by Justice Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani
Sunnah: The Second Source of Islamic Law
The Sunnah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been accepted as an important source of Islamic law, next in importance only to the Holy Qur’ân. 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 (peace be upon him) was never denied by any jurist. Leaving aside some scattered individuals who separated themselves from the main stream of the Muslim population, nobody has ever refused to accept the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) as a sacred source of the Islamic law.
The position is still the same, but some non-Muslim orientalists and some of their followers have tried, during the last century to cast some doubts in the authority or the veracity of Hadîth 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.
The present article intends, therefore, to provide an objective and simple account of the SUNNAH based on the original sources of Islamic learning. The purpose is not to indulge in a hot atmosphere of argumentation which has no bounds or limits, but to narrate the truth as it stands.
Definition of Sunnah
The Sunnah has been defined by the scholars of the science of Hadîth as follows:
“A word spoken, or an act done, or a confirmation given by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).”
“Confirmation” in this definition is termed in Arabic as Taqreer. What is meant by this term is like somebody said something, or acted in a particular manner, and his saying or act came to the knowledge of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and he either confirmed it in express words or remained silent without given any indication of disapproval. Such silence, being an implied approval of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) is also included in the term Sunnah.
As the Sunnah, with all its three kinds (saying, act and confirmation) relates to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), its true status in Islamic law cannot be ascertained without ascertaining the status of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) himself.
The Status of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him)
So, the first pertinent question in the subject is: What status does a prophet occupy when he is sent to the people? Has he no higher a status than that of a message-carrier or a postman who, after delivering the letter, has no concern with it whatsoever? The answer is certainly in the negative. The prophets are not sent merely to deliver the word of Allâh. 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. Their duty is not restricted to reciting the words of the Book, rather they are supposed to teach it and to train people to run their lives in accordance with its requirements. The Holy Qur’ân leaves no doubt concerning this point by saying:
Allâh 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)
He (Allâh) is the One who raised up, among the unlettered, a Messenger from among themselves who recites the verses of Allâh, and makes them pure, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom. (62:2)
The same functions were attributed to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) in the prayer of Sayyidna Ibrahim (peace be upon him) when, according to the Holy Qur’ân, he prayed:
Our Lord, raise in their midst a messenger from among themselves who recites to them Your verses and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom and purifies them… (2:129)
These are the terms of reference given to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) which include four distinct functions and the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has been entrusted with all of them:
(1) Recitation of the Verses of Allâh.
(2) Teaching the Book of Allâh.
(3) Teaching the Wisdom.
(4) Making the people pure.
Thus, the Holy Qur’ân leaves no ambiguities in the fact that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) is not supposed to merely recite the verses 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. Then, since teaching the Book is not enough, he is also required to teach “Wisdom” which is something additional to the “Book.” Still, this is not enough, therefore the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has also to “make the people pure,” meaning thereby that the theoretical teaching of the Book and the “Wisdom” 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.
These verses of the Holy Qur’ân describe the following functions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him):
(a) He is the authority in the way the Holy Book [the Qur’ân] 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 Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) 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 functions (b) and (c), namely, the teaching of the Book and Wisdom require that his sayings should be binding on the followers, while the function (d), the practical training, requires that his acts should be an example for the Ummah, and the Ummah should be bound to follow it.
It is not merely a logical inference from the verses of the Holy Qur’ân quoted above, but it is also mentioned in express terms by the Holy Qur’ân in a large number of verses which give the Muslims a mandatory command to obey and follow him. While doing so, the Holy Qur’ân has used two different terms, namely the “itaa’ah” (to obey) and “ittibaa’” (to follow). The first term refers to the orders and sayings of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) while the second relates to his acts and practice. By ordering the Muslims both to “obey” and to “follow” the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), the Holy Qur’ân has given an authority to both his sayings and acts.
