The Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has been accepted as an important source of Islamic law, next in importance only to the Holy Qur’an. This status of the Sunnah has remained unchallenged and undisputed throughout the centuries. There have been differences among Muslims in their juristic opinions, but the authority of the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) has never been denied by the jurists.
Definition of Sunnah
The Sunnah has been defined by the scholars of the science of Hadith as follows:
“Whatever comes from the Prophet (PBUH), other than the Quran itself, in the form of his speech, actions or tacit approvals”
As the Sunnah, with all its three kinds (speech, action and tacit approval) relates to the Prophet (PBUH), its true status in Islamic law cannot be established without ascertaining the status of the Prophet (PBUH) himself. So, the first pertinent question in the subject is: What is the status of a prophet when he is sent to a people? Does he serve as a message-carrier who, after delivering the letter, has no concern with it whatsoever? The answer is certainly in the negative as Allah has said:
And we sent no messenger, but that he should be obeyed by the leave of Allah. (4:64)
The prophets are not sent merely to deliver the word of Allah. They are also required to explain the divine Book, to interpret it, to expound it, to demonstrate the ways of its application and to present a practical example of its contents. The Holy Qur’an leaves no doubt concerning this point by saying:
Allah has surely blessed the believers with His favor when He raised in their midst a Messenger from among themselves, who recites to them His verses and makes them pure and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom, while they were, earlier in open error. (3:164)
Thus, the Holy Qur’an makes clear the fact that the Prophet (PBUH) was not sent to merely recite the verses and leave it to the people to interpret and apply them in whatever manner they like. Instead, he is sent to “teach” the Book. This verse and other similar verses of the Holy Qur’an describe the following functions of the Prophet (PBUH):
(a) He is the authority in the way the Holy Book [the Qur’an] has to be recited.
(b) He has the final word in the interpretation of the Book
(c) He is the only source at 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.
These functions of the Prophet can never be carried out unless his teachings, both oral and practical, are held to be authoritative for his followers, and the Muslims who are given under his training are made bound to obey and follow him. The function, the teaching of the Book and Wisdom require that the Prophet’s sayings should be binding on the followers, while the function the practical training requires that his actions should be an example for the Ummah, and the Ummah should be bound to follow it.
This is not merely a logical inference from the verses of the Holy Qur’an quoted above, but it is also mentioned in express terms by the Holy Qur’an in a large number of verses which give the Muslims a mandatory command to obey and follow him. While doing so, the Holy Qur’an has used two different terms, namely “itaa’ah” (to obey) and “ittibaa” (to follow).
Obedience of the Messenger (Itaa’ah)
The Holy Qur’an insists repeatedly on “the obedience of the Prophet” so much so that is mentioned side by side with the obedience of Allah:
And obey Allah and obey the Messenger but if you turn your backs, Our Messenger has only to deliver the manifest message. (64:12)
So establish salaah and pay zakaah and obey Allah and His Messenger. (58:13)
It is important to note that whenever the “obedience of Allah” is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, it is always followed by the “obedience of the Prophet”. In fact, there is no verse in the Quran where the “obedience of Allah” has been mentioned without a reference to “obedience of the Messenger.” On the contrary, there are some verses where there is reference only to the obedience of the Messenger without a reference to the obedience of Allah. So for example, Allah says:
On that day those who disbelieved and disobeyed the Messenger will wish that the earth might be leveled with them. (4:42)
The reason for so much stress upon the “obedience of the Prophet” is that Allah conveys His injunctions only through His Prophets and therefore His obedience cannot be carried out except by the obedience of the messengers. So, when a prophet bids something or forbids something, he does not do it in his private capacity, rather he does so in the capacity of a messenger of Allah.
Following of the Prophet (Ittiba’a)
The second term used by the Holy Qur’an in respect of the prophets is the ittibaa’, i.e. to follow:
Say, if you love Allah, follow me and Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. (3:31)
Believe, then, in Allah and His Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him so that you may be on the right path. (7:158 )
It is an established fact that mere theoretical education cannot be sufficient for the reform of a people. The natural way of reformation is to set a practical example which people could follow. That is why Allah did not choose to send the divine books independently; 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. It was for this reason that the Prophet (PBUH) 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 Allah’s pleasure through the practical example set before them by him. It was also clarified in these verses of the Holy Book that the “obedience of the Messenger” is actually the “obedience of Allah” and that the latter cannot be carried out except through the former. Thus, his sayings and actions both, even though they are not contained in the Holy Qur’an, are inspired or confirmed by the divine revelation.
