By Sheikh Suhaib Hasan March 30, 2005

Chapter 1

Revelation Besides the Qur’an

The Qur’an is the word of God which was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and preserved both verbally and in writing by his Companions. Apart from the Qur’an, whatever the Prophet uttered or did was also preserved by the Companions. Thus the Sunnah includes the sayings of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) known commonly as hadiths (i.e., sayings), his practices, and actions which gained his approval. Both the Qur’an and the Sunnah fall under a common title wahy (revelation or inspiration); the difference between the two is that the Qur’an is a revelation which is recited (matluw) in the formal prayer (salah) while the Sunnah is not recited in the formal prayers. The importance of the Sunnah as the second source of Islam is covered in Chapter 2.

First of all, we will establish that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) not only received the verses of the Qur’an from God, but he also received other revelation from time to time which is now preserved in the form of hadiths. The following examples show how the Qur’an itself refers to this revelation:

  1. God Almighty commanded the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to face the Ka`bah in Makkah in his daily prayers instead of Jerusalem:

[We see the turning of thy face to the heavens: now shall We turn thee to a Qiblah that shall please thee. Turn then thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque; wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction.] (Al-Baqarah 2:144)

But why was the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) facing Jerusalem before that? The preceding verse shows that God Himself had appointed Jerusalem as the initial qiblah for the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him):

[And we appointed the Qiblah to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (from the Faith).] (Al-Baqarah 2:143)

The appointment of the previous qiblah is referred to as being in the past. But there is no verse in the Qur’an which commands the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to face Jerusalem at the beginning of his mission! Therefore, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) must have received this guidance from God in a form other than the Qur’an. As we have said above, this alternative revelation is preserved in the Sunnah.

  1. In Surat At-Tahrim, a certain incident is cited:

[When the Prophet disclosed a matter in confidence to one of his wives, and she then divulged it, and God made it known to him, made known (to her) part thereof and passed over part, she said, “Who told you this?” He said, “He told me Who knows and is well-acquainted (with all things).”] (At-Tahrim 66:3)

We must consider carefully the phrases “God made it known to him” and “He told me Who knows and is well-acquainted.” The question is, how did God make it known to him and tell him? Certainly not via the Qur’an, since there is no mention of it anywhere else in the Book of God. Therefore, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) must have been told via revelation from God which is not part of the Qur’an.

  1. In Surat Al-Hashr, a reference is made to the expedition against the rebellious Jewish tribe of Banu An-Nadir, during which the Muslims cut down some palm trees and left others alone.

[Whether ye (O Muslims) cut down the tender palm trees or ye left them standing on their roots, it was by leave of God, and in order that He might cover the rebellious transgressors with shame.] (Al-Hashr 59:5)

Here, their action is attributed to the “leave of God” given to them. Nowhere in the Qur’an is such permission found. Hence God guided the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in this matter but not via the Qur’an.

  1. According to Surat Al-Qiyamah, verses 17–18, God took it upon Himself to collect the Qur’an. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) directed the scribes of the Qur’an to arrange its surahs in the order found today; this is not the order in which they were revealed. Therefore, since this was God’s responsibility, it shows that He guided the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) with respect to the order of the surahs.

These are just a few examples out of many which leave no doubt that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to receive revelation from God either directly or through the medium of the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel). A part of this revelation was preserved word for word under the title of the Qur’an. All other revelation was embodied either in the Prophet’s sayings or in his practices, which were carefully preserved by the Companions as the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

The Various Purposes Served by the Sunnah

The Mother of the Believers `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) was once asked, “What was the character of the Prophet?” She replied, “His character was nothing but the Qur’an.” Thus the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was an embodiment of the Qur’an itself: Whatever he practiced or said, i.e., the Sunnah, is related to the guidance of the Qur’an. Let us explore the role of the Sunnah in relation to the Qur’an.

  1. The Sunnah explains Qur’anic injunctions in detail.
  2. God says in Surat Al-Baqarah 2:43 [Establish prayer and pay zakah]; and many similar verses also exist. All issues related to the prayer, such as the required number of daily prayers, the number of prayer rak`ahsand the recitation in each prayer, as well as how to perform the prayer from beginning to end, are explained by the Sunnah. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Pray as you have seen me pray” (Al-Bukhari).
  3. Similarly, all issues related to the poor due (zakah), such as the minimum amount on which zakah becomes payable, the percentage paid, the kinds of wealth, goods, and animals on which zakah is obligatory, etc., are clearly expounded by the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
  4. Again, a detailed picture of fasting and Hajj can only be seen in the Sunnah, for the Qur’an has touched upon both subjects briefly.
  5. Almighty God says in Surat Al-Ma’idah:

[As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hand—a punishment from God by way of example for their crime. And God is exalted in Power, Wise.] (Al-Ma’idah 5:38)

The Sunnah explains the minimum of stolen goods for which a thief deserves this punishment, and the manner in which the hand should be cut off.

  1. To reject the Sunnah, as some misguided “Muslims” advocate, will render the whole Qur’an open to a hotchpotch of interpretations inspired by the individuals’ whims and desires, which often come from the devil. For example, someone who does not accept the practical demonstration of formal prayer given by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) will make a mockery of salah by doing it in a way suitable to his wishes. But how can a Muslim worship God, if he does not know the way in which God wants to be worshiped?
  2. The Sunnah can establish a specific meaning when a number of meanings are possible.
  3. God Almighty says:

[It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with zhulm that are in security, and they are on (right) guidance.] (Surat Al-An`am 6:82)

Imam Al-Bukhari relates that some of the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) took the word zhulm in its general meaning, “to do injustice, to do wrong, to sin.” So they were troubled and said, “Which of us has not done wrong?” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) relieved them of this worry by explaining that zhulm here means “to commit shirk” (to associate partners with God in worship or belief or both; idol worship; polytheism), as in Surat Luqman:

[Indeed, worshiping others besides God is great injustice (zhulm).] (Luqman 31:13)

  1. Almighty God says in Surat At-Tawbah:

[Those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the Way of God, announce unto them a most grievous penalty. On the day when it will (all) be heated in the fire of hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs.] (At-Tawbah 9:34)

The Arabic word kanz means a hoard, big or small. So this verse seemingly dooms a person who hoards any amount and does not spend it in the way of God. With this meaning in mind, `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) questioned the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) about this verse, to which he replied that once the poor tax (zakah) which is due on the hoarded amount is paid, it is no longer considered as kanz (reported by Ibn Majah).

  1. The sayings of the Prophet explain some historical events in detail since they are mentioned only briefly in the Qur’an.
  2. God says in Surat Al-Anfal:

[Behold! God promised you one of the two (enemy) parties, that it should be yours; ye wished that the one unarmed should be yours, but God intended to justify the Truth according to His words and to cut off the roots of the unbelievers.] (Al-Anfal 8:7)

Which two parties are meant? Which of them is unarmed? From books of Hadith we learn the relevant details about the Battle of Badr, which is the incident referred to in the above verses.

  1. In Surat At-Tawbah, we read:

[(God turned in mercy) to the three who were left behind.] (At-Tawbah 9: 118)

Who were these three people, and why did they remain behind? Again, the books of Hadith explain this.

  1. Surat `Abasa begins with these words:

[He frowned and turned away, because there came to him the blind man.] (`Abasa 80:1–2)

Who frowned and turned away, and why? Who was the blind man? The details are furnished by the books of Hadith.

  1. The Sunnah can specify exemptions from a general injunction.
  2. In Surat An-Nisaa’, the share of children in inheritance is given:

[God directs you as regards your children’s inheritance.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:11)

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) explained that the Muslim child of a disbeliever, the non-Muslim child of a Muslim, and the murderer of his/her own father cannot inherit.

  1. The Qur’an declares the flesh of a dead animal and blood as prohibited (Al-Ma’idah 5:3). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) exempted fish and locusts from the term dead flesh and the liver and spleen from blood.
  2. The Sunnah can deduce a similar injunction in an analogous case.
  3. In Surat An-Nisaa’, God says:

[Prohibited to you are … two sisters in wedlock at one and the same time.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:23)

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) declared that to marry a woman as well as her aunt in the same wedlock is also prohibited.

  1. Alcohol is declared unlawful by Almighty God (Al-Ma’idah 5:93). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) extended the prohibition to anything which is intoxicating in large doses, even if it is taken in a small quantity.
  2. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) gave additional injunctions in a number of issues.

