1In the introduction to the history he devoted to his native city of Qazvin, the famous Shâfi‘î jurist ‘Abd al-Karîm al-Râfi‘î (d. 623/1226) provides a series of Prophetic ḥadîths and sayings of early Muslims that shower the northern Iranian town with accolades. One such ḥadîth reads:
The horizons will be opened for you in conquest, and a city called Qazvin will be conquered by you. Whoever takes up armed camp (râbaṭa) there for forty morns will receive a column of gold in heaven, crowned with a ruby dome with seventy gates, at each door a mate from among the famous heavenly beauties.
2Of course, forged ḥadîths praising certain cities, tribes or sects were myriad – and Muslim scholars knew it. Al-Râfi‘î thus moved to establish the truth value of this ḥadîth by stating that the report appeared in the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah (d. 273/887), a book that “the ḥadîth masters have associated (yuqarrinûn) with the Ṣaḥîḥayn [of al-Bukhârî and Muslim] as well as the Sunans of Abû Dâwûd and al-Nasâ’î, and they have used it as proof” (Al-Râfi‘î, 1987: 1:7).
3The authority of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan stemmed from its canonical status. Specifically, it was widely considered to be one of the ‘Six Books’ (al-kutub al-sitta), a selection of works which Sunni Muslim scholars have regarded as authoritative references for ḥadîth. This canon was not rigidly fixed, with some scholars acknowledging only a ‘Five Book’ canon. Often this shifting five-to-six-book canon was referred to merely as “The Authentic [Books] (al-Ṣiḥâḥ).” Describing the problem of finding reliable sources for the past in the introduction to his world history, the Persian polymath Rashîd al-Dîn (d. 718/1318) described these Ṣiḥâḥ as the books compiled by “the foremost imâms.” “All else,” he adds, “remains within the sphere of doubt and hesitation” (Rashîd al-Dîn, 1994: 1: 9-10).
4As we have discussed elsewhere, a canon, a set of texts considered authoritative by a certain community, need not be immune to criticism or rigidly fixed in its scope (Brown, 2007: 20-46). Criticism of the centerpiece of the Sunni ḥadîth canon, the famous Ṣaḥîḥayn of al-Bukhârî and Muslim, was normal in the pre-modern period and has continued, with much greater controversy, in the modern period (Brown, 2007: 300-331). The flexible boundaries of the Sunni ḥadîth canon stem from one of the chief functions of the canon: delimiting some selection of ḥadîths, whatever various scholars might consider its definitions to be, as a synecdoche for the Prophet’s boundless Sunna as a whole (Brown, 2007: 335-358). The case of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan introduces a new element into discourse on the ḥadîth canon. With this book we see that the utility of making a synecdochic delimitation of the Sunna supersedes the normally paramount emphasis on the textual authenticity of ḥadîth.
5In general, canons form when a community authorizes a selection of texts to fulfill certain needs. This empowerment depends on some authorizing ethos to compel community members to venerate the canon, such as claims of a divine origin, the eminent wisdom of the author, the mandate of the people or some certainty about historical preservation. In the Sunni Islamic tradition, the formation of the scriptural canon took place through the rhetorical diptych of divine revelation and historical authenticity: Muḥammad was God’s chosen messenger bringing His final religion, and the Muslim community had accurately preserved the text and teachings of the Prophet in history. Canonical works such as the Uthmanic Quran and the Six Book ḥadîth canon all derived their authority from the combination of divine/Prophetic origins and textual authenticity as established by the Sunni science of transmission criticism. The language of textual authenticity (ṣiḥḥa), right guidance and absolute submission to the transmitted revelatory teachings of Muḥammad and his early community permeate Sunni historical formation and identification.
6Examining the canonical collections of Sunni ḥadîth, however, we find that authenticity was not a consistent priority. The canonization of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan illustrates that the ḥadîth canon was formed in part for reasons other than textual authenticity as defined by Sunni ḥadîth criticism. Although advocates of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan lauded its author for his selectivity and critical rigor, luminaries of the Sunni ḥadîth tradition across the centuries have lambasted the book for the unreliability of its contents. According to the testimony of influential participants in the Sunni study of ḥadîth, the book was admitted into the canon not because of its reliability but because it vastly expanded the number of useful ḥadîths in the canonical body.
