Monday, August 18, 2008

Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 4

Sunna and Hadith

The Prophet is reported to have said: “I have bequeathed to you two things; if you hold fast to them, you will never go astray. They are the Qur’an and my sunna.”

There is a general confusion in many parts of the Muslim community concerning the issues of sunna and hadith. Unfortunately, this confusion tends to perplex all too many religious scholars.

Hadiths have to do with the sayings of the Prophet. sunna has to do with the conduct of the Prophet.

The Qur’an encourages believers to follow the example of the Prophet not necessarily his hadiths. The Qur’an states: “Say: If you love Allah, then, follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your faults, and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” [Qur’an, 3:31] The Qur’an also says: “You indeed have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern of conduct [us‘wat hasanah] for anyone whose hope is Allah and the hereafter and who engages much in the praise of Allah.” [Qur’an, 33:21]

Other than those instances in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gives someone a direct instruction or directive [for example, through a dream or some other form of spiritual unveiling] which the individual in question knows is specifically intended for him or her, then, the Divine guidance to follow the Prophet is a reference to the Prophet’s general pattern of conduct through which his beautiful character is being manifested. In other words, one is being encouraged by God to follow the example of the Prophet with respect to: repentance, humility, compassion, friendship, tolerance, forgiveness, courage, patience, gratitude, balance, equitability, charitableness, nobility, integrity, honesty, sincerity, spiritual excellence, dependence on God, steadfastness, seeking for knowledge, adab, purifying oneself, and justice. Follow this multifaceted example of the Prophet – which, truly, is a beautiful pattern -- according to one’s capacity to do so, then, God willing, Allah will love one and forgive one one’s faults.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) placed a ban on all written documentation of, or collections involving, his sayings. Naturally, such a ban could not erase people’s memories concerning what they had heard, or believed they had heard, in relation to what the Prophet may have said on this or that occasion, and, consequently, those who had a memory of what had been said to them by the Prophet were reminded by the Qur’an – as noted earlier -- that those who obey the Prophet are obeying God and, therefore, such individuals should try to act in accordance with what was being said to them by the Prophet.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, whatever else the Prophet may have meant with respect to his banning of making compilations of hadiths, the ban effectively placed constraints on people of a later time being able to try to use people’s memories as a definitive and authoritative guide to what the Prophet said, did, and, most importantly, understood and intended with respect to any given set of circumstances. In other words, the Prophet’s ban on compiling hadiths tended to create a degree, or more, of separation between, on the one hand, what the Prophet actually said, did, understood, or intended, and, on the other hand, what people remembered or understood concerning what the Prophet is reported to have said, did, understood, or intended.

The foregoing degree of separation introduces an important cautionary principle into this issue which would not have been present if the ‘hard evidence’ of documented words were to have been permitted by the Prophet to continue. People can say that I heard so and so say that he or she heard so and so say that such a person heard so and so say that the Prophet is reported to have said “X” – but this is not at all the same thing as saying that the Prophet did, in fact, say and intend X in such and such a way.

Consequently, one should be extremely careful about putting words and intentions into the mouth of the Prophet that could have ramifications for people’s understanding of the nature of Sacred Law or which might lead to attempts by some people to seek to impose [forcibly or otherwise] such an understanding on others. Indeed, this sort of cautionary principle is likely to have been among the sorts of considerations which may have induced Abu Bakr Sidiq (may Allah be pleased with him) to destroy his own collection of hadiths out of fear concerning the possible consequences for misleading others with respect to what the Prophet may actually have meant, understood, or intended whenever he said something.

Some have argued that the reason why the Prophet placed a prohibition on the writing down of hadiths is because he wanted to ensure that there would be no confusion in the minds and hearts of people concerning the difference between, on the one hand, the Word of God and, on the other hand, the words of the Prophet. Oftentimes there is an implication in such an argument that while the people who lived during the time of the Prophet were, apparently, incapable of differentiating between the two categories of words – and, thus, the prohibition -- yet, somehow, later generations were fully capable of making correct distinctions between the two, and, therefore, the ban may be lifted.

