The question of the place of the Sunnah/Hadith
in the work of the Prophet requires that we closely examine the
nature of that work. What does it mean to say muhammad ar-rasul
allah (Muhammad is the messenger of God)? Clearly a messenger's
work is to convey a message. But how was this message received and
conveyed? Was it received and conveyed only through the Qur'an or
did the Hadith also play a part? Also, how far is the messenger
himself involved in the conveying of the message? In other words,
what is the relationship between the message and the messenger? In
this chapter we examine such questions in the light of the Qur'an.
The messenger not just a delivery man
The view of the Qur'an-only Muslims
would require us to think that the Prophet performed his prophetic
work by simply delivering the Qur'an. Once the revelation of
particular verses ended he was like an ordinary Muslim till the next
set of verses were revealed. We will now show that the Qur'an does
not support this highly mechanical view of the role of the Prophet.
In this connection let us first examine the evidence that the
Qur'an-only Muslims present in support of their position, of course,
from the Qur'an itself. We consider some of the verses that seem to
be most favorable to their position:
messenger is obliged only to convey (the message) (5:99, see also
3:20, 5:92, 13:40, 16:35, 82, 24:54, 29:18, 36:17, 42:48, 64:12).
This statement is interpreted by the
Qur'an-only people to mean that the messenger's function was only to
deliver the Qur'an and nothing else. The statement, however, does
not say that conveying (the message) is simply reciting the Qur'an.
The context shows the meaning to be that the Prophet is not
responsible for the belief or unbelief of the people or for their
obedience or disobedience to the message. His obligation is to
simply convey the message. The verse is not meant to exclude some
methods of conveying the message in favor of simply reciting the
Qur'an.. In fact, if we use the Qur'an to explain the Qur'an we
should consider also the following verse, where it is said regarding
some people with very weak or hypocritical faith:
Let them be, but admonish them and say to
them a word that effectively reaches their hearts (qawl baligh)
Here admonishing and saying qawl baligh cannot be understood
as reciting the Qur'an. Yet it is clearly a part of conveying the
But even if we identify balagh with reciting the Qur'an, the
style of the Qur'anic language does not necessarily oblige us to
limit the Prophet's divinely appointed functions to that one
function. For when the Qur'an makes statements like "nothing but
..." they should not be taken in an absolute and literal sense but
some common sense should be used in interpreting them. For example,
in 98:5 it is said that the people of the
book were not commanded but to serve God exclusively and
wholeheartedly and to establish regular prayer and charity.
If taken literally this would conflict with the well-established
fact, also attested by the Qur'an, that there were many other
commandments that were given to the Jews and Christians. But if
interpreted in the light of common sense, the verse means that the
basic religious truth behind what the people of the book were
commanded consists of these three principles. The rest is either an
elaboration of these or is of secondary importance. Similarly, when
it is said that the messenger was responsible for nothing but
balagh, this need not be understood literally to mean that the
Prophet's function was simply to deliver the Qur'an like a postman.
It should rather be understood to mean that the Qur'an was the main
instrument through which he performed his divine mission.
have sent down unto you (O Prophet) the book explaining (tibyanan)
everything and as a guidance, and mercy, and glad tidings for
those who have surrendered (to God) (16:89).
Here the words "explaining everything"
are said to show that we need no source of guidance other than the
Qur'an. Once again we should not abandon the use of `aql
(reason) and fikr (reflection) in interpreting any verse,
since the Qur'an itself tells us to use these. Now `aql and
fikr immediately tell us that we cannot take this verse in an
absolute sense. For we would then have to take "everything"
literally. But that is obviously impossible, since there are clearly
things that the Qur'an does not explain; for example, the rules of
Chinese grammar or the way to fix your computer. Thus common sense
requires that we qualify "everything" as something like "everything
that is relevant to religion, spirituality, and morality". Reason
further requires us to bring another element in the understanding of
this verse and that is that many statements in a text have a context
both within the text as a whole and in the circumstances in which
the statements were made. This is why we find it easier to
understand books written in our own time and in the society in which
we live than those written in a different time and place: in the
former case we know not only the context within the books themselves
but also the context provided by external circumstances; whereas in
the latter case we know the context within the books but we have
much less knowledge of the external context. Now the Qur'an no doubt
rises as far above its context as it is possible for a book written
in a human language to do, but still it has both types of contexts.
Hence the Qur'an explains everything only when its verses are
interpreted by taking into account both the context within the book
as a whole as well as the context of circumstances, practices, and
events that are assumed in those statements. Now this latter context
is provided partly by the Hadith.
If the above verse does not support the Qur'an-only position, it
also does not fully agree with the traditionalist point of view.
For, the verse clearly shows that the Qur'an views itself far more
complete and self-sufficient than the traditionalist Muslims are
inclined to think. In the light of this verse it is difficult to
view Hadith as a second primary or independent source of
guidance/law. It can only be regarded as a secondary source. This
conclusion will find further support as we proceed with our study,
especially in this part and Part II.
is no animal in the earth nor a flying creature with two wings but
they form communities like you. We have neglected nothing in the
book. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered (6:38)
The words "We
have neglected nothing in the book (al-kitab)" are
used by the Qur'an-only people to conclude that everything is found
in the Qur'an and hence there is no need for the Hadith. But in the
Qur'an the book is not always the Qur'an. Sometimes it is a heavenly
book where everything that happens or exists is written down. Thus a
little later in the same surah it is said:
"There is not a grain (buried) in the dark depths of the earth nor
anything fresh or dry but is inscribed in a manifest book" (6:59).
In other verses we read: "And
there is no moving (i.e. living) creature on earth but sustenance
thereof is dependent on God. He knows its habitation and its
repository. All is in a manifest book (kitab)" (11:6).
"And the book (al-kitab) will be
displayed and you (O man or Prophet) see the sinful in great terror
because of what is in it (the book) and they will say, Woe to us,
what a book is this! It leaves nothing small or great, but takes
account thereof" (18:6).
But even if we take the words "We have
neglected nothing in the book" to refer to the Qur'an,
they would have to be understood like the words
"the book explaining (tibyanan)
everything" in the verse discussed earlier.
And We have
indeed coined for humanity every kind of similitude (mathal)
in this Qur'an that they may reflect (39:27; see also 17:89,
Again, this statement should be
understood in the same way as the statement that the Qur'an explains
seek other than God as judge when it is he who has sent down unto
you the book well explained (mufassalan)? ... The word of
your Lord (O Prophet) reaches perfection in truth and justice.
There is none to change his words. He is the hearer, the knower
A book whose revelatory statements (ayat) have been firmly
formulated (uhkimat) and then explained (fussilat)
by One wise and informed (11:1).
The word mufassal in 6:114-115 is
understood by the Qur'an-only sect to mean "fully detailed" and with
this understanding they deduce from the passage that the Qur'an is
complete and perfect and therefore does not need Sunnah or Hadith in
any way. But neither the statement that the Qur'an explains its
verses nor the statement that the word of God is perfect in truth
and justice can mean that the external context provided by the
Hadith is not relevant in understanding, interpreting and applying
the book of God.
Thus even the verses most favorable to the Qur'an-only people do not
support their contention, or at least do not oblige us to accept
their position. But now we show that there are many passages in the
Qur'an which clearly do oblige us to conclude the opposite.
To begin with, if it were just a matter of delivering a book, God
could have used other ways to achieve this. The book could have
fallen from heaven or an angel could have brought it to the people.