One of the many duties of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) was to tell the believers what is lawful (halal) and what is unlawful (haram) (Al-A`raf 7:157). For example, he prohibited the flesh of donkeys, dogs, beasts with canine teeth, and birds of prey. He also made gold and silk haram for Muslim men, but halal for Muslim women.

Chapter 2

Significance of the Sunnah

No devout Muslim would ever dare to go against the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah, but it is regrettable to note that some of the liberal elite tend to raise the slogan that the Book of God (the Qur’an) is enough and that there is no need at all for the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Slogans like this are raised mainly by people who want to get rid of the Islamic Law completely. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself was well aware that such ill-natured opinions would arise and hence gave a clear warning of this as reported by Al-Miqdam ibn Ma`di Karib, one of his Companions:

I have indeed been given the Qur’an and something similar to it besides it. Yet, the time will come when a man leaning on his couch will say, “Follow the Qur’an only; what you find in it as halal, take it as halal; and what you find in it as haram, take it as haram.” But truly, what the Messenger of God has forbidden is like what God has forbidden. (Abu Dawud and Darimi)

In fact, anyone who rejects the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) does not believe in the Qur’an, for Almighty God Himself has emphasized the importance of the Sunnah in many verses, of which a few are given below.

[O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you; and if you differ in anything among yourselves, then refer it to God and the Messenger if you do believe in God and the Last Day. That is best and most suitable for final determination.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:59)

[The answer of the believers, when summoned to God and His Messenger in order that he may judge between them, is no other than this: they say, “We hear and we obey.” It is such as these who will attain success.](An-Nur 24:51)

[But no, by your Lord! (O Muhammad) They cannot be believers until they make you judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions, but accept them with the fullest submission.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:65)

Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of God said, “I have left among you two things; you will never go astray as long as you hold fast to them: the Book of God and my Sunnah” (Al-Hakim).

The Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to hold the commandments given by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in a very high esteem, making no distinctions between them and those given by God.

  • Once ‘Abdullah ibn Mas`ud quoted this saying of the Prophet while he was delivering a sermon: “May God curse the women who tattoo their bodies and those who pluck their eyebrows; those who separate their teeth to make them look more pretty and those who try to change the creation of God.” A woman named Umm Ya`qub from the tribe of Banu Asad came to know of these words. She approached Ibn Mas`ud and said, “O Abu ‘Abdur-Rahman! It was reported to me that you have cursed such and such women.” He said, “Why should I not curse those whom the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) cursed and who are cursed in the Book of God as well?” She said, “I have read whatever is contained between the two covers (i.e., the whole Qur’an).” He replied, “Had you been a good reader, you would have discovered it. Did you not read the following verse? [So take whatever the Messenger gives you and keep away from what he forbids you] (Al-Hashr 59:7).”

There are numerous examples set by the Companions which show how emphatically they abided by the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to the extent of severing their relations with their kith and kin once they discovered someone going against the Sunnah. Let us have some examples from the lives of the great caliphs of Islam followed by many other Companions:

