Authority of the Sunnah – I

Definition

Ḥadīth in the technical sense refers to a record of the words, actions, and the silent approval of the Rasulullah (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam). Although most of the times hadith and sunnah are interchangeably used, however, sunnah, which means ‘“A word spoken, or an act done, or a confirmation (Taqrir, being an implied approval of the Holy Prophet) given by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) refers to that record of the ahadith (singular: hadith) which are practicable to the general Muslim Ummah. For example a hadith says that if a drinker of alcohol drinks for the fourth time then instead of flogging he should be killed. But since this hadith has never been in practice ever since the time of the holy Prophet’s time, it is not sunnah. Similarly, there is a hadith is Bukhari that the holy Prophet once urinated while standing. Instead of being a hadith it is not a sunnah for there was an exceptional reason for the holy Prophet to do like that. Among scholars of Islam the term hadith may include not only the words, advice, practices, etc. of Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam), but also those of his companions. (In this write-up both the words are interchangeably used wherever the need is felt).

Sunnah as a source of the Shari‘ah

The authority of sunnah as a source of Shari‘ah and moral guidance ranks second only to that of the Qur’an. While the Qur’an generally provides the basic principles pertaining to law, hadith (sunnah) gives direction on everything from details of religious obligations (such as ghusl or wudu, for salah). Thus a considerable bulk of the rules of the Shari‘ah are derived from the Qur’an indirectly through the source of hadith as the later serves as the first hand interpretation and explanation of the Qur’an. This status of the sunnah has remained unchallenged and undisputed throughout the centuries. There have been many differences among Muslims in their juristic opinions, but the authority of the holy Qur’ân and the sunnah of the holy Prophet was never denied by any jurist. Leaving aside some scattered individuals who separated themselves from the mainstream of the Muslim population, nobody has ever refused to accept the sunnah of the holy Prophet as a sacred source of the Islamic law.

The position is still the same, but some non-Muslim  scholars of Europe (especially the classical orientalists) and some of their followers from among the Muslims themselves have tried, during the last century to cast some doubts in the authority or the veracity of hadith and to develop a suspicious attitude towards the sunnah. That is why some Muslims who are unable to study Islam through its original sources, when they read such books, often become a bit skeptical in the subject.

In fact there is no gainsaying that the only thing which must be followed is the Qur’an. Hence the status of the sunnah in the Shari‘ah can only be ascertained by learning what the Qur’an itself has to say about the sunnah. As the sunnah, with all its three kinds (saying, act and confirmation) relates to the Holy Prophet, its true status in Islamic law cannot be ascertained without ascertaining the status of the holy Prophet himself.

The Status of the Holy Prophet in the Qur’an

In light of (2:129), (3:164) and (62:2) ayat of the Qur’an the holy Prophet has been entrusted with four distinct functions:
(1) Tilawah al-Ayat (Recitation of the ayat of Allâh) (2) Ta‘lim al-Kitab (Teaching the Book of Allâh) (3) Ta‘lim al-Hikmah (Teaching the Wisdom) and (4) Tazkiyah (Making the people pure).

Thus, the Qur’ân in unambiguous terms states that the holy Prophet is not supposed to merely recite the ayat and then leave it to the people to interpret and apply them in whatever manner they like. Instead, he is sent to teach the Book and also to teach Hikmah which is something additional to the Book as that is why it is mentioned in addition to the Book. Still, this is not enough, therefore the holy Prophet has also to make Tazkiyah of the people. That means the theoretical teachings of the Book and the “Hikmah” must be followed by a practical training to enable the people to apply the Book and the wisdom in the way Allâh requires them to apply.

Hence the Qur’an itself teaches us the status of the holy Prophet as follows:
(a) He is the authority in the way of recitation of the Qur’ân (b) He has the final word in the interpretation of the Book (c) He is the only source from which the wisdom based on divine guidance can be learned (d) He is entrusted with the practical training of the people to bring his teachings into practice.

It is not merely a logical inference from the ayat of the Holy Qur’ân quoted above, but it is also mentioned in express terms by the Qur’ân in a large number of ayat which give the Muslims a mandatory command to obey and follow him. While doing so, the Qur’ân has used two different terms, namely the ‘ita‘ah’ (to obey) and ‘ittiba‘’ (to follow). The first term refers to the orders and sayings of the holy Prophet while the second relates to his acts and practice. By ordering the Muslims both to “obey” and to “follow” the holy Prophet, the Qur’ân has given an authority to both his sayings and acts.

Now let’s know some of the ayat of the Qur’an which command to obey and follow the holy Prophet:

Obeying

  1. Say: Obey Allâh and the Messenger, but if they turn their backs, Allâh loves not the disbelievers. (3:32)
  2. And obey Allâh and the Messenger so that you may be blessed. (3:132)
  3. O those who believe obey Allâh and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. (4:59)
  4. And obey Allâh and obey the Messenger and beware. (5:92)
  5. So fear Allâh and set things right between you, and obey Allâh and His Messenger if you are believers. (8:1)

See also (4:13 (8:20)  (8:46) (47:33) (58:13) (64:12) (48:17) and so many other ayat.

Following

  1. Say, if you love Allâh, follow me and Allâh will love you and forgive you your sins. (3:31)
  2. Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find written down with them in the Torah and the Injeel… (7:157)
  3. Believe, then, in Allâh and His Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, who believes in Allâh and His words, and follow him so that you may be on the right path. (7:158)
  4. Allâh has surely relented towards the Prophet and the Emigrants and the Helpers who followed him in an hour of difficulty. (9:117)
  5. O Prophet, sufficient for you is Allâh and those who followed you of the believers. (8:64)

See also (3:53) (3:68) (12:108) (57:27) and also a number of other ayat.

It is an established fact that mere theoretical education cannot be sufficient for reforming a people. The natural way of reformation is to set a practical example which people may follow. Mere reading of books cannot make a person perfect in a science or art, unless he is simultaneously trained by a teacher. For example If somebody studies the books of medical science, but does not work under the supervision of an experienced doctor, he, despite his thorough study, cannot claim to serve as a doctor, nor can such a person be allowed to play with the lives of the patients.

That is why Allâh did not choose to send the divine books only. He always sent a messenger with the book. There are many prophets who came without a new divine book. But there is no divine book sent down without a prophet. The disbelievers of Makkah, too, demanded many times that the Book should be revealed to them without the mediation of the holy Prophet. But the demand was rejected and the Book was sent through the holy Prophet.

The reason is obvious. Humanity did not need a divine book only. It also needed a teacher who could teach them the contents of the Book. It also needed an instructor who could train them and could set a practical example for them without which they could not benefit from the Book in their practical life. It was for this reason that the Holy Prophet () was sent with a clear direction to all human beings that they are bound to obey and follow him and to learn the details of Allâh’s pleasure through the practical example set before them by him. It was also clarified in the foregoing verse of the Holy Book that the “obedience of the Messenger” is actually the “obedience of Allâh” and that the latter cannot be carried out except through the former, because whatever the Holy Prophet (Sallallaho Alaihe Wassallam) says or does in the capacity of a prophet is based on the revelation received by him from Allâh. Thus, his sayings and acts both, even though they are not contained in the Holy Qur’ân, are inspired or confirmed by the divine revelation’.

(To be continued)