The concerns of this article are two-fold. Firstly, I will refer to the scholarship of Muslims scholars who have distinguished the concepts of Sunna and hadith . The reason behind this is that progressive Muslims are revisiting the historical debates behind the tensions that exists between the ahl-hadith manhaj of Sunna (to which Salafis subscribe) and that of other Muslim groups such as the various madhahib and the Islamic legal theorists aiming to problematise and question the ahl-hadith manhaj of Sunna which operates entirely within the pre-modern ulum-ul hadith sciences and conceptually, methodologically and epistemologically conflates the two. Secondly, I discuss the methodological mechanisms of contemporary Muslim scholars who go beyond traditional ulum-ul hadith sciences in order to evaluate the validity and the authenticity of hadith in order to determine what is Sunna as such they qualify as espousing progressive Muslim thought.
During the formative period of Islamic thought an ontological, epistemological and methodological differentiation between the concepts of Sunna and Hadith was made. This was, for example, evident in the concepts of regional or ‘amal (practice) –based Sunna in the Maliki school of thought or that of Sunna al- ma’rufa al-mahfuza in Hanafism.[i]
Ahmed Hasan in his The Early Development in Islamic Jurisprudence” points to this difference when he says:
It is not necessary that Sunna be always deduced and known from a Hadith. Early texts on law show that the term Sunna was used in a sense of the established practice of the Muslims claiming to have come down from the time of the Prophet. That is why Sunna sometimes contradicts Hadith and sometimes Hadith documents it.[ii]
Numerous modern Muslim scholars [iii] have alluded to the semantical and conceptual differences between the Hadith and Sunna, during the first two centuries of Islamic calendar. For example, Dutton’s study of Malik’s Muwatta led him to conclude that according to Malik Sunna was seen as:
A normative practice established by the Prophet, put into practice by Companions and inherited from them as ‘amal (in this sense the practice of Companions in
) by the Successors and their Successors up to the time of Malik.[iv] Medina
A unique definition of Sunna that does not depend upon its written-based documentation (i.e. hadith) is argued by contemporary Pakistani scholar Moiz Amjad. He defines Sunna 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 (din) and that have been perpetuated from one generation to another practically.[v]
Having examined the use of Hadith in Malik’s Muwatta, and writings of Awza’i Rahman makes an important conclusion in saying that:
Awza’i regards the Hadith of the Prophet as being endowed with fundamental obligatoriness but the Sunna or the living practice[vi] is of same importance to him. His appeals to the practice of the Community or its leaders are to judge from the extinct materials, the most regular feature of his legal argumentation. Malik adduces Hadith (not necessarily Prophetic Hadith) to vindicate the Medanise Sunna but regards Sunna in terms of actual importance, as being superior to the Hadith.[vii]
What is of importance to this thesis is that progressive Muslim thought approach to the nature and scope of Sunna revisits these early discussions on Sunna and hadith in order to develop a new Sunna hermeneutic that does not epistemologically, methodologically or ontologically depend upon hadith.
Additionally, traditional sciences of hadith criticism (ulum-ul –hadith) within which madhhab and Salafi manahij are conceptually framed have primarily focused on isnad analysis when attempting to determine the authenticity of hadith.[viii] Progressive Muslim approach to hadith criticism goes beyond these sciences and includes for example analysis of hadith according to methods found in the works of Muslim[ix] and non-Muslim scholars such as G.H.A. Juynboll, H. Motzki and G. Schoeler [x]
As such they do not restrict themselves primarily to isnad criticism but they award more scope to the role of reason and ethico-moral considerations[xi] and a more stringent matn criticism in the overall sciences pertaining to hadith criticism. Additionally, ahad hadith are not considered as binding in any of the Islamic sciences including that of theology and law as in the case of Salafism (but generally speaking not the broader madhhab-based tradition).[xii]
In addition to revisiting the debates on the conceptual difference between the concepts of Sunah and hadith progressive Muslim scholars are employing a number of the same methodological tools when interpreting the Qur’an to that of Hadith as mentioned above. In particular they use ;a.) comprehensive contextulisaton ,b.)thematico-holistic approach ,c.) ethico-religious values –based approach and d.)objective or purpose based approach to interpretation of hadith. What follows is discussion of these in some of the progressive Muslim works ,especially as they relate to the issue of gender.
In his controversial Book ‘Tahrir Al Mara’a fi al Asr al-Risala’ Abu Shuqqa’s manhaj combines comprehensive contextualization with a thematico-holistic approach alongside specification of what classical Muslim thought considered to be general and vice –versa , and a quasi-physiological hermeneutic which aims to recover the real intents behind the words of the Prophet found in some of the hadith pertaining to women -such as those pertaining to women’s deficiency in religion and intellect or women forming a majority in Hell discussed in chapter five- in order to invalidate the traditionally patriarchal and misogynist interpretations of the same. For example, after thematically analyzing the full context behind the historical events pertaining to the hadith in describing women as lacking in intellect, religion and forming the majority of people in hell he asserts the following:
As for the [Prophet’s] text formulation , it is not such that implies a general ruling stipulation nor it is general in nature.”[xiii]
Himself being committed to the direct Qur’an and Sunna( hadith) manhaj he also cites some women friendly hadith such as “Women are men’s twins”[xiv] in order to strengthen his argument for gender equality.
In her article titled “Knowledge, Women, and Gender in the hadith: a Feminist Interpretation”, S. Shaikh argues that hadith literature can serve as a mirror of the formative civilization reality of the first three centuries of Islam. She also avers that hadith literature is a window into the dominant conceptions of socio-political, religious and cultural norms and values of the Islamic community ,especially in relation to gender and the category of a woman. She is also interested in exploring the manner in which hadith body of knowledge in time became ideologically functional in defining ideals of gender. By contextualizing the hadith body of knowledge and by being sensitive to the gender ideology embedded it, she explores how hadith can be used to offer alternative (to traditional approaches) possibilities of interpretation providing counter leverage to the dominant discourses.[xv] Faqihudin Abdul Qadir in his “Hadith and Gender Justice –understanding the prophetic Traditions” adopts a similar contextualist approach by considering that a proper understanding of hadith, especially in relation to the role and the status of women, is obtained only in terms of their original socio-political contexts requiring comprehensive contextulisation and the inquiry into the circumstance behind the emergence of hadith ( ‘ilm asbab l-wurud).[xvi]
The principle of corroborative induction examined above in the context of Qur’anic interpretation is also applied to hadith interpretation. Qadir for example laments the selectivity of employment of hadith by traditional scholarship by stating that “in essence ,certain hadith and indeed, specific decisions by the Prophet have been typically selectively invoked as authoritative references instead of being examined comprehensively and in totality.[xvii]He is of the opinion that Qur’ano-hadith texts are to be “interpreted and applied according to the broader transformative spirit that characterizes the Qur’an and the hadith as a whole by taking resort to what we term a thematico-holistic or corroborative inductive approach to interpretation of hadith.
Again as in the case of the Qur’anic interpretation hadith are to be interpreted in a way to facilitate certain ethico-religious values. In this context Qadir asserts that ‘regarding women issues references to the hadith must be based on an awareness of the crucial values he[Prophet Muhammad] brought: the oneness of Allah, the equality of all human beings (rich or poor, men or women) ,justice and mercy.[xviii] The principle of justice and equality in particular play a prominent role in this type of reasoning and interpreting of hadith . A values-based approach to interpretation of hadith is best exemplified by the following statement of a contemporary progressive Muslim scholar Qadir:
Contemporary interpretations of many [of these] hadith continue to engender inequality and unfairness in the relationship between men and women. This inequality, moreover, violates the most fundamental principles of the Qur’an and the hadith.[xix]
El-Fadl has also introduced two novel methodological principals with the view of conceptually, methodologically and epistemologically divorcing Sunna and hadith termed ‘authorial enterprise’’ and “a conscientious pause” when dealing with hadith interpretation. According to El-Fadl, the term authorial enterprise refers to the process of determining to what extent the Prophet’s role in the historical transmission of the report can safely be established. This is based upon the fact that, as per the classical Islamic scholarship’s view of hadith as not being the actual words of the Prophet but recollections and interpretation of Prophet’s words which retained the core meaning by individuals reporting them, hadith can be a result of several authors and various collateral influences each impacting upon both the structure and the meaning of the report. When interpreting the report, argues El-Fadl further, a principle of proportionality of correlation between the role of the Prophet and the normativeness of the report is to be put in place. The higher the Prophet’s’ authorial enterprise in the report the higher its normative effect and vice –versa. Additionally, he applies another regulatory mechanism relating to the normative effect of the report. According to this rule, reports having “widespread moral, legal, or social implications must be of the highest rank of authority …and requiring heaviest burden of proof.”[xx]Lastly, as the very last methodological resort, he introduces three concept of a “conscientious pause”, a faith –based objection to textual evidence[xxi] based upon the overall understanding of the Qur’an-Sunna Weltanschauung and its élan/ethos.
