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Islamic Ideology ( 15 Feb 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Prophet Mohammad’s Sunna and Hadith: Ways of Its Authenticity Assessment

By Adis Duderija,


One of the most pertinent and important questions every generation of Muslims has been confronted with is that of the differentiation between its normative and historical or traditional components. Much like any other, 1400 years of Islamic tradition has been subject to various social, cultural, political and ideological influences which have modified, shaped and given it its current form. This is also true of the contemporary influences which aim to do the same.

Actually, Islam, best defined as a comprehensive worldview consisting of mutually dependent, supportive and interwoven social, political, economic, cultural and religious components giving it a definite worldview, demands a dynamic approach to itself, as long as the results of this dynamism are confined to the fundamental principles which emanate from its worldview and are outside the realm of Islamic BELIEFS/DOGMA which are/is entirely based on Qur'an. This dynamic nature of Islam is , moreover, necessary since not only are the disciplines it is based upon ( e.g. sociology, philosophy, ethics, jurisprudence, physical sciences etc.) dynamic in nature , but also because of the claim of its followers , i.e. the Muslims/Muslimeen, that Qur'an is the final and eternal revelation coming from God/Allah , which as such ought to be able to deal with all the future developments linked to human activity and endeavour both of ethico-moral and scientific nature .

The problem arises when certain socio-culturally derived norms, practices and beliefs penetrate and contaminate the domain of normative teachings. The concept of Prophet's practical teachings/Sunnah and Ahadith literature, the question of their potential normative status, their scope, function and place within the normative teachings of Islam is closely related to the above mentioned problem of historical versus normative Islam.

In attempting to untangle this rather complex problem a close definition of terminology as well as an understanding of the changes in the meaning and subsequently the scope which the terms Sunnah/Prophets practical teachings and Hadith encompass is of great importance , both from a etymological as well as historical perspective.

Definitions of Sunnah & Hadith

Definition of Sunnah:

One of the features of languages is that they are dynamic in nature. This does not only mean that certain words become extinct /out of use and others are added to it but also that the semantic meaning of a same word changes and is associated with a different concept/notion/idea.

In traditional Islamic heritage we have numerous examples of these linguistic phenomena. For example words such as figh and ta'vil have had different meanings at different points in history of Islam. The word 'figh', was firstly associated with a process of 'understanding' Qur'anic injunctions and later with systematic derivation of laws by the 'fuqaha'/lawyers based largely on Ahadith literature and to certain extent personal opinion. Tafseer with its synonym ta’wil in early Islam stood for exegesis and largely decontextualised interpretation of the Qur'an while later it was used predominantly for a particular type of Qur’anic exegesis linked to sufizam and was of esoteric nature going beyond the literalistic and dealing with the hidden meaning/s of the Qur'an.

The words Sunnah and Hadith are no exemption in this regard. In pre-Mohammadan Arabia word Sunnah meant 'a well treaded pathway' and was used in the context of actions ( and not beliefs) which were in accordance with set social norms and values/ virtues governing social and individual life established by one's tribal ancestors, termed muruwwa. In other words Sunnah at that time implied a statement of ancient Arab views. This meaning of word Sunnah also corresponds to its Qur'anic meaning which implies the unalterable natural laws governing nature and societies in accordance with Creator's will (‘amr).

The meaning of the word Sunnah in the early Islam (approx. up until end of 1st century of Hijrah) took on a different meaning. This is not surprising considering that with the advent of Prophet Muhammad , whose task was to modify the existing Sunnah of the Arabs with the Revelation he was receiving, a new/modified set of social norms/values was to emerge which were to be in accordance with the Qur'anic worldview.

It the old Muslim community (time of Companions) its prevailing usage referred to a ' religious or legal point without regard to whether or not there existed an oral tradition (i.e. Hadith) for it. Thus, a separation of meanings between Sunnah and Hadith was made. A historical proof for this claim can be found in Al-Zurqaani who when referring to three well known theologians (Al-Thawri, Al-Awza'I and Malik b. Anas) describes the first as 'imam fi'l hadith wa laysa bi-imam fi'l sunnah ' (authority on Hadith but not on Sunnah) ; second one 'imam fi'l sunnah wa laysa bi-imam fi'l hadith ' ( authority on Sunnah but not on Hadith) and the third one as an authority on both ( imam fihima jami'an).