7Five of the six books of the famous Sunni ‘Six Book’ canon – all of them except Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan - rose to prominence during the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries in the Islamicate heartlands of the Nile/Oxus region.The famous scholar of Egypt, Sa‘îd b. al-Sakan (d. 353/964) and Muḥammad b. Isḥâq Ibn Mandah of Isfahan (d. 395/1004-5) both mention the four books of al-Bukhârî (d. 256/870), Muslim (d. 261/875), Abû Dâwûd (d. 275/889) and al-Nasâ’î (d. 303/915) as agreed upon references. Ibn al-Sakan went so far as to call them “the foundations (qawâ‘id) of Islam”(Brown, 2007: 147-8). Although he did not denote them as a canonical unit, the fifth/eleventh-century Shâfi‘î scholar of Nishapur, Abû Bakr al-Bayhaqî (d. 458/1066), stated that the six collections of al-Bukhârî, Muslim, Abû Dâwûd, al-Nasâ’î, al-Tirmidhî (d. 279/892) and Ibn Khuzayma (d. 311/923) had identified the bulk of the authentic ḥadîths in circulation (Al-Bayhaqî, 1991: 1:106). The great systematizer of the Sunni ḥadîth sciences, al-Khaṭîb al-Baghdâdî (d. 463/1071), recommended the following as the first steps in his ḥadîth study curriculum: first, mastering the esteemed books of al-Bukhârî and Muslim, then the collections of Abû Dâwûd, al-Nasâ’î, al-Tirmidhî and Ibn Khuzayma (al-Baghdâdî, 1983: 2:185).
8The books of al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Nasâ’î and Abû Dâwûd faired equally well to the west in al-Andalus. These works ranked in the first or second tier of Ibn Ḥazm’s (d. 456/1064) listing of the best collections of reports from the Prophet and the early Muslim community (Ibn Ḥazm was famously ignorant of al-Tirmidhî’s Jâmi‘) (al-Dhahabî, 1998: 3:231). The Andalusian Mâlikî ḥadîth scholar, Ibn Razîn al-Saraqusṭî (d. 524/1129), echoed this choice and digested the contents of these mainstay books into one compilation. To the books of al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Nasâ’î and Abû Dâwûd he added the foundational Mâlikî text of the Muwaṭṭa’. Like Ibn Ḥazm, he did not note al-Tirmidhî’s Jâmi‘.
9The perceived authenticity and soundness - ṣiḥḥa - of the ḥadîths in these collections played an obvious role in garnering them respect. Al-Bukhârî’s and Muslim’s books were of course known as the ‘Two Ṣaḥîḥs (Ṣaḥîḥayn).’ As the influential Shâfi‘î/Ash‘arî jurist and ḥadîth scholar Abû Isḥâq al-Isfarâyînî (d. 418/1027) stated:
The authenticity of the reports in the Ṣaḥîḥayn is epistemologically certain in terms of their texts (uṣûlihâ wa mutûnihâ), and no disagreement can occur concerning them. If disagreement does occur, it is over the transmissions and narrators. Anyone whose ruling disagrees with a report and does not provide some acceptable interpretation (ta’wîl sâ’igh) for the report, we negate his ruling, for the umma has accepted these reports with consensus (al-Subkî, 1992: 4:261).
10The notion of ṣiḥḥa extended to other components of the ḥadîth canon as well. The leading ḥadîth scholar of Baghdad, Abû al-Ḥasan al-Dâraquṭnî (d. 385/995), dubbed al-Nasâ’î’s Sunan a “Ṣaḥîḥ,” and al-Khaṭîb referred to al-Tirmidhî’s book as “al-Jâmi‘ al-ṣaḥîḥ” (al-Khaṭîb, 1997: 5: 274; 11:396). Although never part of the Six Book ḥadîth canon, Ibn Khuzayma’s collection was also referred to as his Ṣaḥîḥ as well. The longevous ḥadîth scholar Abû Ṭâhir al-Silafî (d. 576/1180), who was born in Isfahan but spent over sixty years of his life in Alexandria, stated in his introduction to Abû Dâwûd’s Sunan that it was one of “the Five Books that the ‘People who Loosen and Bind’ (ahl al-ḥall wa al-‘aqd) from amongst the jurists and ḥadîth masters have accepted, ruling that the basic reports (uṣûl) in them are ṣaḥîḥ…” (al-Silafî,1981: 4:358). Denying the contents of these books, in fact, is the equivalent of placing oneself outside of the Abode of Islam and into the Abode of War (dâr al-ḥarb) in al-Silafî’s opinion (Brown, 2007: 337).
- 1 This was also noted by Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) and Muḥammad Zâhid al-Kawtharî (d. 1952) (Goldzih (...)
11Muḥammad b. Yazîd Ibn Mâjah was born in 209/824-5 and died in 273/887. He penned a Tafsîr and Târîkh, but it was his Sunan which won him fame (Ibn Nuqṭa, 1988: 121).It was only in the late fifth/eleventh century, however, that Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan became widely recognized. As the great historian of Damascus Ibn ‘Asâkir (d. 571/1176) noted, it was the scholar Abû al-Faḍl Muḥammad b. Ṭâhir al-Maqdisî (d. 507/1113), who spent most of his life in Iran and greater Syria, who first denoted a Six Book canon that added the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah to the Ṣaḥîḥayn and the books of al-Tirmidhî, al-Nasâ’î and Abû Dâwûd (Ibn Ḥajar, 1994: 166).1 Our historian of Qazvin, al-Râfi‘î, also enumerates this six-book series, as does the Indian Ḥanafî al-Ṣaghânî (d. 650/1252), who also adds the Sunan of al-Dâraquṭnî. Al-Râfi‘î’s father, Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Karîm al-Râfi‘î (d. 580/1184) had earlier written a digest ḥadîth collection called Ḥâwî al-uṣûl min akhbâr al-rasûl, which included the contents from the collections of al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Tirmidhî, Abû Dâwûd, al-Nasâ’î, and Ibn Mâjah, as well as the Musnad of al-Shâfi‘î (d. 204/820) (al-Râfi‘î, 1987: 1:377; 2:49; al-Ṣaghânî, 1985: 20).
12It was the Six Book canon that became the standard unit for analysis after the sixth/twelfth century. ‘Abd al-Ghanî al-Maqdisî (d. 600/1203) chose this as the subject of his biographical dictionary al-Kamâl fî ma‘rifat asmâ’ al-rijâl, which identified and rated all the ḥadîth transmitters used in these works. The Kamâl subsequently became the basis for the later mainstay ḥadîth transmitter dictionaries, such as Jamâl al-Dîn al-Mizzî’s (d. 742/1341) Tahdhîb al-kamâl and Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalânî’s (d. 852/1449) refinement of the work, the Tahdhîb al-tahdhîb.
13Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan attracted a certain amount of focused scholarly attention. The Mamluk-era Ḥanafî jurist ‘Alâ’ al-Dîn Mughulṭây (d. 762/1361) penned the first sharḥ on the book that I know of (al-I‘lâm bi-sunnatihi ‘alayhi al-salâm sharḥ Sunan Ibn Mâjah al-imâm) (Mughulṭây, 2007). Later, the famous revivalist of the Hejaz, Muḥammad Ḥayât al-Sindî (d. 1750 CE), wrote a less formal marginal commentary (ḥâshiya) on it as well (Ibn Mâjah, 1896) and an Indian ḥadîth scholar composed a commentary in the late nineteenth century (Ishaq, 1955: 146).
14As earlier scholars had done with the other books of the ḥadîth canon, Abû al-Faḍl al-Maqdisî builds a case for including Ibn Mâjah’s work on the basis of its reliability. He refers the reader to the vaunted Sunni ḥadîth critic Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî (d. 264/878). He writes:
I saw [written] in an old book in Rayy a story written by Abû Ḥâtim al-Ḥâfiẓ, known as Khâmûsh, that Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî said, “I looked through the book of Abû ‘Abdallâh Ibn Mâjah and did not find in it except a small amount [of ḥadîths] (qadran yasîran) that had something [problematic] with it (fîmâ fîhi shay’).” And he mentioned ten or so ḥadîths along those lines (Ibn Nuqṭa, 1988: 120).
15Although this does not appear in his treatise on the requirements used by the authors of the Six Books (Shurûṭ al-a’imma al-sitta), al-Maqdisî is reported as claiming elsewhere:
And by my life, indeed the book of Abû ‘Abdallâh Ibn Mâjah, whoever looks in it knows that man’s virtue (maziyya) in his [book’s] good ordering, plentiful chapters and the small number of repeated ḥadîths. And there are not in the book many ḥadîths with long isnâds (nawâzil), broken isnâds (maqâṭî‘), incomplete isnâds to the Prophet (marâsîl) or ḥadîths narrated by impugned transmitters, except for the small number indicated by Abû Zur‘a (Ibn Nuqṭa, 1988: 120).
16But if, as al-Maqdisî argues, the value and virtues of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan are so manifest, why did the book take so long to earn a place in the ḥadîth canon?
17To a large extent, Ibn Mâjah existed outside of the network of scholars who produced and acclaimed the other Six Books. The canonical books of al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Tirmidhî, Abû Dâwûd and al-Nasâ’î all formed part of a single and tightly-knit universe. The scholars who produced them not only worked within an interconnected web of student/teacher relationships, they all also belonged to the nascent ahl al-sunna wa al-jamâ‘a movement. Muslim and al-Tirmidhî studied extensively with al-Bukhârî and saw him as their primary mentor. Al-Tirmidhî also studied ḥadîths with Muslim and Abû Dâwûd. All these figures either studied directly with, or relied on as sources of ḥadîths, two leading lights of the early Sunni movement: Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 241/855) and Isḥâq b. Râhawayh (d. 238/853). Abû Dâwûd, al-Nasâ’î and al-Tirmidhî all studied with leading Sunnis such as Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî and (except or Abû Dâwûd) Ibrâhîm al-Jûzajânî (d. 259/873). Al-Nasâ’î studied with Abû Dâwûd as well as (according to some) al-Bukhârî (Brown, 2007: 55, 96; al-Baghdâdî, 1997: 9:56 ff.).
- 2 Al-Khalîlî states that Ibn Mâjah did hear from Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî, but I have found no evidence of (...)
- 3 The editor adds 356 other transmitters not included in a missing part of the manuscript of the boo (...)
18Ibn Mâjah, however, proved far more isolated and foreign to this network. The two scholars who served as his most prolific sources of ḥadîths in the Sunan were indeed noted Sunnis: Abû Bakr b. Abî Shayba (d. 235/849) and the hub of ḥadîth study in Qazvin, ‘Alî b. Muḥammad al-Ṭanâfisî (d. 233/847-8). Otherwise, however, Ibn Mâjah was not as well integrated into the same Sunni ḥadîth network as the authors of the other Six Books. He never mentions hearing from or studying with Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî2 or al-Jûzajânî, and his Sunan is the only one of the Six Books never to draw on Isḥâq b. Râhawayh. He never mentions al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Tirmidhî or Abû Dâwûd. In his famous Ṣaḥîḥ, al-Bukhârî used only approximately 430 transmitters that Muslim did not. Muslim’s Ṣaḥîḥ used about 620 that al-Bukhârî excluded (Brown, 2007: 84). In a work on Ibn Mâjah’s transmitters, on the other hand, Shams al-Dîn al-Dhahabî (d. 748/1348) finds an amazing 1,939 transmitters who were used by Ibn Mâjah in his Sunan but not by al-Bukhârî and/or Muslim in the Ṣaḥîḥayn (Al-Dhahabî, 1988).3
- 4 In his study of the transmission of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan, James Robson notes the relatively restricte (...)
19Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan inherited the outsider status of its author.4 Both Ibn Mâjah and his book were totally unknown outside of Qazvin until the late fifth/eleventh century. Al-Khaṭîb al-Baghdâdî includes no biography of Ibn Mâjah and never mentions his Sunan in the Târîkh Baghdâd or any of his other ḥadîth works. Our first biographical mentions of Ibn Mâjah come, with no surprise, from a fellow Qazvînî: Abû Ya‘lâ al-Khalîl b. ‘Abdallâh al-Khalîlî. (d. 446/1054). In his biographical dictionary of ḥadîth scholars, al-Irshâd fî ma‘rifat ‘ulamâ’ al-ḥadîth, al-Khalîlî cites Ibn Mâjah as an authority on ḥadîth transmitter criticism (interestingly al-Khaṭîb corresponded with al-Khalîlî, but this evidently did not touch upon Ibn Mâjah) (Al-Khalîlî, 1993: 179; al-Baghdâdî, 1997: 13:440). Pride in Ibn Mâjah in Qazvîn was enduring. Writing in the early seventh/thirteenth century, al-Râfi‘î still feels it worthy of note that there was a copy of the Sunan in the waqf of the Dâr al-Kutub in the city (al-Râfi‘î, 1987: 3:326). So prominent was Ibn Mâjah’s legacy in his native city that al-Râfi‘î also pauses to note a great nephew of Ibn Mâjah in one biography in his history (al-Râfi‘î, 1987: 3:328-9).