Or, the Qur'an could have been miraculously written down on tablets
of stone or tablets of gold and then carried by someone to the
people (as said to be the case with the ten commandments and the
Book of Mormons). The unbelievers actually raised such
The people of the
book ask you that you cause a book to descend from heaven ...
Had we sent down to
you writing upon parchment so that they could feel it with their
hands, the unbelievers would have said, This is nothing but mere
magic. They say, Why has an angel not been sent down unto him? ...
(6:8-9, see also17:94-95)
But God did not follow any such
mechanical method. Instead he revealed the Qur'an through the heart
of the messenger, stressing that a messenger sent to human beings
has to be a human being (2:97, 26:194, 42:24). Clearly, then it
was not simply a question of delivering a book but the human heart
and the person of the messenger also plays an important part in the
process of delivery.
There are other verses showing that the Prophet's involvement in his
work as the messenger was much deeper than that of a mere
deliveryman. The Qur'an says:
Have We not opened
your breast (O Prophet). And lifted from you the burden that was
weighing down your back (94:1-3).
From these verses it becomes clear that
a great deal happened within the soul of the Prophet before he
embarked on his mission. Simply conveying a message as a postman
need not have involved such inner back-breaking struggles.
RELIGIOUS PRACTICES ASSUMED IN THE
QUR'AN BUT NOT INSTITUTED BY IT
Then we have the important fact that a
number of religious practices assumed in the Qur'an are not
instituted by it. Here are several examples:
believers! When the call is sounded for the prayer on the day of
congregation, hasten unto remembrance of God and leave trade. This
is good for you in case you do know (62:9).
Nowhere the Qur'an tells us about "the
day of congregation" or of any special prayers on that day or of any
"call" for prayers. The Qur'an assumes that such practices have
already been instituted and is making the attendance of the
congregational prayer on this day obligatory. It is safe to assume
that the function of instituting these prayers was performed by the
Prophet without any Qur'anic revelation. This clearly implies a role
higher than that of a mere delivery man.
The Qur'an tells the Prophet about
Do not ever pray at the funeral of anyone of them nor stand by his
grave. For, they disbelieved in God and his messenger and died
while they were evil-doers (9:84).
Again the Qur'an nowhere establishes the
practice of funeral prayers or of visiting the graves of the dead.
It simply assumes such a practice in an approving way. The actual
practice must have been established by the Prophet. To be sure,
prayers at the funeral are almost universal and the pre-Islamic
Arabs must have also held some such prayers for the dead. But at the
very least the Prophet must have modified these pagan prayers and
purified them of shirk (association of partners in Godhead).
Moreover, he must have done so without any specific Qur'anic
revelation, since we do not find in the Qur'an any method of funeral
Of course the detailed form of the
five daily prayers is also not instituted through the Qur'an. It
does mention some details: call for prayers (5:58, 62:9), ablution
(5:6), tayammum (ablution when water is not available)
(4:43), standing and facing the qiblah (2:144), the times
(11:114, 17:78, 24:58, 2:238, 30:17-18 and 20:130), the bowing and
prostrating (2:43,125,3:42, 22:77, 48:29), using moderate voice
when saying prayers (17:110), and modified mode of prayer at
unusual times (4:101,103). But not only many details are missing
but also most of the details in the Qur'an assume corresponding
practices rather than institute them. Also, in most cases the
details are very sketchy being allusions to details rather than
details themselves, so that if we only had the Qur'an hardly
anyone will really interpret it to mean the five prayers as the
Muslims have known them from the earliest times. Clearly, then the
method of the daily prayers was not instituted on the basis of the
Qur'anic revelation, and it is natural to assume that it was
instituted by the Prophet himself. For, neither the Qur'an nor the
Hadith provides any evidence to suggest that with the possible
exception of the adhan (call for prayers) the regulations
connected with the daily prayers were instituted or derived from
any source other than the Prophet. In case of adhan there
are ahadith that the idea for adhan originated with a
companion, variously identified as Bilal or 'Umar. But the
Qur'an-only people should not use Hadith at this point and in any
case adhan became a practice in Islam only after the
Prophet approved it and his approval of it was not on the basis of
a Qur'anic revelation.
It should be noted that the prayer is
one of the three main parts of the true religion according to the
And they (i.e., the
people of the book) were not commanded except to serve God
exclusively and wholeheartedly and to establish prayer and
practice charity. That is the right religion (98:5).
Consequently, even if the Prophet's
sunnah had established nothing other than the daily prayers it
would still be a substantial part that the Qur'an left the Prophet
to do in addition to delivering the Qur'an.
The Qur'an-only people have tried in various ways to derive the main
rules of the five daily prayers from the Qur'an, but without any
convincing success. One Qur'an-only Muslim derives the ritual
touching of the ears (e.g. when starting the prayers with takbir)
from 6:46: "Say, Consider, if God took away
your hearing and your sight and sealed your heart, which god other
than (the one true) God could restore it to you?" Another
Qur'an-only Muslim has made the following amazing statement: the
traditionalists "have not studied the Qur'an nor Arab history prior
to Muhammad carefully. The Qur'an clearly states that the obligatory
prayers and all other religious observances of Islam were originally
taught to Abraham. All the prophets and their true followers since
Abraham practiced them ... A moment's thought will also make us
realize that we do not learn how to pray from the hadith. We learn
to do so from our parents and teachers who inherit their practice
through the generations from the first source, that is Prophet
In other words, in order to know the Qur'an we can go to the mostly
lost heritage of the Prophet Abraham but not to the much more recent
sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad who supposedly did nothing but
followed Abraham! It is entirely a baseless claim that the five
daily prayers and the Friday prayer were instituted in their Islamic
form by Abraham and that all the prophets after him practiced them.
There is no evidence from extensive sources from pre-Islamic Arab,
Jewish, Christian or other religious traditions for this desperate
claim made only to escape the evidence that the Prophet did more
than to just deliver the Qur'an. An Islamic practice that does go
back to the Prophet Abraham, or at least is connected with him is
the hajj. But this practice shows that the sunnah of a
prophet can be extremely important. For one may regard the hajj
rites as commemoration of the sunnah of the Prophet Abraham
and Hagar. Hajj also recognizes that certain actions of the
holy people become a source of blessing (barakah). Now if it
was important to preserve and commemorate the sunnah of
earlier holy people like Abraham, Ishmael, and Hagar and some of
their actions came to possess barakah, then why can the same
not be true of the sunnah of the Prophet?
BELIEVING IN THE PROPHET
That the person of the Prophet is more
important than just a deliveryman for the Qur'an is also shown by
verses where we are asked to believe in the Prophet. For example,
Those alone are
believers who believe in God and his messenger ... (49:15; see
also 48:9, 13).
O believers! Believe in God and his messenger and the book that he
has sent down upon his messenger and the book which he revealed
aforetime ... (4:136).
While in some verses it may be possible
to understand believing in the messenger as believing in the book he
has been given, this is difficult in case of this last verse. Here
believing in the messenger is mentioned apart from believing in the
book and a natural way to interpret this would be that like the book
the person of the Prophet is important in a religious way. This is
again reinforced by the following passage:
And when it is said
to them, Come unto what God has sent down and unto the messenger,
you (O Prophet) see the hypocrites turn from you in aversion
Once again notice that coming unto the
Prophet is something apart from coming unto what God has sent down
By the wise Qur'an!
You are indeed one of the messengers (36:2).
Here the Qur'an's wisdom is used to
support the claim that Muhammad is God's messenger. This would be
somewhat strange if the entire focus of the Qur'an were on itself.
The Qur'an often provides support for its claim that it is from God,
e.g., when it challenges human beings to produce something similar.
Such a proof that the Qur'an is from God would automatically prove
that Muhammad is God's messenger if being a messenger meant being a
(EXAMPLE) OF THE PROPHET
The Qur'an declares:
Verily in the
messenger of God you have goodly example (uswah hasanah) –
for anyone who looks unto God and the last day, and remembers God
In connection with this verse the main
question is: Does the example of the Prophet include the conduct of
the Prophet in all situations as preserved in the authentic Hadith
or only some particular conduct defined by the context of the
The Qur'an-only sect is understandably inclined to limit the
reference, entirely or primarily to some conduct defined by the
context of the verse. Since the verse is put in the middle of
comments about the battle of al-Ahzab, also known as battle
of khandaq (trench), it is said that the example of the
Prophet mentioned is the particular conduct of the Prophet during
that battle. But even if this is granted, this verse does not
support the Qur'an-only position, at least not in its strict form.
For the statement that the Prophet provided a good example in the
battle begs the question, What was the conduct of the Prophet during
the battle? And this question cannot be answered without looking at
the Hadith, since the Qur'an does not say anything about it. The
first audience of the Qur'an must have known how the Prophet behaved
in the battle and they would have immediately understood what the
Qur'an was talking about. But the later readers of the Qur'an such
as ourselves need to turn to the traditions about the Prophet to
determine relevant details of the Prophet's conduct and follow his
example in fulfillment of the Qur'anic verse. Without a knowledge of
such details this verse can hardly be practiced. One can assume that
the conduct of the Prophet was one of courage and faith in God, but
in the absence of any concrete detail the allusion to the Prophet's
conduct can hardly inspire any one and consequently the mention of
the uswah hasanah becomes almost meaningless. Imagine that
you opened a book mentioning that Umar provided a goodly example in
the battle of Khaybar but said nothing about what exactly `Umar did.
Even if you assume that `Umar behaved with courage, wisdom etc, this
statement will remain unexplained unless we are told or we know from
another source the details of what `Umar did in the battle. Without
some such elaboration the statement would be an interesting
curiosity but of no moral or ethical or spiritual value.
Thus even if we restrict uswah hasanah to a very specific
example of the Prophet's conduct the verse conflicts with the
Qur'an-only position. For, it requires knowing from the Hadith the
details of that specific example. Here we have an illustration of
the fact that although the Qur'an explains everything and it
expounds itself, its proper or fuller understanding, like that of
any other text in human language, depends to some extent on its
external context, which in part is provided by the Hadith.
However, it is more reasonable not to restrict uswah hasanah
to any one example. This point is supported by the Qur'anic
reference to the uswah hasanah of Abraham and those with him:
A good example or
pattern (uswah hasanah) was set for you by Abraham and
those with him when they said to their people, "We disown you and
what you serve besides God. We reject you, and there has arisen
between us and you enmity and opposition until you believe in God
alone...There is indeed a goodly example (uswah hasanah) in
them for anyone who looks towards God and the last day. But if
anyone turns away, God is self-sufficient, worthy of praise
Notice that in the above passage a
specific example is mentioned in case of the Prophet Abraham. But in
33:21 the statement about the uswah hasanah of the Prophet
Muhammad is left quite general. If in 33:21 the reference was meant
only to some specific example, then, as in 60:4-6, we should expect
at least some allusion to that specific example. That the reference
is left general suggests strongly that it is meant to be general.
It should also be noted that the Qur'anic verses often rise above
their context and give ideas that are of more general application
than the context may suggest. It is thus quite possible that from
the particular example of the Prophet in the battle of the trench
the Qur'an has formulated the general principle that the Prophet
provides a good example in all spiritual, moral or religious
matters. This is supported by the verse:
You (O Prophet) are indeed endowed with a great character (68:4).
In view of this statement, it seems inconceivable that the Prophet
provided the believers with only one example to be followed.
Thus the most natural and probable interpretation of the verse is
that it is pointing to the example of the Prophet generally and
encouraging believers to follow it. This clearly requires making
some use of the authentic Hadith in our religious practice.
FOLLOWING THE PROPHET
In some verses the Qur'an tells people
to follow the messenger. For example,
Say, If you love
God, follow me; God will love you and forgive you your sins. God
is forgiving, merciful (3:31). And: Follow him haply you may find
the way (to truth and salvation) (7:158).
If in 33:21 one limits the uswah
hasanah to a specific example, then it is impossible to limit
"following the Prophet" in the above verses in that way. In these
verses "following the Prophet" must clearly be understood in a
general way. The Qur'an-only Muslims would say that since the ways
of the Prophet were in strict conformity with the teachings of the
Qur'an, following the Prophet means simply following the Qur'an. But
then we should expect to read, "If you love God, follow the book
that he has sent down through me". Why tell the believers that they
should follow the Prophet if what is intended is that they should
read the Qur'an and follow it.
The above verses about uswah hasanah and about following the
Prophet naturally raise the questions, What does it mean to follow
the Prophet? Is it necessary to follow each and every one of his
actions? Also, should we simply copy his actions or do we sometimes
look at them and apply them in some way using our own judgments? In
regard to such questions we need to distinguish between religious
obligation and religious desirability. How far the Hadith is
obligatory is the subject of the next chapter. Here we discuss how
far following the Hadith is religiously desirable.
It is clearly desirable to follow the regulatory and teaching Hadith.
The circumstantial Sunnah such as eating the way he ate, wearing
clothes like he wore, using the means of transport that he used is a
different matter. The verse about the uswah hasanah connects
the following of the uswah hasanah with looking towards God
and the last day and remembering God much and one of the verses
about following the Prophet starts with the words: "If you love God
... ". This means that the Prophet provides an example only for our
spiritual and moral development -- for us to get near God, develop a
relationship of love and devotion with Him and to achieve success in
the hereafter. But can eating, clothing or traveling in the way the
Prophet used to eat, clothe, or travel be helpful to achieve this
purpose? Of course, when the Prophet teaches us certain etiquettes
regarding food, clothing, transport etc. it is desirable to follow
him, for in that case we are dealing with teaching Sunnah. It may be
said that following the Prophet even when it is not a matter of
etiquettes is an expression of our love for him and it is this love
that is helpful in our spiritual development. This has some truth in
it and if a Muslim chose to express his love for the Prophet by
following him in all ways possible, including the circumstantial
Hadith, then this is fine. But such personal choice should not be
considered as the ideal and there should be no pretension that it
reflects higher level of piety. There are many ways to express our
love for the Prophet and it is for God alone to evaluate it.
An overwhelming majority of Muslims have accepted that the uswah
hasanah consists of regulatory and teaching Hadith and not the
circumstantial hadith. Only a very small minority seems to insist
that one should follow even the circumstantial Hadith. And of course
on the other extreme there is the small minority of the Qur'an-only
sect which wishes to do away with all Hadith.
In some matters it would be completely disastrous for Muslims to
follow the circumstantial Hadith. Thus the Prophet had to engage in
some warfare using weapons such as swords, spears, arrows and
shields. Today, with the development of modern weapons, the Muslims
obviously cannot fight with the type of weapons used by the Prophet.
