Allah (swt) has a unique way of teaching His servants some vital points. No action of His is without wisdom. Thus, we find inherent lessons in the way He decrees things to happen. In the current context, we refer to the way He chose to send guidance to His slaves. We know that whenever Allah (swt) sent guidance to a people, He did not send a divine book alone. He always sent a messenger, who would bring the divine book to his people. There are many Prophets who came without a Holy Book, but there is no book that was sent down without a prophet.
Any reasoning observer can understand why this is so. The need for a practical example, a teacher and guide is ingrained in human nature. We cannot simply do with theoretical knowledge, unless we have with us someone to explain, interpret and apply that knowledge. And it is thus that Allah (swt) sends towards His slaves a treasure trove of guidance in the form of His messengers who demonstrate the true obedience to Allah (swt) and the ways of pleasing Him.
What is the Sunnah?
Literally meaning ‘way’ or ‘road,’ Sunnah in Islamic Shariah means the way of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). Scholars have defined it as including the words of the Prophet (sa), his acts and his confirmations or approvals of the actions or sayings of others.
Status of Prophet Muhammad (sa)
To understand the status of the Sunnah in Islam, we must first understand the status of Prophet Muhammad (sa). Prophet Muhammad (sa) was not sent simply to deliver the Book of Allah, the Holy Quran, as a mere postman. Nor was his job only to recite the Word of Allah to the people of Makkah.
Had it been so, would it have been difficult for Allah (swt) to send down the Holy Book alone in a complete form? In fact, none of the prophets were sent for merely delivering the Holy Scriptures. Their role was to not only deliver and recite the Holy Book to the people, but also to explain, interpret and expound it, providing them with a practical example of its contents. Their lives, character and manners were to be practical demonstrations of the message they brought. It was the same with Prophet Muhammad (sa). Allah (swt) describes this most beautifully in the Holy Quran:
“Indeed, Allah conferred a great favour on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger (Muhammad (sa)) from amongst themselves, reciting to them His Verses (the Quran), and purifying them (from sins by their following him), and instructing them in the Book (the Quran) and Al-Hikmah [the wisdom and the Sunnah of the Prophet (sa) (i.e. his legal ways, statements and acts of worship)], while before that they had been in manifest error.” (Al-Imran 3:164)
It is clear that Prophet Muhammad (sa) was to deliver the Holy Quran, teach it to the people, purify them as well as teach something additional – ‘the wisdom’, which scholars have taken to mean the Sunnah. His life and his activities in all roles, be it husband, father, statesman, leader, judge, teacher, military commander, etc., were to be a paragon of wisdom and guidance for all of humanity.
We can say, however, that the mission of the Prophet (sa) is different from other prophets, as Allah (swt) sent him for all of the creation, irrespective of time and place, whereas the other prophets were sent to a particular nation at a particular time in history.
Two types of revelation – two sources of guidance and law
The revelation (Wahi) received by the Prophet (sa) was of two types. The first is the revelation of the Holy Quran, known as Al-Wahi Al-Matluw (the recited revelation), which is recited in prayers. The second is the revelation through which the Prophet (sa) received guidance regarding daily life matters, details of the Quran, Ibadah (acts of worship), etc. This is known as Al-Wahi Ghair Al-Matluw (revelation, which is not recited).
Scholars do use another set of terms for these two types of revelations. These are
Al-Wahi Al-Jali (the open or clear revelation) for the Quran and Al-Wahi Al-Khafi (the hidden or indirect revelation) for the Sunnah. In other words, Quran is the direct revelation from Allah (swt) since both its words and their meaning are from Allah (swt), while the Sunnah or Ahadeeth is indirect revelation in the sense that although the meaning is from Allah (swt), the words are of the Prophet (sa). Khaleel-ur-Rahman Chishti, a renowned writer on Islam, describes this relationship beautifully when he says: “The Quran and the Sunnah are not separate from each other. They are two streams flowing from the same fountain.”
The Holy Quran along with the Sunnah constitutes the Islamic law or Shariah, and as such one cannot follow Islam by rejecting or giving lesser importance to either one of them.
