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The Canonization of Ibn Mâjah: Authenticity vs. Utility in the Formation of the Sunni adîth Canon

La canonisation d’Ibn Mâjah : authenticité vs. utilité dans la formation du canon du adîth sunnite
Jonathan AC Brown
p. 169-181


Dans l’Islam sunnite, l’autorité doctrinale des « Six Livres » canoniques de hadith repose sur le consensus savant affirmant qu’ils offrent une image fiable de la Sunna du Prophète. Un de ces Six Livres, le Sunan d’Ibn Majah, présente toutefois une étonnante exception. Bien qu’il ait été considéré comme l’un de ces Six Livres depuis la fin du xie siècle, il a été en permanence sévèrement critiqué par les savants sunnites en raison du grand nombre de hadith non fiables qu’il renferme. Comprendre le statut canonique du Sunan d’Ibn Majah en dépit de ces critiques, implique donc de reconnaître que le canon du hadith n’était pas seulement basé sur l’authenticité, mais aussi sur la notion d’utilité. Les Six Livres ont pour fonction de limiter le nombre infini de hadith en circulation, et le Sunan d’Ibn Majah ajoutait à ce corpus un nombre utile de hadiths absents des autres ouvrages canoniques. Les savants sunnites admettent d’ailleurs que, dans le cas du Sunan d’Ibn Majah, l’utilité l’emporta sur l’authenticité dans le canon sunnite.

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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 adîths and sayings of early Muslims that shower the northern Iranian town with accolades. One such adîth 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 (râbaa) 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 adîths 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 adîth by stating that the report appeared in the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah (d. 273/887), a book that “the adîth masters have associated (yuqarrinûn) with the aîayn [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 adîth. 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-iâ).” 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 iâ 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 adîth canon, the famous aîayn 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 adîth canon stem from one of the chief functions of the canon: delimiting some selection of adîths, 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 adîth 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 adîth.

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: Muammad 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 adîth 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 (iḥḥa), right guidance and absolute submission to the transmitted revelatory teachings of Muammad and his early community permeate Sunni historical formation and identification.

6Examining the canonical collections of Sunni adîth, however, we find that authenticity was not a consistent priority. The canonization of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan illustrates that the adîth canon was formed in part for reasons other than textual authenticity as defined by Sunni adîth criticism. Although advocates of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan lauded its author for his selectivity and critical rigor, luminaries of the Sunni adîth 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 adîth, the book was admitted into the canon not because of its reliability but because it vastly expanded the number of useful adîths in the canonical body.

Odd Man Out: Ibn Mâjah and the adîth Canon

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 Muammad b. Isâq 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 adîths in circulation (Al-Bayhaqî, 1991: 1:106). The great systematizer of the Sunni adîth sciences, al-Khaîb al-Baghdâdî (d. 463/1071), recommended the following as the first steps in his adîth 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 azm’s (d. 456/1064) listing of the best collections of reports from the Prophet and the early Muslim community (Ibn azm was famously ignorant of al-Tirmidhî’s Jâmi‘) (al-Dhahabî, 1998: 3:231). The Andalusian Mâlikî adîth scholar, Ibn Razîn al-Saraqusî (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 azm, he did not note al-Tirmidhî’s Jâmi‘.

9The perceived authenticity and soundness - iḥḥa - of the adîths 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 aîs (aîayn).’ As the influential Shâfi‘î/Ash‘arî jurist and adîth scholar Abû Isâq al-Isfarâyînî (d. 418/1027) stated:

The authenticity of the reports in the aîayn is epistemologically certain in terms of their texts (uûlihâ 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 iḥḥa extended to other components of the adîth canon as well. The leading adîth scholar of Baghdad, Abû al-asan al-Dâraqunî (d. 385/995), dubbed al-Nasâ’î’s Sunan a “aî,” and al-Khaîb referred to al-Tirmidhî’s book as “al-Jâmi‘ al-aî” (al-Khaîb, 1997: 5: 274; 11:396). Although never part of the Six Book adîth canon, Ibn Khuzayma’s collection was also referred to as his aî as well. The longevous adîth scholar Abû âhir 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-all wa al-‘aqd) from amongst the jurists and adîth masters have accepted, ruling that the basic reports (uûl) in them are aî…” (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-arb) in al-Silafî’s opinion (Brown, 2007: 337).

  • 1  This was also noted by Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) and Muammad Zâhid al-Kawtharî (d. 1952) (Goldzih (...)

