In a previous article I demonstrated how the contents of a Hadith could play a significant role in the early Sunni Hadith critics’ acceptance or rejection of it and could even affect the evaluation of a narrator who chose to transmit it.
What this means is that it was the subjective judgment of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth as a clique, they who saw themselves as gate-keepers to the prophetic Sunna, which determined what eventually made it into the canon and what was left out.
But the ‘problematic’ Hadiths that were left out were not just marginalized after being declared ‘weak’, some were even actively censored by being removed from circulation!
In this short companion-piece I document one particularly egregious case of attempted censorship by shining light on a book of Hadith that was ‘burnt’ solely due to its contents.
Just Burn It
What should be done to a book that contains ‘problematic’ Hadith?
This question was posed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241) and I consider his answer to be representative of the position held by the Ahl al-Ḥadīth in general
Abū Bakr al-Marrūdhī (d. 275), a prominent student Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, relates that he asked his teacher:
I borrow from a Ṣāḥib Ḥadīth a book which contains ‘repulsive’ Hadith in it – do you deem it proper to burn it or destroy it?
Sallām b. Abī Muṭīʾ borrowed from Abī ʿAwāna a book in which such Hadiths could be found and then Sallām proceeded to burn it
A shocked Abū Bakr al-Marrūdhī needs to make sure that he heard right:
So he burnt it?
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal held Sallām b. Abī Muṭīʾ (d. 164) in high regard, and he considered what he had done with Abī ʿAwāna’s (d. 176) book to be a precedent that should be followed in all such cases whenever one happens to gain access to a book that contains ‘repulsive’ Hadiths. Aḥmad is quoted as favourably citing this incident a number of times and this ends up being to our advantage because some retellings provide more clues as to the Hadiths found in the ‘burnt book’.
ʿAbdallāh, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s son, reports from his father the following:
Abū ʿAwāna had authored a book containing Maʿāyib of the companions of the prophet and containing Balāya, so Sallām b. Abī Muṭīʾ came to him and said ‘O Abā ʿAwāna – give me that book’, he (i.e. Abā ʿAwāna) gave it to him, so Sallām took it and burnt it
We discover from this what exactly it was that was ‘repulsive’ about the Hadiths in Abī ʿAwāna’s book. The Hadiths were ‘repulsive’ because they recorded Maʿāyib or flaws of the companions and also contained Balāya, more on what this last term means later.
Ḥanbal, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s nephew, reports from his uncle the following:
Sallām b. Abī Muṭīʾ took the book of Abī ʿAwāna in which the companions of the prophet had been mentioned (in a negative light) and burnt ‘those’ Hadiths of al-Aʿmash (in it)
We discover from this that Abū ʿAwāna was narrating these Hadiths on the authority of his Shaykh – the famous Kufan narrator who went by the nick-name of al-Aʿmash (d. 148).
Now breaching the confidence of an unsuspecting author who trusts you with his book, and going on to burn a book that contains Hadiths no less is a weighty matter, so it comes as no surprise that when Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal recounted Sallām’s act on yet another occasion a listener in the gathering could not help but exclaim:
I hope that this act of his (i.e. Sallām) does not harm him (i.e. make him sinful) in anyway – God Willing!
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal immediately interjects to say:
Rather he will be rewarded for it – God Willing!
Such was the attitude of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth towards the Hadith they deemed problematic!
A Lost Book?
This book-burning incident seems to have gained notoriety in Hadith circles where it served as an illustrative example of what can happen to any prospective author who harbours similar intentions, but was there anyone who was curious enough to know more about the contents of the book beyond a general description of its contents or the fact of its burning?
You see, Abū ʿAwāna must have already transmitted the book’s contents to a number of those who came to take Hadith from him before Sallām’s fateful intervention, so there were still early authorities out there who had first-hand knowledge of the specific reports contained within the book.
It fell to Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn (d. 233), Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s life-long friend, to get us a precious glimpse into the book’s contents.
