al-Sunan al-Kubra by Imam al-Bayhaqi (384-458) remains one of the most extensive and impressive works on the Sunan. It was completed in 432 when the author was 48 and truly is a pinnacle of hadith and fiqh that amazes all who are familiar with it.
Here are just some of the glowing praises from some of the greatest hadith scholars for this masterpiece. Ibn al-Salah, who receieved it from his Khurasani teachers and was key in transmitting it to the Mamluk scholarly elite, said in his Muqaddimah, ‘we know not its like in its field.’ That is, it is unparalleled among the sunan works. Al-Nawawi said in al-Taqrib that one should be devoted to it, as nothing has been written like it, and al-Suyuti, commenting on this statement in Tadrib al-Rawi, agreed. Al-Sakhawi said in Fath al-Mughith that one must not limit oneself from it (by sufficing with the other sunan works of Abu Dawud, al-Nasa’i, and al-Tirmidhi) due to its comprehensiveness in most of the ahadith al-ahkam. Al-Sakhawi further added that its true rank is only after the Sahihayn of al-Bukhari and Muslim, coming before the sunan of Abu Dawud, al-Nasa’i, and al-Tirmidhi, which take precedence only by merit of being earlier and thus with shorter chains. Al-Dhahabi said there is nothing like it and considered it to be one of the four masterpieces a scholar cannot do without, alongside al-Muhalla by Ibn Hazm, al-Mughni by Ibn Qudamah, and al-Tamhid by Ibn Abd al-Barr. Taj al-Din al-Subki said no other book had been written with such classification, arrangement, and elegance.
Ahmad Shakir said in al-Ba’ith al-Hathith that it is the biggest book in legal hadiths (it has almost 22,000 narrations). It includes most (if not all) of the hadiths found in al-Bukhari and Muslim, as well as many of those in Abu Dawud, al-Nasa’i, and al-Tirmidhi. The claim that al-Bayhaqi was unaware of al-Nasa’i and al-Tirmidhi is unfounded, because al-Bayhaqi refers to their narrations within his book, as Najm Abd al-Rahman Khalaf demonstrates in his book ‘al-Mawarid’ on al-Bayhaqi’s sources. Khalaf also includes, among hundreds of al-Bayhaqi’s sources: al-Bazzar, Ibn Khuzaymah, Abu ‘Awanah, al-Tahawi’s Sharh Ma’ani al-Athar, al-Daraqutni, Musnad Abu Hanifah, Musnad al-Shafi’i, Musnad Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi, Musnad al-Humaydi, Ibn Abi Shaybah, Ishaq b. Rahuwayh, Musnad Ahmad, Musnad al-‘Adani, Musnad al-Darimi, al-Musaddad, Musnad Abu Ya’la al-Mawsili, and many more.
Scott Lucas argues in ‘Perhaps You Only Kissed Her?’ that al-Bayhaqi cemented and sealed the hadith canon, in that what he included was deemed canonical and what he omitted was not, and his choices were honoured by succeeding scholars. He also wrote in his thesis that al-Bayhaqi was the last of the compilers of original hadith books.
One of the best editions is by Dar Hajr and can be found here:
When reading the Sunan, it is important to note the following.
When Abu Abdullah, al-Hafiz is mentioned, it refers to al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, the teacher of al-Bayhaqi.
Abu Bakr b. Ishaq refers to Ibn Khuzaymah.
Abu Ahmad refers to Ibn ‘Adi.
When ‘Ali or ‘Ali b. ‘Umar is mentioned it refers to al-Daraqutni.
These names are well-known luminaries of hadith criticism in the era after the compilers of the Six Books.