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Sunnah

What are the sources of sunnah.com and shamela.ws?

sunnah.com and shamela.ws are popular websites among Arabic and Islamic students. What sources do they use and who is behind these websites? Guest author Mohamed has some answers.

Those who search for a Hadith, the sayings and traditions of the Islamic prophet, often end up on sunnah.com. Those looking for an Arabic book often get what they need at shamela.ws. But hardly anyone questions the sources which those two websites use for their content. Mohamed, an Arabic nerd and open-source developer, did some research and summarized his findings in this interesting guest article.

Mohamed is an Open-Source enthusiast and Linux nerd with a background in economics, based in South-Africa. He is also enrolled in an Arabic and Islamic Studies course. You can find him on his blog where he talks about languages, Islam, culture, technology and more.

The following article investigates the source references of two popular websites that provide Islamic content:

The two main websites

SUNNAH.COM

If you use the internet to look for Hadith in English, you have likely stumbled upon the website sunnah.com. Sunnah.com is a great website for providing digital copies of the famous al-Sahih al-Sittah/Kutub al-Sittah (الكتب الستة).

sunnah.com website
website: https://sunnah.com

For the unaware reader: The Kutub al-Sittah are the 6 famous Hadith books (or collections) that have Hadith compilations. Sunnah.com provides the Arabic, English, source-references and grading of Hadith.

SHAMELA.WS

For native Arabic speakers who study Islamic or historical texts, the website shamela.ws is very popular. Shamela.ws [1]The Arabic word شامِل means complete; comprehensive mainly provides software for reading, searching, and indexing Islamic texts. It also provides thousands of Islamic books that have Arabic text that behaves like regular text on computers.

shamela ws website
website: https://shamela.ws

For the unaware reader: The problem with non-Latin texts is that these texts are “trapped” within scanned PDFs and if you were to attempt to highlight or copy a portion of the text, it would not be possible.

Sources, fabrications, and unknown authors

The primary reason for my investigation was to determine where or which physical books were used as the sources for these websites. Digital technology has only existed for the past 60-80 years, so the references for Hadith or other Islamic books had to have come from physical copies. Connecting the digital to the physical creates a link back to a book author, which can then be used to determine if the book/Hadith is a fabrication or has been modified.

The importance of ruling out fabrications has been of concern to Islamic scholars as far back as Imam Bukhari (rahmatullah alayhi)[2]Raḥmatu ’llāhi ‘alay-hi (رَحْمَةُ الله عليه) is one of the Islamic honorifics used after certain names: It is applied after highly revered scholars and men thought to be of … Continue reading. As the digitization effort is still nascent and only 10-20 years in the making, the need for verifying the authenticity of the digital texts will come to the fore eventually.

As a non-scholar, I hope my efforts to question the sources of popular Islamic websites triggers a desire within Islamic scholars globally to apply the same scrutiny to digital texts that the Hadith scholars applied to authenticating Hadith.

Sunnah.com: What it says

It is unclear who runs sunnah.com. Their About section is very detailed on all matters besides who they are or more importantly, who funds them.

What is known is that sunnah.com is connected to quran.com and the only visible contributors to sunnah.com and quran.com are on their GitHub People page. The three users all appear to be from the United States of America. There is also a reference to a company name called “QDC” on their jobs board but I cannot find any information about it.

Looking at the sunnah.com – About – Sources link, we can use this as a starting point to find out where the English content for the Hadiths comes from. This is what the site says regarding English translations:

“For the English we use various translators, a full list of which will appear here shortly inshaAllah. The English has been through two iterations of cleaning (spelling corrections etc.). We have done our best to provide the most authentic and exact hadith possible.”

sunnah.com – about

For Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the website does provide a reference to an English data source, seen here:

sahih bukhari
Screenshot: sunnah.com – Sahih Bukhari

But the problem with the “USC-MSA web (English) reference” is that it no longer exists. I tried to figure out what the cause was, and apparently it had to do with some political issues raised at the USC, but that is not the concern for us.

The “About” section is also limited on its sources by just saying that they use various translators. We live in an age where many laymen consider themselves capable scholars and use the internet (where sunnah.com ranks highly) to issue fatwas [3]In Islam, a fatwa (فتوى) is a formal ruling or interpretation on a point of Islamic law given by a qualified legal scholar (a mufti – مُفْتٍ).. This makes it even more important that sources are more clearly shown regarding Islamic works and especially their translations.

Sunnah.com: What I found

Through the Mercy of Allah and without much looking, I was able to source the English references for most of the Hadith collections in PDF form.

