Friday, November 30, 2018

On the concept of Sunna in early Islam

3.1. Semantico-contextual Changes in Definition and Scope of the Sunnah

 Ansari has pointed out  several difficulties one encounters when studying the terminology used during the early period of Islamic thought. One such problem is the “comparative lack of fixity in technical connotations of terms in use”19 which resulted in a gradual change in connotation over a period of time. An important aspect in these semantical changes in terminology is their increasing ‘technical’, or what the author would describe as legalistic,20 connotations. Moreover, and importantly, these terms had a multiplicity of meanings even when employed by the same author in the same work.21 Another important principle for the purpose of this study that Ansari has identified with reference to the changes in meaning of certain words and concepts is the notion of a significant time gap between the usages of the conceptual and technical/legalistic aspects of terminology. Put differently, words prior to acquiring “standard technical phraseology” had other meanings and were used in other contexts.22 The above distinctions are of fundamental importance to this study from the point of view of understanding the validity of the classical definition of the concept Sunnah. We now will examine the semantico-contextual changes of the concept Sunnah. The term will be analysed by examining its etymological (preQurʾānic) meaning(s), Qurʾānic meaning(s) and post-Qurʾānic usage(s).

3.1.1. Etymological, Qurʾānic and post-Qurʾānic meanings of Sunnah

 Etymologically, the term Sunnah underwent several semantic changes.23 It originated from the Arabic root S-N-N that probably referred to “flow and continuity of a thing with ease and smoothness”.24 Over time, the term Sunnah was increasingly used in the context of human behaviour, and as “a way, course, rule, mode or manner of acting or conducting life of life”, thus becoming equivalent to the word sira. Thereafter it evolved to signify moral appropriateness and normativeness of a human worthy of being followed.25 Ibn Manzur defines Sunnah as a “commendable straightforward manner of conducting oneself (al-sunnat al-tariqat al-maḥmudat al-mustaqimah).26 By its very nature it implies normativeness, i.e. having a normative character. With respect to the Qurʾān, the Sunnah has been used on numerous occasions with regard to the immutable laws of the retribution of God (sunnahāt allāh) with respect to people who repeatedly transgressed these laws with disdain.27 The phrase sunnahāt al-awwalīn refers to the ancient people or nations who, having brought upon themselves the wrath of God by rejecting and killing His Messengers, were doomed and turned to dust.28 Interestingly the term Sunnah of the Messenger of Allāh (sunnahāt un-nabi), a fundamental concept in post-Qurʾānic Islamic thought, does not occur in the Qurʾān. The Prophet is, however, praised in the Qurʾān as “uswah al- ḥasanah” (a good/beautiful/excellent example) for Muslims.29 Ansari aptly remarks that this use of the term is consistent with the overall Qurʾānic attitude towards all other Prophets.

Considering the status and authority that the Prophet enjoyed by his followers, especially in the Medinian period, and the etymological background of the word Sunnah as just described, it would be only commonsense to maintain that the expression “Sunnah of the Prophet” would have been used in the early Muslim community in the sense of being Qurʾānically sanctioned model-behaviour of the Prophet.30 Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Prophet himself, the early caliphs such as ʿUmar (d. 23 AH), Uthman (d. 35 AH) and Ali (d. 40 AH), as well as the people at the time of early Umayyad caliphs (e.g., Abd al-Mālik, 65-86 AH), used this sunnah al-nabi (Prophet’s Sunnah) expression on numerous occasions.31 Apart from its usage in a phrase sunnah al-nabi in the first and especially second half of the first century Hijrah, the word Sunnah has been used in the following ways. Sunnah refers to the “right and just practice” of the Prophet,32 Sunnah of caliphs preceding Uthman (i.e., Abu Bakr and Umar);33 Sunnah of believers;34 Sunnah as a norm to be followed in jurisprudential sense;35 and Sunnah as distinct from Ḥadīth.36 Although still quite general and vague at the beginning of the second century, the term Sunnah, with the rise of sciences of jurisprudence (usūl ̣ al-fiqh), was being increasingly but not exclusively used in a legal sense.37Ansari gives us following Sunnah meanings from that period in time: obedience and loyalty of the people to the ruling government in accordance with the book (Qurʾān) and Sunnah;38 emphasis on the Sunnah as something that can be traced back to the time of the Prophet and/ or early caliphs (in contrast to just any practice adopted by the people);39 Sunnah becoming a synonym of the expression Sunnah of the Prophet;40

