From Issue: 1018 [Read full issue]
Hadith scholars have differed over the definition of the term mutawatir. Some hold that whether a hadith is mutawatir depends on the number of narrators. Imam Ibn Hajar wrote:
A hadith may be classed as mutawatir if it meets the following four conditions: (1) The number of individuals who narrated the account is so large that it would be virtually impossible for them to have colluded in deceit. (2) All individuals in the chain of narration are of equally unquestionable integrity. (3) The last individual in the chain of transmission physically witnessed the action or heard the statement in question. (4) The account in question conveys genuine knowledge to those who hear it.
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi defined the term mutawatir as referring to reports "which have been transmitted by a sufficiently large number of people that, upon seeing them, one would know that it would have been impossible for them to have agreed amongst themselves to lie."
The question, then, is: How can we expect to acquire meaningful knowledge from a report simply because it was passed down by a certain unspecified number of people? And on what basis can we determine how large this group of people has to be in order for it to be impossible for them to collude in deception? One cannot help but note, moreover, that all the proposed definitions of mutawatir revolve around the notion of lying and deliberate deception, whereas none of them makes any mention of the possibility of error, illusion, forgetfulness and the like, to which even the most trustworthy narrator could fall prey.
Scholars have never settled amongst themselves on the number of narrators required for a report to be classified as mutawatir, with some specifying three as the minimum, and others specifying as many as 1,500! Each number proposed is based on the conclusions these scholars have drawn from relevant texts or situations. With reference to scholars' speculations on the number of narrators required for a hadith to be mutawatir, Indian scholar Abdul Hayy Lucknawi (d. 1304 ah/ 1887 ce) wrote:
All such statements and their like are invalid. The more correct view, put forward by numerous hadith scholars, is that the classification of mutawatir does not require a hadith to have been transmitted by a particular number of narrators. Rather, what matters is that it convey certain knowledge.
In the view of thinkers such as Lucknawi, the classification of a hadith as mutawatir has to do with one's reason, emotions and sense of trust or confidence in what an account is saying. After reviewing the various points of view on the number of narrators required for a hadith to be termed mutawatir, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 605 ah/1209 ce) stated:
None of these restrictions and qualifications has anything to do with the question at hand. You might say: "If you define knowledge based on the fulfilment of a certain, undefined quota of narrators, you will not be able to argue from this against an opponent." And to this I reply, "We do not argue in favour of certain knowledge on the basis of reports classed as mutawatir, that is, based on a requisite number of narratives that is not even specified. Rather, as we have explained, the matter of whether one may gain certain knowledge has to do with one's perceptions."
"Reviving The Balance: The Authority of the Qur'an and the Status of the Sunnah" - Taha Jabir Alalwani. pp. 163-165.