”The ultimate manifestation of God’s grace for man, the ultimate wisdom, and the ultimate beauty of expression: in short, the word of God.”
This is how the German scholar, Muhammad Asad, once described the Qur’an, and if one were to ask any Muslim to describe it, they would most likely offer similar words. The Qur’an, to the Muslim, is the irrefutable, inimitable Word of God.
The Qur’an was revealed by God Almighty to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) over a period of twenty-three years. The Prophet (pbuh) himself had no role in authoring the Qur’an, and was simply inspired to speak what he heard from the Divine Creator :«“He (Muhammad) does not speak of his own desire. It is no less than an Inspiration sent down to him.”» [53:3-4]
The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic. It is composed in a style so unique, that it cannot be deemed either poetry or prose, but somehow a mixture of both. The Qur’an is inimitable; it cannot be simulated or copied, and God Almighty challenges mankind to pursue such an endeavor if he thinks he can: «“Or do they say he forged it? Say: Bring then a chapter like unto it, and call (to your aid) anyone you can, beside God, if it be you speak the truth.” »[10:38].
The Qur’an’s language is indeed sublime, its recitation moving, as one non-Muslim scholar noted, it was like “the cadence of my heartbeat”. Due to its unique style of language, the Qur’an is not only highly readable, but also relatively easy to remember. This latter aspect has played an important role not only in the Qur’an’s preservation, but in the spiritual life of Muslims as well. God Himself declares, «“And We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to understand and remember; then is there anyone that will receive admonition?” »[54:17]
One of the most important characteristics of the Qur’an is that it remains today, the only holy book which has never changed; it has remained free from any and all adulterations. Sir William Muir noted, “There is probably in the world no other book which has remained (fourteen) centuries with so pure a text.”
The Qur’an was written down during the lifetime and under the supervision of the Prophet, who himself was illiterate, and it was compiled together shortly after his death by a rigorous method which scrutinized both written and oral traditions. Thus its authenticity is unblemished, and is its preservation is seen as the fulfillment of God’s promise: “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message, and We will assuredly guard it from corruption.” [15:9]
The Qur’an is a book which provides the human being the spiritual and intellectual nourishment he/she craves. Its major themes include:
- the oneness of God,
- the purpose of human existence,
- faith and God-consciousness,
- the Hereafter and its significance.
The Qur’an also lays a heavy emphasis upon reason and understanding. In these spheres of human understanding, the Qur’an goes beyond just satisfying the human intellect; it causes one to reflect on implications. There are Qur’anic challenges and prophecies. One of the most exciting fields in recent years has been the discovery that, of the significant amount of scientific information in the Qur’an, including:
- the event of the Big Bang,
- embryological data,
- and other information concerning astronomy biology, etc.,
There is not a single statement that has not been borne out by modern discoveries. In short, the Qur’an fulfills the heart, the soul, and the mind.
Perhaps the best description of the Qur’an was given by Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) when he expounded upon it as,
““The Book of God. In it is the record of what was before you, the judgment of what is among you, and the prophecies of what will come after you. It is decisive, not a case for levity. Whoever is a tyrant and ignores the Qur’an will be destroyed by God. Whoever seeks guidance from other than it will be misguided. The Qur’an is the unbreakable bond of connection with God; it is the remembrance full of wisdom and the straight path. The Qur’an does not become distorted by tongues, nor can it be deviated by caprices; it never dulls from repeated study; scholars will always want more of it. The wonders of the Qur’an are never ending. Whoever speaks from it will speak the truth, whoever rules with it will be just, and whoever holds fast to it will be guided to the straight path.”” [Al-Tirmidhi]
The term Sunnah comes from the root word sanna, which means to pave the way or make a path easily passable, such that it becomes a commonly followed way by everyone afterwards.
Thus sunnah can be used to describe a street or road or path on which people, animals, and cars travel. Additionally, it can apply to a prophetic way, i.e. the law that they brought and taught as an explanation or further clarification of a divinely revealed book. Normally, the prophetic way includes references to his sayings, actions, physical features and character traits.
From the Islamic standpoint, Sunnah refers to anything narrated or related about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), authentically traced to him regarding his speech, actions, traits, and silent approvals, before and after the revelation.
Each narration is composed of two parts: the isnad (the chain of people who narrated a particular narration) and the matn (the actual text of the narration). The isnad must comprise upright and sincere individuals whose integrity is unquestionable.
