The various purposes served by the Sunnah
The Mother of the Believers (Arabic: Umm al-Mu'mineen) 'Aishah was once asked: "What was the character of the Prophet?" She replied: "His character was nothing but the Qur'ân". Thus the Prophet, peace be upon him, was an embodiment of the Qur'ân itself: whatever he practiced or said, i.e. the Sunnah, is related to the guidance of the Qur'ân. Let us explore the role of the Sunnah in relation to the Qur'ân.
1. The Sunnah explains Qur'ânic injunctions in detail.
a) God says in verse 43 of Surah al-Baqarah (Chapter 2 of the Qur'ân): "Establish prayer and practice regular charity", and many similar verses (Arabic: ayaat) also exist. All issues related to the prayer, such as the required number of daily prayers, the number of prayer units (Arabic: rak'at) and the recitation in each prayer, as well as how to perform the prayer from beginning to end, are explained by the Sunnah. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "Pray as you have seen me pray." (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari.) Similarly, all issues related to the Poor Due (Arabic: zakat), such as the minimum amount on which zakat becomes payable, the percentage paid, the kinds of wealth, goods, and animals on which zakat is obligatory, etc. are clearly expounded by the Sunnah of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him.
Again, a detailed picture of fasting and Hajj can only be seen in the Sunnah, for the Qur'ân has touched upon both subjects briefly.
b) Almighty God says in verse 38 of Surah al-Ma'idah (Chapter 5 of the Qur'ân):
"As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hand - a punishment from God by way of example for their crime. And God is exalted in Power, Wise."
The Sunnah explains the minimum of stolen goods for which a thief deserves this punishment and the manner in which the hand should be cut off.
To reject the Sunnah, as some misguided "Muslims" advocate, will render the whole Qur'ân open to a hotchpotch of interpretations inspired by the individuals' whims and desires, which often come from the devil. For example, someone who does not accept the practical demonstration of formal prayer (Arabic: salat) given by the Prophet, peace be upon him, will make a mockery of salat by doing it in a way suitable to his wishes. But how can a Muslim worship God, if he does not know the way in which God wants to be worshipped?
2. The Sunnah can establish a specific meaning when a number of meanings are possible.
a) God Almighty says in verse 82 of Surah al-An'aam (Chapter 6 of the Qur'ân): "It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with dhulm that are in security, for they are on (right) guidance."Imam Bukhari relates that some of the Companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, took the word "dhulm" in its general meaning, i.e. to do injustice, to do wrong, to sin. So they were troubled and said: "Which of us has not done wrong?" The Prophet, peace be upon him, relieved them of this worry by explaining that "dhulm" here means to commit shirk (i.e. to associate partners with God in worship and/or belief; idol worship; polytheism), as in Surah Luqman (Chapter 31), verse 13: "Indeed, worshipping others besides God is the greatest injustice (dhulm)."b) Almighty God says in verse 34 of Surah al-Taubah (Chapter 9 of the Qur'an): "Those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the Way of God, announce unto them a most grievous penalty. On the day when heat will be produced out of that wealth in the fire of Hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs . . . "The Arabic word "kanz" means a hoard, big or small. So this verse seemingly dooms a person who hoards any amount and does not spend it in the way of God. With this meaning in mind, 'Umar, may God be pleased with him, questioned the Prophet, peace be upon him, about this verse, to which he replied that once the Poor Tax (zakat) which is due on the hoarded amount is paid, it is no longer considered as "kanz". (Reported by Ibn Majah.)
3. The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Arabic: ahaadeeth) explain some historical events in detail since they are mentioned only briefly in the Qur'an.
a) God says in Surah al-Anfal (Chapter 8) verse 7: "Behold! God promised you one of the two (enemy) parties, that it should be yours; ye wished that the one unarmed should be yours, but God intended to justify the Truth according to His words and to cut off the roots of the unbelievers."Which two parties are meant? Which of them is unarmed? From books of ahadith we learn the relevant details about the Battle of Badr, which is the incident referred to in the above verses.
b) Surah al-Taubah, verse 118 says: "(God turned in mercy) to the three who were left behind;"Who were these three people, and why did they remain behind? Again, the books of ahadith explain this.
c) Surah 'Abasa (Chapter 80), verses 1-2: "He frowned and turned away, because there came to him the blind man."Who frowned and turned away, and why? Who was the blind man? The details are furnished by the books of ahadith.
4. The Sunnah can specify exemptions from a general injunction.
a) In Surah Nisa' (Chapter 4) verse 11, the share of children in inheritance is given. "God directs you as regards your children's inheritance . . . "The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained that the Muslim child of a disbeliever (Arabic: kafir) the non-Muslim child of a Muslim, and the murderer of his/her own father, none of these can inherit.
b) The Qur'an declares the flesh of a dead animal and blood as prohibited (Arabic: haraam) in Surah al-Ma'idah (Chapter 5), verse 3. The Prophet, peace be upon him, exempted fish and locusts from the term "dead flesh", and the liver and spleen from "blood".
