Books of Hadith

Copies of the Quran in translation, on display in London. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


The collection of the known words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime are known as “hadith.” Where are these written down?


During the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers listened to his every word and observed his every action. The Prophet was a living example to follow. By watching and listening to him, one could better know and understand how faith is to be applied in daily life; how the teachings of the Quran were to be put into practice.

Essential elements, such as how to perform the prayers, needed to be learned by example.

As the Companions of the Prophet spent time with the Prophet directly, they had many stories to tell. After learning from and emulating him, they shared this with others and taught the next generation. Through word of mouth and direct example, they continued to pass these traditions down.

A few generations after the Prophet's death, people began to see a need to write down and preserve these recollections. In some cases, memories had faded, words had changed in the retelling, or people outright contradicted each other. A method was needed to weed out the truthful, authentic words and actions of the Prophet from those that were incorrect or misguided.

Compilers began to collect all of the various hadith and began a precise, careful evaluation of each. They looked at content, references, documentation, and the chain of narrators.

They investigated each and every person in that chain, from the Prophet to the present day, with attention to their reliability, memory, and good character. After great research, they were able to determine which quotations were “strong” or “weak” or “fabricated,” and compiled them in volumes of books.

This process became known as the "Science of Hadith."

This information has been organized and made available in books known as “Hadith Collections.” The most well-known and respected among Sunni Muslims are:

  • Sahih Bukhari, collected by Imam Mohammad al-Bukhari (d. 870 CE)
  • Sahih Muslim, collected by Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (d. 875 CE)
  • Sunan al-Nasa’i, collected by al-Nasa’I (d. 915 CE)
  • Sunan Abu Dawud, collected by Abu Dawud (d. 888 CE)
  • Jami Tirmidhi, collected by at-Tirmidhi (d. 892 CE)
  • Sunan ibn Majah, collected by Ibn Majah (d. 887 CE)
  • Muwatta Malik, collected by Imam Malik (d. 795 CE)

Of these, the first two are the mostly widely-read and respected. Each contains several thousand entries of hadith. Note that they are called "Sahih." The word “Sahih” means “authentic,” followed by the name of the compiler. So “Sahih Bukhari” is the name for the “authentic collection of hadith compiled by Imam Bukhari." These two compilers used a more stringent set of criteria in their investigations, so their collections are considered most authentic.

There are also separate collections of hadith that have been done by Shi’a Muslims. The collections for Sunni and Shi'a Muslims differ because they consider different people to be reliable sources of historical information, including Hadith.

There are some Companions of the Prophet, most notably his wife Aisha but others as well, that the Shi'a reject outright. In practice, a Muslim usually chooses either Sunni or Shi'a sources to rely on, and rejects the others as biased.

The most well-known Shi'a collections of Hadith are:

  • Kitab al-Kafi by Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni al-Razi
  • Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih by Muhammad ibn Babuya
  • Al-Tahdhib and Al-Istibsar by Shaykh Muhammad Tusi

When quoting a Hadith, Islamic scholars and authors are expected to cite sources quite specifically, referring to its Hadith collection, classification (weak, good, strong, fabricated), and even the chain of narrators. So a Hadith quote will often be phrased as: "So-and-so said that so-and-so said, that so-and-so heard the Prophet say.... [text of quote]" (Sahih Bukhari).

All of this documentation may seem like overkill, but Muslims take very seriously the duty of quoting the Prophet directly and ensuring the authenticity of Islamic practices.

The Quran remains the only unchanging revelation, the Word of Allah. The Hadith collections give us insight into how the Prophet Muhammad interpreted the verses of the Quran, and how he lived his life according to its teachings. While they are not the revealed Word of Allah, they are considered an essential secondary source of Islamic understanding. Many of the Prophet's sayings and actions as reflected in the Hadith collections were passed down independently by a number of Companions, and whose chain of narrators all passed this rigorous evaluation, so there cannot be any doubt as to their authenticity.