Furthermore, sunnah , in early Islam was in the beginning related to Prophet's practical teachings ( in actu) and , after his demise, to the practice of the Companions and following generations if they were in agreement with the Prophet's own teachings. It was also termed a 'living tradition' and had a nonverbal character.  Sunna as understood during this period meant a concept based on recognized Islamic religious norms and accepted standards of conduct derived from the religious and ethical principles introduced by the Prophet. I refer to this as non-Hadith dependent concept of Sunna. This Hadith –independent concept of Sunna was also evident in the writings of the eight century madhhab scholars from  Iraq such as Abu Yusuf (d. 182/798) who referred to it as al-Sunna al-mahfuza  al-ma’rufa  , the well established Sunna, or that of the  Medinian scholar ,Malik ibn Anas ( d. 178/ 795) who referred to it primarily as Sunna madiya / ‘amal. It remained  conceptually separated from Hadith until Islamic scholars such as imam Shafi’i  changed the way in which the relationship between Qur’an, sunna, hadith and reason were used as sources of law in Islamic legal theory. However , even this process, aided by scholars associated with ahl hadith approach to interpretation of Qur’an and Sunna such as ibn hanbal or ibn Da’wud , took at least another 100 years to exert its influence.

Sunnah was in early Islam was not very specifically  defined because of the fact that Rasulullah's contemporaries witnessed an actual embodiment of his actions and his overall character ( as commentary of the Qur’an)and subconsciously acted in accordance with them and , generally speaking, without feeling a need for writing them down.

The gradual development of the science of Hadith and its (perceived) ever growing importance at least in the pious circles, together with the state support under the dynasty of the Abbasides, meant that the non Hadith dependent concept of sunna  was starting to be expressed in a written form. Therefore, sunnah was increasingly identified with and deduced from the growing corpus of the ahadith literature and less and less from sunna independent concept of sunna which was based upon the living tradition (sunna ma’rufa al mahfuza or madiya Sunna) . Finally, as the Ahadith science continually flourished and reached its peak at the end of the 3rd century of Hijrah, Sunnah was put on par and given identical meaning to that of the 'canonical' Ahadith literature by the mainstream Muslim community/ ahl-sunnah wa jama'a, especially the hadith specialists ( the muhaddithun). Thus, a set of practical religious norms, behaviour and values was substituted with and (thought to be) authentically expressed in a compendium of Ahadith books . How successfully and accurately is a different question.

Definition of Hadith and two Ways of Its Authenticity Assessment:

The meaning of the word Hadith is usually translated as 'communication', 'tale' or 'narrative'. These narratives include not only information concerning religious life but also historical information in pre-Islamic Arabia relating to the daily events in the history of tribe

In al-Baladhuri we come across the following incident which further supports this claim: Abu Hurayra asks: Shall I regale you with a hadith from your hadiths , O community of Ansar'- and he goes on to tell them the a story from the conquest of Makkah.

The word Hadith, according to traditional sources , was also used for the Qur'an as the following example shows: 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud says : The most beautiful hadith is the book of Allah, and the best guidance is that of Muhammed.Qur'an also describes itself as a hadith as it is commonly known.

As the theoretical discipline of collections and recordings of sayings ascribed to the Prophet himself conducted by the muhadhiteen asserted itself and eventually found general recognition among the Muslim masses ( but not among more astute scholars such as the usuliyyun – legal theoreticians and some fuqaha  ) in form of the six canonical books (al'-kutub al-sitta) the meaning of hadith was restricted to the supposed Prophet's sayings, either initiated by himself or in his response to a question ( ad hoc) . This is its current meaning in the 'eyes'of many Muslims today.

From the above discussion it can be deduced that the meanings of the words sunnah and hadith have undergone several changes prior to their contemporary definition and understanding by a majority of (Sunni) Muslims today.