5. Deduction of a similar injunction in an analogous case.
a) Surah an-Nisa' (Chapter 4), verse 23: "Prohibited to you are . . . and two sisters in wedlock at one and the same time."
The Prophet, peace be upon him, declared that to marry a woman as well as her aunt in the same wedlock is also prohibited.
b) Wine has been declared unlawful by Almighty God in Surah al-Ma'idah, verse 93. The Prophet, peace be upon him, extended the prohibition to anything which is intoxicating in large doses, even if it is taken in a small quantity.
6. The Prophet, peace be upon him, gave additional injunctions in a number of issues.
One of the many duties of the Messenger, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, was to tell the believers what is lawful (halaal) and what is unlawful (haraam) (See Qur'an 7:157). For example, he prohibited the flesh of donkeys, dogs, beasts with canine teeth and birds of prey. He also made gold and silk haraam for Muslim men, but halaal for Muslim women.
Significance of the Sunnah
No devout Muslim would ever dare to go against the teachings of the Qur'an and Sunnah, but it is regrettable to note that some of the liberal elite tend to raise the slogan that the Book of God (i.e. the Qur'an) is enough and that there is no need at all for the Sunnah of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him. Slogans like this are raised mainly by people who want to get rid of the Islamic Law (Arabic: Sharee'ah) completely. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, himself was well-aware that such ill-natured opinions would arise and hence gave a clear warning of this as reported by Al-Miqdam ibn Ma'di Karib, one of his Companions: "I have indeed been given the Qur'an and something similar to it besides it. Yet, the time will come when a man leaning on his couch will say, 'Follow the Qur'an only; what you find in it as halaal, take it as halaal, and what you find in it as haraam, take it as haraam.' But truly, what the Messenger of God has forbidden is like what God has forbidden." (Reported by Abu Dawud and Darimi.)
In fact, ANYONE WHO REJECTS THE SUNNAH OF THE PROPHET, PEACE BE UPON HIM, DOES NOT BELIEVE IN THE QUR'AN, for Almighty God Himself has emphasized the importance of the Sunnah in many verses, of which a few are given below. "O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you; and if you differ in anything among yourselves, then refer it to God and the Messenger if you do believe in God and the Last Day. That is best and most suitable for final determination." (Surah Al-Nisa' 4:59)
"The answer of the believers, when summoned to God and His Messenger in order that he may judge between them, is no other than this: they say, 'We hear and we obey'. It is such as these who will attain success." (Surah Al-Nur 24:51)
"But no, by your Lord! (O Muhammad) They cannot be believers until they make you judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions, but accept them with the fullest submission." (Surah Al-Nisa' 4:65)
Anas reported that the Messenger of God said: "I have left among you two things; you will never go astray as long as you hold fast to them: the Book of God and my Sunnah." (Reported by Haakim.) The Companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to hold the commandments given by the Prophet, peace be upon him, in a very high esteem, making no distinctions between them and those given by God. Once 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ood quoted this saying of the Prophet (hadith) while he was delivering a sermon: "May God curse the women who tattoo their bodies and those who pluck their eyebrows; those who separate their teeth to make them look more pretty and those who try to change the creation of God." A woman named Umm Yaqub from the tribe of Banu Asad came to know of these words. She approached Ibn Mas'ood and said: "O Abu 'Abd ar-Rahman! It was reported to me that you have cursed such and such women." He said: "Why should I not curse those whom the Prophet, peace be upon him, cursed and who are cursed in the Book of God as well." She said: "I have read whatever is contained between the two covers (i.e. the whole Qur'an)." Had you been a good reader, you would have discovered it. Did you not read the following verse? "So take whatever the Messenger gives you and keep away from what he forbids you." (Surah Al-Hashr 59:7)
There are numerous examples set by the Companions which show how emphatically they abided by the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, to the extent of severing their relations with their kith and kin once they discovered someone going against the Sunnah. Let us have some examples from the lives of the great Khulafah (Caliphs, i.e. leaders) of Islam followed by a host of other Companions. Just after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, three major issues confronted the Muslim community. They could have left it apart and disunited, had it not been for the wise guidance of Abu Bakr who settled them amicably in the light of the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him. The first issue was related to the appointment of the Khalifah (i.e. leader of the Muslims). Assembled in Saqifa Bani Sa'ida, a great number of Muhajirin (i.e. those who emigrated from Mecca to Madina) and Ansar (those helped the emigrants from Mecca) originally had been busy arguing this issue. The Ansar proposed that the leader (Arabic: Emir) should be appointed from both of the above communities. The noble companion Abu Bakr cited the saying of the Prophet: "Leaders (Arabic: Imams) should be from Quraish (the tribe of Prophet Muhammad) as long as they have the understanding (of the religion)." The Ansar conceded to this quietly. The great companion 'Umar proposed the name of Abu Bakr as the Khalifah which was accepted unanimously by those present there and later followed by all the inhabitants of Madina through the oath of allegiance.
