Traditions: Literal Narration

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Although the literal narration is better and always preferable, narration of meaning is allowed if the narrator has an expert command of Arabic, if the word used is appropriate in the given context, and if the original has been forgotten. However, the Companions always narrated Traditions literally despite this permission. For example, one day ‘Ubayd ibn ‘Umayr narrated: “A hypocrite resembles a sheep left between rabidayn (two flocks).” ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar objected: “He did not say so. I heard the Messenger say: ‘A hypocrite resembles a sheep left between ghanamayn (two flocks).'” [1] The meaning is the same; the difference is only between the words rabidayn and ghanamayn.

This same care was adopted by the scholars or narrators belonging to the generation immediately following the Companions, known as the Tabi’un (those who follow). For instance, someone narrated in the presence of Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna: “The Messenger forbade leaving the juice (of grapes, dates, and the like) to ferment (an yuntabadha) in bowls made of pumpkin and lined with pitch.” Sufyan objected: “I heard Zuhri narrate: ‘The Messenger forbade leaving the juice (of grapes, dates, and the like) to ferment (an yunbadha) in bowls made of pumpkin and lined with pitch.'” [2] There is no difference in meaning, only in the verb’s conjugation.

Bara ibn ‘Adhib related:

The Messenger advised me: Perform wudu’ before going to bed. Then lie on your right side and pray: “O God, I have submitted myself to You and committed my affair to You. I have sheltered in You, in fear of You, and in quest of You. There is no shelter from You except in You. I believe in Your Book You sent down, and Your Prophet You raised.” To memorize this immediately, I repeated it to the Messenger and said at the end of it “Your Messenger You raised.” He corrected the final sentence, saying: “and Your Prophet You raised.” [3]

People dream when they sleep. True dreams constitute 1/46 of Prophethood, for the Messenger had true dreams during the first 6 months of his 23-year period of Prophethood. As they are related to Prophethood, not to Messengership, [4] the Messenger corrected Bara. This care was shown by almost all Companions, who studied the Traditions they heard from the Messenger and then discussed their meanings and connotations. The Messenger told them: “Memorize and study the Traditions, for some are related to others. Therefore, come together and discuss them.” [5]


[1] Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi, Musnad, 248.
[2] Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Kifaya fi ‘Ilm al-Riwaya, 178.
[3] Bukhari, “Da’awat,” 6.
[4] A Prophet is one who receives revelation but is not given a Book and therefore following the way of a previous Messenger. While a Messenger is he who usually receives a Book or Pages and sets a way to follow. (Tr.)
[5] Darimi, “Muqaddima,” 51.