Imam Abu Hanifah (80 – 150 H) was from the generation of the Tabi’in as he was alive during the era of the Sahabah and he saw Anas ibn Malik (d. 93 H), although it is not authentic that he narrated from him or any other Sahabi. Imam al-Suyuti mentions in Tabyid al-Sahifah (Mahmud Muhammad Mahmud Hasan Nassar ed. p. 34) that Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani said, “Ibn Sa’d narrated with a sanad in which there is no harm that Abu Hanifah saw Anas.” Ibn Hajar goes on to mention that this distinguishes Abu Hanifah from all the other Imams of the major towns from his contemporaries like al-Awza’i, Hammad ibn Zayd, Hammad ibn Salamah, al-Thawri, Malik, Muslim ibn Khalid and al-Layth ibn Sa’d.
Imam Abu Hanifah’s authority in fiqh is accepted by all from the Ahl al-Sunnah, both his supporters and his detractors. However, some still insist on casting doubt on his reliaibility in the narration of hadith. Imam Abu Hanifah did not narrate many hadiths as his preoccupation was fiqh and recording its masa’il, but his dependence on hadith and athar is apparent from his rulings and in this sense he is from the mukthirin – those who narrated large amounts of hadith (see Abu Hanifah wa Ashabuhu l-Muhaddithun, pp. 19-23). Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrated in his Tarikh Baghdad (Dr. Bashshar ‘Awwad Ma’ruf ed. 15:473) with an authentic chain of narration [in which all the narrators, al-Khallal, al-Hariri, al-Nakha’i and Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Farisi are thiqat (trustworthy)] from Makki ibn Ibrahim (126 – 214 H), a narrator from Abu Hanifah and one of the oldest shaykhs of Imam Bukhari and a narrator of the six famous collections of hadith described by Ibn Hajar as “thiqah thabt” in al-Taqrib one of the loftiest grades of reliability, that he said about Abu Hanifah, “He was the most knowledgeable of the people in his time.” (kana a’lama ahli zamanihi) “Knowledge” (‘ilm) in that time was knowledge of Qur’an and Sunnah, showing Abu Hanifah had vast knowledge of hadiths, but he would not be preoccupied with narration. Imam al-Dhahabi wrote: “Logic, dialectics and the philosophy of the ancients were not, by Allah, from the sciences of the Sahabah, nor the Tabi‘in, nor al-Awza‘i, al-Thawri, Malik and Abu Hanifah. Rather, their sciences were the Qur’an and hadith.” (Tadhkirat al-Huffaz, 1:192)
Imam Abu Hanifah’s trustworthiness in narrating hadith has been transmitted from the following five Imams of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil:
1. Abu Dawud al-Sijistani (202 – 275 H), the author of the Sunan
Abu ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (368 – 463 H) narrates in his al-Intiqa fi Fada’il al-A’immati l-Thalathat al-Fuqaha (Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah ed. pp. 66-67):
‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Mu’min ibn Yahya (al-Qurtubi), Allah have mercy on him, narrated to us: Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Bakr ibn ‘Abd al-Razzaq, known as Ibn Dasah, narrated to us: I heard Abu Dawud Sulayman ibn al-Ash‘ath ibn Ishaq al-Sijistani, Allah have mercy on him, say: “Allah have mercy on Malik, he was an Imam. Allah have mercy on al-Shafi‘i, he was an Imam. Allah have mercy on Abu Hanifah, he was an Imam.”
‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Mu’min al-Qurtubi is reliable (saduq) as mentioned in Lisan al-Mizan (4:587) which also states that “he is from the oldest of Abu ‘Umar (Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr)’s shaykhs.” Ibn Dasah (d. 346) is trustworthy (thiqah) and a narrator of the Sunan from Abu Dawud al-Sijistani (Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala). The isnad is therefore sound (hasan).
“Imam” has different meanings, but when used in the context of hadith science and narrator-criticism, it is on par with “trustworthy” (thiqah) and “proof” (hujjah) and “firm” (thabt), as mentioned by al-Sakhawi in his Sharh Alfiyyat al-‘Iraqi (al-Raf’ wa l-Takmil, p. 75-6). Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani also sufficed with “Imam” when grading Imam Abu Hanifah’s reliability in Taqrib al-Tahdhib, indicating this term is sufficient to establish trustworthiness.
