This is a translation of a Q&A posed to Shaykh Hobbollah, original Arabic here
Question: I kindly request you, our esteemed Sheikh, to enumerate evidence from the Qurʾān or ḥadīths from the infallibles, peace be upon them, that ‘ilm al-rijāl in its present state is the criterion for the authenticity of ḥadīths.
The answer: I believe that the question may be wrong, because the value of one of the sciences is not only dependent on taking its legitimacy from the Qurʾān or Sunnah. Do we have evidence from the Qurʾān or Sunnah on the validity of the mechanical sciences with which land, sea and air vehicles travel today? Do we have in the Qurʾān or Sunnah evidence of the correctness of the physical or chemical sciences, their methodology, or their standards in dealing with the phenomena of nature? Rather, do we have texts from the Qurʾān or Sunnah that teach us the method of Ijtihād that we find in the science of Uṣūl al-fiqh in the current method today? Rather, do we have a justification today from the Qurʾān or Sunnah that authenticates our way of understanding ḥadīths? Even the science of language with its many spaces, do we have texts that legitimise it and correct recourse to it in the way that exists today? Did the Ahl al-Bayt refer people to language dictionaries, grammar books, morphology and rhetoric, just as the exegete, ḥadīth scholar and jurist today refer to it?
Even the science of ḥadīth itself and the value of narrations, is it something we can take from the narration itself? Because logically a narration can not establish itself, and the same goes for the Noble Qurʾān, it is not possible to establish its authenticity by referring to what it reports about its own authenticity, because it is not possible to authenticate itself. Rather, we must prove its correctness from other scientific, rational and intellectual methods that adopt it, it is not something that a text in the Qurʾān can prove to us – before proving the correctness of the Qurʾān – that the Qurʾān is true, just because its text said that the Qurʾān is true.
It is not necessary – in order for ‘ilm al-rijāl to be a correct science – to take its validity from a verse or a narration by necessity, nor is that required for the science of philosophy, theology, history, natural and human sciences.
Sometimes we find a science whose topics have been exposed in religious texts, and other times we do not find this thing, and this is a natural matter for all sciences and their relationship to religious texts, but the main question is: Are there texts that prohibit us from dealing with ‘ilm al-rijāl in this way or not? And where are these texts? What is the correct standard in dealing with them?
‘Ilm al-rijāl – and all the sciences related to establishing history – are human sciences that depend on human reason and human logic in thinking, and use religious texts to guide them, otherwise they depend on themselves.
Human logic does not accept taking a specific position – especially if the issue is important and dangerous – from a liar, or from a person whom someone we trust has testified that he is a liar, and human logic accepts that we take from a truthful person when there is nothing in what he conveys to us that raises doubts about his honesty and accuracy, and accordingly one does not need the science of ‘ilm al-rijāl – after proving its soundness by rational reasoning – to bring a verse or a narration to be correct. Rather, it is important to look at whether there is anything in the religious texts that opposes the use of this science or not? On the religious level, it is necessary to look at the texts that prevent this science in order to nullify its legitimacy, not to look at the texts calling for this science in order to prove its legitimacy, and this is the case for most natural and human sciences.
Rather, even if we go towards your way of thinking in dealing with the subject, the scholars of rijāl and uṣūl have prevailed in extensive studies on the correctness of their methodology, so they attempted to prove the authenticity of the report of a trustworthy person, through ḥadīth and Qurʾānic texts such as the verse of Al-Naba, the verse of Al-Kitman, the verse of Al-Suaal and other verses, and they studied the details of the Ahl al-Bayt’s interaction with the narrators and narrations that were circulating in their time, they noticed that the Ahl al-Bayt – as well as many of the followers, jurists and scholars from all schools of thought – paid attention to the transmission of ḥadīths. And they find that the Ahl al-Bayt warned against liars in narration in dozens of religious texts, and they warned against specific individuals; because they lied about the Prophet and his Ahl al-Bayt, and we find them referring people to others, whom they describe as trustworthy reliable ones in dozens of narrations in this regard, and thus we found them focusing on the text of the ḥadīth and comparing it against the Qurʾān and all their other words, presenting a diverse approach to authenticating religious texts. And there were no texts reported from them rejecting ‘ilm al-rijāl and examining the conditions of narrators despite the prevalence of these sciences since the second century after Hijri among the masses of the Muslims. Rather, the Imāmīs themselves and others have authored many books on rijāl and what is close to and related to them, and we have not found texts that reject this science, and if documenting the narrators is something of no value, why did it becomes the custom of the Muslims – including the Imāmīyyah – in the first five Hijri centuries, and in the era of the Quranic revelation as well according to the Imāmī account, to mention the chains of transmission and to pay attention to the narrators of ḥadīths, this under the sight and hearing of the Ahl al-Bayt, peace be upon them.
Yes, all this does not mean that the method rijāl scholars utilize today is correct in detail. Rather, a person may debate them in a theory here or there, or in a method here or there, a rational discussion at times, and a discussion based on religious texts at other times, and this is a natural thing that happens between scholars of rijāl and al-jarḥ wa l-taʿdīl from the various sects, for example, for me personally, I am not very convinced that the words of the classical scholars are evidence of trustworthiness or weakness. Rather, I call them indicators of trust or weakness, and I distinguish between evidence and indication, and the reason for this is that the authoritativeness of the words of rijāl scholars is based on the authoritativeness of reassurance or speculative reassurance. As some scholars such as Sheikh Al-Mamaqānī and others used to believe, so accordingly just Al-Ṭūsī saying that so-and-so is trustworthy, may not always suffice for reassurance in his authentication, but if a person collects a set of data in this regard, then he would attain reassurance even if he is not a person that has regular whispers/temptations [from Satan], and reassurance is a rational and legal authority (Ḥujjah) at the same time.
