Exploring the Different Notions of Sunnah and its Relationship to the Qur’an Among Contemporary Muslims


[This is the fifteenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference later and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Session 15, Moderator: Imad ad-Dean Ahmed
Paper Presentation by Aisha Musa

“Exploring the Different Notions of Sunnah and its Relationship to the Qur’an Among Contemporary Muslims”

Four different views of Sunnah form the traditional to extreme rejecters of hadith. The latter do not reject Sunnah, but interpret it as the practical implications of Islamic teachings.

Yusuf Qaradawy is one of the most popular Islamic scholars in the world today. He takes a traditional position of the hadith as a source of the Sunnah. His concern is that people pick and choose from hadith as to which they consider weak or strong based on personal preference rather than on traditional well-developed Islamic science on the strength of transmission and of text. There has been progress in recent decades in making the classical sources available. He does not distinguish between hadith and Sunnah, but only calls for a more careful and traditionally scholarly approach to the use of hadith. He criticizes those who focus on the particulars of the reports (length of beards, etc.) rather than on the principles embodied therein.

Muhammad Shahrour, of Syria, prefaces his discussion with the same Qur’anic verses Qaradawi uses to establish the Sunnah, but he challenges the idea that everything Muhammad said and did (outside of the Qur’an) is under the influence of wahy. The verse that says the Prophet speaks only under wahy means only the Qur’an. Then anything in the hadith is only his application of the broader principles of the Qur’an. Then not everything reported in the hadith is Sunnah.

“Naveed” who writes only under a pseudonym represents the extreme rejection of hadith, but not of Sunnah. For him the Sunnah of the Prophet is in the Qur’an and only in the Qur’an. How can the Qur’an put forward both Muhammad and Abraham as examples for us when we have no hadith from Abraham? He says that it is through the hadith that Satan has distracted people away from the Sunnah. It is a blistering critique, without the nuance of other critics of the hadith.

To me the most interesting case is one new on the scene, Adis Aduderija, towards a methodology of understanding the scope and nature of the Sunnah. Everybody seems to agree that the Qur’an requires some sort of interpretation. He is immune to the accusation against Shahrour that he has no understanding of the hadith science. Aduderija makes a distinction between the pre-Shafi and post-Shafi understanding of Sunnah. Like all the others he sees broader principles, but seeks to outline a new methodology for understanding the relationship between Sunnah and hadith. He argues hat Shafi has actually limited the Qur’an and Sunnah by subordinating them to the hadith, which actually severs the organic link between them. He states that the Qur’an has incorporated non-textual sources including “pure reason,” of which he gives no examples. He identifies sunnah aqaliyyah, akhaltiyyah, fiqiyya, and practice-based all of which are linked to the Qur’an and Qur’anic hermeneutics and none default to the hadith. Even if the Qur’an is silent, he maintains one can derive positions from Qur’an using the new methodology. He gives the example of women leading prayer in which he argues that overriding principles of equity an justice make a female leading prayer consistent with Qur’anic principles.

There is a leap that needs further elaboration and explanation, which is how universal principles are deduced from the Qur’an. He gives another example in his treatment of divorce by talaq. He says it is a pre-Islamic practice, kept but reformed by the Qur’an and nuanced by the Sunnah, for example, the requirement that men be just and kind to women. Ultimately he argues this leads to the abolition of talaq under unexplained “Qur’anic-sunnatic principles.” Unsurprisingly, he also brings up the question of stoning adulterers. The hadith is not mutawattir and it contradicts universal principles derived from the Qur’an, such as the principle of human dignity. On the issue of Sunnah of beliefs he brings up the belief in Dajjal, Mahdi, and the return of Jesus. Here too he brings in “reason” but actually never shows why it is unreasonable.

Discussant 1: Mahmoud Ayoub

I think the question that ought to concern us but does not concern the four thinkers is how did Sunnah develop a functioning tool. The Qur’an speaks of sunnah sometimes positively, usually negatively, but nowhere does it mention the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) as an alternative to the jâhiliyya sunnah. The hadith “I leave the Qur’an and the Sunnah” is problematic because the Shia read it “I leave the Qur’an and my progeny,” so it is not a good proof text for anything. Qaradawi’s work is useful as source of traditional Islamic ideas that are contemporary and forward looking. I met Muhammad Shahrour at a MESA conference, and for me he is problematical. I asked his interpretation of the polygyny verses. He said I wrote what I write because I am not interested in what Abd-as-Samiyyah said, but in what Hegal said. But Abd-as-Samiyya is in the tradition and Hegel is not. He does not deny eschatology in Islam but he sees it as a new Marxist synthesis that will not only change the universe in which we live but God as well. His book on God and the Qur’an is interesting, but it is not really authentic. Wilfred Smith said what we say about a tradition is more important if we speak from within the tradition and Shahrour does not.

From the beginning what the Prophet did and said was important for the people. Abu Bakr called himself khalîfat-rasûl Allah, but his opponents in the so-called the rida wars were not attempting to leave the Islamic faith, but to withhold zakat from Abu Bakr. I think it was wise of Abu Bakr to fight these people and that it was an act of maintaining the administrative sunnah.

Discussant 2: Sami Catovic

It seems that the Prophet in his person has presented such a challenge from the time of the Quraysh, to the Christian critiques, to the contemporary ones. His critics seem to ask, “Who are you?” There seem to be competing camps between requiring emulation of the Prophet and trying to remove him from the Sunnah. Qaradawi is in the first camp and Shahrour in the second camp. I wish you had used the ahl-al-qur’an scholars instead of Naveed since I’m unaware of any major impact he is making. Aduderija’s methodology seems very conclusion driven. The Prophet had direct access to the source of revelation and the issue of interpretation need not arise, so delinking him from the revelation is problematical. I think the Risâlah reflects that Shafi was not introducing a new idea, but engaged in an ongoing debate, with Malik among others.

Response by Aisha Musa

Everybody accepts a role for sunnah and all accept obeying the Messenger, but what it means for them is very different. The role the prophet played and how they come to their conclusions about his are unaddressed or at least unclear. I agree that Shahrour’s conclusion-driven methodology does seem to take the Prophet out of the Sunnah completely. This discourse is taking place in the world we live in. I think the rejecters of the hadith see themselves as saving the Prophet from the negative hadith that are used to vilify him while at the same time they see the elevation of his status as having a knowledge beyond what he is given constitutes a form of shirk.

Ahmad Kazemi Mousavi: Today we have hundreds of terms about hadith with little agreement on their meanings.

Musa: Qaradawi makes the same criticism. He calls for a new Encyclopedia of hadith to address this problem. There are software companies that have worked for a decade on this. No final evaluation is added to these works. There is an effort in Turkey also that seems to be aimed at evaluation of the hadith.

Khaleel Mohammed: It would be interesting to see how people like Irshad Munji weigh in on this. There is a rhetoric that the Prophet was an Arab man in his time and we have to remove that Arabness from the transcendent Qur’anic message. Mernissi argues that pre-Islamic Arab society was in some ways more feminist that post-Islamic Arab society.

Ayoub: The Prophet defined an Arab as anyone who spoke Arabic. It is simply a language. The hadith plays the same role in Islam that the oral torah plays in the Jewish tradition. Even today some say that Islam is a religion for the Arabs, but the Qur’an seems to speak against that.

Musa: These writers raise more questions than answers, but raising a question serves a constructive purpose. They diminish the role of the Prophet in saying he has special knowledge.

Ahmad: They do not remove the Prophet but place the hadithic picture with the Qur’anic picture of him, like Abraham of whom the Qur’an twice says is an example to us.

Ahmed Rafiq: What about “munkar as-sunnah” who are actually “munkar al-hadith.”

Musa: They do not see themselves this way at all, because the Qur’an says, “Obey the Prophet,” which they see as a reference to Sunnah.

