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Review of "The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon" by

A brilliant history of their compilation and the process over centuries by which they came to be seen as canonical texts.


13 January 2021

Amongst Muslims, the two Hadith collections of Bukhari (Muhammad bin Ismail al-Bukhari) and Muslim (Muslim bin al-Hajjaj) tower in reputation above other Hadith collections. They are referred to as “Sahih” which means an authentic saying of the Prophet Muhammad.

See the section “4. Hadith Literature – the Major Collections” in my review of the book "A Textbook of Hadith Studies: Authenticity, Compilation, Classification and Criticism of Hadith" by Mohammad Hashim Kamali.

Given their reputation today, it is hard to remember that there was a time when neither of these two collections existed. It is even harder to appreciate that after the collections were made, they were not instantly acknowledged as superior, and only acquired their status over a long period of time.

The author researched that process for his 2006 PhD thesis. I once found and downloaded a copy, but never finished reading it because I don’t like reading long PDF documents. (Reading it was made even harder because it was an OCR version made from the original microfilm.)

Accordingly, when I learned that it was available expanded into a published book, I was delighted to buy it in the spring of 2017 and read it shortly afterwards.

The author

Professor Jonathan Brown holds the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is a White American convert to Islam. The Wikipedia article about him reports that he converted in 1997, when he would have been aged about 20.

I have met him once, very briefly, in February 2016 when I attended his lecture “Is there Justice Outside God's Law?: Making Sense of the Boundaries of the Shariah in Islamic Civilization” at SOAS University of London.

That lecture has since been uploaded to YouTube with the following blurb. You can watch it below.

"A key tenet of belief in Islamic civilization was that God's law, the Shariah, was the most just and perfect system of law for mankind. The primacy of the Shariah in the minds of many Muslims today remains strong, and an enduring tension in Muslim communities is negotiating the legitimacy of legal systems outside of the Shariah.

This presentation will explore how classical Muslim scholars understood the relationship of the Shariah to justice, and how they reconciled their belief in the rule of law with the urgings of equity."

In the video below, at 1:00:10, you can watch me asking about the parallels between the lecture subject and the historical division of English law between "Common Law" and "Equity" along with his response.

He is one of today's most interesting Islamic scholars, part of a long line of converts who have made major contributions to Islam. I have read several of his books.

Overview of the book


The book comprises 378 pages + 52 pages of Appendices, Bibliography and Index.

The best way to get an overview is to read the very detailed table of contents, which I have reproduced below:

1. Introduction

  1. Introduction
  2. Thesis
  3. Scholarship on the Sahihayn and the Hadith Canon [The author uses the term “Sahihayn” to refer to the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim together.”]
  4. Addressing the Sahihayn as a Canon
  5. Note on the Sources and Approaches of this Study
  6. Problems in Approaches

2. The Study of Canons and Canonization

  1. Introduction
  2. Canons in Context and the Emergence of Canon Studies
  3. Canon Studies and the Islamic Tradition
  4. Theoretical Tools and Common Historical Processes: Canon Studies and the Hadith Canon
    1. Canons and Community
    2. Kanon and the Measure of Revealed Truth [The Greek word “kanon” which Aristotle used to mean “measure” is the origin of the term “Canon” in religious studies.]
    3. The Principle of Charity and Canonical Culture
  5. Conclusion

3. The Genesis of al-Bukhari and Muslim

  1. Introduction
  2. The Development of Hadith Literature
  3. The Sahih Movement and the Bifurcation of the Hadith Tradition
  4. The Continuity of the Living Isnad ["Isnad" = The chain of transmission of a hadith.]
  5. Reality: The Life and Works of al-Bukhari and Muslim
  6. Reality: Al-Bukhari, Sahib al-Sahih [“Sahib” in Arabic means “friend” or “master”.]
    1. The Sahih
    2. Legal Identity and Method
    3. Al-Bukhari and the Controversy over the Created Wording of the Quran
  7. Reality: Muslim, the Junior Partner
    1. Muslim’s Methodology in his Sahih
  8. Perception: Al-Bukhari, Muslim and the Greatest Generation
  9. Reception: The Immediate Response to al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s Works
  10. Conclusion

