The Way Of The Believers
Are the Traditions (Sunnah) mandatory, conclusive and binding? Or, can a Muslim ignore or reject them? To make clear that adherence to the path of the believers is obligatory, the Qur’an itself says:
"And whoso opposeth the Messenger after the guidance (of Allah) hath been manifested unto him, and followeth other than the believers' way, We appoint for him that unto which he himself hath turned, and expose him unto Hell - a hopeless journey's end." (Qur’an 4:115)
This warning to those who follow a way other than the " believers" way is indeed stern. They have been condemned as deserving of the penalty of Fire. What then is the believers' way?
Are the sayings and deeds of the Prophet (saws) (i.e. the Sunnah and the Traditions) to be considered conclusive as a source of law and regarded as the guiding principles of life or not?
When we turn to Islamic history and tradition to find out how the earliest Muslims conducted themselves in this regard the following incidents stand out.
(I) It is stated in Taareekh al-Khulafaa' that whenever a dispute came up before Abu Bakr he, first of all, looked into the Qur’an and decided the case accordingly, if he found it there. But if he did not find it in the Qur’an, he referred to his knowledge of the practice of the Prophet (saws) and decided the case accordingly. If he failed to find it there also, he inquired from other Companions about it. In some instances many Companions came forward and informed him of the Prophet's (saws) decision in a similar case. On such an occasion Abu Bakr would exclaim: "Praise be to Allah Who hath created among us men who remember the sayings of the Prophet." (saws).
(ii) The first and most perplexing problem to arise after the death of the Prophet (saws) was that of succession. The Companions sought the solution for this also in the Sunnah of the Prophet (saws).
In books like Tabaqaat of Ibn Sa'd and Taareekh al-Khulafaa', 'Alee is reported to have said that "on the Prophet's (saws) death we deliberated over the matter (i.e. the question of succession) and felt that in his lifetime, the Prophet (saws) had appointed Abu Bakr to lead the prayer service (i.e. to function as Imam). Hence, we chose for our world whom the Prophet (saws) had chosen for our faith and made Abu Bakr his successor." (at-Tabaqaat 3:183)
It is further related in Taareekh al-Khulafaa', on the authority of Ibn Mas'ood, that on the death of the Prophet (saws) the Ansaar were heard to say that "there should be one Ameer (i.e. leader) from among us (i.e. Ansaar) and another from among you (i.e. the Muhaajireen or emigrants)." Upon it, 'Umar went to the Ansaar and said: "O Ansaar! Don't you know that the Prophet (saws) had appointed Abu Bakr to lead in Salaah? If you do, tell me who has the heart to take precedence over Abu Bakr." On hearing it, the eyes of the Ansaar opened and they cried out passionately: "We seek refuge in Allah against taking precedence over Abu Bakr." (Taareekh al-Khulafaa')
In other words, when the Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) was brought to the knowledge of the Ansaar, they were satisfied and accepted it wholeheartedly.
(iii) Another problem that arose on the death of the Prophet (saws) concerned his burial. There was disagreement over where his body should be laid to rest, and that too was settled in accordance with the Traditions.
In the history already cited, as well as in some others such as Taareekh al-Kaamil, it is stated that when the dispute arose, Abu Bakr related that he had heard the Messenger of Allah say that "a Prophet (saws) is buried at the same place where he breathes his last. So his bed was lifted and he was buried there" (al-Kaamil, Vol. 2, p225). All differences disappeared immediately after this and the Prophet (saws) was buried, by general consent, in the sacred ground of the room in which he had died.
(iv) A most important event in the history of Islam is that of the compilation of the Qur’an. When 'Umar suggested to Abu Bakr that the whole of the Qur’an should be put together and preserved between the covers of a single volume, the latter initially hesitated. "How can I undertake a task", he would say again and again, "which the Prophet (saws) himself did not take in hand?" Later, when Abu Bakr was convinced, he wanted to assign the work to Zayd ibn Thaabit. But Zayd too was hesitant for the same reason. When, however, Allah caused his heart to open and brought certainty to his mind on the correctness of the stand taken by the two Shaykhs (i.e. Abu Bakr and 'Umar), he consented. (Bukhari, Jaami' al-Qur’an).
The object of narrating this incident here is to underline the fact that the Companions habitually sought guidance from the Sunnah of the Prophet (saws).
(v) It is stated in Imam Maalik's al-Muwatta that once the grandmother of a person who had died came to Abu Bakr and claimed her share in the property left by him. Abu Bakr said to her: "Your claim is not established by the Qur’an and I am not aware of anything in the Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) to support your claim. You should, therefore, go back at present so that I may inquire from other people."
