Articles > The Peoples of Islam > 2009 > In His Sunna the Prophet Sets a Good Example
The journal > Year 5 N.9 July 2009 > In His Sunna the Prophet Sets a Good Example

In His Sunna the Prophet Sets a Good Example

The Islamic tradition /1. Mohammed meticulously applied the precepts of the Koran, at every moment and in every detail of his life, to such an extent that his words and actions are a practical comment on the Holy Book. In this way a pillar of Muslim faith was constructed.

Diégo Sarrió | 01 July 2009

A canonical source, an authoritative reference in the religious sciences, a register of paradigms and symbols by which the collective imagination nourishes itself: all this together is Muslim Tradition. Apart from the Koran, Tradition constitutes a historical and cultural heritage to which refer all the peoples who identify with the Mohammedan community’. These words of the Algerian, Professor Ali Mérad, in the preface to his book on Muslim Tradition, show us that this is one of the principal themes of Islam and that the analysis that I will offer in this article will be of a modest character when compared to the size of the question under examination. My aim is to present the non-specialist reader with an overall survey of the meaning of tradition in classic Islam, explaining the various terms that are used to express its aspects.

‘You have had a good example in God's Messenger’ (Koran 33:21)

Addressing the Prophet, God says in verse 4 of sura 68: ‘surely thou art upon a mighty morality’. In commenting on this verse, the famous exegete of the Koran, Ibn Kathîr, who died in Damascus in 1373, quotes a passage from the Muslim collection which transmits facts about, and the sayings of, Mohammed and the early period of Islam which are held to be ‘authentic’, according to which one day Sa‘d Ibn Hishâm Ibn ‘Âmir spoke in the following way to ‘Â’isha, the wife of the Prophet: ‘O mother of believers, tell me about the character of the Messenger of God, may the peace and blessing of God be upon him’. ‘Â’isha answered: ‘Do you not read the Koran?’, ‘Certainly, I do’. ‘In truth, the character of the Messenger of God, may the peace and blessing of God be upon him, was the Koran’. After quoting variants of the same episode, Ibn Kathîr adds: ‘The meaning of all of this is that [the Prophet] conformed to the orders and prohibitions of the Koran. His nature and his character were impregnated by the Koran and to such an extent that he abandoned his natural inclinations. Whatever the Koran ordered him to do, he did, and whatever the Koran forbade him from doing, he abstained from doing’. These words of Ibn Kathîr demonstrate that during the fourteenth century the idea that the Prophet had meticulously applied the precepts of the Koran at all moments and in all details of his life was already consolidated, and to such an extent that his actions and his words were, so to speak, a practical comment on the Koran. In other words, his life was akin to the embodiment of the message of the Koran that had been revealed to him. Here we find the very heart of the meaning of Muslim Tradition or Sunna, which is first and foremost al-sunna al-nabawiyya, that is to say the prophetic Tradition, because it transmits the experience of Mohammed as this was channelled by the first Muslim community. It is difficult to reconstruct a precise chronology that shows how the experience of the Prophet, his actions and his sayings, were gradually constituted, side by side with the revealed text, as one of the founding reference points of Islam. Whatever the case, one should not see here solely an idealisation or a popular exaltation of the figure of the founder, at least not in the initial period, but rather the implementation of an evolution that had already in a certain sense been envisaged by the Koran itself, which makes the Prophet a ‘good example’:

Although the life of the Prophet does not provide through the symbolic force of the events that traverse it as much meaning to Islam as the life of Christ infuses into Christianity, one should remember that the Koran says very expressly in verse 21 of sura 33: ‘You have had a good example in God's Messenger for whosoever hopes for God and the Last Day, and remembers God oft’. For those who were not witnesses to the life of the Prophet the question arose of knowing what he did, said and recommended and in what way he acted in various circumstances; the facts and gestures of he whom the word of God had established as a ‘good example’ had indeed taken on the value of Sunna, that is custom, in the sense of a rule derived from an example.

Sunna, Hadîth and hadîth

In the Koran the term ‘sunna’ is often attributed to God. It indicates the immutable way in which God acts with the creation in general and with mankind in particular. Indeed, the Koran observes on a number of occasions that ‘thou shall find no changing the wont of God’ (33:62). Referred to ancient peoples, the term ‘sunna’ indicates their conduct – which is often one of rejection – in the face of the appeals of the Prophet, a conduct that attracts the inexorable punishment of God: ‘And naught prevented men from believing when the guidance came unto them, and seeking their Lord’s forgiveness, but that the wont of the ancients should come upon them, or that the chastisement should come upon them face to face’ (18:55). This concept of the Koran, based on an ancient Arab concept of sunna, referred to a custom or a rule adopted by previous generations, and was very soon used to refer to a generally recognised rule or a practice approved both by the Prophet and by the pious Muslims of the first generations. In this sense, the term ‘sunna’ corresponds rather well to the Greek ethos: custom, use, habitual practice.