The Speech of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
The speech of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) refers to his sayings. For example, he said: ““Actions are judged by their intentions; everyone will be rewarded according to his/her intention. So whoever migrates for the sake of Allah and His Prophet then his migration will be noted as a migration for the sake of Allah and His Prophet. Conversely, one who migrates only to obtain something worldly or to marry a woman, then his migration will be worth what he had intended.” ”[Bukhari].
The Prophet (pbuh) also said: ““Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, should say something good or keep quiet. ” ”
The above two accounts clearly show that the Prophet (pbuh) spoke these words. Consequently, these are known as his speech.
The Actions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
His actions pertain to anything he did, as authentically reported by the Sahabah (Companions).
For instance, a companion of the Prophet, Hudhayfah reported that whenever the Prophet (pbuh) got up at night, he would clean his teeth with a tooth-stick.
Also his wife, A’ishah reported that the Prophet (pbuh) loved to do everything starting with the right side – putting on shoes, walking, cleaning himself, and in all his affairs generally.
The Silent Approvals of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
His silent approvals on different issues meant his not opposing or minding what he saw, heard or knew of the actions or sayings of his Companions.
On one occasion, for example, the Prophet (pbuh) learned of actions of some of his Companions from other Companions. Soon after the battle of Khandaq, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) gave the order to the Companions to move quickly to surround the tribe of Banu Quraydah, encouraging them to hurry so that perhaps they would pray ‘Asr (the late afternoon prayer) there. Some of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) responded immediately and left without praying ‘Asr. They arrived after sunset, pitched camp and prayed ‘Asr- after sunset. At the same time another group of Companions formulated their judgment differently. They thought that the Prophet (pbuh) was merely encouraging them to hasten to their destination, rather than to delay ‘Asr until after sunset. Consequently, they decided to stay in Madinah until they had prayed ‘Asr. Immediately thereafter, they hastened towards the tribe of Banu Quraydhah. When the Prophet (pbuh) was told of how each group responded differently to his announcement, he (pbuh) affirmed both judgments.
Everything authentically narrated concerning the Prophet’s complexion and the rest of his physical features are also included in the definition of sunnah.
Umm Ma’bad described what she saw of the great Prophet (pbuh). She said: ““I saw a man, his face radiant with a bright glow, not too thin or too fat, elegant and handsome. His eyes had a deep black hue with long eyelashes. His voice was pleasant and his neck long. He had a thick beard. His long black eyebrows were beautifully arched and connected to each other. In silence, he remained dignified, commanding utmost awe and respect. When he spoke, his speech was brilliant. Of all people he was the most handsome and the most pleasant, even when approaching from a distance. In person, he was unique and most admirable. Graced with eloquent logic, his speech was moderate. His logical arguments were well organized as though they were a string of gems. He was not too tall or too short, but exactly in between. Among three, he appeared the most radiant and most vibrant. He had companions who affectionately honored him. When he spoke, they listened to him attentively. When he gave orders, they were quick to execute them. They rallied around him guarding him. He never frowned or spoke frivolously.”” [Hakim]
Along with his physical features, his Companions also described his habits and behavior with people. Once Anas reported: ““I served the Prophet of Allah (pbuh) for ten years. Never once did he so much as express any bit of displeasure nor did he ever ask ‘Why did you do it?’ for something I did or ‘Why didn’t you do it?’ for something I didn’t do.” ”
From the above we can clearly see that when the term sunnah appears in a general context referring to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) it comprises anything narrated about the Prophet (pbuh) and authentically traced to him. Once a Muslim learns of the authenticity of any narration, he/she is obliged to follow and obey it accordingly. Such obedience is mandated by Allah as He declares «“…and obey Allah and His Prophet and do not turn away when you hear (him speak).”» [8:20]
At times, some Muslims are perplexed when people say that sunnah is something only recommended and is not mandatory. Thus they conclude that we are only required to follow the Qur’an and not the Sunnah. Such an argument results from a gross misunderstanding. Scholars of Islamic jurisprudence use the term sunnah to denote what is authentically established of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in deeds which were not subsequently made mandatory by Allah.
They further hold that this includes any saying of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where he encourages Muslims to do a particular task and compliments those who imbibe such attributes. Thus to them, the term sunnah denotes what is authentically established of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in deeds which he did voluntarily and which were not subsequently made mandatory by Allah. They further hold that this includes any saying of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where he encourages Muslims to do a particular task and compliments those who imbibe such attributes. Thus to them, the term sunnah refers to what is “recommended” and is not mandatory (in Arabic – “fard” or “wajib”).
From the above, we can clearly see that the term sunnah takes on different meanings when used by different Islamic disciplines.