The Authority of the Sunna


Friday, March 5, 2010

The Authority of the Sunna

This article provides a brief examination of the authority of the sunna, which comprises a fundamental part of understanding Islam. In order to understand its importance, the literal meaning of the sunna and its classification throughout Islamic history will be dealt with briefly. Since the first centuries, sunna has been classified in various ways. However, two of these classifications are especially significant for the purposes of this article; the first one is the classification of the sunna from the viewpoint of its subject matter (matn). This will be called structural classification. The second is the manner of its transmission (isnad).

The Arabic word sunna literally means "road", "trodden path" or "beaten track (1) This meaning is used in a hadith: "Whoever sets a good example (man sanna sunnatan hasanaten) he and all those who act upon it shall be rewarded until the day of resurrection; and whoever sets a bad example (man sanna sunnatan sayyi'atan) he and all those who follow it will carry the burden of its blame until the day of resurrection" (2) In Islam, sunna or the sunna of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), has come to represent the way Prophet Muhammad lived his life. Since he was sent as a blessing for all creation (rahmah lil ‘alameen), (3) with an excellent conduct (uswah hasanah), (4) and an excellent character (khuluqin ‘azim), (5) the life of the Prophet is not only an ethical example, but also a source of legal proof alongside the Quran. In terms of its structure, the sunna is divided into three types: verbal (qawli), actual (fi‘li) and tacitly approved (taqriri). The verbal sunna consists of Prophet Muhammad's sayings on any subject, such as the hadith that states "actions are by intentions" (6). The actual sunna consists of Prophet Muhammad's actions, for example how he performed ablutions, ritual prayer or pilgrimage. Tacitly approved sunna indicates all sayings and acts of the Companions which were approved or disapproved by the Prophet, such as described in the following instance: one of the Companions said that during a campaign he had had a wet dream in the night, but because of the extreme cold he had not taken a bath. Then he performed the salah al-fajr with tayammum and upon his return to Medina he related the story to the Prophet. Rasulallah (Messenger of Allah) laughed and did not say anything. Hence, it became an approval sunna (7).

Moreover, in terms of its transmission, the hadith is divided into mutawatir (consecutive hadith), mashhur (well-known hadith), and ahad (solitary hadîth). Mutawâtir hadîth means a report by a significant number of narrators at each level in the chain of narration that they cannot be expected to agree upon a lie, all of them together. The authority of mutawatir hadith is equivalent to that of the Quran. Examples of mutawatir are the five daily prayers and the hadîth "whoever invents a lie and attributes it to me intentionally, must prepare his seat in the Hell-fire". (8)The second one, mashhur is defined as a hadith that was originally reported by only one or two Companions, but later became widely known (among the Companions' successors and the successors to the successors) and was narrated by an indefinite number of people. According to the Hanafî School of Law, acting upon the mashhur is obligatory, however, denying it does not amount to disbelief. Therefore the mashhur may qualify the general (‘amm) of the Quran. "A murderer does not inherit" (9) is an example of mashhur hadith. The third type is ahad hadith (also known as khabar al-wahid), which is one that has been narrated by people whose number (single person or individuals) does not reach that of the mutawatir case. The saying of the Prophet "surely, Allah does not regard your forms (looks) nor your wealth, but He scans your hearts and activities" (10) is an example of ahad hadith (11)

The majority of scholars have reached a consensus on the necessity of performance upon the sahih hadith. Moreover, since the first generations exemplified of the sunna among the societies shows the actual consensus of the ummah (Islamic community). In addition, in the same way that other societies have been ordered to follow their prophets, the Muslim society has been ordered to follow Prophet Muhammad in various Quranic verses. In the following paragraphs the authority of his sunna is examined in connection with some Quranic verses.

"He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah" (12), "Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and beware (of evil): if ye do turn back, you should know that it is Our Messenger's duty to proclaim (the message) in the clearest manner". (13) In both these verses obedience to the Messenger is vitally ordered, and submission to him is declared to be equivalent to submission to Allah. As a matter of fact, religious duties are considered as an entirety. It is clear that without submission to the Prophet, duties of servanthood could not be performed and, without obeying him, obedience to Allah cannot be fulfilled. Compliance to the sunna of Prophet Muhammad, therefore, is accepted as a criterion for the affection of Allah. In the Quran it is said that this affection can be shown merely by recognizing the authority of the sunna: "Say (O Muhammad, to mankind) ‘If you do love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins: Allah is Forgiving, Most Merciful'" (14). Thus, fondness and love between the servant and Allah and His forgiveness of people depends on allegiance to the Prophet and following the right way, which he has demonstrated to his ummah both with his life style and his sayings.

