Imam Tirmidhi and his Al-Jami’ al-Sunan (الجامع السنن للإمام الترمذي رضي الله عنه)

by Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari

Jami’ al-Tirmidhi is a collection of hadith compiled by Imam Abu Eisa al-Tirmidhi. His collection is unanimously considered to be one of the six famous collections of hadith (al-Kutub al-Sittah), and contains roughly 4400 hadiths (with repetitions) in 46 chapters.

 

Biography of Imam Tirmidhi (may Allah have mercy him)

 

His full name (including his ancestral chain)

Muhammad ibn Eisa ibn Sawra/Sura ibn Musa ibn al-Ḍaḥḥak al-Sulami al-Bughi al-Tirmidhi.

TIRMIDH is also pronounced as: 1) Turmudh, 2) Tarmidh and 3) Tarmadh. However, ‘Tirmidh’ is more common. It is a small city located in the Southern part of current day Uzbekistan, close to the Amu Darya (river Oxus) near the border of Afghanistan.

BUGH is the suburb of Tirmidh where Imam Tirmidhi was born (See map).

He belonged to the Banu Sulaym tribe; hence he was called al-Sulami al-Bughi al-Tirmidhi.

His Kunya (honorific name) is Abu Eisa.

Objection:There is a narration in the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shayba wherein the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) is reported to have disliked having Abu Eisa as Kunya, saying that Eisa (peace be upon him) had no father!

Answer:The prohibition was abrogated and only applicable in the beginning of Islam, in order to safeguard correct Aqida.  The permissibility is established in Sunan Abi Dawud from the Companion Mughira ibn Shu’ba (Allah be pleased with him) who kept the Kunya Abu Eisa, with the consent of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace).

Date & place of Birth

He was born in the year 209 A.H. (824 A.D) during the reign of the Abbasid Khalifa Ma’mun al-Rashid in Bugh.

His early learning

Having grown up in an environment of learning and possessing many great qualities, Imam Tirmidhi was naturally driven to dedicate his life to the field of Hadith. He obtained basic knowledge in his hometown, and then travelled to distant lands such as Hijaz, Egypt, Shaam, Kufa, Basra and Baghdad, and obtained the knowledge of hadith from the great luminaries of hadith (muhaddithin) of his time.

His teachers

He studied hadith under numerous great personalities of his time such as Imam Bukhari (his main teacher), Imam Muslim, Imam Abu Dawud, Ahmad ibn Mani’, Qutayba ibn Sa’id, Muhammad ibn al-Muthanna and Mahmud ibn Ghaylan.

He had a close relationship with Imam Bukhari. Once Imam Bukhari said to him, “I have benefited from you more than you have benefitted from me.” Some scholars state that this refers to when a student is very intelligent and asks challenging questions, the teacher has to put in extra effort, by which the teacher himself benefits!

He has the honour of his teacher Imam Bukhari relating two hadiths from him, both of which Imam Tirmidhi relates in his book and then states, “Muhammad ibn Isma’il [Bukhari] has heard this hadith from me.”

His remarkable memory

Imam Tirmidhi had an exceptional memory, and was used as an example for good memory. If he heard something once he never forgot it.

A famous story is related that once on his way to Makka, he met a scholar of hadith (muhaddith) from whom he had previously received two chapters of hadith. Thinking that he had the manuscript with him, he asked the Shaykh if he would allow him to read these two chapters with him. The Shaykh agreed. Imam Tirmidhi checked his belongings, and discovered he had mistakenly brought along blank sheets with him! So he took the blank sheets, and the Shaykh began reading. After a while, the Shaykh realized what he was doing, and became upset saying, “Have you no shame?” Imam Tirmidhi explained his story and then said, “Don’t worry; I have committed all the hadiths to memory.” The Shaykh asked him to read, and he read them out. The Shaykh was not convinced, so he said, “Did you memorize them from before?” to which Imam Tirmidhi replied, “No.” Imam Tirmidhi requested him to recite some other hadiths, and the Shaykh recited forty unknown hadiths, which Imam Tirmidhi then repeated without making a single error. The Shaykh said to him, “I have not seen the like of you!”

His piety

Imam Tirmidhi was known for his piety. Many scholars, both his contemporaries and later ones, have praised him. Umar ibn Alak once said, “When Imam Bukhari passed away, he left no one in Khurasan who compared with Abu Eisa al-Tirmidhi in knowledge, piety and abstinence (zuhd). He would weep excessively out of the fear of Allah, such that towards the end of his life he lost his sight!”

His status as a scholar of hadith

Imam Tirmidhi is considered a reliable Imam (thiqa) and a Master (hafiz) in the science of hadith. Some scholars, however, did consider him to be ‘lenient’ in hadith-authentication (tashih), but the reality is that one can rely on his hadith authentication except on a few rare occasions. According to Shah WaliAllah, Imam Tirmidhi was an independent jurist (mujtahid), and some said he mainly followed the Shafi’i positions.