Two Kinds of Revelation
Now the revelation the Prophet (PBUH) received from Allah is of two different kinds:
(i) the revelation of the Qur’an, the Holy Book, named in the Islamic terminology as al-wahy al-matluww (the recited revelation, i.e. the revelation which can be recited in the prayers). This kind of revelation is confined to the verses of the Holy Qur’an.
(ii) the revelation received by the Prophet (PBUH) from time to time to let him know the pleasure of Allah in day-to-day affairs and the details of the principles laid down in the Holy Qur’an with their correct interpretation. This kind of revelation is called al-wahy ghair al-matluww (the unrecited revelation). This has been demonstrated through the sayings and actions of the Prophet (PBUH).
In the early days of Madani life, after the Prophet’s (PBUH) migration to Madinah, the Muslims were ordered to direct their faces in prayers towards Baytul-Maqdas (Jerusalem) which had been appointed as Qiblah of the Muslims. Up to seventeen months, the Muslims had been observing the Baytul-Maqdas as their Qiblah. It was after seventeen months that the Holy Qur’an abrogated the earlier order and the Muslims were required to observe the Holy Mosque of Makkah as their Qiblah and turn their faces towards it while praying. The following verse was revealed to appoint the new Qiblah:
…So turn your face towards al-Masjid al-Haraam. (2:144)
This new order was objected to by some disbelievers as to why the Baytul-Maqdas was appointed as Qiblah in the first place. So Allah revealed the verse:
And We did not appoint the Qiblah on which you were earlier, but that We might know the people who follow the Messenger as distinct from those who turn back on their heels. (2:143)
So the explanation was that the appointment of the former Qiblah was in order to test the people whether or not they follow the Messenger. Now its important to note that here the appointment of the previous Qiblah has been attributed to Allah Almighty, which is a clear indication to the fact that the appointment of Baytul-Maqdas as Qiblah was done by the order of Allah Almighty Himself. But this order is nowhere in the Holy Qur’an, and there is no verse in the Holy Book which directs the turning of faces towards Baytul-Maqdas. This order was given to Muslims by the Prophet (PBUH) with no reference to any verse of the Holy Qur’an. Still, this order was mentioned by the Holy Qur’an in the above quoted verse as the order of Allah: The words,
“We did not appoint the Qiblah,” instead of the words “The Prophet did not…”.
This statement of the Holy Qur’an, thus, evidently proves that the previous order given by the Prophet (PBUH) was based on a revelation which did not form part of the Book. And this is exactly the “unrecited revelation.”
The Scope of the Prophetic Authority
The Holy Qur’an has not only stressed upon the “obedience of the Messenger” as a general rule or principle. It has also highlighted the different shades of authority in order to explain the scope of his obedience, and the various spheres where it is to be applied.
The Prophet’s (PBUH) Authority to Interpret the Holy Qur’an
The Prophet (PBUH) is the final authority in the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an:
And We sent down towards 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. (16:44)
It is unequivocally established here that the basic function of the Prophet (PBUH) is to explain the Holy Book and to interpret the revelation sent down to him. It is obvious that the Arabs of Makkah, who were directly addressed by the Prophet (PBUH) did not need any translation of the Qur’anic text. The Holy Qur’an was revealed in their own mother tongue. Despite that they were mostly illiterate, they had a command on their language and literature. Their beautiful poetry, their eloquent speeches and their impressive dialogues are the basic sources of richness in the Arabic literature. They needed no one to teach them the literal meaning of the Qur’anic text. That they understood the textual meaning is beyond any doubt.
Examples of Prophetic Explanation of the Qur’an
1. The salaah (prayer) is the well-known way of worship which is undisputedly held as the first pillar of Islam after having faith. The Holy Qur’an has ordered more than 73 times to observe it. Despite this large number of verses giving direct command to observe the salaah, there is no verse in the entire Book to explain how to perform and observe it.
Some components of the salaah, like ruku’ (bowing down) or sujud (prostration) or qiyaam (standing) are, no doubt, mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. But the complete way to perform salaah as a composite whole has never been explained. It is only through the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) that we learn the exact way to perform it. If the Sunnah is ignored, all these details about the correct way of observing salaah are lost.