  • Just after the death of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) three major issues confronted the Muslim community. They could have left it apart and disunited, had it not been for the wise guidance of Abu Bakr who settled them amicably in the light of the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). The first issue was related to the appointment of the khalifah (leader of the Muslims, caliph). Assembled in Saqifat Bani Sa`idah, a great number of Muhajirun (those who emigrated from Makkah to Madinah) and Ansar (those who helped the emigrants from Makkah) originally had been busy arguing this issue. The Ansar proposed that the leader should be appointed from both of the above communities. The noble companion Abu Bakr cited the saying of the Prophet “Leaders (imams) should be from Quraysh (the tribe of Prophet Muhammad) as long as they have the understanding (of the religion).” The Ansar conceded to this quietly. The great companion `Umar proposed the name of Abu Bakr as the khalifah, which was accepted unanimously by those present there and later followed by all the inhabitants of Madinah through the oath of allegiance.
  • The second issue was related to the place where the Prophet should be buried. Again the companion Abu Bakr cited the saying of the Prophet “A Prophet is to be buried where he breathes his last.” Accordingly, his burial took place in the apartment of his wife, the Mother of the Faithful `A’ishah, where he died.
  • The third issue was related to the inheritance of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as raised by his daughter Fatimah who came to the Caliph Abu Bakr asking for her share. Abu Bakr replied by reminding her of the saying of the Prophet: “We, the community of the prophets, are not inherited from; whatever we leave behind us is a charity.” Fatimah did not argue further, but retired quietly.
  • Once the great Companion `Umar saw Khalid ibn Al-Walid wearing a silk shirt. He asked him to take it off (since it is forbidden for Muslim men to wear silk). Khalid replied that `Abdur-Rahman ibn `Auf used to have one as well. `Umar said, “The Prophet allowed him because he suffered badly from itching.” Khalid then had no alternative but to take if off.
  • Following the news of the Muslim’s victory in the conquest of Syria, `Umar advanced to Damascus with a number of Companions. On reaching the outskirts of Amwas, a town in Syria, the news of a widespread plague in the town reached him. `Umar consulted his men whether or not he should venture into the town. The heated discussion that followed came to an end when `Abdur-Rahman ibn `Auf cited this saying of the Prophet: “If you are inside a place where an epidemic breaks out, don’t come out of it. And don’t go in if you happen to be away from such a place.” `Umar eventually commanded his people to retreat. Someone still remarked, “`Umar, do you run away from a destiny decreed by God?” To this `Umar replied, “Yes, we run away from one destiny to the other decreed by God as well.” Such was the wisdom of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and centuries ago it foreshadowed today’s quarantine regulations.
  • Caliph `Uthman once agreed to buy a piece of land from a person. On the completion of the verbal agreement, he asked the man to collect the money the following day. But the man turned up after a few days, only to renounce the agreement. He had changed his mind because his friends had blamed him for selling the land at a low price. `Uthman could have been adamant about the sale, particularly when it had been agreed upon completely. But he remembered the saying of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) which admired a person who treated the people easily and wholeheartedly in his sales. So, `Uthman preferred to concede to the man’s wish without raising any objection.
  • Once `Ali was approached by a person who wanted his counsel concerning the engagement of his daughter, whose hand was sought by three persons: Hasan, Husayn, and ‘Abdullah ibn Ja`far. `Ali found himself involved personally, as his two sons were among the candidates. But he recalled the saying of the Prophet “The one whose counsel is sought should be honest.” So after giving some thought, he told the man, “Don’t go for Hasan because he is known to have divorced his women many times. And don’t go for Husayn, as well, as he loves to be admired. Rather go for `Abdullah ibn Ja`far.”
  • In one of his journeys, `Ali found a merchant hoarding a stock of grain in the hope of a good price. `Ali reminded him of the saying of the Prophet “The hoarder is cursed,” and instructed his people to set the stock on fire as a punishment.

This is how the four caliphs reacted to the Sunnah of the Prophet. Let us have some more examples from the lives of the Companions.