4. A “Period of Intense Canonical Process”: Imagination and the Study of the Sahihayn in the Long Fourth / Tenth Century

  1. Introduction
  2. The Mustakhraj Genre [The author explains that “A scholar produced a “mustakhraj” by compiling a book of Hadiths based on an existing collection that he used as a template.”]
  3. Mustakhraj: The Sahihayn as Formative Texts
    1. Al-Ismaili: Rationalist Muhaddith ["Muhaddith" = someone knowledgeable about hadith.]
    2. Abu Nuaym al-Isbahani and Shiite-Sunni Polemic
    3. Abu Awana and an Independent Legal Path
  4. Ilal and Ilzamat: Interaction with the Standards of al-Bukhari and Muslim ["Ilal" are books of "flaws" and "Ilzamat" are books of "recommended additions."]
  5. Required Study: Clarifying an Unclear Subject
  6. Regional and Temporal Distribution of the Sahihayn Network
    1. Naysabur: The Hometown Cult of Muslim
    2. Jurjan: A Cult of al-Bukhari Among Friends
    3. Baghdad: Inheriting the Study of the Sahihayn Among the Baghdad Knot
    4. Other: Isfahan and Central Asia
    5. An End to Regional Cults after 370 AH
  7. The Sahihayn Network: A Shafii Enterprise
  8. Intense Canonical Process: Imagining a New Epistemological Status for Hadith Books
  9. Why the Sahihayn?
  10. Conclusion: The Eve of Canonization

5. Canon and Community: al-Hakim al-Naysaburi and the Canonization of the Sahihayn

  1. Introduction
  2. The Life and Works of al-Hakim al-Naysaburi
  3. Al-Bukhari and Muslim in al-Hakim’s Vision of Hadith
  4. The Shurut According to al-Hakim: The Requirements of al-Bukhari and Muslim ["Shurut" = standards of work / methodology.]
    1. Two Rawis [hadith narrators] and the Elimination of Jahala [anonymity]
    2. Doubling Transmission: 1→2→ 4
    3. A Standard for Authenticity and a Standard for the Sahihayn
  5. Admitted Exceptions: al-Mustradak and the Standards of the Sahihayn as Ideal Rather Than Reality ["al-Mustradrak" was al Hakim's work comprising "ilzamat" ("recommended additions").]
  6. Al-Hakim’s Politics: The Expansion of the Authentic Umbrella
  7. Al-Hakim’s Mubtadia and the Ten Thousand ["Mubtadia" = "heretics"]
  8. Al-Hakim’s Target Audience: The Mutazilites and their Criteria for Authentic Hadiths
  9. The Mustadrak as a Common Measure of Authenticity
  10. The Discourse of Legal Theory: The Consensus of the Umma on Hadith
    1. The Hanafis
    2. The Later Mutazilites
    3. The Shafii / Ashari Orthodoxy
    4. The Hanbali Orthodoxy: Abu Yala Iban al-Farra
    5. The Malikis
    6. Al-Hakim and the Consensus of the Umma
  11. A New Common Ground between the Hanbali / Uber-Sunnis and the Shafii / Ashari Schools
  12. An Articulate Uber-Sunni: Abu Nasr al-Waili
  13. Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni: A Consummate Shafii and Ashari
  14. The Sahihayn Canon: The Authority of Convention and Common Ground
  15. Conclusion: Why the Sahihayn Now?

6. The Canon and the Needs of the Community: The Sahihayn as Measure of Authenticity, Authoritative Reference and Exemplum

  1. Introduction
    1. The Need for a Common Measure of Authenticity: The Sahihayn in Scholarly Debate
  2. Takhrij: Applying the Measure of Authenticity [The “Takhrij” of a hadith is a listing of the various collections in which it is reported.”]
  3. The Origins of Takhrij Among the Students of al-Hakim al-Naysaburi
  4. The Historical Application of Takhrij
    1. Polemics and Debate
    2. Bolstering Formative Texts
  5. Misuse of the Sahihayn Canon
    1. The Need for an Authoritative Reference: The Sahihayn and Non-Hadith Specialists
  6. The Need for an Exemplum: Aristotle’s Poetics and the Canon that Sets the Rule
  7. The Limits of the Canon’s Authority: The Dialogic Power of the Sahihayn
  8. Conclusion

