The Specific, Circumstantial Nature of the SUNNA of the Prophet
The core activity of Muhammad’s Sunna was to ‘restrict the released’ and to ‘release the restricted’, to allow greater or lesser freedom in applying what Allah has permitted (al-halal). His legal decisions were also intended to regulate the affairs of his society and to modify its development within the parameters created by Allah’s absolute taboos and permissions. Based on these premises we can summaries the characteristics of Muhammad’s Sunna as follows:
- His decisions were conditioned by the circumstances of life on the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century.
- His ijtihads in restricting the allowed (al-halal ) did not need divine revelation.
- Muhammad’s restrictions of the ‘unrestricted permissions’ (halal mutlaq) were subject to constant corrections due to changing circumstances in his life.
- His ijtihads were not infallible and can therefore, unlike revelations, be corrected.
- His ijtihads, prophetic or not, do not constitute Islamic legislation. Instead, they reflect his applications of civil law arising from the historical conditions of seventh century Arabia. In administrating
the state and society of his time, Muhammad applied a specific civil law (qanun madani) suitable for his time which, by reason of its historical contingency, has no transhistorical validity—even if the reports about it, the hadiths, are totally accurate.
The best example we can give to illustrate the specifity of Muhammad’s ijtihad is his interdiction against visiting graves. We notice that Muhammad first ‘restricted the released’ and then, after much deliberation, reversed his decision and ‘released the restricted’.
Whether one is allowed to visit graves or not was not explicitly decided by divine injunction in the Book; it, therefore, fell into the category of the absolutely allowed (al-halal ). Muhammad was free to allow such practices. But in order to combat superstitious practices of jahiliyya Arabia, Muhammad exercised legitimate ‘restriction of the released’ and forbade the practice. This did not reflect divine legislation, nor did it forbid such visits for all time. In fact, after the ideas and moral principles of the new faith had been planted in the hearts of most Arabs, Muhammad reversed his decision and allowed women to visit the graveyards again. This reversal has confused generations of Muslim jurists since, in their understanding,
Muhammad had first created an ‘absolute’ taboo and then abandoned
- And since everything what Muhammad did, carried—in the eyes of the scholars—legislative significance (a misconception that, fatefully, became the whole rationale of Islamic fiqh), it led to great confusion in deciding whether visiting graves was allowed in Islam or not. We know that the jurists’ solution to the dilemma was to invent a doctrine of abrogation—and God knows where they got that from!
Instead of acknowledging that Muhammad simply decided what was best for his society at a specific time of his life, they tried to prove the existence of abrogated and abrogating hadiths, (nassikh wa manssoukh) from which they then deduced the existence of abrogated and abrogating verses in the Book, Instead of wasting our time and exploring what is abrogated and what not, it is more important for us today to commission our parliaments and ask them to ‘release the restricted’ and to ‘restrict the released’ in what Allah has permitted—and do this strictly in accordance with the conditions of contemporary societies. In doing so we would follow the Sunna of the Prophet and emulate his example in the best possible and most authentic way.
The Content of Prophetic Hadiths
The prophetic sayings of Muhammad can be divided into two categories: words of wisdom and prophetic statements. Words of Wisdom A reference to such words of wisdom can be found in the following verses of the Book: God has sent down the scripture and wisdom to you, and taught you what you did not know… ( Al-Nisa” 4:113)
He gives wisdom to whoever He will. Whoever is given wisdom has truly been much good, but only those with insight bear in mind. (Al-Baqara 2:269) And recite what is rehearsed to you in your homes, of the signs of God and His wisdom: for God understands the finest mysteries and is well acquainted (with them). ( Al-Ahzab 33:34) We bestowed (in the past) wisdom on Luqman: “Show ( your) gratitude to God.” (Luqman 31:12).
A person who speaks words of wisdom does not need the help of divine revelation, not even of prophethood or messengerhood. Luqman was not a prophet, and yet we hear in verse 31:12: ‘We bestowed (in the past) wisdom on Luqman’. In the Book we find many such ‘precepts of wisdom’ which, incidentally, proves that Muhammad Idris al-Shafi’s view that ‘wisdom’ is primarily represented by the Sunna of the Prophet is totally wrong:
Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true: ears, eyes, and heart, you will be questioned about all these. Do not strut arrogantly about the earth: you cannot break it open, nor match the mountains in height. The evil of all these actions is hateful to your Lord. [Prophet], this is some of the wisdom your Lord has revealed to you… ( Al-Isra”17:36–39)
The essential feature of words of wisdom is that they contain moral sayings that are universally understood and shared by all people. Let us quote some examples from a variety of hadiths:
There [should be] no harm [to anyone], and there [should be] no harm in retaliation [if someone was harmed before]… Leave behind what gives you doubt for what does not give you doubt …
Begin with yourself, only then with your brother.
The one who believes in God and the Last Day, he shall speak nicely or not speak at all. No one is truly a believer unless he desires for his brother what he desires for himself…A Muslim is one from whose hand and tongue people are safe. Wisdom is the believer’s lost property; wherever he finds it he takes it. Another feature is that words of wisdom are formulated from the pool of human experiences and hence come from within human beings. They may be perceived by revelation but revelation is not necessary in order to speak words of wisdom. We also commonly say , take wisdom from the mouths of the crazy people, so The following hadith makes it clear that wisdom is of a distinct quality to revelation: Wisdom is harmful to the believer when he finds it [and it is] taken away [again].
No religious or civil law should be based on words of wisdom. One of the above-mentioned hadiths states that ‘the one who believes in God and the Last Day, he shall speak nicely or not speak at all’. Such prophetic statements cannot be turned into a doctrine or religious law, because if they were, every believer who is very talkative and sometimes prattles utter nonsense must be imprisoned or called a kafir, that is, someone who, because of his talkative nature, is a renegade and a disbeliever in Allah and the Last Day.
God forbids that words of wisdom are turned into law or doctrine. What this hadith wants to teach us is that a good believer is moderate in his speech, chooses his words carefully, and tries to be as exact and precise as possible when he describes things or talks about other people.
- Statements of the Prophet