It is important to note that assessment and evaluation of the authenticity and validity of particular Hadith has been approached via two general  avenues. One method was developed by the specialists in Hadiths authenticity/criticism, transmission, compilation and classification, namely the muhadithun, who are largely associated with the ahl-hadith school of thought. These muhadithun have predominantly focused on assessing hadith authenticity and reliability by probing their isnad (chain of transmission) which, in essence, largely amounts to concerning oneself with the reliability of the rijal that is those individuals who feature in the isnad. To a lesser extent they also examined Hadiths matn. Based on this approach Hadiths overall authenticity/reliability was evaluated and their subsequent classification ranging from ‘sound’ (Sahih) to ‘weak’ (da’if) was developed. The main problem with this approach is not only the paucity of material from the first century of Islamic thought that fuels the ongoing debates among Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike on the historical authenticity of the isnad as a means of establishing Hadith authenticity but also the subjective nature of the criteria used in Hadith evaluation and lack of standardisation of terminology in classical ulum ul-Hadith sciences. For example same individual is given by different muhaddithun different levels of authenticity.

Another approach to evaluating hadith was from a purely epistemological vantage point associated with the madhhab approach. This practice was adopted by Islamic legal scholars (usuliyyun) as part of their overall approach to conceptualising the Islamic Law or Islamic legal theory to be more precise. This method focused first and foremost on developing criteria relating to the quantitative transmission of knowledge based on probability. Questions such as at what point in time and at what evidentiary level would human faculty of reason ‘accept’ transmitted knowledge as either inducing certainty ( yaqin), thus yielding immediate knowledge (daruri) or amounting to less than that(zann/probable and acquired knowledge) were decisive. Classification of hadith according to this technique ranged from isolated (ahad) Hadith that yielded zann knowledge only to that of mutawatir or successive Hadith that, according to the majority of usuliyyun, reached daruri knowledge. The problem with this method in relation to Sunna is that only very few Hadith, not amounting to more then a dozen or according to some none, can be considered to have fulfilled the criteria of mutawatir (successive)  level of transmission like the Qur’an or the concept of sunna ala ma’rufa al mahfuza. In this context the debate between the madhhab –based and ahl-hadith approaches concerns primarily the validity of ahad hadith as authentic sources of valid norms in areas of law and beliefs. The latter consider the ahad hadith to be authentic sources of valid norms and the former do not.

Need for Sunnah

The author started this article with a statement that Muslims are facing a big challenge in terms of separating historical from normative Islam. The notion of proper understanding and definition of Sunnah is central to this undertaking.

Having followed many discussions on the subject of 'Qur'an only' vs. 'Qur'an and Ahadith I realised that both 'camps' face certain difficulties in finding the right answer to the problem in question. The former cannot account for the historical continuity , by this is mean continual perpetuation of practices such as namaz/salah,adhaan, janazah , hajj, swm etc. in the muslim community, while the latter have to deal with the fact that various BELIEFS as well as practices (often obscure and alien to qur'anic spirit as well as word inherent in their accepting of Ahadith literature as an authentic insight into the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad( thus, giving them normative value) have been added to their 'Islamic' worldview.

The dilemma is perhaps best described with the following question often asked by the traditionalists to discredit the views of the 'Qur'an only ‘groups and defend their own position of indispensable value of Ahadith literature in Qur'anic understanding and thus securing it a position of a primary source of Islamic jurisprudence and Shari’a. The question being: How do you perform namaz/Salat if there were no Ahadith to guide us on these issues?'

Before we attempt answering this question a few words regarding the character of the Qur'an and Prophet's mission must be elaborated on .

