This is a brief history of a science that took place for 3 or 4 centuries.
Contrary to popular belief, the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad SWS was being written down during his life. The fact that it was being written down during his life, has been proven without a shadow of a doubt. ‘Amr ibn Aws RA once a doubt came to him, and he asked the Prophet PBUH “should I write down everything you say even when you joke”, Prophet Muhammad SWS pointed to his tongue, and then said “write, everything that comes from this tongue is the truth.”
The Prophet PBUH allowed many of his saying to be written. Once he gave a Khutba and a man asked could I have what you said in writing. Then the Prophet PBUH said “Right down for Abu Shah.”
It is reported that over 60 companions would be scribes for the Prophet PBUH, they would write down the Qur’an and Hadith, which came from Prophet Muhammad PBUH.
After the death of Prophet Muhammad SWS, the companions realized the responsibility and importance of preserving the Hadith. That is why the major companions would narrate so many hadith. Jabir ibn Abdullah, Abdullah ibn Abbas, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, Anas ibn Malik, Abdullah ibn Umar, and Abu Hurairah who narrated the most hadith. May Allah be pleased with them.
The Prophet PBUH even made a special Dua for Abu Hurairah so he could remember the Prophets Hadith. Narrated Abu Huraira: I said to Allah’s Apostle “I hear many narrations (Hadiths) from you but I forget them.” Allah’s Apostle said, “Spread your Rida’ (garment).” I did accordingly and then he moved his hands as if filling them with something (and emptied them in my Rida’) and then said, “Take and wrap this sheet over your body.” I did it and after that I never forgot any thing. (Sahih Bukhari)
One person even asked Abu Huraira why he narrated so many Hadith, yet he only lived with the Prophet PBUH for 3 years. He said because when he came to Medinah he became part of AhluSuffa. Unlike other companions who had business, he only spent time with the Prophet.
Many of these companions opened schools. Not physical buildings, but they had students who learned from them.
The formation of the Science of Hadith began in the time of the Tabaieen and the Taba Tabaieen. If you wanted to study Hadith, it was understood you had to travel. First study in your city, and then travel to the other cities. For example Scholars of Hadith such as Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim, they traveled all over the world. Bukhari’s life began in the area of Russia, and he traveled through almost all over the Muslim world. Then at the end of his life he returned to his home.
For Hadith to be written down in the form of books did not begin until the time of Imam Malik, when he wrote down his Al-Muwatta. This does not mean hadith were not written before this, they were written way before this. The only difference was, that previously they were written for the person’s personal notes, not as a book to spread to everyone. This was the first book for mass distribution. This book was written by Imam Malik in Medinah around 130 AH. So for those Quraniyoon that say “Bukhari came 300 years after the Prophet” the easy refutation is “Yes he did, but his sheikh’s sheikh’s sheikh wrote down the Hadith during the life of the Prophet.” This is something they cannot refute, because it is the truth.
There was a PHD Dissertation by Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa Azami at Cambridge University. This was one of the rare books that were translated from English to Arabic. This book is actually available at Amazon titled under “Studies of early Hadith literature.” He compiled the names of people who actually WROTE down hadith for the first 200 years of Islam. Before both Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim. He compiled the names the authors, what were there personal manuscripts. In order to refute the idea that hadith weren’t written down until 300 years after the Prophet death. The idea spread by the Orientalist, the “modernist” Muslim, and Qur’an alone Cult. He proved without a shadow of a doubt that there were works written down before that. Usually these people ask the question, where are these manuscripts. The answer is quite simple; first realize that these were personal manuscripts not published books. They were not preserved like books. The main reason they were not preserved, because later works absorbed them, and there was no need for them to be preserved. The works for the 1st and 2nd century were absorbed by works of the 3rd and 4th century. The greatest proof for this is the Saheefa of Haman ibn Munayba; Saheefa means manuscripts. Haman ibn Munayba was one of the students of Abu Hurairah, in his manuscripts he wrote down the hadith of Abu Hurairah. He recorded about 100 or so hadith, and he died 110 years after Hijrah. Amazingly this manuscript exists to this day. A modern scholar Muhammad Hameedullah he discovered these manuscripts early this century, around the 1920’s. He discovered these manuscripts in a museum in France. The most interesting part of these manuscripts, was that the over 100 hadith in them, they can all be found in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. These manuscripts were written around the 40’s-70’s after the Hijrah, meaning lest than half a century after the Prophets death. When Imam Muslim narrates this hadith, he also mentions that this hadith can be found in the Saheefa of Haman ibn Munayba. Even more amazing, is that Imam Ahmad, in his Musnad narrated all of the hadith of Saheefa of Haman ibn Munayba, in a single booklet. This proves that Imam Muslim and Imam Ahmad both viewed the Saheefa of Haman ibn Munayba in their lifetimes. This is proof, that there is no need to keep the earliest works, because later works absorbed them.
The hadith when they were compiled were compiled in a special order. This was a very deep science, and the scholars organized the Hadith in special ways. Some scholars organized them by the topic of the hadith, others by who narrated the hadith, or by who they learned the hadith from. Imam Malik’s Muwatta was the first and the one that cannot be categorized. It was the first, and the organization began later.
