Does Sheer Quantity of Hadith on a Subject Indicate Its Importance?

The following is an expanded transcript from advance lessons on Expediency (al-maṣlaḥa) and Purposes of Islamic Law (al-maqāṣid al-sharʿīyyah) being delivered by Shaykh Ḥaider Ḥobbollah in Qom. An article comparing the views of Imām Ṭufī and Imām Khomeynī from the same class was posted a few weeks ago.

In lesson 67 (January 6th, 2019) and 68 (January 7th), while discussing the various elements one can resort to in order to prefer one action over another in case of conflict (tazāḥum), the element of quantity was brought up. The notion of tazāḥum refers to a situation when an individual is presented with two independent duties, where performing one of them necessarily implies the violation of the other. As an example, an individual may have an obligation to save a person drowning and this obligation is rooted in a great benefit. However, what if this person encountered a situation where two people were drowning at the same time and saving one of them would necessarily lead to the death of the other? The obligation to save each drowning person was rooted in expediency and has benefit, however, in terms of carrying the act out, the person responsible is only able to save one of them. What elements can be relied upon in such a scenario to suggest which duty a person must carry out at the expense of the other? Extensive discussion is done on this topic in legal theory and on the various elements that could be used to prioritize one responsibility over another.

In light of the context given above, the discussion in class began looking at elements that can be derived from religious texts themselves. Some qualitative elements include things like: acts that have a lot of reward or chastisement for them in the hereafter, acts that are described as the pillars of religion, acts that have chastisements for them in this world, and so on. Each of these was discussed and commented upon.

Amongst quantitative elements for preferring one act over another in cases of conflict is the idea that if a certain act has more traditions in the ḥadīth corpus than the other act, then it implies the importance and prioritization of the former. This post sheds some light on this specific element of sheer quantity as an indicator of prioritization in cases of conflict.

Amongst the various factors that can be used to emphasize the importance and severity of a subject matter is the quantity of its appearance in religious texts. For example, one can very easily claim that tawḥīd is the most important concept within the religion of Islam because of its extensive appearance in both the verses of the Qurān and as well as the ḥadīth literature.

However, at times one finds themselves in a scenario with two seemingly important actions, but where only one of them can be performed at the expense of violating the other. For example, one may find themselves stuck between an obligation to help a blind person cross the road, with the prohibition of having to trespass over someone’s property. In such a scenario, imagine there were dozens and dozens of reports or verses indicating the prohibition of trespassing over someone’s property which relayed the general perception that maintaining the sanctity of people’s property is of utmost importance in Islam. On the contrary one may find just one or two traditions speaking about the obligation of helping the blind.

In such a conflicting scenario, would it be enough for one to say that in Islam, the prohibition of trespassing is more significant and severe than the obligation of helping a blind person cross the street and hence in the case of conflict, the former should be given priority over helping the blind? On the mere basis of quantity, it would initially appear to be the case.

Though, on further deliberation, it appears that mere quantity should not be enough to conclude the prioritization of one thing over another. This is because, though at times the number of traditions could definitely be due to the importance of the subject matter, like in the case of Tawḥīd, but at other times we realize that the quantity was rooted in other factors. Shahīd Ṣadr hence mentions a number of reasons, other than the significance of the subject matter, that could have led to the number of traditions being a great amount.1 His reasons can be explained as follows:

a) At times we see that a subject matter was something commonly faced by society. For example, we find hundreds of traditions speaking about the laws of purification and impurities. This is a subject that people faced on a daily basis, every single day of their lives. So, the mere nature of the subject could lead to there being many reports on it, because people would be discussing and asking the Imams (a) about these details all the time.

b) Due to the political and societal context the Prophet or Imams were in, one could find them publicly and openly speaking about certain mainstream topics regularly. Whereas the more important and significant topics, which would often be against what mainstream Muslims believed in, would have to be spoken about in private gatherings or shared only with the most trustworthy of their followers.

For example, it was very easy and non-problematic to speak about the laws of Ḥajj, something other scholars of the time would also be speaking about and teaching their students. This would naturally result in many more individuals hearing the Imams and then narrating on their authority, resulting in a high quantity of traditions. Whereas, when it comes to a topic such as establishing the basis of Imāmah and Wilāyah, a subject much more significant than Ḥajj as per Shīʿī theology and traditions, we find that the Imams were intentionally speaking about it in smaller gatherings or with people who they would trust. In addition, they would even tell some of their companions to not tell others about the matter due to serious repercussions. A situation like this may have naturally led to there being more traditions on Ḥajj as opposed to a topic like Imāmah.

c) At times, the nature of the subject matter is such that it could have easily been forgotten, or that the followers may have easily become heedless of it. That being the case, in order to reemphasize and remind people about a topic, the Imams would have to speak about it much more than some other topic which would be more important and hence difficult to forget about.