(Of course, if at some point a world order is established in which
Muslims can pursue their legitimate interests without the use of
warfare then warfare would have to be completely avoided.) Such
examples show that no matter how strict a position we take in regard
to following Hadith, the use of some judgment and reason on our part
EXPLICIT REFERENCES TO THE FUNCTIONS OF
THE PROPHET OTHER THAN DELIVERING THE QUR'AN
In several verses, the Qur'an describes
several functions of the Prophet which one cannot justifiably reduce
to a simple delivery job. Thus in 2:129 Abraham and Ishmael pray:
Our Lord, and raise
in their midst a messenger from among them who would recite for
them your signs and teach them the book and the wisdom and
sanctify them (or make them grow). You are the one mighty, the
Several verses then state that the roles
described in the prayer of Abraham and Ishmael were fulfilled by the
Even as We have
sent unto you a messenger from among you who recites unto you Our
signs and who sanctifies you (and/or helps you grow) and teaches
you the book and wisdom and teaches you what you did not know
God has verily shown grace to the believers by sending unto them a
messenger from among them who recites unto them his signs and
sanctifies them (and /or helps them grow), and teaches them the
book and wisdom, although before they were in flagrant error
He it is Who has raised among the unlettered ones a messenger from
among them who recites unto them his signs and purifies them (and
/or helps them grow), and teaches them the book and wisdom,
although before they were in manifest error (62:2). (See also
2:231 and 4:113, where it is said the Prophet teaches the book and
Prophets collectively are also given
book and wisdom,
When God made a
covenant with the prophets (saying), Behold, that which I give you
of a book and a wisdom ... (3:81; see also 4:54).
Let us look at the various roles of the
Prophet described in these verses:
Reciting signs of God.
This can be properly understood as delivering the Qur'an.
Sanctifying people and/or
helping them grow. This must surely
involve more than delivering the Qur'an. To purify people and help
them grow must have needed a great deal of teaching in different
ways in order that they could overcome the special difficulties
they faced in the path of moral and spiritual development. (As an
interesting observation on the side, it may be noted that no other
prophet is said in the Qur'an to perform this role.)
Teaching the book.
The book in the Qur'an may sometimes have a meaning wider than the
Qur'an. It represents divine knowledge symbolically conceived as
written in the form of a book in heaven. This is supported among
other verses by 3:48, where it is said of Jesus that God "will
teach him the book and the wisdom and the Torah and the Injil"
(see also 5;110, 43:63). It is natural to understand here the
"book" as something different from "the Torah and Injil". It
probably represents the divine knowledge of which particular books
such as the Torah, Injil and the Qur'an are particular
representations. It is like the pen (qalam) mentioned in
Read, for your Lord is bountiful; He taught with the pen: Taught
man what he did not know.
It is at once clear that in these verses the "pen" is
not any particular pen. Similarly, it should not be surprising if
in some passages the book is not any particular book. Hence
receiving the book is not receiving a book consisting of a number
of statements. It means receiving a certain type of knowledge.
Jews and Christian are thus people of the book (singular) even
though their books (plural) are not the same. Thus we may say that
the Torah, Injil and the Qur'an are books that are manifestations
of the book. They are related to the book in the way my and your
pens are related to the pen. All this finds further support in the
And unto you (O Muhammad) We have sent down the book in truth
confirming whatever of the book is before it ...(5:48).
Notice how the same word the book (al-kitab) in
the singular is used for that which is sent unto Muhammad and that
which was sent down before it. Clearly, the Qur'an, the Torah, and
the Injil are not the same books but they are manifestations of
the same book (although, admittedly, the Torah and the Injil did
not remain so).
But even if we identify the book with the Qur'an in the above
verses, teaching the book is more than delivering the Qur'an. The
following verse makes this fairly explicit:
And We have sent down unto you (O Muhammad) the dhikr that
you may explain to humankind what has been sent down unto them
that haply they may reflect (16:44)
Here dhikr is sent down to Muhammad and
therefore it is some type of divinely inspired knowledge and this
dhikr is to be used by the Prophet for explaining what has
been sent down to them, which is most naturally to be interpreted
as the Qur'an. The distinction between the function of delivering
the Qur'an and explaining it could not be clearer. No matter how
this verse is interpreted it is worded in such a way as to show
that the Prophet's role was more than simply delivering the
Qur'an. Another verse pointing in the same direction reads thus:
We have indeed sent down unto you (O Prophet) the book in truth
that you may judge between people by what God shows you. And do
not be a pleader for the treacherous (4:106).
Once again we see a clear mention of two distinct
processes: sending down of the book unto the Prophet and then
judging the people on its basis by what God shows him.
Once again we see a clear mention of two distinct processes:
sending down of the book unto the Prophet and then judging the
people on its basis by what God shows him.
But the above verses not only go against the Qur'an-only people.
They also go against the traditionalists. For, they clearly give
the Qur'an a definitely central position in the message of the
Prophet and his judgments.
Teaching the wisdom.
Are the book and the wisdom the same things? Since they are
mentioned together it is natural to think that they are not.
The Qur'an is certainly full of wisdom. It is called wise (36:2;
see also, 3:58, 10:1. 31:2 ) and in 17:39 it is said about some
verses in the Qur'an or the Qur'an as a whole that
"this is a part of the wisdom with which
God has inspired you (O Muhammad)".
In some verses the Qur'an may be the focus as a
manifestation of wisdom. For example,
And remember what is recited to you in
your houses of the signs of God and (of ) the wisdom (33:34)
Here wisdom is part of what is recited and therefore the reference
could be to the Qur'an. Similarly,
And remember God's grace upon you and
that which he sent down on you of the book and the wisdom whereby
He exhorts you (2:231; see also 4:113).
Once again hikmah is part of what is sent down on the
community and it is possible that the reference is to the Qur'an.
If we keep in mind what was said earlier of "the book" and the
"open", it is possible to think that in case of "wisdom" also the
Qur'an speaks of two levels: "wisdom" in general and specific
manifestations of it. The meaning of the verse can then be
expressed as follows: remember the Qur'an which is a manifestation
of the book and a manifestation of the wisdom. In this way the
book and the wisdom can be two different things but both are
manifested in the same Qur'an.
While the book cannot be said to be given to any body - only to a
prophet or a community through him - wisdom is something that can
be given to any body, whether prophet or not. This is seen from
2:269: "He gives wisdom to whom he will
and he unto whom wisdom is given has truly received abundant good".
Nothing in the context of this verse suggests that the reference
is to prophets or messengers. Also, Luqman is not explicitly said
to be a prophet or a messenger. But he is given the wisdom:
We gave Luqman the wisdom, (teaching
him), give thanks to God. (31:12).
In 2:251 we read about David that
"God gave him the kingdom and the wisdom and taught him
whatever he willed". Here wisdom is given as something
that is not directly related to the book of David (the Psalms). In
54:4-5 the Qur'an speaks of "effective wisdom" (hikmah balighah)
referring to some reports (anba') not necessarily identical
with the Qur'an. In 16:125 the Prophet is asked to call people to
the way of God with hikmah. This certainly does not mean
that all he should do is to recite the Qur'an. Hikmah is
here clearly something distinct from the Qur'an.
When we keep in mind all the verses in the Qur'an, it becomes
clear that hikmah is something that is manifested in the
Qur'an but is not limited to it or to any book. That does not mean
that there is some wisdom that is not found in the Qur'an and we
should look for it in the Sunnah. The correct way to understand
this is that the Qur'an embodies all the wisdom but we need the
Sunnah to understand it fully.
Imam Shafi`i in his al-Risala stated: "So, God mentions his book,
that is the Qur'an, and wisdom, and I have heard from those who
are knowledgeable in the Qur'an – those whom I agree with – say
that wisdom is the traditions of the Prophet. This is the same as
the word [of God himself]; but God knows better! Because the
Qur'an is mentioned, followed by wisdom; then God mentions his
favor to humanity by teaching the Qur'an and wisdom. So, it is not
possible that wisdom means other things than the traditions of the
Prophet ... ". Here Imam Shafi`i's argument, not understood by
some Qur'an-only Muslims proceeds as follows: the Prophet
according to the verse cited (2:129) taught the Qur'an and wisdom
which are mentioned together. So wisdom is distinct from the
Qur'an. Now where is this extra-Qur'anic wisdom that was taught by
the Prophet found?. Of course, in the prophetic traditions! This
conclusion is logical. Shafi`i's words "God knows better" probably
apply only to the opinion of some knowledgeable people that "this
is the same as the word [of God]".
Although Shafi`i's conclusion is perfectly reasonable and should
be accepted, it needs to be qualified by two comments. First, only
about the authentic traditions of the Prophet, not necessarily
identical with any particular known collection of Hadith, can we
be confident that they reflect the hikmah mentioned in the
Qur'an. Second, the fact that the prophetic traditions reflect the
divine wisdom does not mean that they contain some wisdom not
found in the Qur'an. The prophetic traditions simply provide more
of the same wisdom that is found in the Qur'an and as part of the
context of the Qur'an they help us to more fully understand the
Some think that teaching hikmah was done by the Prophet
through the Qur'an while tazkiyah was done through the
Sunnah. However, a sounder view seems to be that the two functions
of the Prophet overlap and both are performed by both the Qur'an
and the Sunnah.
The messenger is the message
Not only the Qur'an does not allow us to
view the Prophet as mere deliveryman, but it also shows that in an
important sense the messenger is the message. Thus the Qur'an
defines right religion as the fitrah or true nature of man:
wholeheartedly on the way of religion, the fitrah (framed)
of God on which God created humankind. There is no altering the
creation of God. This is the right religion, but most people do
not know .... (30:30).
When a human being is born this
fitrah is found in him or her as a hidden potential, but if and
when he or she develops in a moral and spiritual sense, this
fitrah begins to be manifested in his or her life. Most human
beings can get deviated from the path of fitrah and that is
why there is need for the messenger and revelation. The messenger
who himself reaches a full level of development shows to others the
path of fitrah and that is revelation. To the extent that the
revelation simply manifests the fitrah of man we can say that
it manifests the messenger himself, since he is the manifestation of
fitrah. Hence we can say that the messenger and the message
are one and the same thing, for in his whole way of being and living
the fitrah and hence the right religion shines. But then,
since the sunnah of a messenger is his way of being and living, we
can say that the sunnah is the revelation or the message.
One may ask that if the message is the
messenger, then what role God plays in the message. Well, fitrah
is manifested precisely when man learns to surrender or to commit
wholeheartedly to God (al-islam). The manifestation of fitrah
goes hand in hand with this surrender or commitment to God.
Therefore the message can also be described as al-islam.
When it is understood that the messenger
is the message, then we can begin to understand why in the Qur'an
the focus is not always on the Qur'an itself, but more often the
focus is on the Prophet himself. He is said to be sent for all
humanity (7:158), and people should believe in him (4:136), he
should be obeyed by the believers (4:59), he should be followed by
those who love God (3:31), he is the best example for those who want
to be near God and be successful in the hereafter (33:21), he has a
great character (68:4), he is the shining lamp (33:46), and he is
mercy to all humanity (21:107). The Qur'an-only sect has developed
some peculiar interpretations of these verses to prove their
particular point of view. We have already commented on some of their
interpretations while on some others we will comment in the sequel.
Here it suffices to note that the way these and other verses talk
about the Prophet and the language they use makes it extremely
difficult if not impossible to isolate the Prophet from the Qur'an
as a deliveryman. His person, his risalah, and the Qur'an are
inseparably tied to each other. His person/character is the message,
his risalah is making this character manifest, and the Qur'an
is the main means for this risalah.
Revelatory and sacred character of the Sunnah and the Hadith:
In view of what we said above about fitrah and the identity
of the messenger and the message, the general Muslim belief that the
Hadith, at least the teaching and regulatory type, is revelatory
(i.e., is based on wahy) is certainly consistent with the
Qur'an. Further evidence also suggests the view to be well rooted
into the Qur'an.
Thus some verses suggest strongly that even if the Prophet did
nothing more than interpret and apply the Qur'an in his time, this
could be viewed as a prophetic or revelatory work. For we read in
And verily We gave
the children of Israel the book (al-kitab) and the
government (hukm) and prophethood (nabuwwah) ...
Then We set you (O Muhammad) on (another) pathway in the matter
(of religion) ... (45:16-18).
As part of the background of the verse
it may be noted that in Judaism there was a certain division between
the role of the book (of law, the Torah), the king (who had the
hukm), and the (post-Moses) prophets (nabuwwah). Many of
the prophets who were raised after Moses did not receive a book
except in a symbolic sense of divine knowledge as explained earlier.
They used their insights and the Torah to perform their prophetic
mission. The Qur'an says: "We did send down
the Torah containing (some) guidance and (some) light, by which the
prophets who surrendered (unto God) judged the Jews ..." (5:44).
This shows that prophetic revelation or inspiration (wahy) can
sometimes consists only of interpretation and application of a
revealed book. Therefore in the case of the Prophet Muhammad not
only the sending down of the book (the Qur'an) but also its
interpretation and application through the Sunnah could be based on
wahy. But we have already noted that the Prophet did more
than interpret and apply the Qur'an. He actually instituted many
religious practices that are not instituted by the Qur'an, although
they are assumed by it.
The revelatory character of some of the words of the Prophet is also
established by 4:65, where it is a condition of faith that those who
call themselves believers make the Prophet a judge in their disputes
and then feel no hesitation in their hearts to accept his decision.
In this verse the decisions of the Prophet are not the decisions
revealed by God through verses in the Qur'an. For in that case, the
decisions would not be described as decisions of the Prophet and
principle of ungrudging acceptance would be formulated differently.
The verse is clearly talking about the decisions that the Prophet
made, either by applying the Qur'an or by using his judgment. Now
the reason why the decisions of the Prophet are binding with no room
for hesitation is that they reflect the will of God, which is only
possible if they come from some form of divine inspiration.
Furthermore, in the Qur'anic references to the earlier prophets the
emphasis is not always on their verbal teachings but often it is on
some of their actions or on events that happened in their lives.
Thus we read of the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Ishmael
and of the birth of Ishaq when Abraham and his wife were very old,
the story of the she-camel and the Prophet Salih, the long story of
Jacob and Joseph, and of Ayyub or Job. In Muslim terms such stories
can be described as part of the siyar, sunan, or
ahadith of these earlier prophets. This means that siyar,
sunan and ahadith of earlier prophets were revelatory,
since they are part of the Qur'anic revelation. The Qur'an is not
expected to exhaust all the revelatory siyar, sunan
and ahadith, especially in view of the statement in 40:78
that there have been messengers in the past whose stories have not
been told in the Qur'an. But then if some extra-Qur'anic sunan
and ahadith of earlier prophets were revelatory, why can't at
least some of the sunan and ahadith of the Prophet be
revelatory even if they are not in the Qur'an?
