Rafed English

Position of Sunnah in Religion:

They (traditionists) made the spoken Sunnah in the third degree, following the practised Sunnah, which comes after the Qur’an, that reached us through successive chain (mutawatir), in a way no doubt can be ascribed to it. For this reason it is quite established outright. While the Sunnah reachedus through an unsuccessive chain, the fact entailing its being doubtful as a whole. The second rank in religion is given to the practical Sunnah (the Prophet’s acts).

In al-Muwafiqat,19 al-Shatibi is reported to have said: The position of Sunnah comes in consideration after the Book (Qur’an) for the following proofs:

First: The Book being decisive and asserted, while the Sunnah is doubtful. And affirming it (Sunnah) is valid only in its generalities not the details, on the contrary of the Book which is established in general and in details. And that which is fixed is prior to that which is suspicious, the fact necessitating to give the Book precedence over the Sunnah.

Second: The Sunnah is either expository for the Book, or be excessive to this. If it be an exposition its order of consideration would be after the exposed thing (Book), as the decline of the exposed requires decline of the exposition, while the opposite is not true. That whose status is thus is more meritorious to be superior, and if it be not an exposition, no consideration is given to it unless it be there in the Book. This verily is an evidence to give priority to the Book in consideration.

Third: The akhbar (reports) and (old) traces, like the hadith of Mu’adh, when the Prophet asked him: On what basis do you pronounce the hukm (rule)? He replied: On the basis of the Book of Allah. He (S) inquired: If you can’t find it there (with what you give the rules)? He said: With the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah? He again asked: If you can’t find it there (with what then)? He said: I exert my opinion.20

Citing many proofs from Umar, Ibn Mas’ud and Ibn Abbas, confirming this issue, al-Shatibi said: And that which is decisively established in this regard being the fact that the Sunnah can never reach the degree of consideration of the Book.He also said: The Sunnah has in fact the position of interpretation and exposition of the denotations of the rules in the Book. This is indicated in the Qur’an: “…that thou mayest make clear unto mankind what hath been sent down unto them…” And the Sunnah in meaning is referred to the Book, as it is the elaboration of its generality, and exposition of its ambiguity, and elucidation of its concised statements. It (the Sunnah) is in short the exposition of the Book outright. This is indicated in Almighty’s words: “…and We sent down unto thee the Remembrance (i.e. the Qur’an) that thou mayest make clear unto mankind what hath been sent down unto them.” No issue or point can be found in the Sunnah,21 unless that meaning has been indicated generally or elaborately. Further, whatever indicating the Qur’an’s being the universality of the Shar’ah22 (Islamic Law), and a fountain for it, is verily an evidence indicating this fact. Also since Allah said: “And most certainly thou standest on sublime morality,” which was interpreted by A’ishah that his morality being the Qur’an itself no more no less. This indicates that his utterances, acts and approval are altogether taken from the Qur’an. And since morality is represented only by these things and as Allah has made the Qur’an an explanation for everything,23 the fact requiring that the Sunnah being contained in it on the whole, as bidding and forbidding being the first things revealed in the Book. And like His saying: “We have not neglected in the Book anything,”24 and His saying: This day have I perfected for you, your religion with which intending to mean the revelation of the Qur’an.

As a conclusion, Sunnah then is an exposition of what the Book contains, the fact giving the meaning of its (Sunnah) being referred to it (Book), that was confirmed too through investigation. In the outset of the book al-Adillah, it was proved that the Sunnah being dependent on the Book, otherwise it should have never been approved, which is a sufficient principle in this regard.” He added: The cause behind heeding to the Sunnah lies in its being an exposition of the Qur’an, as to obey Allah is to abide by the rules of His Book, and to obey the Messenger is to act according to his expositions of the Book of Allah through saying, or deed, or judgement. Had there been anything in the Sunnah having no root in the Book, it would have never been expository for it, the fact excepting not the Sunnah’s containing the explanation of the Qur’an’s general rules, though seeming out of it, like the prayer that is stated in general in the Qur’an and in details in the Sunnah. But through this elaboration we got to know its being Allah’s intention from the prayer He generally stated it in His Book.”

He also said:25 “The Sunnah elucidates the generality, restricts the absolute, and specifies the common.” He said26 too: “The objective of the Sunnah is to expose the Book, and expound its meanings.”

When asked about the hadith saying: The Sunnah is baffling the Book, al-Imam Ahmad replied: I never dare saying so, but I say that the Sunnah interprets and demonstrates the Qur’an.27 Al-Imam Malik used to say: “Take into account the continuous and plentiful work, abandoning other than it though containing traditions.” He further said: The dearest traditions to me are those which got unanimous acceptance of people.28 In Ruh al-bayan, al-Alusi reported that al-Imam al-Shafi`i said: Whatever is judged and decided by the Prophet is verily among that which he conceived from the Qur’an.

He also said: The Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah can in no way contradict the Book of Allah.29
The traditionist faqih al-Sayyid Rashid Rida (may God’s mercy be upon him) said: The Prophet is a demonstrator of the Qur’an through his utterance and acts. This demonstration implies elaboration, specification and restriction, with the exclusion of annulment of any of its rules or revoking any of its reports. Hence we have the verified dictum: “The Sunnah can never abrogate the Qur’an.” The main pillar of religion being the Book of Allah, occupying the first rank, after it comes the concurred practical Sunnah with every act being successively reported from the Prophet. In the third degree comes the unsuccessively narrated evidential traditions (ahad). Whoever acting according to the unanimously agreed ones will be verily among those delivered in the Hereafter, and regarded near by Allah, the Exalted, the fact approved by al-Ghazali.30


19. See Vol. IV, p. 3 and afterwards.

20. This hadith was reported by Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi and al-Darimi.

21. That is the established (thabit) Sunnah.

22. He means by this: The Qur'an contains in it all the rules and principles of the Shari'ah.

23. Allah the Most High said in Surat al-Nahl: And we reveal the Scripture unto thee as an exposition of all things, and a guidance and a mercy and good tidings for those who have surrendered (to Allah)."

24. That means the affairs of the Din and other than the Din.

25. In vol. I, p. 21.

26. In vol. III, p. 43. I have abundantly quoted from this book since it is, as expressed by al-Imam Muhammad Abduh: "One of the precious books that no parallel to it was ever compiled."

27. Al-Shatibi's al-Muwafiqat, vol. IV, p.26, and Tafsir al-Qurtubi, vol. I, p. 23.

28. Al-Muwafiqat, vol, III, pp. 66 and 70.

29. In p. 576 of his Risalah, the edition prepared by Ahmad Muhammad Shakir (may God's mercy be upon him).

30. Al-Manar, vol. XII, p.694, and it was declared also by al-Ghazali in his book al-Qistas al-mustaqim.

Adapted from: "Lights on the Muhammadan Sunnah" by: "Mahmud Ali Riyyah"

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