What is the role of the sunna with respect to the Qur'an?
The Sunna has, besides being the unique way or example shown by God�s Messenger,
upon him be peace and blessings, in practicing Islam perfectly, two main functions.
Like the Qur�an, the Sunna is also a source of legislation; it enjoins and prohibits,
it sets the principles to establish the religious obligations and necessities,
and to determine what is lawful or unlawful. In addition to this function, the
Sunna interprets the Qur�an, as will be explained below.
The Sunna interprets the Qur�an
We recite every day in our daily prescribed prayers: �Guide us to the Straight
Path, to the path of those you have blessed, not of those who incurred (Your)
wrath, nor of the misguided� (al-Fatiha, 1.5�7).
The verses mention two groups of people but do not specify them. The Prophet,
upon him be peace and blessings, interpreted those who incurred God�s wrath
as the Jews and the misguided as the Christians.17
The Jews killed many of their Prophets and through their character and materialistic
tendencies, have contributed much to moral corruption and social upheavals and
seditions in the world. Although they had once themselves been in guidance,
and guided others to the Straight Path in the times of the Prophets Moses, David
and Solomon, upon them all be peace, they were readily misled and incurred both
God�s wrath and public ignominy. Those who are of the same character, who follow
their way without being Jews, are also included in the meaning of the phrase
those who incurred (Your) wrath.
As for the Christians, they at first obeyed Jesus and followed his way despite
persecutions of the severest kind. They heroically resisted both Jewish hypocrisy
and Roman oppression. However, they fell over time, under the influence others
who had already been deviated. By the time Christianity came to be accepted
as the official religion of the Roman Empire, many Christians had long gone
astray and been deprived of their original Scripture. It had lost its original
identity. Except for a few who still remained devoted to the original creed
of Jesus, upon him be peace, the Christians had for a long time imported foreign
elements into their religion.
By interpreting the phrases, not of those who incurred (Your) wrath, nor
of the misguided, the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, identified them
and clarified in what way and by what beliefs and deeds a man incurs God�s wrath
and goes astray. This is a warning for the Muslims not to follow in the footsteps
of the Jews and Christians.
Out of many examples showing how the Sunna interprets the Qur�an, we can
also cite the following two:
When the verse,
Those who believed and did not mix their belief with wrongdoing: for them
is security and they are those who are truly guided. (al-An�am, 6.82)
was revealed, the Companions, well aware of the meaning of wrongdoing, came
to God�s Messenger in fear and said: �Is there anybody among us who has never
done wrong?� The Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, explained: It is
not as you think. It is as Luqman said to his son: �Do not associate any partners
with God; surely, associating partners with God is a grave wrongdoing� (Luqman,
�A�isha, Mother of Believers, and Ibn Mas�ud are of the opinion that the
mid-time prayer in the verse,
Attend the prayers without any omission and the mid-time prayer.
is the afternoon prayer. Once �A�isha ordered her servant to write a copy
of the Qur�an for herself and reminded her: �When you come to the verse, Attend
the prayers without any omission, and the mid-time prayer, inform me.� When
this verse was to be copied out, �A�isha dictated to her servant: Attend the
prayers without any omission, and the mid-time prayer, the afternoon prayer,
and added: �This is what I heard from God�s Messenger, upon him be peace and
blessings.�19 Although there are some other interpretations of the mid-time
prayer, �A�isha and Ibn Mas�ud, may God be pleased with them, were certain that
it is the afternoon prayer.
17. Tirmidhi, �Tafsir al-Qur�an,� 2; Tabari, �Tafsir,� 1.61, 64.
18. Bukhari, �Tafsir,� 31/1.
19. Tirmidhi, �Tafsir al-Qur�an,� 3.
The Sunna expands on what is brief in the Qur�an
In addition to interpreting the ambiguities of the Qur�an, the Sunna also
expands on what is brief in it. To cite a few examples:
The Qur�an frequently orders: Perform the prayer accurately. However, it
does not mention how and when to perform it. Although some leading interpreters
of the Qur�an deduce the times of the prayer from some verses such as
Perform the prayer correctly at the two ends of the day and nigh of the night;
surely the good deeds remove the evil deeds. (Hud, 11.114)
the exact time of each prayer was established by the Prophet, upon him be
peace and blessings. He explains:
On two occasions, the Archangel Gabriel (upon him be peace) led me in the
five daily prayers at the Ka�ba. On the first, he performed the noon prayer
at noon when the shadow of a thing was only as long as the base of it. When
the shadow was as long as the thing itself, he performed the afternoon prayer.