20In his paeans to the Sunan, al-Maqdisî admits its highly localized appeal:
And this book, even if it has not become widespread among the majority of jurists, indeed it has in Rayy and its environs in the Jabal and Qûhistân, and Mâzandarân and Ṭabâristân, a great reputation (sha’n ‘aẓîm). It is relied on there, and it has many transmissions. The Târîkh Qazwîn [of al-Khalîlî?] contains mentions of this book that would make even an ignorant person know its value and status (Ibn Nuqṭa, 1988: 120).
21The isolation of the Sunan had improved little even decades after al-Maqdisî began promoting the book. In Ibn al-Jawzî’s (d. 597/1201) history of the central Islamic lands in the late sixth/twelfth century, the Muntaẓam, we find only a brief biography for Ibn Mâjah noting that he wrote a Sunan amongst his other works (Ibn al-Jawzî, 1992: 12:258). The Muntaẓam reveals how minor Ibn Mâjah was in comparison with other canonical ḥadîth authors. ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdallâh al-Karkukhî (d. 548/1154), who came to Baghdad from Herat, receives more attention from Ibn al-Jawzî than Ibn Mâjah. His only hallmark was that he earned his living making copies of al-Tirmidhî’s Jâmi‘, which he had heard transmitted (Ibn al-Jawzî, 1992: 18:92-3).
22In the first decades of the seventh/thirteenth century we see that Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan was gaining increased acceptance as part of the ḥadîth canon. Part of this acceptance was the construction of a canonical culture around the book that celebrated its reliability as a representation of the Prophet’s Sunna. In his biographical dictionary of those scholars who had transmitted major ḥadîth collections after they were written, Abû Bakr Ibn Nuqṭa (d. 629/1231) of Baghdad builds on Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî’s supposed praise for Ibn Mâjah. “It should suffice you (ḥasbuka) that a book be shown to Abû Zur‘a and that he say something like that after looking at it and evaluating it” (Ibn Nuqṭa, 1988: 120). The original accolades reported by al-Maqdisî became more dramatic in later sources. In his biography of Ibn Mâjah in the Siyar a‘lâm al-nubalâ’, al-Dhahabî reports an addition to the encounter with Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî: the great critic adds that this Sunan would obviate many existing books and that there were only thirty or so ḥadîths in it with any weakness in them (Al-Dhahabî, 1998, Siyar: 278). In al-Râfi‘î’s relatively lengthy biography of Ibn Mâjah in his history of Qazvin, Abû Zur‘a only disapproves of three ḥadîths (al-Râfi‘î, 1987: 2: 49-53).
23 Alone among the Six Books, however, Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan has consistently attracted prominent critics of its reliability. Many noted ḥadîth scholars omitted the work altogether from their canonical lists, limiting the selection to Five Books. Al-Silafî, Abû Bakr al-Ḥâzimî (d. 584/1188-9) and al-Nawawî of Damascus (d. 676/1277) mention only Five Books: the works of al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Tirmidhî, Abû Dâwûd and al-Nasâ’î (although al-Silafî notes that these are the works Muslims have agreed on after the Muwaṭṭa’) (al-Silafî, 1981: 4:357-8; al-Nawawī, 1968: 4; al-Ḥâzimî, 2006).
24Explicit criticisms have not been rare. In his criticism of heretical innovations that he observed among the Muslims in Syria, Abû Shâma al-Maqdisî (d. 665/1268) states that the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah is a source of the weak ḥadîths used to justify them. “There are in the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah a number of weak and forged ḥadîths such as the one mentioned on the virtues of Qazwîn,” he remarks (Abû Shâma, 1978: 101).
- 5 The Thesaurus Islamicus edition of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan includes 4,485 ḥadîths. Musfir b. Gharam Allâ (...)
- 6 Ibn al-Ṣalâḥ included both Ibn Mâjah’s and al-Dârimî’s Sunans as ṣaḥîḥ books in an expanded work o (...)
