The Qur’an is the word of God, which was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and preserved both verbally and in writing by his Companions. Apart from the Qur’an, whatever the Prophet uttered or did was also preserved by the Companions. Thus the Sunnah includes the sayings of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) known commonly as hadiths (i.e., sayings), his practices, and actions which gained his approval. Both the Qur’an and the Sunnah fall under a common title wahy (revelation or inspiration); the difference between the two is that the Qur’an is a revelation which is recited (matluw) in the formal prayer (salah) while the Sunnah is not recited in the formal prayers. The importance of the Sunnah as the second source of Islam is covered in Chapter 2.
First of all, we will establish that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) not only received the verses of the Qur’an from God, but he also received other revelation from time to time which is now preserved in the form of hadiths. The following examples show how the Qur’an itself refers to this revelation:
- God Almighty commanded the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to face the Ka`bah in Makkah in his daily prayers instead of Jerusalem:
[We see the turning of thy face to the heavens: now shall We turn thee to a Qiblah that shall please thee. Turn then thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque; wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction.] (Al-Baqarah 2:144)
But why was the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) facing Jerusalem before that? The preceding verse shows that God Himself had appointed Jerusalem as the initial qiblah for the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him):
[And we appointed the Qiblah to which thou was used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (from the Faith).] (Al-Baqarah 2:143)
The appointment of the previous qiblah is referred to as being in the past. But there is no verse in the Qur’an which commands the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to face Jerusalem at the beginning of his mission! Therefore, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) must have received this guidance from God in a form other than the Qur’an. As we have said above, this alternative revelation is preserved in the Sunnah.
- In Surat At-Tahrim, a certain incident is cited:
[When the Prophet disclosed a matter in confidence to one of his wives, and she then divulged it, and God made it known to him, made known (to her) part thereof and passed over part, she said, “Who told you this?” He said, “He told me Who knows and is well-acquainted (with all things).”] (At-Tahrim 66:3)
We must consider carefully the phrases “God made it known to him” and “He told me Who knows and is well-acquainted.” The question is, how did God make it known to him and tell him? Certainly not via the Qur’an, since there is no mention of it anywhere else in the Book of God. Therefore, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) must have been told via revelation from God which is not part of the Qur’an.
- In Surat Al-Hashr, a reference is made to the expedition against the rebellious Jewish tribe of Banu An-Nadir, during which the Muslims cut down some palm trees and left others alone.
[Whether ye (O Muslims) cut down the tender palm trees or ye left them standing on their roots, it was by leave of God, and in order that He might cover the rebellious transgressors with shame.] (Al-Hashr 59:5)
Here, their action is attributed to the “leave of God” given to them. Nowhere in the Qur’an is such permission found. Hence, God guided the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in this matter but not via the Qur’an.
- According to Surat Al-Qiyamah, verses 17–18, God took it upon Himself to collect the Qur’an. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) directed the scribes of the Qur’an to arrange its surahs in the order found today; this is not the order in which they were revealed. Therefore, since this was God’s responsibility, it shows that He guided the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) with respect to the order of the surahs.
These are just a few examples out of many which leave no doubt that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to receive revelation from God either directly or through the medium of the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel). A part of this revelation was preserved word for word under the title of the Qur’an. All other revelation was embodied either in the Prophet’s sayings or in his practices, which were carefully preserved by the Companions as the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
The Various Purposes Served by the Sunnah
The Mother of the Believers `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) was once asked, “What was the character of the Prophet?” She replied, “His character was nothing but the Qur’an.” Thus the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was an embodiment of the Qur’an itself: Whatever he practiced or said, i.e., the Sunnah, is related to the guidance of the Qur’an. Let us explore the role of the Sunnah in relation to the Qur’an.
- The Sunnah explains Qur’anic injunctions in detail.
- God says in Surat Al-Baqarah 2:43 [Establish prayer and pay zakah]; and many similar verses also exist. All issues related to the prayer, such as the required number of daily prayers, the number of prayer rak`ahs and the recitation in each prayer, as well as how to perform the prayer from beginning to end, are explained by the Sunnah. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Pray as you have seen me pray” (Al-Bukhari).
- Similarly, all issues related to the poor due (zakah), such as the minimum amount on which zakah becomes payable, the percentage paid, the kinds of wealth, goods, and animals on which zakah is obligatory, etc., are clearly expounded by the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
- Again, a detailed picture of fasting and Hajj can only be seen in the Sunnah, for the Qur’an has touched upon both subjects briefly.
