Chapter 2



The Qur’ān and the Ḥadīth and the Sunnah are interconnected. Internally, the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth are a body to the soul – the Qur’ān. Apparently, however, the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth provide details to the compact Qur’ān: their interrelation is that of detail and brevity. Both the Qur’ān and the Sunnah are equally important as far as the question of practicing the religion is concerned. We cannot separate the two. Following either is an obligation of equal degree.

The Qur’ān marks the limits and outlines of the picture of believers’ life pattern and specifies the boundaries. It leaves the task of colouring and complementing the pattern for the Prophet (sws): it is for the Sunnah to give concrete shape and provide practical form to the believers’ life. The Qur’ānic teachings are, therefore, confined to a comprehensive treatment of the principle teachings of Islam. We do not find the requisite details and specifics of any fundamental issue in the Book for which we have to refer to the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth.

The Prayer is the most important worship ritual in Islam. The place of the Prayer in the philosophical foundations of the religion can be gleaned from the Qur’ān. The basic components of this worship ritual as well as its relevance to human life too have been thoroughly discussed in the Book. However, we rely on the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth on the questions of the timings, the form, the recitations and the status (in terms of obligatory and optional) of the Prayer. The Qur’ān only refers to these things. It does not detail them.

Same is the case with the other worship rituals, social affairs, economic issues, political matters, and penal codes. We can form an overall picture of the sharī‘ah directives concerning these issues as they are mentioned in the Qur’ān. However, it is only the Sunnah that colours and completes the picture. This is not applicable to each and every directive of the Qur’ān. It would be hard to say that we need to turn to the Sunnah in an effort to understand all the directives contained in the Qur’ān. It is, nevertheless, clear that if any aspect of a directive requires further examination then the only helpful source is the Ḥadīth and the Sunnah.


2.1    Muḥammad (sws) as Teacher of the Sharī‘ah

The Prophet (sws) did not carry out the task of filling out the outline of life as an additional voluntary service. It was his primary duty as the Messenger of God. His status as a teacher is one of the fundamental aspects of his position as a Messenger of God. This means that whatever he taught and told people is not excluded from his duty as the Messenger nor is it of lesser status than the Book. The Qur’ān clearly says that he was not a mere reciter or communicator of the Book of God; he was a teacher of the Book and its explicator:


It is He who sent to the unlettered people a messenger of their own who recites to them His verses, and purifies them, and teaches them the sharī‘ah and the wisdom; although before his advent they were in manifest error. (Q 62:2)


The Prophet (sws) not only explicated the verses containing the Divine directives but also explained the subtle points of ḥikmah (wisdom) buried within the Book of God. The following ḥadīth refers to this very quality of the Prophet (sws): “I have been granted the Qur’ān and with it something similar to it.”[1]

The above discussions show that the Sunnah is equal to the Qur’ān for it enjoys historical reliability of an equal degree. If the Qur’ān has been orally transmitted through generality to generality (tawātur-i qawlī), the Sunnah too has been handed down, practically, through perpetual adherence of the ummah with consensus (tawātur-i ‘amalī). We cannot grade and set a preference for either and cannot characterize either with relegation or elevation. Both sources are equally important when it comes to the question of following the religion of Islam.


2.2    Genesis of the Extremist Positions on Authoritativeness of the Ḥadīth

The foregoing discussion shows the natural interrelation between the Qur’ān, the Ḥadīth and the Sunnah. However, during the early history of Islam, narrating aḥādīth was an extremely popular activity. This popularity remained ever increasing. This made many insincere people narrate aḥādīth without investigating the authenticity of the reports. This gave rise to a huge number of weak aḥādīth. Consequently some believers felt disinclined to a ready acceptance of aḥādīth. They publically expressed their views regarding the traditions. They would ask people to base their religious views on the Qur’ān only. Various historical narratives detail such discussions. I would, however, confine my discussion to one pertinent historical narrative. This will help us understand how and when extreme positions in this regard originated.