Yaḥyā heard Khālid b. Khidāsh (d. 223), one of his teachers, recount the following:
Sallām b. Abī Muṭīʾ came to Abī ʿAwāna and said: ‘Hand over this Bidʿa that you have brought to us from Kufa!’
Abū ʿAwāna took out his books for him whereupon Sallām cast them in the oven!
Yaḥyā, who was always bolder than Aḥmad in this regard, asks Khālid what was found in the book.
The Hadith of al-Aʿmash from Sālim b. Abī al-Jaʿd from Thawbān who said: The Messenger of Allah said: ‘Fulfill your duty to the Quraysh …’ and the like.
Yaḥyā’s curiosity is not satiated and he asks:
The Hadith of ʿAlī – ‘I am the distributor of the Fire!’
Yaḥyā asks Khālid:
Did Abū ʿAwāna really narrate this to you from al-Aʿmash?
But ʿAlī declaring himself to be the ‘distributor of the Fire’ is not an example of a ‘flaw’ of the companions, one of the two categories which the book supposedly contained, it must therefore be an example of the Balāya, the second category which the book supposedly contained.
This is what leads me to conclude that Balāya (literally ‘calamities’) refers to those reports which were diametrically opposed to the sensibilities of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth and which as a result were to to be considered automatically false, for example, a report which depicts ʿAlī as having the loftiest position after the Messenger of Allah, something which went against their consensus of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar being better than him
What were the other Hadiths contained in the book apart from the two examples given by Khālid above?
The censorship I have described means that we have no way of answering this question and the other reports in the book could have disappeared without a trace for all we know, but the evidence brought in the next section suggests that some of these reports may have survived (although we can’t tell for sure if they were originally found in Abū ʿAwāna’s book).
“The Distributor of the Fire”
If one were to search for this statement of ʿAlī in the sources available to us today one will not find it in any canonical book of Hadith, but if one widens the search to, for example, those books whose very purpose was to record the Hadith that had been marginalized after being deemed weak or fabricated then the result is different.
Ibn Qutayba (d. 276) in his Gharīb al-Ḥadīth, al-Fasawī (d. 277) in his al-Maʿrifa wa-l-Taʾrīkh, al-ʿUqaylī (d. 322) in his al-Ḍuʿafāʾ al-Kabīr and Ibn ʿAdī (d. 365) in his al-Kāmil fī Ḍuʿafāʾ al-Rijāl transmit it with their different chains converging at al-Aʿmash
From al-Aʿmash from Mūsā b. Ṭarīf al-Asadī from ʿAbāya b. Ribʿī al-Asadī, that he heard ʿAlī saying:
I swear by Allah other than whom there is no God (that) I am the distributor of the Fire. (I will say), “This (one) is for me and this (one) is for you”
We don’t really need to study the narrators below al-Aʿmash because this report is authentically traced back to him. Recall that Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn (Thiqa) received confirmation from Khālid b. Khidāsh (Thiqa) that he had heard Abū ʿAwāna (Thiqa) narrating this report from al-Aʿmash (Thiqa).
So we turn to the two intermediaries above al-Aʿmash i.e. Mūsā b. Ṭarīf and ʿAbāya
The Sunni critics zoomed in on Mūsā and weakened him, but their reasoning for weakening him seems to be on the basis of him narrating this report.
So what we have here is a case of the cart being placed before the horse!
Yes, No, Maybe
Could someone get away with narrating such a report in proto-Sunni Hadith circles?
We already know what fate lay in store for Mūsā b. Ṭarīf al-Asadī, but being an insignificant Hadith narrator meant that he could easily be abandoned without a second thought, but what about a prolific narrator of the caliber of al-Aʿmash? Did he escape unscathed because of his prominence?
The sources indicate that al-Aʿmash received considerable backlash from his Ahl al-Ḥadīth contemporaries for narrating this report which they found unpalatable.
What was al-Aʿmash’s response when confronted by his peers?
Here the reports diverge wildly and a convincing reconciliation needs to be proposed.
- I never narrated it!