7. The Principle of Charity and the Creation of Canonical Culture

  1. Introduction
  2. The Beginnings of Canonical Culture: Between 390 – 460 / 1000 – 1070
  3. The Character of the Canonical Culture: Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi and Defining the Personas of Al-Bukhari and Muslim
  4. Charity and the Maintenance of Canonical Culture
    1. Reinventing the Etiology: Charity and Legitimising al-Bukhari’s Sahih
    2. Charity and Maintaining the Superiority of al-Bukhari over Muslim
    3. Charity and Muslim’s Meeting with Abu Sura al-Razi
  5. Reconciling the Canon with Convention: the Sahihayn and the Rules of Hadith
    1. Charity and Tadlis [obfuscation]
    2. Charity and Transmitters
  6. Rebutting Earlier Criticisms
  7. Conclusion

8. The Canon and Criticism: Iconoclasm and Rejection of Canonical Culture from Ibn al-Salah to the Modern Salafi Movement

  1. Introduction
  2. Rejection of the Canonical Culture: criticism after Ibn Al-Salah
  3. Iconoclasm and Institutional Security in Islamic Civilization: The Salafi Tradition
    1. Revival and Reform in the Early Modern and Modern Periods
    2. Traditionalist Salafis in the Middle East
  4. Muhammad b. Ismail al-Sanani: A Yemeni Salafi
  5. Shah Wali Allah and the First Condemnation of Criticizing the Canon
  6. Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani: Iconoclast Extraordinaire
  7. Against the Canon: Al-Albani’s Criticism of the Sahihayn and His Detractors
  8. Conclusion: Al-Albani’s Reply and the Continuity of Iconoclastic Hadith Criticism

9. Canon and Synecdoche: The Sahihayn in Narrative and Ritual

  1. Introduction
  2. Delimiting the Infinite: Managing the Sunna through the Hadith Canon
  3. Synecdoche in Ritual: Usage of the Sahihayn Canon in Ritual Contexts
    1. Supplicatory and Medicinal Rituals
    2. Calendrical Rituals
    3. Political Rituals
  4. The Ritual Power of the Sahihayn: The Muhammadan Blessing
  5. The Canon and Synecdoche in Narrative: A Salvational Trope in a Narrative of Decline and Salvation
    1. Khaje Abdallah al-Ansari and the Beginning of Synecdoche in Narrative
    2. Al-Ghazali’s Return to the Straight Path: The Sahihayn as Synecdoche
    3. Al-Dhahabi’s Narrative of Islamic History: The Sahihayn as Synecdoche
  6. Conclusion

10. Conclusion

  1. Why the Sahihayn and Not Other Books?
  2. What Forces Led to the Canonization of the Sahihayn?
  3. Why Did the Canon Form at the Beginning of the Fifth / Eleventh Century?
  4. Did the Canon Emerge from Ferment and Strife?
  5. Was the Canon a Response to Shiism or the Product of the Seljuq State?
  6. Was the Sahihayn Canon the Product of or Limited to a Specific Region?
  7. Conclusion


Appendix 1: References for the Sahihayn Network Chart
Appendix 2: The Question of the Attribution of the Sahihayn

Select Bibliography


Why the book matters

Some Muslims, known as Quranists, reject Hadith entirely.

Conversely, as mentioned in my review of “A Textbook of Hadith Studies” mentioned above, some Muslims believe that doubting the authenticity of a single Hadith places you outside the boundary of Islam.

Most Muslims, including me, are somewhere between these two extremes. For them, it is important to understand both the methodology used by Hadith scholars and the history of the major Hadith collections, which the Sahihayn are the most important.

Assessment of the book

The above table of contents may look intimidating. However, the book is very easy to read and immensely informative.

After finishing the book, I had a far better understanding of Bukhari and Muslim as people, and of the process by which their Hadith collections acquired their status.

The book, as a major academic work, is immensely well referenced and is an excellent illustration of the high quality Islamic scholarship being undertaken in America, Britain and other free societies today.

Sadly, such scholarship is severely lacking in Muslim majority countries due to their widespread limitations on academic and religious freedom.



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