Ḥasan narrates that ‘Imrān b. Ḥuṣayn was once sitting among his Companions (rta). Someone said: “Do not talk of anything other than the Qur’ān.” ‘Imrān b. Ḥuṣayn asked [those present]: “Bring this man closer to me.” The man came near him. ‘Imrān said to him: “Suppose you are left only with the Qur’ān. Do you find any information in the Book that explains that the ẓuhr and ‘asr Prayers consist of four rak‘āt, and maghrib of three and that you need to recite the Qur’ān in the first two rak‘ah. Similarly, do you see anything in the Qur’ān guiding us to circumambulate the Ka‘bah seven times along with the circumambulation of the Ṣafā and Marwah [while performing ḥajj and ‘umrah]?” Then he said: “People learn from us, lest you go astray.”[2]


Some other versions of this narrative are relatively fuller detailing the incident further. According to these narratives ‘Imrān presented, as examples, some legal punishments and asked his adversaries about their details in the Qur’ān.

At one end of the extreme, we see an aversion towards aḥādīth. In reaction to this stance, there stands another group of scholars who showed lack of interest in the Qur’ān. They advocated sticking to aḥādīth in the extreme. Some of these people openly declared that aḥādīth had to be preferred over the Qur’ān. Makḥūl, in one of his famous saying, tells us: “The Qur’ān is more in need of the Sunnah (aḥwaj ’ilā al-sunnah) than the Sunnah of the Qur’ān.”[3]

This means that, according to Makḥūl, the Sunnah does not depend on the Qur’ān more than the Qur’ān depends on it. This view gives obvious preference to the Sunnah over the Qur’ān. It is obviously the worst form of exaggeration. This view continued to grow till the point when statements like the following were issued: It has been reported that Yaḥyā b. Kathīr said: “The Sunnah rules over the Qur’ān (qāḍiyah ‘alā al-kitāb) and the Qur’ān does not rule over the Sunnah(qāḍiyan ‘alā al-sunnah).[4]

In other words, God forbid, the Prophet (sws) rules over Allah and not the vice versa. One exaggeration no doubt leads to another severer exaggeration; errors always spawn errors.

In fact when aḥādīth became a dear commodity in the market, people started presenting worthless statements as Prophetic sayings. A group of scholars reacted to this situation and expressed their disapproval of this practice. They found some zealot followers of their view who, in turn, did not stop before reaching at even worse exaggerations. This phenomenon left us in the state where the Qur’ān and the Sunnah became two opposing and mutually contradicting sources.

One wonders what is the use of the Sunnah in the absence of the Qur’ān? What would be its foundations? We know that the Sunnah is grounded in the Qur’ān. The edifice of the Sunnah cannot be erected in the absence of the Qur’ān, its foundation. The truth of the matter is that both the Sunnah and the Qur’ān are interrelated. The Sunnah is to the Qur’ān as the building is to the foundation or as body is to soul. Another kind of interrelation between the two is that of brevity (the Qur’ān) and detail (the Sunnah). Both spring from the same source, are interdependent and equally indispensable for the believers.


2.3    Aḥādīth and the Sunnah cannot abrogate the Qur’ān

God has mercifully continued raising people in the ummah who have shown the right path to the believers guiding them out of the traps of exaggerating squabblers. When this dispute over the interrelation of the Qur’ān and the Ḥadīth arose, the Almighty blessed some individuals with the power to protect and promote a balanced approach. The man who fulfilled this duty in a most beautiful manner is Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, the greatest servant of the discipline who excelled in the knowledge of the Prophetic traditions. When such exaggerations regarding the status of the Sunnah, in relation to the Qur’ān, were brought to his notice, he explained the correct view. Faḍl b. Ziyād reports:


I heard Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal respond to a question about the ḥadīth[5]which says that the Sunnah overrules the Qur’ān in the following words: “I dare not say so. However, the Sunnah explicates the Book, defines and explains it.”[6]


Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal believes that the Sunnah explicates, explains and defines the Qur’ān. A ḥadīth or a sunnah can never abrogate the Qur’ān. To him, the importance of the Sunnah and the Ḥadīth is recognized. It cannot be denied by a believer. However, the claim that they overrule the Qur’ān is absolutely baseless.

As for aḥādīth, they lack soundness in so many ways that they cannot abrogate a conclusive source such as the Qur’ān. The belief that they can abrogate the Qur’ān is absolutely against reason and intellect. I have referred to the inherent weakness involved in the transmission of aḥādīth in our discussion on the difference between the Ḥadīth and the Sunnah. This discussion suffices as a referent and repetition would be redundant.

