When Scholars Differ Over The Reliability Of A Narrator, Part 1
Different Standards For Criticising Narrators
Scholars of this science (Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel) did not all share the exact same standard for criticising narrators (1). Some scholars were severe (in their criticism), others lenient, and a third group was moderate.
Group 1) Those who were known to be sterner judges of narrators were Ibn Ma’een, Yahyaa Ibn Sa’eed Al-Qattaan, Ibn Hibbaan, and Aboo Haatim Ar-Raazee.
Group 2) Those who were known to be lenient when appraising narrators were the likes of Tirmidhee, Al-Haakim and Ibn mahdee.
Group 3) Among the moderates in this regard were the likes of Imaam Ahmad, Bukhaaree and Muslim.
Therefore regarding the same narrator, some scholars might rule him to be trustworthy, while others rule him to be weak, a difference that results from different standards set by each Imaam for his appraisal (ta’deel). In fact, it is possible that two opinions about a narrator might be related from a single Imaam, who at first ruled that he was trustworthy and then learned something that caused him to rule otherwise, and vice versa.
Stipulating The Reasons/Causes For Discrediting A Narrator
Because of partisanship and other similar motives, scholars of this science eventually stipulated that a negative criticism (jarh) of any narrator must be accomplished by an explanation that justifies the claim.
Al-Haafidh Ibn Katheer said:
“… As opposed to a negative judgement (about a narrator), for it must be accomplished by justification.”
This is because people differ regarding the reasons for which they rule someone to be weak or untrustworthy; one scholar may have a set of standards for ruling in this regard, while another may have other standards, which is why a negative judgement must be accompanied by justification.
The majority of hadeeth scholars have held that discrediting (jarh) by a learned and upright person is acceptable even without any further explanation as to its grounds, but that such explanation is necessary in the event where jarh (discrediting) is attempted by a commoner (‘aammee).
The Incident Of Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee
It is thus reported that when Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee learned that someone had discredited another, he enquired into the grounds/reasons of his accusation. The man said that he saw the accused urinating in a standing position. The Imaam then asked as to what did that have to do with discrediting the person, to which the man replied that the urine would splash onto his clothes and praying in such clothes became questionable.
The Imaam then asked the man whether he had actually seen the accused praying in those clothes, to which the man said ‘no’. The Imaam then said that a learned man would not discredit another on weak grounds such as this. [Al-Kifaaya of Al-Baghdaadee, p. 135 & Al-Waseet of Aboo Shahba, p. 387]
Based on this it is known that validation (ta’deel) and discrediting (jarh) are only acceptable from persons who are knowledgeable of this subject to a degree that inspires confidence in their ability and insight.
(1) Some scholars, like Adh-Dhahabee, approved of one category of standards of Imaam Bukhaaree, while disagreeing with him about another category.
[See “The Sunnah, And Its Role In Islamic Legislation”, Pp.159-160 & “Hadeeth Studies” by Mohammad Hasim Kamali Pp. 80-95]