Question: What is your take on the claim of a person that many great classical scholars clearly did not accept Āhād Hadith as 'Ilm, but rather considered them nothing more than Dhann (doubt) and therefore did not them take into matters of Aqeedah. And he cited among them Imam al-Shafi'ee, quoting his words:
"As for the Sunnah that was narrated from the narrations of the Khaasa (the few, meaning Ahad Hadith), there might be disagreement about the news in it, so the narration is open to interpretation, as it came through a single chain."
Answer: This matter requires a detailed depth-analysis of the issue from various angles. My answer here will only briefly discuss the doubts raised by this person, esp. what he quoted from al-Shāfi'ee, and a brief glimpse of how the Salaf unanimously based many of their beliefs on Āhād narrations.
FIRST: Al-Imam al-Shafi'ee holds that a singly transmitted narration is valid evidence and binding upon the one who gets to know of it, For this he has dedicated a whole chapter (p. 401-471) in his "al-Risālah" on principles Islamic jurisprudence. The chapter is entitled: الحجة في تثبيت خبر الواحد
In this chapter al-Shafi'ee quotes many Ahaadith and incidents from the life of the Prophet ﷺ where he would send a single Sahabi as his emissary in conveying the message of Islam to infidels, and ordering him to fight those who refuse to accept the message. Al-Shaif'ee says that the Prophet ﷺ could have sent two, three, four, or more than that, but he didn't. However, the Prophet ﷺ would send those were well-known so that the people would recognize them as genuinely being delegates of the Prophet ﷺ.
Two matters need to be highlighted here: First, that al-Shafi'ee in this chapter is talking about the authoritativeness of "Khabar al-Wāhid" i.e. the Hadith which is narrated through one single chain of narration; he is not talking about the Āhād narrations as understood by the Mutakillimeen and later day Ahl-ul-Usool, because according to their terminology even if a Hadith is narrated by five or even ten narrators, it is called Āhād. To denote a similar concept al-Shafi'ee uses the term "Khabar al-Khāssah" and that is not what he is discussing here, otherwise he would not have argued that the Prophet ﷺ could have sent two, three, or four delegates, because four is still Āhād and would make no difference according to the Mutakillimeen.
The second matter that needs to be highlighted is that al-Shafi'ee has made no differentiation between matters of Aqidah and Fiqh, rather the incidents he has mentioned are explicit that the Tawheed and Aqidah were the first thing that the emissaries of the Prophet ﷺ would convey to the people.
SECOND: The words of al-Shāfi'ee quoted by the person are part of this very chapter establishing the authority of singly transmitted narrations. So let us look at their context. Just before these words, al-Shāfi'ee answers the objection that why do scholars sometimes not accept singly transmitted narrations. He replies that it is either because there is another narration that goes against it, or because one of the narrators has weakness to him, or because the narration has ambiguity to it and can be understood in more than one way.
Then he goes on to mention the difference between such singly transmitted narrations and a clear cut text from the Qur'an or agreed upon Sunnah saying:
"As for the clear cut text from the Qur'an or an agreed upon Sunnah, then there is no excuse for anyone in doubting it, and if anyone refuses to accept it he will be called to repent (i.e. he has committed an act of Kufr). And as for the individually transmitted Sunnah (Khabar al-Khāssah) in which the narrations may differ, and there is thus room for interpretation, and it comes from a single chain of narration = then what I seem as being authoritative is that such a narration is binding upon all people who know it."
Then he goes on to say that if someone were to doubt it, we will not ask him to repent (i.e. not declare him Kāfir) but we'll say that you have no right to doubt it.
This (in bold letters) is the correct translation of al-Shāfi'ee's words. You can read it in Arabic here and compare it to the translation quoted in the question and see the enormous difference. Let me highlight the main deception in his translation: The said person has not translated the predicate (Khabar) in al-Shāfi'ee's words which occurs after the equal sign ( = ), rather he made the modifying clauses of the subject (Mubtada') as the predicate (Khabar). And this has greatly distorted the intended meaning. Let me give an example, if I were to say:
"As for those students in my class who are weak in their comprehension and get low grades= they need special after-class tutoring".