It is significant that the Holy Qur’an has repeated the command of observing salaah as many as 73 times, yet, it has elected not to describe the way it had to be performed. This is not without some wisdom behind it. The point that seems to have been made deliberately is one of the significance of the Sunnah.
2. The same is the case if zakaah (alms-giving), the third pillar of Islam, which is in most cases combined with the salaah in the Holy Qur’an. The order to “pay zakaah” is found in the Holy Book in more than thirty places. But who is liable to pay it? On what rate it should be paid? What assets are liable to the obligation of zakaah? What assets are exempted from it? All these questions remain unanswered if the Sunnah of the Holy Qur’an (PBUH) is ignored. It is the Prophet (PBUH) who explained all these details about zakaah.
The Time Limit of the Prophetic Authority
It is sometimes argued by those who hesitate to accept the full authority of the Sunnah, that whenever the Holy Qur’an has conferred on the Prophet (PBUH) an authority to make laws or to explain and interpret the Book, it meant this authority to be binding on the people of the Prophet’s (PBUH) time only. They were under the direct control and the instant supervision of the Prophet (PBUH) and were addressed by him face to face. Therefore, the Prophetic authority was limited to them only. It cannot be extended to all the generations for all times to come.
This contention leads us to the discovery of the time limits of the Prophetic authority. The question is whether the authority of the Prophet (PBUH) was confined to his own time, or it is an everlasting authority which holds good for all times to come.
The basic question underlying this premise has already been answered in detail. It has been established through a number of arguments that the obedience of the Prophet (PBUH) was not enjoined upon the Muslims in his capacity of a ruler. It has been enjoined in his capacity of a Prophet. Had it been the authority of a ruler only which the Prophet (PBUH) exercised, it would logically be inferred that the authority is tied up with his rule, and as soon as his administrative rule is over, his authority simultaneously ceases to have effect.
But if the authority is a “Prophetic” authority, and not merely a “ruling authority,” then it is obvious that it shall continue with the continuance of the prophethood, and shall not disappear until the Prophet (PBUH) no longer remains a prophet.
Now, the only question is whether the Prophet (PBUH) was a prophet of a particular nation or a particular time, or his prophethood extended to the whole mankind for all times. Let us seek the answer from the Holy Qur’an itself. The Holy Qur’an says:
Say: O mankind! I am the Messenger of Allah to you all… (7:158 )
And We did not send you (O Prophet) except to the entire mankind, bearing good news and warning. (34:28 )
This verse made it clear that the Prophet (PBUH) is the last one in the chain of prophets. The earlier prophets were often sent to a particular nation for a particular time, because they were succeeded by other prophets. But no prophet is to come after Muhammad (PBUH). Hence, his prophethood extends to all the nations and all the times.
The Authority of the Sunnah: Its Historical Aspect
Faced with the overwhelming arguments in favor of the authority of Sunnah, some people resort to another way of suspecting its credibility, that is, to suspect its historical authenticity. According to them, the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) though having a binding authority for all times to come, has not been preserved in a trustworthy manner. Unlike the Holy Qur’an, they say, there is no single book containing reliable reports about the Sunnah. There are too many works having a large number of traditions sometimes conflicting each other.
This argument accepts that the Prophet (PBUH) has a prophetic authority for all times to come, and that his obedience is mandatory for all Muslims of whatever age, but in the same breath it claims that the reports of the Sunnah being unreliable, we cannot carry out this obedience. Does it not logically conclude that Allah has enjoined upon us to obey the Messenger, but did not make this obedience practicable? Allah Almighty has given us a promise in the Holy Qur’an:
Indeed We have revealed the Zikr (ie. the Qur’an) and surely We will preserve it. (15:9)
In this verse, Allah Almighty has assured the preservation of the Holy Qur’an. This implies that the Qur’an will always be transferred from one generation to the other in its real and original form, undistorted by any foreign element. The question now is whether this divine protection is restricted only to the words of the Holy Qur’an or does it extend to its real meanings as well. If the prophetic explanation is necessary to understand the Holy Qur’an correctly, then the preservation of the Qur’anic words alone cannot serve the purpose unless the prophetic explanations are also preserved.