Knowing the H.adîth is Different From Practicing It
* Sufyân al-Thawrî used to say to the h.adîth scholars: “Come forward, O weak ones!”25 He also said: “If h.adîth were a good thing it would have vanished just as all goodness has vanished,” and “Pursuing the study of h.adîth is not part of the preparation for death, but a disease that preoccupies people.” Al-Dhahabî commented: “He said this verbatim. He is right in what he said because pursuing the study of h.adîth is other than the h.adîth itself.”26
Understanding the H.adîth is Superior to Knowing It
* Sufyân also said: “The explanation (tafsîr) of the h.adîth is better than the h.adîth.”27 Another wording has: “The explanation of the h.adîth is better than its audition.”28 Abû `Alî al-Naysabûrî said: “We consider understanding superior to memorization.”29
* Ish.âq ibn Râhûyah said: “I would sit in Iraq with Ah.mad ibn H.anbal, Yah.yâ ibn Ma`în, and our companions, rehearsing the narrations from one, two, three routes of transmission… But when I said: What is its intent? What is its explanation? What is its fiqh? They would all remain mute except Ah.mad ibn H.anbal.”30
* The perspicuity and fiqh of Abû Thawr among the h.adîth Masters is famous. A woman stood by a gathering of scholars of h.adîth comprising Yah.yâ ibn Ma`în, Abû Khaythama, Khalaf ibn Salim, and others. She heard them saying: “The Prophet said,” and “So-and-so narrated,” and “No one other than So-and-so narrated,” etc. Whereupon she asked them: “Can a woman in her menses wash the dead?” for that was her occupation. No one in the entire gathering could answer her, and they began to look at one another.
Abû Thawr arrived, and they referred her to him. She asked him the same question and he said: “Yes, she can wash the dead, as per the h.adîth of al-Qâsim from `A’isha: ‘Your menses are not in your hand,’31 and her narration whereby she would scrub the Prophet’s hair at a time she was menstruating.32 If the head of the living can be washed [by a woman in her menses], then a fortiori the dead!”
Hearing this, the h.adîth scholars said: “Right! So-and-so narrated it, and So-and-so told us, and we know it from such-and-such a chain,” and they plunged back into the narrations and chains of transmission.
The woman said: “Where were you all until now?”33
* Ibn `Abd al-Barr cites Imâm Ah.mad as saying: “From where does Yah.yâ ibn Ma`în know al-Shâfi`î? He does not know al-Shâfi`î nor has any idea what al-Shâfi`î says!”34 Ibn Râhûyah similarly conceded defeat before al-Shâfi`î’s jurisprudence although himself reputed for fiqh.35