Abu Talib: Al-Zuhri’s questionable hadith [Part 4]


Abu Talib: Al-Zuhri’s questionable hadith [Part 4]

“What a [great] man he could have been, had he not ruined himself by associating with the kings.”


“What a [great] man he could have been, had he not ruined himself by associating with the kings.”

Building off of “Part 3: The Hadith of al-Musayyib”, another angle that must be examined in the narration’s chain is on part of its common narrator, Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri. For indeed, every one of its narrations is transmitted through him and he is the madar [1] who widely circulated the report.

In Sahih al-Bukhari [1294] and Sahih Muslim [24], Ibrahim b. Sa’d transmitted the narration from Salih, who took it from al-Zuhri. Also, in Sahih al-Bukhari [3671 & 4398], Sahih Muslim [24], and Sunan al-Nasa’i, Ma’mar transmitted the report from al-Zuhri, as well as Shu’aib from al-Zuhri in Sahih al-Bukhari [4494 & 6303], and Yunus from al-Zuhri in Sahih Muslim [5 & 24]. There is no doubt that al-Zuhri heard narrations from Sa’id b. al-Musayyib, but our interest is more so on Ibn Shihab himself, and what history tells us about the first official hadith compiler in the Islamic tradition.

The Life of Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri

Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Muslim b. ‘Ubaidullah b. ‘Abdullah b. Shihab b. ‘Abdullah b. al-Harith b. Zuhrah b. Kilab, was famously known as Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri. He was born in the year 50 AH, and passed away in 124 AH after a life of servitude to the rulers of his time. Al-Zuhri was a central figure among the earliest collectors and transmitters of the Sirah (biography of the Prophet) and Hadith. He was recruited at an early age, after being raised and having studied in Medina, by the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan to serve administrative duties in the government in Damascus.

Al-Zuhri remained in Damascus for the rest of his life and served multiple caliphs during the Umayyad era. A major factor for this was the fact that al-Zuhri was poor and needed monetary income, which he received a plethora of by serving in the Umayyad court. His official duties changed a few times as he took up multiple roles, but what remained constant was that he was a scholar of the state throughout his services.

Ibn Abi Dhi’b mentioned that al-Zuhri was in financial hardship and in debt when, as a young man in his twenties or early thirties, he arrived in Damascus. Al-Hafidh Ibn Hajar mentioned that al-Zuhri used to work for Banu Umayya [2], serving as a qadhi [i.e. judge] for ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan, Yazid b. ‘Abd al-Malik, and ‘Umar II. Later, he would also take up the position of a tax collector, going out to collect taxes from the people for the Umayyad state [3].

At some point al-Zuhri was also the chief of the shurtah (i.e. police officers) for one of the Umayyad caliphs. Kharijah b. Mus’ab reported, “I came to al-Zuhri when he was the chief of the shurtah for one of the [caliphs of the] Banu Marwan. I saw him riding [i.e. in a state procession], holding a harbah [i.e. javelin] in his hand, and before him were the members of the police force under his command, holding whips. I said [to myself]: ‘May Allah render this scholar ugly.’ I left without hearing [any hadith] from him” [4].

Imam al-Dhahabi mentioned that, “He had many dependents and servants, was a man of eminence [in the Umayyad court], was dressed in the outfit of the ajnad [soldiers] , and enjoyed a high rank in the state of the Banu Umayyah. He had the rank of an amir [ruler]” [5]. Such a status is well known to have been the position of Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri during his time in the Umayyad court, and it certainly did effect the sentiments some of the contemporaries of his time and other scholars after him felt regarding the knowledge he transmitted. Makhul [al-Nasafi] stated, “What a [great] man he could have been, had he not ruined himself by associating with the kings” [6].

The famous hadith scholar and critic Yahya b. Ma’in said of al-Zuhri, “He was sultaniyyan [7]” [8]. Yahya b. Ma’in would also disapprove of comparing al-Zuhri with al-A’mash, stating that the former served in the administration of the Banu Umayyah, whereas the latter was poor, patient, and avoided rulers [9]. The famous Mu’tazili scholar ‘Amr b. ‘Ubaid once reprimanded a man whom he had seen in al-Zuhri’s company, saying, “What business do you have with the napkin of the rulers?” [10].

Al-Zuhri and the Umayyads

Obviously working as an official statesmen, tax-collector, administrator, judge, and officer for the Umayyad rulers, while simultaneously being a scholar and major hadith transmitter lead to problematic predicaments for Ibn Shihab. There are recorded accounts by some of the students of al-Zuhri stating the sloppy and irresponsible application of the ‘ardh [transmission by presenting narrations] technique. One such account is narrated by al-Zuhri’s student Ma’mar b. Rashid, “I saw a man from Banu Umayya, Ibrahim b. al-Walid, who came to al-Zuhri with a book [a written collection or notebook] that he [al-Walid] had written. He asked, “Shall I transmit these from you, O Abu Bakr?” Al-Zuhri said: “Who else could have told you the hadith?” [11].

Ma’mar also stated, “The methods of al-Zuhri with his students and companions was like that of al-Hakam b. ‘Utayba’s [12] method with his companions, they would ascribe the hadith of one narrator to another” [13]. Ma’mar’s statements convey that al-Zuhri had no intention of checking the contents of the kitab presented to him for inspection, and took a passive attitude to verifying reliable transmission. It is known that the rulers would have al-Zuhri dictate hadith narrations to members of their administration and court, who would record them and pass it along. Al-Waqidi once questioned al-Zuhri’s nephew about the circumstances in which he had heard a certain hadith from his uncle, to which the nephew replied, “I was with him when Hisham b. ‘Abd al-Malik ordered him to dictate for him his hadith, and he seated before him secretaries and writers to whom al-Zuhri dictated while they recorded” [14].

