On the Retention of the Companions

13 Aug, 2018

On the Retention of the Companions

By Shaykh Muntasir Zaman

To evaluate the reliability of a narrator, Ḥadīth scholars examined two integral characteristics: probity (ʿadālah) and retention (ab).[1] After studying the probity of the Companions (Allah be pleased with them), a person is left with the following question: companionship with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) does not enhance one’s memory,[2] so even if it is accepted that the Companions were upright, how sure are we that they adequately retained ḥadīths before transmitting them? In other words, did they meet the required standards of memory to transmit ḥadīths? The following explanation does not preclude the fact that they occasionally forgot or erred. It aims to shed light on factors that allowed them to satisfactorily retain the ḥadīths they heard and then transmit them to their students.

It may be difficult to recognize a relationship between a narrator’s probity and his retention, but functionally they are definitely intertwined. This is because an upright transmitter will only narrate material the authenticity of which he is certain. Towards the end of his life when Anas ibn Mālik was asked a question, he replied, “Go and ask our master al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī]. Indeed, we heard and he heard, but he remembers and we forgot.”[3] A narrator exercises caution when narrating ḥadīths proportionate to his probity; since the Companions possessed the highest level of uprightness, their caution was correspondingly firm.[4] This is more so given their familiarity with the Prophet’s warning, “Whoever lies about me should prepare his abode in the Fire.”[5] Companions like ʿAbd Allah ibn Masʿūd (d. 32 AH) and Abū al-Dardāʾ (d. 32 AH) are on record for following their narrations with phrases such as “similar to this” and “more or less”[6]  which they expressed out of caution, not out of doubt. Their cautious attitude even influenced Successors like Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. 96 AH) and ʿĀmir al-Shaʿbī (d. c.103 AH).[7] From this angle, there is a relationship between one’s probity and retention.

A crucial but often overlooked point worthy of consideration is the esoteric relationship between memory and sinning.[8] Ibn Masʿūd said, “I believe that a person forgets knowledge on account of the wrongs he commits.”[9] When Imām Mālik was asked how to improve one’s memory, he replied, “If anything, avoiding sins improves it.”[10] Ibn al-Qayyim said, “Truly, knowledge is a light that Allah places in the heart of His slave; the baser desires and sinning are strong winds that extinguish that light or nearly extinguish it—they definitely diminish its strength.”[11] The Companions were exemplars of piety and the best of generations, as the Prophet proclaimed, and therefore their memory was not derogated on account of sinning to the same degree that successive generations were.[12]

The phenomenal memory of the Companions was additionally buttressed by their predominant reliance upon it to preserve information, thus making it easy for them to remember whatever they learned. Moreover, they listened to the Prophet attentively,[13] consulted him when in doubt,[14] revised whatever they learned with one another,[15] and employed memory aids in the form of written material.[16] More importantly, the Companions generally transmitted information from the Prophet they witnessed first-hand and incidents wherein they physically participated.[17] These factors increase the likelihood that they, pace ordinary narrators, conveyed information that they retained exceptionally well.

The Prophet’s unique methods of teaching had a definite impact on how the Companions learned and memorized what he taught them.[18] By way of illustration, we will look at three methods. First, he often repeated his words three times for better understanding, as explained by Anas ibn Mālik.[19] Since his instructions were relatively brief such that “when he said something, a person was able to count [his words],”[20] repeating his words three times was not particularly demanding on his Companions. A second method was to impart his teachings gradually, which made it easier for them to memorize his ḥadīths. The Prophet directed Muʿādh to teach the people of Yemen gradually in four successive steps.[21] By avoiding prolonged teaching sessions, he allowed them to retain the little they learned every session.[22] A third method was to use visual aids[23] and rhetorical techniques to hold their attention and facilitate understanding.[24]

In light of the above, we can safely conclude that unless there is a valid reason to suggest otherwise, the default presumption is that the Companions accurately transmitted information.


[1] The reasoning behind these two criteria is simple. To eliminate the possibility that the transmitter deliberately altered the ḥadīth, it is necessary to analyze whether his probity is satisfactory to the point he can be trusted. To eliminate the possibility of any unintentional error, such as a lapse in memory, it is necessary to analyze his retention. See ʿItr, Footnotes on Maʿrifat Anwāʿ ʿIlm al-adīth, p.12.

[2] Abū Ghuddah, Footnotes on Qawāʿid fī ʿUlūm al-adīth, p.242; idem, Footnotes on al-Rafʿ wa al-Takmīl, pp.184-85; al-Haytamī, Ilāq ʿUwār al-Hawas, pp.241-45.

