The Prophetic Tradition in Islam and its Role in Constructing a Religious IdentityMustafa Macit Karagözoğlu
Introduction: Two Major Sources of Islam: The Qur’an and The Sunnah
As is well known, Islam derives its principles from two main sources -its holy book, the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In the Muslim faith, the Qur’an is the actual word of God revealed to his messenger through Gabriel the angel. On the other hand, the prophetic tradition, or Sunnah as originally called in Arabic, is described as the sayings, deeds, and consent of the Prophet. The main difference between the two sources is that the former consists of God’s own words from the beginning to the end, whereas the latter includes the words and actions of the Prophet who, in the last analysis, is a human being like the other followers of Islam. However, since the Prophet’s actions were under God’s control and were thus preserved from all error, the Sunnah is also considered a binding authority for all Muslims.
The Prophet’s primary function was to explain the meaning of Qur’anic verses and to set a concrete example for Muslims to put into practice Islamic teachings in their lives, which is indicated by a number of Qur’anic verses themselves, such as: “We sent down to you the Advice (i.e. the Qur’an) so that you may explain to the people what has been sent down to them and, so that they may ponder” (Nahl: 16/44). This is why obedience to the Messenger is mentioned together with obedience to Allah: “Say, ‘Obey Allah and the Messenger but if they turn their backs Allah loves not the disbelievers’ ” (Ali Imran 3/32). “And obey Allah and the Messenger so that you may be blessed” (Ali Imran 3/132). The Prophet’s commands and prohibitions are also frequently presented as binding norms upon the adherents of the new religion: “Whatever the Messenger gives you, take it, and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it” (Hashr 59/7).
The Sunnah of the Prophet does not only explain the existing verses, but it also has the authority to establish new rules and regulations. Since Qur’anic verses can be applied to a limited number of instances, the Sunnah has emerged as the second fundamental source which addresses a wide range of issues, from religious rituals and social life to criminal law and financial transactions in Islam.
Since the very beginning, the Sunnah has survived in two forms principally. The first is the transmission of this tradition by repeated practices through the generations. This type of transmission is usually referred to as the “living tradition”, because it requires neither the writing nor the memorization of the prophetic norm, rather its implementation as observed in the previous generation. For instance, it was the Prophet who taught the first generation of Islam (the Companions, sahâba) how to perform prayers or how to make the pilgrimage. Those who followed them, the second generation (the Successors, tâbiîn) made the pilgrimage in the same manner as their predecessors, and so on. This is how the practice of visiting the Holy Land has remained the same among Muslims for centuries.
The second type of transmission of the Sunnah has taken place in written form. The Companions recorded the Prophet’s sayings by either memorizing or writing them on materials available during that era. The more systematic and comprehensive work was however, accomplished by the following generation. In an effort to collect all the transmitted material available, the Successors brought together a great deal of prophetic knowledge that would otherwise have disappeared. The collection of written documents was naturally followed by their classification, which paved the way for the emergence of monumental hadith collections - Hadith refers to the written documents of Sunnah, although it is sometimes used synonymously with the Sunnah.
Thus, the ninth century saw the emergence of major hadith collections, which would later gain somewhat canonical status. Among these collections are the well-known al-Jamiu’s-Sahih of Bukhari and that of Muslim. These two not only contain the reliable pieces of prophetic knowledge, but also represent the most authoritative works after the Qur’an in the eyes of Muslim community.
The Role of the Prophetic Tradition in Constructing a Religious Identity
With their acknowledged status among the majority of Muslims, hadith collections made a considerable contribution to the formation of Islamic thought and norms that shape people’s practices. In addition to their other functions, hadiths have provided Muslims with common moral and legal principles shared in different parts of the world. Following these principles has become a means of strengthening their devotion and reaffirming their affiliation with the Islamic community.
Hadith collections include many rulings and examples that provide the faithful with the guidelines to maintaining a Muslim identity. The most significant traditions are, perhaps, the ones that identify the personal qualities of a true believer: “A true Muslim is someone from whose actions and words other people are safe. A believer is someone with whom other people’s lives and property are secured” (Tirmidhi, “Faith”, 12), and “Part of the perfection of one’s Islam is his leaving that which does not concern him” (Tirmidhi, “Piety”, 11). These traditions not only indicate the requirements of a Muslim persona, but are also a reminder that retaining a religious identity requires maintaining a good harmony with the religious community.