Hadith texts, instead, are seen in their function of furthering justice and the general welfare understood as the foundational principles of Islam and as the ultimate interpretational ends of the interpretational process.[xxii]
Auda’s maqasid approach to philosophy of Islamic law introduces new epistemological principles to the issue of resolving opposition of juridical evidences (known as ta’arud/ikhtilaf) which often are based on opposing hadith evidence. He takes recourse to the idea of multidimensionality, as one component of his maqasid approach, to ground his methodology beyond the pre-modern binary approaches to legal theory based on the dichotomy of certain (al-qat) vs. uncertain (al-zann) categories in juridicial evidences which, in his view, were responsible for “a narrow ,out of context and partial view of many fiqhi rulings”. In this context he asserts the following:
…[t]he quest for ‘absolute certainty’ [yaqin] in juridical thinking ,whether it takes the form of linguistic implication, historical authenticity, or logical implication, is unsubstantiated, and should be dealt with ,theoretically speaking, according to a continuous (probability0 spectrum ,rather than the binary certain/uncertain classification.
Multidimensionality, on the other hand, entails “a spectrum of levels between binary opposites” in which the probability increases in a non-linear mode with the number of available evidences. Auda argues for a continuous approach to certainty which when forming a part of a maqasid approach to Islamic law can offer a better methodology in resolving issues pertaining to ta’arud. For instance, Auda gives an example of opposing hadith with respect to the rights of custody of children to mother divorcees who remarry. According to some hadith woman loses her custody while others suggest that they could keep the children even after they get married. Auda goes on to say that the vast majority of pre-modern schools of thought, relying on the first group of narrations which they considered as being more authentic/certain due to the fact that they are found in Bukhari’s and Ibn Hanbal’s hadith collections, simply eliminated others and concluded that custody of children is automatically transferred to the father if the mother gets married.
Auda, arguing against the binary certainty/uncertainty dichotomy as a methodological principle in the area of ta’arud proposes a methodology that gives due regard to the context and the juridical maqsid of “fulfilling the best interest of people” as “the key to interpreting these narrations.” With respect to this he asserts that ‘a maqasid approach could fill the gap of missing contexts in the narration of hadith” and “moreover, al-maqasid ,in the sense of the intents of the prophet, could also be utilized in contextualizing narrations.”[xxiii]
He states further that in case of multiplicity of maqasid arising when dealing with ta’arud evidences a kind of hierarchy of maqasid needs to be developed with those of highest order being given priority.[xxiv]
Fadel’s article “Is Historicism A Viable Strategy for Legal Reform: The Case of “Never Shall the Folk Who Have Appointed a Woman to Rule Them”[xxv] employs what he terms “hermeneutical historicism” to analyse the hadith found in most major hadith Sunni collections narrated on the authority of Abu Bakra that the Prophet had stated “Never shall a folk prosper who delegate their affairs to a woman”. Fadel “hermeneutical historicism” is premised on the concept of history as a source for textual interpretation and consists of a number of sub-methodologies applied to the treatment of hadith by examining the assumptions governing classical Islamic legal hermeneutics and its assumptions regarding the nature of language, especially the principle that general terms must not be applied generally until care has been taken to exclude the possibility that circumstantial evidence indicates a more specific intent (takhsis al-‘amm); contextualisation of hadith genres, their narrative frames and its interpretational implications; and by examining how this ḥadīth was used in substantive law. Here he argues that it is possible, in the case of the hadith under analysis by exploring literary history, Islamic legal hermeneutics, and substantive Islamic law, to create a more gender-egalitarian version of Islamic law by remaining within the classical /traditional epistemological and methodological frameworks and without relying on arguments outside of it and without raising more controversial theological questions which would be less likely acceptable to traditional Muslim minds.[xxvi]
