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Academic Tradition of Ahle Sunnah

It is commonly emphasized by traditional Muslim scholars that while interpreting Qur’an and Sunnah the tradition of Ahle Sunnah must never be ignored or else the one interpreting would stray into the world of heretics. While agreeing with the basic understanding of this advice, Ammar Nasir, a traditional scholar of eminence, has clarified in his book “Hudūd-O-Tazīrāt: Chand Aham Mabāhis” that a few facts about the academic tradition of Ahle Sunnah must never be ignored while emphasizing the significance of following that tradition. The following is a summary of the points he has raised:
i) Even though the companions of the prophet, alaihissalām, who excelled in forming opinions on religious issues included ‘Aisha, Muādh Ibn Jabal, ‘Abdullah Ibn Abbās, ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ūd, Mu’āwiyah, and Abū Mūsā ‘Ash’ari, may God be pleased with all of them, we invariably find the mention of ‘Abdullah Ibn Abbās and ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ūd only in the books of tafsīr. Opinions of others are only occasionally found. Thus the books of tafsīr of the earlier Muslims (aslāf) are not representative of the full expanse of our academic heritage.
ii) The religious verdicts (fatāwa) attributed to the companions of the prophet we find in the books of jurisprudence (fiqh) are the ones that some of the companions gave in the more prominent Islamic centers like Makkah, Madina, Kufa, and Damascus. Opinions of companions in the less prominent places like Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt did not get similar prominence. Furthermore, even the available opinions of companions and the next-generation scholars had to filter through the scrutiny of the peculiar opinions that the schools of thought that had already emerged. Thus what we now have in the form of documented heritage of our elders via the traditions of the later-day schools of thought is a less-than-complete and not fully accurate representation of their scholarly endeavours.
iii) Shah Waliullah has opined that the four famous Sunni schools of jurisprudence — Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali – are factually the offshoots of the juristic knowledge of Umar, the companion of the prophet. However, the fact of the matter is that some of the important opinions of Umar couldn’t find place in any of these schools. For instance, he believed that Zakat could be given to non-Muslims, that an apostate must not always necessarily be killed, and that if a lady from the People of the Book converted to Islam, her marriage with her non-Muslim husband may not stand abrogated. None of these and many other similar opinions of Umar could find space in the books of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence.
iv) It is quite surprising that two outstanding jurists amongst the tradition of the Ahle Sunnah, Imam Jafar Sadiq and Imam Zaid Ibn Ali, whose juristic opinions were well documented and easily available for consultation, were almost completely ignored simply because a vast majority of those who immediately patronized them had political and philosophical differences with the popular opinions of the Ahle Sunnah. The fact is that like the Sunni schools of jurisprudence benefited from other companions, these two jurists and their schools of jurisprudence benefited from the companions who belonged to the household of the prophet. Ignoring them, therefore, was equivalent to ignoring an important component of the scholarly heritage of our past.
v) The opinions attributed to the companions that have been documented in the various books of jurisprudence cannot be considered as binding religious injunctions for all times to come, because these opinions were quite often the end result of an attempt at applying certain principles on the given situations due to the peculiarities of those situations. These verdicts are quite often unaccompanied by their justifications from the original sources. There is no way of finding in the case of many of these opinions as to what component of them was based on the needs of the immediate situations and what part of them was meant to be for all times to come.
vi) It is also interesting to note that out of the four famous Sunni schools of thought there was no way of knowing directly the line of argument of the originators of three of them on various issues nor could it be confirmed that the detailed verdicts hailing to be from those schools were actually the views of their originators. It was only Imam Shafi’ī whose views and arguments were available in his own words. Unfortunately, the conclusions of these schools is claimed to be the real ijtihād even though we don’t know for sure in most cases what the line of argument led to those conclusions.
vii) There has been a rich tradition amongst the scholars of Ahle Sunnah of rigorously reviewing the arguments presented and conclusions drawn by their illustrious predecessors. In case the later scholars in this tradition found some of those arguments and conclusions unconvincing, they presented their own, new conclusions which they thought were closer to the Qur’an and Sunnah. The prominent names in this tradition were Ibn Hazm, Rāzi, Ibn Taimiyyah, Shah Waliullah, Anwer Shah Kashmiri, and Hamiduddin Farāhi.
The conclusion the author has drawn is that Ahle Sunnah’s tradition is to follow diligently Qur’an and Sunnah. That is what is needed to meet the latest challenges confronting the Muslim world. The call to stick to the traditions of Ahle Sunnah should always be seen in the context of the realities mentioned above.
Muhammad Ammar Khan Nasir; “Hudūd-O-Tazīrāt: Chand Aham Mabāhis“; Lahore: Al-Mawrid; 2008; pp 17-24.