On The Nature Of Hadith Collections Of Imam Al-Bukhari & Muslim

Islamic Awareness

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 3rd September 1999

Last Modified: 24th August 2005

Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

Over the years, Christian missionaries have solidified their reputation for embracing zealous new recruits. One fresh addition to this delegation of holy servicemen is the neophyte, Andrew Vargo. More often than not, the missionaries have overlooked the academic backgrounds of these fresh recruits, apparently intoxicated by their impassioned hatred for Islam. Mr. Vargo has recently tried his hand as a student of comparative religion, introducing some of the most fantastic ideas yet to the discourse. Among these ideas is a rather boastful claim concerning the collection of ahadith by the great Muslim scholar, Imam al-Bukhari (d. 256 AH). The highlight of Vargo's claim lies in the following:

In fact, it is difficult, in spite of the Muslim "science" of Hadith to know which traditions are strong or weak! For example, Bukhari collected over 600,000 reports, but kept only 7,397 as true!

This is one of the most popular claims concerning the vast collection of ahadith of al-Bukhari in the Christian missionary literature and comes with fanciful explanations. For example, Anis Shorrosh, a well-known Arab missionary, says:

... Bukhari, collected twenty thousand of them, of which he rejected ten thousand, accounting them untrue. Of the remaining ten thousand he accepted only 7,275, declaring the rest to be untrustworthy. Abu Da'ud accepted as authentic only 4,800 rules out 50,000.[1]

Similarly we find Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb claiming that:

...Bukhari, considered to be the most reliable collector, admitted that of the 300,000 hadith he collected, he considered only 100,000 might be true. He then narrowed this number down to 7,275, many of which are repetitions so that the total number is in fact near 3,000. That means that even he admitted there were errors in over 295,000 of them![2]

Nearly a similar statement is repeated by Geisler in his Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics to cast doubts on the miracles performed by the Prophet Muhammad.[3] Abdiyah Akbar Abdul-Haqq, on the other hand, labels what al-Bukhari did not include in his collection as "apocryphal".

As to the abundance of the apocryphal traditions, we learn that the famous authority al-Bukhari choose only 7,000 out of a host of 600,000 traditions that were current in his on time.[4]

Similar statements were made by John Ankerberg and John Weldon, who quoted a "Muslim scholar".[5]

Not surprising is the case of Rand Corporation, who have published an interesting report on Islam entitled "Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies". The report has two fold agenda: firstly, to try to create a version of Islam that suits the post-9/11 Western agenda and secondly encouraging creation of divisions in the Muslim society at home and abroad. The Rand Report's recipe to achieve this aim is to encourage and promote the so-called modernist Muslims and play one section of the society against another to split the Muslim society. A small example of it can be seen when the report uses the material from the hadith-rejectors (not surprisingly!) to claim "objectively" that:

Even if that were not the case, objectively speaking, there is little doubt that hadith is at best a dubious, flawed instrument. Consider that Al-Bukhari is the compiler of what is generally considered to be the most authoritative and reliable collections of hadith. He collected 600,000 hadith, examined them for their authenticity, eliminated all but 7,600 of them, deleted some for redundancy, and was left with a collection of about 4,000.[6]

As we shall see, feisty statements such as the above only prove to be self-defeating in the end. This article intends to examine missionaries' thesis in light of the scholarship of Imam al-Bukhari, and thereby ascertain the actual worth of their claim.

To appreciate the broader perspective, we will also include a discussion of Imam Muslim's ahadith collection, insha'allah.

2. Imam Bukhari & The Nature Of His Collection

Vargo, Shorrosh, Geisler, Abdul Saleeb, Abdul-Haqq and Benard have practically begged the question for us already - where exactly did Imam al-Bukhari mention that among the 600,000 ahadith in his collection, only 7,397 are to be accepted as 'true'? They maintains the missionary tradition of conveniently omitting any references that would not support their thesis; the mark of a true academicians, indeed! Once again, it is left to the Muslims to enlighten the ill-informed missionaries on this matter.

Imam al-Bukhari's actual words have been reproduced below:

* The two sahih collections did not gather the totality of the authentic ahadith as proved by al-Bukhari's testimony: "I have not included in my book al-Jami` but what is authentic, and I left out among the authentic for fear of [excessive] length.(Footnote 2)"

Footnote 2 says:

He [al-Bukhari] meant that he did not mention all the turuq [parallel chains of transmission] for each and every hadith.[7]

To reiterate this in elementary English, Imam al-Bukhari selected only a few authentic ahadith from his vast collection. However, he left out certain traditions, despite their authenticity, simply to avoid excessive length and repetition in his Al-Jami` (a discussion about which is given below). If anything, the privilege to make such a gesture is highly complimentary to the authenticity of the Islamic traditions. In another tradition, Imam al-Bukhari is also reported to have said:

He said, I heard as-Sa`dani say, I heard some of our companions say, Muhammad Ibn Isma`il said: I selected/published [the content of] this book - meaning the Sahih book - from about 600,000 hadiths/reports. Abu Sa`d al-Malini informed us that `Abdullah Ibn `Udayy informed us: I heard al-Hasan Ibn al-Husayn al-Bukhari say: "I have not included in my book al-Jami` but what is authentic, and I left out among the authentic what I could not get hold of."[8]

The above quotation reflects Imam al-Bukhari's gallant honesty to admit that he was not able to collect each and every authentic tradition that existed in his day. Rather, his Al-Jami` is only a partial collection of authentic traditions, despite its massive volume. Furthermore, it should be clarified for the missionaries that the notion of a partial collection of authentic material is quite different from the notion of a partially authentic collection of material. However, it is not our aim to offer a course on propositional reasoning. Thus, we leave the point with the hope that they will eventually comprehend this piece of preschool logic.

