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Do we have to follow the Sunnah (Hadith) of the Prophet?

Man with camel on the Sam Sand Dunes at sunset, in the Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

Until recently, I had thought that all Muslims follow the Quran as the primary source of knowledge, guidance and information, as well as following the Hadith (traditions or Sunnah) of the Prophet. I then found out about a school of thought called ‘Quranism’ – the followers of this believe that the Quran should be the only source of guidance for Muslims, and disregard all Sunnah and Hadith of the Prophet. Though it might seem to make sense, at the same time it seems to disagree with alot of aspects of the Prophets life and what he taught us.

What are hadith?

Hadith, also referred to as ‘Sunnah’ sometimes, refer to sayings, teachings or advice of the Prophet that he said in his lifetime, and that were then transmitted orally, and written down at a later time.

Are they credible?

The argument is that since they were transmitted orally, it could be ‘chinese whispers’ and people added on and embellished to what was said, or even made up something to suit what they thought and attributed to the Prophet. This was a real problem, that still continues today with alot of ‘weak’ hadith being regarded as true. This is a long topic covered extensively by others, but the main points to note are:

  • Only 6 collections are regarded as authentic, 2 of which are Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim that are seen as the strongest; any others are disregarded
  • The screening process for these hadith was very intense: the sources had to be reliable people, who heard it first hand, and more preferred were hadith that more than one credible person had heard. For instance a hadith by the Prophets companion such as Umar or Ali is regarded as very true, but one relatively unknown person saying they heard the Prophet say  something isn’t enough credibility.
  • There were lots of hadith that were filtered down because of this screening process, for instance it is said that Al-Bukhari collected over 300,000 hadith and included only 2,602 traditions in his Sahih collection.

Why follow just the quran

The Quran is the word of Allah speaking directly to us, and Allah has said that he will protect the Quran from being changed (Quran 15:9). So of course it is much more credible to follow the Quran for this reason as well, because as stated hadith can be changed or modified. This, and the fact that the Quran is directly Allah’s word, is seen as enough reason to follow the Quran alone. However, there are other indications and thoughts to look at before disregarding Hadith completely. Below are the reasons that I came up with or found.

#1 Implementing the Quran in our life

To follow the Quran doesn’t mean to simply read it, but to implement it in our daily life. A person could read the Quran and what it says about praying in middle of the night and perhaps think ‘This seems difficult to me; how can I do all of this? Wake up in the middle of the night to pray? It’s not possible for a person!’ and then just leave the religion altogether or to follow the parts they choose and disregard others. By reading Hadith and learning about Prophet Muhammad, we see that he showed us how to live the Quran, by setting an example for us. He would stand up often to pray in the night for long periods, for instance there is a Hadith:

Narrated Aisha: The Prophet used to offer prayer at night (for such a long time) that his feet used to crack. I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Why do you do it since Allah has forgiven you your faults of the past and those to follow?” He said, “Shouldn’t I love to be a thankful slave (of Allah)?’ When he became old, he prayed while sitting, but if he wanted to perform a bowing, he wound get up, recite (some other verses) and then perform the bowing.
Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 360 and 361

This Hadith gives us an insight on how a true Muslim and believer in Allah and the Quran would feel about night prayers, and shows that a human being is capable of doing it if they want to.

#2 Avoiding misinterpretations

As mentioned, the Quran is Allah’s word and comes with a lot of weight. While Allah has sent it using words that people can understand, it is a book with many levels and many lessons to be learnt. In this way, the Prophet can be seen as a teacher for us. Just as you wouldn’t pick up a book about Quantum Physics, read it through and think you understood it, it’s the same way with the Quran. You would need someone, ideally a teacher, to guide you through it and to help you understand what it’s saying and its meanings.

Without this teaching, you are also open to misinterpreting the Quran. I witnessed an example of this recently when a famous Hollywood celebrity died, and people had put up statuses on Facebook saying how sad they were and offering condolences. A person whom I don’t know got upset at this, and commented on my friend’s status that we shouldn’t mourn for this celebrity because they had been a Christian and so a non-believer and we shouldn’t feel sorry for them, citing verses from the Quran which talk about the disbelieving people and Allah’s wrath on them. This sort of narrow-minded interpretation of the Quran is dangerous because it leads to a way of thinking that is intolerant and contrary to the teachings of the Prophet.