His students

Imam Tirmidhi had a large number of students from all over the world. Some of the famous ones include: Haytham ibn Kulayb al-Shami, Ahmad ibn AbdAllah al-Marwazi and Ahmad ibn Yusuf al-Nasafi.

His works

Imam Tirmidhi is renowned for his three outstanding books:

1) Al-Jami’ al-Sunan – His most famous and colossal work on hadith.

2) Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya – One of the best works on the topic of Prophetic traits and character.

3) Kitab al-Ilal al-Kabir and Al-Ilal al-Saghir – Colossal and important reference works in the science of critical analysis of narrators of hadith (ilm al-rijal) and hadith discrepancies.

He is also reported to have a work on Islamic history and an exegesis of the Qur’an, but these are extinct.

Note

There are three scholars known by the name Tirmidhi:

1) Imam Abu Eisa al-Tirmidhi – Our author of Al-Jami’ al-Sunan.

2) Imam Abu ‘l-Hasan Ahmad ibn al-Hasan al-Tirmidhi, known as al-Tirmidhi al-Kabir – A major scholar of hadith from whom Imam Bukhari relates a hadith in his Sahih, and a student of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

3) Hakeem al-Tirmidhi – Who was a known Sufi and Mu’adhin. His famous work titled ‘Nawadir al-Usul’ comprises many weak and non-reliable narrations. (Some people confuse him with Imam Tirmidhi, and thus attribute weak narrations from his book to Imam Tirmidhi!)

His death

Imam Tirmidhi passed away in the year 279 A.H. (892 A.D.) in his village of Bugh at the age of 70. (May Allah shower him with His mercy and fill his grave with light).

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Al-Jami’ al-Tirmidhi

 

Before Jami’ al-Tirmidhi

Many books of hadith had been compiled before Imam Tirmidhi decided to compile his Al-Jami’. Imam Malik, Imam Abu Hanifa, Sufyan al-Thawri, Dawud Tayalisi, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Imam Tabarani, Imam Bayhaqi and others had compiled hadiths – some consisting of only authentic narrations whilst others consisting of both the authentic and weak.

Objectives of the Six Collections

Later, Imam Bukhari compiled his ‘Sahih’ consisting of only the absolute authenticated narrations from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace). His main objective was to derive laws (ahkam) from relevant hadiths. Imam Muslim compiled his book with a primary focus on collecting the various authentic chains (isnad) for each hadith. Imam Nasa’i’s main aim was to mention the discrepancies found in the chains of hadiths, whilst Imam Abu Dawud prepared a book in which he gathered the proofs of the jurists (fuqaha). Imam Tirmidhi combined the styles of Abu Dawud and Nasa’i by mentioning the discrepancies in the chains, as well as making his compilation a basis for the jurists.

These six canonical hadith collections of Islam, known as Al-Ummahat al-Sittah or Al-Usul al-Sittah or Al-Kutub al-Sittah, comprise within them a large collection of Prophetic hadiths. Not all hadiths contained in them are authenticated (sahih), and neither is every hadith not included in these works weak (da’if).

Full name of Imam Tirmidhi’s work

الجامع المختصر من السنن عن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ومعرفة الصحيح والمعلول وما عليه العمل

Al-Jami’ al-Mukhtasar min al-Sunan an Rasulillah (sallallhu alayhi wa sallam) wa Ma’rifat al-Sahih wa ‘l-Ma’lul wa ma alayhi ‘l-amal- otherwise known as Al-Jami’ al-Tirmidhi.

Al-Jami’ means it is a comprehensive collection covering the eight main subjects.

Al-Mukhtasar means it is a concise collection.

An Rasulillah refers to all hadiths being attributed to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace).

wa Ma’rifat al-Sahih wa ‘l-Ma’lul refers to knowing the authenticated narrations from those that may be problematic.

wa ma alayhi ‘l-amal refers to mentioning whom from amongst the jurists (fuqaha) have acted upon the hadiths.

Imam Tirmidhi says, “I compiled this book and presented it to the learned scholars of Hijaz, Iraq and Khurasan; and they were pleased with it [and thereafter I brought it out to the public]. Whoever has this book in his home, it is as though he has the Prophet (Allah bless him & give him peace) in his house speaking to him!”

The special characteristics of Al-Jami’ al-Tirmidhi

Imam Ibn al-Athir (a famous muhaddith) says in his Jami’ al-Usul, “Tirmidhi’s work is the finest, most beneficial, least repetitive and has the best arrangement. It also stands out by mentioning the different opinions and ijtihad [of the jurists], and clarifying the different types of hadith authentication, i.e. sahih, hasan, gharib. It also has some aspects of critical analysis of narrators.”

