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Classification of Hadith

Classification of hadith consists of sorting religious narrations based on some criteria such as the topics, the references, narrators and so on that simplifies our access to hadiths.

Traditionally, religious scholars were pursuing classification and sorting of hadiths for the sake of more accessibility. At first, in the time of Ahl al-Bayt (a), the companions wrote what they heard from them without any special order and because of that, it was difficult to refer to these sporadic hadiths in the next centuries. To solve this problem, some religious scholars tried to propose some classification of hadiths. Some scholars assorted hadiths based on the Imam who stated it; another group classified them based on hadith transmitter, and again, others tried to sort them based on the first letter of hadiths' sentences.


Early Centuries

During the 2nd/8th century, a general movement of hadith classification was simultaneously formed among different hadith collectors and some works appeared under the names such as al-Sunan, al-Jami'.

One of these books was a hadith book classified based on jurisprudential topics and was written by one of Shi'a hadith scholars, Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Halabi, and was one of Shi'i reference books for a long time.

One of the contributors of the project of jurisprudential hadiths classification was Abu Bakr b. Abi Shayba (235/850) in his book al-Musannaf. Likewise, in the second generation of hadith collectors, when al-Bukhari wrote his book al-Jami' al-sahih, we still see some defects and inconsistency in the classification of hadiths; and the best reason for this claim is the presence of some chapters without any hadiths as well as the presence of the same hadith with different references which are scattered in different chapters of the book.

Likewise, in the Shi'a Islam, the first hadiths collectors were Safwan b. Yahya, al-Husayn b. Sa'id, Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Khalid al-Barqi who made early categories. The turning point in this movement is al-Kafi by al-Kulayni which exerted great influence on the later system of Shi'i hadith classification due to both validity of its contents and comprehensiveness of its topics. Al-Kulayni started this book with some general discussion on the intellect and science, then he proposed some theological topics including monotheism, prophethood and Imamate; afterwards, he stated some historical discussions on the lives of the infallibles (a) and in the next part we see a big chapter which include jurisprudential subjects. The last chapter is actually a selective and brief part of religious thoughts.

The next three books out of the so-called "Four Books", which were limited to jurisprudential subjects, were actually a reformation of the classification of al-Kafi. But then, we see the book Da'a'im al-Islam by al-Qadi al-Nu'man al-Maghribi which was completely different from the Four books and follows a distinct method of classification. It is worthy to note that this new classification was later used in some jurisprudential books –not hadith ones- specially al-Kafi fi l-fiqh by Abu l-Salah al-Halabi.

Recent Centuries

In the recent centuries, one of the most impressive hadith books is the unparalleled book Bihar al-anwar by al-'Allama al-Majlisi which is known as a comprehensive hadith book which is written in consistence with modern rationality. According to al-Majlisi, this book follows an unprecedented order. The author paid attention to the previous style, however, he added some new branches of hadith such as "Kitab al-sama' wa l-'alam" (the book of the sky and the universe) which were neglected by previous hadith scholars. Moreover, unlike al-Kulayni, al-Majlisi did not separate the history of the lives of infallibles (a) from theological discussions of prophethood and imamate; and he considers both theoretical and historical aspects in discussing on prophethood. Likewise, in the theological topics, he proposed some independent sections for the topics relevant to resurrection and justice.

Besides the common understanding of the subject order, there is a special order of hadith based on the numbers mentioned in them. Some of these books are as follow: Kitab al-Ashkal wa l-qara'in in the collection of al-Mahasin by al-Barqi, al-Khisal by Ibn Babawayh and al-Mawa'iz al-'adadiyya by Mishkini.

Based on References

During the third century/9th century, along with the improvement of hadith classification, some opponent movements appeared; in the Sunni Islam, some of the recent scholars of Ashab al-Hadith (companions of Hadith) and on top of them Ahmad b. Hanbal opposed any subject classification of hadith. Likewise, in the Shi'a Islam, it seems that, in the half of third century/9th century, there were two contradictory movements, especially apparent in Qom; The first group tended to classify hadith based on the subjects, and their first figure was Dawud b. Kura (d. 300/912-13) who classified some of the previous important books based on the subject order such as al-Mashikha written by al-Hasan b. Mahbub and al-Nawadir written by Ahmad b. Muhammad b. 'Isa. And the second group whose figures are Ahmad b. 'Isa and 'Abd Allah b. Ja'far al-Himyari. Ahmad b. Muhammad b.'Isa himself wrote the book al-Nawadir without any subject classification.

Al-Musnads, writing of which started in the third/9th century, were some hadith writing classified based on Sahaba (companions of the prophet) instead of subjects and different topics. Sahaba were the first agents in the chain of hadith who narrated hadiths form the prophet (s) himself. In some early examples of al-Musnads, such as al-Musnads of al-Tayalisi, Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Ruyani, and Abu Ya'la al-Musili, one part is devoted to each Sahaba but there is no special order in every part. But in the other variety of al-Musnads which were written later, in the relevant part of each Sahaba, there are a special order based on the second narrators and even third narrators; al-Musnads of Ishaq b. Rahawayh, Abu Bakr al-Bazzar, al-Haytham b. Kulayb are some examples of these al-Musnads.

