The Only Authority in Islam

An overview of Quran and Sunnah

Ust. Asad Khan
Articles | Oct 31, 2019
20 minutes
Read Time
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A quick observation of the current circumstances faced by the Muslim community makes it evident that these are uniquely difficult and troubling times.  From among the many challenges that Muslims are grappling with the challenges of modernity are especially pertinent with certain prominent modern philosophies threatening core Islamic principles. This dichotomy often leads many Muslims to rethink their worldview as they are faced with questions such as: How should a Muslim orient himself in the world? How should he determine his moral principles that will govern his actions throughout his life. Due to the perpetuation of non-Islamic ideas answering these questions becomes difficult and can lead to abandoning certain Islamic teachings. 

 

However, as Muslims we believe that the answer to these seemingly new questions has already been provided to us. We believe that mankind has received sources of guidance from the All-Knowing Creator of all to guide them on their journey through life. A guidance that can not be attained simply from the limited experiences of ones short life. These sources are the Qur’ān and the authentic Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family). These two form the only standard of our religion that is binding and must be followed. All that is in line with them is sound, and all that contradicts them must be avoided. Not only have these sources been revealed by Allah they have also been meticulously preserved by our predecessors and passed down from generation to generation to maintain their purity and avoid corruption. Therefore this article will examine the authority of the Qur’ān and Sunnah as well as the process of their preservation in order to conclude that they are binding upon all believers.

 

The Authority of the Qur’ān and Sunnah

 As muslims, we adhere to: the belief in only One Creator, His Angels, His books, His Messengers, and the Day of Judgement. As a part of believing in His book, we firmly believe that He revealed His final book – the Qur’ān – to mankind, as a means of guidance. The Qur’ān, however, contains verses that, in some cases, may have multiple linguistic interpretations. An example of this is Allāh’s commandment “Establish Ṣalāh and give Zakāh.”1 The linguistic definitions of Ṣalāh and Zakāh are supplication and purity, respectively. Hence, the meaning of the verse as a commandment to establish the prayer, with all that it entails, and to give a percentage of one’s wealth to charity, cannot be understood from the apparent construction of the verse. 

 

  As such, the Messenger (peace be upon him and his family) was tasked with conveying, as well as clarifying and explaining, the Qur’ān to the people. This is reflected in the verse of the Qur’ān: “And we have revealed the Reminder to you so you may clarify for people what has been revealed to them.” 2 Therefore without the practice and teachings of the Messenger of Allāh, the religion is incomplete. As mentioned in the example above, the intended meaning of Ṣalāh and Zakāh would not be known, if not for the Messenger’s clarification. This is why Allāh has made obedience of the Messenger obligatory upon the believers when He states: “Say, obey Allāh and His Messenger”, as well as: “And whatever the Messenger gives to you, take it. And whatever he forbids you from, leave it.”

 

From these verses, it is established that the Messenger’s practice, or Sunnah, is a source of Islamic legislation. His statements, his actions, and his tacit approvals are elaborations of the Qur’ān, and therefore must be followed. The general commandment to “take whatever he gives you” also implies that the Messenger of Allāh is free from error. For if he was not, his mistakes would be established as his Sunnah and would become the practice of the believers. Furthermore, if it was possible for him to commit a mistake, Allāh would not have given a general commandment to follow him without exception. This infallibility is more clearly expressed in the verse of the Qur’ān “And nor does he speak from desire. It is not but a revelation revealed.”  

 

However, this infallibility is only limited to the Messenger himself. There is no text that exists that indicates that this infallibility is shared by anyone else from his ummah. Although we deeply revere the Messenger’s family, his companions, and the great scholars from the early or later eras of Islam, this infallibility was not bestowed upon them. Furthermore, they are subject to committing errors in their independent reasoning (Ijtihād), despite their tremendously sincere intentions. As such, the statements of anyone other than the Messenger does not constitute a binding proof in and of itself. This, however, does not negate the work and importance of scholars, which will be discussed later. 

 

The Preservation of the Quran

In the time of the Messenger, when verses of the Qur’ān were revealed to him, he would recite them to his companions who would memorize the verses and write them down. Several of the companions, such as Zayd bin Thābit and Ubay bin Ka’b, were specifically commissioned with the task of recording the Qur’ān as it was revealed. However, although the entire Qur’ān was recorded in the time of the Messenger, it was not collected and compiled together in book form. 