Imam Shah Abd al-Aziz al-Dehlawi says in his Bustan al-Muhaddithin, “The Al-Jami’ of Imam Tirmidhi is the finest from amongst the books of hadith due to many reasons…” [He then lists those reasons].

The following are some of the reasons and special characteristics of Imam Tirmidhi’s work which makes it stand out:

1) It is a Sunan and Jami’ at the same time – It covers the main eight subjects, as well as being arranged according to the fiqh chapters.

2) There is very less repetition of hadiths – as opposed to other books such as Sahih al-Bukhari. This is why some early scholars consider it to be more beneficial and reader-friendly than Bukhari’s and Muslim’s collections.

3) It covers the major proofs of all the mainstream Mujtahid Imams and jurists, dividing them into separate chapters.

4) In each chapter, Imam Tirmidhi cites the fiqh opinions of the Companions, their students, and Imams of fiqh by their names, and clarifies their method of using the hadiths as proof. As such, his work is also a priceless resource of fiqh, with students of hadith and fiqh both able to benefit.

5) After mentioning a hadith, he classifies it by stating whether it is authenticated (sahih), sound (hasan) or weak (da’if). If the chain has any discrepancies, he explains the reasons in detail. He discusses the status of the narrators.

6) He only records one or two hadiths in each chapter (unlike other books where many narrations can be recorded under one chapter-heading), and then alludes to related hadiths by saying “wa fi ‘l-bab” i.e. regarding this issue there are other narrations related by such-and-such companion…

7) If a hadith is long, Imam Tirmidhi only mentions that part which is relevant to the chapter-heading, and omits the rest. As such, hadiths in his collection are short and easy to remember and memorize!

8) If a hadith is difficult in terms of its chain or text, he provides a full explanation for it.

9) If a narrator is not well-known, he provides details by mentioning his name, title (kunya), and outlines whether the narrator heard the hadith from his Shaykh or not.

10) Jami’ al-Tirmidhi has been set out in an excellent sequence; hence searching for a hadith is relatively simple. Scholars say it is the most reader-friendly book amongst the well-known hadith collections.

11) Every hadith in his book is ‘ma’mul bihi’ (practiced upon by some jurist).

12) One hadith in Jami’ al-Tirmidhi is a thulathiyaat i.e. the transmitters of the hadith between Imam Tirmidhi and the Prophet (Allah bless him & give him peace) are only three. (There are 22 thulathiyaat in Sahih al-Bukhari, a few in Sunan Ibn Majah, and none in Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abi Dawud and Sunan Nasa’i).

The status of Jami’ al-Tirmidhi

Imam Hafiz Dhahabi and others class Jami’ al-Tirmidhi as fifth amongst the six famous collections of hadith, after the Sunans of Abu Dawud and Nasa’i. This is due to Imam Tirmidhi narrating from ‘some’ non-reliable narrators like Kalbi and Maslub.

However, others including Haji Khalifa in his Kashf al-Dhunun categorize Tirmidhi’s work in third position after Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. Ibn Hajar categorizes it in fourth place after Sunan Abi Dawud. The view of it being ‘third’ seems most appropriate due to many benefits and particulars of the book outlined above. As for the weak narrations, they are very few and Imam Tirmidhi always points them out, hence his book is harmless. Imam Abu Bakr al-Hazimi states that Tirmidhi’s conditions are more stringent than those of Abu Dawud.

Weak and fabricated hadiths in Jami’ al-Tirmidhi:

In terms of weak (da’if) narrations, as mentioned previously, Imam Tirmidhi always points out if a narration is weak, and normally he only uses them as additional support (mutabi’ or shahid). Furthermore, there are only a few (about 10) narrations in his entire work which he considers as authentic whilst other Imams class them as weak. Also, often the weak narration has multiple chains because of which it is elevated to the level of being hasan (sound).

There are no fabricated (mawdu’) narrations in Jami’ al-Tirmidhi. (Imam Ibn al-Jawzi did class some narrations to be fabricated, but the mainstream majority of scholars refuted his claim and wrote works in this regard).

The terminology of Imam Tirmidhi in hadith classification

The classification of hadith was first discussed by people like Imam Ali ibn al-Madini, Imam Bukhari and others. However, Imam Tirmidhi was the first to base his hadith collection on these classifications. Imam Tirmidhi classifies most of the hadiths and mentions their status. Some of the terms he uses are:

1) Sahih (rigorously authenticated) – His use of this term is in accordance with the general usage, i.e. the existence of five conditions:

a) The chain of narration, from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) to the final narrator, is connected (muttasil) in such a way that every single person in the chain has himself heard or received this narration from the person he is narrating from.

b) All the narrators in the chain are upright (‘adil).

c) All the narrators possess the ability to preserve the hadith precisely (dabt).

d) The hadith does not contradict other hadiths which have come from more reliable narrators (‘adam al-Shudhudh).

e) There are no other hidden weaknesses (‘adam al-illah al-Qadiha) – such as a hidden gap in the chain of narration.