Upon a closer analysis of the Qur'an and the position Prophet Muhammad occupies in it , a close organic relationship between the two cannot be overlooked .Qur'an was revealed in a socio-cultural milieu of the Prophet's era and thus , is embedded in a particular place and time. Its gradual revelation (tadrij) over more than two decades and its graduality in terms of its prescriptiveness (ahkam ' injunctions pertaining to Haram vs. halal) speak for the fact that it acknowledged the mentality and the condition of its direct recipients. It chose to operate initially from this given platform and aimed to achieve its objectives in a step-by-step manner . By doing so it did not wish to alienate itself too much neither from the Prothet himself nor from the 'character' of the community in which the Prophet was active. Thus, Qur'an's 'historicity' is imprinted in the very fabric of the nature of its content. The situational and historical character of the Qur'an and the character of the Prothet's mission go hand in hand together. This is not suprising since the knowledge of God's directives is naturally received through the God's Prophets.

It is in this context that we must look at a controversial and often repeated Qur'anic formula 'Obey Allah and Obey the Prophet' which so clearly brings the Prophet in above mentioned close relationship with the Revelation. This phrase has often been misunderstood and manipulated to serve the interests and views of those who were interpreting it, especially the Muslim clergy. Their interpretation of this verse is as follows: 'Obey Allah' means follow the Qur'an and 'Obey the Prophet' means follow their definition of Sunnah which as we already have outlined means nothing but blind and literal following of Ahadith literature.

This view is both incoherent and historically untenable.It is incoherent because if this really was the case the Prophet himself would have had a religious obligation to make sure that the 'sunnah'content ,as found in the ahadith literature books, was to be collected,arranged and preserved (i.e. if they were to form part of the Islamic normative teachings) in the same manner as the Qur'an and in author's opinion the practical teaching's of the Prophet were. It is historically untenable because, as we will find out and as it is commonly acknowledged even by the traditionalist scholars , that Ahadith literature was a product of men of tradition who transmitted, wrote down, arranged and collected it over a period ranging over 150 years (from approx. year 80 -230 AH) and not during the Prophet's time.

Indeed , the only proper understanding of this verse, keeping in mind the close connection and the 'reciprocal nature ' of the revelation and the person to whom it was revealed, is a general statement that by obeying the Prophet we obey God and vice-versa . Nothing more and nothing less.

Now we come to another important question, namely that of the extra-dogmatic authority of the Prophet and that fact whether it is warranted or not and in the case of the affirmative what its scope is.

Firstly, nobody can deny Prophet Muhammad's function as one of a model and epitome of moral behaviour and attitudes, which , as we know, is extended to him in the Qur'an as well. He was the living embodiment and a practical example of God's directives. In the Qur'anic verses such as 59:7 and 4:64 and similar the Qur'an mentions necessary intervention of and obedience to the Prophet in the affairs of the community (it must be admitted that the mentioned verses had specific occasions of revelation- first linked to the distribution of booty and second to a concrete internal problem within a Muslim community) which were not religious in nature in other words not dogmatic and did not pertain to the realm of beliefs.  Qur'an mentions these incidents solely because of the fact that there were evident differences and skirmishes within the Muslim community in which the authority of the Prophet as the final judge was put under question. Thus this necessitated Qur'anic intervention otherwise the Qur'an would not have got involved in the matter. Prophet consequently must have enjoyed authority outside the Qur'anic injunction He also adds that, on the other hand, Prophet always exercised mutual consultation and assertion of his authority in a most balanced and delicate way.

Secondly, another logical reason for the extra-dogmatic authority of Prophets could be deduced from the fact that God has always chosen human beings as bearers of revelation and not angles for example. Apart from the obvious reasons for this practice, its wisdom lies in the fact that prophets were supposed to establish societies which would be in line with God's laws (cf. meaning of Islam at the beginning of the article on p.1) and in order to achieve this they were exponents and role models of their messages whose general and basic attitudes, sentiments and practical teachings could be absorbed ( of course with the approval and general sanction of the Prophet ) and perpetuated by their contemporaries and maintained by following generations as part of God's instruction.

However, even if we agreed with the above statements of extra-dogmatic authority of the Prophet, this authority must have been only extended to the most fundamental issues concerning religious, social and moral life of the Muslim community in line with the character of the Prophet's mission which was that of a political and religious/moral reformer, rather than that of a judge and could not have included all the minutes details regarding his private and public life, as depicted by the later developed ahadith literature. This assertion is also in line with the uswah-e- hasanah (Prophet having the best character) epithet given to the Prophet by the Qur'an itself.

