Blog re-reprints and unnecessarily long chains of transmission

A hadith is a combination of content (known as its matn) and a chain of transmission (its sanad). The chain of transmission includes the original source, the individual who heard it from him, the individual who then heard it from him, and so on. The chain also describes how the transmission occurred between each link. All other things being equal, shorter chains are preferable to longer.

Many people receive an informal introduction to many of the basic concepts of hadith transmission when playing the telephone game. The telephone game is played to teach about the dangers of indirect information and gossip. Players quickly observe, first-hand, how messages become increasingly distorted as they get further and further away from their origin. One of the lessons from this game is that, all other things being equal, we should be more confident in the accuracy of a message conveyed through a smaller chain of intermediaries than we should be in messages conveyed through a chain that is longer.

The discipline of mustalaḥ al-hadith (the technical terminology of hadith studies) agrees with those lessons learned while playing the telephone game. One of the main lessons is that a conveyed message’s accuracy has an inverse relationship to distance from its origin. As the number of intermediaries increase, accuracy tends to decrease; and as accuracy decreases, so should the recipient’s confidence in the information being transmitted. Imām Ibn Hajar writes of this in his Nuzhat al-nazar (al-ʿAsqalani & al-Qari, n.d.):

Shortness of chain is desirable since it is closer to authenticity and the minimization of error, because each individual in the chain is susceptible to errors. So as the number of intermediaries in the chain increases, so does the probability for errors, and as the number decreases, so does the probability for errors. (pp. 619–620)

This helps explain why Muslim scholars working with transmitted information tend to prefer shorter chains over longer chains. The technical terms for these are, respectively, elevated chain (al-sanad al-ʿali), and descended chain (al-sanad al-nazil). In his introductory notes to mustalah al-hadith, Ibn Mulaqqin writes

26) Elevated (ʿali) is a merit which is sought after. It occurs via nearness to the Prophet ﷺ or one of the imams of hadith, by prior death of the narrator, and audition.

27) Descended (nazil) is the opposite of elevated.

All other things being equal, we should seek the elevated chain of transmission over the descended. One way to do this is by removing unnecessary, superfluous, excess links between us and an original source.

For example, if I heard a report from Imām al-Shafiʿi that he had heard from Imām Malik (may Allah grant them both His mercy) and I had the opportunity to hear it directly from Imām Malik (may Allah grant him His mercy), I wouldn’t hesitate to go for the shorter, elevated chain for the reasons Imām Ibn Hajar listed above.

None of this should surprise participants in the largest telephone game ever: the Internet. Sites commonly reprint and copy material from other sites. Many sites ask for permission, credit the author, and credit the source. This is beneficial for both parties since it gives the reprinter more material while also giving its source more coverage and readers. Other times, sites reprint a reprint which introduces an unnecessary link while also depriving the original source of the benefits of a direct reprint. Additionally, the reprint-reprinter is also exposing themselves to the risk that the reprinter has changed something from the source’s original article. (While readers may trust their own meta-reprinter, they should not automatically trust intermediary reprinters.)

Take for example, this article, its reprint, and the reprint of its reprint. The reprinter gave a proper source, and the reprint-reprinter gave them as a source. Both have carried out their responsibility in giving proper attribution. But if I were the reprint-reprinter, I would follow the reprinter’s source so I would then have a shorter chain. And this would let me be a reprinter instead of a reprint-reprinter, bringing my readers closer to the original. But there are reasons why someone would opt to be a reprint-reprinter, like preferring the reprinter’s summary or retitling, or having permission to reprint from the reprinter but not the original source… or the original source being difficult to work with.

All of this is to introduce a few concepts from mustalah al-hadith and their application to a contemporary medium. If the sites mentioned above opt to reprint this, I hope that they mirror the chain of the previous reprinting so that I can use those links instead of the examples given above.