☞also spelled Hadit (Arabic: “news,” or “story”)
record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, revered and received as a major source of religious law and moral guidance, second only to the authority of the Qur'an, or scripture of Islam. It might be defined as the biography of Muhammad perpetuated by the long memory of his community for their exemplification and obedience. The development of Hadith is a vital element during the first three centuries of Islamic history, and its study provides a broad index to the mind and ethos of Islam. Copyright ⓒ 1994-
2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Nature and origins
term Hadith derives from the Arabic root hdth, meaning “to happen,”
and so, “to tell a happening,” “to report,” “to have, or give,
as news,” or “to speak of.” It means tradition seen as narrative
and record. From it comes sunnah (literally, a “well-trodden path,”
i.e., taken as precedent and authority or directive), to which
the faithful conform in submission to the sanction that Hadith
possesses and that legalists, on that ground, can enjoin. Tradition
in Islam is thus both content and constraint, Hadith as the biographical
ground of law and sunnah as the system of obligation derived from
it. In and through Hadith, Muhammad may be said to have shaped
and determined from the grave the behaviour patterns of the household
of Islam by the posthumous leadership his personality exercised.
There were, broadly, two factors operating to this end. One was
the unique status of Muhammad in the genesis of Islam; the other
was the rapid geographical expansion of the new faith in the first
two centuries of its history into various areas of cultural confrontation.
Hadith cannot be rightly assessed unless the measure of these
two elements and their interaction is properly taken.
The experience of Muslims in the conquered
territories of west and middle Asia and of North Africa was related
to their earlier tradition. Islamic tradition was firmly grounded
in the sense of Muhammad's personal destiny as the Prophet?the
instrument of the Qur'an and the apostle of God. The clue to tradition
as an institution in Islam may be seen in the recital of the Shahadah
or “witness” (“There is no god but God; Muhammad is the prophet
of God”), with its twin items as inseparable convictions?God and
the messenger. Islamic tradition follows from the primary phenomenon
of the Qur'an, received personally by Muhammad and thus inextricably
bound up with his person and the agency of his vocation. Acknowledgment
of the Qur'an as scripture by the Islamic community was inseparable
from acknowledgment of Muhammad as its appointed recipient. In
that calling, he had neither fellow nor partner, for God, according
to the Qur'an, spoke only to Muhammad. When Muhammad died, therefore,
in AD 632, the gap thus created in the emotions and the mental
universe of Muslims was shatteringly wide. It was also permanent.
Death had also terminated the revelation embodied in the Qur'an.
By the same stroke scriptural mediation had ended, as well as
prophetic presence.The Prophet's death was said to have coincided
with the perfection of revelation. But the perfective closure
of both the book and the Prophet's life, though in that sense
triumphant, was also onerous, particularly in view of the new
changing circumstances, both of space and time, in the geographical
expansion of Islam. In all the new pressures of historical circumstance,
where was direction to be sought? Where, if not from the same
source as the scriptural mouthpiece, who by virtue of that consummated
status had become the revelatory instrument of the divine word
and could therefore be taken as an everlasting index to the divine
counsel? The instinct for and the growth of tradition are thus
integral elements in the very nature of Islam, Muhammad, and the
Qur'an. Ongoing history and the extending dispersion of Muslim
believers provided the occasion and spur for the compilation of
The appeal of the ordered recollection of Muhammad to the Islamic mind did not become immediately formalized and sophisticated. On the contrary, there is evidence that the full development of Hadith was slow and uneven. Time and distance had to play their role before memory became stylized and official.
Copyright ⓒ 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.