 

This task of compiling the Qur’ān together was undertaken by the first Caliph, Abū Bakr, upon the recommendation of ‘Umar. This is recorded in Imam Bukhari’s rigorously authentic collection, on the authority of Zayd bin Thābit who stated: “Abū Bakr sent for me after the (heavy) casualties among the warriors (of the battle) of Yamāmah (where a great number of Qur’ān memorizers were killed). `Umar was present with Abū Bakr who said, `Umar has come to me and said, The people have suffered heavy casualties on the day of (the battle of) Yamāmah, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties among the Qurrā’ (those who know the Qur’ān by heart) at other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’ān may be lost, unless you collect it. And I am of the opinion that you should collect the Qur’ān.” Abū Bakr added, “I said to `Umar, ‘How can I do something which Allāh’s Messenger has not done?’ `Umar said (to me), ‘By Allāh, it is (really) a good thing.’ So `Umar kept on pressing, trying to persuade me to accept his proposal until Allah opened my bosom for it and I had the same opinion as `Umar. […]”

 

Within the same year as the passing of the Messenger , the companions immediately realized the importance of collecting the Qur’ān to ensure its preservation. In addition to being preserved in written form, the Qur’ān was also preserved in the hearts of the Sahaba. Those who were present at the time of revelation would commit the verses of the Qur’ān to memory, as indicated in the hadith quoted above. Therefore, along with the written preservation, there began a process of orally transmitting the Qur’ān, as well. This transmission was from such a high number of companions to the subsequent generation, and from that generation to the next, that it is rationally inconceivable that there be any change in the Qur’ān. This is how Allāh preserved the Qur’ān, as He promised “Indeed We have revealed the reminder, and indeed We are its Preservers”.  

 

Preservation of the Sunnah

After the passing of the Messenger, a formalized effort was not immediately made to collect and gather the Sunnah, as it was done for the Qur’ān. Rather his Sunnah was orally transmitted, from those who witnessed it to those who had not. Such a narration of the Sunnah of the Messenger was termed Ḥadīth. As such, this manner of transmission was not inclusive, as all of the Sunnah of the Messenger, did not reach all of the Muslim community. Therefore, each individual followed that which reached him and was unable to follow that which did not. 

 

Given this situation, scholars realized the need to gather the Aḥādīth of the Messenger, to attain a correct and comprehensive understanding of his sunnah. Thus, the greatest from amongst them took up the task of journeying through Islamic lands and gathering the transmitted narrations of his sunnah. This process began around 90 years following the passing of the Messenger and continued for approximately 3 centuries. This time period is known as the era of collection (tadwīn). It is during this time that the great collections of ḥadīth, such as the Sunan of Abī Dawūd, the Sunan of Ibn Mājah, and the Jami’ of Tirmidhī, were compiled.  

 

However, the era following the passing of the major companions was riddled with both novel issues that had not existed in their time, as well as the same issues they had faced. Some of these novel issues included the emergence of various sects and the coming to power of corrupt governments. An issue that they had dealt with was the presence of hypocrites in their midst who desired to sabotage the religion. Taking advantage of the absence of a collection of the Sunnah, narrators belonging to these parties initiated forging narrations to their benefit, and attributing them to the Messenger. Some of these narrators later admitted to inventing narrations of the Messenger. One such example is that of ‘Umar bin Ṣaḥab. Imam Bukhāri narrates in his book, Tarīkh Al Awsat, that “Yaḥya bin Yashkury informed me from ‘Ali bin Jarīr, who said: ‘I heard ‘Umar bin Ṣaḥab say: I forged the khutba of the Messenger’”. A similar example that illustrates the invention of narrations by different sects for their purposes is found in what is narrated by Ibn Abi Hatim. He mentions a narration from a former scholar of the Khawārij after he had left their sect, who said ‘Be wary of whom you take your religion from, for indeed if we used to desire a matter, we would make it into a ḥadīth”.

 

With such forgeries coming to light the scholars also realized the need to develop a methodology of discerning the statements of the Messenger from forgeries attributed to him, lest they be mixed together and the religion be lost. In order to verify narrations before accepting them, they developed a standard of accuracy in narration and trustworthiness that they would judge a narrator by before accepting his report. They would then seek out the source from which the narrator had taken the report, and apply the same standard of accuracy and trustworthiness to the previous narrator. In this manner, they would trace the statement back to the Messenger while verifying each narrator in the chain of transmitters. 