Kalamullah is known for providing PDFs of various Islamic books, including the 6 Hadith collections (with translations). This is where I was able to make the connection back to sunnah.com

If we look at Ibn Majah (ابن ماجه) – Book 1 – Hadith 200, the Arabic and English references are as follows:

English translation : Vol. 1, Book 1, Hadith 466 Arabic reference : Book 1, Hadith 503

Ibn Mājah (b. 209 AH/824, d. 273 AH/887) was a medieval scholar of Hadith of Persian origin. He compiled the last of Sunni Islam’s six canonical hadith collections, Sunan Ibn Mājah.

The book to download is Ibn Majah Volume 1.

This is what sunnah.com says in English for Hadith 200:

It was narrated that Qais bin Sa’d said:

“The Prophet came to us and we gave him water to perform a bath.” Then we brought him a Warshiyyah cloth, and he wrapped himself in it. It is as if I can see the marks of the Wars on the folds of his stomach.”

source: sunnah.com

This is what the PDF shows:

Sunan ibn majah
Source: Sunan ibn Majah, pdf

Word-for-word, it is the same content. I tested this out randomly in 4 other places:

The author and publisher of this version is:

Publisher: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9960-9881-3-9
Ahadith edited, researched and referenced by: Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair 'Ali Za'i
Translated by: Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Canada)
Edited by: Huda Khattab (Canada)
Final review by: Abu Khaliyl (USA)

A summary of the results of the other 5 books is below:

Bukhari

The author and publisher of this version is:

Publisher: Maktaba Dar us Salam (same as ibn Majah books)
Published: 1997
ISBN: 9960-717-31-3
Translated by: Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan

Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī (محمد بن إسماعيل البخاري), commonly referred to as Imam al-Bukhari or Imam Bukhari (810/194 AH – 870/256 AH), was a Persian Islamic scholar who was born in Bukhara (early Khorasan and present day Uzbekistan). He compiled the Hadith collection known as Sahih al-Bukhari, regarded by Sunni Muslims as the most authentic (sahih) Hadith collections. He also wrote other books such as Al-Adab al-Mufrad.

Muslim

The author and publisher used for Sahih Muslim on sunnah.com is presumably not the same as the version available on kalamullah.com.

Abū al-Ḥusayn ‘Asākir ad-Dīn Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj ibn Muslim ibn Ward ibn Kawshādh al-Qushayrī an-Naysābūrī (Arabic: أبو الحسين عساكر الدين مسلم بن الحجاج بن مسلم بن وَرْد بن كوشاذ القشيري النيسابوري‎; after 815 – May 875 CE / 206 – 261 AH), commonly known as Imam Muslim, was an Islamic scholar from the city of Nishapur (early Khorasan and present day Iran). His Hadith collection, known as Sahih Muslim, is one of the six major hadith collections in Sunni Islam and is regarded as one of the two most authentic (sahih) collections, alongside Sahih al-Bukhari.

an-Nasa’i

The author and publisher of this version is:

Publisher: Maktaba Dar us Salam (same as ibn Majah books)
Published: 2007
ISBN: 978-9960-58-760-8
Ahadith edited and referenced by: Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair 'Ali Za'i
Translated by: Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Canada)
Edited by: Huda Khattab (Canada)
Final review by: Abu Khaliyl (USA)

Sunan an-Nasa’i (Arabic: سنن النسائي‎), is one of the Kutub al-Sittah (six major hadiths), and was collected by Al-Nasa’i (214 – 303 AH; c. 829 – 915 CE), a man of Persian origin from the city of Nasa (early Khorasan and present day Turkmenistan).

Abu Dawood

The author and publisher used for Sahih Muslim on sunnah.com is presumably not the same as the version available on kalamullah.com.

Abū Dāwūd (Dā’ūd) Sulaymān ibn al-Ash‘ath ibn Isḥāq al-Azdī al-Sijistānī (أبو داود سليمان بن الأشعث الأزدي السجستاني‎) was a Persian of Arab descent (817/202 AH – 889/275 AH). He died in Basra in present-day Iraq. He compiled the third of the six “canonical” Hadith collections.

at-Tirmidhi

The author and publisher of this version is:

Publisher: Maktaba Dar us Salam(same as ibn Majah books)
Published: 2007
ISBN: 978-9960-9967-38
Ahadith edited and referenced by: Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair 'Ali Za'i
Translated by: Abu Khaliyl (USA)
Final review by: Islamic Research Section Darussalam

Remark: A write-up of the full investigation can be found here: Where does sunnah.com get its English Hadith sources?