Some reports depict al-Aʿmash as claiming that he never narrated this.
Warqāʾ b. ʿUmar (d. 169) and Misʿar b. Kidām (d. 153) went to al-Aʿmash with the express purpose of ‘blaming him for two Hadiths that were conveyed to them on his authority’:
The words of ʿAlī “I am the distributor of Fire” and another Hadith “So-and-so such and such on the Ṣirāṭ”
al-Aʿmash responds to them by saying:
I did not narrate this nor did I ever say it!
ʿAbdallāh b. Dāwūd al-Khuraybī (d. 213) narrates how al-Aʿmash came to them one day ‘while angry’ saying:
Do you not wonder at Mūsā b. Ṭarīf?! He narrates from ʿAbāya from ʿAlī “I am the distributor of the Fire”’
This makes it seem that al-Aʿmash rejected the report and had no role in transmitting it.
- I was only joking!
Other reports have al-Aʿmash admitting that he did indeed report it but this was only in derision and with the aim of ridiculing its contents.
Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161) relates that it was said to to al-Aʿmash:
Why did you narrate this?
I narrated it in mockery
Qays b. al-Rabīʿ (d. 167) narrates that he heard al-Aʿmash say:
Bandits from assorted tribes come to me asking me about the Hadith of ʿAlī “I am the distributor of the Fire” I did not narrate this from Mūsā b. Ṭarīf from ʿAbāya except as a mockery of ʿAbāya!
But if making mockery of the report was al-Aʿmash’s true intention then he hadn’t expressed this very clearly for many of those who came to him took it seriously.
Abū Bakr b. ʿAyyāsh (d. 193), a student of al-Aʿmash, recounts that he said to al-Aʿmash:
When you narrated from Mūsā b. Ṭarīf from ʿAbāya from ʿAlī “I am the distributor of Fire” (what were you thinking)?
I swear by Allah – I did not narrate it except in mockery!
Abū Bakr b. ʿAyyāsh intejects:
The people have carried it from you in their sheets (i.e. books of Hadith) and you claim that you narrated it in mockery?!
- I narrate what I hear!
A third set has al-Aʿmash presenting no defense beyond ‘a narrator will narrate what comes his way’
ʿĪsā b. Yūnus (d. 187) recounts:
I never saw al-Aʿmash humbled except one time, for he narrated to us this Hadith: ʿAlī said, “I am the distributor of the Fire”
This reached the Ahl al-Sunna so they came to him and said, ‘Do you narrate Hadiths by which you strengthen the Rawāfiḍ, the Zaydiyya and the Shia?!’
He said, ‘I heard it so I narrated it’
They said, ‘So everything that you hear you will narrate?!’
ʿĪsā b. Yūnus concludes:
So I saw him humbled that day
It goes without saying that these explanations are self-contradictory and cannot all be true. Perhaps there was a need to fabricate a defense to clear al-Aʿmash of any wrong doing, and the fabricators got their wires crossed. It is more likely, however, that al-Aʿmash, who was under sustained pressure for narrating the report, succumbed to employing Taqiyya when he denied ever narrating it or when he defended himself by claiming that he narrated it in jest.
And this is supported by the following report preserved by al-Fasawī (d. 277).
Abū Muʿāwiya (d. 195), a long-standing companion of al-Aʿmash, says that ‘they’ (i.e. his close students) begged al-Aʿmash:
Do not narrate these Hadiths!
They (i.e. people) ask me (about them) so what can I do?
I may forget (to abstain from narrating) so if they ask me anything to do with this (i.e. the merits of ʿAlī) and I forget (am about to do it) then remind me (not to)!
Abū Muʿāwiya says:
We were with him one day when a man came and asked him about the Hadith “I am the distributor of the Fire”
So I cleared my throat (i.e. to remind al-Aʿmash to avoid answering)
But al-Aʿmash does not heed this warning and boldly states:
These Murjiʾa will not let me narrate the merits of ʿAlī!
Remove them from the Masjid so that I can narrate to you!
