Sunnah of the Prophet (Introduction)

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 17, 2020



Islamic jurists’ excessive fixation on the life of Muhammad has led to the unfortunate result of the Sunnah of the Prophet, (which is a collection of the prophet’s deeds and sayings that has been built over time based on hearsay and political interest in the prophet’s name) not only became theoretically the second most authoritative source of Islamic law but practically also very often the primary source of legislation.

When issuing their fatwas—in particular on legal issues with far reaching social and political implications—Islamic jurists very often ignored the rules of the Book or had them replaced by the new constitution invented called the Sunnah, which over time became their ultimate and often only point of reference. By focusing on the Sunnah of the Prophet as a major source of Islamic legislation, scholars clearly overstepped the mark when they began to treat it as the principal and most authoritative source of truth, equal if not superior to the word of God in the Book. Their theologically most detestable step was to regard the Book as incomplete and in need of the elaborations and specifications of their Sunnah, implying that a divine text needs to be completed and confirmed by a human source—which is a truly blasphemous thought!

In order to understand what went wrong in Islamic law and why we ended up with a mindset focused on analogies that constantly forces today’s traditional Muslims to bring their behavior in line with minute details of the Sunna, leaving no room for innovative thinking, reform, or renewal, we need first to establish what in Allah’s Book enjoys universal validity (and is part of Muhammad’s prophethood), and what was and has been of particular relevance (and is part of Muhammad’s messenger hood). For this discussion the universal norms of human existence and the dialectics between social development and civilizational progress need to be fully considered.

Contemporary Islamic discourse lacks philosophical depth.

The ignorance of modern philosophical thinking is the root cause of the almost primitive reflex by the scholars to treat everyone who is blessed with the tiniest spark of originality and creativity as a subversive renegade or even an enemy of Islam. It is a real scandal that people are mobbed and treated as pariahs if they dare to unmask the datedness of the salaf heritage loosely meaning forefathers, and it is outrageous that they are ridiculed if they apply modern critical methods to unravel the mysteries of the divine text. And it is an even greater scandal that people are accused of apostasy when they rely on the truth of Allah’s words, which state that Muhammad became God’s messenger not through personal sanctity but due to the mercy of the Almighty; and also when they believe that the message of the Book—and not the Sunna of Muhammad —is the seal of all prophetic messages.

Prophethood and Messenger hood

It is our aim to show that the so-called Sunna of the Prophet is culturally and historically conditioned, and that it lacks the universality of Allah’s Book. While Muhammad’s Sunna cannot be perceived as being outside the law of historical development and needs to ‘stay’ in seventh century Arabia, Muhammad’s messenger hood in the Book needs to be understood according to the dialectics between form and content, insofar as its text is fixed but its content moves. Let us therefore first

turn to Allah’s Book and introduce two fundamental categories:

Muhammad’s prophethood and Muhammad’s messengerhood.

We start out from the premise that Allah revealed the Book to Muhammad as text and content. As text it consists of all the revealed verses, from the first Surat al-Fatiha to the last Surat al-Nas, and as content it covers the entirety of themes and topics that have ever been addressed in revealed scriptures or books. These themes and topics can be classified under two major categories whose characteristics can be derived from the following two verses:

This is the Book which cannot be doubted and is a guidance to the God-fearing. (Al-Baqara 2:2) Who are these ‘God-fearing”?

Those who believe in the unseen [al-ghayb]… ( Al-Baqara 2:3)

→ this refers to the ‘book of the unseen’ (kitab al-ghayb) = category I

And ‘[who] perform the prayer and give freely from what We provided for them.’ ( Al-Baqara 2:3,)

→ this refers to the ‘book of conduct’ (kitab al-suluk) = category II

These two different categories (book of the unseen / book of conduct) indicate a distinction between prophethood and messengerhood. Prophethood (nubuwa) is derived from the Arabic root n-b-a‘, which means—in its second verb form (nabba”a) — ‘to announce’ or ‘to disclose’, and in the context of the Book it refers to those parts of the text that announce or disclose the themes of universal and sometimes, historical ‘truth and falsehood’ ( al-haqq wa’l-batil ). The verses of messengerhood (al-risala), in contrast, contain concrete moral, social, and ritual instructions, that is, precepts of correct and praiseworthy behavior, to be followed by the believers in their daily life. The verses of prophethood talk about the essential questions of human existence: about life and death, about the beginning and the end of the world, Hell and Paradise, and such; they form the ‘book of prophethood’ (kitab al-nubuwa). The verses of Muhammad’s message or messengerhood, in contrast, talk about religious practices: about rituals, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, prohibitions, social duties, welfare obligations, and the like. They represent the ‘book of messengerhood’(kitab al-risala). The book of prophethood deals with the reality of our objective existence; it distinguishes between true and false, real and illusory; it possesses the quality of being ‘ambiguous’ (mutashabih), and it is located in the textual (or existential) subcategories of al-Quran and 7 folds (sab’al-mathani). The book of messenger hood, that is, the book of conduct, possesses the quality of being unambiguous or ‘definite’ (muhkam) and is located in the umm al-kitab, the ‘mother of the book’. In short, Muhammad is a messenger of God and a prophet, but both roles contain different tasks and themes. The Book acknowledges Muhammad’s dual role by clearly distinguishing between verses of messengerhood and verses of prophethood.

For the purpose of further exploring the difference between prophethood and messengerhood we must now define how we understand prophethood and the role of a prophet. In order to do this, we need to introduce the categories of naba” and khabar which designate two different types of ‘news’: