When I finished my hadeeth studies at the Islamic University of Medinah, there was one specific hadeeth collection that caught my attention more than the rest, and I wanted to devote a proper amount of time to its study and teaching.
Imam al-Tirmidhi is most famous for three books of hadith he published:
- Sunan al-Tirmidhi; a hadeeth compilation that has proven to be one of the main sources for understanding the Prophet’s legacy
- Al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyah which are characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
- al-`ilal, a book about hadeeth defects which is often published as an extension of his Sunan.
Who is Imam al-Tirmidhi & why study his Jaami’
The most common lineage cited for the imam is:
محمد بن عيسى بن سَوْرة بن موسى بن الضحاك، السلمي الترمذي، أبو عيسى
Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Sawrah ibn Musa ibn al-Dahhak, al-Sulami al-Tirmidhi. And it’s possible there are other individuals in between these, as lineage is sometimes told without mentioning some lesser known individuals, depending on the context. His teknonym (kunyah) was Abu `Eesā.
He was born in the year 209 AH / 824 CE in the city of Termez. Termez was a known place since the time of Alexander the Great. It is currently a major city in the southernmost tip of Uzbekistan, just across the great Oxus river from Afghanistan, full of history, museums and beauty as well as currently a commercial hub with a population just shy of 150,000.
The most famous resident of the city, making it famous worldwide and known to all Muslims and many others, and subsequently known as “Termez Ota” by locals or Father of Termez is none other than Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi. There was another famous resident, al-Hakeem al-Tirmidhi of the Sufi tradition who compiled a book of rare [mostly weak!] hadeeth called Nawaadir al-Usool.
His family was originally from Merv but moved there a couple generations before. He was born during the caliphate of Ma’mun ibn Haroon al-Rasheed. So he witnessed the adoption of philosophy and non-Islamic ideology and cultural views into the Muslim world and the weakening of the Muslims due to it. Little is known of his early life, except his first shaykh was Muhammad ibn Ja`far al-Qawmasi al-Samnān (d. 221).
Al-Tirmidhi heard hadeeth in Khurasan, Iraq and the Hijaz, but did not visit Levant or Egypt. He received hadeeth from about 200 shaykhs, at least.
Imam al-Tirmidhi and Imam Muslim were both long term devoted students of Imam al-Bukhari. Imam Muslim may have hung around al-Bukhari longer, but Imam al-Tirmidhi was far more devoted to al-Bukhari, and quotes from him extensively throughout his own Sunan. So while al-Tirmidhi’s collection is not all authentic—as he did not intend for it to be—he lets the reader know what al-Bukhari’s opinions were on many narrations. Although Imam al-Bukhari was al-Tirmidhi’s senior in every way, al-Bukhari is known to have said to him: I benefited from you more than you benefited from me.
Imam al-Bukhari was the most traveled, the most studied, and the most stringent with what to publish in his famous Saheeh. And just as there were stories of al-Bukhari’s amazing memory, similarly with al-Tirmidhi.
Once he filled two notebooks with hadeeth from a shaykh, and then sought the shaykh again for review, holding his two notebooks. Then he realized he had the wrong notebooks, and the shaykh was reading to him, and the shaykh later noticed that Abu Isa’s books were blank. So the shaykh was narrating, and Abu Isa wasn’t writing anything down nor reviewing. So the shaykh said, “Do you have no shame with me?” So Abu ‘Isa explained that he grabbed the wrong notebooks but that it’s not a problem because I memorized everything. So the shaykh said, okay tell me everything, and he did. The shaykh didn’t believe it, and then said, “you must have reviewed all this before meeting me today.” So al-Tirmidhi challenged him to teach him something new, so the shaykh did just that, narrating 40 extra hadeeth, complete with chains of narrators, and afterwards said, now tell me! And so al-Tirmidhi recited all 40 from memory without mistaking a single letter. The teacher said, “I’ve never seen anyone like you.”
Al-Tirmidhi is often referred to as al-Ḥāfiẓ, which is a title reserved only for those who typically knew at least 100,000 hadeeth, complete with chain of narration, by heart.
Al-Haakim said: I heard Umar ibn `Allak say: “al-Bukhari passed away, so no one was left in all of Khurasan like Abu ‘Isa in knowledge, memorization, caution and asceticism; he cried until he went blind, and remained so for years [until death].”