Do you not see, dear reader, how restrictive the atmosphere was, and how careful narrators had to be in how they negotiated narrating certain material so as to avoid getting ‘cancelled’?
A Death-bed Scene
al-Ṭūsī (d. 460) preserves the following report which is attributed to the prominent Kufan judge and prolific Hadith narrator, Sharīk b. ʿAbdallāh al-Nakhaʿī (d. 177), and which if accepted as historical demonstrates that the consequences of narrating ʿAlī’s statement literally dogged al-Aʿmash to his death-bed:
I visited al-Aʿmash during the sickness in which he died, so I was at his (i.e. al-Aʿmash’s) place when Ibn Shubruma, Ibn Abī Laylā and Abū Ḥanīfa came in to see him. They asked him about his condition and he (i.e. al-Aʿmash) mentioned feeling excessive weakness, voiced his fear over his sins, and was overcome by emotion and cried.
Abū Ḥanīfa faced him and said: O Abā Muḥammad (i.e. al-Aʿmash), fear Allah and show concern for yourself, for you are in the last day of the days of the world, and in the first day of the days of the hereafter – you used to narrate about ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib some Hadiths which if you were to recant it would be better for you!
Al-Aʿmash said: Like what O Nuʿmān?
He (i.e. Abū Ḥanīfa) said: Like the Hadith of ʿAbāya “I am the distributor of the Fire”
He (i.e. al-Aʿmash) said: Is it to the likes of me that you say this you Jew?!
Make me sit, support me, make me sit (i.e. he was laying on bed and asked to be helped to sit down).
I swear by the One to whom is my journey (that) Mūsā b. Ṭarīf narrated to me, and I did not see an Asadī who was better than him. He said: I heard ʿAbāya b. Ribʿī the Imam of the tribe. He said: I heard ʿAlī the Commander of the Faithful say, “I am the distributor of the Fire. I will say ‘this one is my ally – leave him be’ and ‘this one is my enemy – take him’”
And Abū al-Mutawakkil al-Nājī narrated to me in the governorship of al-Ḥajjāj, and he, that is al-Ḥajjāj, used to insult ʿAlī with the harshest of insults, may Allah curse him (i.e. al-Ḥajjāj), from Abī Saʿīd al-Khudrī. He said: The Messenger of Allah said: When it will be the Day of Judgment, Allah Mighty and Majestic will instruct (us) so ʿAlī and I will sit upon the Ṣirāṭ, and He will tell us, “Make the one who believes in Me and loves you both enter Paradise, and make the one who disbelieves in Me and hates you both enter Hell-fire!”
Abū Saʿīd said: The Messenger of Allah said: He has not believed in Allah the one who does not believe in me, and he does not believe in me the one who does not consider ʿAlī his authority [or he said love ʿAlī], and he recited (this verse) “The two of you (i.e. Muḥammad and ʿAlī) cast into Hell every obstinate disbeliever” (50:24)
So Abū Ḥanīfa covered his head with his wrap (after hearing al-Aʿmash say this) and said: Let us stand (depart)! Abū Muḥammad will not bring us something more calamitous than this!
The report ends with Sharīk b. ʿAbdallāh being quoted as saying, ‘So he, that is al-Aʿmash, did not stay one more night and left the world, may Allah have mercy on him’
The cumulative, fragmentary and incidental nature of the evidence presented above makes it very hard to dispute that great pressure was brought to bear on al-Aʿmash by some of his contemporaries over his decision to narrate a statement attributed to ʿAlī leading him to dissimulate, furthermore, the same statement when it made its way into Abū ʿAwāna’s book among other ‘problematic’ ones led to the book being burnt solely due to its contents.
What this case demonstrates is that Sunni Hadith critics were not the ‘objective’ and ‘impartial’ arbiters some present them to be, rather, they held certain pre-suppositions that need to be investigated and accepted as true before getting on-board with their enterprise and its associated findings, for if they were wrong in these pre-suppositions then all the results they produced are equally skewed!