As already there is an answer to this question, I will try to navigate my answer towards understanding this hadith and clarifying without iteration.
This hadith seems to cause consternation in appearance and this is one of the many hadith that are often misunderstood and misquoted. The apparent meaning is a direct conflict to the Quranic maxim of no one should bear the burden of another [ 6:164, 17:15, 35:18, 39:7, 53:38 ]
EXPLANATION AND UNDERSTANDING
This hadith (Sunan Abu Dawud 3963) does not mean illegitimate children are worse by nature of being illegitimate, it was specific to the person whom the Prophet ﷺ was addressing and the comments of Abu Hurayah are based on a misunderstanding of what the Prophet ﷺ said.
To clarify, first I would like to quote the narration by Urwah, recorded by Imam At-Tahawi:
Urwah narrated: It reached Aisha that Abu Huraira related that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, "The child of adultery is worst of the three." She said, May Allah have mercy on Abu Huraira, he erred at hearing and erred at relating it; the hadith was not in this meaning. Actually there was a man who hurt the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and it was mentioned to the Prophet (ﷺ) that besides what he had done he was also born out of adultery. Thus the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, "He is worst of the three".
and this report by Abd Al-Razzaq Al-San'ani:
When it was mentioned to Aisha that [a child born out of wedlock] was worst of the three she objected to it and said, "The sin of his parents is not on the child for Allah has said, 'No bearer shall bear the sins of others'."
From these, it's pretty much clear that the literal meaning of the hadith in general has nothing to do with the children born of adultery. This is further strengthened by the reports of the companion Abdullah b. Umar and well known scholars from the subsequent generation al-Sha'bi and 'Ikrimah, the freed slave of Ibn Abbas, recorded by Abd al-Razzaq:
He is [in fact] best of the three
With that I believe we have a better understanding of the hadith and when I tried to find more explanations, Imam Baghawi writes:
It means there is no burden on him for the sin committed by the adulterers and he is better than them both for his innocence from the sin.
and Imam Ibn Hibban writes:
The child of zina will not be taken to account for the sin of his parents.
Just to have more clarity I would like to quote from the comments section of the Darrussallam edition of Sunan Abu Dawud of this hadith:
An illegitimate child should not be deemed evil and corrupt or immoral unless he behaves like his parents, his circumstances of birth are not his fault. Allah has said: "No bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another." (Sürat Al-An'am 6:164.) This narration has a special event as its background. There was a disbeliever who used to tease the Prophet ﷺ . It was brought to the knowledge of the Prophet, and on that occasion he said this statement.
These details conclusively prove that hadith in question was specific to a person in the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) and does not apply to all children born of illegitimate intimacy. This is also the view of almost all the major and majority of scholars, both classic and contemporary.
NOTE importance has been given to include narrations/evidences that are authentic and in cases where there are slight concerns about the chain of narrators, I have included narrations that have corroborating evidences thus following the best practice.
- Sharh Mushkil al-Athar by Imam Abu Jafar At-Tahawi
- Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq al-San'ani
- Sharh Al-Sunnah by Abu Muhammad Al-Baghawi
- Sahih Ibn Hibban by Muhammad ibn Hibban al-Busti
- Sunan Abu-Dawud ( Darrussallam )
- Tafsir of Quran
- Mustadrak by Al-Hakim Al-Nishapuri
- Tafsir ibn Abi Hatim
May Allah the mighty and sublime grant us mercy and guide us to the straight path.
Allah knows best