The Authority of the Sunnah

Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hanooti, member of the North American Fiqh Council, states: “Allah the Almighty has informed us that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in general has the authority to emphasize the Qur’an or to elaborate it through Sunnah. The majority of schools say the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has the power to add a law which has no precedent
in the Qur’an. To say the Qur’an is the only source is imperfect and incomplete.”
In this context, we’d like to cite the fatwa issued by Sheikh M. S. Al-Munajjid, a prominent Saudi Muslim lecturer and author on the importance of Sunnah as a primary source of Islam. He states:
“The question may appear strange and somewhat surprising to committed, practicing Muslims. How can something which is so obviously one of the bases of Islam become a matter for discussion and debate? But since the question has been asked, we will present, with the help of Allah, the principles and bases of the importance of the Sunnah as well as the obligation to follow it. By so doing, we will also refute the doubters and the misguided group who call themselves “Qur’aniyyin” (the Qur’aan has nothing to do with them!)
Proof of the importance of the Sunnah:
1) The Qur’an speaks of the importance of the Sunnah, for example:
(a) Allah says: “He who obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah…” (an-Nisa’: 80) Allah described obedience to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as being a part of obedience to Him. Then He made a connection between obedience to Him and obedience to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him): “O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger…” (an-Nisa’: 59)
(b) Allah warns us not to go against the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and states that whoever disobeys him will be doomed to eternal Hell. Allah says: “…And let those who oppose the Messenger’s commandment beware, lest some fitnah (trial, affliction, etc.) befall them or a painful torment be inflicted on them.” (an-Nur: 63)
(c) Allah has made obedience to His Pr
ophet a religious duty; resisting or opposing it is a sign of hypocrisy: “But no, by your Lord, they can have no Faith, until they make you [Muhammad] judge in all disputes between them, and find in themselves no resistance against your decisions, and accept (them) with full submission.” (an-Nisa’: 65)
(d) Allah commands His servants to respond to Him and His Messenger: “O you who believe! Answer Allah (by obeying Him) and (His) Messenger when he calls you to that which will give you life…” (al-Anfal: 24)
(e) Allah also commands His servants to refer all disputes to him: “(And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger…” (an-Nisa’: 59)
2) The Sunnah itself indicates the importance of the Sunnah. For example:
(a) At-Tirmidhi reported from Abu Rafi` and others that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “I do not want to see any one of you reclining on his couch and, when he hears of my instructions or prohibitions, saying ‘I don’t accept it; we didn’t find any such thing in the Book of Allah.’” Abu `Isa said: This is a good authentic hadith. (See: Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Shakir edition, no. 2663)
Al-`Irbad ibn Sariyah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Would any of you think, reclining on his couch, that Allah would only describe what is forbidden in the Qur’an? I tell you, by Allah, that I have warned and commanded and prohibited things that are as important as what is in the Qur’an, if not more so.” (Reported by Abu Dawud, Kitab al-Khiraj wal-imarah wal-fay’)
(b) Abu Dawud also reported from al-`Irbad ibn Sariyah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) led us in prayer one day, then he turned to us and exhorted us strongly…(he said), “Pay attention to my Sunnah (way) and the way of the Rightly-guided caliphs after me, adhere to it and hold fast to it.” (Sahih Abi Dawud)
3) The scholars’ consensus (ijma’) affirms the importance of the Sunnah. Ash-Shafi`i (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “I do not know of anyone among the Companions and Successors who narrated a report from the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) without accepting it, adhering to it and affirming that this was Sunnah. Those who came after the Successors and those whom we met did likewise: they all accepted the reports and took them to be Sunnah, praising those who followed them and criticizing those who went against them. Whoever deviated from this path would be regarded by us as having deviated from the way of the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the scholars who followed them, and would be considered as one of the ignorant.
4) Common sense indicates the importance of the Sunnah. The fact that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is the Messenger of Allah indicates that we must believe everything he said and obey every command he gave. It goes without saying that he has told us things and given instructions in addition to what is in the Qur’an. It is futile to make a distinction between the Sunnah and the Qur’an when it comes to adhering to it and responding to it. It is obligatory to believe in what he has told us, and to obey his instructions.”
Elaborating on the authority of the Sunnah and its significance as a primary source of Islam, only second to the Qur’an, we’d like to cite the following:
“The Qur’an is a miracle both in its external qualities and esoteric meaning. Its purpose is to expound the truth of the Absolute and the law of the Absolute. It is in essence the Truth and the Law. To glean the gems of knowledge and wisdom, so enormous in number, and so embedded in Qura’nic phraseology, to discern the specific from the general; to expound the meanings of the concise and the esoteric, to emphasize the basic content and the main purpose, to uncover the obscurities, to indicate reasons and justification, to crystallize and concretize the tenets, to prescribe the obligatory functions and the voluntary disciplines, in short, to provide a detailed commentary of the Divine Book without the aid of the divinely guided Teacher who presented the Qur’an would have been an impossible task.
Then again, it is not enough to believe in the Unity or Oneness of Allah or in the conception of reality of the Absolute and the dependence of all things on the Absolute as the first testimony of the Islamic faith ‘La Ilaha lllallah‘ requires but also to believe in the Prophethood of Muhammad who brought the Message for without it the Qur’an will lose its authenticity.