25Al-Dhahabî states that Ibn Mâjah was a great ḥadîth scholar (ḥâfiẓ) but that “what detracted from the standing of his Sunan was the unacceptable (munkar) ḥadîths it contains as well as the few clearly forged ones.” Al-Dhahabî frankly doubts the reliability of the story of Abû Zur‘a positively evaluating the book and disbelieves the statement that it contains only thirty or so problematic ḥadîths. Even if Abû Zur‘a truly said that, al-Dhahabî argues, then he must have meant only those ḥadîths that are clearly, indisputably forged. As for ḥadîths that suffer from other flaws, such as ḥadîths that are too weak to be used as proof in legal discussions, then there may be as many as 1,000 in the book – what al-Dhahabî considered to be a quarter of the Sunan’s contents (Al-Dhahabî, 1998 Siyar: 13:279)!5 Another Mamluk-era ḥadîth scholar, Ṣalâḥ al-Dîn Khalîl al-‘Alâ’î (d. 761/1359), even promoted another ḥadîth collection above Ibn Mâjah’s book as the sixth book of the canon. He contended that, even if the Sunan of ‘Abdallâh al-Dârimî (d. 255/869) contains non-Prophetic ḥadîths and sometimes ḥadîths with incomplete isnâds (mursal), its contents are still better verified and less contested than Ibn Mâjah’s. With such advantages over Ibn Mâjah’s book, al-‘Alâ’î argued, al-Dârimî’s Sunan is thus “more fitting than it” (al-Sakhâwî, 2003: 1:115).6
26Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalânî is even more doubtful than al-Dhahabî about Abû Zur‘a’s statement praising Ibn Mâjah. He states that the story is inauthentic due to a break in the transmission of the report. It is Ibn Mâjah’s book that it brings up the tail of the canon, Ibn Ḥajar explains, “because he alone includes ḥadîths from transmitters accused of lying and rigging ḥadîths with other isnâds (sariqat al-aḥâdîth).” “And some of these ḥadîths,” Ibn Ḥajar continues, “are only known of via these transmitters, like Ḥabîb b. Abî Ḥabîb the secretary of Mâlik, and al-‘Alâ’ b. Zaydal...” (Ibn Ḥajar, 1994: 165-66).
27Ibn Ḥajar’s senior student Shams al-Dîn al-Sakhâwî (d. 902/1497) elaborates on his teacher’s criticisms. Of the Six Books, al-Sakhâwî singles out Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan as the book with which one has to exercise extreme caution when using. If one is not qualified to evaluate the reliability of each ḥadîth in the book or if one can find no qualified scholar who has ruled on that ḥadîth, “then one should not attempt to use [that ḥadîth] as proof, or he will be like a wood collector at night (i.e., not know what he is gathering), and he may use a false ḥadîth as proof without knowing it” (Al-Sakhâwî, 2003: 1:118).
28Criticisms of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan have continued in the modern period from a variety of camps. The leading Salafî ḥadîṭh scholar of the twentieth century, Muḥammad Nâṣir al-Dîn al-Albânî (d. 1999), states that Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan includes forged ḥadîths (al-Albânî, 2001: 130). One of his prominent students, the Saudi ‘Abdallâh al-Sa‘d, echoes this. He explains that ḥadîths found in Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan and not in the other Six Books are often weak (al-Sa‘d). The late Ottoman scholar Muḥammad Zâhid al-Kawtharî (d. 1952), a rabid opponent of Salafism, agrees with his opponents on this count. He states, “It is well known that Sunan Ibn Mâjah has ḥadîths in it that cannot be used as proof” (al-Kawtharî, 1994: 131). Another modern opponent of Salafism, the Moroccan ḥadîth scholar Aḥmad al-Ghumârî (d. 1960), also notes that a significant number of Ibn Mâjah’s sources are known liars or forgers (al-Ghumârî, 1996: 1:119).
29Such criticisms are severe indictments from leading lights in the Sunni ḥadîth tradition. None of the other Six Books has attracted anything close to such consistently negative evaluation from Sunni scholars. Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan, however, had been accepted as a mainstay ḥadîth collection ostensibly because of its “soundness” as a representation of the Prophet’s Sunna. How then do we explain the canonical status of the work?
30Muslim ḥadîth scholars provided their own explanations. Ibn Ḥajar explains that:
Ibn Ṭâhir [al-Maqdisî] and those who followed him turned away from counting the Muwaṭṭa’ [as part of the canon] in favor of the Ibn Mâjah [’s Sunan] only because the Prophetic ḥadîths that the Muwaṭṭa’ adds to the Five Books are very few – as opposed to Ibn Mâjah, for indeed its additions are many times the number of the Muwaṭṭa’. So they sought by adding the book of Ibn Mâjah to the Five Books to increase the number of Prophetic ḥadîths. And God knows best (Ibn Ḥajar, 1994: 166).
