The Arba‘iniyyat Genre between Past and Present: Basis, Origin, and a Contemporary Example
By Massoud Vahedi
This overview aims to analyze a number of topics pertaining to the arba’iniyyat genre, which refers to the centuries-old practices of compiling forty-hadith pamphlets. This will be achieved by briefly looking at a contemporary forty-hadith series on Prophetic Parenting by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani. To properly elucidate the style and content of this series, beforehand there will be some discussion on the arba‘iniyyat genre, its legal authorization, and its most famous example, namely that of Imam al-Nawawi. All of these issues contain rich debates and discussions which remain unexplored in the English language. Thereafter, a discussion on a specific subset of Shaykh Rabbani’s commentary on his own collection will follow.
Until the present age, arba‘iniyyat continue to emerge and be written, dealing with a wide array of topics, such as marriage, morals, character, and more. The basis behind the origins of the arba‘iniyyat composition rests on a significant hadith from the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace from Anas, Allah be pleased with him: “Whoever preserves for my nation forty ahadith from the Sunna, I will be an intercessor for him on the Day of Resurrection.” (Ibn Ady; al-Kamil) This hadith has been narrated through more than a dozen transmitters with various wordings, all of which suggest the immense virtue for collecting and writing forty narrations so that they are learnt and benefited from. Despite the grand majority of scholars declaring these reports to be weak, the consistent practice of scholars throughout multiple generations has been gathering forty-hadith collections. This practice began early on with the inception of the eminent hadith scholar Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, then Muhammad ibn Aslam al-Tusi, who was followed by al-Nasawi, thereafter by Abu Bakr al-Ajuri, and so on.
Despite us observing countless scholars collect their forty-hadith pamphlets, the content and theme behind the collections vastly differ. Al-Nawawi notes that collections before him exclusively focused on one of the following topics: fundamentals of creed and theology (usul), subsidiary matters (furu‘) pertaining to religious ordinances and acts of worship, asceticism (al-zuhd), religious piety and manners, religious exhortations, and so on. However, al-Nawawi did something revolutionary in his own collection that would grant his forty-hadith collection an eminent status until the end of time.
Instead of collecting forty hadiths dealing exclusively on one question or topic, he collected hadiths whose content encompasses all of these topics and combined them in a unique way in his compilation. Secondly, he picked narrations which have been declared by past hadith masters and jurists as embodying the main teachings of the religion or being from its foundational principles. Thirdly, he only picked narrations which he deemed to be authentic, with most of them being collected by al-Bukhari and Muslim. Fourthly, he removed the long chains for the hadiths of his collection so the narrations could be easily read and memorized by laymen. Lastly, Ibn Rajab also mentioned on this topic that Imam al-Nawawi’s noble and pure intention behind the compilation of his arba’in also paved the way for its positive reception among the Umma.
One excellent example of a contemporary forty-hadith collection comes from Shaykh Faraz Rabbani. His collection is entitled: Prophetic Parenting: 40 Hadiths on Raising Righteous Muslim Children. This collection contains hadiths pertaining to Prophetic Parenting, and has a comprehensive listing of hadiths which discuss how Muslims can be successful parents in the contemporary context we live in. The Shaykh extracts subtle gems from hadiths which the average reader may be completely unaware of. Owing to space constraints, regrettably only a few hadiths can be discussed here. The hadith that orders us to “marry the one of religion, so that you may be successful” (al-Bukhari and Muslim) has a number of hidden benefits that Shaykh Faraz skillfully extracts for his audience. Being a good parent is not something which starts after marriage, but actually well before the child is born. In fact, it starts even before one marries. In order to be a good parent, one needs to choose a righteous spouse that is actively concerned about the religious upbringing of their future children.
Secondly, a person might superficially read this hadith and think that the importance of being “one of religion” only applies while picking a spouse. But actually, upholding and sustaining religiosity also applies within the marriage, because otherwise the religious meaning and sanctity of the matrimonial bond will be lost in the middle of the journey. To only think that this applies while searching for a prospective spouse defeats the intended meaning. The key point here is that we can in religious terms actually become better spouses during the marriage. This is something that we can all improve on with ourselves and our partners. Another hadith in the Shaykh’s collection is: “If there comes to you someone whose religion and character is pleasing to you, then marry them. If you do not, there will be much tribulation and corruption on earth.” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi) Shaykh Faraz derives two crucial benefits from this hadith. Firstly, we are reminded through this report that marriage is not an individual decision or matter. It actually has a strong social dimension as well. We can readily notice the social repercussions involved when marriages do not occur at a desired pace. To achieve this adequate rate of marriage both parties should be easy-going in decision-making.
Another hadith is reported from the authority of ibn Umar, that the Prophet Allah bless him and give him peace said regarding al-Hasan and al-Husain: “They are my two joys in this life” (Muslim). On this hadith the Shaykh beautifully explains how as Muslims we should not look at children as being burdens to be overcome, but as gifts that should be appreciated. Secondly, we should view them (and by extension our parenting) as being a means and vehicle to reaching salvation in the hereafter. We must be cognizant of the religious aspects as being a parent, because by doing so, we are rewarded for all the small and mundane things we for our children. By having the right intention, we will no longer see childrearing as being a collection of repetitive and mechanical tasks, but a duty and responsibility before our Creator which if done right means many good deeds.
Another hadith mentions on the authority of Abu Bakra how al-Hasan Allah be pleased with them would as a child would frequently would rise up on the back of the Prophet Allah bless him and give him peace when he prostrated during his prayer. The Prophet would rise up very slowly and put Hasan down gently. (Ibn Hibban and al-Tabarani) Here, Shaykh Faraz notes how in the Prophet’s actions there is a “sense of balance” between maintaining the serenity of the prayer and being flexible with a child’s playfulness. The key here is realizing this delicate balance and applying it today in our prayer places as much as possible.
We note that the Prophet Allah bless him and give him peace did not rebuke al-Hasan for his actions; in other words, he did not actively stop him from getting on his back. From this we can derive that natural childlike actions in the mosques are to be tolerated by parents. But when there are severe and excessive disturbances then deterrence is needed, lest the sanctity of the mosque or the quality of prayer of the congregants be violated. Regrettably, on the issue of children going to the mosques, many of us are often caught on one extreme and have lost the Prophetic model of balance and flexibility.
Massoud Vahedi is a Canadian doctoral student in political science. In terms of Islamic sciences, he has concentrated his studies in Mustalah al-Hadith (Hadith nomenclature) and Hanbali Fiqh.