A person who would look at Hadiths would learn how tolerant and compassionate our Prophet had been, even to non-Muslims.

Narrated ‘Abdur Rahman bin Abi Laila: Sahl bin Hunaif and Qais bin Sad were sitting in the city of Al-Qadisiya. A funeral procession passed in front of them and they stood up. They were told that funeral procession was of one of the inhabitants of the land i.e. of a non-believer, under the protection of Muslims. They said, “A funeral procession passed in front of the Prophet and he stood up. When he was told that it was the coffin of a Jew, he said, “Is it not a living being (soul)?” (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 399)

Hadith like this are essential to understanding the good character a Muslim person has, which upon reading the Quran might be hard to understand for some.

It says in the Quran about itself that there will be those people who will take the words of Allah and use them for their own meanings:

As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah . But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding. (Quran, Surah Ali Imran, Verse 7)

From ‘those of understanding’, who better than Prophet Muhammad to help us understand the Quran.

#3 Why send a Messenger at all?

If Allah had willed, he could have sent down the Quran directly through the angel Jibrail and given it to the people. Why did he choose to send it through Jibrail to a person, Prophet Muhammad, who was then told to tell it to the people? Allah knows best, but when thinking about this, one of the main reasons is because the Prophet was an exceptional person, unlike normal people. He was called ‘Al-Amin’, the trustworthy one, and people like Abu Bakr converted to Islam instantly upon hearing him because of his reputation of always telling the truth.

A person of strong character such as the Prophet Muhammad was needed to show people how to live the Quran, how to recite it, how to read it, how to understand it and how to live by it. Allah does everything for a reason, and to disregard anything the Prophet said or did seems to oppose Allah’s decision to choose Muhammad from all the people.

#4 Prophets last sermon

Whether you believe in Hadith or not, in his Final Sermon before he passed away he clearly spoke about telling those people who were not there to listen to pass on the message. This is something ‘Quranists’ cannot even deny and so must listen to the words of his Farewell Sermon.

“O People, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today…”

He then went on to say

Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Quran and my example, the Sunnah, and if you follow these you will never go astray.

In various ways, implicitly and explicitly, he highlighted in this sermon the importance of passing on his teaching to whose who could not be there, that his words have importance, the Quran is primary  but then to also follow his Sunnah, his example.

#5 No contradictions

Whatever the Prophet said or did was inspired by Allah and he was given guidance. The Prophet would not give out advice or rulings based on his own thoughts and feelings, but rather what Allah had decreed. It would make sense to deny hadith if they contradicted Quran, for instance the Quran says you can have 4 wives but the Prophet said ‘Well actually you can have 6 if you like’. His life complimented the Quran, and so his Hadith must compliment it, and not contradict it, which they do.

Aisha, his wife, when asked what the Prophet’s characters was like, she answered ‘His character was the Quran’.

#6 Who do we ask for advice?

There are several hadith where people have come and asked the Prophet for advice regarding law or personal affairs, or he disclosed some advice. It seems unfair that only the people who lived at the Prophets time get to benefit from such pearls of wisdom, when it is clear that the advice can benefit all Muslims. One example is this beautiful hadith:

Young man, (the Prophet said to ‘Abdullah ibn al-‘Abbas) hear some words of advice; Be mindful of God and God will protect you. Be mindful of God and you will find Him before you. If you seek help, seek Help of God. Know that if all the people were to gather together to give you the benefit of anything, it would be something that God had already prescribed for you, and that if they gathered together to harm you with anything, this would only be as God had already ordained. (At-Tirmidhi)

Although the points mentioned above might be found in the Quran in different places and phrased in different ways, the Prophet put it into perspective for us. I’m sure that though his advice was to Abdullah ibn Al-Abbas, he would have wanted all people to benefit from this advice.

Following the Quran and the Prophet

After looking deeper into the topic, I feel more strongly than ever on following Hadith and Sunnah of the Prophet. He was chosen as the best of human beings from us, and is an ideal role model for all Muslims wishing to follow the Quran truly.

May Allah give us all guidance, help us to love and understand the Quran, make it a part of our daily life, and assist us in being more like our beloved Prophet Muhammad.

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