Al-Muwatta’ is one of the great books of Islam which includes a number of marfoo’ ahaadeeth and mawqoof reports from the Sahaabah, Taabi’een and those who came after them. It also includes many rulings and fatwas of the author.
The Muwatta’ is so called because its author made it easy (watta’a) for the people in the sense that he made it easily accessible to them.
It was narrated that Maalik said: I showed this book of mine to seventy of the fuqaha’ of Madeenah, and all of them agreed with me (waata’ani) on it, so I called it al-Muwatta’.
Imam Maalik read the Muwatta’ to people for forty years, adding to it, taking away from it and improving it. So his students heard it from him or read it to him during that time. So the reports in al-Muwatta’ are many and varied because of what the Imam did of editing his book. Some of his students narrated from him before it was edited, some during the process, and some at the end of his life. Some of them transmitted it in full whilst others narrated part of it. So a number of transmissions of the Muwatta’ became well known, the most important of which are:
The transmission of Yahya ibn Yahya al-Masmoodi al-Laythi (234 AH). This is the most famous transmission from Imam Maalik, and most of the scholars based their commentaries on it.
The transmission of Abu Mus’ab al-Zuhri, which is distinguished by the additions contained therein. It is the last version transmitted from Maalik and it is still in circulation among the scholars.
The transmission of ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Maslamah al-Qa’nabi (221 AH). This is the largest version of the Muwatta’, and ‘Abd-Allaah is one of the soundest of people with regard to the Muwatta’, according to Ibn Ma’een, al-Nasaa’i and Ibn al-Madeeni.
The transmission of Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybaani.
The transmission of ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Salamah al-Fahri al-Masri.
And there are many others. Shaykh Muhammad Fu’aad ‘Abd al-Baaqi (may Allaah have mercy on him) spoke about the narrators of the Muwatta’ and discussed fourteen versions of it, in his introduction to the edition of the Muwatta’ that he edited (pp. 6-16).
These versions differ in the order of the books and chapters, and in the number of marfoo’, mursal, and mawqoof ahaadeeth. The wording of the ahaadeeth also differs greatly.
The number of ahaadeeth in the Muwatta’ differs from one version to another, and according to the system of numbering [?]. That is because some scholars counted every report from the Sahaabah or Taabi’een as a separate hadeeth, whilst others did not count them in their numbering. Hence it is sufficient for us to mention the numbers that are mentioned in some of the edited versions of the Muwatta’, which are:
The version transmitted by Yahya al-Laythi (which is the most famous version, and this is what is usually meant by al-Muwatta’): It was numbered by Shaykh Khaleel Sheeha, and the number of ahaadeeth that he counted was 1942, including both marfoo’ and mawqoof reports.
The version transmitted by Abu Mus’ab al-Zuhri was numbered in the edition published by the Mu’sasat al-Risaalah. The number of hadeeth in this edition is 3069, which includes everything, even the words of Imam Maalik, hence the number is greater.
The conditions he followed in his book are among the most reliable and strongest of conditions. He followed a method of erring on the side of caution and choosing only sound reports.
Al-Shaafa’i (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: There is nothing on earth after the Book of Allaah that is more correct that the Muwatta’ of Maalik ibn Anas.
It was narrated that al-Rabee’ said: I heard al-Shaafa’i say: If Maalik was uncertain about a hadeeth he would reject it altogether.
Sufyaan ibn ‘Uyaynah said: May Allaah have mercy on Maalik, how strict he was in his evaluation of men (narrators of hadeeth).
Al-Istidhkaar (1/166); al-Tamheed (1/68)
Hence you will find that many of the isnaads of Maalik are of the highest standard of saheeh. Because of this, the two Shaykhs al-Bukhaari and Muslim narrated most of his ahaadeeth in their books.
Note: Imam al-Shaafa’i made the comment quoted above before al-Bukhaari and Muslim wrote their books, as was noted by al-Haafiz Ibn Katheer (may Allaah have mercy on him) in his summary of ‘Uloom al-Hadeeth (pp. 24-25).
In compiling his book, Maalik followed the method of compilation that was current during his time, so he mixed the hadeeths with the words of the Sahaabah and Taabi’een and fiqhi opinions. The reports of the Sahaabah number 613 and the reports of the Taabi’een number 285. In one chapter the marfoo’ ahaadeeth appear first, and are followed by the reports of the Sahaabah and Taabi’een, and sometimes he mentions the actions of the people of Madeenah, so his book is a book of fiqh and hadeeth at the same time, it is not just a book of reports only. Hence you will find that some chapters have no reports, rather they contain the views of the fuqaha’ and the actions and ijtihaad of the people of Madeenah. An example of that is the chapter on produce on which no zakaah is due, and the chapter on the fast of one who kills another by mistake, and so on.
We also find that it is limited to sections on fiqh, etiquette and the actions of day and night. There is nothing in his book about Tawheed, zuhd (asceticism), the Resurrection, stories and tafseer.Source: IslamQA