The statements above have tried to show that due to the character of the Qur'an and the character of Prophet Muhammad's 'Message' and the closely interwoven relationship between the two, a concept of Prophet's authority outside of Qur'an has value. It has also been argued that this principle does not coincide with the traditionalists claim of Ahadith literature as being a credible source of this authority but that it only refers to basic practical teachings (in contrast to beliefs) of moral, spiritual or social nature, sanctioned by the Prophet himself as a part of the God's general directives which can be termed as Sunnah of the Prophet. This definition closely is closely aligned with the concepts of al Sunna al mahfura al ma’rufa and Sunna al madiya employed by the first three to generations of Muslims I mentioned earlier.

The identification of scope, nature of transmission and formation of the elements embodied in this definition of Sunnah will be discussed and compared to the same aspects and mechanisms of the Ahadith literature shortly.

Firstly, however, the question posed at the beginning of this heading regarding performance of namaz/sala'h must be answered.

Another two points need to be elucidated before a satisfactory answer to the question can be given. Firstly, the concept of salah was known among the Arabs of Hijaz prior to Prophet Muhammad's advent as the Qur’an tells us Prophet Muhammad revived the din of Ibrahim the din of the Hunafa , the monotheists in Pre Quranic Arabia. (This is also evident in the way for example Prophet just modified some elements of Hajj rituals that existed already purging them of all polytheistic elements that have accrued over time). A written explanation or an instruction as how to perform the prayer was not necessary as the Prophet himself was the one who modified and given it shape as it has now .

Secondly, common sense would tell us that Prophet must have performed the ritualistic prayer (namaz/Salah) in his time as it is highly improbable that this was an invention of later generations since during the 10 years which the Prophet spent in Madinah, his Companions must have seen him being engaged in it on many, many occasions. Not only that, they would have participated in it too. This practice was then passed from generation to generation up until the present times. The same applies for sawn,hajj, zakat, janaza, adhan etc.

Thus, even if there were no written documentation /oral accounts of how to perform a ritualistic prayer (i.e. ahadith) one could still be able to perform it simply by means of observation/ mimicking/coping movements of an older generation which acted as a transmitter of this practical teaching of the Prophet/Sunnah.

A much more important question from the point of view of the author is the scope of the Sunnah argued for in this article.

Keeping in mind what we said so far, the scope of Sunnah is very small and according to the author includes the following:

Salaam greetings, adhaan, elements entailed in namaz, Eid Prayers, wudhu, tayyamun, and circumcision.

All the other elements of sunna will depend on how we interpret the Qur’an (I shall explain this in another article).Thus, by comparing the scope of this definition of Sunnah with the scope of ahadith literature a stark contrast is easily noticed.


In our quest towards a more accurate delineation of normative from historical Islam the importance of rightful placement of sunnah and ahadith within the normative corpus of Islam and its source/s was attempted through an elucidation and comparison of the definition and characterisation of these two historically and dogmatically dynamic concepts . An alternative definition of sunnah was argued for which entailed a small compendium of practical rules and certain religious norms and values whose normative value was based on the inextricably close and interwoven relationship between the character of the revelation and the character of the Messenger's mission. This definition of Sunna is closely related to the way it was defined by early Muslims as evident in Abu Yusu’f concept of as sunna al mahfuza al ma’rufa and that of Imam Malik’s sunna amal ahl madina or sunna madiya.  Based on all of this the traditionalist claim of identifying Sunnah with Ahadith literature proved to be inaccurate and misleading, whilst the insistence on Qur'an as the ONLY tool in critically viewing our tradition proved to be inadequate.

The task of separating the traditional from the normative in Islam has, of course, not been fully accomplished with this. In order for that to happen, assuming that it is actually possible, a constant re-development of a coherent and systematic methodology of re-interpretation of our Islamic scholarship heritage is essential in the light of the ever changing and ever more complex world. I will discuss this in my further contributions, Insha Allah.

Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.