As an example, we find numerous traditions in Shīʿī books talking about temporary marriage (mutʿah) and the rewards for engaging in it, the reward one gets for performing the ritual shower (ghusl) of janābah acquired in a temporary marriage and so on. In fact, quantity wise, one may conclude that there are perhaps more traditions emphasizing the performance of temporary marriage than permanent marriage itself. However, given the prohibition of temporary marriage amongst mainstream Muslims and it being considered a societal taboo, it would have led to the complete abandoning of temporary marriage in practice, something legislated and allowed by the Prophet (p), only to have been later outlawed by the caliph. In order to ensure that the Shīʿa did not abandon this practice nor succumb to the pressures of societal taboos and become heedless of something permitted by the Prophet (p), the Imams may have had to speak about it a lot and to encourage it quite often, even more so than permanent marriage. Permanent marriage being a norm would have had no additional reason to be encouraged, since it was something established, and its importance was recognized by the Muslims.

d) At times the quantity of traditions can be traced back to a certain event, or a specific topic of debate that may have been taking place during a certain period. Hence, it was natural for different individuals to come and ask Imams questions on some very specific topic over and over again.

As an example, during the ʿAbbāsid dynasty, a lot of new theological questions were arising. These questions concerned Allah (swt) and His attributes, the nature of His (swt) speech, whether one could see Him (swt) in the hereafter and so on. Some of these topics resulted in heated debates, even leading to the political imprisonment and deaths of some scholars and their followers. In such a case, it was very normal for different individuals to come and ask the Imams about their views and their reasoning on these matters. As it is clear, this would not necessarily indicate the subject matter in and of itself is more significant than some other topic that was not being hotly debated.

Given these factors, when one is stuck in a conflicting situation between two actions, one cannot say that the sheer quantity of traditions on a subject is enough to prove its significance and hence should be preferred. If we establish that some or all of the aforementioned elements exist, then all we can really say is that it is probable that the subject which has more traditions could be more significant than the other subject with just a few traditions, but we will not be able to prove anything conclusively.

This is also presuming we have no knowledge that certain elements could have prevented the narrating of a greater quantity of a subject matter which we currently have fewer reports on. If we happen to have knowledge that we would have had more quantity of traditions for another subject if there were no obstacles or barriers for the Imams to speak about them, then even the discussion on a subject with more traditions probably being more significant becomes problematic.

One factor that can be added to the list of Shahīd Ṣadr is the beliefs of the narrators and scholars themselves. In other words, if a narrator him or herself had a certain belief to begin with, they would have had a natural tendency to narrate traditions on a subject that would be in accordance with their beliefs. If they did not agree with a certain belief mentioned in a tradition, then they would naturally have less of a reason to narrate them in abundance.

For example, it is possible that an Imam may have spoken fifty times regarding two different subjects. However, since a narrator or scholar may have accepted the content of one of those subjects and not the other, one may find all fifty traditions on one of those subjects in their books, but only ten from the second subject the scholar did not agree with.

We find this happening in real life all the times, not just today, but even if we go back to earlier schools such as that of Qom or Baghdad. In Qom, during a certain period of time, certain influential scholars would exile those narrators who they believed were narrating traditions filled with exaggerations regarding the Imams. Although this period was not a very lengthy period, it is definitely an example of how beliefs of a certain group could allow or disallow the spread of certain narrations over another.

We find another example in Najāshī’s Rijāl work in the entry of Ibn al-Junayd. It is popularly said that Ibn al-Junayd believed in qiyās. There is a lot of discussion regarding whether this attribution is correct to begin with, and even if it was, what exactly did Ibn al-Junayd mean by qiyās – if it was indeed the same qiyās that was popularly used by Sunnī jurists. In any case, when Najāshī lists out the works of Ibn al-Junayd, there is a book he mentions2 called, ‘Kitāb Iẓhār ma Satarahu Ahl al-ʿInād min al-Riwāyah ʿan A’immah al-ʿItrah fī Amr al-Ijtihād’ roughly translated as, ‘The Book of Exposing that which the People of Stubbornness Concealed from the Narration of the Imams of the ʿItrah (Family of the Prophet) on the Matter of Ijtihād’.

While we do not have this book with us today, the title indicates it was a book of traditions from the Imams that a group of narrators and/or scholars had intentionally concealed, most surely due to their content being contrary to their own established views. The traditions would have been on the topic of ijtihād (a term which in those days primarily referred to the notion of speculative reasoning – qiyās – in deriving law and not to be confused with the definition of ijtihād as understood today). Today in Shīʿī works, there are a large number of traditions condemning ijtihād and qiyās in deriving law – something Akhbārī scholars centuries later relied heavily on in their arguments against the Mujtahids. While the impermissibility of qiyās has been the mainstream position amongst the Shīʿa, the title of Ibn al-Junayd’s book implies there were traditions that may have given us a very different perspective on the topic and may have also helped us understand Ibn al-Junayd’s own position on qiyās.

This practice of not citing certain traditions, be it due to previously established beliefs, or for other reasons was not uncommon. As another example, we see that when Shaykh Ṣadūq in his Kitāb al-Tawḥīd talks about the traditions on seeing Allah (swt), at one point he discusses the existence of certain traditions from the Imams that may apparently seem like they could be interpreted in a way other than how Ṣadūq interprets and understands them. He writes:

And the reports that have been transmitted regarding this subject and our teachers (r) have mentioned in their works, are authentic according to me. I have only refrained from mentioning them in this chapter, out of fear that an ignorant person will read them in their (apparent) meanings, rejecting them, and disbelieving in Allah (azwj) while he is ignorant.3

Here Ṣadūq refrains from citing certain traditions which he considers authentic because he fears someone else may read them and interpret them in a way that is not in accordance to how he and his teachers may have interpreted them.

In another similar example, we see the words of Sayyid Khū’ī regarding a tradition describing something Zurārah did. This tradition is recorded in the selections of Shaykh Ṭūṣi from Kashī’s Rijāl work. The tradition is as follows:

Yusuf said, ʿAlī b. Aḥmad b. Baqqāḥ narrated to me from his uncle, from Zurārah who said: I asked Abā ʿAbdillah (a) regarding the tashahhud. He (a) said: I testify that there is no god but Allah alone, there is no partner for him, and I testify that Muḥammad is His servant and His messenger. I said, al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as well?’. He (a) said, yes, al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as well. When I left, I said, if I see him (a) I will most surely ask him tomorrow. So, I asked him the next day regarding the tashahhud. He (a) gave a similar answer, so I said, al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as well? He (a) said, yes, al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as well. I said, I will meet him after a day and will ask him. So, I asked him regarding the tashahhud and he (a) gave a similar answer. I said, al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as well? He (a) said, yes, al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as well. When I left, I passed gas towards him (lit. in his beard) and said, this man will never be prosperous.4

The chain of narrators to this tradition is extremely weak, however, to give context to the content, it should be known that narrations on the form of tashahhud in prayers are extremely variant. What is popularly read by the Shīʿa today is what was selected by the jurists, although it is not restricted to it. The Sunnīs on the other hand also recite al-taḥiyyāt in their prayers. Shīʿī jurists are not against the recitation of certain versions of the al-taḥiyyāt and some have even mentioned it in their works of jurisprudence, if anyone intends on reciting it.5

In this tradition, if one were to presume its validity, it appears Zurārah asks Imam Ṣādiq (a) about the form of tashahhud – which was indeed a question at the time – and the Imam responds to him. Zurārah then asks if al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt are also part of it, and the Imam says yes, they two should also be recited. Zurārah asks the question on two other occasions, to which the Imam gives the same answer, after which Zurārah asks the Imam about al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt and the Imam replies in the affirmative. This appears to have frustrated Zurārah because after having asked once, he may have been expecting the Imam to mention the al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣalawāt as part of his (a) response. In other words, Zurārah may be frustrated as to why he has had to remind the Imam on three different occasions on whether al-taḥiyyāt and al-ṣālawāt are part of tashahhud or not. While such frustration is not unheard of from Zurārah in the ḥadīth corpus, what he does at the end most definitely is. Hence, we find Sayyid Khū’ī writing:

My astonishment does not cease over how al-Kashī and al-Shaykh mentioned this baseless unreliable tradition, against the status and loftiness of Zurārah. The corruption of the tradition is certain, especially since the narrators of the tradition are all unknown.6

Sayyid Khū’ī is shocked as to how such a tradition was first recorded by a scholar as significant as Kashī, and then on top of that when Shaykh Ṭūsī decided to select certain traditions from the book – which is what we have today at our disposal – he decided to choose this tradition as well. In other words, what we see here is Khū’ī expecting these scholars to have omitted such traditions that do not fit with certain established views from their works.

On a final note, it should be pointed out that the aforementioned discussion is primarily conducted on the ḥadīth. However, if one accepts the views of some scholars such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd – which he has expounded on in his work Mafhūm al-Naṣṣ – where he has tried to show that the Qurānic verses were subject to events in external reality, then the above discussion on quantity and significance would gain meaning for the Qurānic verses as well. Abu Zayd argues that the verses were being revealed in context and external events around the Prophet (p). For example, when you see many verses in the Qurān about Prophet Mūsa (p) and the Bani Israel, it was because they were being revealed in the context of the Jews in Medina and is completely subject to the time in which the Qurān was being revealed in. If one accepts this, then we could argue that just because there is a lot of verses on a certain topic, it would not necessarily imply its greater importance than another topic which has fewer verses.

The foundations for such an understanding regarding the Qurān has serious theological and practical consequences, and as a matter of fact, this was realized by some conservative Sunni jurists who had done openly issued a verdict pronouncing his apostasy.


  1. Buḥūth fī ʿIlm al-Uṣūl, v. 7, pg. 98-101.
  2. Rijāl al-Najāshī, pg. 387
  3. Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, pg. 119.
  4. Ḥadīth #265.
  5. See the seventh mustaḥabb act of tashahhud in al-ʿUrwah al-Wuthqa.
  6. Muʿjam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, v. 8, pg. 245.

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