He passed away Monday [eve], 13 Rajab 279 AH (Sunday night, 8 October 892) near Termez in an area no longer known but referred to in older books as Būgh (and he is sometimes ascribed to it as al-Bughi) and he was buried north of Termez on the outskirts of Shirabad. His gravesite, as far as I know, is unknown.
About his Sunan
Someone, a student perhaps, asked him to publish a book that contained what passed of narrations, with each followed by a clarification of any defects of transmission, words of other imams, jurists and critics. He held back for a long time out of humility and for not celebrating his own station in knowledge. He began compiling it after the year 250 A.H. (A.D. 864/5) and completed it on the 10 Dhu-al-Hijjah 270 A.H. (A.D. 884, June 9). The full official name of his work is
الجامع المختصر من السنن عن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ومعرفة الصحيح والمعلول وما عليه العمل
The Condensed Compilation of Traditions of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ with Clarification of the Authentic and the Defective and what is Acted Upon
He is reported to have said, “I showed this book to scholars of Hijaz, Khurasaan and Iraq, and they were pleased with it; so whoever has this book in their home, then it is as if there is a prophet speaking therein.”
Abu Ismail al-Ansari al-Harawi said: “To me, the book of al-Tirmidhi is more beneficial than the books of Bukhari and Muslim, because those two, the benefits are not extracted except by great scholars, but the compilation of al-Tirmidhi, then anyone can benefit from it, whether a muhaddith or jurist.” In other words, it is accessible, compared to other hadeeth books.
Ibn al-Atheer, compiler of Jaami al-Usool wrote, “His book al-Jaami al-Saheeh is the best of books with the most benefit, with the best ordering and the least repetition, and it contains what is missing from the others of schools of thought and perspectives of derivation, and it clarifies the conditions of the narrations from the sound, the weak and the anomalous,…” It’s common to refer to al-Tirmidhi’s collection, likewise some of the other books of hadeeth as Saheeh because most of the narrations within are authentic. However, one shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that all narrations within are valid.
Al-Tirmidhi’s book al-Jaami contains 3956 narrations—with 100 of them repeated; covering 2231 issues, in 51 chapters. There are 404 narrations that are unique to al-Tirmidhi, and not present even in Imam Ahmad’s Musnad of 28,000 narrations. 10 narrations, according to my professor, are alleged to be fabricated—all in the subject of virtues, feats and exegesis. 300 narrations are alleged to be weak—which is less than 10% overall. Only two narrations are mawqūf (موقوف) “stopped short” from being attributed to the Prophet ﷺ directly—so nearly 100% are marfū’ “raised up to him”. There is one single hadeeth with only three narrators between the compiler and the Messenger ﷺ. Of note, he also recorded one narration from Imam Muslim, and two from al-Bukhari.
It is probably more accurate to call his book al-Jaami rather than al-Sunan, because a large portion of the contents are tafseer, fitan, seerah, faith and hereafter, virtues and feats.
There are many imams and many books of hadeeth to learn, study and teach. I’ve chosen al-Tirmidhi because I believe it contains the most implicit knowledge. Why is that? Imam al-Tirmidhi went above and beyond what many other compilers did, giving a brief declaration for the narration’s authenticity or not, and also telling readers which imams used this hadeeth, and also told readers where to find other narrations about the same topic.
The significance of that is so you can essentially study any topic that Imam al-Tirmidhi headlines for you, and not need to look elsewhere except where he points you. If you study Sahih Muslim or Sunan Abu Dawud, for example, and you want to understand more about the topic, you would not know where to look next. Imam al-Tirmidhi tells you where you can find all the other ahadith that discuss the issue, so you can then feel confident you’ve gathered all the source material to make a proper study.
Al-Tirmidhi is thus, one of the first scholars to publish a book of comparative fiqh and a precursor to books of takhreej.
How does his Jaami compare to the other works of hadeeth? As for general benefit, there are numerous scholars that prefer the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi above the rest, because of the way he ordered the work and the brief commentary he included with each narration and topic. As for general authenticity, it’s common for scholars to place it “fourth” behind al-Bukhari, Muslim, and Abu Dawud. Al-Nasa’I deserves to be ahead of Abu Dawud but because al-Nasa’I composed his work with strictly the hadeeth audience in mind, its benefit is less, and its extra narrations not found in Bukhari or Muslim are extraordinarily few in number. Imam Malik and al-Daarimi each compiled very beneficial works, but each contain a great deal of broken narrations and sayings not attributed to the Prophet ﷺ.
Nonetheless, a lot of criticism has also been heaped upon al-Jaami, mainly the imam’s inconsistency with helping text—grading of narrations and pointing to other narrations from same or different companions.
Al-Tirmidhi’s status in fiqh – mujtahid or muqallid or…
Al-Mubarakfuri (d. 1352 ah) quoted ibn Taymiyyah as saying,
… As for al-Bukhari and Abu Dawud, they were both imams in fiqh, and both among the people of ijtihad. As for Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’I, ibn Maajah, ibn Khuzaimah, Abu Ya’la, al-Bazzaar and others, then they were upon the madhab of the people of hadeeth, and not following anyone in specific from the scholars, nor were they from the imams of unrestricted ijtihad, rather, they leaned towards the choices of the champions of hadeeth, like al-Shafi`I, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu `Ubaid and their contemporaries. And they were all much closer to the school of the Hijaz rather than the school of Iraq. As for Abu Dawud al-Ṭayālisī, then he was older than all of these, in the same generation as Yahya ibn Saeed al-Qattaan, Yazeed ibn Haroon al-Waasiti, AbdurRahman ibn Mahdi, and similar from the generation of Imam Ahmad’s teachers. And none of these ever held back any effort in following the Sunnah. However, some of them inclined towards the Iraqi school, like Wakee’ and Yahya ibn Sa’eed, but there were some who leaned towards the Medani school like AbdurRahman ibn Mahdi. As for al-Daraqutni, then he used to lean towards the Shafi’ school, but he had ijtihad and was from the imams of hadeeth and Sunnah. But his situation was not like that of the hadeeth leaders who came after him and clung to taqleed across the board, except for a small minority you could easily count; because al-Daraqutni was stronger in ijtihad than him, had greater fiqh and more knowledge…
Many Shafi and Hanbali faqih historians like to consider some of these imams from their own schools and count them in their scholastic histories known as Ṭabaqāt. The evidences however are not compelling, but noteworthy. Imam al-Bukhari, despite his individuality, is sometimes considered Shafi`I, and sometimes Hanbali. He once said, “I entered Baghdad eight times, and in each I visited Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and he said to me the last time I bade him farewell, are you going to abandon knowledge and the people by going to Khurasaan?” Similarly with al-Nasa’I, often attributed to one or the other school. Abu Dawud was one of the narrators of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s fiqh, so is sometimes attributed as being Hanbali.
Al-Tirmidhi followed the people of hadeeth presumably in creed as well.
Al-Tirmidhi as a hadeeth and transmitter critic
Regarding transmitters, al-Tirmidhi has a few words scattered in the books of Rijal, and he is considered among the lenient mutasahil in grading and criticism. He might refer to fabricators as being merely weak, and the accused muttaham as weak or even acceptable and good. Some latter scholars said that his lenience was just in where he differed from his contemporaries, but in most cases, he agreed with them. This has been a major point of criticism of his collection, even though he usually clarifies some of those narrations’ weaknesses.
My teacher for the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi in the Islamic University of Medinah, Dr Faisal al-Aqeel was a member of the faculty of Hadeeth and his doctoral dissertation was Zawaa’id al-Tirmidhi `alaa al-Tirmidhi. We focused on the books of Hajj and Foods during our semester-long study and memorized a portion of hadeeth from each. Alhamdulillah I received an A for the class.
For my study and teaching of the Sunan, I will primarily rely on:
- Tuḥfah al-Aḥwadhi by Abdul-Rahman al-Mubarakfuri (d. 1352)
- Al-I`laam bi Fawaa’id `Umdat al-Ahkam by ibn al-Mulaqqin
- Sharh Muslim by al-Nawawi
- Fath al-Bari by ibn Hajr
- Various compilations of zawa’id to compare the texts of related narrations
- Various biographical works from historians, to highlight interesting anecdotes about the people of the isnad, including the Prophet’s companions
- Tafseer al-Qurtubi and al-Alusi, among others, when appropriate
- The Kuwaiti fiqh encyclopedia, among other sources
- Audio recordings from different contemporary scholars and notes taken from my classes and different halaqas I’ve sat in
Most other sources used will be referenced throughout, as for these, I will rarely mention which source in specific, but a student of knowledge should know how to verify anything if needed.
Other sources not linked to within the text:
 This last reference, Allah knows best, without looking to the source of ibn Taymiyyah’s works, I am assuming he may be referring to al-Bayhaqi, who was a staunch muhaddith follower of al-Shafi—and Abul-Hasan al-Ashari for that matter, and instrumental in grounding both schools.