He performed the evening prayer at the time a fasting person breaks his fast,
the late evening or night prayer when the dusk disappeared and the dawn prayer
when it is no longer permissible for a fasting one to eat and drink. On the
sec-ond occasion, he performed the noon prayer when the shadow was as long as
the thing and the afternoon prayer when it was twice as long as the thing itself.
He performed the evening prayer at the time he had performed it on the first
occasion, the night prayer when it was one third of the night, and the dawn
prayer when it was lighter but before sunrise. Then he turned to me and said:
�O Muhammad, each of the five daily prayers should be performed between these
two ends of its times as the Prophets before you did it.�20
In addition to the times of the daily prayers, God�s Messenger, upon him
be peace and blessings, taught his Umma also the conditions of the prayer and
the obligatory, necessary and commendable acts validating and ennobling it,
as well as the acts invalidating and damaging it. Whether in words or through
actions, he passed on to his Umma all the details of the acts of worship � prayer,
fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage and so on and, as he told them Perform the
prayer the way you see me pray-ing, he also said to them. Learn from me the
rites and ceremonies of pilgrimage,21 after he actually performed it in the
company of his Companions. If the Qur�an had elaborated the whole of the reli-gious
rites or the acts of worship down to their smallest details, the Book would
have been many times its present size.
20. Abu Dawud, �Salat,� 2; Tirmidhi, �Mawaqit,� 1.
21. Nasa�i, �Manasik,� 220; I. Hanbal, 3.366.
The Sunna restricts general laws and commands in the Qur�an
The Qur�an lays down the general principles of inheritance, without excluding
anyone from it. But, when Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, went to Abu Bakr,
the first Caliph, to transfer to her the heritage of her father, the latter
replied: �I heard God�s Messenger say: We, the community of the Prophets, do
not leave anything to be inherited. What we leave is for charity.�22 This hadith
excludes the Prophets and their children from the law of inheritance.
Likewise, God�s Messenger, upon him peace and blessings, decreed that the
killer (of his testa-tor) would be disinherited.23 That is, if somebody kills
his parents, he cannot inherit from them; or if he kills his brother or uncle,
he cannot inherit from them. This is another restriction put by the Prophet,
upon him be peace and blessings, on the general commandments of the Qur�an concerning
22. Bukhari, �I�tisam,� 5, �Khums,� 1; Muslim, �Jihad,� 51; I. Hanbal, 2.463.
23. Tirmidhi, �Fara�id,� 17.
The Sunna specifies or particularizes what is general in the Qur�an
The Qur�an commands:
And the thief, male and female, cut off the hands of both, as a recompense
for what they have earned, and a punishment exemplary from God; God is All-Mighty,
All-Wise. (al-Ma�ida, 5.38)
It is not clear in the command for what value of stolen goods the hand of
a thief should be cut off. Also, in the verse,
O believers, when you stand up to pray wash your faces, and
your hands up to elbows... (al-Ma�ida, 5.6)
the part of the arm up to the elbows is included in the meaning of the hand.
So, the Qur�an does not mention specifically what part of the �hand� of a thief
should be cut off. In addition, in what circum-stances should this punishment
be applied? For example, �Umar, the second Caliph, did not apply it in time
of famine. All such important details were established by the Sunna.
The Qur�an decreed:
O you who believe! Consume not your goods among yourselves in vanity [through
theft, usury, bribery, hoarding and so on], except it be trade by mutual agreement
between you. (al-Nisa�, 4.29)
Islam encourages trade as a way of making one�s living, as long as it is
carried out in accordance with the conditions of Islamic law. One of these
conditions is, as stated in the verse, mutual agreement. However, God�s Messenger, upon
him be peace and blessings, decreed: Do not sell fruits until their amount is
definite in the tree [to determine what amount of them will be given as alms].24
He also decreed: Do not go to meet peasants outside the market to buy the goods
they will sell [Let them earn the market prices of their goods].25
In sum: God established general principles in the Qur�an and left their exposition
and application in different circumstances to God�s Messenger. He also authorized
him to issue rulings, as necessary, and ordered the believers:
Whatever the Messenger brings you, adopt it, and whatever he forbids you,
refrain from it. (al-Hashr, 59.7)
24. Bukhari, �Buyu�,� 82; Muslim, �Buyu�,� 51.
25. Muslim, �Buyu�,� 5/14�7.