The early works were the Musnad works. The Musnad works organized the hadith, by the Sahabi who narrated the hadith. The Musnad would for example list all the Hadith narrated by Abu Bakr, and then all by Umar, and then all by Uthman, and then all by Ali, and so on. The most famous Musnad is of Imam Ahmad, al Musnad Imam Ahmad. Imam Ahmad compiled over 30,000 hadith. This is one of the largest collections of original source hadith. This Musnad is still in tact today. Another famous Musnad is of Baqi ibn Maqlad, this was the largest book of hadith ever written. This Musnad is not available in its complete form now. Our scholar’s referred to these Musnads in their books, but many of them do not exist in our times. One reason for this is many Europeans came and stole them. That is why you can find many early copies of Hadith books in Princeton, Oxford, France, Holland, and the most are found in Germany. Some people believe this Musnad is still in existence with the non-Muslims, because our scholars referred it to just 200 years ago.
After the Musnad came the Sahih. Where our scholars only kept the Sahih (Authentic). There are two famous ones of these. The first Jami as Sahih also known as the Sahih of Imam Bukhari who died in 256 AH. The second As Sahih Imam Muslim of Imam Abul Husayn Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, or more popularly known as Imam Muslim who died in 261 AH. Sahih Bukhari is the more authentic of the two Sahihs, but Sahih Musim is the better organized of the two Sahihs. If a hadith is found in either of the two books, it is known as 100% Sahih. The mass majority of Muslims scholars, minus 4 or 5, have said that the two Sahihs are 100% authentic. These two scholars, and their two works were one of the greatest blessings to the Muslims. If you look at the lives of these two scholars, they had so many trials and tribulations just to put these collections together. It was a great blessing for us to have them as our scholars. Allah has blessed these two Imams, by keeping their works around, and mentioned right after the book of Allah. Some Hadith rejecters even go so far as to claim that Imam Bukhari did not know Arabic, which is an absolutely stupid argument; this is because they have no knowledge and speak out of hate. Imam Bukhari had authored books in Arabic, how is it possible to write books not just narrations of hadith, and not know Arabic; this is how sad and low their argument is. People like the great idiot of the 20th century Rashad Khalifa, speak out of ignorance instead of intelligence. There are other works of Sahih. Sahih of Ibn Quzaima who died in 350 AH. This book was lost very early on after its compilation. Ibn Hajr ever said that during his lifetime that he only came across one fourth of it. Many scholars believed that the whole book was lost, but recently Sheikh al Adhami found the one fourth of it in Turkey, mixed with another manuscript. It was obvious that there were to manuscripts mixed together. Another book of Sahih was by a student of Ibn Quzaima, Ibn Hibban who died in 354 AH. This is a very large volume; it is called Sahih Ibn Hibban. Both the books of Ibn Quzaima and Ibn Hibban are not 100% authentic, but the general rule is most of the hadith are Sahih.
After the Musnad and the Sahih, then came the works of the Sunnan. The compilers wanted to organize the Fiqhi aspect of the hadith. These are organized by the order of Fiqh. They compiled them to make Fiqh easier. Some major Sunnan works are of Sunnan ad Dharami who died in 256 AH, Sunnan Abu Dawood who died in 275 AH, Sunnan Ibn Majah who died in 279 AH, and Sunnan An Nasai who died in 303 AH, Sunnan Ad Darulkhutni who died in 385 AH, and Sunnan Bayhaqi who died in 458 AH. As for the Sunnan of at Thirmidi, its proper classification is al Jam’I, although it is very close to the Sunnan. Scholars refer to the four Sunnan: Sunnan Abu Dawood, Sunnan At Thirmidi, Sunnan Ibn Majah, and Sunnan An Nasai.
The other categories of Hadith literature are the Mu’jam works. The Mu’jam works are categorized by the Sheikhs you heard them from. These are organized according to the scholars a person hears the hadith from. The greatest of Mu’jam works are the three works of At Tabarani, he wrote Al Mu’jam al Khabeer, Al Mu’jam al Awsat, and Al Mu’jam as Saghir.
There are many ways to categories Hadith, but these are the 4 main ways, the Musnad, the Sahih, the Sunnan, and the Mu’jam.
Ahlus Sunnah, has 6 books called the Al-Sihah al-Sittah. These six books do not have a preference over the other books of hadith except Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Musim. These six; Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunnan Abi Dawood, Sunnan At Thirmidi, Sunnan an Nasai and Sunnan Ibn Majah. These six books are selected because they are the easiest for a person took pick up and find the narrator. This does not mean that the four books, not named the Sahih, are all authentic. These six books are the most comprehensive of all the Hadith books.
Non-sourced Hadith books: These are books like 40 Hadith An Nawawi and Imam Nawawi’s Riyaad us Salaheen. Riyaad us Salaheen, is probably one of the greatest works ever, and something that every Muslim should have. People often make the mistake of thinking this is a source hadith. Hadith from these works can not be quoted, because Imam Nawawi in these books says “I got this from Bukhari” or “I got this from Muslim”. If there is a book, which quotes a hadith from the works of An Nawawi, there is a clear lack of knowledge from the author who quoted this. Another book al Mundareez at Taghrib wa Tarhib, this is just a compilation of hadith from other sources (ie other Hadith books such as the Sahih Sittah). Another is Kanz al-Ummal fi Sunan wal Aqwal wal Afwal by Sheikh al Hindi. It is the largest collection of Hadith under two covers. This book was a collection of Hadith by topic; it was an encyclopedia of Hadith.