II. Sunnah and Hadith
1. Sunnah and Hadith are Synonymous
The word Hadith is often understood to be a synonym for the word Sunnah. This is not correct. There is a great difference between the two not only regarding the extent of their authenticity, but also their content.
A narrative of the words, deeds or tacit approvals of the Prophet (sws) is called Hadith. It does not add anything to the content of Islam stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah, the two original sources of Islam. Ahadith (plural of Hadith) only explain and elucidate what is contained in these two sources and also describe the exemplary way in which the Prophet (sws) followed Islam. The scholars of Hadith employ the term, khabr for Hadith. A khabr bears the possibility of being either right or wrong. In other words, the scholars of Hadith believe that a khabr may be true or it may be false. For this very reason, A%hadith are also called dhanni (presumptive or indefinite).
On the other hand, the word Sunnah literally means “busy path”, “trodden path”, “beaten path”. As a term, it means the practices of the Prophet Abraham (sws) to which the Prophet Muhammad (sws) gave religious sanction among his followers after reviving and reforming them and after making certain additions to them. The Qur’an has directed the Prophet (sws) to obey these Abrahamic practices in the following words:
ثُمَّ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ أَنِ اتَّبِعْ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ (123:16)
Then We revealed to you to follow the ways of Abraham, who was true in faith and was not among the polytheists. (16:123)
The following three aspects further bring out the difference between Hadith and Sunnah.
Firstly, while A%hadith can be inauthentic or spurious, the Sunnah cannot be so. The Sunnah is in fact as authentic as the Qur’an. This is because the difference in the nature of transmission. A%hadith have been transmitted by a few individuals and therefore become dependent on their character, memory and intellect – all of which can falter even if the person in question is very pious. On the other hand, the Sunnah has been transmitted by whole generations to the next. Such is the vast number of people who have adhered to certain practices that there is no possibility of any error. The memory, intellect and character of a few persons can falter but when thousands of people deliver the same thing, any faulty transmission is ruled out. Furthermore, not only have a large number of people transmitted these practices, but also there is a consensus in the ummah regarding the authenticity of these practices. In other words, people not adhering to these practices also vouch for their veracity.
Secondly, Sunnah is purely related to the practical aspects of Islam such as the prayer, hajj, nikah wudu tayammum. Issues that pertain to belief, history, occasion of revelation and explanation of Qur’anic verses lie outside its domain. On the other hand, A%hadith are not confined to a certain sphere of Islam. Their content ranges from the practical issues of religion to intellectual ones and from historical episodes to explanation of the Qur’an and of the Sunnah itself.
Thirdly, the Sunnah is not based on A%hadith. For instance, we have not adopted the prayer, pilgrimage, etc in all their details because a few narrators explained them to us; on the contrary, we have adopted them because every person in our surroundings is either adhering to it or vouching for its veracity. In other words, Sunnah is an entirely independent source of Islam. However some A%hadith may contain a record of the Sunnah just as they may contain the record and explanation of certain verses of the Qur’an. But just as having a record of the Qur’an does not make A%hadith the same as the Qur’an, having a record of the Sunnah does not make A%hadith equivalent to the Sunnah.
2. Every Act of the Prophet (sws) is a Sunnah
Some people are of the opinion every act and every deed done by the Prophet (sws) is a Sunnah. This view is not correct.
