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Towards a Methodology of Understanding the Nature and Scope of the Concept of Sunnah

By Dr. Adis Duderija,

University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies

It is a well-known fact that Qur'an, Sunnah and to a large extent hadith have been used as the principal sources of Islamic thought from its very genesis. The claims of the utmost importance in following the Qur'an and Sunnah, and hadith as their primary interpretational vehicle, as the most authentic and legitimate, if not the only, epistemological and methodological parameters governing Muslim intellectual discourses have been echoed throughout the entire Islamic intellectual experience. However a systematic interpretational mechanism that would permit a more clearly defined heuristic in unfolding of Qur'an and Sunah's objectives, scope, character and the nature of their inter-relationship is yet to be put in place.

As such the aim of this article is to outline several features of a new methodology which would permit us to better understand the nature and scope of Sunnah and its inter-relationship with the Qur'anic and hadith body of texts. It will do so by outlining some salient features of a new methodology that will allow for the conceptual differentiation between Sunnah and Hadith beyond those proposed so far. The article will argue that the way the nature and scope of the concept of Sunnah is understood or defined is inextricably linked with the way the nature, objectives and character of Qur'anic Revelation is conceptualised. Additionally, the paper will argue that apart from its 'amal or practice based component Sunnah comprises of akhlaq, fiqh, aqidah and 'ibadah elements which are epistemologically and methodologically independent of hadith but organically linked to a particular type of Qur'anic hermeneutic. The paper will also attempt to clarify, briefly, the proper position or place of hadith literature in the overall Qur'ano-Sunnahic hermeneutic.

Several modern scholars such as Goldziher, Joseph van Ess, Cook, J. Schacht, Juynboll, F. Rahman, Ansari, Motzki and most recently Yasin Dutton, El-Fadl and Hallaq have alluded to the semantico- conceptual differences between hadith and Sunnah restricting the definition, nature and scope of Sunnah, however, primarily to the 'amal or practice of the Prophet perpetuated by the subsequent generations of Muslims. Based on this distinction, for example, our knowledge of the performance of the daily canonical prayers, hajj rituals, circumcision etc. would not depend upon their written documentation. The existence of other aspects of Prophet's Sunnah such as those which could be termed ethico-moral, legal and creedal in character have not been clearly recognised and were principally deduced from various hadith which not only often sent contradictory and/or mixed signals/messages regarding a particular issue but had very questionable epistemological value. Moreover, a systematic and coherent mechanism for deducing and defining non-'amal elements of Sunnah without any reliance on hadith is yet to be developed. The consequences of this lack of systematicity have been, at least partially, responsible for the emergence of conflicting views on a variety of issues pertaining to both the realms of Islamic jurisprudence and belief, yet all claiming to be firmly rooted in Qur'an and Sunnah/Hadith. The author aims to bring more clarity and introduce more systematicity in the way the nature and the scope of Sunnah is to be understood.

1.) The nature of the Qur'ano-Sunnahic dynamics

In order to develop a comprehensive and coherent definition of Sunnah we need to firstly examine the nature of the relationship between Qur'an and Sunnah.

During the early pre-classical period of Islamic jurisprudence the concept of Sunnah was organically linked to that of the Qur'an and was not considered as an independent entity. This coupling of Qur'an and Sunnah is based on two premises. Firstly, the principle of the "Bedeutungsbeduerftigkeit" of the Qur'an (i.e. its need of/for interpretation) on whose basis its distinct ethico-moral (akhlaq), law (fiqh) and creedal (aqidah) teachings are to be deduced and contrasted against the prevalent socio-cultural values, worldview' assumptions and norms governing pre-Qur'anic Arabia. Secondly, the need for the practical manifestation of certain Qur'anic injunctions which are to be carried out in action ( 'amal) but were not described in detail in the Qur'an (e.g. how to perform prayer, hajj, abolution etc.). We refer to these as ritual-based ('ibadah) component of the Qur'anic worldview. Therefore, the function and scope of Sunnah would involve practical embodiment of the Qur'anic aqidah, akhlaq, fiqh and 'amal/'ibadah, which permeate the Qur'an in the form of the phrase "Obey Allah and His Messenger."

The concept of Sunnah , as I argue in my thesis, underwent several semantico-contextual changes and was deduced on the basis of variant epistemologico-methodological tools until it became more or less completely identified with hadith towards the end of the second half of the second century Hijrah. With this event its organic link and the symbiotic relationship with the Qur'an was severed. Hadith -based Sunnah was seen as something additional to, a necessary exegetical supplement to, and explicator of the Qur'an rather than the other side of the same coin. The traditional post-Shafi'i function of Sunnah was based exactly on this reasoning and was expressed in the well-known maxim in Islamic jurisprudence affirming that the Qur'an's interpretational need of Sunnah (in form of its sole vehicle, the hadith) is greater then the Sunnah's interpretational need of the Qur'an.

The concept of Sunnah, however, is incompletely understood /defined unless we clarify its actual nature/character. As we previously argued, the concept of Sunnah ultimately derives its legitimacy from and is organically linked to the Qur'an itself. In other words the character, the aims and the objectives that govern Sunnah are to be congruent with the nature, aims and objectives of the Qur'an itself (i.e. maqasid al-Sunnah= maqasid al-Qur'an). If we accept this as true then the nature and character of Sunnah will depend upon the way we understand the character, nature and objectives of the Qur'anic Revelation.

Qur'an as a scripture can be said to deal with four distinct but related fields concerning its function as the hudan lil-nas, the guidance for humankind, namely: ethiio-moral, creedal, legal and ritual/worship aspects. Using traditional Islamic terminology they would translate into akhlaq, aqidah, fiqh and 'ibadat/mu'amalaat elements. Therefore, as argued above, the function, nature and scope of Sunnah pertains to the embodiment and manifestation of the Qur'anic akhlaq, aqidah, fiqh and 'ibadat/mu'amalat.

This assertion brings us to the crucial question as to how we establish what the nature, character and objectives of Qur'anic revelation is/are. The answer to this problem will depend upon the applied methodology of interpretation of the Qur'anic text such as the extent of its contextualisation (relationship between its content and context); the scope of the use of reason in it's interpretation; the recognition (or otherwise) of the assumptions /pre-supposition governing the understanding of the nature of ethical value in the Qur'an and its socio-cultural embeddedness (i.e. its ethical and socio-cultural pre-suppositions); the extent of corroboration and systematicity of Qur'anic and non-Qur'anic evidence in its interpretation; whether or not making of a distinction between its socio-culturally contingent and universal dimensions is present, the nature of the dynamics between morality and law, the tools governing derivation of meaning and making a distinction between its ethical and legal injunctions and other considerations.

It is precisely on this basis of various approaches /assumptions of the nature, character and objectives of the Qur'an that not only a different concepts of the nature and the character of Sunnah are developed but that of the Qur'an itself.

The purpose of this article is not to present a new Qur'anic hermeneutic. Several contemporary Muslim scholars such as Rahman, Arkoun, Hanafi, Abu Zayd, Wadud, Barlas, EL -Fadl, Moosa, to name a few have already made significant contributions to this field of study. What follows is a discussion on some of the practical implications of a methodology of Sunnah that, in all of its aspects, is independent of hadith but ultimately depends upon a particular Qur'anic hermeneutic as illustrated on the basis of several examples.

3.) Nature of the concept and scope of Sunnah

Based on the above we have argued that four elements of the scope of Sunnah ('amaliyyah/'ibadiyyah, akhlaqiyyah, fiqhiyyah and aqidiyyah) are completely derived from the Qur'an and that the understanding of its nature would depend upon the nature of the Qur'anic hermeneutics and the assumptions governing that process. Therefore in order to define the nature of Sunnah more precisely we need to examine the nature of certain Qur'anic injunction (in the light of a particular hermeneutic) that pertains to it directly or indirectly. For the sake of brevity we will limit ourselves to one example of Sunnah 'amaliyyah/'ibadiyyah , fiqhiyyah, akhlaqiyyah and aqidiyyah.

i.) Sunnah 'amaliyyah/'ibadiyyah - Female prayer leader of a mixed congregation

Lets us consider the question of recently much debated question of the "sunnacity" of the female prayer leader of a mixed congregation. Proponents of this initiative have argued that not only there is nothing in the Qur'an nor the Sunnah (without basing this view on a particular hermeneutic) which disapproves of this action but that there is additional written evidence in a form of a hadith (that a certain women was commanded by the Prophet to lead her congregation in prayer) which can be used as a positive legal precedent for female prayer leaders.

Those who argued against this practice used arguments of ijma to argue against the Qur'anico-Sunnahic legitimacy of this practice whilst some were of the opinion that, since the practice is not based on a mutawatir hadith, it cannot be considered as qualifying as Sunnah 'amaliyyah, therefore is not part of Sunnah.

An alternative methodology which author proposes would be based on the Qur'anic hermeneutic which distinguishes between universal gender just and egalitarian Qur'anic verses (along with the overall Qur'ano-Sunnahic aims) and socio-culturally contingent /embedded Qur'anic verses which are unegaliterian / patriarchal in nature by contextualising revelation and giving precedence to moral injunction over de-contextualised, literal interpretation of evidence/or lack of it. In this case universal principles of equality and justice (which are identified as most powerful methodological interpretive tools ultimately rooted in the Qur'anic concept of Tawhid) would outweigh and supersede all other evidence thus, as such, bring the practice of female prayer leaders under the Sunnahic purview.

ii.) Sunnah akhlaqiyyah- Unilateral divorce by repudiation (talaq)

Talaq, the institution of unilateral divorce by repudiation initiated by males only, is traditionally considered both a deeply embedded Qur'anic and Sunnahic concept subsequently elaborated upon by exclusively male fuqaha in the second, third and fourth centuries after Hijrah.

This institution originated, was firmly established and prevailed in the socio-cultural and economic fabric of 7th century pre-Islamic Mekka and was like slavery or "distribution" of women and children as spoils of war considered culturally and morally acceptable. It was somewhat modified but not abolished by the Qur'an improving the situation of the wife to some extent. It was further fine-tuned by Prophet's insistence on the gentle and kind treatment of women and his consideration of a divorce as " the most hated permissible thing to Allah" -as the well know tradition in a form of a hadith puts it.

Should we still consider this institution as being part of Qur'an and Sunnah akhlaqiyyah? Well, if our Qur'anic hermeneutic takes into account the above briefly sketched context behind this institution and in the light of the mitigating effects of the Qur'anic injunctions and the Prophet's example, a moral trajectory can be extrapolated, a trajectory towards its complete abolition on the basis of the principals of its moral repugnance and contradiction with the broader Qur'ano-Sunnahic principles of justice and equality.

iii.) Sunnah fiqhiyyah- Stoning to death for adultery

The view that Sunnah prescribes and in actual fact overrides and /or particularises or expands upon the Qur'anic injunction of lashing- stoning to death for adultery is based purely on non-mutawatir hadith evidence (which in itself highly problematic and inconclusive ) as well as a particular understanding of the Qur'ano-Hadith dynamics.

As with all other "hudud" ordinances found in the Qur'an which echo or more frequently restrict/mitigate pre-Islamic practices (e.g. cutting off hands, putting bodies on the cross, long multigenerational blood feuds etc.) it can be argued that these customs were part and parcel of the culturally acceptable norms of punishment but that they could no longer be justified on the basis of a Qur'anic hermeneutic which considers the universal values of the Qur'anic concept of karama (human dignity) , justice and equality as taking precedence over culturally embedded hudud ordinances. The claim that they act as a deterrent and in many cases are extremely difficult to prove cannot be used as counter-arguments since their usage would contravene earlier identified universal ethical Qur'anic principals.