The Qur’an lays down the role of the Prophet:
“Verily, it is the mercy of Allah that He has raised amongst them a Prophet who recites the verses before them, purifies them and teaches them the Book and wisdom.” (Al-Baqarah: 129)
The teaching could be done through the medium of lectures and sermons and by laying down ordinances and compelling their observance and by penalizing omission and transgression. But the Prophet could not leave his followers to interpret and follow the teachings in their own ways, to determine their import, each according to his own lights and capabilities and to drift in uncertainty.
A much more effective way is by enacting the teachings in one’s life and presenting a model for emulation by others. Then alone the meaning and purpose of the teaching can be unambiguous and the words of the preacher can carry weight. Before attempting it, it was necessary, however, to lay down the highest standards of good conduct and disposition, of piety and devotion, of chastity and honor, of benevolence and kindness, of generosity and sacrifice, of toleration and contentment, of steadfastness and patience, in short, all of the virtues and goodness and to imbibe all those virtues and to himself reach the pinnacle.
The Prophet, therefore, appeared as a model par excellence and as the human norm for both of his individual and collective functions. But man is mortal and the human model could not exist forever. It was, therefore, imperative that every word uttered by the noble personage, his every action and movement, his every gesture or inclination, should be faithfully recorded for the guidance and posterity.
All other Prophets appeared in prehistoric times. It is the good fortune of the world that the Prophet of Islam appeared in a historical time when the art of writing had been developed and everything could be recorded. As the personality of the Prophet is a beacon light for the world and a blessing to mankind, so his Traditions, his Sunnah, his way of life is a guiding light. And to follow his teachings and injunctions and to emulate his example is indeed felicity and good fortune and the key to Heaven.
As `A’ishah says, the Prophet was, indeed, the Qur’an in action. The sayings and actions of the Prophet, known as his Traditions, Hadith or Sunnah, constitute an explanation of the obscure in the Qur’an, the amplification of the concise and the abstract therein, the exegesis of its difficult content and manifestation of what is hidden or esoteric in it. As Imam Shafi’i says: “Sunnah is the exegesis and connotation of the ordinances of Allah.” It provides detailed specifications for what is determined in generality by the Qur’an. It is also concerned with secondary obligations which facilitate primary ones.
According to the Quran itself, the Prophet was possessed not only of the Kitab, the written ‘book’ but also of the Hikma, the wisdom, whereby ultimate principles can be applied to the details and episodes of ordinary life. Consequently, his actions and sayings, transmitted by chains of reliable narrators, form a kind of commentary and supplement to the Quran.
The Traditions cover the entire gamut of human life. The spontaneous utterances of the Prophet are not only brilliant, illuminative and decisive, they are replete with wisdom and reflect an overwhelming passion to reform humanity. They were not meant only for the society of the day, but are meant for all time and for the whole brotherhood of mankind. Conditions, values and thinking change from time to time and age to age, but these sayings are of eternal character overpassing time and space. There is nothing illogical or irrational in them, there is no contrariness or inconsistency. No mortal unless inspired and illumined by Divine Light could be their author. “If Islam offers, as a manifestation the element of truth, of beauty and power, the Prophet for his part incarnates serenity, generosity and strength.”
Obedience of the Prophet is as important and as obligatory as obedience to Allah. In fact, obedience to the Prophet is obedience to Allah. This is stated in several Qur’anic verses: (See 4: 110; 4: 59; 4: 80; 8: 20; 8: 27; 47: 33; 49: 15; 48: 13; 33: 36)
From the foregoing verses of the Qur’an, it would be evident that belief in the Prophet is as incumbent as belief in Allah and the angels and the scriptures; that obeying the Prophet is as necessary as obeying the commandments of Allah. And that acceptance of the interpretations and decisions of the Prophet is binding. If the sayings and actions of the Prophet are not to serve as rulings, the belief in the Prophet would not have been made compulsory nor obedience of his injunctions would have been treated as a mark of faith.
The Sunnah served not only as an extension or supplement to the Qur’an as a source of law, but also served to give shape and dimension to the entire structure of Islam. It generates a particular kind of attitude to life and approach to human problems and it was through them and the message of the Qur’an that the Prophet changed the thinking of his followers and their mental outlook, their vision and approach, their habits and manners, their customs and laws, their norms of war and peace, their standards and bases of economy, their culture and civilization; in fact, he succeeded in effecting a complete metamorphosis of man and his society. This could not be accomplished just by promulgating law and ordinances. Religion is not a mere code or compilation of laws. It is something deeper and more extensive. It governs, guides, directs and adorns [one’s] entire life in all its complexity. It cannot take root nor can flourish unless there is a complete intellectual and emotional involvement.
The social, cultural, moral and intellectual regeneration and the complete revolution was the direct result of not only the message of the Qur’an, but also the impact of the august and beloved personality who delivered the message and of the lofty standard of piety, dignity and behaviour set up by him and of the sittings, assemblies and concourses held by him in which flowed, like an unending stream, the nectar of wisdom, soul-stirring teachings and sublime preaching. It was the amalgam of all these that developed the temper of Islam in which were embodied not only laws, rules and regulations, but also the motivating factors, incentives and inspiration for their rigid application and for catching their spirit, meaning and purpose.
These Traditions also open a window through which the personal life of the Prophet and his household and daily routines and way of living can be viewed. How can one, in quest of truth, leave this door and go elsewhere for receiving instruction in decorous behaviour, ethics and humanities? They also open a window on the lives of the Companions—how they followed their great master, dedicated their lives to the service of religion and held aloft the banner of Islam.”