The authority of the sunna of Prophet Muhammad is one of the central concepts that are emphasized in the Quran when Prophet Muhammad is mentioned. This obedience to the Prophet is commended in many different verses as a sign of submission to Allah, and is a way of avoiding His wrath. For instance the following verse tells us: "Take what the Messenger assigns to you, and deny yourselves that which he withholds from you. And fear Allah. For Allah is strict in punishment" (15). According to this verse believers do not have the choice of rejecting what the messenger of Allah, who has been sent as blessing for all creations (rahmah lil ‘alameen), assigns to them. The Prophet also stresses this fact in the following hadith:"none of you believes until his desire follows what I have brought." (16) There is only one way: obedience with inner calm. If the believers take the life style of the Prophet as an example and make efforts to live like him, ultimately they will be able to reach the consent of Allah. This is the purpose of the institution of prophethood. Refusing what the Prophet has ordered, on the other hand, means perversity and requires strict punishment by Allah. The verse reads clearly: "It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong path" (17).

In conclusion, the life of the Prophet is shown to be an excellent dynamic model for those who want the consent of Allah. As it is reported, the Prophet said, "I have left two things among you. You shall not go astray so long as you hold on to them: the Book of Allah and my sunna" (18).Rasulullah's sunna, in other words, his life, is his inheritance and the love of the Prophet depends on claiming that legacy.

1. Ibn al-Mandhur, Lisan al-‘Arab, "snn", Lebanon, Dar Sadar, n.d.

2. Ibn Maja, Abu ‘Abdallah Muhammad ibn Yazid al-Qazwini, Sunan Ibn Maja, ed. Muhammad Fuad Abdul Baqî, Beirut, Dâr al-Fikr, Muqaddemah, 36; Shawkani, Muhammad Ibn Ali Ibn Muhammad, Irshad al-Fuhul, ed. Muhammad Said al-Badri, Beirut, Dar al-Fikr, 1992/1412, I, 67.

3. Al-Anbiya, 21:107.

4. Al-Ahzab, 33:21.

5. Al-Qalam, 68:4.

6. Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma‘il, Sahih al-Bukhari, ed. Mustafa Deeb al-Buga, Beirut, Dar Ibn Kasir, 1987/1407, Bad` al-Wahy, 1.

7. Kamali, Mohammad Hashim, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, Cambridge, The Islamic Texts Society, 1991, pp. 50-51.

8. Muslim, Abu al-Husayn ibn Hajjaj al-Nisaburi, Sahih Muslim, ed., Mohammad Fuad Abdalbaqi, Beirut, Dar Ihya Al-Turas Al-‘Arabi, n.d., Muqaddemah, 2.

9. Ibn Maja, Sunan, al-Diyat, 14.

10. Ibid, al-Zuhd, 9.

11. For details see Ibn Salah, Abu Amr Uthman ibn Abd al-Rahmân, Muqaddemah, ed. Nur al-Deen Itr, Beirut, Dar al-Fikr al-Mu‘asir, 1977, p. 265-267; Ibn al-Hajar, Ahmad ibn Ali, Nuhbah al-Fikar fi Mustalah Ehl al-Asar, Beirut, Dar Ihya Al-Turas Al-‘Arabi, n.d., I, 1; al-Suyuti, Abd al-Rahman ibn Ebi Bakr, Tadrib al-Rawi, ed., Abd al-Wahhab Abd al-Lateef, Reyad, Maktaba al-Reyad al-Hadîse, n.d., II, 173-176.

12. Al-Nisa`, 4:80.

13. Al-Ma'ida, 5:92.

14. Al-'Imran, 3:31.

15. Al-Hashr, 59:7.

16. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Zain ad-Dîn Abu al-Faraj al-Baghdadi, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wal-Hikam, ed. Shuaib Al-Aranout, Beirut, Muassasah al-Resalah, 1997, I, 386-387.

17. Al-Ahzab, 33:36.

18. Malik b. Anas, Abu Abdallah al-Asbahi, Muwatta`, ed. Muhammad Fuad Abdul Baqi, Egypt, Dar Ihya Al-Turas Al-‘Arabi, n.d., Qadar, 1.

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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