The narration of Ma’mar alludes to us that Ibrahim b. al-Walid brought one of these notebooks that he had recorded narrations in from al-Zuhri’s dictation sessions, whereupon instead of meticulously verifying its contents he passively allows the ruler to attribute it to himself in validation. This also gives the impression that al-Zuhri may have been pressured into accepting and allowing for such practices to take place. His flawed practices as a hadith transmitter can be further seen in a similar report from Ubaidullah b. ‘Umar, ‘Umar b. al-Khattab’s great-grandson who, like Ma’mar, was a student of al-Zuhri.

He says, “I have seen Ibn Shihab when one of his ‘books’ [15] was brought to him. And he was asked [by his student who brought him the book]: ‘O Abu Bakr, this is your book and your hadith, shall we transmit it on your authority?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He did not read it out and it was not read out to him” [16]. It is can thus be determined that the oppressive rulers of Banu Umayyah used al-Zuhri as the axle for the wheel of their falsehood and into a bridge for their deceit and error.

The Umayyads had an agenda, like any other dynasty, to solidify their position in rulership and to eliminate any threats or enemies of their state. In order for their rule to have religious backing and legitimacy, infiltration of the hadith corpus was necessary to shift the narrative and have themselves be viewed in a favorable light by the Muslim nation. Figures like Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri played an essential role in allowing this to happen, whether intentionally or not. Practices such as dictating to the Umayyad court, and thereafter allowing for their officials to transmit their notes and dictations on his authority – without verifying its contents – inevitably lead to interpolations and changes of wording to say the least. At worst, narrations were forged or redesigned to conveniently meet their purpose and thereafter, circulated and attributed to none other than the great scholar and hadith collector of their time – al-Zuhri.

One such report is the hadith known as the “Hadith of the Three Mosques”. During the Umayyad struggle with Ibn al-Zubayr around 69 A.H., the then-caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan prohibited the Muslims of Sham from making pilgrimage to Mecca. He wanted to weaken the position of his political opponent Ibn al-Zubayr who took residence in Mecca and would compel pilgrims to give him the oath of allegiance upon their arrival for Hajj. ‘Abd al-Malik then redirected the emphasis of pilgrimage from the Ka’bah to al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

When the people complained about the prohibition, the caliph replied: “Here is Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri who transmits to you the Prophet’s saying: ‘the saddles of the camels shall only be fastened for a journey to three mosques, namely the Ka’bah, my own mosque [in Medina], and the mosque of Jerusalem’ [17]. Whether this narration was fabricated or that al-Zuhri actually transmitted it is a discussion for another time and requires its own separate research. Suffice to say that the hadith was transmitted in the Umayyad period and that its transmission was aligned with Umayyad objectives. The caliph allegedly sought support from the young al-Zuhri who helped him repel his critics. According to al-Ya’qubi, the Muslim geographer and historian of the Islamic golden age, ‘Abd al-Malik intended to provide a substitute for pilgrimage to the Ka’bah against the background of his conflict with Ibn al-Zubayr [19]. 

The Umayyad rulers sought to legitimize their own position as rightful caliphs by belittling their opposition – those they felt threatened by most – the Hashimi ‘Alids. Since they were not able to find flaws in ‘Ali himself, they sought to take advantage of the fact that very few people in their time were present in the Meccan days to have witnessed Abu Talib – so they attempted to taint the Hashimi image [in their eyes] by attributing him with kufr. More so, they attempted to taint ‘Ali’s image by attacking his own father, due to their nasb, hypocrisy, and greed for power. State-scholars like Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri helped push that agenda by being the religious vehicle through which the oppressors would validate their corrupt policies and beliefs.

The Umayyads were masters at manufacturing and generating religious texts [primarily prophetic reports] through chains that were taken for granted as authentic due to the transmission of al-Zuhri – such as his alleged report from Sa’id b. al-Musayyib, from his father al-Musayyib, regarding the death of Abu Talib. It appears the reports were most likely generated during al-Zuhri’s time, and then later more widely and famously circulated by the ‘Abbasids during the beginning of their dynasty. My final discussion on this topic will be presented in the next and last part of this article series, where a brief look at the Umayyad and Abbasid motives in regards to Abu Talib’s fate in the afterlife, will be presented.


[1] Conjoining-point in the chain of transmission. The narrator through which the hadith becomes spread and widely transmitted.

[2] Tahdhib, (6/54)

[3] Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, al-Tamhid

[4] Tahdhib (5/29)

[5] Siyar al-A’lam al-Nubala’

[6] Siyar al-A’lam al-Nubala’

[7] Meaning, he enjoyed a high position with the rulers and served them

[8] Su’alat Ibn Junayd, 355.

[9] Al-Hakim, Ma’rifat ‘Ulum al-Hadith

[10] Al-‘Ulaymi, al-Uns al-Jalil bi-tarikh al-Quds wa’l Khalil

[11] Khatib al-Baghdadi, Kitab al-Kifayah fi ‘ilm al-Riwayah

[12] A member of the Umayyad administration at the time of Hisham b. ‘Abd al-Malik. He was a qadhi in Kufa during the governorship of Khalid al-Qasri.

[13] Al-‘Ulaymi, al-Uns al-Jalil bi-tarikh al-Quds wa’l Khalil

[14] Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat

[15] A written collection or notebook including hadiths transmitted from al-Zuhri

[16] Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat

[17] Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarikh al-Baghdad

[18] Al-Ya’qubi, Tarikh, (2/261)  

[19] Al-Fasawi, al-Ma’rifah wa’l Tarikh

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