31Al-Sakhâwî seconds his teacher, saying that “they put it [the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah] before the Muwatta’ due to the large number of ḥadîths that it added to the Five Books as opposed to the Muwaṭṭa’” (al-Sakhâwî, 2003: 1:115).
32This is certainly accurate by my count. The Muwaṭṭa’ contains 180 Prophetic ḥadîths (out of 1,861 reports in the 2000 Thesaurus Islamic Foundation edition) that are not contained in the other Six Books (178 if one excludes Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan in that group). By comparison, according to al-Bûṣîrî’s (d. 840/1436) compilation Miṣbâḥ al-zujâja fî zawâ’id Sunan Ibn Mâjah, the Sunan includes a much greater number, 1,552 ḥadîths, not found in the other Six Books.
- 7 Ibn Diḥya (d. 633/1235) states that Ibn Ḥanbal never intended his Musnad to be used as an unquesti (...)
33Beginning with al-Ḥâkim al-Naysâbûrî (d. 405/1014), Sunni scholars have exhibited consistent concern over increasing the number of Prophetic ḥadîths considered admissible in scholarly discourse. The desire to increase the range of ḥadîths scholars could draw on was a natural byproduct of the Islamic scholarly tradition. If scholarly arguments ultimately rested on evidence from the Qur’ân and Sunna, the need for more and more proof texts would grow as scholarly arguments and positions multiplied through the centuries. In his voluminous Mustadrak, al-Ḥâkim argued that claims that al-Bukhârî’s and Muslim’s Ṣaḥîḥs had exhausted the authentic ḥadîths in circulation were absurd. In response, he packed his Mustadrak with approximately 8,800 ḥadîths that he claimed met the standards of authenticity established by the two revered scholars (Brown, 2007: 155 ff; 2009: 42). The Musnad of Ibn Ḥanbal had long been acknowledged as containing many weak and even forged ḥadîths – even by adherents of the Ḥanbalî school of law (Ibn Taymiyya: 1:189-90).7 Yet the seminal Sunni scholar al-Suyûṭî (d.911/1505) claimed that everything in the collection was “accepted (maqbûl)” in scholarly discourse (al-Suyûṭî, 1970: 1:3).
34With its wide range of ḥadîths not found in the other Six Books, Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan provided a great marginal benefit to Muslim scholars. When Ibn al-Ṣalâḥ (d. 643/1245) needed evidence to support the validity of a controversial supererogatory prayer known as Ṣalât al-Raghâ’ib, which first was practiced in Jerusalem in the fifth/eleventh century, he turned to Ibn Mâjah (Ibn ‘Abd al-Salâm, 2002: 54). For modern debates over whether or not Muslim women can lead mixed congregations in prayer, Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan is the only source of a ḥadîth prohibiting it (Ibn Ḥajar, 2008: 173).
35Although the explanation for the inclusion of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan in the Sunni ḥadîth canon may lie in the added utility it provided, Muslim scholars could not rely on utility as an argument to justify canonicity. Ibn Ḥajar’s and al-Sakhâwî’s observations about the number of ḥadîths that Ibn Mâjah added to the canon were insightful ex post facto explanations, not justifications. As we have seen with al-Maqdisî’s and Ibn Nuqṭa’s arguments for the value and canonicity of the Sunan, it was the paramount value of authenticity that held the key to admission into the canon. That later recensions of Abû Zur‘a’s accolades for the book feature the number of ḥadîths that he found problematic reduced from thirty to three demonstrates how the canonical culture surrounding the Sunan morphed to maximize the book’s claims to authenticity.
36Yet the criticisms of al-Dhahabî, Ibn Ḥajar and modern Muslim ḥadîth scholars also demonstrate how tenuous the claims about the authenticity of the Sunan’s contents have always been. As the medieval Muslim analysts’ observations about the marginal ‘value added’ of the Sunan suggest, the intellectual community who canonized Ibn Mâjah prized authenticity but required utility. The Sunan’s canonical status exists in the charitable and dissonant space that Muslim scholars permitted to achieve the latter at the cost of the former.