Professor Mustafa al-Azami, who offered a devastating critique of Joseph Schacht's work, again clarifies the misunderstanding of many orientalists on this issue:

Al-Bukhari did not claim that what he left out were the spurious, nor that there were no authentic traditions outside his collection. On the contrary he said, "I only included in my book al-Jami` those that were authentic, and I left out many more authentic traditions than this to avoid unnecessary length." He had no intention of collecting all the authentic traditions. He only wanted to compile a manual of hadith, according to the wishes of his Shaikh Ishaq b. Rahwaih, and his function is quite clear from the title of his book al-Jami` al-Musnad al-Sahih al-Mukhtasar min umur Rasul Allah wa Sunanhi wa ayyamih. The word al-Mukhtasar, 'epitome', itself explains that al-Bukhari did not make any attempt at a comprehensive collection.[9]

Yet, the missionaries seem to be living under the delusion that the 600,000 ahadith of Imam al-Bukhari's collection somehow means 600,000 separate narrations or bodies of text. His sloppy study of this issue becomes clear when one learns that a hadith is comprised of both a text (matn) and a chain of transmission (isnad). In the science of hadith, the same text with ten chains of transmission is regarded not as one hadith but rather as ten hadiths, despite the fact that the text attached to each chain is the same in every case.

Professor Mustafa al-Azami adds:

Now it is clear that when traditionalists give enormous numbers for the traditions, they mean channels and sources of their transmission, and do not mean real numbers of hadith.[10]

Nabia Abbott, a prominent orientalist who conducted an extensive study on hadith literature, observed that the phenomenal growth of the corpus of this literature is not due to growth in content but due to progressive increase in the parallel and multiple chains of transmission, i.e., isnads:

... the traditions of Muhammad as transmitted by his Companions and their Successors were, as a rule, scrupulously scrutinised at each step of the transmission, and that the so called phenomenal growth of Tradition in the second and third centuries of Islam was not primarily growth of content, so far as the hadith of Muhammad and the hadith of the Companions are concerned, but represents largely the progressive increase in parallel and multiple chains of transmission.[11]

Take a highly simplified example of one Companion narrating a single hadith from the Prophet to two students: these students themselves teaching that narration again to two pupils each and so on until we reach the time of al-Bukhari and his contemporaries. We will find that in al-Bukhari's generation at least 16 individuals will be hearing the hadith from their respective teachers. Because each individual chain of transmission counts as a separate hadith, what started out as a single narration transmitted by one Companion only, has evolved within a short period of time to 16 ahadith; an increase of 1600%. The true nature of affairs, however, being far greater, with a far greater number of Companions transmitting a far greater number of narrations to a far greater number of students. This then is the form in which proliferation took place, the dispersion of narrators and chains of transmission. Using the mathematical application of geometric progression, Nabia Abbott concludes:

... using geometric progression, we find that one to two thousand Companions and senior Successors transmitting two to five traditions each would bring us well within the range of the total number of traditions credited to the exhaustive collections of the third century. Once it is realised that the isnad did, indeed, initiate a chain reaction that resulted in an explosive increase in the number of traditions, the huge numbers that are credited to Ibn Hanbal, Muslim and Bukhari seem not so fantastic after all.[12]

The implications of explosive increase in of the isnad is dealt with here.

3. Imam Muslim & The Nature Of His Collection

Imam Muslim along the similar lines to that of Imam al-Bukhari , is reported to have said:

The translation of which is:

[...]. Imam Muslim said: "I have not included in my present book any thing but with proof [regarding authenticity] , and I have not left out anything but with proof". He also said: I did not include everything that I judge authentic/Sahih, I only included what received a unanimous agreement, i.e., what fulfilled all the criteria of authenticity agreed upon [by the scholars].

And Muslim has presented [his collection] to the scholars of his time, like Imam Abu Zar`ah, and retained what was void of defect, and left out what had some defect.[13]

From the above quotation, it is clear that Imam Muslim's collection is also a partial collection of authentic material and not a partially authentic collection of material. He followed a certain set of criteria that demanded a proof for the inclusion of each and every hadith in his collection.

4. Conclusions

Imam al-Bukhari's collection of ahadith was maintained to be authentic on account of his authority, and it has been maintained as authentic ever since. The missionaries' assertion, that Imam al-Bukhari regarded almost 99% of his own collection as spurious, is among the most rash and foolhardy statements ever dared by Christian missionaries. On the contrary, the 7,397 refers to the number of hadiths that Imam al-Bukhari chose to include in his Al-Jami` and left out many authentic narrations from his vast collection for the fear of excessive length.