Hadîth (with a capital ‘H’, to translate the Arabic word hadîth with the definite article al-) became the technical term that referred to the set of what ‘was transmitted by the messenger of God’: sayings, facts, gestures, behaviour, even silences interpreted as tacit approvals, attributed to the Prophet in the most varied circumstances of his life. In this general sense Hadîth is synonymous with Sunna. The fact that at the same time each of these distinct elements attributed to Mohammed (sayings, facts, gestures etc.) are called a hadîth (with a small ‘p’, pl. ahâdîth), which can be translated by ‘saying’ or ‘logion’, a noun that is explained by the oral character of these tales prior to their compilation or establishment in written form, easily lends itself to confusion. Indeed, one can well imagine that ‘during the life of Mohammed and immediately afterwards, when people found that they had to face problems that needed to be solved, they remembered through conversations the way in which the Prophet and his first companions acted in similar situations’.

Sunna and Islamic Jurisprudence

Alfred-Louis de Prémare, a great expert on early Islam, lays stress upon the normative and exemplary character of the traditions attributed to the Prophet: ‘Parallel with the Koran, but much more than this, Hadîth thus became the foundation of the Islamic ethos, the norm of thought and conduct of individuals and society in all spheres, the expression of its orthopraxis’. Indeed, the material carried forward by Muslim tradition rapidly became a fundamental point of reference for Muslim jurisprudence, something that was necessary to fill in the silences of the Koran and/or to explain the meaning of certain verses. Let us listen to a Muslim voice, that of the Egyptian scholar Ahmad Amîn (died 1954), the author of a major history of Islamic culture: The Hadîth has great importance in religion, an importance that derives from the place that the Koran occupies. Indeed, a large number of verses of the Koran had a global meaning or an absolute and general meaning, and thus a saying or an action of the Messenger of Allah was offered in order to determine or to restrict or to specify their meaning. The Koran, for example, does not lay down the details of prayer: it only prescribed prayer and presented it in a general way; the action of the Prophet established the hours at which to engage in prayer and the way in which it should be carried out.

Once again in the juridical sphere, an important development in the technical use of the word ‘sunna’ took place with the jurist al Shâfi‘î (died 820), the eponym of one of the four juridical schools of Sunnite Islam. In his famous Risâla fî usûl al fiqh, he established the theory according to which Sunna relates exclusively to the behaviour of the Prophet, transmitted by solidly established traditions and not that of other venerated predecessors. He bases himself for this on verse 21 of the already quoted sura 33 which refers to the prophet as a ‘good example’ to follow. With al Shâfi‘î, sunna – from that moment onwards identified with the sunnat al nabî, the good example of the Prophet, and raised to the rank of revelation – were seen as the second source of Islamic jurisprudence after the Koran, where the third and fourth sources are respectively the agreement of men of learning (ijmâ‘) and reasoning by analogy (qiyâs).

The Science of the Hadîth

After stressing the striking quantity of words and gestures of the Prophet contained in the numerous corpora of hadîth, Prémare asks himself not without a certain irony ‘how one man could have said and done so many things in the space of one lifetime, in so many small and great circumstances. We know everything about him, including how he cleaned his teeth’.

In reality, Muslim scholars did not ignore the fact that a part of the traditions attributed to the Prophet and his companions were apocryphal, produced in the context of political disputes or intellectual and juridical controversies. There thus developed a science to verify the ahâdîth that examined in detail all the traditions that had come down to the middle of the ninth century, a verification that was in essential terms carried out beginning with the ‘chain of guarantors’ (called isnâd in Arabic), that is to say the chain of transmitters who from generation to generation had handed them down until they were established in written form. The result of this operation was the drawing up in the second half of the ninth century of various collections of traditions that enjoyed the more or less unanimous recognition of
the Sunnite Muslim community. The two most important collections, because of the fact that the traditions that they contain are recognised as sahîh (‘authentic’), are those of al-Bukhârî (died 870) and Muslim (died. 875), a hadîth of which is quoted at the beginning of this article. The Shiites have their own collections which privilege the traditions that go back to the fourth Calpih, ‘Alî Ibn Abî Tâlib (died. 661), and his descendants. The most famous is that by al Kulaynî (died 941), entitled al Kâfî (‘the sufficient’).