The Qur’an is absolutely clear that the prophets of Allah were sent to deliver His religion. In their prophetic capacity, the ambit of their thoughts and deeds was only that of religion. Everything besides this, was primarily of no concern to them. No doubt besides their prophetic capacity they were also Ibrahim Ibn A%zar, Musa Ibn ‘Imran. ‘I%sa Ibn Maryam and Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah in their human capacity; however, in this human capacity, they never asked obedience from their followers. All their demands were confined to their prophetic capacity, and what was given to them in this capacity was religion, and thus it was only religion whose propagation they were liable to:
شَرَعَ لَكُم مِّنَ الدِّينِ مَا وَصَّى بِهِ نُوحًا وَالَّذِي أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ وَمَا وَصَّيْنَا بِهِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَى وَعِيسَى أَنْ أَقِيمُوا الدِّينَ وَلَا تَتَفَرَّقُوا فِيهِ (13:42)
He has enjoined on you the same religion which He enjoined on Noah, and which We have now revealed to you, which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, with the assertion: “Adhere to this religion [in your lives] and do not create any divisions in it.” (42:13)
Consequently, it is known history that the Prophet (sws) used weapons like swords and arrows in wars, travelled on camels, constructed a mosque whose roof was made of palm trees, ate some foods which were customary in the Arab society and showed his like or dislike for them, wore a certain dress which was in vogue in Arabia and whose selection also had much to do with his personal taste – however, none of these things can be termed Sunnah and neither can any man of learning regard them to be Sunnah. At one instance, the Prophet (sws) himself is reported to have said:
إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ إِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشِيءٍ مِنْ دِيْنِكُمْ فَخُذُوْا بِهِ وَإِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشِيءٍ مِنْ رَأيِ فَإِنمَّاَ أَنَا بَشَرٌ …إِنمَّاَ ظَنَنْتُ ظَناًّ فَلاَ تُؤَاخِذُونِي باِلظَّنِّ وَلَكِنْ إِذاَ حَدَّثْتُكُمْ عَنِ اللهِ شَيْئاً فَخُذُوْا بِهِ فَإِنِّي لَنْ اُكَذِّبَ عَلىَ اللهِ … أَنْتُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِأَمْرِ دُنْيَاكُمْ (مسلم ، رقم : 2263 ، 2361 ، 3262)
I am also a human being. When I direct you about something which relates to your religion, take it from me and when I express my own opinion [about something which is outside this sphere] then my status in this regard is nothing more than that of a human being … I had conjectured about something. Do not hold me accountable for such things which are based on opinion and conjecture. However, if I say something on behalf of God, take it because I will never forge a lie on God … You very well know about your worldly affairs. (Muslim, Nos: 2263, 2361, 3262)
3. The Qur’an should be interpreted through Hadith
There is a group of scholars who believes that the Qur’an should be interpreted through the Hadith. However, the status occupied by the Qur’an as the mizan and the furqan entails that everything should be interpreted in light of the guidance it provides. The Qur’an says about itself:
اللَّهُ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ وَالْمِيزَانَ (17:42)
It is God who has revealed with truth the Book which is this scale [of justice]. (42:17)
The verse means that the Almighty has revealed the Qur’an which is a scale of justice meant to distinguish good from evil. It is the only scale that weighs every thing else, and there is no scale in which it can be weighed:
تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي نَزَّلَ الْفُرْقَانَ عَلَى عَبْدِهِ لِيَكُونَ لِلْعَالَمِينَ نَذِيرًا (1:25)
Blessed be He who has revealed al-furqan to His servant that it may warn the whole world. (25:1)
The Qur’an is also a furqan in the same sense, ie a book which has the final and absolute verdict to distinguish truth from falsehood. This word also connotes the fact that this Book is the standard on which everything needs to be judged and is a decisive word on matters which relate to religion. Every one must turn to it only to resolve differences of opinion. Nothing can be a judge on it; it shall reign supreme in the dominion of religion and every person is bound not to make it subservient to any other thing.
The Qur’an is the most definite and authentic record of whatever Muhmmad (sws) did in his status of a prophet and a messenger. Consequently, most topics covered in the Hadith are related to the Qur’an the way a branch is related to a stem or the way an explanation is related to the text it explains. Without a recourse to the original text, it is obvious that its corollaries and explanations cannot be understood. If all the mistakes in interpreting the Hadith are minutely analyzed, this situation becomes abundantly clear. The incidents of stoning to death in the times of the Prophet (sws), the assassination of Ka‘b Ibn Ashraf, punishment meted out in the graves, narratives such as مَنْ بَدَّلَ دِينَهُ فَاقْتُلُوهُ (Execute the person who changes his faith) have become issues which have caused a lot of confusion and have been subjected to misinterpretation because they have not been understood by relating them to their basis in the Qur’an.
