By Muslim standards Muhammad is seen as the most perfect human that ever lived, a lot was written about him. People became interested in what Muhammad really said and did during his life time. The body of this literature is called the hadith, written to preserve and to transmit the reported sayings and actions of Muhammad's responses to everyday life, including what he approved and disapproved, about what was said or done in his presence from the mundane (where he should part his hair), to the more serious of his religious concerns, his ultimate goal. (world domination). It was a small world back then.
Hadiths are divided into two parts, the isnad (a list of names) and the matn (the actual text handed down in Muhammad's name).
Here's an example:
It told me that Ubayd Allah told him on the authority of Shayban on the authority of Yahya on the authority Muhammad ibn And al-Rahman, client of the Banu Zuhra, on the authority of Abu Sama on the authority of Abn Sama on the authority of And Allah "Recite all of the Qurán in one month." I said, "But I am able to do more than that!" So (Muhammad) said: "Then recite it in seven days, but do not di it less than that."
Source: Bukhari no. 5054 - [Sahih]
What is written in black is the isnad, a list of names of the persons that have reported, revealed, disclosed, had said, narrated, spoke or made public in any way, in other words people that endorse the hadith. The last name mentioned is the person closest in time to Muhammad. The writing in red is the matn, and that is what Muhammad was suppose to have allegedly said or responded to. Most hadiths are written this way, not in black and red but in isnad and matn. If a hadith doesn't have both parts then it will be considered invalid.
These hadith reports were questioned, judged and evaluated, over and over by experts in Islamic law (Sharia) to their soundness, or acceptability, or if fabricated based on whether the isnad is verifiable, or whether or not, it contradicts other words said by Muhammad and if everything in the isnad is in chronological order and if all individuals described within are of good and reliable character.
If put all together, these hadiths give Muslims insight into Muhammads (sunnah) private life and put him under the spot light. His sunnah led to the formation of Islamic law (Shariá law), second in importance to the Qurán and binding to the whole Islamic community.
The question we must ask ourselves is; when did Muhammad's word become legal authority? And, more important; how can it be verified, that Muhammad did and said all these things?
During the 8th and 9th centuries, the bulk of hadith literature was collected and collated in six authoritative collections. It is well worth mentioning here that the two main denominations of Islam; Sunnism and Shi'ism. They have different collections of hadiths, but both have a sizeable body of hadith, which they do agree upon.
Hadiths do have their problems though. One could in theory attach an isnad to any concept written in a form of a matn that one would want to prove. As a result, the sayings of Muhammad can and are used to argue opposite positions of Islamic principle, and since hadiths are so important they give such principles immediate legal justification.
Later, embellishments that show up as sayings of Muhammad, complete with isnads, may tell us more about Muslims and what is important to them. The problem arises when we try to explain the historical Muhammad, when isnads are used to establish his authority, in which case they grew backwards, meaning isnads became important later in the historical development of the Islam. Hundreds of years later.
Hadiths are still being used today as a guide to everyday living and in the same manner; using isnads and matn.
That's like my father telling me that shaving with a straight razor is the closest shave you'll ever get, why? because my father's father was told by his father, who was told by his father that his father shaved that way and said it was so. Does it make it more believable?
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