The Sunnah, though not weak in those aspects, too cannot abrogate the Qur’ān. The Messenger of God was never allowed even to introduce the slightest change in the Qur’ānic text. We learn from the history of the Prophetic struggle that the Quraysh refused to accept and believe in the Qur’ān until the Prophet (sws) altered it for them. The Prophet (sws) was commanded by God to respond to this demand in the following words:


Tell them it is not my right to change it on my own accord. (Q 10:15)


The Qur’ān is the word of God. None other than the author can change and alter it. There are no doubt, instances of abrogation in the Book. However, all the changes made in the directives of the Book were introduced by the Author Himself. Both the abrogating and the abrogated verses are part of the Qur’ān. The Messenger was obliged by God to perfectly communicate to the people what was given to him, without altering it. He was obligated to explain to the believers whatever part required an explanation. He could not make the slightest change possible in it. He had no right to change it in spite of all of mankind. If the Messenger is not given the right to alter the word of God, how can we validly give a ḥadīth ascribed to him or a sunnah attributed to him the right to abrogate the Book.


2.4    Can a Sunnah or a Ḥadīth specify a General Command of the Book?

Can a ḥadīth or a sunnah specify and restrict the application of a Qur’ānic verse or not, is another question. By specification (takhṣīṣ), we mean restricting application of a general command (muṭlaq) of the Book of God in any degree. This question calls for a detailed answer which follows:

i. The specifications affected by aḥādīth can be of many degrees and kinds. A ḥadīth, in some cases, specifies the application of a general command of the Qur’ān, excluding its application to a matter which the text itself excludes, though subtly. In such cases, therefore, ignoring the subtle indications and including the unintended matter in the application would not be in accord with the principles of interpretation. It would entail negation of the implied meaning and intent of the text. Thus this type of specification is not only possible but desirable. Not only a ḥadīth and a sunnah but also independent reasoning and analogy can be used to specify the general application of the verses in such cases.

ii. If, however, a ḥadīth restricts the application of the Qur’ānic directive and excludes the intended meaning, noticeably implied in the text, this specification would in fact be a new directive replacing the original one. Adopting such a ḥadīth then would mean that we consider the new directive to be more forceful than the clear Qur’ānic injunction. It would not be an instance of simple specification. It would be a clear example of abrogation. We have already observed that it is not possible for even the Messenger of God to cancel the directives of the Qur’ān. This right then cannot be given to the aḥādīth ascribed to him.

I intend to further illustrate this point with the help of an example. The Qur’ān commands that the hands of a thief be cut off. The Prophet (sws) said that if someone steals a thing worth less than a quarter of a dīnār, then his hands should not be cut. This exemplifies the first type of specification mentioned above. We see this ḥadīth affects the application of the verse commanding cutting off hands of the thief. The narrative states that only such thieves may be punished by cutting their hands who steal more than a quarter of a dīnār. The related Qur’ānic directive follows:


Cut the hands of the thief – man (al-sāriq) or woman (al-sāriqah) – in recompense to what they earned and as an exemplary punishment from God. (Q 5:38)


The narrative that restricts its application to a certain type of thieves follows:


The hands of the thief may only be cut if he has stolen something worth at least a quarter of a dīnār. (Abū Dāwūd, No: 4384)


The verse gives a general command. It requires cutting the hands of the thief (sāriq). The ḥadīth does not allow us to apply the directive to thieves in general. It states that a thief may only be punished if he steals things worth at least equal to a quarter of a dīnār. This specification is, indeed, an explanation of the correct and intended meaning of the word al-sāriq (thief). The word al-sāriq is not applied to the one who picks up insignificant items. Sarqah (theft), according to the conventions of the Arabic language, is applied to stealing a secured and guarded asset of considerable value. This ḥadīth offers a valid explanation of the original meaning of the word. This specification makes the true intention of the author clear and fixes and defines it. It removes the possibility of apparent ambiguity in the words of the verse. This is an example of valid takhṣīṣ (specification).

‘Umar (rta), the second caliph, specified the application of this general command. He exercised personal reasoning and analogy and suspended the application of the directive during the period of drought. He argued that, in such a situation, one might be compelled to commit theft out of irresistible want. This supports my understanding of the issue. I have held earlier that such a specification can be exercised by any mujtahid (jurist). This kind of specification will be equal to only a directive reached at through ijtihād. However, it must remain clear that the ijtihād reached by one of the Rightly Guided Caliphs holds great importance in the religion.