11Muammad 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 Nuqa, 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-Fal Muammad b. âhir 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 aîayn and the books of al-Tirmidhî, al-Nasâ’î and Abû Dâwûd (Ibn ajar, 1994: 166).1 Our historian of Qazvin, al-Râfi‘î, also enumerates this six-book series, as does the Indian anafî al-aghânî (d. 650/1252), who also adds the Sunan of al-Dâraqunî. Al-Râfi‘î’s father, Muammad b. ‘Abd al-Karîm al-Râfi‘î (d. 580/1184) had earlier written a digest adîth collection called âwî al-uûl 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-aghânî, 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 adîth transmitters used in these works. The Kamâl subsequently became the basis for the later mainstay adîth transmitter dictionaries, such as Jamâl al-Dîn al-Mizzî’s (d. 742/1341) Tahdhîb al-kamâl and Ibn ajar 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 anafî jurist ‘Alâ’ al-Dîn Mughulây (d. 762/1361) penned the first shar on the book that I know of (al-I‘lâm bi-sunnatihi ‘alayhi al-salâm shar Sunan Ibn Mâjah al-imâm) (Mughulây, 2007). Later, the famous revivalist of the Hejaz, Muammad ayât al-Sindî (d. 1750 CE), wrote a less formal marginal commentary (âshiya) on it as well (Ibn Mâjah, 1896) and an Indian adîth scholar composed a commentary in the late nineteenth century (Ishaq, 1955: 146).

14As earlier scholars had done with the other books of the adîth canon, Abû al-Fal 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 adîth 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 âtim al-âfi, 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 adîths] (qadran yasîran) that had something [problematic] with it (fîmâ fîhi shay’).” And he mentioned ten or so adîths along those lines (Ibn Nuqa, 1988: 120).

15Although this does not appear in his treatise on the requirements used by the authors of the Six Books (Shurû 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 adîths. And there are not in the book many adîths with long isnâds (nawâzil), broken isnâds (maqâî‘), incomplete isnâds to the Prophet (marâsîl) or adîths narrated by impugned transmitters, except for the small number indicated by Abû Zur‘a (Ibn Nuqa, 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 adîth 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 adîths with Muslim and Abû Dâwûd. All these figures either studied directly with, or relied on as sources of adîths, two leading lights of the early Sunni movement: Amad Ibn anbal (d. 241/855) and Isâq 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 adîths in the Sunan were indeed noted Sunnis: Abû Bakr b. Abî Shayba (d. 235/849) and the hub of adîth study in Qazvin, ‘Alî b. Muammad al-anâfisî (d. 233/847-8). Otherwise, however, Ibn Mâjah was not as well integrated into the same Sunni adîth 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 Isâq b. Râhawayh. He never mentions al-Bukhârî, Muslim, al-Tirmidhî or Abû Dâwûd. In his famous aî, al-Bukhârî used only approximately 430 transmitters that Muslim did not. Muslim’s aî 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 aîayn (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-Khaîb al-Baghdâdî includes no biography of Ibn Mâjah and never mentions his Sunan in the Târîkh Baghdâd or any of his other adîth 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 adîth scholars, al-Irshâd fî ma‘rifat ‘ulamâ’ al-adîth, al-Khalîlî cites Ibn Mâjah as an authority on adîth transmitter criticism (interestingly al-Khaîb 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 abâristân, a great reputation (sha’n ‘aîm). 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 Nuqa, 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 Muntaam, 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 Muntaam reveals how minor Ibn Mâjah was in comparison with other canonical adîth 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).

The Canonical Culture of Ibn Mâjah and its Discontents

22In the first decades of the seventh/thirteenth century we see that Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan was gaining increased acceptance as part of the adîth 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 adîth collections after they were written, Abû Bakr Ibn Nuqa (d. 629/1231) of Baghdad builds on Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî’s supposed praise for Ibn Mâjah. “It should suffice you (asbuka) that a book be shown to Abû Zur‘a and that he say something like that after looking at it and evaluating it” (Ibn Nuqa, 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 adîths 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 adîths (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 adîth scholars omitted the work altogether from their canonical lists, limiting the selection to Five Books. Al-Silafî, Abû Bakr al-âzimî (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-âzimî, 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 adîths used to justify them. “There are in the Sunan of Ibn Mâjah a number of weak and forged adîths 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 adîths. Musfir b. Gharam Allâ (...)
  • 6  Ibn al-alâ included both Ibn Mâjah’s and al-Dârimî’s Sunans as aî books in an expanded work o (...)

25Al-Dhahabî states that Ibn Mâjah was a great adîth scholar (âfi) but that “what detracted from the standing of his Sunan was the unacceptable (munkar) adîths 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 adîths. Even if Abû Zur‘a truly said that, al-Dhahabî argues, then he must have meant only those adîths that are clearly, indisputably forged. As for adîths that suffer from other flaws, such as adîths 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 adîth scholar, alâ al-Dîn Khalîl al-‘Alâ’î (d. 761/1359), even promoted another adîth 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 adîths and sometimes adîths 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 ajar 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 ajar explains, “because he alone includes adîths from transmitters accused of lying and rigging adîths with other isnâds (sariqat al-aâdîth).” “And some of these adîths,” Ibn ajar continues, “are only known of via these transmitters, like abîb b. Abî abîb the secretary of Mâlik, and al-‘Alâ’ b. Zaydal...” (Ibn ajar, 1994: 165-66).

