Why are there differently-worded narrations to one hadith?
In the name of Allah Most Gracious Most Merciful
There could be many reasons for the differences of expressions found in the narrations:
One reason could be that the Prophet (upon him be peace) actually made the same point on various occasions using different words.
Based on this, it is easy to understand that those who were present on one occasion would narrate differently from those who were present on another occasion.
Another reason is that many times the narrators would relate the hadith in their own words and expressions, after having heard it from their teachers. The Companions would do this with the Prophet (upon him be peace) as well. Therefore, each person would narrate it in their own words according to their own vocabulary and style of expression, and the outcome would be different versions of the same narration, but all saying the same thing.
There is somewhat difference opinion among the hadith scholars on the validity of narrating this way [i.e. without observing the same words as the teacher]. Some scholars state it is permissible but others are more strict in this regard. However, the view of the majority is that it is permissible with some conditions. Imam Nawawi writes in his Taqrib:
“The opinion of the majority from the Predecessors and the Successors is that it is permissible to narrate by meaning (i.e. in ones own words) as long as one is convinced of being able to articulate the true purport.”
Allama Suyuti in his commentary on the above text writes:
“This was the common practice of the Companions and the Predecessors, and what highlights this is their narrating the same incident using different words.”
(Tadrib al-rawi 3:742).
He further writes:
“Concerning this issue, a hadith has been relating by Ibn Manda in his Ma’rifat al-Sahaba and Tabarani in his al-Mu’jam al-Kabir on the authority of Abdullah ibn Sulayman ibn Aktam al-Laythi that he asked, “O Messenger of Allah, I hear a hadith from you but am not able to convey it in the same manner I hear it from you: one word is sometimes added or left out? The Messenger of Allah (upon him be peace) replied, ” If you do not make the unlawful lawful and the lawful unlawful and you are able to articulate the true purport then there is no problem [with that]. Imam Shafi’i has used the hadith on the Qur’an being revealed in seven letters as evidence of the permissibility of this practice.
‘Allama Suyuti then quotes from Waki’ that if maneuverability in (presenting]) the meaning was not possible then the people would be destroyed.
(Tadrib al-Rawi 3:743-744).
However, two things need to be kept in mind in this regard:
One is that the above discussion was on the reasons for the difference wording and expressions found in the various narrations which have the same meaning and message.
For the reasons of differences where the meaning is also different, a useful book on the subject is the “Difference of the Imams” by Shaykh Zakariya Khandelwi. This is one point.
The other point that should be remembered is that the above statements were concerning people who had insight into this subject, Companions and hadith scholars. We must be careful when relating the words of the Messenger sallallahu alayhi wasallam and study with competent scholars of hadith and not just through the available English translations.
And Allah knows best and in His control is all success.
Mufti Abdurrahman ibn Yusuf