Catovic: We know that God intervened in the Prophet’s actions, but what if He does not intervene?

Musa: They see prophets as human beings who make mistakes and are sinful. Perhaps they are affected by other traditions, like the Old Testament.

Mohammed: We make a distinction between Sunnah and hadith that the average person finds shocking. How do we overcome that?

Musa: Among members of the second generations, Edip Yuksel is in an intermediate position. There are all kinds of unstated assumptions.

Ayoub: I would not take [Yuksel’s mentor] Rashad Khalifah as indicative of anything. He didn’t just deny the hadith. He wanted to remove “ashhaduanna Muhammad ar-rasul Allah” from the shahadah.

Musa: But he is very influential.

Ayoub: Muhammad was not like the Old Testament prophets, because the Prophet in Islam has a mission as both a prophet and a teacher.

Musa: We need for people to articulate their unstated assumptions. Khalifah would say the Prophet was not a teacher.

Ahmad: Khalifah also rejected the Qur’an. In order to support his theory that the mystic letters appear multiples of 19 times, he had to change the literal text. As someone who criticized his work on these grounds years ago, I was shocked at how few people were bothered by that, but there was a firestorm against him when he turned against the hadith.

Musa: You cannot dismiss him because his arguments have been influential.

Rafiq: Ahl al qur’an are not rejecting the prophet because the hadith come from a later era, but Naveed rejects the Prophet’s authority in his own time.

Musa: That’s why they are extreme.

Rafiq: The interchangeability of Sunnah and hadith can be seen as early as some of the seerah writers.

Mehmet Ata Az: To convince the public can we bring evidence from the Sunnah to reject hadith.

Musa: The problem is the public makes no distinction between hadith and Sunnah. Qaradawi makes such a distinction but does not reject hadith as a body.

Ayoub: The earliest books of hadith like Said ibn Mansur do not use the term sunnah. That usage is after Bukhari and Muslim. How can we write a history of the Sunnah as a factor in Islamic thought? I am not denying the Sunnah; I am saying we need to study its development as a conception in order to relate it to the hadith. Nineteen is a Bahai sacred number.

Ahmad: Do we need to vindicate the Prophet if we see him as only a postman? Christians have no such problems with Noah. We cannot remove the Prophet, but we could remove the Sunnah by arguing that ”obey the prophet” refers to his direct orders to his contemporaries, as “take what the prophet gives you” is revealed in the context of the spoils of war.

Musa: Kahlifah’s use of Qur’anic verses against hadith influenced others, even those who reject him. Ahmad Deedat popularized his ideas.

Ahmad: Deedat’s influence answers the question of how shall we influence the pubic. The public is indirectly influenced by intellectuals, but directly influenced by popularizers like Ahmad Deedat.

Musa: The followers of [Ghulum Ahmad] Parvez rejected Khalifah over the last two verses of the Qur’an, but they themselves reject hadith.

Ayoub: Do you find Naveed convincing?

Musa: Some of his arguments, but not all.

Khaleel Muhammad: If the Islamic definitions of prophet differ so much from those of Christianity and Judaism, how can we ask them to accept Muhammad as a prophet?

Ayoub: It has no bearing on the acceptance of Muhammad. What they object to, particularly the Christian theologians, is that they do not want God speaking after Jesus who they believe came at the fulfillment of time. There has not been a prophet to change world history since the Prophet Muhammad.

Catovic: The body of the hadith rarely deal with did the Prophet did this, or did that, but rather with what is it permitted or forbidden.

Ayoub: The uswat-al-hasanh of the Prophet mentioned in the Qur’an goes to the imitato Muhammad, like the imitato dei of medieval Christianity. Shamâ’id is part of the broader literature.

Musa: Bukhari organizes the hadith in a fiqhi way. Shafi is actually slightly before Bukhari, which sets up the demand for Bukhari’s work. Shafi’s was musnid.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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