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As is known, the majority of hadith literature available today was compiled well after the death of the prophet, due in part to the nigh-unmanageable number of questionable or downright fabricated ahadith which were being narrated. The hadith sciences were developed, giving scholars criteria with which to distinguish between authentic ahadith and weak ahadith.

Take, for example, Sahih Bukhari. Bukhari was notoriously discriminating, and went through significant effort to collect and compile only the most authentic ahadith that he could; for the sake of argument let's assume that he was successful and that this collection was 100% authentic.

However, this merely determines that these collected ahadith were authentic at that particular point in time. Given that these books were written centuries before any form of "perfect" scriptural reproduction was available, any copies made thereof would have to have been transcribed manually. And without any original manuscripts to refer to, any current references would be based upon these copies, or copies of copies.

Due to simple human error, every manually-copied edition increases the chances of mistakes being introduced into the text, be it intentional or accidental. To me, this parallels very strongly with the earlier hadith sciences, wherein determining the authenticity of any particular hadith requires a thorough understanding of every narrator in the isnad. A hadith is only considered sahih if each and every narrator in the isnad is considered reliable.

The only difference in the case of transcription is that this "narration" is transmitted textually, rather than orally.

No hadith text I have seen lists a "scribal isnad;" the chain of narration, such as it is, tends to end with the fact that it was compiled by Bukhari. Given that any scribe between the original compilation and the invention of perfect digital copies may have (inadvertently) changed the text, what we have today as "Sahih Bukhari" may or may not be the original text compiled by Bukhari.

I realize that just because I've not seen such a "scribal isnad" does not mean they do not exist (limited to English as I am, many ahadith do not even bother to translate the normal isnad), and I also realize that a number of sahih ahadith would've been recorded during that time in disparate enough works that they could (by the same parallel) be considered mutawatir, but I know little (if anything) about the sciences of hadith which specifically deal with ahadith after they're compiled. Do the extant hadith sciences account for such (potential) scribal errors, or must we resort to textual criticism to determine authenticity?

To put it another way, if (for example) Imam Bukhari were alive today, would he call any hadith, even those compiled in his own Sahih, "sahih"?

(note that Sahih Bukhari was used as an example, but the question is applicable to any hadith which is called "sahih," regardless of where it was compiled or who authenticated it)


Note: I am not asking about whether the hadith sciences themselves are valid; I'm asking about how or even whether they've continued to be valid in the same way over the thousand-plus years since they were developed.

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    Do you know Qur'aan has an isnad as well?
    – Abdullah
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 8:00
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    I've always wondered the same thing. With the Quran, there were always hundreds of people around who had memorized large portions of the Quran and were able to point out flaws. By the time all those people were no longer alive, there were already hundreds or thousands of physical parallel copies around. With the Hadiths, there were only around 3-5 people scattered around the region who were knowledgeable in a particular hadith. They would not be around to correct many scribal flaws. Even worse, a malicious person could introduce errors into a copy, and aggressively print several false copies.
    – Muz
    Commented Sep 29, 2012 at 9:17
  • Hadith students learn the Hadiths from the hadith Collection with a full sanad: This means at least a backup from al-Bukahri down to the Prophet(Peace be upon him) would be realized. But I don't really get your Question! Is it only about the book copies or about the tawatur of Hadiths which have been recorded -and therefore fixed- in Hadith Collections, so that we don't know if they are really mutawatir anymore!
    – Medi1Saif
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 7:06
  • Do you somehow mean that we do not got the isnad from the Prophet to Bukhari and from Bukhari all the way to us? Therefore, your question that it might not truly be possible to call any hadith sahih anymore?
    – Kilise
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 14:28

3 Answers 3

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Yes, there is extreme confidence in the correctness of "sahih" ahadeeth.

To make a long story short, all valuable books in Islamic history were validated by the writer by reading them loudly to the original author, who would certify that the book was copied correctly. Additionally, important books would receive further attention, and people would memorize them and read them aloud to the author by-heart. Combining these two tactics, and adding a reconciliation process from many copiers at large libraries (such as in Baghdad or Damascus or Cordoba, etc.) proved to be very successful at maintaining reliable authenticity.

Even to day, scholars keep an isnad telling who certified them for having studied such books, and that isnad is required for someone to be able to certify another. This process is famous in the Arab world, such as at Azhar in Egypt, and people usually seek certification from multiple scholars.

Moreover, any printing of such books in Egypt has to submit to a thorough review (tahqiq - تحقيق) and certification process in order to be published. This is probably the same in many other countries as well. The review process has been applied historically to most (all?) important copies throughout the ages, and some scientists are devoted to it.

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    Great answer. Do you have any references or further reading?
    – ashes999
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 15:30
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    Sorry @ashes999, it's so famous in my country that I never tried to find a reference. Our most valuable reference is that all scholars here do it (read: have to do it), and they can tell the isnad of who they studied with. My cousin can tell the isnad of a Hadith man-to-man from his teacher all the way until prophet Muhammad (SAAW).
    – Hosam Aly
    Commented Nov 10, 2012 at 4:44
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    I'd like to add that usually students or scholars would try to find a high sanad (a short narrator chain), that's why they might get certification from many scholars (for example Imam Ahmad said that the Muwatta' Version of Imam a-Shafi'i was the best he ever heard but never quoted it and that's a major reason why you will hardly find a narrator chain via Imam a-Shafi'i in any hadith collection as he died at the age of 54 only). Also in the Arabic Wikipedia Article on Imam an-Nawawi it is quoted that he memorized almost all hadith collection with a high sanad.
    – Medi1Saif
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 6:49
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The process of transfering Hadith from teacher to student as I know was done at the time these books were written, first by memorising and then the student would write his own copy and then read out the book to his teacher tallying the hadith, this tradition is still intact in middle east where I live.

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As already confirmed in other answers, books do in fact have isnad very commonly.

See Shaykh Akram Nadwi (who is one of the great modern scholars of hadith) mentioning his many isnads of Sahih Bukhari here.

However, the utility and usefulness of this isnad is lessened for books like Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim because of what follows.

The propagation of these books is too widespread and popular after the authors that the need for having one specific isnad becomes moot. It is, in a sense, even more than mutawatir.

Existence of the book and attribution to the author: We know the book Sahih was written by Bukhari due to the hundreds and thousands of contemporary or later scholars confirming that such a book was indeed written.

Content of the book: The manuscripts of Sahih Bukhari (although we don't have ones directly from the author's time) are too widespread. They come from Spain all the way to Iraq with barely any differences. When there are differences in some letters (as mistakes are inevitable in copying), the editors and publishers note down these differences. Yes, it is so exact down to the letters!

In the published Arabic copies of many books including Sahih Bukhari, you would find the editors writing in footnotes messages like "In X manuscript this word was written with a fa rather than waw."

So, at most one could doubt the authenticity of specific letters, but then when they all agree, that too is hard to doubt!

On top of this fact, books like Sahih Bukhari are widely quoted and referenced by other works. This further confirms to us the fact that the book we have today is the same people in the past had.

When people in the past say "Bukhari narrated this" we actually find it in Bukhari. When they quote the text of the narration, we find it matching the text of our Sahih Bukhari.

All of this makes it impossible for us to doubt the attribution of Sahih Bukhari to Imam Bukhari himself. And we already know the attribution from Bukhari to the Prophet is authentic.

Most of my answer is a bad summary of this excellent article by Akram Nadwi on this exact subject: Authenticating the Ascription of Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhārī to its Author

And Allah knows best.

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