2. Ali ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Madini (161 – 235 H), the great Imam of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil
Muhammad ibn al-Husayn ibn Ahmad ibn al-Husayn Abu l-Fath al-Azdi al-Mawsili (d. 374) mentioned in his book, al-Du‘afa, “‘Ali ibn al-Madini said: Al-Thawri, Ibn al-Mubarak, Hammad ibn Zayd, Hushaym, Waki‘ ibn al-Jarrah, ‘Abbad ibn al-‘Awam and Ja‘far ibn ‘Awn narrated from Abu Hanifah. He is trustworthy (thiqah), there is no harm in him.” (quoted in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr’s Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlih, Abu al-Ashbal al-Zuhayri ed., p. 1083)
Abu l-Fath al-Azdi narrated it without chain but his manner of narration (using sighat al-jazm) indicates it is authentic according to him.
3. Shu’bah ibn al-Hajjaj (85 – 160 H), the creator of the science of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil
Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr narrated from Hakam ibn al-Mundhir from Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf Ibn al-Dakhil from Ahmad ibn al-Hasan al-Hafiz from ‘Abd Allah ibn Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Dawraqi: Yahya ibn Ma‘in was asked about Abu Hanifah while I listened. He said: “[He is] trustworthy (thiqah), I have not heard anyone weakening him. Here is Shu‘bah ibn al-Hajjaj, writing to him and advising him to narrate. And Shu‘bah is Shu‘bah!” (Al-Intiqa fi Fada’il al-A’immat al-Thalathat al-Fuqaha, p. 197)
Al-Dawraqi is trustworthy (thiqah) according to al-Daraqutni and reliable (saduq) according to Ibn Abi Hatim (Misbah al-Arib 2:133). The rest of the narrators are known as huffaz and muhaddithin but their reliability is unknown. This narration is therefore either weak (da’if) or sound (hasan), depending on the principles used.
Shu’bah ibn al-Hajjaj would only narrate from trustworthy narrators, so if the above narration is sound, this would amount to Shu’bah declaring Abu Hanifah trustworthy.
4. Yahya ibn Ma’in (158 – 233 H), the great scholar of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil
Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Qasim ibn Muhriz, a student of Ibn Ma’in, narrated in his transmission of Ma’rifat al-Rijal of Ibn Ma’in from Yahya ibn Ma‘in that he said: “Abu Hanifah, there was no harm in him.” And he said once: “Abu Hanifah was, according to us, from the people of integrity. He was not accused of lying. Ibn Hubayrah beat him for [refusing] judgeship and he refused to be judge.” (Ma’rifat al-Rijal, Muhammad Kamil al-Qassar ed., vol. 1, no. 230; also al-Khatib with his chain in Tarikh Baghdad 15:580)
Ibn Muhriz’s reliability is unknown (he is majhul al-hal) but his narrations from Ibn Ma’in on the narrators of hadith have generally been accepted by the scholars of Rijal, and this transmission from him is corroborated by other narrations (mentioned below). It is well-known that Ibn Ma’in’s statement “there is no harm in him” is equivalent to his statement “trustworthy” (thiqah), as mentioned in Tadrib al-Rawi. This narration, therefore, proves Imam Abu Hanifah is trustworthy according to Ibn Ma’in.
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrates: (Abu l-Hasan Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad) ibn Rizq (325 – 412) narrated to us: Ahmad ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Umar ibn Hubaysh al-Razi narrated to us: I heard Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Isam (d. 313) say: I heard Muhammad ibn Sa‘d al-‘Awfi say: I heard Yahya ibn Ma‘in say: “Abu Hanifah was trustworthy. He would not narrate a hadith except what he had memorised and he would not narrate what he had not memorised.”