Also, the reference to ‘ilm al-rijāl does not mean that the final position of each narration is in the hands of the rijāl research only, but it is necessary to include the various elements affecting the trust in the issuance of a ḥadīth, such as studying the text, analysing it and comparing it to the Qurʾān and the intellect (ʿaql), and such as analysing the sources and chains, their multiplicity and diversity, and such as the study of the history of the emergence of ḥadīth in terms of proximity to the era of the Quranic revelation or far from it, such as the study of the narrators’ interests and their impact on this or that subject on the possibility of fabricating the ḥadīth, and such as the negative and positive possibilities in the issuance of this or that ḥadīth..
The issue is diverse, and that is why when we want to delete the role of a science like ‘ilm al-rijāl and omit it it completely, we have to present an alternative theory in dealing with ḥadīth, either we say: the role of the honorable ḥadīth must be abolished completely, or we say: an alternative criterion must be established that proves the issuance of religious texts, even with reassuring speculation.
And the question: If we remove ‘ilm al-rijāl (and with it the sciences of biographies, genealogy and indexes) from the shared arena of processes of proving issuance while it characterizes itself as the science that provides us with a lot of information about the transmission of ḥadīth, in addition to the science of ḥadīth itself, then how do we establish ḥadīth? Imagine now that all the books of ḥadīth have no chain of transmission in the first place, so how can we prove their authenticity except in rare cases? Will that be an easy matter? Is it correct to say that those who care about the sources of ḥadīth, its history, its narrators, and the circumstances of the transmitting personalities, that they are worshipers of chains of transmission? If they were worshipers of chains of transmission, then what is the alternative theory that allows us to logically prove the hadith if we exclude disposition (i.e. following what we just merely believe on a whimsical basis or inherited) and the agreement of the ḥadīth with subjective, sectarian, religious and factional tendencies?! Does the mere fact that a ḥadīth does not contradict the Qurʾān mean that it was issued? What is the evidence for that? Does the mere validity of the content prove the correctness of its issuance? What is the evidence for this illogical leap?
As for the ḥadīths on comparing narrations to the Qurʾān and their role in this subject, they have been talked about at length in Uṣūli researches, and they contain many words regarding their role in proving the ḥadīth that does not contradict the Qurʾān. And their position is almost agreed upon – except for a few – regarding the inability of the religious texts of comparing against the Qurʾān to prove the issuance of a ḥadīth that does not contradict the Qurʾān, except by describing the non-contradiction as one of the indicators of reliability, and limiting the role of these reports to one of invalidating the ḥadīth that contradicts the Qurʾān without the establishing perspective of the ḥadīth that corresponds to the Qurʾān, and we have discussed this in our research regarding content criticism of the noble ḥadīth, and we have also chosen this opinion.
Therefore, ‘ilm al-rijāl (and its related sciences) is a human science, we did not find an explicit opposition from the religious texts regarding it, but it does not constitute the final point of judgment on the ḥadīths, but rather we consider it an essential stream of probabilistic indicators that strengthens our confidence in the issuance of a ḥadīth at times or weakens our confidence in its issuance at other times. Therefore, when Al-Najāshī says that so-and-so is trustworthy, we may trust him; not because Al-Najāshī said that and we are submitting ourselves to Al-Najāshī’s words, as what Al-Najāshī said is nothing but ijtihād from him that may sometimes be mixed with some sensory elements, but rather because his saying – if accompanied by other elements – may oblige us to trust the authentication of so-and-so, and the same if Al-Najāshī said: so-and-so is weak or a liar, so we don’t abandon this person’s narrations by submitting ourselves only to Al-Najāshī words as if it is the saying of an infallible, rather, because the words of Al-Najāshī confuse our trust in the trustworthiness of so-and-so, we cannot easily prove his reliability after that. Rather, we may be able to prove his lying if we include additional data among Al-Najāshī’s testimony, and similarly when a narrator is muhmal (neglected) or majhūl (unknown), the probabilistic power in his truth remains less than if they testify to his honesty, so there will be more need for a combination of methods and other influential elements.
Hence, we said in a previous place that the book of Al-Ghaḍā’irī – even if the attribution of the copy we have today to him is not established, as is most likely – remains a probabilistic indicator, which its value forms part of the value of the probabilistic indicators in the testimony of Al-Najāshī; because the probability of attributing the book to him is half, for example, so we do not possess a weakening testimony from Al-Ghaḍā’irī, but we do have a realistic probability for the existence of testimonies of weakness by Al-Ghaḍā’irī, and this is a probability which is not hypothetical as is clear, hence, we note the position of Al-Ghaḍā’irī – not as opposed to the saying of Al-Najāshī, so the saying of Al-Najāshī is taken and that of Al-Ghaḍā’irī left; because its attribution is not established, as is the method of conducting the authenticity of the solitary report.. Rather – if the testimony of Al-Najāshī had a probability of seventy percent, then what we got from the book of Al-Ghaḍā’irī represents twenty percent, for example, so I must take into account all these elements in the context of gaining confidence in the result, so note carefully. This is what I find correct in the interpretation of the standards of the sciences of chain of transmission in dealing with ḥadīth.