Consequently, in those al-Musnads limited to just a single Sahaba, it is more natural to expect the second narrators order and even third narrators. This can be witnessed in some of al-Musnads such as Musnad 'Umar from Ya'qub b. Shayba, Musnad Ibn Abi Awfa from Yahya b. Sa'id and the Musnad Sa'd b. Abi Waqqas from al-Dawraqi.

Sorting hadiths of one book based on the infallible Imams is still another kind which is close to the previous one; we can see such hadith collections in Shi'a writings, for example Tuhaf al-'uqul of Ibn Shu'ba al-Harrani, al-Ihtijaj of Abu Mansur al-Tabrisi and Nuzhat al-nazir of al- Halwani. "Mu'jam al-Shuyukh"s, local history books, and rijal books include some other hadiths from different resources with different kind of classifications which can be searched just with one narrator in the chain of reference. From early Shi'i scholars, Ahmad b. al-Husayn b. 'Abd al-Malik ordered the book al-Mashiykha of al-Hasan b. Mahbub based on the names of shaykhs (prominent hadith scholars).

Alphabetic Classification

Along the centuries, another method of classification emerged. According to this method, the first letter of hadiths sentences is the criterion of the classification and the purpose is proposing an alphabetic order of hadiths. The oldest known example of this kind of hadith books are some Shi'i texts which have been written based on this order such as Jami' al-ahadith of Ja'far b. Ahmad b. Razi (included the prophet's traditions), Ghurar al-hikam of Abu l-Fath al-Amidi (included Imam 'Ali's (a) traditions). Likewise, from 10th/16th centuries, it is used in the recognition of hadiths in Sunni hadith collections, an example of which is al-Jami' al-saghir of al-Suyuti.

Cataloging hadiths by listing their keywords started with the book al-Mu'jam al-mufahras li-l-alfaz al-hadith al-Nabawi written by A.Y. Winsink which is published by Brill in Leiden (Netherlands) in 1936-1969. Some Shi'i and Sunni scholars have tried to provide such cataloging books ever since. Moreover, as an example of subject index for hadiths, see the book Miftah kunuz al-sunna which has been originally written by A.Y. Winsink and is translated to Arabic by 'Abd al-Baqi; later on, we see several works and similar books in this regard from both Sunni and Shi'i scholars.

Undocumented Hadith Collections

During 3rd/9th century up to 5th/11th century, the biggest hadith collections had been written and the most important figures of the next century tried to interpret and commentate on these collections instead of writing unwritten hadiths.

It might be said that at the end of fifth century, the religious scholars felt that the most important steps for collecting hadiths had been taken and regarding the "four books" of Shi'a and the "six sihah" (Sihah al-sitta) of Sunnis, there is no considerable threat of diminishing or misusing of hadiths; and in the next century, some books were written for preaching hadiths without any citing of references. The scholars of these books did not feel any need to recite references which is called al-tajrid.

Writing books with ethical subjects and full of preaching and apothem, leads to remarkable consideration of these unreferenced hadiths by those faqihs with ethical inclination. Some of these books are as follow: Adab al-dunya wa l-din by Abu l-Hasan al-Mawardi and Ihya' 'ulum al-din written by al-Ghazali.

Likewise, the other Shi'i texts with this approach are as follow, Ma'dan al-jawahir by al-Karajuki, Rawdat al-wa'izin by al-Fattal al-Nishaburi, Nuzhat al-nazir by al-Husayn b. Muhammad al-Halwani, Ghurar al-hikam by al-Amidi, al-Ihtijaj by Ahmad b. 'Ali al-Tabrisi, and Makarim al-akhlaq by Al-Hasan b. al-Fadl al-Tabrisi.

As an example of this kind of hadith books,Tuhaf al-'uqul by Ibn Shu'ba al-Harrani can not be easily dated. In the 6th/12th century, there were some preachers such as Ibn al-Jawzi who had both kinds of hadith books, with and without mentioning references.

At the beginning of 7th/13th century, at the time of Mongol's attack to the eastern part of the Islamic world, the scientific schools declined and this depression was dominant in all fields including hadith sciences; many of the resources diminished and the approach of writing hadith books without references increased. During the 7th/13th century, and in the Sunni Islam, we see some hadith works such as al-Targhib wa al-tarhib by 'Abd al-'Azim al-Mundhiri and al-'Arba'in by Muhyi l-Din al-Nawawi; and also, in the Shi'a Islam, some great religious scholars such as Radi al-Din b. Tawus follow this method.

In addition to unreferenced hadiths in preaching works, there were some other hadiths in Sufi books as well as Ghali literature which were without any references. During these centuries, this type of hadiths had found their way to the works by famous authors since it had become normal to use unreferenced hadiths. Hence, we can find, in the middle centuries works of both Shi'a and Sunni scholars, many of unreferenced hadiths which could not be found in the classic resources.

Some of the hadith scholars such as Zayn al-Din al-'Iraqi (who tried to predicate the book Ihya' 'ulum al-din of al-Ghazali) and Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani (who tried to predicate hadiths of al-Kashshaf by al-Zamakhshari) have repeatedly mentioned such sentences as "this hadith was not found in any references".

This phenomenon called "famous unreferenced hadiths" which usually is common, whether a result of fabrication or considering something as hadith which is not, leads to a worry for hadith scholars; and they tried to provide some books for the purification of these undocumented hadiths, such as the book al-Ahadith al-dakhila and their documents.


  • The material for writing this article was mainly taken from in Farsi WikiShia.