One has difficulty understanding the nature of the authority on which the foregoing sort of judgment rests – i.e., to lift the ban on compiling hadiths. One has even greater difficulty trying to understand why people believe that such an arbitrary judgment should, in turn, be able to justify the kinds of uses to which various hadiths have been put such that in all too many places people are forced – under penalty of punishment - to live in accordance with this or that interpretation of those hadiths.

There are those who may wish to argue that a Hadith merely constitutes one of the modes of conduct of the Prophet and, as such, should be considered as part of the sunna or example of the Prophet which the Qur’an has counseled people to follow. I would maintain, however, that the ban which the Prophet placed on all attempts to collect and document his own sayings indicates that such a perspective is untenable – especially, since, as far as can be ascertained -- this is a ban which the Prophet did not subsequently revoke.

Furthermore, one encounters something of a puzzle here. On the one hand, one is encouraged to take note of all the other sayings of the Prophet. Yet, on the other hand, apparently, one does not need to take note of the saying of the Prophet which concerns the voicing of a ban with respect to any compiling of such sayings in a written form. How is one to reconcile the two?

The Prophet is reported to have said: “May Allah bless a person who listens to what I say, memorizes it, understands it, and applies it.”

In one sense, I have never listened to what the Prophet said during his lifetime on earth because I was not physically present at the time during which he lived. In another sense, I have always striven to listen to the spirit of the Prophet – a spirit which has not passed away – as the Qur’an indicates: “Think not of those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are living.” [Qur’an, 6:97]

In this latter sense, I have striven to listen to the spirit of what the Prophet has said about not maintaining collections of hadiths. I have memorized what he is reported to have said in this regard, and I believe – although Allah knows best if this is so -- that I understand it to mean, at the very least, that one should not be using hadith as a means of trying to impose on others either the sunna or hadith of the Prophet.

Without the presence of the Prophet, without explicit indications as to whom is being addressed by a saying of the Prophet, without knowing what the intention of the Prophet was within a particular set of circumstances, and without knowing whether, or not, the Prophet would have provided a different counsel in relation to current circumstances which may share some similarities with the circumstances in which he was heard to say something, then, one really is not in a position to do anything but oppress people if one tries to impose one’s interpretation of Prophetic traditions on others.

I do try to sincerely listen to the spirit of the one to whom various hadiths are attributed. According to what resonates with, and according to what may be verified by, my heart during this process of listening, I strive to develop a feeling or sense of empathy for a variety of issues through which to inform my own personal, individual spiritual understanding of, and approach to, life.

However, there is no expectation on my part that whatever facets of this process of sincere attending to the sayings of the Prophet which may inform my individual perspective should, therefore, also inform the perspective of other individuals. In this sense, my perusal of hadiths is intended to assist my individual struggles and striving toward understanding the nature of the Sacred Law as part of my own, personal, spiritual journey, and none of this is, or should be, intended to seek to compel others to go in any particular spiritual direction.

If it is a mistake for me to, say, even read the hadiths because of the ban which has been placed on compiling them, or if I make mistakes in conjunction with the way in which I may come to understand such sayings of the Prophet, then, these are mistakes for which I personally may, or may not, be held accountable by God. However, the mistakes which I may, or may not, make with respect to hadithic literature will never, God willing, spill over into activities which induce me to try to compel others with respect to how, or whether, they should engage the sayings or the sunna of the Prophet.

I believe such a position is consonant with what the Qur’an teaches. I also believe such a perspective is consonant with the spirit of what the Prophet was seeking to place constraints upon when he banned the compilation of hadiths – namely, that what he said should not be subsequently used as a way of trying to lend the authority of the Prophet to any attempt to compel people to act in one way rather than another with respect to matters involving the seeking of Sacred Law.

I believe the example of the Prophet gives expression to the sort of sunna to which the Prophet wanted Muslims to adhere. The character of the Prophet is what is truly breath-taking – how he consistently interacted with people through courtesy, patience, honesty, integrity, compassion, love, friendship, humility, generosity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, gratitude, equitability, sincerity, self-sacrifice, and dependence on God in all things.

Surely, if a person held fast to the Qur’an and to the extraordinary example of the Prophet– his real sunna – one will never go astray. At best, one peruses the hadith literature in order to glean some understanding of the quality of character through which the Prophet engaged life and not in order to try to determine what he said on this or that occasion which was in response to specific circumstances existing then and not now.


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