The Sunnah Explains the Qurʾān

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

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They asked: Do you agree with those who say that the entirety of the Sunnah explains the Qurʾān?

I replied: Who am I to agree or disagree with the Imāms of the ummah? I am merely a student who stole a seat at their table, who seeks to learn something from them, and share a bit of their light. The profound meaning of Ibn ʿUyaynah’s statement never ceases to amaze me: “The Sunnah is an explanation of the commands and prohibitions.” Also, there is the statement of Shāfiʿī and others who said: “Surely the Sunnah is an elaboration of the Noble Qurʾān.” I testify to the truthfulness of what they said and will never swerve from the strength of their view nor from the rightness of their understanding.

They asked: But haven’t you differed from them in other matters?

I replied: I differed from some of them only by inclining to others of their ranks in knowledge and piety, rightness and guidance. They were a group that strove to their best ability sincerely for the sake of God, earning two rewards when they were correct and one reward when they were mistaken.

They asked: Is this view of theirs that the Sunnah is an explanation of the Qurʾān self-sufficient and able to stand on its own?

I replied: Yes it is, for surely it affirms the message of the Noble Qurʾān: “So that you may explain to the people what was revealed unto them.” If you were to examine the reason for the Sunnah explaining the Qurʾān, it would increase a person’s understanding of God’s Book and this religion, and who would deny reflecting over the connection of the Qurʾān with the Sunnah from firm and weighty evidences and proofs?

They asked: What are the aspects of this explanation?

I replied: They are five:

  1. Elaborative explanation: This is what appears in the Sunnah to emphasize or facilitate what is in the Qurʾān. So the statement of the Prophet: “A Muslim is a brother to a Muslim” is an emphasis of God’s statement: “Surely the believers are brothers.” Also, the Prophet’s teaching of the rules pertaining to menses is facilitating God’s statement: “They ask about the monthly course. Say, ‘It is a state of impurity’; so keep apart from women during their monthly course and do not go near them until they are clean.” The ḥadīth of Jibrīl is an affirmation and approximation of the meanings of īmān and islām as mentioned repeatedly in the Qurʾān.
  2. Applied explanation: This is the application of the Prophet, peace be upon him, of the teachings of the Qurʾān in his lifetime. This is explained by what Bukhārī relates from ʿĀʾishah, God be pleased with her, who said: “The Prophet would frequently say in his bowings and prostrations: ‘Glory be to you God, our Lord, and all praise; God forgive me.’ He was simply applying the Qurʾān.” In other words, this supplication of his was an application of God’s words: “Then extol the praise of your Lord and pray to Him for forgiveness.” And the various ḥadīth reports from the Companions concerning the Ḥajj of the Prophet, peace be upon him, are an application of God’s statement, among others, concerning Ḥajj: “Pilgrimage to the House is a duty owed to Allah by all who can make their way to it.” The ḥadīth of the prayer of Jibrīl alongside the Prophet is an explanation of the times of prayer mentioned in God’s Book. Most of the specific sunnah practices narrated concerning purity, prayer, fasting, charity, Ḥajj, marriage, divorce and all other practical religious matters belong to this type of Sunnah.
  3. Delineative explanation: This is where the Prophet clarified the limits of what appears in the Qurʾān, including the maximum, minimum, and what is between. So, for instance, washing the body parts in ablution once is the minimum amount, three times the maximum, and two in between. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan states in Kitāb al-Āthār: Abū Ḥanīfah relates to us from Ḥammād from Ibrāhīm from al-Aswad b. Yazīd from ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, God be pleased with him, that ʿUmar performed ablution and washed his hands twice, gargled twice, rinsed his nose twice, washed his face twice, his elbows twice, forward and backwards, and then wiped his head twice and washed his feet twice. Ḥammād said: Once suffices if it is done completely. Muḥammad said: And this is what we follow.
  4. Refined Explanation: The Prophet, peace be upon him, was keen to obey his Lord in the most complete and perfect manner possible. His Lord ordered him to wash his three body parts and wipe his head, but he chose, when washing his face for instance, to gargle, clean his mouth with siwāk, and rinse his nose in order to perfect the command of washing. What Bukhārī and Muslim and others relate from Maymūnah the wife of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who said: “I placed water for the bath of the Prophet. He washed his hands twice or thrice and then poured water on his left hand and washed his private parts. He rubbed his hands over the earth (and cleaned them), rinsed his mouth, washed his nose by putting water in it and blowing it out, washed his face and both forearms and then poured water over his body. Then he withdrew from that place and washed his feet.” This was an explanation that completed God’s statement: “And if you are in the state of ritual impurity, purify yourselves;” and His statement: “. . . or while you are defiled—save when you are travelling—until you have washed yourselves.”
  5. Derivative explanation: So many of the Prophetic sunnah practices represent his understanding of God’s Book and his derivations from it. His statement, for instance: “The best of generations is my generation, and then those that follow them;” is derived from God’s statement: “And of those who led the way—the first of the Emigrants (Muhājirūn) and the Helpers (Anṣār), and those who followed them in the best possible manner – God is well-pleased with them and they are well-pleased with God.” The expiation for the one who broke his fast in Ramadan was derived from the punishment for the practice of ẓihār, since that practice involved forbidding something lawful. Deliberately breaking one’s fast in the daytime of Ramadan is making lawful that which God prohibited, and the acts of forbidding or allowing are exclusively for God, and the Prophet equated the two for the purposes of expiation. No doubt equating two identical matters is the best form of independent reasoning (ijtihād). It is also the meaning of God’s statement: “We have revealed to you this Book with the Truth so that you may judge between people in accordance with what God has shown you.”

They asked: Does it harm a person to be unaware of these aspects?

I replied: Yes it does, for the one who does not strive to properly reconcile the Qurʾān and Sunnah will either interpret the Qurʾān through other than the Sunnah and wind up erring, or consider the Sunnah to be independent of the Qurʾān and fall short, or consider both to be insufficient for guidance thus causing him to resort to analogies and conjecture. All of these approaches deviate from the right path. Had these people considered the firm and inseparable link between the two sources, they would not have been afflicted by these fanciful and far-fetched opinions. They would not have missed out on realizing the benefits that God has mandated upon His servants, and would not have pit parts of the Sharīʿah against others as contradictory elements.

They asked: What would you advise us with?

I replied: I advise you and myself of holding onto the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger, peace be upon him, properly reconciling the two and sincerely implementing their mandates upon individuals and societies. And be wary of conjecture in God’s religion, for conjecture is the falsest of speech.

They said: It appears that you really don’t like the views (ijtihād) of the jurists.

I replied: I will expound on that in another article, but it suffices for you to know for now that their ijtihād was nothing but an extension of the ijtihād of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and a type of his extractions from the Book of God. Whoever conforms to this type of deriving views is correct, and those who do not are mistaken. I ask God to guide us to the straight path, the path of those He favored, such as the Prophets, pious ones, martyrs and righteous, and not of those who earned His wrath or went astray. And I seek refuge in God from following in His land a way of life other than his. How excellent is what He said: “Those who strive hard in Our cause, We shall surely guide them to our ways.”

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