In summary progressive Muslims form the view that, as in the case of the Qur’an, the above principles when applied to hadith are assumed to promote the broader interpretational principles of an aims-based function of the nature of the hadith. In the words of Qadir,
...in the light of the fundamentally contextual character of the hadith, a number of scholars have adopted an understanding of the hadith which is informed by the essential purpose of the text and the root problem it addresses. The meaning inscribed in the literal language of the text is not regarded as definitive and need not be applied in an unconditional manner.[xxvii]
[i] Duderija, The evolution in the canonical Sunni Hadith body of literature and the concept of an authentic hadith during the formative period of Islamic thought as based on recent Western scholarship, Arab Law Quarterly, 23,4,2009,1-27
[ii] A. Hasan , Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence ,
, 1970, p.87. Islamabad
[iii] F.Rahman, ‘The Living Sunna and al-Sunna wa’l Jama’ah’,op.cit. Ansari, ‘Islamic Juristic Terminology before Shafi’i ,op.cit. I.Ahmed,The significance of Sunna and Hadith and their Early Documentation, Edinbrough University , Ph.D. Thesis,1974.Y. Dutton, The Origins of Islamic Law, The Qur’an , the Muwatta and Madinian ‘Amal . Routledge, Curzon, 2002.El-Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name,op.cit. M.S.Mathnee, Critical Reading of Fazrul Rahman’s Islamic Methodology in History,M.A. Thesis, University of Cape Town,2005. Duderija, ‘Toward a Methodology’,op.cit. ;A. Kamaruddin, The Reliability of Hadith-Transmission:A re-examination of Hadith –Ciritcal Methods, Ph.D. thesis,2005,Friedrich-Wilhelms Universitaet ,Bonn , Abd Allah, Malik’s Concept of ‘Amal, op.cit.,Guraya, The Concept of Sunna,op.cit.
[iv]Dutton, The Origins of Islamic Law ,p.168.
[vi] We use the expression practical/’amal-based Sunna as per Malik, see Abd Allah, Malik’s Concept of ‘Amal, op.cit.
[vii] This opinion is shared by Dutton who quotes a number of instances in Malik’s Muwatta which validate this assertion. e.g. Abu Yusuf said (to Malik) “you do the adhan with tarji, but you have no Hadith from the prophet about this. Malik turned to him and said, Subhana allah! I have never seen anything more amazing than this! The call to the prayer has been done [here] every day five times a day in front of witnesses, and sons have inherited it from their fathers since the time of Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Does this need “so-and-so from so-ands-so? This is more accurate in our opinion than Hadith”. Dutton,The Origins of Islamic Law , p.43, also pp.41-52.
[viii] Kamaruddin, The Reliability of Hadith-Transmission.; Kamali, Hadith Methodology.
[ix] See footnote 140.
[x] For a brief summary of (non)-Muslim western scholars of hadith criticism see H.Motzki, ‘Dating Muslim Traditions- A survey,Arabica,vol.52,2 ,2005,pp.206-253.Also, Kamaruddin, The Reliability of Hadith-Transmission, op.cit.
[xi] Such as the “conscientious pause” and “authorial enterprise” hermeneutical methods found El-Fadl’s Speaking,op.cit. These two will be discussed in the sixth chapter.
[xii] A. Duderija, Evolution in the Canonical Sunni Hadith Body of Literature, op.cit.. Shukurow presents a number of ahad hadith which were not acted upon b y the Muslim community at large and therefore left out by the founders of the four Sunni madhahaib. A. Shukurow, Towards Understanding Hadith, e book
[xiii] Abd ul Halim Abu Shuqqa, 6 vols.,
: Dar al-Qalam , Vol 1. ,p.275 Kuwait
[xiv] Found in Abu Shuqqa’s , Tahrir’ Al-ma’ra, p.53
[xv] Ibid, 100.
[xvi] F.A. Qadir, Hadith and gender Justice -Understanding the Prophetic Traditions, Fahmina Institute,2007.
[xix] Ibid, p.23
[xx] El-Fadl, Speaking, p.89
[xxi] Ibid., p.93.
[xxiii] Auda, Maqasid Al-Shari’ah, op.cit.,p.233 and 257.
[xxiv] Ibid, pp.213-226.
[xxvi] See fn 184.
[xxvii] Qadir, Hadith and Gender Justice, p.2.