Sunnah as practice based on ijmāʿ; 41 Sunnah as a rule;42 Sunnah as extension of the Qurʾān;43 Sunnah as well-established norms/practises (ʿamal ) recognised by Muslims in general, which came through and were accepted by learned scholars ( fuqahāʾ) 44 and the Sunnah as antonym for heretical innovation (bid ʿah).45 Juynboll offers several other contexts in which the term Sunnah was associated and used during the second century Hijrah, namely, as a politico-administrative term with a religious flavour,46 Sunnah as a general righteous Islamic practice (as-sunnah al-ʿadilah; jarat alsunnah),47 Sunnah as a normative way of the early community as a whole.48 Abd Allah’s extensive analysis of Mālik Ibn Anas’ concept ʿamal leads him to conclude that he used the word Sunnah in a numner of ways: that of Sunnah supported by the Medinian ijmāʿ (sunna l-lā-ladhi lā ikhtilah fiha ʿindana); Sunnah being put into practice (madat al-sunna); Sunnah of all Muslims (sunnat al-muslimīn); Sunnah known to the people of knowledge (sunnah ʿindanah); Sunnah of the Prophet (sunnat al-nabi) and simply Sunnah (al-sunnah).49 In his book On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, AlAzami also gives textual evidence that the word Sunnah was used “in a variety of different contexts”.50 Dutton’s studies of Mālik’s Muwatṭ ạ lead him to conclude that according to Mālik the concept Sunnah was seen as: . . . a normative practice established by the Prophet, put into practice by Companions and inherited from them as ʿamal (in this sense the practice of Companions in Medina) by the Successors and their Successors up to the time of Mālik.51

 A somewhat different and more nuanced understanding of the concept of Sunnah in Mālik’s Muwatṭ ạ that is still independent of Ḥadīth is argued by Guraya who defines it as a concept based on “recognized Islamic religious norms and accepted standards of conduct derived from the religious and ethical principles introduced by the Prophet”.52 Importantly, Guraya also identifies Sunnah’ constituents which shall be discussed subsequently. Another definition of Sunnah that does not depend upon its writtenbased documentation is argued by Pakistani scholars Moiz Amjad and Ghamidi. They define Sunnah as: “a set of actions or practical rules (excluding beliefs) which Prophet initiated promoted and performed among all of his followers as a part of God’s religion (dīn) and that have been perpetuated from one generation to another practically”.53 Ansari echoes these words by stating that at the time of the famous Syrian scholar Awzaʾi (d. 157 AH) “the ways of referring to Sunnah, [however] were not standardised”.54 Similarly Wheeler in his investigation of second-century jurists such as Ibrahim (d. 182 AH) and Anas (d. 179 AH) maintains that the “concept and content of Sunnah was malleable because it was not yet to be limited to a textual corpus”.55 It is worth noting the words by Al-Azami in the same section of the book dealing with the early concept of Sunnah, which serves here as a means of a brief summary of what was said above with regards to semanticocontextual changes in the Sunnah: “Not only was the word Sunnah originally not confined to the practices of the Prophet: its meaning also underwent changes”.56 From the above discussion it can be established that the concept Sunnah underwent a series of semanico-contextual changes during the formative period of Islamic thought. The question that arises is why did the concept Sunnah undergo such semantico-contextual changes and which processes led to the classical definition of Sunnah? In other words, what were the background forces and mechanisms behind these semantico-contextual changes?

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