Ibn Rizq is trustworthy according to al-Khatib and al-Barqani. Ahmad ibn Ali ibn ‘Umar ibn Hubaysh is trustworthy (Tarikh Baghdad 5:510). Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Isam’s reliability is unknown. He is mentioned in Tarikh Asbahan of Abu Nu‘aym. Muhammad ibn Sa‘d al-‘Awfi is weak (layyin) according to al-Khatib but according to al-Daraqutni “there is no harm in him.” The narration is therefore weak (da’if) or sound (hasan), but more probably the latter as it is supported by similar statements from Ibn Ma’in like the two narrations mentioned above.
Hafiz al-Mizzi (654 – 742), the teacher of al-Dhahabi, writes in the introduction to his major work on narrators Tahdhib al-Kamal, “That in which we did not mention its isnad between us and its speaker: those from them in the form of certainty (sighat al-jazm) [i.e. where he uses the active tense, like “he said”, “he narrated”], it is that which we know of no harm in its isnad from its speaker from whom it is related; and those thereof in the in the form of uncertainty (sighat al-tamrid) [i.e. using the passive tense, like “it was said”, “it was narrated”], then probably there is a problem in its isnad upto its speaker…” (Tahdhib al-Kamal, Bashshar ‘Awwad Ma‘ruf ed., 1:153)
In his biography of Abu Hanifah in Tahdhib al-Kamal, he mentions the two narrations above without isnad, and also a third: “Salih ibn Muhammad al-Asadi al-Hafiz said: I heard Yahya ibn Ma‘in say: “Abu Hanifah was trustworthy in hadith.”” (Tahdhib al-Kamal 29:424) Salih ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Habib al-Asadi (d. 293) is trustworthy as mentioned by al-Daraqutni, al-Khatib and others (Misbah al-Arib, 2:93). Hence, this narration is authentic according to al-Mizzi.
There were other narrations from Ibn Ma’in declaring Abu Hanifah trustworthy as mentioned in Tarikh Baghdad but they have weaknesses in them.
Based on these aforementioned four narrations (from al-Dawraqi, Ibn Muhriz, Salih ibn Muhammad al-Asadi and al-‘Awfi), the later scholars have agreed the preserved (mahfuz) opinion of Yahya ibn Ma’in is Abu Hanifah is trustworthy. This is clear from al-Mizzi’s relation of only the three abovementioned narrations in his Tahdhib al-Kamal, followed by al-Dhahabi in his Siyar and al-‘Asqalani in Tahdhib al-Tahdhib. Dr. Bashshar Awwad also mentions in his footnotes to Tarikh Baghdad the preserved (mahfuz) opinion of Yahya ibn Ma’in is that Abu Hanifah is trustworthy. None of the later scholars like Mizzi, Dhahabi and ‘Asqalani mentioned any criticism from Ibn Ma’in of Abu Hanifah, indicating they believed the criticism narrated from him is inauthentic or unreliable.
There is however a narration with an authentic chain to Ibn Ma‘in, as narrated by Ibn ‘Adi in his al-Kamil fi Du’afa al-Rijal from ‘Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Sulayman (227 – 317) who is thiqah according to Ibn Yunus (Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala) from Ahmad ibn Sa‘d ibn Abi Maryam (d. 253) who is saduq according to Ibn Hajar in al-Taqrib: “I asked Yahya ibn Ma‘in about Abu Hanifah and he said: “His hadiths are not written.”” This narration is also found in Tarikh Baghdad. Criticising this narration because of Ahmad ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Maryam as was done by Imam al-Kawthari in his Ta’nib al-Khatib is incorrect, as is clear from the biographical notices on Ahmad ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Maryam. While the phrase “his hadiths are not written” does not necessarily indicate weakness in Ibn Ma‘in’s usage, if it is accepted as a weakening (tad’if), it would contradict the abovementioned more reliable and more numerous narrations, and would thus be shadhdh (an anomaly) and thus rejected when compared to the mahfuz narrations from Ibn Ma’in. There is another narration narrated in Tarikh Baghdad (15:581) from Ibn Ma’in saying Abu Hanifah “was weakened” but this is undoubtedly fabricated due to a particular narrator (Uthman ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Shaybah) in the chain.
5. Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Hakim al-Naysaburi (321 – 405 H), the author of al-Mustadrak
Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Hakim al-Naysaburi (321 – 405 H) , one of the first to write on the subject of ‘Ulum al-Hadith, wrote in his seminal work Ma’rifatu ‘Ulum al-Hadith in “Type 49 of the sciences of Hadith” (p. 642) that, “This type of science is knowledge of the well-known trustworthy imams (al-a’immat al-thiqat al-mashhurin) from the Tabi’in and their successors [i.e. the second and third generations] of those whose hadiths are gathered for memorisation, revision and seeking blessing through them. We will list them, from the east to the west.” (p. 642) While listing the “famous trustworthy imams” from Kufa, he mentions “Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man ibn Thabit al-Taymi” (p. 649).
In brief, therefore, it is established from Yahya ibn Ma’in, Abu Dawud al-Sijistani and al-Hakim that they believed Abu Hanifah was trustworthy and reliable in narrating hadith. The narration from Shu’bah is not as strongly established, while the narration from Ibn al-Madini is sound according to Abu l-Fath al-Azdi. Once it is established from the reliable scholars of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil that a narrator is trustworthy (thiqah) as is the case here, any unexplained criticism (jarh mubham) will not be accepted, based on the accepted principles of this science. Hence, al-Bukhari’s statement “they abandoned him” (“sakatu ‘anhu” which for al-Bukhari is equivalent to “tarakuhu“), al-Nasa’i’s “he is not strong” (laysa bi l-qawi), Muslim’s assessment in his al-Kuna wa l-Asma (no. 963 ed. ‘Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Ahmad al-Qashqari) that he is “confused in hadith” (mudtarib al-hadith) and al-Daraqutni’s “da’if” will not be accepted as they are unexplained. The explained criticism mentioned in the printed version of Mizan al-I’tidal by al-Dhahabi in which it mentions “al-Nasa’i and others weakened him due to his memory,” this is an insertion by a later scribe as is established by internal evidence (al-Dhahabi said he would not mention the biographies of the four imams of fiqh) and external evidence (al-‘Asqalani did not mention it in Lisan al-Mizan which is an expansion of al-Dhahabi’s work; and the earliest manuscripts of Mizan al-I’tidal do not contain a biography of Abu Hanifah). This was detailed by Abu Ghuddah in his footnotes to al-Raf’ wa l-Takmil.
Ibn Ma’in, in fact, also provides us with an explanation of the reason for other muhaddithun‘s criticism of Abu Hanifah. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr narrates: ‘Abd al Rahman ibn Yahya narrated to us: Ahmad ibn Sa‘id narrated to us: Abu Sa‘id ibn al-A‘rabi narrated to is: ‘Abbas ibn Muhammad al-Duri narrated to us: I heard Yahya ibn Ma‘in say: “Our companions have gone overboard in [their bias] against Abu Hanifah and his companions.” It was said to him: “Would Abu Hanifah lie?” He said “He was nobler than that.” (Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlih, Abu al-Ashbal al-Zuhayri ed., p. 1081) The editor Abu al-Ashbal al-Zuhayri says “It’s isnad is sahih.” This indicates the muhaddithun had a bias against Abu Hanifah and his students due to what they perceived as excessive issuance of rulings based on opinion, so their criticism should be taken with precaution. Hafiz Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 463 H) wrote: “Those who narrated from Abu Hanifah, and declared him trustworthy, and praised him, are more than those who criticised him; and those who criticised him from the scholars of hadith, most of what they blamed him for is immersion in juristic opinion, analogy and irja’ [all of which are invalid criticisms].” (Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlih, quoted in the footnotes to al-Intiqa’ fi Fada’il al-A’immat al-Thalathah, p. 185)
Explained criticism (jarh mufassar), however, has precedence over accreditation (ta’dil). Some scholars of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil did explain their criticism of Abu Hanifah. Ibn Abi Dawud (230 – 316) said as narrated by al-Khatib (Tarikh Baghdad 15:576) that Abu Hanifah narrated 150 hadiths and erred in half of them. However, it is known that there were individuals who fabricated narrations with chains through Abu Hanifah, and it was probably these narrations that these scholars criticised. This is known to have been the case with Ibn ‘Adi who narrated narrations from Abu Hanifah through Abba ibn Ja‘far al-Najirami who was active in the third century Hijri and would narrate fabricated hadiths through Abu Hanifah (Lisan al-Mizan 1:231). Many of his false hadiths are included in Musnad Abi Hanifah by Abu Muhammad al-Harithi (257 – 340). Al-Najirami was probably the reason why Ibn Abi Dawud believed Abu Hanifah would make mistakes and confused his narrations. Furthermore, there is some question over the integrity of Ibn Abi Dawud himself as mentioned in Lisan al-Mizan.
