Proper Definition of the Sunna

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

The following six principles summarize our definition of the Sunna of the Prophet:

  1. The oral tradition, that is, the entire collection of hadiths, whether classified as reliable or weak, as supported or singular, has no binding authority. The reason for this is that the Sunna consists of human legislation, and human legislation, as the ‘ulama” themselves told us, changes according to the historical context in which it is passed.

The key criterion for their implementation (or modification) is the extent to which they are (or are not) in harmony with the Book and social reality. If they are in harmony they should be implemented, if they are not in harmony then they should be modified. We do not follow the tradition of overriding the authority of the Book, so bluntly expressed in the tradition of some Hanafi scholars: ‘If the views of the Sheikhs [of our school] contradict the views of the Qur’an, we adhere to what the Sheikhs say’.

  1. The Sunna of the Prophet is the first ijtihad, that is, one out of many alternative options based on time, place, conditions, situations, tradition, culture that Muhammad exercised in order to issue concrete injunctions that embodied his application of the divine absolute idea. His Sunna is the first ijtihad, but not the last and not the only one. It is the first successful attempt to adapt divine law and order to social reality.
  1. The Sunna of the Prophet authentically reflects Muhammad’s magnificent ability to create—while receiving the revelations of the Book—a legal, social, and political reality in full congruence with the divine text.
  2. The legal injunctions of Muhammad’s messengerhood ( al-risala) have only limited validity. One has to bear in mind that he received these verses within a period of only ten years while he lived in Yathrib (Medina). Surely, the social and political situations he faced in those ten years cannot possibly constitute the only situations that people faced at that time all over the world. And given that there will be no further revelation and no new messengerhood until the Last Day, surely Muhammad’s ten years in Yathrib can Not possibly cover all the circumstances that we will encounter now and in the future. The emergence of different and novel situations, which need to be handled by Islamic law, will make obsolete the method of analogical reasoning that takes its basis in Muhammad’s ijtihad. Our ijtihad should be based on reason and modern scientific thinking in full compliance with the Book and objective reality.
  1. of the Prophet have no binding authority. They only have value as historical information. In Islamic fiqh, the consensus of the fuqaha” should be replaced by the consensus of living people who issue laws through contemporary institutions such as legislative assemblies and parliaments. We believe that living people are far more competent to solve current social and economic problems than Muhammad’s companions and their successors who lived 1,400 years ago. However, if by chance, their decisions happen to be suitable for some of our current problems we would, of course, not be foolish enough to reject them. But they should not to be applied in principle, and in any case only after a search for more contemporary solutions has failed.
  1. Ijtihad, qualified and within well-defined boundaries, is not only legitimate but also necessary. We reject all claims that an ijtihad of so-called nass verses, is forbidden and that ijtihad is only allowed if a verse does not contain an explicit ruling, that is, a non-nass verse. The fiqh rule of nass regulations implies that no ijtihad is allowed in a matter of explicit qur’anic injunctions (e.g. the hudud punishments). we want, in contrast, to exercise ijtihad on exactly these nass injunctions. An interpretation outside the realm of nass verses we call al-ta”wil, not ijtihad.

But what is the purpose of an ijtihad outside the realm of such explicit nass rulings? Outside the realm of nass, that is, outside the legal verses that possess legislative significance, the law-giver may legislate whatever he wants (because it would have no legal relevance).

We aim to introduce a new Islamic philosophy and a new Islamic jurisprudence. We want to secure an historical continuity with previous generations of Muslims by maintaining the shahada of ‘there is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God’, by maintaining the fundamental ethical principles and by maintaining the fixed forms of ritual obligations as they were taught by the Prophet.

All other areas of religious and social conduct do not need to be maintained, since our ‘becoming’ requires an adaptation of the message to the needs of our own time which are different from the needs of our forefathers in seventh-century Arabia.

The sole criterion of exercising a legitimate ijtihad is, hence, not the existence or nonexistence of a nass text, but the degree of congruence between the outcome of the ijtihad and the circumstances of our objective reality. If the mujtahid’s decision is fully in accord with the realities around him, or her for that matter, at the time of his or her ijtihad, the decision is right; if it contradicts social and political realities, the ijtihad is wrong. Someone might look at these five points and ask ‘what about the details of rituals, where shall we learn about the exact way to pray,

to fast, and do the pilgrimage, and how will we know about the minimum amount of charity if the Book does not provide us with such details? Should we not consult the Sunna for that?’ Our answer to this is ‘yes’: the Book teaches these things only in a general, absolute manner which the greatest of all messengers put into practice by his concrete, ritual performances. A theoretical, verbal, or oral specification of the details of his rituals was not needed.

Muhammad’s practical Sunna, reflecting the exact details of rituals, is the only part of his messengerhood (al-risala) which we today wholeheartedly accept both in form and content. It comprises, as we defined previously, the pillars of Eman. They define the identity of the Muslim-Believers (al-muslimun al-mu”minun), those who are

Muslims and believers in Muhammad’s messengerhood and who express their faith through the pillars of al-Eman. We consider the form and content of these rituals as fixed. In spite of their stable form, they do not obstruct historical ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’.

However, we should not forget that due to their manifest religious and spiritual nature, rituals are inappropriate for the task of forming a society and controlling state institutions. Religious rituals can be practiced in any political system, democratic or not, and given that people agree that as long as a despotic ruler does not prohibit rituals, they have to obey him, the performance of rituals has no significant impact on the political culture of a country. Rituals are not part of civil society and hence, in this respect, need not to be changed, modified, or intensified.

Having said this we should be wary of unnecessary complications in the performance of rituals. It cannot be right that, after having practiced these rituals for over 1,400 years, people are still in need of prayer manuals and instruction by legal scholars. The rituals should be simple and straightforward and easy to practice; there can never be any cultural or civilizational value in the infamous casuistry for which our fuqaha” are so well-known.

A final word: all social legislation needs to be based on the knowledge which humans have derived from modern social, human, and natural sciences. In order to gain such knowledge, human beings need to enjoy maximum freedom—the highest and most sacred good on earth. Restrictive legislation, however, restricts human freedom. A healthy society can exist with less restrictive legislation. The reverse situation makes people not only less free but also mentally and physically ill.

With this in mind we have come to the decision to separate the legislative aspects of the Book, where there is room for maneuvering in order to be less restrictive, from the moral and ethical ideals, the ethical ideals of the al-furqan or ‘the straight path’ ( al-sirat al-mustaqim), where there is no room for manoeuvring. we argues against the Islamist tendency to define Islam as law and to impose the most draconian legislation by a literal understanding of the ahkam injunctions.

Against that, we defines islam as ethics and introduces the theory of limits that allows mitigations and a less punitive approach to law. A restrictive, literal, and even punitive approach is only allowed in the sphere of ethics, not in (formal) law.