 

The scholars understood the weight of responsibility upon them, as they were dealing with statements of the Messenger, which constituted a large portion of the religion.  Hence they applied strict conditions when accepting narrations. Even if there was a single narrator within a chain of transmission who failed to meet the criteria of the scholars, they would classify the narration as weak due to a higher possibility of error. Only those narrations that were transmitted through an entire chain of accurate and trustworthy narrators were classified as authentic. 

 

However, despite the high caliber of the accepted narrators, due to their fallibility, their narrations still entailed a possibility (albeit low) of error. Therefore, the scholars of ḥadīth took further painstakingly nuanced measures to ensure the narrations were free from mistakes. In order to further verify the authenticity of a narration, all the chains transmitting it, along with the respective versions of the narration from each chain, were gathered and compared. Through this comparison, scholars were able to further filter reports by identifying mistakes and incorrect transmissions. An example of this is the ḥadīth of the Messenger teaching the tashahhud of the prayer, narrated by Abu Khaythama through ‘Alqama from ‘Abd Allāh bin Mas’ūd. While quoting the ḥādīth Abu Khaythama narrates the ending of the ḥādīth as such “ ‘[…] I bear witness that there is no God but Allāh, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His messenger.’ So when you have stated this, your salah is completed. If you wish to stand, you may.” 

 

However an examination of all the chains through different narrators who transmitted this ḥādīth reveals that the portion of the ḥādīth “So when you have stated this, your salah is complete. If you wish to stand, you may” is not from the Prophet. That statement is the commentary of ‘Abd Allāh bin Mas’ūd on the ḥādīth. In fact a further examination of the transmission by other narrators through ‘Alqamah reveals that the mistake was only transmitted by Abu Khaythama who mistakenly assumed the entire statement was from the Messenger and narrated it as such. 

 

Through these methods of verifying the narrators, as well as comprehensive comparative analysis, statements of the Messenger were separated from those that were forged, incorrect, or entailed a high possibility of error.  Thus, although the Sunnah of the Messenger is binding, there is something to be said about its verification. While that which is authentic is binding, that which falls short of meeting the standard of authentication is not.

 

Some of the scholars who took on the task of compiling aḥādīth were selective in only admitting authentic narrations into their collections. Examples of such scholars include Imam Bukhāri and Imam Muslim, in their authentic collections. However, this principle was not necessarily applied by all the scholars who gathered ḥādīth. It is a common misconception that the six canonical books, only contain authentic narrations. The fact of the matter is, excluding the two aforementioned Imams, the remaining authors of the six canonical books did not stipulate that they would only include narrations from a verified chain of transmitters. Hence their books entail both narrations that are authentic and ones that are not. 

 

A Word on the Fuqahā’

As the scholars of Hadith were developing their methodology and gathering the statements of the prophet, there was another group of scholars who were simultaneously developing their own methodologies (Usūl) to filter. They were the jurists or Fuqahā’. There are four schools of thought that emerged from them and still remain: the Hanafi, Māliki, Shāfi’i, and Hanbali schools. Each of these schools possess its own principles that were developed by the pious predecessors and further developed and refined through the centuries to determine which narrations of the Prophet should be acted upon. It is for this reason that it may appear in some instances as if the rulings of a jurisprudential school contradicts the principles of the scholars of Hadith. However this difference is simply a matter of scholarly reasoning and should not be used to negate the validity of the four jurisprudential schools.

 

Conclusion

As seen above, Allah willed to preserve the Quran in its entirety, so that it may remain as the source of guidance throughout time. With the Quran, Allah sent His Messenger, to embody and teach it. He willed to preserve that of the Messenger’s Sunnah, which was necessary for the religion to be complete. He willed to dispel the attempts to sabotage the deen through the effort of the scholars, as they separated the authentic from the weak and from the forged. Despite the drastic changes in times, and the emergence of radical social philosophies it is through these two sources that Muslims must continue to orient themselves. That which coincides with them is taken, while that which contradicts them is abandoned. It is in them that we find the path to felicity in this life and the next.

 

And Allah knows best. 

 

 

 

Notes


  1. Qur’ān 2:43
  2. Qur’ān 16:44, in meaning

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