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Contemplations on Sunnah

The contemporary Muslim scholarship asserts that a new definition [1] of Sunnah is pertinent towards all the efforts to decontaminate the domain of normative teachings of Islam from the alien beliefs and practices derived mainly from socio-cultural reforms. This asseveration is usually put forward as an objective thesis that promises to re-gain the lost dynamism of Islamic fabric. Progressive reformation is not an abhorrent notion to the intellect per se, as the character of revelation is strictly eternal. However the need to reformulate the positive lines of conduct suitable to contemporary needs does not demand a new definition of sources either. The issue might not be so significant if the discourses in this regard just purport a modernist linguistic framework rephrasing the religious terminology. It however, re-defines the scope and authority of revealed character of Quran itself as revelation cannot be played with rampantly unless the Prophet’s relationship with it is trimmed down to bare minimum.

The fact that usually escapes the attention in recent times is that the Muslim contemporary thought, in general, draws heavily from the Oriental treatments of the subject that generally represent the skeptical approach towards traditional methodologies. On the other hand, the works largely consonant with the traditional genesis are disregarded even if they strongly target their skeptic coevals [2]. It is always productive if historical methodology connects to the past; however the modern structure it would shape would prove unproductive if it fails to take into account all the alternatives.

Intellectual honesty is perhaps the most important factor in an unbiased presentment of constructs. Blind academic obsession can never contribute much towards reforming a complete religious methodology however it might prove extremely useful in the fields of editing, translating and diligent preparations of concordances and indices. This moral conceit and pedantic obsession is probably displayed at its best in the following words of Ignaz Goldziher:

I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim, and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophical minds. My Ideal was to elevate Judaism to similar rational level.[3]

Yet he refused to follow his teacher Vembery into an honest declaration of faith. He could not elevate Judaism to the same realism however he managed to come up with thesis such as Hadith being the fraudulent propaganda of rival legal theories of the early second century through academic techniques which had already undermined belief in textual integrity of Hebrew Scriptures. Half a century later, Joseph Schacht attempted to adduce the missing body of proof with the publication of Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (1950). Besides influencing other like minded Orientalists, it had a similar impact upon modern Muslim writers on Islamic Methodology such as Fazlur Rahmaan, A.A.A.Fyzee and few others.

We have no reason to doubt the intentions of Muslim apologetics who took it upon themselves to lay the foundations of reformation of religious methodology as they were awestruck by the alleged shallowness of the medieval theories. Fazlur Rahmaan terms the revelation of this difference between the early and later phases of Islamic developments as a ‘great historic discovery’:

…and this great historic discovery – towards which the Orientalist has contributed so much – can no longer be concealed behind the conventional medieval theory about these principles. It is obvious, therefore, that this work has not only a purely historical value but can be of great practical consequence and can indicate the way for further Islamic developments.[4]

Fazlur Rahmaan was unarguably the first modern voice that raised serious concerns regarding the formative as well as post-formative developments in Islam. He tried to put the missing pieces of puzzle to complete a picture that can be called a start towards the truly progressive Islam according to his understanding.

Sunnah being the sole law giving source besides Quran has remained the focal point of all such discourses. The absolute authenticity of Quranic content remains unchallenged among all except few who are adamant towards doubting all the revealed texts. However contentions regarding definition, scope, content and transmission of Sunnah are a common character of modern religious literature. Its importance is two fold as on one side it carries the complete behavioral approach towards religion and on other it explains the normative law that directs the course of individual actions thereby forming the complete character of society.

Another aspect that carries Sunnah to the core is its peculiar effusion from the person of Prophet that is seemingly not so divine for some in true sense of the word. It is precisely this generally held intentional and sometimes unintentional skepticism towards the character of the Prophetic legal authority that necessitates that the definition and scope of Sunnah should be revisited and subsequently reformed. All the efforts towards reformation [5] cannot impoverish the concept of Sunnah from Islamic methodology altogether as that would largely mutilate the overall scope of religion thereby making it impossible to be followed. However deforming its shape by circumscribing its parameter to a few ritualistic activities can prove absorbing while unalarming to the masses at the same time.

The reader should not comprehend in anyway that I am pointing towards a conspiracy theory that was created by Muslim scholars against their own canonical structure. I am just conjecturing that they apologetically rhymed with the Orientalist perspective which according to contemporary European critics has offered a way of ‘pulling the carpet beneath Islam’ [6]. The modernist theologians sincerely tried to put that carpet back yet the new picture that emerges is not even near to the true Islamic spirit as they fell into believing the primary thesis that mainly rests its case upon rejection of tradition. Fazlur Rahmaan equated the Sunnah as collective Ijtihad and Ijma of the early generation of Muslims. He did not mean to say that it is completely divorced from the Prophetic Sunnah yet he transferred the responsibility of deciding about the actual specific content of the Sunnah from the Prophet to the Muslim community. He describes the first century concept of Suunah as [7]:

…the community as a whole had assumed the necessary prerogative of creating and recreating the content of Prophetic Sunnah and that Ijmaa was the guarantee for rectitude, i.e. for working infallibility of the new content.

He regarded the Hadith literature as a creation of second century which according to him had put the end to creative activity in the religion thereby stopping the progressive reformation.

The responsibility lies with the traditional Muslim scholarship to keep abreast with the works which describe the modernist perspectives rather then repulsively rejecting it. An approach in the new dimension would be to revive the traditional sciences of Hadith so that modern Muslim intelligentsia can appreciate its real place in Islamic Methodology rather then considering it as a mere peace of History.
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  1. They do not however claim so that a new definition is being coined as they tend to believe that its the actual definition.
  2. One example that comes to my mind is of Nabia Abbott who while presenting thirteen very early hadith papyri tried to establish that the so called phenomenal growth of Tradition in the second and third centuries was not primarily the growth of content but represents largely the progressive increase of parallel and multiple chains of transmission.
  3. R. Pitai, Ignaz Goldziher and his Oriental Diary as cited by Zubair Siddique, Hadith literature.
  4. Fazlur Rahmaan, Islamic Methodology in History, Preface
  5. The difference between ‘revival’ and ‘reformation’ should remain in perspective.
  6. Among the most enthusiastic proponents were Protestant missionaries like Samuel Zwemer and Temple Gairdner.
  7. Fazlur Rahmaan, Islamic Methodology in History, P 19

4 thoughts on “Contemplations on Sunnah

  1. I can’t believe that I missed this post when you first wrote it bro! This was excellent! I find that the likes of Nadia Abbott and some of the early folks who disagreed with Schacht and his followers provide some really interesting information for us to build upon about the historical process.

  2. This is because hadith was spread by individuals who remained somehow hidden. Also they represent by and large 5 or 6 companions, some of whom witnessed the oprophet for a short time like Abu Huraira and Ibn Abbas. Many other companions are not even mentioned as narraotors. Also the existence of political and dogmatic rivalry in early islam gives rise to suspicions. Other reasons included the contradictions we see in it and the role of the Ulema who seem to try to benefit and gain authority from it. After, when you are not able to tamper with the Quran, what else can you tamper but with the hadiths.

  3. Interestingly, all the deniers and rejecters of the authority and indespensability of the Sunnah/Hadith are themselves confused and in dramatic disagreement.

    The evil intention of the hypocrites, orientalists, modernists, qur’aniyyoon (nay, shaytaaniyyon) is doing nothing to Islam and Sunnah except propagation. Alhamdu lillah

  4. Pingback: Is Islam a patriarchical tradition (I): Understanding the hermeneutical gap | Hanging Odes

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