iv.) Sunnah aqidiyyah- Belief in the Dajjal/Anti-Christ, Mahdi and Second Coming of Christ

The belief in Dajjal, Mahdi, and the Second Coming of Christ is based solely on hadith evidence that is not based on mutawatir transmission of knowledge but on ahad or isolated reports and therefore cannot be accepted as part of Islamic belief (i.e. as an additional article of faith- part of aqidah). Indeed, the rationally-oriented streams present from the very beginnings of the development of the Islamic thought argued that the articles of faith are to be based solely on direct and clear Qur'anic evidence and be restricted to the belief in Allah, his angels, his "books" and Prophets. Since, as previously mentioned, for something to be considered as part of Sunnah, in its pre-Shafi'i sense, it must either be deduced from the Qur'an or in the case of Sunnah 'amaliyyah/'ibadiyyah, must have reached us via mutawatir chain of transmission as did the Qur'an. The belief in Dajjal, Mahdi, Anti-Christ and others, thus cannot be considered as part of Sunnah aqidiyyah.

In all of the instances cited above, it can be deduced that the nature of Sunnah is directly related to the way we approach Qur'anic interpretation, the tools and assumptions which govern it and whether or not we make a clear conceptual distinction between Sunnah and hadith epistemologies.

3.) The Sunnahico- Ahadith dynamics

The examples above, on various elements of scope of Sunnah and its nature bring us to the question of the place of hadith in Islamic thought. Numerous generations of Muslims have in the past advocated various views as to what the proper value of hadith in the overall Qur'ano-Sunnahic hermeneutic should be, ranging from their complete rejection to a complete, literal and blind following of hadith as the only vehicle of Sunnahic transmission. The latter view, of complete identification of hadith with the concept of nature, character and scope of Sunnah completely divorced from the Qur'anic revelation or based on a very literal, de-contextualised, fragmentary approach to Qur'anic hermeneutics has gained ground among so called adherers of Salafi or Wahhabi school of thought (which methodologically comes closest to the Hanbali school of thought). It should also be pointed out that, although the traditional schools of thought such as Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi' have developed a more systematic methodology of interpretation of Qur'an and Sunnah, their own models need a serious revision in the light of a new hermeneutic (for example their definition of Sunnah is nearly completely identical to that of the muhaddithun/ ahl-hadith).

So, briefly, what is a proper place/understanding of hadith vis - a-vis the concept of Sunnah?

It must be emphasised that a vast majority of hadith, especially those pertaining to law are, unlike 'amal and or Qur'an contingent definition of Sunnah, do not have an epistemological mutawatir value and therefore cannot take precedence over Sunnah which is methodologically and epistemologically dependent on mutawatir written evidence.

In conclusion, both Sunnah and hadith were definitionally quite ambivalent and fluid concepts during the pre-classical era of Islamic thought and therefore underwent several semantico-contextual changes before being considered largely identical. The recognition of practice -based Sunnah that is independent of hadith by several scholars still did not systematically resolve the issue of the nature, scope and definition of Sunnah. This presentation argued for a new methodology of deducing the nature and scope of Sunnah that is directly related to the question of the nature and objectives of the Qur'anic revelation itself. It suggested that the scope of Sunnah, like that of the Qur'an, comprises of its 'amaliyyah/'ibadiyyah, fiqhiyyah, akhlaqiyyah and ibadiyyah elements and that its nature is ultimately traced back to the principles governing Qur'anic methodology of interpretation. We have also seen that Qur'anic as well as Non-Qur'anic evidence based on or supplemented by hadith evidence, if in contradiction with previously identified universal principles of the Qur'an and Sunnah, cannot be considered as part of Sunnah. Therefore, hadith evidence should never be a priori considered solely by itself and in isolation from an overall Qur'ano-Sunnahic model of interpretation as a sufficient indicator to qualify as part of Sunnah but only if it concurs with the general principles governing Qur'ano-Sunnahic teachings as based on a particular hermeneutic.

First published in Araw Law Quarterly in 2007

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.