There is still more evidence in the Qur'an that what the Prophet
said or did was of a revelatory nature. In 91:7-10 the Qur'an tells
us that every person is given an ilham (revelation or
inspiration) as to what is good and what is bad:
Consider the self
and what forms it; and then inspires (alhama) it as to what
is bad for it and what is good for it; he who causes it to grow is
indeed successful; and he who stunts it is indeed a failure.
In ordinary human beings this ilham
is suppressed or corrupted by desire to one degree or another but in
the Prophet it is operational in the purest and the strongest form.
Also, the Qur'an says that believers are given a light (nur)
with which they walk among men:
O believers! Be
mindful of God and put faith in his messenger. He will give you
twofold of his mercy and will provide you with a light in which
you will walk ... (58:28). Is he who was dead (spiritually) and We
gave him life and provided for him a light with which he walks in
the midst of men like him whose similitude is that of one in
layers of darkness whence he can never come out ... (6;122).
In case of the Prophet this light must
be present with the greatest possible strength and unmarred
brilliance. This is why the Qur'an describes him as the shining lamp
O Prophet! We have
sent you as a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner,
a summoner unto God by his permission and as a shining lamp
So believe in God and
his messenger and the light he has sent down. (64:8, for nur
see also 7:157)
In this last verse it is possible to
take light (nur) to refer not only to the Qur'an but also to
the light that according to 6:122 the Prophet Muhammad as the
greatest of all the faithful was favored with. That this nur
is said to be "sent down" stresses that in case of the Prophet the
light was more of a divine light than in case of ordinary believers.
Then in addition to nur and ilham there is hikmah,
about which we have already talked and noted that verses like 2:269
and 31:12 show that even people who are not prophets or messengers
can be given hikmah. The Prophet must have possessed this
wisdom to the highest possible level.
Now with this intrinsic ilham, nur, and hikmah,
that the Prophet was favored with in the highest possible degree the
whole life of the Prophet must have been revelation.
Many extra-Qur'anic manifestations of this nur, hikmah,
and ilham are attested by the Qur'an itself. Thus:
The Qur'an talks about the dream of
the Prophet that Muslims will enter Makkah:
"God has indeed shown a true vision to the Messenger. You shall
God willing indeed enter the Sacred Mosque ..." (46:27).
It is impossible to translate the verse as
"God made the Prophet's vision come true," as some
are inclined to do. The Arabic construction and the words
"you will insha allah enter ..."
shows that at the time of the revelation of the verse the promised
entry had not yet taken place. Hence we have here an example of
extra-Qur'anic communication of God to the Prophet.
In 66:3, the Qur'an speaks of God
informing the Prophet of what one of his wives said in his
absence: "When the Prophet confided a
matter unto one of his wives and when she afterwards divulged it
and God informed him about it, he made known (to her) a part of it
and overlooked a part. And when he told it to her, she asked, Who
has told you? He said, the all-knowing and the all-aware has told
me." The verse cannot mean as some Qur'an-only people
have assumed that some other wife of the Prophet informed him,
since it is said twice that the Prophet was informed by God. Once
it is said that he was informed by al-alim al-khabir (the
knowing, the aware). No human being can be referred to in this way
in the Qur'an.
The Qur'an talks of the well-known
spiritual journey of the Prophet by night from masjid al-haram
to masjid al-aqsa in order that he may show him of his
signs. The Qur'an does not tell us what those signs were. Both the
journey and the signs shown to the Prophet during it are
extra-Qur'anic dealings between him and God that fall within the
meaning of "revelation".
In 33:37 we read:
"And you (O Prophet) did say to one who
had received God's favor and your favor, Keep your wife ... So
when Zayd had completed the formality (of divorce) from her (Zaynab)
We gave her unto you in marriage in order that there may not be
any difficulty for the believers in marrying the wives of their
adopted sons when the latter have completed the formality (of
divorce)." It is natural to think that the words:
"We gave her unto you in marriage"
refer to a decision that the Prophet took, contrary to his earlier
inclinations, as a result of some form of communication from God.
This communication is clearly extra-Qur'anic since the Qur'an
simply comments on it when it had already taken place. It may be
argued that we can interpret this as God's act in the sense that
everything that happens in life is attributed to him, instead of a
direct communication between the Prophet and God. But notice that
in the verse everything else said or done by the Prophet or Zayd
is attributed to the Prophet or Zayd: Zayd's desire to divorce
Zaynab, the Prophet's advice to him to keep her, and finally the
divorce by Zayd. Only the marriage of Zaynab with the Prophet
is explicitly attributed to God; the verse even mentions one of
the reasons behind God's decision or approval for the Prophet's
marriage with Zaynab: to remove some of the taboos connected with
the adopted sons. Also, Zayd is described as
"one favored by God and favored by you (O Prophet)".
Here again there is a clear distinction between the acts of God
and the acts of the Prophet. Consequently, the most natural
interpretation would be that when the Qur'an says that God gave
her unto the Prophet in marriage, the statement is much more
significant than the sense in which everything that happens is an
act of God.
In 8:17 a reference is made to a
battle (Badr, in the light of the Hadith) and it is said, You (O
believers) did not slay them, but it was God who slew them and you
(O Prophet) did not throw when you threw but it was God who threw.
A natural way to understand this would be that God at some crucial
points in the battle acted in the life of the Prophet and through
him in the life of the Muslim community in a direct way.
The above considerations alone are sufficient to show the
revelatory character of the authentic Hadith. Some Muslims,
however, also refer to 53:3-4 (He does
not speak out of desire. This is nothing short of inspiration that
is inspired) to support the view that every word the
Prophet uttered was inspired. However, the whole passage reads:
By the star when it sets. Your comrade
neither went astray, nor was deceived. He does not speak out of
desire. This is nothing short of inspiration that is inspired.
Taught to him by a mighty one, possessing vigor. He assumed (a
certain position) when he was on the highest horizon. He came
closer, moving downwards. Until he became at a distance of two
bows or even less. He then revealed to His servant what He
revealed. And truly he saw him a second time, by the lote-tree
of the utmost boundary (beyond which none can pass), near which is
the garden of (final) abode. The lote-tree was shrouded by what
shrouded it (indescribable mystery. The eye did not turn aside nor
yet was overbold. Truly he saw the greatest signs of God
When we read the whole passage, it becomes clear that it is
describing the process of the beginning of revelation of the
Qur'an as the Prophet experienced it. The words
"he does not speak out of desire. This is
nothing short of inspiration that is inspired" do not
refer to the words of the Prophet generally. Hence do not support
the view that the Hadith is divine revelation, although as we have
seen, the view is amply supported by other passages in the Qur'an.
We may note here on the side that usually ilham and wahy
are distinguished by saying that wahy is revelation that is
limited to prophets whereas ilham is inspiration that
everyone can receive. But the Qur'an can use wahy even for
the genetically ordained behavior of animals (16:68). Thus such a
distinction is not completely consistent with the Qur'an. A better
way to distinguish the two is that wahy is that ilham
which is certainly from God and there is no possibility of a
person interpreting his own desire as ilham (53:3-4, 10).
The reason that the genetically ordained behavior of animals can
be called wahy is that the impulses for such behavior are
beyond the control of the animals, either because the animals do
not have a conscious mind or such a conscious mind does not play
any part in those impulses. Even wahy in the sense of "sure
ilham" can be received by persons other than prophets. The
wahy received by prophets is then distinguished from that
received by others by the fact that the prophetic wahy is
primarily directed to a whole people while other forms of wahy
are directed to the person himself/herself. Because of this
difference prophetic wahy tends to be much more "objective"
in the sense that the prophet has a very vivid experience of
wahy originating from an external source as an objective
event. Notice how vividly and objectively the passage quoted above
(53:1-18) describes the Prophet's experience of the start of the
Qur'anic revelation. One way to grade different levels of
revelation is by the degree of objectivity of the experience of
its reception. By this criterion the Qur'an is a much higher level
of wahy than the Sunnah.
The messenger's mistakes
The Qur'an-only people argue that since
the Prophet made some mistakes attested in the Qur'an (8:67-68 (?),
9:43, 9:84 (?), 33:37, 66:1, 80:1-10), therefore even in the
authentic Sunnah/Hadith there may be mistakes and hence they cannot
be revelatory. But the very fact that the Qur'an mentions the
mistakes of the Prophet assures the efficacy of the authentic Sunnah.
For in case of any mistakes that the Prophet himself did not
correct, we should expect God to do so through the Qur'an just as he
did in cases that do we find in the Qur'an. Moreover, when we say
that the Sunnah is revelatory, it includes also any mistakes that
the Prophet might have made. In such cases, the mistakes must be
seen along with their corrections and the revelation consists of the
way the messenger handled the mistakes. Thus Adam made a mistake and
the main point of his story in the Qur'an is that he was taught how
to seek forgiveness and was granted such forgiveness. If one argues
that Adam is not clearly indicated as a prophet in the Qur'an, then
one has the example of Jonah who is said to receive revelation like
the other major messengers such as Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad (4:163,
6:86). Yet the story of his mistake and his subsequent
rehabilitation becomes part of the Qur'anic revelation
(21:87-8837:139-148, 68:48-50)! Likewise David is described as a
messenger who was given a book (4:163, 6:84, 17:55) and yet a story
of his misjudgment and vanity with subsequent forgiveness becomes
part of the Qur'anic revelation (38:21-26). Thus in the Qur'anic
view revelation is not simply stating what is good and perfect but
also reporting what is wrong and how it was or can be or should be
corrected. Once this is understood the mistakes of the messenger can
be considered revelatory as long as they were corrected. And, as
noted above, the habitual Qur'anic practice of pointing out the
Prophet's mistakes, many of them of the type that most people would
not even notice, almost guarantees that had their been any mistakes
in the authentic Sunnah the Qur'an would have corrected them.
Why was the Hadith not preserved like
An assumption that has misled both the
Qur'an-only people and the traditionalists is that if the Hadith is
revelatory, it must have been preserved just as the Qur'an with
complete reliability. From very early times some Qur'an-only people
have argued on the basis of this assumption, saying that since the
Hadith is not preserved with complete reliability, it could not be
revelatory. And from equally early times some traditionalists have
argued on the basis of the same assumption that since the Hadith is
revelatory it must have been preserved with complete reliability.
The assumption prevents both parties to combine a respect for the
Hadith, which is due to a sacred and revelatory tradition, with a
critical approach to the question of its authenticity.
If it looks strange to anyone that God should have sent a revelation
without guaranteeing its completely faithful preservation for all
times, then let them think of the hundreds, if not tens of
thousands, of prophets sent before Islam. These earlier prophets all
received revelations but alteration (tahrif) of a serious
nature in the revelations during the process of transmission is a
fact which is supported by the Qur'an (2:75,79, 4:46, 5:13, 41) and
is also established beyond doubt by critical historical research..
Indeed the revelations given to some prophets have completely
vanished from history while those given to such prophets as Moses,
Jesus and several other Israelite prophets exist in the form of
traditions whose reliability is no greater than that of the Hadith.
One may say that if for the earlier prophets the revelations were
not fully preserved it is because they were not meant to guide
humankind till the end of times whereas since the Prophet Muhammad
was the last of the prophets sent to guide all humankind till the
day of judgment the revelation given to him should be preserved with
complete integrity. The flaw in this argument is that even if the
earlier revelations were meant for a limited period, they should
have been preserved, according to the assumption in question, at
least for the period for which they were meant to guide. But this is
far from being the case. The prophethood of Jesus lasted for about
six centuries until the advent of the Prophet of Islam. Yet the
message of the prophet Jesus was not preserved with complete
integrity even for one century. Indeed, many of the books of the New
Testament were written within fifty years of Jesus' departure and
already they have much more fabricated material than the
historically reliable material. It is thus clear that God has a
different way of working than we have rather naively assumed. What
is this way of God?
In view of the fact that revelations given to earlier prophets were
not preserved with complete historical accuracy, we must of
necessity conclude that that is not what God considers absolutely
essential. The way he seems to lead human beings to development and
growth is that through a prophet certain concerns are raised and
some tantalizing answers to certain basic questions are given. Then
people are left to try to understand the concerns that are raised
and answers that are provided. In the process they develop
spiritually and find the way to salvation. Of course, as human
beings, they can corrupt the message given by the prophets to an
extent that it more or less becomes ineffective, after which there
is need for fresh revelation. Thus in the case of Jesus, even though
the New Testament has considerably changed the message of Jesus it
is to some extent still effective for guiding people and leading
them to salvation (2:62, 5:69). But the Christians continued to
change the revelation even after the New Testament was completed so
much so that by the fourth century their mainstream tradition
departed even from the central principle of tawhid preached
by all the prophets, thus finally making the revelation brought by
Jesus not only ineffective for salvation but a means of eternal
damnation, except for a small fraction of Unitarian Christians
(5:69-73). We can understand this by an analogy. Almost every glass
of water has some impurities. Up to a certain level of impurities it
is a life-giving drink while beyond that level it can become a
source of sickness or even death.
Before Jesus the case with the revelation brought by Moses was
similar. It was preserved for a little while but soon it began to be
changed. However, even as it was changed by men it continued to be a
source of guidance for the Israelites and to some degree it is still
effective for salvation (2:62, 5:69).
The above examples show that revelation can serve its purpose to a
reasonable degree even when it is altered by men. This is a point
that is not understood, not only by some Muslims, but also by some
Christian missionaries who often say how could the Muslims say that
the Torah and Injil have suffered tahrif while at the same
time say that the Torah and Injil contain light and can save people.
In like manner the Hadith is based on divine revelation and even
though it has been changed and corrupted by men, as we shall see in
some detail in Part III of this book, yet it still contains light
and is effective for human salvation.
The role of the Qur'an in the mission of
If the messenger is the message and the
Hadith is revelatory, then what is the function of the Qur'an? The
authentic Hadith of the Prophet consisted of a great deal of words
and actions, considering the well established historical fact that
the ministry of the Prophet spans about two decades. To pass it on
from generation to generation would have been extremely difficult,
as the example of earlier prophets makes abundantly clear. So
through the Qur'an the message of Islam embodied in the Hadith was
crystallized in the form of a book of manageable size that could
even be memorized. This crystallization required higher level of
inspiration than ilham, nur, and hikmah that
the Prophet was given in the highest measure. At this level of
inspiration the Prophet was in the presence of God in a very special
way. Hence the Qur'an is the word of God. Through the Qur'an God
himself directly formulated the main message for the guidance of all
humanity and for all times.