And someone were to convey it as:
"As for the students in my class, they are weak in their comprehension and get low grades"
You can see the distortion in the meaning! My sentence was concerning a particular set of students who might be a minority in the class; I mentioned that they need extra lessons. What the person conveyed gives the impression that on the whole my class gets low grades! This is because he removed the predicate I mentioned after ( = ) and made the modifying clause of the subject into the predicate.
THIRD: One might argue that what al-Shāfi'ee meant by it being binding is that one should act upon it in matters of jurisprudence, not that it provides certain knowledge.
Yes, but al-Shāfi'ee is not talking about Āhād narrations (or Khabar al-Khāssah) in general, as I mentioned before, but he is specifically talking about that which has been transmitted by a single and lone chain of narration; one should not give it up merely because of the possibility that there could be some other narration which opposes it, or because there being room for a different interpretation.
But that is not the case of the Ahādith pertaining to the attributes of Allah. They have not been narrated by a single and lone chain of narration, rather all of them have been narrated from several Sahābah through authentic chains and there is nothing that contradicts them; so they fall in the category of “agreed upon Sunnah” which al-Shāfi’ee mentioned earlier. And despite that the Mu'tazilah (and their modern off-shoot: Hizb al-Tahrir) deny them, or at least do not believe in them, for example:
1. Azāb al-Qabr: This was mentioned in dozens of Ahadith narrated by Aisha, Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, Abu Hurirah, Anas, ibn Abbas, and many others. Many of these are in Sahih Al-Bukhāri and Muslim. In fact they are so numerous that many scholars considered it to be Mutawātir.
2. The appearance of Dajjal: This too has been mentioned in many authentic Ahadith narrated by Abu Huriarah, ibn Abbas, ibn Umar, Anas, Abu Sa'eed and others.
3. The coming of 'Eesa the son of Maryam: This was narrated by Abu Hurairah, Jabir ibn Abdillah, 'Imran ibn Husain, and Nawwas ibn Sam'an. In fact, the Hadith of Abu Hurairah alone is enough as a basis for this belief, as several Tabi'een narrated it from him, among them Sayyid al-Tabi'een and Abu Hurirah's son in law: Sa'eed ibn Al-Musayyib, and from him Al-Zuhree; and then Al-Bukhāri compiled it in his “Saheeh”.
4. The attribute of Allah’s descent at night: It was narrated by Abu Hurairah (Bukhari and Muslim), Jubair ibn Mut’im, Rifa’ah al-Juhani, Ibn Mas’ud, and others.
5. The attribute of Allah’s laughter: This was mentioned in authentic narrations of Abu Hurairah, Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri (both in Bukhari and Muslim), and Abu Razeen al-’Uqaily.
It is clear from these examples that the principle of Khabar Āhād is nothing but an excuse for not believing in what they don't want to believe in. Otherwise how can someone reasonable deny all these Ahādith. Had it been a single Hadith with a single Isnād, they could have argued that the Sahābi, or the narrator from him, made a mistake in the narration, but what will they say about two, three, four, or ten companions narrating the same report? All of them made the same mistake, or did they conspire to forge it?!!
FOURTH: The question whether Āhād narrations denote certainty or not, is not a correct one in the first place and there can never be any blanket answer for it, because the matter differs from narration to narration. Some chains of narration are highly reliable while some are somewhat less reliable. In some cases a single chain of narration denotes certain knowledge, while in others a Hadith might be considered very weak despite having ten or more chains of narration. It all depends on the stature and trustworthiness of the narrators. For example, if a Hadith is narrated by Imam Malik from Nafi' from Ibn 'Umar, and there is no other conflicting narration, then it confers certainty to the people of Hadith who know the stature of these three narrators. Yahya ibn Bukair (d. 231), one of the Shuyookh both al-Bukhari and Muslim, said concerning this chain of narration:
ليس ذا زعزعة عن زوبعة، إنما ترفع الستر فتنظر إلى النبي ﷺ والصحابة
"This is a chain of narration which even a hurricane cannot shake. It is as if you were to raise the curtain and see the Prophet ﷺ speaking and the Sahabah around him"
As for the Mu'tazilah who are alien to sciences of Hadith, to them every person is, in theory, prone to lying and making mistakes, so it makes no difference to them whether the narrator is Zaid, Khalid or 'Ubaid, or all of them together!