The second issue was related to the place where the Prophet should be buried. Again the companion Abu Bakr cited the saying of the Prophet: 'A Prophet is to be buried where he breathes his last.' Accordingly, his burial took place in the apartment of his wife, the Mother of the Faithful - 'Aishah, where he died.
The third issue was related to the inheritance of the Prophet, peace be upon him, as raised by his daughter Fatima who came to the Caliph Abu Bakr asking for her share. Abu Bakr replied by reminding her of the saying of the Prophet: "We, the community of the Prophets, are not inherited from - whatever we leave behind us is a charity." Fatima didn't argue further, but retired quietly. Once the great companion 'Umar saw Khalid bin Walid wearing a silk shirt. He asked him to take it off (since it is forbidden for Muslim men to wear silk). Khalid replied that Abd ar-Rahman ibn Auf used to have one as well. 'Umar said: "The Prophet allowed him because he suffered badly from itching." Khalid, then, had no alternative but to take if off. Following the news of the Muslim's victory in the conquest of Syria, 'Umar advanced to Damascus with a number of Companions. On reaching the outskirts of Amwas, a town in Syria, the news of a widespread plague in the town reached him. 'Umar consulted his people whether or not he should venture into the town. The heated discussion that followed came to an end when Abd ar-Rahman ibn Auf cited this saying of the Prophet: "If you are inside a place where an epidemic breaks out, don't come out of it. And don't go in if you happen to be away from such a place." 'Umar, eventually commanded his people to retreat. Someone still remarked: "'Umar! Do you run away from a destiny decreed by God?" To this 'Umar replied: "Yes, we run away from one destiny to the other decreed by God as well." Such was the wisdom of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and centuries ago it foreshadowed today's quarantine regulations. The Caliph 'Uthman once agreed to buy a piece of land from a person. On the completion of the verbal agreement, he asked the man to collect the money the following day. But the man turned up after a few days, only to renounce the agreement. He had changed his mind because his friends had blamed him for selling the land at a low price. 'Uthman could have been adamant about the sale, particularly when it had been agreed upon completely. But he remembered the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, which admired a person who treated the people easily and wholeheartedly in his sales. So, 'Uthman preferred to concede to the man's wish without raising any objection. Once 'Ali was approached by a person who wanted his counsel concerning the engagement of his daughter whose hand was sought by three persons: Hasan, Hussain and 'Abdullah bin Ja'far. 'Ali found himself involved personally as his two sons were among the candidates. But he recalled the saying of the Prophet: "The one whose counsel is sought, should be honest." So after giving some thought, he told the man: "Don't go for Hasan because he is known to have divorced his women many times. And don't go for Hussain as well, as he loves to be admired. Rather go for 'Abdullah bin Ja'far." In one of his journeys, he found a merchant hoarding a stock of grain in the hope of a good price. 'Ali reminded him of the saying of the Prophet: "The hoarder is cursed" and instructed his people to set the stock on fire as a punishment. This is how the Four Caliphs (Arabic: Khulafah) reacted to the Sunnah of the Prophet.
Let us have some more examples from the lives of the Companions. 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ood heard a man saying after a sneeze: "Al-hamdu Lillah wa as-Salatu wa as-Salamu 'Ala Rasul Allah." Ibn Mas'ood said to him: "Whatever you have said is true, but that is not the way that the Prophet has taught us. He instructed us to say simply "Al-Hamdu Lillah" after sneezing." It would be appropriate to remind all Muslims about this Sunnah, which is commonly abandoned by a great number of them. Say "Al-Hamdu Lillah" whenever you sneeze. If you hear someone saying this after sneezing, say to him: "Yarhamukumu Allah" (May God have mercy upon you). The sneezer should pray for you as well by saying: "Yahdi Kumullah wa Yuslihu Balakum" (May God guide you and set your affairs right). There are plenty of occasions when you should say: "As-Salatu Wa as-Salamu 'ala Rasul Allah". You should say it, for example, whenever you hear the name of our beloved Prophet or whenever you enter a mosque (Arabic: masjid) or step out of it adding these words respectively: "Allahumma Iftah li abwaba Rahmatik" (O God! Open for me the doors of your Mercy) and "Allahumma Inni As'aluka min fadlika" (O God! I ask you for your Bounty).