The Obedience (Itaa’ah) of the Messenger
It is in this background that the Holy Qur’ân insists repeatedly on “the obedience of the Prophet” so much so that is is mentioned side by side with the obedience of Allâh:
Say: Obey Allâh and the Messenger, but if they turn their backs, Allâh loves not the disbelievers. (3:32)
And obey Allâh and the Messenger so that you may be blessed. (3:132)
O those who believe, obey Allâh and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. (4:59)
And obey Allâh and obey the Messenger and beware. (5:92)
So fear Allâh and set things right between you, and obey Allâh and His Messenger if you are believers. (8:1)
O those who believe, obey Allâh and His Messenger and do not turn away from him, while you are listening. (8:20)
And obey Allâh and His Messenger and do not quarrel with each other, and so lose heart. (8:46)
Say: Obey Allâh and obey the Messenger; then, if you turn away, upon him rests what is laid on him, and upon you rests what is laid on you. If you obey him, you will be guided. (24:54)
O those who believe, obey Allâh and obey the Messenger and do not make your deeds vain. (47:33)
So establish salaah and pay zakaah and obey Allâh and His Messenger. (58:13)
And obey Allâh and obey the Messenger but if you turn your backs, Our Messenger has only to deliver the manifest message. (64:12)
In these verses, “the obedience of the Messenger” has been ordered as an obligatory command. There are other verses in which the results of the “obedience of the Messenger” have been described. Here again the “obedience of the Messenger” has been combined with “the obedience of Allâh:”
And whoever obeys Allâh and His Messenger, Allâh shall admit him in the Gardens underneath which rivers flow. (4:13)
The same words have been repeated in (48:17) also.
And whoever obeys Allâh and the Messenger, they are in the company of those who Allâh has blessed. (4:69)
All that the believers say, when they are called to Allâh and His Messenger that he may judge between them, is that they say, “We hear and we obey”: it is these who are successful. Whoever obeys Allâh and His Messenger and fears Allâh and has awe of Him: it is these who are the winners. (24:52)
And whoever obeys Allâh and His Messenger, he has won a great success. (33:71)
And the believers, men and women, are friends of each other; they bid the fair and forbid the unfair; they establish sAllâh and pay zakaah and they obey Allâh and His Messenger. These are those upon whom Allâh shall have mercy; Allâh is All-Mighty, All-Wise. (9:71)
If you obey Allâh and His Messenger, He will not diminish you anything of your deeds. (49:14)
The Holy Qur’ân has also made it clear that “the obedience of the prophet” is not a new principle, nor is it limited to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The same principle applied to all the former prophets who came before him:
And we sent no messenger, but that he should be obeyed by the leave of Allâh. (4:64)
It is also clarified by the Holy Qur’ân that the prophets are the spokesmen of Allâh’s pleasure. Hence, the obedience of the prophet is actually obedience of Allâh Himself.
And whoever obeys the Messenger, thereby obeys Allâh. (4:80)
As the obedience of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has been stressed by the Holy Qur’ân and has been combined with the “obedience of Allâh,” in the same way “disobedience” of him has been warned against and is combined with the “disobedience of Allâh:”
And whoever disobeys Allâh and His Messenger and transgresses His limits, He shall admit him to Fire where he shall remain forever. (4:14)
And whoever disobeys Allâh and His Messenger has gone astray into manifest error. (33:36)
And whoever disobeys Allâh and His Messenger, for him there is the fire of Jahannam. There they shall remain forever. (72:23)
And whoever makes a breach with Allâh and His Messenger, then Allâh is severe in punishment. (8:13)
Did they not come to know that whoever opposes Allâh and His Messenger, for him there is the fire of Jahannam? (9:63)
Thus, both positive and negative aspects of the obedience have been dealt with in the Holy Qur’ân and the “obedience of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him)” in each one of these verses has been mentioned separately, alongwith the obedience of Allâh.
It is noteworthy that whenever the “obedience of Allâh” is mentioned in the Holy Qur’ân, it is always followed by the “obedience of the Prophet” which has never been missed even in a single verse. There is no verse in the entire Book where the “obedience of Allâh” has been mentioned alone with no reference to the “obedience of the Messenger.”