4. Hadith are as Authentic as the Qur’an
There are scholars who believe that the Hadith are as authentic as the Qur’an.
Here, it needs to be appreciated that besides investigating the chain of narration of a Hadith, the second thing which requires investigation is the text of a Hadith. Although scholars of Hadith have left no stone unturned in investigating the characters and biographies of the narrators and have spent a greater part of their lives in this research, yet like every human endeavour, the natural flaws which still exist in the narration of a Hadith requires that the following two things must always remain in consideration while investigating the text of a Hadith:
1. Nothing in it should be against the Qur’an and Sunnah
2. Nothing in it should be against established facts derived from knowledge and reason
The Qur’an, it has been alluded to earlier, is the mizan (the scale of truth) and the furqan (the distinguisher between truth and falsehood). It is like a guardian of every religious concept and it has been revealed as a barometer to judge between what is right and what is wrong. Thus no further explanation is required of the fact that if anything is against the Qur’an, then it must stand rejected.
Similar is the case of the Sunnah. Whatever religion has been received through it is as certain and authentic as the Qur’an, as has already been explained earlier. There is no difference between the level of authenticity of the two. Just as the Qur’an is validated thought the consensus of the ummah, the Sunnah is also determined from its consensus. Since this fact is an absolute reality about the Sunnah, thus if a Hadith is against the Sunnah and if there is no way out to resolve a conflict between the two, the Hadith in consideration must necessarily be rejected.
Established facts derived from knowledge and reason also have the same status in this regard. The Qur’an is absolutely clear that its message is based on these established facts. Its arguments on such basic issues as tawhid and the Hereafter are primarily based on these facts. It is the requirements and demands of these facts which the Qur’an highlights through its teachings. Every student of the Qur’an is aware that it presents these facts as deciding factors for the message it puts forth. It presented them as the final word both before the Idolaters of Arabia and the People of the Book. Those who oppose these are regarded by it as people who follow their base desires. Thus intuitive realities, historical truths, results of experience and observation – all are discussed in the Qur’an in this very capacity. Hence how can a Hadith which is against these facts regarded by the Qur’an as ones which distinguish between the truth and untruth be accepted? It is obvious that it shall stand rejected. All leading scholars of Hadith also hold this view. Khatib writes:
ولا يقبل خبر الواحد في منافاة حكم العقل وحكم القرآن الثابت المحكم والسنة المعلومة والفعل الجاري مجرى السنة كل دليل مقطوع به
A khabr-i wahid cannot be accepted which is against sense and intellect, is against an established and explicit directive of the Qur’an, is against a known Sunnah or is against a practice which is observed like the Sunnah or its conflict with some conclusive argument becomes absolutely evident.
5. A%hadith can be interpreted Independently
A general practice in interpreting A%hadith is that each narrative is interpreted independently even if its variant texts exist. As a result, the complete picture in which a directive was given is sacrificed and one often ends up deducing a directive from incomplete data.
It needs to be appreciated that all the variant texts of a Hadith must be studied in order to form an opinion about it. Many a time a person may form an opinion about a Hadith by not studying its variants; however, once he deliberates on all the variants his overall interpretation changes. One glaring example of this are the A%hadith which mention the prohibition of pictures and portraits. If some of the narratives are studied only, one can easily conclude that this prohibition is absolute and every picture and portrait is prohibited in Islam. However, if all the variants are collected and analyzed, it becomes evident that the prohibition is regarding only those pictures which have been made for worshipping. Many similar examples can be cited from the corpus of the Hadith literature. Thus it is essential that if one is not satisfied from the apparent words of a Hadith, one must gather and collate all its variants to form an opinion.