An individual tradition which narrates a ‘Sunnah’ of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) is termed in the relevant sciences as ‘Hadith’ (Pl. Ahadith). The ‘Ahadith’, with regard to the frequency of their sources, are divided into three major kinds:
1– Mutawatir: It is a Hadith narrated in each era, from the days of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) upto this day by such a large number of narrators that it is impossible to reasonably accept that all of them have colluded to tell a lie.
This kind is further classified into two sub-divisions:
(a) Mutawatir in words: It is a hadith whose words are narrated by such a large number as is required for a mutawatir, in a manner that all the narrators are unanimous in reporting it with the same words without any substantial discrepancy.
(b) Mutawatir in meaning: It is a mutawatir hadith which is not reported by the narrators in the same words. The words of the narrators are different. Sometimes even the reported events are not the same. But all the narrators are unanimous in reporting a basic concept which is common in all the reports. This common concept is also ranked as a mutawatir concept.
For example, there is a saying of the Holy Prophet
“Whoever intentionally attributes a lie against me, should prepare his seat in the Fire.”
This is a mutawatir hadith of the first kind, because it has a minimum of seventy four narrators. In other words, seventy four companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) have reported this hadith at different occasions, all with the same words.
The number of those who received this hadith from these companions is many times greater, because each of the seventy four companions has conveyed it to a number of his pupils. Thus, the total number of the narrators of this hadith has been increasing in each successive generation, and has never been less than seventy four. All these narrators, who are now hundreds in number, report it in the same words without even a minor change. This hadith is, therefore, mutawatir by words, because it cannot be imagined reasonably that such a large number of people have colluded to coin a fallacious sentence in order to attribute it to the Holy Prophet (SAWS).
On the other hand, it is also reported by such a large number of narrators that the Holy Prophet (SAWS) has enjoined us to perform two Rak’at in Fajr, four Rak’at in Zuhr, ‘Asr and ‘Isha, and three Rak’at in the Maghrib Prayer, yet the narrations of all the reporters who reported the number of Rak’at are not in the same words. Their words are different. Even the events reported by them are different. But the common feature of all the reports is the same. This common feature, namely, the exact number of Rak’at, is said to be mutawatir in meaning.
2. The second kind of hadith is Mashhoor. This term is defined by the scholars of Hadith as follows:
“A hadith which is not mutawatir, but its narrators are not less than three in any generation” (1).
The same term is also used by the scholars of Fiqah, but their definition is slightly different. They say,
“A mashhoor hadith is one which was not mutawatir in the generation of the Holy Companions, but became mutawatir immediately after them (2).
The Mashhoor hadith according to each definition falls in the second category following the mutawatir.
3. Khabarul wahid. It is a hadith whose narrators are less than three in any given generation.
Let us now examine each kind separately: