By Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
PART I: THE SUNNAH AND THE HADITH IN THE LIGHT OF THE QUR’AN
The Message and the Messenger
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:
- The 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) (4:63).
Here admonishing and saying qawl baligh cannot be understood as reciting the Qur’an. Yet it is clearly a part of conveying the message.
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.
- And We 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.
- There 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, 18:54, 30:58).
Again, this statement should be understood in the same way as the statement that the Qur’an explains everything.
- Shall I 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 (6:114-115).
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 possibilities:
The people of the book ask you that you cause a book to descend from heaven … (4:153)
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:
- O 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 some men:
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 prayers.
- 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 Qur’an:
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 Abraham.”
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 (4:61).
Once again notice that coming unto the Prophet is something apart from coming unto what God has sent down (Qur’an).
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 deliveryman.
USWAH (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 much (33:21)
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 verse?
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 (60:4-6).
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 is unavoidable.
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 wise (2:129).
Several verses then state that the roles described in the prayer of Abraham and Ishmael were fulfilled by the Prophet Muhammad:
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 (2:151).
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 (3:164).
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 wisdom).
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 96:4-5:
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 words:
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 Qur’anic wisdom.
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:
Set yourself 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: further evidence
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 the Qur’an:
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 (siraj munir):
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 (33:45-46).
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 (53:1-18).
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 the Qur’an?
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 the messenger
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 … (5:48)
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 traditions.
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.