One may ask, if the message has been crystallized into the Qur'an,
then can we not concentrate on the Qur'an and forget about the
Hadith? Not quite. Suppose some big book has been summarized in a
fairly complete summary. For some purposes we can indeed concentrate
on that summary, but for a fuller knowledge of the message it is at
least helpful to also go back to the details in the original book
itself. Likewise, the Qur'an is no doubt a very complete and
eloquent summary but for its better and better understanding we need
to acquire more and more knowledge of the Hadith.
Once the core of the message was thus crystallized into a book of
manageable length, the remaining part of the revelatory words and
deeds of the Prophet could be left to the normal processes of
transmission by humans with all their faults.
This clear division of the revelation into two parts – one part
being regarded the word of God and its preservation being promised
by him while the other part being called the word or deed of the
Prophet and its preservation being entrusted to human beings -- is
in fact one of the primary ways in which the Prophet Muhammad is
distinguished from the earlier prophets and makes him the Seal of
the Prophets. There is no evidence that a certain part of the
teachings of any earlier prophet, especially among those recognized
by the Qur'an as true prophets, was believed to be verbatim the word
of God and to be entrusted to special divine care for faithful
preservation. The books attributed to various Israelite prophets do
contain some statements purported to be verbatim words of God but
they are also full of statements not purported to be statements of
God. These books are sometimes described as the word of God but not
always. Thus the Torah could be called the word of God but it is
also often called the Book (or Law) of Moses. The same is true of
all the other books in the Old Testament. They are sometimes
considered the word of God in a loose way but when it comes to
naming them they are attributed to the prophets who wrote them the
Psalms of David, the Book of Jeremiah etc. In case of the gospels
even the attribution to the Prophet Jesus is not direct. They are
attributed to the evangelists who wrote them - the Gospel of Jesus
according to Mark, the Gospel of Jesus according to Matthew and so
on. Moreover, whether an earlier book is described as the word of
God or the book of a prophet no distinction is made between the
parts that are attributed to God and the parts attributed to human
beings. In contrast the Qur'an describes itself and is described by
every Muslim as the word or book of God in a consistent way. On the
other hand, the ahadith, although considered revelatory are not
considered, with the possible exception of the ahadith qudsiyyah,
as words of God but are described as ahadith nabawiyyah
(prophetic traditions). In the light of these facts we can say that
the revelation given to earlier prophets was of the type of the
Hadith, with statements attributed in earlier books to God
corresponding to ahadith qudsiyyah. In the important cases of
the Torah and the Gospel there is another similarity with Hadith:
the material in these earlier books originally existed in the form
of separate sayings and reports just like ahadith. These
individually separate traditions were only later woven together into
connected accounts that we now find in the Torah and the Gospels.
The unique character of the Qur'an makes the Prophet Muhammad the
prophet for all times. In earlier times, as already noted, the
revelation was sooner or later corrupted by the human process of
transmission, becoming too ineffective for salvation and
necessitating the coming of another prophet with another revelation.
If there were no Qur'an, the case with the Islamic revelation would
have been the same. The revelation brought by the Prophet Muhammad
would have existed in the form of the Hadith only, suffering
evermore corruption, finally becoming too ineffective and in need of
being replaced by another revelation. But because of the Qur'an the
main part of the Islamic revelation has been preserved faithfully
and even corruption in the remaining part contained in Hadith can be
combated on the basis of the Qur'an.
We earlier talked about the "mountain-climbing" approach. The Qur'an
provides the solid ground from which we can step to climb the
mountain of historical truth. In earlier religious traditions there
is no such solid ground. They leave us floating in a fluid never
enabling us to find a solid rock to step on and move upward.
Another way to look at the role of the Qur'an is that it is a
muhaymin over all revelatory knowledge (book):
And unto you (O
Muhammad) We have sent down the book in truth confirming whatever
of the book is before it, and as a watcher (muhayminan)
over it. So judge between them by what God has sent down ...
In 59:23 al-muhaymin is one of
the names of God. The word means one who watches over something and
thus exercises control over it. The book, as explained earlier,
means primarily divine knowledge which is manifested in revealed
books. The Qur'an acts as a control over all revelations in the
sense that the most serious excesses committed by human beings
during the transmissions those revelations can be corrected by
reference to it. This is as true of the earlier revelations as of
the Islamic revelation in its Hadith form in the sense that excesses
committed during the Hadith transmission can be corrected by
reference to the Qur'an. But unlike earlier revelations the Hadith
cannot be dispensed with, since it is too closely related to the
Qur'an and provides the context needed for at least a better
understanding of the Qur'an. In fact, even earlier revelations are
not entirely dispensable, since they too provide the context for
better understanding of parts of the Qur'an. For example, it is by
relating the Qur'an with earlier revelations we begin to see how
Islam completes and perfects them.
Of course, there are many levels of understanding of the word of
God. At some level the Qur'an with a minimum of the Sunnah, e.g.
about the method of prayer is all that is needed and is sufficient
for salvation. But for better and better understanding we need more
and more knowledge about the external context provided by the Hadith,
by the linguistic facts, by history, and by earlier religious
The secondary character of the Hadith
Some traditionalists use the Hadith as
if there is no difference between the Qur'an and the Hadith. A
statement from the Qur'an is reconciled with a statement with the
Hadith in the same way that one statement from the Qur'an is
reconciled with another. This would have made some sense if the
Hadith would have been preserved like the Qur'an. Think of the
analogy used earlier, the Hadith as a huge book and the Qur'an as a
shorter but comprehensive summary of it. It would be very logical to
clarify or elaborate statements in the summary by the statements in
the main book and vice versa if both were preserved with equal
integrity. But suppose that while the summary is well preserved, the
big book itself has suffered alterations, e.g., some passages have
been lost, some have been added by later scribes, while others have
been modified. In that case, we would have to focus on the summary
and use the main book with caution. Whatever can be established on
the basis of the summary must be given much greater weight than what
requires proof from the main book. Also, whenever we use any parts
of the main book we should duly deal with the question of its
authenticity. The case with the relationship between the Qur'an and
the Hadith is similar. We must give much greater priority to the
Qur'an and whenever the Hadith is used as authority the question of
authenticity must be in the forefront.
But the Hadith is secondary to the Qur'an not only because it is not
preserved with the same degree of authenticity as the Qur'an. It is
secondary in another way. When the author of a book knows, as God
evidently did, that it is only the summary that would be preserved
with complete reliability, he would make this summary as
self-sufficient as possible (16:89), including in it every basic and
important idea or commandment. Hence this summary would be more
important than the rest of the book.
Finally, the Hadith is secondary to the Qur'an because it is of a
different, lower type of revelation than the Qur'an. For Hadith
cannot be described as the word of God in the same way that the
Qur'an can be described although it is revelatory.
An analogy, by no means perfect, can explain the difference between
the revelation in the form of the Qur'an and in the form of the
Hadith. Experts in various fields can make two types of statements:
those that are made after thorough and careful considerations and
presented in technical journals or text books and those made in a
much less rigorous manner in popular lectures or casual
conversations or during the process of research. Both type of
statements are based on knowledge and experience but the first type
has clearly primacy over the second. The case with the Qur'an and
the Hadith is similar. Both proceed from ilham, nur,
and hikmah but the former is of a different level and has
primacy over the latter.