Al-Miqdam Ibn Madikarib relates that Prophet Muhammad (sa) said: “Beware! I have been given the Quran and something like it (the Sunnah). Beware! A time will come when a bellyful (proud person) will be sitting resting on the cushion saying: ‘Keep to the Quran; what you find in it to be permissible treat as permissible, and what you find in it to be prohibited treat as prohibited.’ Beware! The domestic donkey (although not mentioned in the Quran as prohibited), beasts of prey with fangs, a find belonging to the confederate – unless its owner does not want it – are not permissible to you.” (Abu Dawud)
The Sunnah not only outlines the rules of Halal (lawful) and Haram (unlawful), but also gives us guidance in matters of day-to-day life, such as sleeping, eating, answering the call of nature, business transactions, travelling as well as the methods and details of acts of worship (Salah, Zakah, Hajj, etc.).
Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “And whatsoever the Messenger (Muhammad (sa)) gives you, take it; and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain (from it)” (Al-Hashr 59:7)
This verse clarifies for us the law-making authority that the Prophet (sa) was vested with.
Obedience (Ita’ah) and Following (It’ibah)
The Quran and the Sunnah both use two different terms to describe a believer’s manner. The first is obedience (Ita’ah). Obedience to the Prophet (sa) is mentioned various times in the Quran side by side with obedience to Allah (swt). For example:
“Say (O Muhammad [sa]): ‘Obey Allah and the Messenger (Muhammad (sa)).’ But if they turn away, then Allah does not like the disbelievers.” (Al-Imran 3:32)
In his book “The Authority of the Sunnah”, a respected scholar of Islam, Mufti Taqi Usmani, notes: “It is noteworthy that whenever the ‘obedience of Allah (swt)’ is mentioned in the Holy Quran, it is always followed by the ‘obedience to the Prophet (sa),’ which has never been missed even in a single verse. There is no verse in the entire Book where the ‘obedience of Allah (swt)’ has been mentioned alone with no reference to the ‘obedience of the Messenger (saw).’ On the contrary, there are some verses where only the ‘obedience to the Messenger (saw)’ has been mentioned, and there is no reference to the ‘obedience of Allah (swt).’ The reason for so much stress upon the obedience of the Prophet (sa) is that the obedience of Allah (swt) cannot be carried out except through obedience of the Prophet (sa).”
The second term is It’iba (following). Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “Say (O Muhammad (sa) to mankind): ‘If you really love Allah, then follow me (i.e. accept Islamic Monotheism, follow the Quran and the Sunnah), Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’” (Al-Imran 3:31)
It’iba (following) has been described by some scholars as meaning ‘to follow step by step,’ in other words, tracing the footsteps. This is why we find that the companions used to follow the Prophet (sa) in every little deed to the extent that even if he had his upper button open, they would follow him.
The Key to the Quran
Describing those who stress on following only the Quran and not the Sunnah, Muhammad Asad writes: “Those who speak so, resemble a man, who wishes to enter a palace but does not wish to employ the genuine key, which alone is fit to open the door.”
Indeed, the Sunnah is the key to the Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah are so intertwined that you cannot possibly separate them. The Sunnah explains the Quran by making clear the meaning of words used in the Quran; by mentioning exceptions to general rules in the Quran; and by explaining the cause and context of certain commands in the Quran etc. For example, the Quran commands observing the Salah as many as 73 times, but it does not describe its method. The method is contained in the Sunnah. This too has some wisdom behind it – to enforce the importance of the Sunnah.
Furthermore, the life of the Prophet (sa) is a practical demonstration of the Quran. Aisha (rta) used to say: “His character was the Quran.”
Sunnah in our lives
Our Deeds (even the worldly acts for satisfying our needs) done in accordance with the Sunnah become Ibadah (worship). In this way, the Sunnah acts as a machine transforming meagre things or waste into gold and adding them to our account for earning Jannah (Paradise).
Following the Sunnah in our everyday lives is also a systematic training in obedience. Muhammad Asad in his book “Islam at the Crossroads” gives a thought provoking example of a man who is not very accustomed to walking. If asked to walk a long distance, he would not be able to do so. However, for a person trained in walking his whole life, this would not be difficult at all. Thus, if we constantly follow the Sunnah in our daily lives, our moral laziness gets diminished, and we do not find obedience in greater matters to be difficult.