a simple, practical example. Say you hear a prominent scholar, whose knowledge and piety you hold in high regard, relate a plausible story about one of his teacher’s most famous or knowledgeable teacher. While relating the story, if the scholar says, “I heard many of my teachers mention regarding that scholar,” would you doubt it simply because the status of those teachers is unknown? To make this more practical, assume you hear Shaykh Bin Bāz (Allah have mercy upon him) say, “We heard many teachers say that so and so was such and such.” Would you doubt his story? Then why is it that when Ibn ‘Adī, a competent authority, says, “I heard several teachers relate that when Muhammad ibn Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī (Allāh be pleased with him) arrived at Baghdad, news reached the partisans of Hadīth, so they gathered together and chose a hundred hadīths and shuffled their chains and texts…” a contemporary criticizes this story on the basis that the status of Ibn ‘Adī’s teachers is unknown whereas al-Bukhārī’s knowledge far exceeds what is described here and Ibn ‘Adī narrates it from a group of al-Bukhārī’s students? Had Ibn ‘Adī, who was a Hadīth expert and musnid, wanted, he could have cited one of his direct teachers, but he believed that the phrase “I heard several teachers relate” was a stronger expression for a story of this nature because it is evaluated differently from hadīths.

Maxim of evaluation: theory and practice

I can now proceed to explain a maxim that can help determine when to apply a more rigorous approach, like the Hadīth methodology, to evaluate historical accounts anecdotes or a less rigorous approach by adopting other relevant methods of evaluation. The maxim is as follows: every report that, directly or indirectly, forms the basis of a religious ruling will be accepted only through the rigorous methods of the Hadīth scholars used for the Sunnah; otherwise, their methods will not be applied. This maxim requires much explanation, but I will suffice on several examples that can shed light on pertinent aspects of it.

In the prophetic Sīrah, some reports can be used to extrapolate a legal ruling; here the rigorous method of assessment will be applied. Other reports cannot form the basis of a legal ruling, such as the date, number of participants, and exact location of a particular battle; here the Hadīth methodology will not be applied unless a ruling can be extrapolated from it indirectly, e.g. whether a report had occurred earlier or later to help determine abrogation, in which case it will be applied.

Then there are reports about the Companions. Some of these have a connection with the law, such as the Companions’ legal verdicts and judicial judgments. If the Companion report is the only piece of evidence on a subject where there is no scriptural evidence, then the Hadīth methodology will be applied. However, in the presence of authentic scriptural evidence, the Companion report is cited only to augment our understanding of the scriptural evidence. It is fine to apply the aforementioned caution when assessing such a report, but there is also scope not to because it will not affect the overall status of the ruling.

Companion reports that are merely historical, such as conquests and battles, will follow the same procedure as the Sīrah. But reports about their internal conflicts (fitnah) are to be assessed similar to prophetic hadīths. To be sure, this is in conformity with the aforementioned maxim and not an exception. Reports of internal conflicts are not only stories; they influence our judgment on who was right or wrong, and it may even influence some people’s perception of their probity and transgression. Those being judged here are none other than the Companions (Allah be pleased with them), who were praised and verified by Allah and His messenger. As such, these reports are to be scrutinized thoroughly, particularly when they can pave the way for people of innovation and animosity towards the religion of Allah and the Companions to misconstrue and fabricate against them.

That being said, it is possible to adopt a middle path when dealing with reports about internal conflicts or similar reports: when the crux of a report is verified by the Hadīth methodology, details surrounding it can be established from other reports [not established through such rigorous methods], provided they do not conflict with the established probity and virtue of the Companions or with the authentic report itself. By way of illustration, I spent several years studying the reports about Khālid ibn al-Walīd and Mālik ibn Nuwayrah during the renegade wars. The story is well-known, but forgers and their ilk from the Orientalists have built around it a web of despicable details. One researcher had outright rejected the story in its entirety, concluding that Mālik ibn Nuwayrah was a renegade who was lawfully killed despite the fact that he is unanimously mentioned among the Companions. After further research, it became clear that there is only one authentic chain of transmission for the story, related by Khalīfah ibn Khayyāt in his Tārīkh where Ibn ‘Umar said:

Abū Qatādah came to Abū Bakr with news about the death of Mālik and his people. This deeply troubled him, so he summoned Khālid. Thereafter, Abū Bakr said, “Did Khalid do more than formulate an opinion and err?” and sent Khālid away. He then paid the blood money for Mālik ibn Nuwayrah and returned the captives and spoils.

Despite its brevity, this report establishes the crux of the story and puts things into perspective: Khālid’s actions are excused and the despicable allegation against Mālik ibn Nuwayrah [that he was a renegade] is disproved because Abū Bakr paid his blood money. This begs the question: what are we to do about the details without which we cannot possibly understand the story? The way forward is to accept only those details that conform to the narrative in the authentic report and do not contravene the probity of the Companions, which is established from scripture. This is because the chains of these details are not authentic in the first place, and moreover, whatever conflicts with the constants will be disregarded. It is disingenuous to treat them equally to the constants, let alone rely upon them.

The default for historical accounts of the following generations, i.e. the second and third centuries, is to benefit from them without critiquing them according to the Hadīth methodology unless a judgment is going to be made regarding an individual who possesses religious sanctity, i.e. he is a Muslim (e.g. some of the kings and sultans), in which case it will be scrutinized like a religious ruling. This is only when such a judgment has academic benefit. If such research will yield no positive results or even unpleasant results, it should be avoided and time should not be wasted.

This universal maxim is also applied to the lives and stories of the scholars. Caution will be applied when a report will lead to passing a religious judgement, which is illustrated in the expressions of narrator criticism vis-à-vis the Hadīth transmitters. All other reports, like the aforementioned story of al-Bukhārī, words of wisdom, mention of their oeuvre, and descriptions of their libraries, etc., will not be scrutinized as thoroughly. Rather, the relevant standard of assessment will be applied, taking into consideration what is reasonable, the reliability of the transmitter (or source and author), and other factors that accompany the report. In addition, the expected outcome of such assessment should be weighed. This is a summary of my take on evaluating historical reports. And Allah knows best.

(Al-‘Awnī, Naqd Asānīd al-Akhbār al-Tārīkhiyyah in Idā’āt Bahthiyyah, pp.143-153)

[1] If the transmission of this quote is accurate, then Yūsuf ibn al-Husayn al-Rāzī learned this from his teacher, the renowned ascetic, Dhū al-Nūn al-Misrī, who was asked, “What is the chain of transmission for a wise saying?” to which he replied, “Its existence.” See Abū Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliyā’, vol.9, pp.377-378.

[2] Refer to Muhammad ibn Sallām al-Jumahī’s (d. 231 AH) discussion on the methods of critiquing the various sciences, arts, and disciplines and the need to consult the specialists of each field in Tabaqāt Fuhūl al-Shu‘arā’, vol.1, pp.7-4. An interesting statement is reported from Yahyā ibn Sa‘īd al-Qattān, “Transmitters of poetry are more perceptive than Hadīth transmitters because the latter [unknowingly] narrates much forgeries while the former immediately detects a forgery [in poetry] upon reciting it. See Abū ‘Alī al-Qālī, Dhayl al-Amālī, vol.3, p.105. To asses this report according to the Hadīth methodology, it is narrated from al-Qālī from Muhammad ibn Abī al-Azhar from al-Zubayr ibn Bakkār; Muhammad ibn Mazīd ibn Abī al-Azhar al-Nahwī is a liar and fabricator according to the Hadīth scholars and linguists (like al-Marzubānī). See Lisān al-Mīzān, vol.7, pp.500-2.

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