Problems Caused by the Reductionist Approach in Understanding the Sunna


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Problems Caused by the Reductionist Approach in Understanding the Sunna

The sunnah (practices of the Prophet) is a basic source of Islam and has an important role and many implications in the believers' daily life; as such it is important that the many studies that have been carried out should be properly understood. When studies on understanding sunnah are examined, explanation of the language and content come to the fore. A significant number of studies include gharib al-hadithnasikh and mansukh al-hadithmukhtalif al-hadithmushkil al-hadithmuhkam al hadithasbab al-wurud hadith,fiqh al-hadith. When working towards understanding the hadith and the sunnah it is clear that these two sciences complement one another and form a whole. The problems inherent in each, as well as the sufficiency of each, have a depth and quality that should be studied separately. The studies that help us to understand the hadiths correctly and interpret them in the meaning intended by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are brought together under the study of dirayat al-hadith, which discusses the content and meaning of the words of the hadith on the basis of Arabic grammar and syntax, and the criteria of the Shariat, examining their correlation according to the circumstances under which Prophet Muhammad lived.


In addition to the hadith sciences, the basic Islamic sciences, such as fiqh (jurisprudential) methodology, Sufism, and qalam(Islamic philosophy), the sources of which are the Quran and the sunnah, are directly or indirectly concerned with understanding the hadiths. This is because none of these sciences are able to be used independently to attain a religious conclusion of their own area if the hadith and sunnah have not been taken into account. However, since the sunnah is viewed within the framework of the methodologies and interest areas characteristic to each of these sciences, it is necessary to analyze to what extent such views reflect the actual content of the sunnah and hadith. For example, when a text or saying is analyzed by the fiqh methodology to arrive at a judgment or by qalam to decide whether it is problematic in terms of faith, this may not be sufficient to explain the meaning implied in the hadith. Thus, such approaches can result in a narrowing of the scope of the rule or even in it being excluded from the sunnah, if it is not resolved. Rather than preferring one such insufficient approach, it is better to review the meaning of the Sunnah in light of the divine wisdom of the religion.

In the reductionist approach to hadith, the hadiths are interpreted directly according to their literary meanings without analyzing any aspects of the person to whom that hadith was addressed. An example of this can be found in the following hadith: "Faith has more than sixty or seventy branches. Its highest level is La ilaha illallah, and its lowest level is to pick up things that may cause harm on a road." This hadith is sometimes rejected because the word "or" in the first sentence of the hadith implies doubt, and therefore some claim that "a value such as faith cannot be established on doubt." However, the hadith should be understood to be emphasizing that in any intentional act the leading and influencing factor should be faith, and the numbers indicated here are just a form of emphasis. Additionally, this hadith can also be interpreted as stating that the most important thing in a believer's life is their faith in Allah, and even if a person does a very small thing for the well being of their community they should do it as a believer.

Moreover, Islam orders the social life of human beings with an approach that takes human nature into consideration. In a way different to other creatures, humans have been created in a certain system, within a family, tribe, or nation, so that they are known to each other and so that they may continue their social relationships. Allah also determines the rules they are subject to based on social aspects. In fact, both Allah and Prophet Muhammad gave essential warnings to prevent racism.

On the other hand, even in very important subjects, like the spreading of the word of Allah, the tribal relationship was put forward as a connection that would be of assistance. In ordering social life, a circular expansion from those members of society who had the closest relationships to those with the most distant was recommended. Muslims are constantly reminded that tension should not be allowed to destroy the peace and order of society and the world at large; if a person from one tribe commits an action that violates human rights, the other people in the tribe are also held responsible for this action; in this way peace and order are ensured in society. It is also possible to reflect this view of Islam in the perception of the administration. Thus, inferring judgments about the structure of society only from the sayings of the Prophet  may cause misinterpretations of the Prophet's intention.

When studies on understanding the Sunnah are examined, an explanation of the language used and content come to the fore.

Another example of such an approach is the hadith: "Imams are from the Quraish". This hadith, which is also narrated as "The caliphate is among the Quraish", or "This task lies with the Quraish" was interpreted by fiqh scholars and Sunni qalam scholars to be an order issued by Prophet Muhammad, and therefore it was perceived as a rule to be obeyed. However, this approach has led the hadith to be criticized. The reason for such criticisms is that this hadith is not in keeping with reality; it revives the nationalistic mentality that Islam rejects and it contradicts the principles of appointment and promotion through merit and competency, which were priorities of the Prophet. However, it is possible to interpret this hadith as an explanation of the social structure of society at that period.

When the above hadith is considered in line with the following hadiths, "Humans are just like the elements; those who were distinguished in the period of ignorance are still distinguished in Islam", and "People are subject to the Quraish in this subject. Muslims are subject to the Muslims of the Quraish, infidels to the infidels of the Quraish", it can be seen that this is not a command, but an explanation of a social reality. It is well understood that Islam is not aimed at establishing an order based on race or that the Prophet assigned people according to their qualifications and competence. But successfully completing an assigned task and ensuring political unity in a society cannot be evaluated in the same category. As a matter of fact, some scholars like Ibn Khaldun indicate the importance of this hadith in the context of ensuring political unity.

As well as those who criticize the soundness of hadiths due to the fact that they have been misunderstood by some as commands, there are sources for rulings concerning family law that have been falsified by taking certain hadiths into consideration from just one aspect. For instance, some people thought that the girls of the Quraish were not allowed to marry men from other tribes. When the entire text of the relevant hadith, "The caliphate is in the Quraish, judgment is in the Ansar (residents of Medina during the Hijra), invitation is in the people of Khabesh", is examined, it can be understood that what is being emphasized here is a social fact belonging to a certain era rather than a command.

In conclusion, evaluating hadith in the framework of methodologies from different sciences without considering human psychology or the structure of the society in which the hadith occurred gives rise to several problems. Evaluations which are carried out ignoring the prophethood of the Messenger of Allah and his social responsibilities run the risk of inferring inappropriate conclusions.

عن أبي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه قَالَ:
قَبَّلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْحَسَنَ بْنَ عَلِيٍّ وَعِنْدَهُ الأَقْرَعُ بْنُ حَابِسٍ التَّمِيمِيُّ جَالِسًا‏.‏ فَقَالَ الأَقْرَعُ إِنَّ لِي عَشَرَةً مِنَ الْوَلَدِ مَا قَبَّلْتُ مِنْهُمْ أَحَدًا‏.‏ فَنَظَرَ إِلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ثُمَّ قَالَ ‏"‏ مَنْ لاَ يَرْحَمُ لاَ يُرْحَمُ ‏"‏‏
God's Messenger kissed Al-Hasan bin Ali (his grandchild) while Al-Aqra' bin Habis At-Tamim was sitting beside him. Al-Aqra said, "I have ten children and I have never kissed anyone of them", God's Messenger cast a look at him and said, "Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully." (Bukhari, Good Manners and Form (Al-Adab), 18)

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