The Nexus between Qurʾān and Sunnah

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi and translated by Dr Abu Zayd

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They asked: Clarify for us the true connection between the Qurʾān and the Sunnah.

I asked: What do you mean?

They replied: Islamic groups and sects have differed greatly over their stance towards the Sunnah and over the nature of the link between the Qurʾān and Sunnah. What is your position on that? 

I replied: I will first present all the positions, from past to present, concerning the Sunnah of the leader and master of the prophets and messengers, the beloved of the Lord of the worlds, peace be upon him. I will then comment on them in a fair and balanced way, without being extreme or excessive. I will summarize these positions into five groupings.

The first group has restricted itself to the Qurʾān as entirely independent from the Sunnah in a way that leaves room for injustice and transgression, along with elements of arrogance and pride. It is actually an outrageous view that is faulty and false, and one that opposes both revelation and reason. As for revelation, God commands the believers to obey, follow and emulate the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in numerous verses, while sternly warning those who oppose his instructions. As for reason, can it be imagined that the Qurʾān could be acted upon without those things which would explain the meanings and applications of its verses? It would represent the heights of delusion and folly were a person to take its meanings from other than the Prophet, peace be upon him, whom God entrusted with this task and favored over the rest of creation. The Prophet, peace be upon him, stated in a sound ḥadīth: “Surely I have been given the Book along with something like it. Surely I have been given the Qurʾān along with something like it. Soon a time will come when a man reclining on his couch will say, ‘Stick to the Qurʾān alone. Whatever it deems permissible, treat it as permissible. Whatever it deems forbidden, treat it as forbidden.’ Here, ‘something like the Qurʾān’ refers to the Prophet’s interpretation and application of the Qurʾān. His interpretation reveals the truth in an impartial manner, and his application is both accurate and protected from error. Numerous reports have reinforced the obligation of following him and warned against opposing him in any way. I don’t believe this weak and feeble view deserves any response more than this.

The second group has accepted sunnah reports concerning prayer, pilgrimage and its likes, while turning people away from sunnah practices that are not widespread or those based upon solitary reports, even if these reports are otherwise sound and narrated by trustworthy and accurate experts. This is the approach of many proponents of the Muʿtazilite creed and contemporary reformists. This also represents a deviant approach that deprives Muslims from divine mercy which was placed in the way and manner of the Messenger, peace be upon him. Woe onto these individuals! They reject what has come from the protected Prophet, peace be upon him, while mandating that people accept their own fabricated views and delve into their contrived interpretations. This group resembles the previous one in contradicting overt logic and reason, and in that, it is more akin to fleeting dreams.

The third group has accepted those sunnah practices and reports that do not conflict with Qurʾānic verses in any way. This view is apparently sound but in practice becomes faulty while serving as a means to abandon those aspects of guidance and truth when they contradict one’s own whims, desires and traditions. How many sound reports have been rejected by ignorant and foolish individuals on the supposition that they contradict the Qurʾān, whereas—were they to have examined them more deeply or referred them to those with expertise and keen understanding—they would have soon realized that Qurʾānic verses and the Sunnah of the chosen Prophet, peace be upon him, reinforce one another and exist in perfect harmony and cohesion? Either their understanding of Qurʾānic verses is defective or they fail to comprehend the Sunnah, or even a combination of both.

The fourth group represents the pious scholars of mainstream, orthodox Islam who honor the Sunnah as it rightly deserves but wind up going to extremes and crossing bounds. In their veneration of the sanctity of the Sunnah, they equate it to God’s Book, either literally or in practice. Some of them refer to the Qurʾān and Sunnah as two equal primary sources, or make statements such as: “The Sunnah judges over the Book,” or “The Qurʾān is more in need of the Sunnah than the Sunnah is in need of the Qurʾān.” They are mistaken in the use of these expressions, and they are mistaken in their meanings. This approach leads to instituting changes in some of the details of the religion and reversing its priorities.

They asked: Who are these scholars that you are referring to?

I replied: My respect for them prevents me from mentioning their name. I hate that people develop a bad opinion of them that would prevent them from benefiting from them.

They asked: Can you provide for us examples of some mistakes that result from considering the Qurʾān and Sunnah to be equivalent?

I replied: These mistakes are many, but my heart does not accept that I list them, for that is equivalent to naming these scholars. 

They asked: Don’t you see that examples would strengthen and clarify your position further?  

I replied: Of course, but grant me space to consider what would be more beneficial for Muslims.

They said: We are surprised that you have reached the level of audacity to disparage the scholars of Islam, who are the pillars and the support of the faith.

I replied: I seek God’s refuge from denying their merit, from not benefiting from them, or from detracting from their status in any way! By God, I love them from the bottom of my heart, for loving them is a part of faith. I pray to God to make me among their ranks and raise me with them in the next life, for they are the best and most righteous of God’s creation, God be pleased with them and raise their ranks. However, they are not immune from mistakes. They have taught us that the views of every single person can be accepted or rejected except for the Seal of the Prophets, peace be upon him. They have taught us that the truth is more worthy of being followed.

They asked: So what is the correct position regarding this issue?

I replied: It is as follows:

The fifth group is that of the Companions and Successors, and those expert scholars after them who followed their way. They were many in the past, and a few in the present. They believe that the Qurʾān is entirely clear and lucid while needing some detail and elaboration, most of which is contained within the Qurʾān itself while some of it is contained within the Sunnah. They affirm that the Qurʾān is the foundation while the Sunnah is its branch, that the Qurʾān contains universal principles while the Sunnah contains particulars. So the true relationship of the Qurʾān and Sunnah is between that which is definitive and its elaboration, between a source and its branch, or between a universal idea and its components.

They asked: Which of the groups do you adhere to?

I replied: What is obligatory upon me and those who understand this religion is to choose the fifth view, which is the correct one and the one advocated by the Qurʾān and Sunnah itself. It is the view adopted by the Companions and Followers, and the one that is supported by sound reason, correct thinking and deep examination.

They asked: What is your position regarding those reports which contradict God’s Book?

I replied: There can never be a clash between the Book of God and what is soundly established in the Sunnah and ḥadīth reports.

They asked: Does not the sound ḥadīth that “There is no prayer without al-Fātiḥah,” contradict the verse, “And recite whatever is easy [in prayer].”? Or the ḥadīth that “Whatever is established by birth is also established by breast-feeding,” contradict the verse “. . . and your milk-mothers and your milk-sisters . . .”? Does not the ḥadīth that “Do not marry a woman and her maternal or paternal aunt at the same time” contradict the verse “[Forbidden to you] is to have two sisters [as your wives] at one and the same time”? Are there not so many similar examples?

I replied: There is no contradiction in these examples at all, except for those who fail to examine them deeply and rush to judgement instead. They fail to relate evidences and examples, or distinguish what is contradictory from what is merely different. 

They asked: So what is your view concerning these specific examples?

I replied: I shall respond in a separate article, so be patient in the path of acquiring knowledge, if you want to attain proficiency.

Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator