An academic look at ‘Forty Narrations’
One (of) the most common and enduiring forms of using hadiths as a medium for scholarly or pios expression has been books of Arba’un hadith, or ‘Forty Hadith’ books. Supposedly the first Forty Hadith book was composed by the early scholar ibn al-Mubarak (d.181/797) on the basis of a hadith that, although attributed to the Prophet through many narrations and permultations, Muslims have agreed is unreliable: ‘Whoever memorizes for my community forty hadiths from Sunna, I will be his intercessor on the Day Of Judgment (Man hafiza ‘ala ummati arba’in hadithan min al-sunna kuntu lahu shafi’an yawm al-qiyama).’ Despite its unreliability, this hadith has served consistently as a catalyst in Islamic scholarly culture, and even Muslim scholars not known for any special interest in hadith have composed Forty Hadith collections on its basis. Among the non-hadith specialists who did so are the famous Shafi legal theorist al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) and the seminal Sufi theosopher Ibn Arabi (d. 638/1240). Some of the earliest known Forty books are those of Ahmad b. Harb al-Naysaburi (d. 234/848) and Ibrahim b. ‘Ali al-Dhuli (d. 294/905).
Like mu’jams, forty hadith collections could be tailored to display the elevation or rarity of a scholar’s hadiths or be devoted to specifici topics. Ibn Asakir and al-Silafi had forty hadith collections with one hadith for each of the fory lands they had visited. Abu Nu’aym al-Isbahani composed one with forty hadiths important to Sufis and one with forty hadiths about the Messiah (Mahdi). Muhammad b. Abd al-Rahman al-Tujini of Morocco (d. 610/1213) wrote several forty hadith collections, including one on the topic of praying for the Prophet.
The most exorbitant displays of the breath of a scholar’s hadith corpus are certainly the forty hadith collections of Ibn al-‘Abbar (d. 658/1259) and Muhammad b.’Abdal Wahidal-Ghafiqi (d. 619/1222), which were entitled ‘forty hadiths from forty different teachers from forty different books by forty different scholars via forty different isnads to forty different Suffcessors, from forty different tribes on forty different issues.’ Convinced that all possible forty hadith book themes had been exhaused, al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Naysaburi (d.656/1258) replicated this same topic but also drew his forty hadith from forty different forty hadith collections!
One forty hadith book in particular, al-Nawai’s ‘Forty Hadiths about the Principles of the Religion (Arba’un hadith fi usul al din)’ is one the most widely read books after the Quran among Sunni Muslims. It has served as an important tool for scholars to instruct the masses and has been the subject of numberous commentaries, such as the frequently studied Jami’ al-‘Ulum wa al-hikam (Compendium of the Sciences and Wisdoms) of Ibn Rajab (d. 795/1392) and Ibn Hajar al-Haytami’s (d. 974/1566) Fath al-Mubin bi-sharh al-arba’in.
The above being an extract from the book: Hadith Muhammad’s legacy in the medieval and modern world by Jonathan A.C. Brown.