Once 'Abdullah ibn Abbas was sitting beside the Ka'bah when Emir Mu'awiyyah entered the Grand Mosque and began circumambulating (Arabic: tawaf) around the Ka'bah. He kissed the Black Stone in the beginning, but he rubbed his hand on the other three corners of Ka'bah as well. Ibn Abbas knew that the Prophet, peace be upon him, apart from kissing the Black Stone and rubbing the Yemeni corner - had never touched the other two corners during tawaf. So he objected to Mu'awiyyah, to which he replied: "To me none of the four corners of Ka'bah is deserted." "But that was not the practice of the Prophet, peace be upon him," Ibn Abbas emphasized. Mu'awiyyah could only say: "You have said the truth." Once Ibn Abbas saw a man drawing a picture of a living being. He advised him not to do that because the Prophet, peace be upon him, forbade such a practice.
'Abdullah ibn 'Umar was well-known for his adherence to the Sunnah. He once saw his son Bilal stopping his wife from going to the mosque. 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar said: "Don't do that because the Messenger of God has said: 'Don't stop the female servants of God from entering the Houses of God." Bilal was adamant that he would not allow her to go, even after listening to this saying. Ibn 'Umar was so upset that he swore never to speak to him again until his dying day. 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr bin Aas had a very large garden with a great number of palm trees. Water in this area was so abundant that his assistant planned to sell the extra amount of it, after irrigating the whole garden, to a neighbor at an exorbitant price of thirty thousand dirhams. That offer could have attracted anyone except a companion like 'Abdullah ibn ''Amr who refused to approve of this sale because the Prophet, peace be upon him, forbade the selling of any extra water. Abu Hurairrah used to address a gathering of Muslims on Friday night (lit: after sunset on Thursday). Once, before beginning his sermon, he said to the people: "Whoever has cut off from any of his relations should leave this place." No one stood up. On repeating these words thrice, a young man left the place and went to his aunt whom he had deserted a long time before and reconciled with her. Abu Hurairrah said this because he knew that all actions are presented to God on each Friday night. He didn't like his assembly of the devout to be smeared by a person who had committed the sin of deserting his relatives. By doing so, he saved a person from a major sin. Anas ibn Malik was known to be a faithful servant of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Once he was invited to a party where a Magian (i.e. a Persian fire-worshipper) offered him some faluda ( a well-known drink) in a silver glass. Anas refused to accept it. He preferred to drink in an earthen pot than to use the silver one because the Prophet, peace be upon him, forbade the Muslims from eating or drinking from golden or silver utensils. This is how the Companions behaved throughout their lives - setting sublime examples of adherence to the Sunnah.
The numerous examples given above are from the Companions. Let us see what the four great Imams (i.e. religious scholars) have said about the authority of the Sunnah.
a) Imam Abu Hanifah was asked: "What do we do if we find a saying of yours opposing the Book of God?" He replied: "Leave my saying and stick to the Book of God." The questioner asked: "What if it contradicts a saying of the Prophet?" Abu Hanifah said: "Leave my saying in the face of the Prophet's saying." Again he was asked: "What if it goes against the saying of a Companion?" Again he said: "Leave my saying in the face of the Companion's saying." (Reported in Al-Qawl al-Mufeed by Shawkani.) Imam Abu Hanifah also declared: "My way (Arabic: madh-hab) is whatever hadith (saying of the Prophet) that is proved to be authentic." (Shami 1:50, Al-Fulani in Iqaz, p. 62.)
b) The saying of Imam Malik ibn Anas is well-known: "The saying of any person can be accepted or rejected, except for the Prophet of God, peace be upon him." (Reported by Ibn 'Abd al-Barr and Ibn Hazm. Also in Al-Yawaqeet wa Al-Jawahir 2:96.) He also said: "I am just a mortal; sometimes 1 am wrong, sometimes I am right - so check my opinions. Whatever agrees with the Book (i.e. the Qu'ran) and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever disagrees with them, reject it." (Reported by Al-Fulani in Iqaz, p. 72.)
c) Once Imam Shafi'i narrated a saying of the Prophet (hadith). Someone from the audience said: "Do you say so as well?" On hearing this, the Imam was enraged. His face turned pale and he said: "Woe to you! Which earth would carry me, which sky would shelter me if I narrate a saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and do not hold the same view! Do you see a zunnar (belt worn by non-Muslims) on me? Or have you noticed me coming out of a church? How can I report something from the Prophet, peace be upon him, and not agree with ?!!"
d) Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said: "Do not follow me or Malik or Shafi'i or Auza'i or Thawri, but take from where they took (i.e. from the Qu'ran and authentic Sunnah)." (Reported by Al-Fulani and Ibn al-Qayyim.) He also said: "He who is on the verge of destruction rejects a saving of the Messenger of God, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him." (Reported by Ibn al-Jauzi.)