The truth of the matter is that every general statement contains natural restrictions and specifications which are there ab initio. Take for example the verse of inheritance. The Almighty says:


Allah enjoins you concerning your childrenthat the male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; if there are more than two females, they shall have two-thirds of what the deceased has left, and if there is one, she shall have the half; and as for his parents, each of them shall have the sixth of what he has left if he has a child, but if he has no child and (only) his two parents inherit him, then his mother shall have the third; but if he has brothers and sisters, then his mother shall have the sixth after the payment of a bequest he may have bequeathed or a debt. You do not know which of your parents and your children is nearer to you in usefulness. This is an ordinance from Allah: Surely Allah is Knowing, Wise. (Q 4:11)


The general nature of the verse demands that every father inherits property from his sons and every son inherits property from his father. However, there is a general specification implied in it. Thus, the difference in the religion of the deceased father/son or the heir son/father would remove the general nature of the directive. The difference in religious affiliation of the heir and the deceased obstructs the transfer of property as inheritance to the heir. The Prophet (sws) has expressed this specification in the following words:


A believer shall not inherit from a disbeliever; nor shall a disbeliever from a believer.”[7]


General application of the Divine command regarding the punishment of cutting off hands of the thief is of the same nature. The relevant Qur’ānic verse apparently commands that the hands of every thief shall be cut off. It does not clearly require that the age and social and mental status of the accused and nature of the theft etc. are to be considered, while implementing the command. Yet, however, the implicit specification in this command of general nature is that the thief who is to get this punishment must be a mature man of sound mental health. Mentally ill persons, for example, cannot be punished. If someone is compelled by sheer need for necessities of life and commits theft, he cannot be punished. Similarly, the value of stolen things should also be assessed. Only the theft of a significant item should be punished. All these are taken as ab initio qualifications. The jurists (fuqahā) and the Prophetic traditions only make them more explicit for us.

Another example of specification, rather of abrogation, relates to the punishment of adulterers mentioned in the Qur’ānic verse (Q 24:2) commonly referred to as the verse of flogging. Many scholars, based on some aḥādīth, restrict the application of the prescribed punishment to the unmarried offenders. The case of the married adulterers, it is held, has been stipulated in a different and severer punishment[8]independent of this Qur’ānic injunction. The wording of the verse, however, does not contain a slightest clue to this discrimination between the married and the unmarried criminals. The verse reads:


Al-zānīand al-zāniyah, flog each one of them with a hundred stripes. (Q 24:2)


The words al-zānī and al-zāniyah do not admit of any qualification. We cannot, therefore, exclude married criminals from the injunction while remaining true to the words of the verse. The verse clearly includes both married as well as unmarried zānīs. In the Arabic language, zinā is applied to the sexual intercourse committed out of wedlock by married as well as unmarried persons. The necessary elements of the definition of the word zinā apply both to the married and unmarried offenders. Besides, there is no inherent qualification found in this context as is the case with the definition and application of the word sarqah (theft) discussed above. There is no textual indication attached with the directive restricting the application of the command to unmarried people only. Therefore, we cannot say that married people have to be given a separate punishment, of stoning to death. This is not an instance of specification. It is rather a clear and explicit example of abrogation. We have already seen that no sunnah or ḥadīth can abrogate the Qur’ān.

If we try to understand the genesis of this misinterpretation and study the issue in the ḥadīth literature we learn that the Prophet (sws) extensively scrutinized the case of zinā involving Mā’iz Aslamī. He sought minute and specific details and asked very specific questions regarding the act. He was so direct that the jurists, based on this careful scrutiny and vigorous investigation by the Prophet (sws), could conclude that a judge may use naked, direct and immodest expressions while questioning the accused. I believe that this extensive questioning was done to remove the possibility of using the term in its general sense. It helps a judge to determine that the accused has really committed sexual intercourse, something that merits the prescribed punishment. This scrutiny and investigation into the nature of the act was not carried out to determine the marital status of the offender.

The jurists commonly hold that in the case of a valid instance of abrogation, the abrogator and the abrogated verses occur in succession, i.e., both the injunctions are not casually scattered in the Scripture. This serves to explain that the textual evidences, indicating that a directive is abrogated by a succeeding one, are put beside the abrogated command. They co-occur with the command from its inception. If something is purported to be an abrogator, without the support of such clear co-occurring indicators, then that is not an instance of specification but of abrogation. The conditions to be fulfilled in a valid instance of abrogation in the Qur’ān have been sufficiently explained in the foregoing pages.