27Ibn ajar’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 adîth in the book or if one can find no qualified scholar who has ruled on that adîth, “then one should not attempt to use [that adîth] 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 adîth 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 adîh scholar of the twentieth century, Muammad Nâir al-Dîn al-Albânî (d. 1999), states that Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan includes forged adîths (al-Albânî, 2001: 130). One of his prominent students, the Saudi ‘Abdallâh al-Sa‘d, echoes this. He explains that adîths found in Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan and not in the other Six Books are often weak (al-Sa‘d). The late Ottoman scholar Muammad 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 adîths in it that cannot be used as proof” (al-Kawtharî, 1994: 131). Another modern opponent of Salafism, the Moroccan adîth scholar Amad 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).

Synecdoche: the Key to Ibn Mâjah’s Canonization

29Such criticisms are severe indictments from leading lights in the Sunni adîth 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 adîth 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 adîth scholars provided their own explanations. Ibn ajar explains that:

Ibn âhir [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 adîths 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 adîths. And God knows best (Ibn ajar, 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 adîths 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 adîths (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-Bûîrî’s (d. 840/1436) compilation Mi al-zujâja fî zawâ’id Sunan Ibn Mâjah, the Sunan includes a much greater number, 1,552 adîths, not found in the other Six Books.

  • 7  Ibn Diya (d. 633/1235) states that Ibn anbal never intended his Musnad to be used as an unquesti (...)

33Beginning with al-âkim al-Naysâbûrî (d. 405/1014), Sunni scholars have exhibited consistent concern over increasing the number of Prophetic adîths considered admissible in scholarly discourse. The desire to increase the range of adîths 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-âkim argued that claims that al-Bukhârî’s and Muslim’s aîs had exhausted the authentic adîths in circulation were absurd. In response, he packed his Mustadrak with approximately 8,800 adîths that he claimed met the standards of authenticity established by the two revered scholars (Brown, 2007: 155 ff; 2009: 42). The Musnad of Ibn anbal had long been acknowledged as containing many weak and even forged adîths – even by adherents of the anbalî school of law (Ibn Taymiyya: 1:189-90).7 Yet the seminal Sunni scholar al-Suyûî (d.911/1505) claimed that everything in the collection was “accepted (maqbûl)” in scholarly discourse (al-Suyûî, 1970: 1:3).

34With its wide range of adîths not found in the other Six Books, Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan provided a great marginal benefit to Muslim scholars. When Ibn al-alâ (d. 643/1245) needed evidence to support the validity of a controversial supererogatory prayer known as alât 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 adîth prohibiting it (Ibn ajar, 2008: 173).


35Although the explanation for the inclusion of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan in the Sunni adîth canon may lie in the added utility it provided, Muslim scholars could not rely on utility as an argument to justify canonicity. Ibn ajar’s and al-Sakhâwî’s observations about the number of adîths 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 Nuqa’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 adîths 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 ajar and modern Muslim adîth 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.

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1  This was also noted by Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) and Muammad Zâhid al-Kawtharî (d. 1952) (Goldziher, 1971: 2: 241; al-Kawtharî, 1967: 7-8).

2  Al-Khalîlî states that Ibn Mâjah did hear from Abû Zur‘a al-Râzî, but I have found no evidence of this (al-Khalîlî, 1993: 227).

3  The editor adds 356 other transmitters not included in a missing part of the manuscript of the book.

4  In his study of the transmission of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan, James Robson notes the relatively restricted number of chains of transmission from the author. He suggests that the Sunan, “perhaps because it was so late in being accepted by the community at large, does not have variety of lines of transmission as the other five books.”; James Robson, “The Transmission of Ibn Majah’s “Sunan”” Journal of Semitic Studies 3, no. 2 (1958): 139. Here I argue the converse: it was, in part, the isolated transmission of the book that prevented it from becoming better known.

5  The Thesaurus Islamicus edition of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan includes 4,485 adîths. Musfir b. Gharam Allâh al-Dumaynî has produced the Ziyâdât Abî al-asan al-Qaṭṭân ‘alâ Sunan Ibn Mâjah (Riyadh: Author, 1412/1991), which collects added narrations that were in the recension of Ibn Mâjah’s Sunan from al-Qaṭṭân, his main acolyte.

6  Ibn al-alâ included both Ibn Mâjah’s and al-Dârimî’s Sunans as aî books in an expanded work on the canon, which included all the unique adîths found in each of the “Seven Books” (Ibn al-alâ, 2006).

7  Ibn Diya (d. 633/1235) states that Ibn anbal never intended his Musnad to be used as an unquestioned source of proof texts, since “it is not permitted to use most of its adîths as proof” (Ibn Diya, 1998: 147).

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Jonathan AC Brown, « The Canonization of Ibn Mâjah: Authenticity vs. Utility in the Formation of the Sunni adîth Canon », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 129 | juillet 2011, mis en ligne le 05 janvier 2012, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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