On the contrary, there are some verses where only the “obedience of the Messenger” has been mentioned, and there is no reference to the obedience of Allâh:
And establish salaah and pay zakaah and obey the Prophet so that you may be blessed. (24:56)
And if you obey him (the Prophet), you shall find the right path. (24:54)
On that day those who disbelieved and disobeyed the Messenger will wish that the earth might be levelled with them. (4:42)
And whoever makes a breach with the Messenger after the right path has become clear to him, and follows a way other than that of the believers, We shall let him own what he chose and shall admit him in the Jahannam, and it is evil as a returning place. (4:115)
The reason for so much stress upon the “obedience of the Prophet” is that the obedience of Allâh cannot be carried out except through the obedience of the Prophet. Allâh does not address each and every individual to tell him what He requires from him, as the Holy Qur’ân puts it:
And it is not possible for a human being that Allâh should speak to him, except by revelation, or from behind a curtain or that He should send a messenger and reveal by His leave what He wills. (42:51)
Therefore Allâh conveys His injunctions only through His prophets and 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 Allâh. When Allâh Himself has given an express command to “obey the Messenger,” the obedience of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is actually the “obedience of Allâh,” though in an indirect manner. This point has been clearly established by the Holy Qur’ân in the following words:
And whoever obeys the Messenger, thereby obeys Allâh. (4:80)
So, whenever only the “obedience of the Messenger” has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’ân, it includes, without saying, the “obedience of Allâh” because the Messenger does not say anything in the capacity of a Messenger unless he is guided by a revelation from Allâh:
And he (the Prophet (peace be upon him) does not speak out of his own desire. It is not but a revelation revealed (to him). (53:3-4)
Looked at from this angle, the obedience of the Prophet (peace be upon him) represents the obedience of Allâh and the reference to the former always includes the latter. That is why the Holy Qur’ân in some verses deemed it sufficient to refer to the obedience of the Messenger only, for the practical way to obey Allâh is only to obey the prophet.
On the contrary, the Holy Qur’ân did not deem it sufficient to refer to the “obedience of Allâh” without referring to the “obedience of the Messenger,” to remove even the remotest excuse for ignoring the “obedience of the Prophet” and to leave no doubt whatsoever in the fact that the obedience of Allâh is not complete unless the obedience of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is fully observed with all its implications.
Ittibaa’ (Following) of the Prophet (peace be upon him)
The second term used by the Holy Qur’ân in respect of the prophets is the ittibaa’, i.e. to follow:
Say, if you love Allâh, follow me and Allâh will love you and forgive you your sins. (3:31)
Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find written down with them in the Torah and the Injeel… (7:157)
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)
Allâh has surely relented towards the Prophet and the Emigrants and the Helpers who followed him in an hour of difficulty. (9:117)
O Prophet, sufficient for you is Allâh and those who followed you of the believers. (8:64)
(The believers say:) Our Lord, we have come to believe in what You revealed and followed the Messenger. So write us among those who bear witness. (3:53)
Say: This is my way. I call to Allâh with sure knowledge, I and whoever follows me. (12:108)
The closest of the people to Ibrahim are those who follow him. (3:68)
And We set in the hearts of those who followed him (Jesus) tenderness and mercy. (57:27)
And warn the people of the day when the punishment comes on them and those who did evil shall say: Our Lord, defer us to a near term and we shall respond to Your call and shall follow the messengers. (14:44)
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)
He said: My people, follow the messenger! (36:20)
(Hârûn said:) And your Lord is the Rahmaan (the All-Merciful), so follow me and obey my command. (20:90)
So they (the disbelievers) said: Shall we follow a single human being from among us? Then, indeed we should be in error and insanity. (54:24)
All these verses, with different styles and connotations, lay a strong emphasis on the necessity of “following the prophets” and indicate that whoever believes in a prophet is bound to “follow” him. The reason is obvious. The prophets are sent to the people to set a practical example of what they teach and preach. Their message is not confined to their oral teachings. Their acts are equally important in any effort to discover, learn and follow the right way of living. The Holy Qur’ân is quite explicit on this point when it was said in Surah al-Ahzaab:
There is surely a good example for you in the Messenger of Allâh, for the one who hopes (to meet) Allâh and the Hereafter and remembers Allâh abundantly. (33:21)
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 senior scholar or a skillful artist of that field. 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.
If somebody studies books of law, he cannot claim to be a lawyer unless he acquires a practical training from a senior lawyer and remains for a considerable time under his juniorship.
Even a plain enthusiast who wants to cook a good meal cannot do so perfectly by merely studying the books written on the subject, although all the ingredients required for cooking the food are mentioned in the book and even the minute details of the process are fully described. But a person who has never cooked that meal before cannot prepare it just right and perfect with the sole help of a cookbook unless he is practically trained by some expert. That expert sets a practical example for him and he, by following the example, gradually learns how to cook that good meal.
It clearly shows that human beings are always in need of a practical example in order to learn an important subject. The same is true in the matter of religious teaching and training.
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 (peace be upon him). But the demand was rejected and the Book was sent through the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).
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 (peace be upon him) 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 (peace be upon him) 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.
This is an extract from the book “The Authority of Sunnah” by Justice Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani – Originally published by Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, 1991. Reprinted in IQRA.