Nobody in early Islamic history denied the legal validity of the Sunnah
مَنْ يُطِعِ الرَّسُولَ فَقَدْ أَطَاعَ اللَّهَ
Whoever obeys the Messenger is obeying God. (4:80)
When the archangel Gabriel revealed a new passage of the Qur’an to the Prophet (pbuh), he also instructed where that passage belongs. Some passages were before, some were after, and some were even inserted between two previous passages. So in a sense, the Qur’an was revealed like a jig-saw puzzle, with each new piece fitting in a certain way with all previous pieces. The Prophet (pbuh) recited the Qur’an in the daily prayers in the order that the archangel instructed. This is how the companions memorized the Qur’an, and this is how they knew the order of which surah comes first, second, and so on. However, how is a Muslim or student of Islam supposed to understand or interpret the Qur’an in deriving practical application?
The answer to that question, for all branches of Islam, is “the Prophet’s sunnah.” It is important to note that the sunnah does not confirm the Qur’an. Rather, it “informs the context” of each passage in the Qur’an. The whole reason for God sending Messengers instead of just inscribing His words on a mountain face is that the people learn from another human being. That human being, the Messenger, provides the context and situation for people to understand the revelations. Dr. Jonathan Brown wrote, “the Sunnah has ruled over the Quran, shaping, specifying, and adding to the revealed book.” (Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, p15)
Just as the Qur’an has verses about marriage, it has verses about divorce. Just as it has verses about war, it has verses about peace. If you don’t look at the sunnah, or the situation when each passage was revealed, you would not know when to apply the marriage verses and when to apply the divorce verses. Likewise, you would not know when to apply the war verses and when to apply the peace verses.
The sunnah is necessary to understand the context of the Qur’an. If you leave it out, then the Qur’an can be misunderstood. Focus on the Qur’an, yes; but also look at the sunnah, the authoritative precedent of the Prophet (pbuh) to explain the situation of the verses you are reciting.
Why there are debates over the applicability of the sunnah
The simple answer is that there are the different conceptions and understandings of how to engage the sunnah. Hadiths were often seen as “tools” or “data points” that are used in a bigger question. Jurists would famously (or perhaps infamously) say to Hadith scholars, “You are the pharmacists and we are the doctors.” What is meant by this is that Hadith scholars get the medicine and concoction ready, but it is the jurist who decides when to use and which to use for this or that question.
The Qur’an did not come to rule over the Sunnah; instead, the Sunnah came to rule over (or modulate) the Qur’an. This is the idea behind Islamic hermeneutics, or how you “understand” things. In a sense, the outer layers always control the inner layers. Just as the Qur’an is the core of the faith, the sunnah is the next layer that explains how to understand the Qur’an: adding, affirming, limiting, or clarifying the Qur’an. Then the companions’ opinions explain how to understand the Sunnah and Qur’an, and so on to the scholars of the next generation and the generations after that. There is a chain of precedence that constrains how subsequent generations can interpret the Sunnah and Qur’an.
What exactly is meant by “applying the sunnah?” Does it mean to seek God’s will for any given situation and act accordingly or does it mean to inculcate the (Tension Between Minimalism and Comprehensiveness in the Shariah; Jonathan Brown) Before we answer this, we must dive into how the sunnah was defined and understood by classical Islamic scholars. Four approaches to sunnah and hadith criticism/acceptance developed within the early centuries of Islamic civilization:
- Scholar interpretation—look at patterns of Prophetic problem-solving.
- Community practice—look at patterns of living tradition.
- Hadith—look at reports of the Prophet’s life.
- Principles of law, ethics, theology—look at the maxims of Islamic thought.
Scholarly Interpretation – Abu Hanifa Method
Abu Hanifa lived in a cosmopolitan city with many Muslim converts from different religious backgrounds. Therefore, the prevalence of syncretism and “imported” ideas required him and his students to derive Sunnah by looking at how the Prophet and the Companions solved problems during their times. In other words, this scholarly methodology uses the past precedence of the Prophet and Companions interaction with situations and the Qur’an that was revealed in those situations.
Abu Hanifa’s method placed more weight on independent reasoning and placed strict conditions on accepting hadith reports as authoritative. Only well-established hadith with multiple chains of narrations were acceptable for deriving rulings, so Hanafi scholars limit the use of hadith and expand the use of analogical reasoning to make judgments.
Community Practice – Imam Malik Method
Imam Malik lived in the city of Medina; the cradle of the Prophet’s first community. Arab tradition was strong and Muslim practice unsullied. The people of Medina were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Companions, and practically no converts from other faiths settled there, so the ideas and traditions in circulation did not have any outside influence. For this reason, Imam Malik saw this continues chain of tradition a living example of what the Prophetic Sunnah actually entailed.
In this approach, the living example of Medina’s population overruled even authenticated Hadith reports of the Prophet’s sayings, actions, or approvals. For example, Maliki fiqh does not consider dog saliva impure. This is in direct contradiction to authentic reports the Prophet made on this subject. However, Malik observed how the people of Medina interacted with dogs in their daily lives, and based on this, concluded that this is not a matter of ritual cleanliness, but simply a common-sense method way to prevent the spread of disease.
Hadith Reports – Imam Shafi’i Method
Shafi’i has a chapter in his book Risala defending the requirement to follow even a singular ahad (wahid) hadith, which was against the mainstream of his time to only accept corroborated hadith (mutawatir). This represents a very important shift in hadith scholarship. The Hanafi and Maliki methodologies before Shafi’i were both very skeptical about using singular hadiths as binding. After Shafi’i, Ahmad ibn Hanbal also advocated accepting singular hadiths, and the majority opinion of Sunni scholarship began to move in this direction.
In a sense, the method of Shafi’i is opposite to Abu Hanifa’s method in that it placed more juristic weight on hadith reports (even if singular narrations) and placed strict conditions on independent reasoning. Therefore, Shafi’i scholars limit the use of analogical reasoning and expand the use of hadith to make judgments.
Logical Principles of Law and Theology – Mu’tazila Method
Is it true that Mu’tazila denied or rejected the Sunnah? No. During Shafii’s time, a leading Mu’tazila named Diraa ibn Amr wrote a book that included over 100 hadiths. Therefore, it is not that he and his fellow Mu’tazila rejects the sunnah; it is that he has high standards for what he accepts as authentic sunnah. He sees the hadith as a “potential” source of authority but not a “definitive” source.
Centuries of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah books accuse their opponents of rejecting the sunnah. But this is not true. Rather they differed in their definition of what constitutes sunnah while accepting the theoretical authority of the Sunnah. The Mu’tazila method is sometimes seen as an extension of the Hanafi school of thought, where hadith reports are judged by their logical content and compatibility with reason and general agreed-upon Islamic principles more than they are judged by the authenticity of their chain of narrations.