[3] Ibn Saʿd, al-abaqāt al-Kubrā, vol.7, p.176. When Zayd ibn Arqam was asked to narrate ḥadīths, he said, “We have aged and forgotten, and narrating ḥadīths from the Messenger of Allah is a serious matter.” See Ibn Mājah, al-Sunan, no.25.

[4] See al-Ḥasanī, Maʿrifat Madār al-Isnād, vol.1, pp.364-69.

[5] On the wide transmission of this ḥadīth, deeming it a mutawātir report, see Ibn al-Jawzī, al-Mawḍūʿāt, vol.1, pp.54-129; Ibn Ḥajar, Fat al-Bārī, vol.1, p.202-3; al-Suyūṭī, Tadhīr al-Khawāṣṣ, pp.75-125; al-Qārī, al-Asrār al-Marfūʿah, pp.12-28; al-Kattānī, Nam al-Mutanāthir, pp.20-24.

[6] See, Ibn Mājah, al-Sunan, no.33; al-Dārimī, al-Sunan, no.284.

[7] When asked why he cited a Prophetic statement as his own words, al-Shaʿbī responded “Nay, attribution to those after the Prophet is preferred to us. If there happens to be an addition or decrease [in the wording] then it will be against them.” See al-Dārimī, al-Sunan, no.282. For Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī’s practice, see ibid., no.283; cf. ʿAwwāmah, Footnotes on Tadrib al-Rāwī, vol.3, pp.237-38.

[8] Al-Ṣanʿānī, Thalāthat Suʾālāt li al-ʿAllāmah Amad ibn Isāq ibn Ibrāhim wa Jawābuhā li al-Sayyid al-ʿAllāmah al-Badr Muammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-Amīr, Ms. Majāmiʿ 1, Ṣanʿā: Dār al-Awqāf, fol. 3r; cf. Ebrahim Moosa, What Is a Madrasa?, pp.61-63.

[9] Al-Baghdādī, al-Jāmiʿ li Akhlāq al-Rāwī wa Ādāb al-Sāmiʿ, vol.2, p.258.

[10] Ibid.; Al-Ramahurmuzī, al-Muaddith al-Fāil, vol.1, p.46. Consider the famous couplets, “I lamented to Wakīʿ the poverty of my memory/ he counseled me to avoid sin/ knowledge is light, he informed me/ Allah’s light to a sinner is denied outright.” Mujāhīd Bahjat traces these couplets to two sources, one that attributes them to al-Shāfiʿī and another that does not. See Mujāhid Bahjat, Annotations on Dīwān al-Shāfiʿī, p.72. Al-Bayhqaī attributes, via a chain of transmission, similar advice from Wakīʿ to ʿAlī ibn Khushrum (d. 257 AH). See al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab al-Īmān, no.1604.

[11] Ibn al-Qayyim, Iʿlām al-Muwaqqiʿīn, vol.6, p.67. Piety itself is not sufficient to ensure adequate retention. Yaḥyā al-Qaṭṭān said, “I have not seen the pious err in anything more than Ḥadīth.” See Muslim, Introduction to al-Musnad al-aī, p.17.

[12] Al-Bukhārī, al-Jāmiʿ al-aī, no.2652.

[13] Abū Dāwūd, al-Sunan, no.3844.

[14] See al-Bukhārī, al-Jāmiʿ al-aī, no.103.

[15] See ibid., no.89.

[16] A transmitter can ensure he meets the necessary requirements of ab to narrate a ḥadīth through two means: either he possesses a satisfactory degree of retention (ab al-adr) or he possesses the ḥadīth in written form (ab al-kitāb) from which he will transmit. See al-Sakhāwī, Fat al-Mughīth, vol.1, p.28. Accordingly, this would mean they also employed ab al-kitāb to ensure accurate retention of ḥadīths.

[17] Ṣultān Sanad and Muḥammad ʿĪd, Asbāb Tafawwuq al-aābah fī ab al-adīth, p.40. For more on the Companions’ methods of acquiring knowledge, see al-Kattānī, al-Tarātīb al-Idāriyyah, vol.2, pp.161-65, 218-26.

[18] In a wonderful book on the subject entitled “al-Rasūl al-Muʿallīm wa Asālībuhū fī al-Taʿlīm,” Shaykh ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah enumerates forty teaching methods of the Prophet.

[19] See al-Bukhārī, al-Jāmiʿ al-aī, no.94.

[20] See ibid., no.356.

[21] See ibid., no.1395.

[22] See ibid., no.68.

[23] See ibid., no.6417.

[24] The Prophet employed many rhetorical techniques. Scholars like Abū al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (d. 310 AH) and al-Rāmahurmuzī compiled books on his parables and similes.

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