Learning hadith to acquire knowledge directly from our Imams (as) is not the prerogative of the hawza scholars and mujtahids only. It is a duty and responsibility of each and every muslim.
I heard Abu Jafar say: By Allah, that companion of mine is beloved to me, who narrates and ponders over our Hadith, and the evil one is the one who hears the Hadith which has been associated with us (as) and has been reported form us (as), so his mind does not accept it and his heart is constricted by what is contained in it, and he fights against it and denies it to make it his religion, and he does not know that it could be the hadith which is coming from us (as) and to us (as) is it’s link, so by that he has exited out of our wilayah (guardianship) [Source: Basair ul Darajat Chapter 22]
The Messenger of Allah (sawas) said: Seeking of knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim. Seek knowledge from its sources (i.e. Masumeen (as)) and take it from the People of Ahadith (i.e. narrators of hadith) [Source: Wasail us Shia H33127]
The division of society into two classes – clergy and layman is not supported in hadith. Every Shia must acquire knowledge of hadith which is obligatory. Hadith have been meticulously preserved and documented by the efforts of our great muhadditheen (collectors/narrators of hadith). Preservation and protection of hadith is a guarantee which the Holy Prophet (as) made when he announced that he will leave behind the two weighty things.
When we encounter contradictions in hadith (which are rare), we can refer to guidance provide by our Imams (as) on how to resolve them. Despite our best efforts if we are still not able to resolve the difference then one is allowed to act on any one of them with the intention of Qurba. One will be judged by Allah (swt) on sincere efforts to follow the footsteps of the Masumeen (as).
Below are some of the hadith we have compiled that explain how to resolve disparities. Surprisingly, Ilm al rijal is not mentioned as a criteria.
1. Refer to the Book of Allah:
Abu Abd Allah (asws) said: The Messenger of Allah (saww) said: ‘Surely on every truth there is reality, and on every correct thing there is a light. Whatever is in agreement with the Book of Allah (azwj) take hold of it, and that which is against the Book of Allah (azwj), leave it’. [Source: H33343 Wasail us Shia]
Abu Ja’far (asws) said: ‘If there comes to you from us (asws) a Hadith, you find a witness for it or two witnesses from the Book of Allah, take by it otherwise stand still, then return it back to us (asws), until its clarification comes to you’. [Source: H33351 Wasail us Shia]
2. Prefer the one who has more knowledge of Hadith:
Abu Abd Allah (asws) said – Regarding two people who agree on the appointment of two just persons who issue decisions which are different, and they are happy with the fairness of the two judges, which of the two decisions have to be implemented? He (asws) said: ‘Look at their understanding and knowledge of our (asws) hadith and whoever is better, implement his decision and do not pay attention to the other one’. [Source: H33351 Wasail us Shia]
Here the Imam (as) is referring to the ones who have knowledge of hadith. These are the narrators/compilers of hadith (defined as fuqaha by the Imams) – the ones who readily quote hadith and provide references to them. Unfortunately, the mujtahids don’t share hadith with the people who follow them.
3. One Must Hold Back in Confusing Matters:
Abu Abd Allah (asws) said: ‘Holding back in confusing matters is better than falling into destruction. For every truth there is a reality, and on all correctness there is a light. Whatsoever is in agreement with the Book of Allah azwj, take it, and whatsoever is against the Book of Allah azwj, leave it’. [Source: H33368 Wasail us Shia]
4. Flexibility in choosing one of them:
Imam Al-Reza (asws) said, when it was said to him (asws), ‘The Hadith from you (asws) are differing’, he (asws) said: ‘What comes to you from us (asws), compare it to the Book of Allah and our (asws) (other) hadith. If they are similar, then they are from us (asws) , and if they are not similar, then they are not from us (asws)’. I said, ‘There come to us two men – and both of them are reliable – with two hadith which differ, and we do not know which one of them is on the just’. He (asws) said: ‘If you do not know then you have been given the flexibility to take to whichever of them’. [Source: H33373 Wasail us Shia]
5. Choose the one against the majority of Muslims:
And from Sama’at Bin Mehran, from Abu Abd Allah (asws) when it was said to him (asws), ‘Two Hadith get referred to us, one of them orders us for something, and the other one prohibits us’. He (asws) said: ‘Do not act upon any one of them until you meet your Master (asws), ask him (asws)’. I said, ‘If it is necessary to act upon one of them?’ He (asws) said: ‘Take to the one which is against the generality of the Muslims’.
[Source H33375 Wasail us Shia]
Ameerul Momineen (as) said, ‘Allah has made certain acts compulsory upon you. Do not waste them. He also has created boundaries for you. Do not cross them. He has forbidden from you certain things. Do not go against Him. Whatever has not been mentioned was not due to Allah forgetting. So do not try to know about them.’ [Source: Nahjul Balagha Saying No 835]
If one can’t find a religious ruling regarding an issue, it is best to refrain from performing the action. Any attempt to create rulings from personal opinion is equivalent to playing God and tantamount to shirk.
Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) said, ‘In the case of doubt, it is better to refrain from performing an act than to become destroyed by performing it’. [Source: Usool e Kafi Kitab e Aql chapter 22 hadith 10]
6. One Must Wait until he Finds the Authentic Hadith:
When it was asked from Abu Abd Allah (asws) about the man, for whom there is a dispute about the differing orders of two men of his religion, both of them narrate to him, one of them orders him to do something and the other one forbids him, how does he act? He (asws) said: ‘He should abstain until such time as he meets someone who gives him the Hadith. He should wait until he meets him’.
[Wasail us Shia H 33338]
7. One Must Act on a Hadith which is Closer to his Time:
And from him, from his father, from Usman Bin Isa, from Al Husayn Bin Al Mukhtar, from one of our companions, who have narrated the following from Abu Abd Allah asws: ‘If I (asws) were to give you a Hadith and a year later you come to me and I (asws) give to you a Hadith different to that previous one, which one of these will you act by?’ I said, ‘The latter one’. He (asws) said to me: ‘May Allah have Mercy on you’. [Wasail us Shia H 33340]
I said to Abu Abd Allah (asws) , ‘A Hadith comes to us from the former one of you (asws) and a Hadith comes from the later one of you (asws), which one shall we take?’ He (asws) said: ‘Take it until such times as one Hadith comes to you from a living one (asws). When you are told something by a living one (asws) grab his (asws) speech’. [Wasail us Shia H 33341]
H 33342 – Kulayni said, And in another Hadith it is “Take by the (new) Hadith”.
8. Choose An Arbitrator who has more Knowledge of Ahadith:
‘I asked Abu Abd Allah (asws) about two men from our companions who have a dispute about religion or heritage (inheritance), give us a verdict’ – until he said – ‘If each one of them chooses from our companions to represent his rights and they differ in their judgements, and they all dispute about your (asws) Hadith?’ He (asws) said: ‘The judicial decision will be by the one who has more understanding and is more truthful in the Ahadith and their narrations, and do not pay attention to the decision of the other’.
The narrator said, ‘I said to him (asws) : ‘Both of them are regarded as just amongst our companions, there is no distinction of one over the other’. He (asws) said: ‘Look at which of their narrations that they have used in making the decision that they have agreed upon, so take by that and ignore the one which is not well known among your companions, for the one which is known by all, there is no doubt about that’
The narrator asked: ‘If the Hadith used by them are all well known, then what?’ He (asws) said: ‘Look, at what is in accordance with the Book and the Sunnah and is opposite to what the generality of the Muslims do, take by that, and ignore what is against the Order of the Book and the Sunnah’.
I said, ‘May I be your (asws) sacrifice! I see both of them to be men of understanding who understand the Order from the Book and the Sunnah, and we find one of the two Hadith to be in accordance with the generality of the Muslims, and the other one to be in opposition to them, which one of these Hadith shall we take by?’ He (asws) said: ‘That, which is against the generality of the Muslims for there will be guidance there in’.
I said, ‘May I be your (asws) sacrifice, what if both the Ahadith are in accordance with the generality of the Muslims?’ He (asws) said: ‘Look to what their governors and judges are deciding by the most, ignore these and take to the others’.
I said. ‘What if their governors make use of both these Hadith equally?’ He (asws) said: ‘If that were to be the case, wait until you meet your Imam (asws) for staying away in doubtful matters is better than indulging in destruction’.
[Source: H33334 Wasail us Shia]
Lastly we would like to quote, Sheikh Yaqub al Kulayni (one of our greatest scholars of hadith who lived in the time of Ghaibat-e-Sughra) who writes the following in his introduction to Al Kafi:
Thus, you should know, my brother – may God [continue to] guide you – that nobody can resolve any of the disparities in the traditions of the Imams – may God’s peace be upon them – using his own opinion. Rather [these can only be resolved] according to the methods stated by one of the knowledgeable Imams – may God’s peace be upon him – when he said “Compare them to the book of God. Take whichever of them concurs with the book of God – almighty is he and sublime – and reject whichever of them contradicts the book of God;” and when he said “Abandon whatever concurs with the majority [i.e., Sunnis], for guidance is found in opposing them;” and when he said “Take what is unanimously agreed upon, for there is no [room to] doubt in what is unanimously agreed upon”. However, [despite these methods] we only know a few instances where true resolution is possible. Thus, we find no path more prudent, or easier than to refer the knowledge of all this back to the knowledgeable Imam of our time – may God’s peace be upon him – and to accept the freedom of choice that he gave to us when he said “Any one [hadith] that you act on out of submission is fine”