Afterwards, when Abu Bakr made the enquiry he was told by Mugheerah b. Shu'bah that the Prophet (saws) had in his presence awarded one-sixth of the property of a deceased man to his grandmother. Abu Bakr then asked him to bring a witness to support him in his narration, and Muhammad b. Maslamah supported Mugheerah. Abu Bakr, thereupon, accepted the Hadith and allotted one-sixth of the legacy to the woman (al-Muwatta, Meeraath al-Jaddah).
(vi) When the land of the Zoroastrians was added to the Islamic state, 'Umar had to decide whether or not Jizyah could be levied on them. (It is mentioned in the Qur’an that Jizyah should be realized from the People of the Scripture alone, which, in its terminology, applied only to the Jews and the Christians). It was only after 'Abd ar-Rahmaan b. 'Awf had testified that the Prophet had realised Jizyah from the fire-worshippers of Hajr that 'Umar imposed it on the Zoroastrians (Bukhari, al-Jizyah).
(vii) It is mentioned in Sahih Bukhari that once a person inquired from Ibn 'Abbaas if a woman gave birth to a child only forty days after the death of her husband would her 'Iddah (waiting period) be deemed to have expired with it. Ibn 'Abbaas replied that the period of waiting will terminate at childbirth or completion of four months and ten days, whichever is later. Abu Salmah and Abu Hurayrah were also present at that time. On hearing the decision of Ibn 'Abbaas, Abu Salmah pointed out that it was set forth in the Qur’an that:
"And for those with child, their period shall be till they bring forth their burden."
What Abu Salmah intended to signify was that in the case at hand the period of waiting ('Iddah) had ended. Abu Hurayrah too said that he agreed with the view of his nephew, Aboo Salmah. Ibn 'Abbaas then sent his servant, Kurayb, to Umm Salmah who, on learning about the nature of the case, recalled that Subay'ah al-Aslamiyah was expecting when her husband was martyred. Forty days after that, her child was born and offers of marriage began to come to her. The Prophet, (saws) thereupon, saw her married (Bukhari, Kitaab at-Tafseer).
Commenting on this, Haafiz Ibn Hajar writes: "It is said that Ibn 'Abbaas changed his opinion as a result of it, and it is also supported by the fact that the statement of his disciples is in accord with the view of the general body of the Muslims."
The practice of the Companions having recourse to the Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) in the event of a difference of opinion or an apparent contradiction between two verses of the Qur’an, is borne out clearly by this incident.
(viii) Hostilities had been suspended, for a certain period of time, following an agreement with the Roman Empire. However, Mu'aawiyah began to march his army towards the enemy territory with the intention that he would not restart the war during the suspension but be close enough to the enemy to launch a sudden attack at the end of the stipulated period. One day, Mu'aawiyah saw a rider coming towards him, calling out loudly: "Allaahu Akbar! Allaahu Akbar! The covenant is to be kept, not broken!" The rider was a Companion of the Prophet (saws) named 'Amr b. 'Absah. Mu'aawiyah asked him what the matter was. He replied: "I have heard the Messenger of Allah say that when anyone entered into a covenant with a community he should not make an alteration in it till its time has expired or advance information has been given to the other party." Mu'aawiyah thereupon returned to the capital with his troops (at-Tirmidhi, as-siyar 1629).
(ix) Once 'Umar set out for Syria from Madeenah. On reaching the place called Sargh, he was informed by the commanders of the army that a plague had broken out violently in that country. 'Umar, then, held consultations with the Muhaajireen and the Ansaar accompanying him but differing views were expressed. Some were in favour of returning while others felt it was out of the question for they had embarked on the journey in the cause of Allah. On seeing the disagreement, 'Umar asked them to leave and called for those Muhaajireen of the Quraysh who were participants in the conquest of Makkah. When they came, they unanimously supported the idea to go back. 'Umar, consequently, decided to return but Aboo 'Ubayda disagreed. 'Umar and the others were in this dilemma when 'Abd ar-Rahmaan b. 'Awf turned up. He had not participated in the consultation and was, therefore, unaware of the problem. On learning of it, he observed: "I know a thing in this regard." "You are reliable and trustworthy. Tell us what you know," said 'Umar. 'Abd ar-Rahmaan b. 'Awf said that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: "When you come to know that an epidemic is raging at some place do not go there. But if the epidemic breaks out at a place you live do not move out of it with the intention of fleeing" (al-Kaamil, Vol. 2, p392).
The disagreement was at once resolved and 'Umar returned to Madeenah.
(x) In Taereekh al-Kaamil, Taareekh al-Khulafaa' and all other history books it is stated that on the death of 'Umar. 'Abd ar-Rahmaan b. 'Awf and the rest of the Companions chose 'Uthmaan as the Caliph and took the vow of allegiance to him in these words: "We take the oath of allegiance at your hand on the condition that you will act in accordance with the Scripture (i.e. the Qur’an), the Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) and the practice of the two earlier Caliphs" (al-Kaamil, Vol. 3, p37).