  • `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud heard a man saying after a sneeze, “Al-hamdu lillah wa as-salatu wa as-salamu `ala Rasuli Allah.” Ibn Mas`ud said to him, “Whatever you have said is true, but that is not the way that the Prophet has taught us. He instructed us to say simply ‘al-hamdu lillah’ after sneezing.”It would be appropriate to remind all Muslims about this Sunnah, which is commonly abandoned by a great number of them. Say “al-hamdu lillah” whenever you sneeze. If you hear someone saying this after sneezing, say to him “yarhamukumu Allah” (may God have mercy upon you). The sneezer should pray for you as well by saying “Yahdikum Allah wa yuslihu balakum” (may God guide you and set your affairs right). There are plenty of occasions when you should say “as-salatu wa as-salamu ‘ala Rasuli Allah.” You should say it, for example, whenever you hear the name of our beloved Prophet or whenever you enter a mosque or step out of it, adding these words respectively: “Allahumma iftah li abwaba rahmatik” (O God, open for me the doors of Your mercy) and “Allahumma inni as’aluka min fadlika” (O God, I ask You for Your bounty).
  • Once `Abdullah ibn `Abbas was sitting beside the Ka`bah when Emir Mu`awiah entered the Grand Mosque and began circumambulating the Ka`bah. He kissed the Black Stone in the beginning, but he rubbed his hand on the other three corners of Ka`bah as well. Ibn `Abbas knew that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)—apart from kissing the Black Stone and rubbing the Yemeni corner—had never touched the other two corners during Tawaf. So he objected to Mu`awiah, to which the latter replied, “To me none of the four corners of the Ka`bah is deserted.” “But that was not the practice of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him),” Ibn `Abbas emphasized. Mu`awiyyah could only say, “You have said the truth.”
  • Once Ibn `Abbas saw a man drawing a picture of a living being. He advised him not to do that because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade such a practice.
  • `Abdullah ibn `Umar was well-known for his adherence to the Sunnah. He once saw his son Bilal stopping his wife from going to the mosque. `Abdullah said, “Don’t do that because the Messenger of God said, ‘Don’t stop the female servants of God from entering the houses of God.’” Bilal was adamant that he would not allow her to go, even after listening to this saying. Ibn `Umar was so upset that he swore never to speak to him again until his dying day.
  • `Abdullah ibn `Amr ibn Al-`Aas had a very large garden with a great number of palm trees. Water in this area was so abundant that his assistant planned to sell the extra amount of it, after irrigating the whole garden, to a neighbor at an exorbitant price of 30,000 dirhams. That offer could have attracted anyone except a Companion like `Abdullah ibn `Amr, who refused to approve of this sale because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade the selling of any extra water.
  • Abu Hurayrah used to address a gathering of Muslims on Friday eve. Once, before beginning his sermon, he said to the people, “Whoever has cut off from any of his relations should leave this place.” No one stood up. On repeating these words thrice, a young man left the place and went to his aunt whom he had deserted a long time before, and reconciled with her. Abu Hurayrah said this because he knew that all actions are presented to God on each Friday eve. He didn’t like his assembly of the devout to be smeared by a person who had committed the sin of deserting his relatives. By doing so, he saved a person from a major sin.
  • Anas ibn Malik was known to be a faithful servant of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Once he was invited to a party where a Magian offered him some faluda (a well-known drink) in a silver cup. Anas refused to accept it. He preferred to drink in an earthen pot than to use the silver one because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade the Muslims from eating or drinking from gold or silver utensils.

This is how the Companions behaved throughout their lives—setting sublime examples of adherence to the Sunnah.

The numerous examples given above are from the Companions. Let us see what the four great imams have said about the authority of the Sunnah.

  • Imam Abu Hanifah was asked, “What do we do if we find a saying of yours opposing the Book of God?” He replied, “Leave my saying and stick to the Book of God.” The questioner asked, “What if it contradicts a saying of the Prophet?” Abu Hanifah said, “Leave my saying in the face of the Prophet’s saying.” Again he was asked, “What if it goes against the saying of a Companion?” Again he said, “Leave my saying in the face of the Companion’s saying” (Shawkani in Al-Qawl Al-Mufid). Imam Abu Hanifah also declared, “My way (madhhab) is whatever hadith that is proved to be authentic” (Shami 1:50; Al-Fulani in Iqaz, p. 62).
  • The saying of Imam Malik ibn Anas is well-known: “The saying of any person can be accepted or rejected, except for the Prophet of God (peace and blessings be upon him)” (Ibn `Abd Al-Barr and Ibn Hazm; also in Al-Yawaqeet wa Al-Jawahir 2:96). He also said, “I am just a mortal; sometimes I am wrong, sometimes I am right—so check my opinions. Whatever agrees with the Book (the Qu’ran) and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever disagrees with them, reject it” (Al-Fulani in Iqaz, p. 72).
  • Once Imam As-Shafi`i narrated a hadith of the Prophet. Someone from the audience said, “Do you say so as well?” On hearing this, the imam was enraged. His face turned pale and he said, “Woe to you! Which earth would carry me, which sky would shelter me, if I narrate a saying of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and do not hold the same view! Do you see a zunnar (belt worn by non-Muslims) on me? Or have you noticed me coming out of a church? How can I report something from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and not agree with it!”
  • Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, “Do not follow me or Malik or Shafi`i or Awza`i or Thawri, but take from where they took (from the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah)” (Al-Fulani and Ibn Al-Qayyim). He also said, “He who rejects a saying of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) is on the verge of destruction” (Ibn Al-Jawzi).


Sheikh Suhaib Hassan is a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research

The works posted on this section reflect solely the opinions of the authors.