- Almighty God says in Surat Al-Ma’idah:
[As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hand—a punishment from God by way of example for their crime. And God is exalted in Power, Wise.] (Al-Ma’idah 5:38)
The Sunnah explains the minimum of stolen goods for which a thief deserves this punishment, and the manner in which the hand should be cut off.
- To reject the Sunnah, as some misguided “Muslims” advocate, will render the whole Qur’an open to a hotchpotch of interpretations inspired by the individuals’ whims and desires, which often come from the devil. For example, someone who does not accept the practical demonstration of formal prayer given by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) will make a mockery of salah by doing it in a way suitable to his wishes. But how can a Muslim worship God, if he does not know the way in which God wants to be worshiped?
- The Sunnah can establish a specific meaning when a number of meanings are possible.
- God Almighty says:
[It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with zhulm that are in security, and they are on (right) guidance.] (Surat Al-An`am 6:82)
Imam Al-Bukhari relates that some of the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) took the word zhulm in its general meaning, “to do injustice, to do wrong, to sin.” So they were troubled and said, “Which of us has not done wrong?” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) relieved them of this worry by explaining that zhulm here means “to commit shirk” (to associate partners with God in worship or belief or both; idol worship; polytheism), as in Surat Luqman:
[Indeed, worshiping others besides God is great injustice (zhulm).] (Luqman 31:13)
- Almighty God says in Surat At-Tawbah:
[Those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the Way of God, announce unto them a most grievous penalty. On the day when it will (all) be heated in the fire of hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs.] (At-Tawbah 9:34)
The Arabic word kanz means a hoard, big or small. So this verse seemingly dooms a person who hoards any amount and does not spend it in the way of God. With this meaning in mind, `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) questioned the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) about this verse, to which he replied that once the poor tax (zakah) which is due on the hoarded amount is paid, it is no longer considered as kanz (reported by Ibn Majah).
- The sayings of the Prophet explain some historical events in detail since they are mentioned only briefly in the Qur’an.
- God says in Surat Al-Anfal:
[Behold! God promised you one of the two (enemy) parties, that it should be yours; ye wished that the one unarmed should be yours, but God intended to justify the Truth according to His words and to cut off the roots of the unbelievers.] (Al-Anfal 8:7)
Which two parties are meant? Which of them is unarmed? From books of Hadith we learn the relevant details about the Battle of Badr, which is the incident referred to in the above verses.
- In Surat At-Tawbah, we read:
[(God turned in mercy) to the three who were left behind.] (At-Tawbah 9: 118)
Who were these three people, and why did they remain behind? Again, the books of Hadith explain this.
- Surat `Abasa begins with these words:
[He frowned and turned away, because there came to him the blind man.] (`Abasa 80:1–2)
Who frowned and turned away, and why? Who was the blind man? The details are furnished by the books of Hadith.
- The Sunnah can specify exemptions from a general injunction.
- In Surat An-Nisaa’, the share of children in inheritance is given:
[God directs you as regards your children’s inheritance.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:11)
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) explained that the Muslim child of a disbeliever, the non-Muslim child of a Muslim, and the murderer of his/her own father cannot inherit.
- The Qur’an declares the flesh of a dead animal and blood as prohibited (Al-Ma’idah 5:3). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) exempted fish and locusts from the term dead flesh and the liver and spleen from blood.
- The Sunnah can deduce a similar injunction in an analogous case.
- In Surat An-Nisaa’, God says:
[Prohibited to you are … two sisters in wedlock at one and the same time.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:23)
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) declared that to marry a woman as well as her aunt in the same wedlock is also prohibited.
- Alcohol is declared unlawful by Almighty God (Al-Ma’idah 5:93). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) extended the prohibition to anything which is intoxicating in large doses, even if it is taken in a small quantity.
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) gave additional injunctions in a number of issues.
One of the many duties of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) was to tell the believers what is lawful (halal) and what is unlawful (haram) (Al-A`raf 7:157). For example, he prohibited the flesh of donkeys, dogs, beasts with canine teeth, and birds of prey. He also made gold and silk haram for Muslim men, but halal for Muslim women.
*By Sheikh Suhaib Hasan