Abū ʿĪsā Muḥammad ibn ʿĪsā as-Sulamī aḍ-Ḍarīr al-Būghī at-Tirmidhī (أبو عيسى محمد بن عيسى السلمي الضرير البوغي الترمذي‎) was a Persian Islamic scholar (824/209 AH – 892/279 AH) and collector of Hadith from Termez (early Khorasan and in present-day Uzbekistan). He wrote al-Jamias-Sahih (known as Jami at-Tirmidhi), one of the six canonical Hadith compilations in Sunni Islam.

It appears that the PDF sources of sunnah.com are from Saudi Arabian publisher Darus Salam. It might be that the sources for Sahih Muslim and Sunan Abu Dawood are also by Darus Salam, but from different authors.

The issue here, as with shamela.ws below, is that reliance is being placed on whoever scanned the Hadith books. This issue is discussed in the conclusion.

Shamela.ws: What it says

The task of finding information about shamela.ws proved trickier. Their About Shamela page provides very little information regarding who they are or their methods for sourcing books to digitize.

However, there is a historical record available here. Based on that link, the project is founded by an Egyptian and now funded by an organization in Saudi Arabia.

The PDF on the Ar-Rawda website provides information about employee names working for Shamela, so we have some basic information. There are 30 people working in the digitizing/verification/data-entry department and 4 programmers working on the software. They all appear to be Egyptians.

pdf ar rawda
Part of the PDF which is found at the ar-Rawda website.

OpenITI: The KITAB Project

KITAB is a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Aga Khan University (see KITAB homepage). The reason for mentioning KITAB is that one of their projects is the Open Islamicate Texts Initiative (OpenITI) which is attempting to verify the digital copies provided on Shamela and other collections (Shamela, Shamela-Ibadiyya, Shamela-Shia, Hindawi, Zaydiyya and more). The full list of collections can be found on the OpenITI github page.

This is an important point to note because OpenITI uses PDFs as the primary verification method.

Shamela.ws: What I found

I found the process of verifying the Shamela (and other) books by using digitally scanned copies of their hard-copy counterparts to be circular. The reason being that the point of failure lies in the anonymous scanners of the hard-copy books.

Why is this a point of failure?

To answer this, I provide a series of questions:

  • Who scanned the book?
  • When did the scans take place?
  • How certain is it that the claimed scanned version is actually the same as its hard-copy counterpart?

I contacted the Shamela team via email to understand how they digitized books. Perhaps they used hard-copy books and did their own scanning. I asked the following questions to them:

  • How do you authenticate or verify the books that you are digitizing?
  • What method do you follow?
  • Do you keep a digital PDF and a hard copy of each book?

Their (rather short) response was:

“Yes. In books we digitize, we keep a pdf and text copies. No hard copies here.”

Response of shamela.ws, replying to an email inquiry

I sent a follow-up email querying the hard-copy problem and received the same response as above, albeit in larger font.

This all but confirmed that Shamela are also just using scanned copies of books found on the internet and leads me to the next point …

My hypothesis is that the reason the OpenITI team can verify books according to version is because the Shamela team are essentially just finding these scanned copies online themselves and then digitizing it. Hence, the circular problem.

The text and digitally scanned copy will match, but it doesn’t seem like OpenITI or even Shamela are asking: do the digitally scanned copies match their hard-copy versions?

A full version of the Shamela matter can be found at: Update 1: Using OCR, CAT and crowdsourcing to translate Classical Arabic works

Conclusion

Whilst both sunnah.com and shamela.ws rely on digitally scanned versions of PDFs uploaded to the internet, it still does not answer the questions I mentioned above:

  • Who scanned the book?
  • When did the scans take place?
  • How certain is it that the claimed scanned version is actually the same as its hard-copy counterpart?

Only a painstaking effort of connecting the digital to the physical will remove any doubts about attempts at fabrication. In the information security world, this would be considered protecting the supply chain, as an attempted fabrication could have happened anywhere from the scanner to the websites hosting the content. The relatively murky information about who runs both websites adds to this requirement.

Do you have alternative suggestions for verifying authenticity? Please share them!

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References

References
1 The Arabic word شامِل means complete; comprehensive
2 Raḥmatu ’llāhi ‘alay-hi (رَحْمَةُ الله عليه) is one of the Islamic honorifics used after certain names: It is applied after highly revered scholars and men thought to be of high spiritual rank.
3 In Islam, a fatwa (فتوى) is a formal ruling or interpretation on a point of Islamic law given by a qualified legal scholar (a mufti – مُفْتٍ).

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