Taqlîd or Submission to the Authority of Knowledge

The term taqlîd is used by the Arabic edition of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in order to translate the Latin word Traditio (cf. § 74-100). In an Islamic context its meaning is different: taqlîd, from the verb qallada (‘to imitate, follow, obey somebody’), means the acceptance of authority, or submission to it. The oldest Muslim juridical theories recognised that the uneducated masses relied upon educated men as regards the law. The word muqallid (he who must follow taqlîd) refers, as a consequence, to every uneducated Muslim in juridical matters who is obliged to submit to the authority of learned men: the authority of a mujtahid (he who pronounces a personal interpretation on a point of law based on direct access to the founding texts – the Koran and Sunna) or the authority of a muftî (he who is qualified to issue juridical opinions). Later on, with the development of the four juridical schools and the almost reverential respect given to their respective founders, taqlîd came to refer not only to the submission of the uneducated masses but also of scholars in general to the principles of law drawn up by the founders of each school. With the passing of time, however, the term taqlîd acquired a negative connotation and became synonymous in the writings of many Western orientalists and Muslim modernists from the end of the nineteenth century onwards with blind imitation and unthinking acceptance of a crystallised doctrine.

Tradition and Reason

A note is required on a final concept, that of naql, which is often translated by ‘tradition’ in the context of Muslim scholastic theology in opposition to ‘aql, ‘reason’, not so much to signify that what is naql is irrational but to emphasise the origin of the contents of knowledge: divine Revelation in the first case; human thought in the second. Ibn Khaldûn, the great scholar of the Maghreb of the fourteenth century (died 1406) wrote on this in his magisterial Muqaddima as follows:

There are two categories of science that are accessible to the peoples of the city, who can learn them and teach them: one is connatural with man and the fruit of his thought, the other is traditional (naqlî), transmitted by its founders. The first category is that of the philosophical sciences. These are those that man acquires naturally through the exercise of thought… The second category includes the traditional and established sciences. Everything here depends on the information given by the authority of a certain religious law. Reason (‘aql) has no place in them, except to connect certain detailed problems to fundamental principles… The source of all the traditional sciences are the prescriptions of the Koran and the Sunna – that is to say law revealed by God and by His apostle – like all the sciences that are connected to them which are necessary to their use: this is the case, in marked fashion, with Arabic philology because Arabic is the language of Islam and the revelation of the Koran.

Ibn Khaldûn does not use the adjective ‘traditional’ (naqlî) in its meaning of ‘customary’ or ‘habitual’, but in the sense of ‘transmitted’; not so much in order to express the idea that the sciences themselves are transmitted but, rather, to say that they use data that have been transmitted, descending from two revealed sources, that is to say the Koran and the Sunna. This distinction between naql and ‘aql has a fundamental importance in classic Muslim theology, which has always operated a differentiation between rational truths or ‘aqliyyât, which can be proved by reason, such as the existence and uniqueness of God, and the revealed truths to be found in the Koran and the Sunna, which are called naqliyyât, ‘transmitted’ (or sam‘iyyât, heard’) and which reason could not have reached on its own, such as, for example, the complex of Muslim eschatology.

Only Scripture?

In the twentieth century the question of Tradition generated an intense debate within various intellectual currents of the Islamic world which tried to give new dynamism to Islamic juridical thought. Some reformist voices, from the most varied currents, today preach a return to the Koran alone with the abandonment of everything that belongs to Islamic Tradition. They want in this way to ‘lighten’ Islam of a burden that in their vision impedes a response to the needs of the present moment. In other cases it is a ‘ecumenical’ concern to reject what appears as a partisan use of traditions by various juridical schools in order to request a return to the Koran and ‘to Islam before the discord’. Whatever the motivation may be, it seems to me that this project is destined to fail, given that one cannot see how the Muslim community could divest itself of its thousand-year-old heritage: ‘a living tie of the community with its founder, tradition is also for each generation one of the most important reference points of identity’. This does not mean, however, that every generation does not have the right to cast a critical eye over this monument to Islamic knowledge. The Moroccan thinker Abdou Filali-Ansary points to a pathway to be followed when, in presenting the thought of the Pakistani Fazlur Rahman, he writes: ‘the first step lies in distinguishing well between normative Islam and historical Islam, separating what belongs to the teaching of Islam and what forms a part of what Muslims have done with it’.

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