Where Do We Get Islam From?
Hadith provides useful information to understand the context of the Qur’an. But more importantly, it is the Qur’an that contextualises the Hadith and gives correct meanings to the fragmented pieces of information in it
In order to know what Islam says about various aspects of religious matters, we ought to first know where we get Islamic information from. Religious scholars don’t speak and write Islam. They communicate their understanding and interpretation of it. There are only three sources which are the ones valid for deriving Islamic inspiration directly from: Qur’an, Sunnah, and Hadith. All these sources converge to originate from one source: The messenger of God, may His mercy be on him. The fact that all Islamic information emerges from him is undisputed. But it is important to know which of these sources originating from him are available where, as indeed it is important to figure out what their mutual relationship is. While the identity of the Qur’an is unmistakably clear, the identities of Sunnah and Hadith are not quite as clearly appreciated by Muslims.
The Qur’an is the book of God which was revealed over a period of twenty three years. The sequence of its revelation was substantially different from the sequence in which it was ultimately arranged and given as the book of God for Muslims to follow until the Judgment Day. Both sequences were God’s books, but the two were meant to serve at least in some cases two different purposes. The substantially altered sequence of the Qur’an has always posed a challenge to Muslim scholars and intellectuals to offer a rationale of why it was arranged differently from the historical sequence. Luckily, some convincing answers have already been presented to show why God did what He did in offering these sequences. But it would need another column to describe that.
“The complexity of relationship between the Qur’an, Sunnah, and Hadith offers a challenge which cannot be met by any one individual. It has to be undertaken through academic dialogue between Muslim scholars. Prejudice based on sectarianism is the biggest hurdle in the way of this process”
Sunnah is a term used by different Muslim groups for different purposes. I am using the expression to mean religious practices originating from the prophet, God’s mercy be on him, that were a necessary part of religion alongside what is in the Qur’an. The prophet went through these practices himself and the Muslim community followed him in doing likewise. During the prophet’s lifetime there was no difference of opinion about the fact that they were very much a part of Islam in quite the same way as the Qur’an was. After he left this world, these practices continued uninterrupted. We therefore have with us to this day formal prayers, Hajj, Zakat, fasting, Eid prayers, funeral prayers and some others as a part of religion which, like the Qur’an, have come down to us in an authentic way.
Hadith is the historical record of the prophet which was transmitted unlike the Qur’an and Sunnah by individuals. It wasn’t formally arranged by the prophet to reach all Muslims of his generation nor was it unanimously transmitted from the first generation to the next one. It became extant only in the third century onward when many books of hadith appeared as a consequence of remarkable efforts undertaken by scholars of Hadith. There is no doubt that the information contained in these books carries a lot of religious value. But it is important to decide how that information relates to what is already there in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
The fact is that the Qur’an and Sunnah present the core message of Islam which has been fully preserved in them through unanimity of Muslims (ijma‘) and its uninterrupted continuity (tawatur). Wherever Muslims migrated to in the first two centuries, they took along with them their core religion: the Qur’an and Sunnah. While the Qur’an was a memorised text which was later also expressed in written form, Sunnah were practices that became an unmistakable part of the practical life of Muslims in a way that Muslim culture was clearly distinguishable from others on the basis of it. The Qur’an gave several references of Sunnah which in turn was expressed in practices that appeared practical demonstration of Qur’anic mentions. The two appeared inseparable parts of a homogeneous body of religion. The Qur’an for example mentions formal prayers (Salat) on several occasions while the daily prayers of Muslims are a living application of what the Qur’an refers to. One couldn’t have prayed the way Muslims do all over the world despite clear references to them in the Qur’an had it not been for Sunnah.
The mention of formal prayer is in Hadith too. Many Muslims learn some aspects of their prayers from there as well. But it would be wrong to assume that the formal Muslim prayer got introduced through Hadith. In fact, new generations learned it from their elders the way cultural practices are learned. The process is still by and large the same. As mentioned earlier, Hadith wasn’t even available to most Muslims in the first two centuries of Muslim calendar.
In Hadith, there are references to the Qur’an too. Quite obviously, if Hadith is the record of the life of the prophet, it couldn’t have been complete without it referring to the Qur’an. However, what is mentioned in it has to be seen in the light of the Qur’an to decide what the correct meanings are. The Qur’an has been declared the book of guidance (2:2) and the source that should serve as criterion between what is right and what is wrong (25:1). Hadith provides useful information to understand the context of the Qur’an. But more importantly, it is the Qur’an that contextualises the Hadith and gives correct meanings to the fragmented pieces of information in it.
If one is to understand Islam and live as a Muslim, it is imperative that the relationship between Qur’an, Sunnah, and Hadith is properly understood. While drawing inspiration from Islamic teachings, one must make earnest attempt to correctly understand what Islam’s message is. An unbiased attempt to understand the correct relationship that binds the three sources is at the very heart of that understanding. The complexity of relationship between the Qur’an, Sunnah, and Hadith offers a challenge which cannot be met by any one individual. It has to be undertaken through academic dialogue between Muslim scholars. Prejudice based on sectarianism is the biggest hurdle in the way of this process.
“The article by Dr Khalid Zaheer was published at dailycapital.pk on 06-MAR-15. ”