2) Hasan (sound) – The definition of hasan according to Imam Tirmidhi is a hadith whose chain does not contain a narrator accused of lying, the hadith does not oppose another which is reported by more authentic narrators (shadh), and it is transmitted through more than one chain.

[Note the mainstream definition of hasan is similar to that of sahih, with the difference only being in the fact there is a narrator/s in the chain whose capacity to ‘preserve’ is of a lower degree].

3) Da’if (weak) – That which fails to reach the level of hasan.  

4) Gharib (isolated) – Normally refers to a hadith in whose chain there is only one narrator at a particular stage. Imam Tirmidhi sometimes says “gharib min hadha ‘l-wajh” meaning the text of the hadith is well-known, however this particular chain is gharib.

5) Jayyid (good) – This term is used synonymously with sahih (although it may be slightly lower than sahih).

6) Asahhu shay fi ‘l-bab (most authentic in this chapter) – This means that the hadith is relatively more authentic than other hadiths in the chapter, although in of itself it may be weak.

7) Hasan Sahih –This term has caused much debate amongst the Muhaddithin, since hasan is lower in rank than sahih. While sahih indicates to the excellent ‘preservation’ power of a narrator, hasan indicates to a deficiency in this regard; hence it seems both are opposites and it is not possible to reconcile. The explanations given are:

a) Imam Tirmidhi is unsure whether the hadith is sahih or hasan [Ibn Hajar].

b) The hadith is transmitted through two chains; one is hasan and the other sahih [Ibn Salah].

c) Imam Tirmidhi has made up a new term which implies the hadith is higher than hasan but lower than sahih [Ibn Kathir].

8) Sahih Gharib – This term implies that the hadith is rigorously authenticated, but there is an isolated narrator in its chain of transmission.

9) Hasan Gharib – Same as above, with the authentication being at the level of hasan.

10) hasan sahih gharib – The same explanation applies here in terms of combining hasan and sahih, with the exception of there being more than one chain. It is also possible that the hadith has multiple chains, but a particular word in gharib.

The conditions of Imam Tirmidhi in hadith selection

According to the commentators, Imam Tirmidhi maintained the following conditions throughout the compilation of his book:

1)Imam Tahir al-Maqdasi states in his Shurut al-A’imma al-Sittah (specifically written to outline the conditions maintained by the six Imams) that Jami’ al-Tirmidhi contains four types of hadiths:

a) Those absolutely authentic and narrated by Bukhari and Muslim.

b) Those conforming to the conditions of Bukhari and Muslim.

c) Those having certain discrepancies in their chains, and are recorded by other Imams such as Abu Dawud and Nasa’i. He normally highlights the weakness.

d) Those that only he narrates, some of which are authentic and some not.

2) Imam Tirmidhi accepts a hadith which is narrated with the word “an” provided both narrators are contemporaries.

3) A Mursal hadith is accepted by Imam Tirmidhi when it is supported by another chain that is not broken.

Some commentaries of Jami’ al-Tirmidhi

Allah blessed Imam Tirmidhi’s work with great acceptance; hence many commentaries and annotations were compiled. Some of which are as follows:

1) A’ridat al-Ahwazi– In around 7 volumes, by the famous Muhaddith and Maliki jurist Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi (died: 543AH). It is one of the most famous commentaries, and used by people like Imam Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani.

2) Qut al-Mughtadhi – A concise commentary authored by the famous Imam Hafiz Jalal al-Din Suyuti.

3) Tuhfat al-Ahwazi – In 10 volumes by Abdur-Rahman Mubarakfuri (from India, died: 1353AH). A very good and detailed commentary, but very biased in his anti-Hanafism!! The first volume is dedicated to aspects relating to the science of hadith, as well as details regarding Imam Tirmidhi and his work.

4) Al-Kawkab al-Durri ala Jami’ al-Tirmidhi – In two volumes, compiled by Shaykh Mawlana Yahya al-Kandahlawi; with glosses by his son Shaykh Muhammad Zakariyya al-Kandahlawi. It is based on the lessons of Shaykh Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.

5) Ma’arif al-Sunan – Authored by Shaykh Yusuf al-Binnori of Pakistan in about six volumes. He was unable to complete it, commentating up to the chapter of Hajj.

Conclusion

Imam Tirmidhi was one of those scholars who contributed greatly to the field of hadith. The Muslim Umma is deeply indebted to him for his compilation of hadith. May Allah Most High make it possible for us to benefit tremendously from his priceless collection, Ameen.