With the death of the Prophet, Ḥadith attained a semi-formal status. The main purpose of Ḥadith, as mode of Sunnahic transmission, was, according to Rahman, for practical reasons “as something, which could be generated and be elaborated into the practice of the community”. Its random writing down marked the development of Ḥadith during this period of time in simple notebooks usually referred to as ṣaḥīfa/ṣuḥuf.71 Nonetheless, judging by their own involvement in making decisions based upon them, the importance given to Ḥadith at the time of the Caliphs was not great. Juynboll asserts that:
It is safe to say that Abu Bakr, the ﬁrst caliph, cannot be identiﬁed with Ḥadith in any extensive way. This may show that during his reign examples set by the prophet or his followers did not play a decisive role in Abu Bakr’s decision making. With regards to second Caliph’s [Umar] use of word Sunnah ‘the term is usually use to mean: the normative behaviour of a good Muslim in the widest sense of the word’ [rather than a Ḥadith]. In case of the Uthman’s [third Caliph] view of Ḥadith in conducting of community’s aﬀairs Uthman seems to have relied solely on his judgement.
From all the diﬀerent sources74 on which the juristic decisions of Ibn Abbas’s (d. 68) disciples such as Ata b. Abi Rabah were based, only a small number of Prophetic Ḥadith were used.75 By the same token, the importance given to Ḥadith during the entire period of the Umayyad Caliphate (ending in 132 AH/750 CE) was ‘a marginal phenomenon’.
The early religious epistles studied by Van Ess and Cook, suggest that the term Sunnah “has nothing to do with Ḥadith” and that in them Ḥadith are rarely, if at all, cited but that this “lack of Ḥadith did not betray any hostility towards the notion of Sunnah”. Again, these statements must be understood in the context that the understanding of the word Sunnah at that time, as we demonstrated earlier, was ethico-religious in nature, permitting a large scope for exercising of one’s own judgement so that Ḥadith was “interpreted by the rulers [of that time] and the judges freely according to the situation at hand.”
An indication that practice-based, non-written Sunnah was considered superior to that of Ḥadith is found in the chapter of Iyad’s book entitled On What Has Been Related from the First Community and the Men of Knowledge Regarding the obligation of Going Back to the Practice (ʿamal) of the People of Medina, and Its Being a Conclusive Proof (hujja) in Their Opinion, even if it is Contrary to Ḥadith (al-athar).” Elsewhere Iyad notes that Umar Ibn al-Khattab [second caliph] once said on the mimbar (pulpit), “By Allah, I will make things diﬃcult for any man who relates a Ḥadith which is contrary to ʿamal.” Another factor which leads us to conclude that Ḥadith literature did not enjoy a great deal of importance in legal matters, and that it was quite restricted in scope in the ﬁrst century, is the fact that the nature of legal literature from that period deals overwhelmingly with issues that the Qurʾān addresses directly such as inheritance, marriage and divorce, injury and compensation, rather than those aspects of the Prophet’s life that were not directly alluded to by the Qurʾān. J. van Ess’ examination of ﬁrst century Muslim literature led him to conclude that the use of Ḥadith and their importance in these works was practically non-existent.
The earliest indications that Ḥadith literature was spreading are the stories about the faḍ̣āʾil (merit) of the Companions which are likely to have originated during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, that is during the ﬁrst two years after the Prophet’s death giving rise to what can be termed as politically motivated Sunnah. Another genre of early Ḥadith literature is the awāʾil/anecdotes of the quṣṣās (preachers) originating at about 40 AH. The subject matter of these Ḥadith/stories predominantly dealt with ediﬁcation of the Prophet and the ﬁrst generation Muslims termed tarhīb wa targhīb. Another early genre of written literature to emerge was that of rudimentary tafsīr which was, however, not recorded during the Prophet’s time. The ḥalāl–ḥarām genre of Ḥadith (i.e. those which have a legal value) “must have been extremely limited in scope and were mainly the products of individual judgement on the part of the ﬁrst legal minds Islam produced.”
In terms of isnād development, the second element in the ‘authentic Ḥadith’ equation, is only towards the end of the period under examination (70 AH) that the ﬁrst consistent usage of isnād was put into practice. Modes of transmission were both oral and written in nature and included reading from a Ḥadith book by a teacher to students (samāʿa), reading by students from books to teachers (ʿard/qirāʾa) and written correspondence (wasīyah). Towards the end of this period, coinciding with the establishment of regional schools of thought and regional Sunnah, most of the Ḥadith were regional in character, having regional isnāds based on the Companion’s interpretation of Prophetic Sunnah. The isnād of Ḥadith stopped at the level of the Companions (or Successors) supporting the broader principle of the schools’ general concept that Companions were in the best position to internalise and be living proponents of Prophetic Sunnah. This was reﬂected in their overall Sunnahic hermeneutic we referred to elsewhere as as-sunnah al-maʾrufa and/or regional Sunnah.
taken from this article (free PDF)