Lone-Narrator Reports

The lone-narrator report (khabar al-wâhid) lexically means something narrated by only one person, and in hadith nomenclature, any report that does not reach the conditions of mass narration (tawâtur), whether narrated by one, two, or more narrators.1

Ahl al-Sunna concur, unlike the Mu`tazila, that the lone-narrator reports that are authenticated – “acceptable” (maqbûl) in hadith nomenclature – are obligatory to believe and put into practice. Al-Qari relates, on this point, the consensus of the Companions and the Successors.2

Where scholars differ is whether the same hadiths convey certainty of knowledge (al-`ilm al-yaqînî) or only the compelling assumption of truth (al-zann al-ghâlib). These two categories differ insofar as obligatory practice and belief based on certainty of knowledge cannot be denied except on pains of apostasy, while the denial of obligatory practice and belief based on reports compellingly assumed to be true do not constitute apostasy but constitute sin.

The scholars do concur that if one disbelieves in a sound lone-narrator report one commits a grave transgression (fisq) and is even considered misguided (dâll), but does not leave the fold of Islam.3 This is clearly unlike disbelief in a mass-transmitted report or in a verse of the Qur’an.

Ibn Khafif (d. 371) said in his Correct Islamic Doctrine (al-`Aqida al-Sahiha):

89. Lone-narrator reports (âhâd) make practice obligatory, but not knowledge (yûjib al-`amal lâ al-`ilm), while mass-narrated (mutawâtir) reports make both knowledge and practice obligatory.

The meaning of the above position is that it is obligatory to integrate the content of an accepted lone-narrator report into one’s Islamic practice and belief; however, such a report does not impose the certainty of knowledge of a mass-transmitted report.

The scholars classified the truth of acceptable reports into “definitive” (qat`î) and “assumed” (zannî). All of them agree that a mass-narrated report is qat`î al-thubût - “definitely established,” while a non-mass-narrated accepted hadith is zannî al-thubût - “assumed to be established.” However, the latter assumption carries various degrees of strength, the highest of which, according to Ibn Hajar and others, reaches definiteness.

For example, if a lone-narrated hadith is narrated in the two Sahihs, has several (non-discrepant) chains of transmission, and counts among its narrators great Imams such as Malik and al-Shafi`i, “then it would not be far-fetched to declare it definitely true, and Allah knows best.”4 At the same time Ibn Hajar warned: “All the types of non-mutawâtir hadith which we have mentioned do not result in [certainty of] knowledge regarding their veracity except to the scholar of hadith who has reached the level of expertise, knows the situations of the narrators, and is fully acquainted with the minute defects of hadith.”5

Thus certain indices or parallels (qarâ’in) raise the accepted lone-narrated hadith closer or up to the level of definitive, obligatory knowledge as already illustrated by Ibn Hajar’s words, and as stated by the scholars of usûl.6Among them are those mentioned by Ibn Hajar – the acceptance of the report by the entire Community, lack of discrepancy among its various narrations, and soundness of their chains of transmission. Examples of such hadiths are those that concern the punishment of the grave.7

All of the scholars further agree, as already stated, that a non-mass-narrated accepted hadith, although merely zannî al-thubût, possesses the following properties:

* Belief in it is obligatory (al-tasdîq bihi wâjib) * Denying it is a grave transgression (inkâruhu fisq)

Beyond the above, the scholars disagreed on the point brought up by Ibn Khafif. Some have held that we are obliged only to assume as true accepted lone-narrator reports, although they do make belief and practice obligatory since such assumption is compelling (yufîd al-zann al-ghâlib) and thus precludes doubt. This is the position of Ibn Khafif and the Ash`aris, in conformity with the vast majority (al-jumhûr) of Ahl al-Sunna as stated by Ibn `Abd al-Barr:

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