It is also remarkable that actions related to faith as presented in prophetic traditions are almost always portrayed to be dependent on an individual’s honest and sincere attitude towards the society: “Whoever cheats us is not one of us.” (Muslim, “Faith”, 164), “Whoever failed to have compassion for our little ones and reverence for our elders and to command what is right and prohibit what is wrong is not one of us” (Tirmidhi, “Virtue”, 15), “You cannot enter heaven until you believe, and you will not truly believe until you truly love one another” (Muslim, “Faith”, 93), “None of you can truly believe until you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself” (Bukhari, “Faith”, 7). “The believer socializes with people. There is no good in the one who does not make friends and is not the subject of friendship. (Ahmed b. Hanbal, Musnad, II, 400). Examples such as these imply certain patterns of “Islamic” behavior, even though some of these patterns can be claimed to be universal rather than peculiar to any specific religion.
Moral advices enumerated in the traditions also include details about social life such as the hadith that says: “O Muslim women! A neighbour should not look down upon the present of her neighbour even it were the hooves of a sheep” (Bukhari, “Good Manners”, 30), as well as more general principles like “There are two characteristics that a believer does not have: meanness and bad morals.” (Tirmidhi, “Virtue”, 41). Again we notice the mention of an individual’s intrinsic qualities mentioned together with his/her interaction with their social environment.
What is most striking in the above-mentioned traditions is that they went so far as to threaten those who do not act upon them with exclusion from the religious community, such as the hadith: “Who shows no respect to our elderly is not one of us”. The majority of hadith commentators however, tend to not take these kind of expressions in their literal sense, but instead treat them as stern warnings. For them, the traditions do not address the question of “how to be a Muslim?”, but “how to be a better Muslim.” So, although the faith of a believer who does not behave according to these traditions is not automatically at stake, they still deserves to receive a bitter warning so as to draw closer to religious moral principles.
While related hadiths cover moral and practical aspects of Muslim identity, as seen above, they rarely attempt to define faith and infidelity on theoretical level. In other words, traditions do not articulate a complete theory of religion or faith, but focus on its individual and social manifestations. This is because faith is a subject that has usually been studied within the literature of Islamic law and doctrine, where further questions regarding the nature of faith are discussed in detail.
To sum up, there is no question that affiliation with a religion is produced, among other things, by authoritative texts and their implementation in social life. Prophetic traditions in Islam occupy a unique position by both establishing moral and legal principles for the individual, and by putting them into the broader context of the community, frequently referring to one’s relationship with his/her social environment. Moreover, since the formation of religious identities is also a product of social processes, the hadith plays a significant role in these processes.
Modern Times: Continuity and Change
If the Sunnah played an important role in the formation of Muslim identity in the past, one can wonder whether this is still the case in modern times. I argue that this is largely true, for several reasons. Firstly, although there were some movements in Southern India that reject the authority of the Sunnah, they were unable to gain support from scholarly communities or from the masses. Moreover, these movements gave rise to a number of rebuttals that reiterated the significance of the Sunnah in Islam. Even a quick survey of book titles produced in the 1970’s and 80’s reveal that Muslim scholars became intensely involved in refuting claims within the Muslim world against the traditional perception of the Sunnah. These works came to be known as “the literature of hujjiyat al-sunna: books on the authority of sunnah”, because they are based on confirming its authority.
Secondly, from a political perspective, the Muslim world witnessed both the rise and the weakening of the nation state in the 20th century. Even though national identities initially appeared to challenge religious ones, it soon became apparent that nation states were not completely devoid of religious implications. In the Turkish case, for instance, the secular founders of the Republic had a major hadith collection officially translated, in addition to a voluminous Qur’an commentary penned.
As for the weakening of nation states, the process of globalization accompanied by the rapid increase in the speed and quality of communications has reduced the importance of political boundaries, and rediscovered the common cultural heritage that religious communities share. Having retained its deep influence on Muslims even under nationalist policies, the hadith has continued to serve a constructive function for the Muslim persona in new communication forms. Hence, a person living in Northern Africa today can be easily inspired by the online lectures of a Yemeni hadith scholar. Furthermore, numerous satellite channels, going beyond political boundaries, offer hadith talks and discussions, and therefore set an intellectual agenda for their viewers.
Finally, although the prophetic tradition in Islam has maintained its central position during the social and political changes of the past two centuries, its interpretation has been considerably changed. An elaborate study may reach interesting conclusions, comparing the ways in which hadiths were treated in the past and now. Identifying the changing patterns will help us to realize the present role of the prophetic knowledge in constructing religious identities.