Since, there is no general ruling for all Ahādith, the Muhadditheen of the first three generations never discussed the issue of "Mutawir and Āhād". Ibn Salāh (d. 643) has clearly mentioned in his famous "Muqaddimah" that Ahl-al-Hadeeth did not use the "Mutawātir" in its specific meaning for which it is used by Ahl-al-Usool. This is further supported by the following fact:
FIFTH: If we look at the Imams of the Salaf in the first three centuries, we will not find a single Imam rejecting any Hadith in Aqeedah because it was Āhād. The Tābi'een heard these Ahādith from the Sahābah and passed them onto the third generation who in turn in believed in them.
Al-Awzā'ee (d. 157), the leading Imam of the third generation (Atbā' al-Tābi'een), says: كنا والتابعون متوافرون نقول: إن الله تعالى فوق عرشه، ونؤمن بما وردت السنة به من صفاته جل وعلا
"We used to say when a lot of Tābi'een were still alive that Allah is above His throne, and that we believe in the attributes of Allah mentioned in the Sunnah."[Narrated by al-Baihaqi in his "al-Asmā was Sifaat 2/304 with a highly authentic chain of narration comprising of notable Muhadditheen of each era narrating from the one before them going back to al-Awzā'ee.]
Shareek ibn Abdillah al-Nakha'ee (d. 177), one of the leading Imams of Kufa, was asked about those who reject the Hadith of Allah's descending on the night of mid Sha'ban, and other such Ahādith to which he replied: "Those who narrated to us these Ahādith are the ones who transmitted the Qur'an and the five prayers, and told us about Hajj and fasting in Ramadan. We do not recognize Allah except by these Ahādith." [Narrated by Abdullah ibn Ahmed ibn Hanbal in "al-Sunnah" no. 493]
Wakee' ibn al-Jarrāh (d. 197), another leading Imām of the third generation, said: نسلم هذه الأحاديث كما جاءت ولا نقول كيف كذا ولا لم كذا
"We accept these Ahādith just as they were narrated, and we neither ask: How is it like? Nor: Why is it as such?" [Narrated by Abdullāh ibn Ahmed ibn Hanbal in "al-Sunnah" no. 479]
And after them, if we look at the Imams of the fourth generation such as Ali ibn al-Madinee (d. 234), Ishaaq ibn Rāhawaih (d. 238), Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d, 241), Al-Zuhlee (d. 258), and others, we find them mentioning in their epistles and treatises the belief in Azab al-Qabr, the descent of 'Eesa, the intercession by which people will be taken out from hellfire, the descent of Allah to the lowest heaven in the last part of night, the attribute of Allah's laughter, or putting His foot on Hell, and other such matters as being part of correct belief.
And if we look at the last book of Sahih al-Bukhāri, The Book of al-Tawheed, we find Imam al-Bukhāri (d. 256) has mentioned in it many Ahādith of al-Sifaat such as Allah putting His foot on Hellfire till it caves in, Him speaking with a voice that is heard, taking up the skies and earth on His fingers, etc. It is clear that Imam al-Bukhāri considers the belief in these Ahādith as a part of the belief in Tawheed.
And in Sunan Abi Dāud, the Hadith of Allah's descent at night has been mentioned in The Book of Sunnah, “The Chapter of refuting the Jahmiyyah”. This means that according to Imam Abu Dāud (d. 273) anyone who doesn't believe in this Hadith is a Jahmi. Similarly Ibn Mājah (d. 273) has a chapter in his Sunan entitled: "The Chapter of that which the Jahmiyyah deny". In it he has narrated Ahādith which mention Allah's hands, His speech, His laughter, etc.
The statements of the Salaf are too numerous to be quoted here, so this is enough for now, but since it was the words of Imam al-Shāfi'ee that were quoted by the opponent, I would like to end my answer by quoting the leading Shafi'ee Muhaddith of the fourth century, Abu Sulaiman al-Khattābi (d. 388); he says in his commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari "A'lām al-Hadeeth" (1/637):
هذا الحديث وما أشبهه من الأحاديث في الصفات كان مذهب السلف فيها الإيمان بها وإجراءها على ظاهرها ونفي الكيفية عنها
"The way of the Salaf concerning this Hadith (of Allah's descent at night) and other similar Ahādith was to believe in them, keep them at their apparent meaning, and reject any description of their state of being."
والله أعلم، وصلى الله وسلم على محمد وأزواجه وذريته، والحمد لله رب العالمين.