The prophetic teachings outside the Qur’an are called the Sunnah, the Traditions. The base of Islam, as we have seen, is the Qur’an, and nothing is believed or commanded which is contrary to any revelation in the Holy Book. The Sunnah is the derived law of Islam which every Muslim is obliged to obey.
The Prophet taught in three ways: by oral instructions; by the example of his personal behavior; and by his silence, his tacit approval of other people’s actions, by letting others do as they pleased without comment or reproach. These three aspects of the Prophet’s teaching, speaking, acting, and approving , are the basis for the Muslim tradition called the Sunnah, and are considered to be the second source of Islamic legislation and instruction.
The Prophet draws this triple authority from the Qur’an itself, for it commands us to obey the Messenger’s orders (Surah IV, 59; XXIV, 56), tells us that he who obeys the Prophet obeys the very commandments of God (Surah IV, 80), and recommends that we follow his example (Surah XXXIII, 21). In the Qur’an the Prophet is commanded to behave in such a way that his behavior will be a model for believers (Surah XXXIII, 37). It also describes the Prophet as one who gave to mankind all good instructions and forbade all bad actions; therefore, the action he does not forbid is permitted (Surah VII, 157).
The great majority of Muslim learned men hold, with good reason, that the Prophet’s teachings follow either the directive of divine, though nontextual, inspiration or, if it was a personal, purely human effort, he applied the very essence or spirit of the law of the Qur’an. If in his instruction as a human being, without specific revelation, he ever was in error, he was immediately brought back to the truth through a revelation (Surah IV, 106-13; VIII, 67; IX, 43, 113). In the absence of such correcting revelations, all his orders, permissions, judgments, and behavior are rightly considered as implicitly approved and having full legislative and educative authority, subject only to the condition that they have been transmitted through authentic and strictly verified sources. Thus the Muslim tradition in Islam is related to the Qur’an as a nation’s laws are related to its constitution.
It is a significant fact that regarding our two most essential practical duties, prayer, which is our obligation to God, and alms, which is a duty to our fellow men, the Qur’an refers us directly to tradition for detailed instruction. Speaking of prayer, the Qur’an says explicitly, “Do that which God has taught you” (Surah II, 239). Again, speaking of alms, it says that it is a “precise and known” right of the needy to receive a share of the possessions of pious men (Surah LXX, 24-25). And similar references are found concerning the season of pilgrimage and the sacred months. Now, in the absence in the Qur’an of any further elaboration on these subjects, any clear details as to how these duties are to be performed, it is obvious that through these references the Qur’an establishes the authority of the Sunnah, and grants to it the right to elaborate and define the general precepts of the Qur’an. Without the Sunnah, these texts would have been incomprehensible, stating as known things which were not known.
The role of the Sunnah is not limited to clarifying the duties implied in general commandments revealed in the Qur’an. Often the Sunnah establishes new obligations and prohibitions for which no clear reference can be found in the Qur’an. This is not, however, an addition to the legislation of the Qur’an, for a careful study will show that each of these traditions expresses the spirit of a more general teaching in the Book, even though the ties connecting each tradition with its appropriate foundation in the Qur’an are not easily discovered.
For example, the Qur’an made compulsory the alms deducted from gold, silver, and the crops, using also the more general terms “possessions,” and “things granted by God”; the Prophet added the requirement that alms should be deducted from the herd. The Qur’an instituted the fast during the month of Ramadan as training in piety and patience and an opportunity to express thankfulness for divine blessings; the Prophet added the requirement that alms be given at the end of the fast of Ramadan as an act which is an additional means of accomplishing those purposes. The Qur’an forbids usury; the Sunnah forbids those usurious sales in which the increase in price has the same effect. Since such sales, halfway between a legitimate sale and forbidden usury, fell within a doubtful and suspect area of business activity, tradition rightly forbids them under the legislation of the Qur’an which recommends that we abstain from any action when in doubt. Again, the Qur’an prescribes scourging as the punishment for lewdness, while the Sunnah specifies scourging for unmarried persons and calls for death by stoning for adultery, justified by the passage in the Qur’an which says that the punishment for lewdness in women should be confinement to the house up to death, until the time when another punishment should be revealed.
The Sunnah, based on the verified traditions concerning the teachings, actions, and tacit approval of the Prophet, is justifiably binding on all Muslims. Since the Qur’an gave the Prophet full power to enlighten men concerning the meaning of the revelations, he was the best qualified to legislate in matters requiring clarification. The Prophet knew better than any other possible legislator the essence and spirit of the Law. Therefore, it is not surprising that he took new legislative steps, creating the Sunnah, the Traditions binding on all Muslims, through legislation by analogy, by precise definition, and by extension of the revelations given in the Qur’an.
Mohammad Abd Allah Draz, in K.W. Morgan, ed.,
Islam: the Straight Path,
New York, Ronald Press, 1958