Again, according to the Vargo:

In fact, it is difficult, in spite of the Muslim "science" of Hadith to know which traditions are strong or weak!

We should wonder whether the neophyte is as quick to demonstrate the same puerile enthusiasm over the question of his own religious texts. Regardless, we will quote the famous trial of Imam al-Bukhari to show how maqlub[14] (changed, reversed) ahadith can be identified with ease by a scholar of hadith:

The famous trial of al-Bukhari by the scholars of Baghdad provides a good example of a Maqlub isnad. The traditionists, in order to test their visitor, al-Bukhari, appointed ten men, each with ten ahadith. Now, each hadith (text) of these ten people was prefixed with the isnad of another. Imam al-Bukhari listened to each of the ten men as they narrated their ahadith and denied the correctness of every hadith. When they had finished narrating these ahadith, he addressed each person in turn and recounted to him each of his ahadith with its correct isnad. This trial earned him great honour among the scholars of Baghdad.[15]

Finally, it is worth citing a significant trend in modern Western scholarship of the Prophetic traditions of Islam. For the past several decades, criticism of these traditions has been the Orientalist's whipping post, an opportunity to invalidate the traditions of Islam, which culminated in the work of Joseph Schacht, mentioned earlier. However, this position has practically been reversed in recent times, with the advent of academic honesty on the part of Western scholars. Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University has made the following counter-criticism of Schacht's traditional position:

Accepting Schacht's conclusion regarding the many traditions he did examine does not warrant its automatic extension to all the traditions. To consider all Prophetic traditions apocryphal until proven otherwise is to reverse the burden of proof. Moreover, even where differences of opinion exist regarding the authenticity of the chain of narrators, they need not detract from the authenticity of a tradition's content and common acceptance of the importance of tradition literature as a record of the early history and development of Islamic belief and practice.[16]

The position of Esposito perhaps reflects the growing attitude among Western educational institutions that entertain any study of Islam and its traditions. This is simply evidenced by the fact that Professor Esposito has become one of the reigning authorities on Islam in the West, whose textbooks are considered university standards for courses on Islam.

Considering the missionaries' abuse of hadiths to denigrate the Prophet(P) of Islam, it would be too generous to assume that Vargo, Shorrosh, Geisler and Abdul Saleeb "misunderstood" the nature of the collection of Imam al-Bukhari. As for the Rand Corporation's report, their "objectivity" lies in the unverified use of source material. An honest misunderstanding entails at least some understanding of the issue, which doesn't even seem to be their case. Perhaps the Christian missionaries might consider beginning a genuine study of the science of hadith before they embarrasses themselves further.


We would like to thank Abu Hudhayfah for providing us necessary help and allowing us to use his material.

And Allah knows best!


[1] Dr. A. A. Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab's View Of Islam, 1988, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, p. 22.

[2] N. L. Geisler & A. Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent In The Light Of The Cross, 1993, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 165.

[3] "Muhammad, Alleged Miracles Of", in N. L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 2002, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 512.

[4] A. A. Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith With A Muslim, 1980, Bethany House Publications: Minneapolis, p. 45.

[5] J. Ankerberg & J. Weldon, Fast Facts On Islam, 2001, Harvest House Publishers: Eugene (OR), pp. 50-51.

[6] C. Benard, "Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies", 2003, Rand Corporation, p. 67.

[7] Muhammad Ajaj al-Khatib, Al-Mukhtasar al-Wajiz fi `Ulum al-Hadith, 1991, Mu'assasat al-Risalah, p. 135.

[8] Abi Bakr Ahmad Ibn `Ali al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad Aw Madinah as-Salam, 1931 (1349 AH), Volume II, Maktabat al-Khanji, Cairo & Al-Maktabah al-`Arabiyyah, Baghdad and Matba'at as-S'adah near the State Department, Cairo, pp. 8-9.

[9] M. M. al-Azami, Studies In Early Hadith Literature, 1992, American Trust Publications: Indianapolis (USA), pp. 305-306.

[10] ibid., p. 306.

[11] N. Abbott, Studies In Arabic Literary Papyri, Volume II [Qur'anic Commentary & Tradition], 1967, University Of Chicago Press: Chicago (USA), p. 2.

[12] ibid., p. 72.

[13] Al-Imam Muhyee ad-Din Abi Zakariyya Yahya bin Sharaf al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim Bi Sharh al-Imam al-Nawawi, Volume I, 1994/1414, Dar al-Khair, p. 1.

[14] A hadith is known as maqlub (changed, reversed) when its isnad is grafted to a different text or vice versa, or if a reporter happens to reverse the order of a sentence in the text.

[15] S. Hasan, An Introduction To The Science Of Hadith, 1995, Darussalam Publishers: Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) available online, quote taken from here.

[16] J. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 1998, Oxford University Press, p. 81.

Issues Concerning Hadith