There is, however, another narration from Ibn al-Madini as narrated by al-Khatib in Tarikh Baghdad (15:581): ‘Ali ibn Muhammad (ibn al-Hasan) al-Maliki informed me: ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Uthman al-Saffar reported to us: Muhammad ibn ‘Imran al-Sayrafi reported to us: ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Madini narrated to us: “I asked my father about Abu Hanifah, the champion of opinion, and he weakened him severely and said: “Were he in front of me, I would not ask him about anything. He narrated fifty hadiths in which he erred.”” This is an explained criticism as it states the weakening is due to the errors found in his narrations. All the narrators are trustworthy, besides al-Khatib’s shaykh, Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Maliki (350 – 437 H) who is reliable (saduq) as mentioned in Tarikh Baghdad (13:584), and besides the son of Ibn al-Madini whose reliability is unknown. The narration therefore has a questionable chain. Moreover, it is contradicted by the narration mentioned above from Ibn al-Madini that Abu Hanifah is trustworthy in hadith. It is also contradicted by the narration from Yahya ibn Ma’in mentioned above in which he said “I have not heard anyone weakening him,” as Ibn al-Madini was a contemporary. This narration from Ibn al-Madini is therefore objectionable (munkar) with respect to its matn (text), particularly since the later specialists in the field of narrator-criticism who had full knowledge of Abu Hanifah’s available hadith narrations in the Masanid, Kitab al-Athar and other works, like Imams al-Mizzi, al-Dhahabi, Ibn Kathir and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, had only praise of him and assessed him to be strong in hadith; and if they found a large number of errors in his hadiths when compared to the hadiths of other narrators, they would not have made such an assessment.
The above is a detailed analysis of the bulk of the authentic information from the early scholars explicitly relating to Abu Hanifah’s reliability in narrating hadith. There are of course many other narrations relating to Imam Abu Hanifah’s piety and knowledge, and others criticising him in relation to fiqh and religion, but these have little relevance when it comes to his reliability in hadith. However, many evidences with respect to Abu Hanifah’s knowledge, honesty and memory support the conclusion that he was trustworthy in hadith.
In sum, it is established Abu Hanifah is trustworthy according to Yahya ibn Ma’in, Abu Dawud and al-Hakim, and probably Shu’bah ibn al-Hajjaj and Ibn al-Madini, so the ambiguous criticism of some muhaddithun will not be accepted based on the principle that an unexplained criticism is rejected in light of accreditation, while the authentic statements of Ibn Abi Dawud and Ibn ‘Adi explaining the criticism of Abu Hanifah that he erred when narrating hadiths can be explained by the deliberate fabrications made against Abu Hanifah circulating at that time. There is no doubt that the later pre-modern great scholars who had full access to all the primary sources and used them in their works, like al-Mizzi (in Tahdhib al-Kamal), al-Dhahabi (in Siyar A’lam al-Nubala and Tadhkirat al-Huffaz) and al-‘Asqalani (in Tahdhib al-Tahdhib), all believed Abu Hanifah was trustworthy in hadith, based on a complete analysis of the evidence. It should therefore be accepted that Abu Hanifah was trustworthy in narrating hadith. Modern detractors of Abu Hanifah like al-Albani dug up statements criticising Abu Hanifah after the ummah agreed to reject them and with no apparent knowledge of the principles of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil, they present them as conclusive evidence of Abu Hanifah being weak in narrating hadith. Fair analyses, taking into account all the evidence and the principles outlined by the scholars of al-Jarh wa l-Ta’dil, and devoid of bias in favour of Abu Hanifah or against him, clearly show he was a reliable transmitter of hadith.