In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hadith Commentary

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographical Sources on Hadith Commentators

Islamic Studies Hadith Commentary
Joel Blecher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0192


During the Islamic classical period, even after the tradition of Qurʾan commentary (tafsir) had already matured as a literary genre, many Muslim scholars assumed that only obscure hadith (ḥadīth) or hadith with particular legal import required clarification. Beginning in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, largely but not exclusively among Maliki hadith scholars in southern Spain and North Africa, the hadith collections themselves came to be understood as worthy of systematic commentary. These commentaries took the form of live lessons, oral glosses during a recitation of hadith commentary, and multivolume written works for use as reference during devotional study, recitation, legal instruction, and legal practice. Commentators used live and written commentaries on hadith collections to defend their positions on law and theology and to polemicize the doctrines of their opponents. The regional and temporal center of hadith commentarial activity largely shifted in the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries to Egypt and Syria, where the genre of hadith commentary came of age largely through the efforts of Shafiʿi hadith scholars. In this period, commentators not only explicated the contents (mutun) of hadith collections, but also began to include systematic analyses of each hadith’s chain of transmission (isnad), and even the compilations’ organization under headings (tarajim). These works often took a lifetime to complete, and were embedded in a competitive culture of live performance in which patronage, prestige, and legal and theological commitments were at stake. Commentaries on shorter collections, such as topical works of forty hadith, also served to educate general audiences on popular topics such as the principles of Islam, jihad, and Sufism. While commentary was a substantive component of the earliest Shiʿi hadith collections from the outset, systematic commentarial activity on Imami Shiʿi hadith collections proliferated in the 16th and 17th centuries in Persia under the patronage of the Safavids, and in the context of Akhbari and Usuli debates over the status of hadith in Shiʿi law. Similar to the role they played in the Sunni tradition, Shiʿi commentaries used hadiths as an opportunity to elucidate and expound upon difficult legal, theological, and mystical concepts and practices. In the modern and contemporary world, the practice of hadith commentary has continued to thrive in the Middle East and South Asia. Globalization, new technologies, and new media have changed both the mechanisms and the messages of hadith commentary. Contemporary commentary on hadith not only serves as a vehicle for religious polemics and apologetics, as it did in the premodern period, but also as a venue for political commentary, both subtle and explicit.

General Overviews

There are currently no trade books, textbooks, monographs, or encyclopedia entries fully dedicated to introducing a general reader or a specialist to the practice and tradition of hadith commentary. Gilliot 2015 mentions hadith commentary in the entry on commentary, or “Sharḥ,” in the Encyclopedia of Islam. There are, however, several books that general readers can consult for an outline of the tradition. Brown 2009 does so, especially chapters 2 (for the Sunni tradition) and 4 (for the Shiʿi tradition). For a taste of some of the exegetical strategies employed by Sunni hadith commentators, chapter 3 of Abdul-Jabbar 2007 is the most accessible guide. Alavi 1985 introduces readers to the commentary tradition on Nawawi’s popular 13th-century collection of forty hadith on the principles of Islam. For any students or scholars who can read Arabic but are unfamiliar with hadith commentary, Hasan Khan 1987 offers the clearest introduction. Al-Maktaba al-Shāmila likewise provides Arabic-literate readers with a growing and searchable archive of over a hundred works of hadith commentary. Meanwhile, Sezgin 1967–2000 lists bibliographic information for extant hadith commentaries from the 10th century to the 20th century.

  • Abdul-Jabbar, Ghassan. Bukhari. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    For general and undergraduate audiences. The third chapter offers a representative and easy to understand walkthrough of commentary on the first hadith of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī.

  • Alavi, Khalid. “Arbaʿin al-Nawawi and Its Commentaries: An Overview.” Islamic Studies 24 (1985): 349–356.

    This article provides a brief background on Nawawi’s popular hadith collection from the 13th century, and offers a dated but still useful annotated bibliography of twenty-seven commentaries on it, surveying both manuscript and printed sources.

  • Brown, Jonathan A. C. Hadith. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

    Aimed at undergraduates and advanced researchers. Surveys the form and function of hadith literature in Sunni, Shiʿi, and Sufi contexts. The second chapter briefly addresses the development of Sunni hadith commentary, and the fourth chapter the development of Shiʿi commentary.

  • Gilliot, Claude. “Sharḥ.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Edited by Th. Bianqui, P. Bearman, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs. Leiden, The Netherlands, Brill, 2015.

    While there is no dedicated entry on hadith commentary yet, this article briefly outlines the hadith commentary tradition under the general umbrella of “sharḥ” (commentary), and compares the relative quantity of commentaries generated by each of the major Sunni collections.

  • Hasan Khan, Siddiq. Al-Ḥiṭṭa fī al-ṣiḥāh al-sitta. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Jil, 1987.

    In Arabic. Khan was a leading figure in the Ahl-i Hadith movement, and this work can be read as a primary source in its own right. Nevertheless, it offers a succinct overview of the methods and techniques hadith commentators employ.

  • Al-Maktaba al-Shāmila: Shurūḥ al-Ḥadīth.

    Growing online and searchable archive of over one hundred premodern and modern hadith commentaries in Arabic. Online search form is currently limited to one-word searches, but users can download the software for more advanced searches. Academic researchers will still need to consult print or manuscript sources, as word-searchable texts are sometimes inaccurate and contain few page references. Site also links readers to PDFs of printed works online.

  • Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1967–2000.

    In German. A standard bibliographical reference, GAS contains extensive lists of extant commentaries on hadith collections from the 10th–20th centuries.

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