Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Sunnah at the Time of the Successors’ Successors

With the end of the first and beginning of the second century, significant
changes to the concept of Sunnah in the minds of the third generation of
Muslims started to develop in terms of its source, mode of transmission,
methodological and epistemological parameters (that is, its nature, sources
and scope). In this context Juynboll asserts that:

. . . the approximate date of origin of the narrowing down of the concept of Sunnah,
formerly comprising the Sunnah, or exemplary behaviour, of the Prophet as well as his
most devoted followers, to the exemplary behaviour of Prophet only . . . [occurred]
towards the end of the first century of the Hijrah and was conceived at the time of
Caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (99-101).

Hallaq dates this shift somewhat earlier by saying that the isolation of Prophetic
Sunnah172 from other Sunān began to emerge by the late 60s AH.
The reasons for this process began in the second half of the first century.
The continued territorial expansion of Muslims meant that ever more
complex legal and governing processes and institutions had to be put in
place within the enlarging boundaries of the area under the Muslim rule.
The notion of the administrative and social practices being based on the
Qurʾān and Sunnah were still operative and engrained in the minds of
those Muslims who conquered new lands.

A general perception that the expanding Muslim empire would become
organically detached from the Qurʾānic and Sunnahic teachings was
becoming widespread. This realisation had already prompted some Muslims
to collect and gather a bound (mushaf ), official version of the Qurʾān,
a task that was largely achieved during the reign of the third Caliph Uthman (d. 35 AH).

 Additionally, a change in political fortunes and the
subsequent rise of the Abbasid dynasty (132 AH), that used the concept of
custodians of the Prophet’s Sunnah through his uncle’s cousin Abbas to
justify and legitimise their political power, created an ever greater impetus
for a more systematic collection of, and searching for, Sunnah in any form.174
This, in turn, gave rise to a ṭalab al-ʿilm phenomenon175 which gradually
started to transform behaviour-practice-based regional Sunnah into writtenbased
‘Sunnah’. Another factor that started to give shape to the later concepts
of an ‘authentic Ḥadīth’ was the partisan tensions that emerged
within the nascent Muslim community. These brought serious schisms
based on conflicting claims to the successorship of the Prophet’s political
authority as well as certain theological controversies prevalent at the
These two divergent, powerful trends resulted firstly in practice-based
Sunnah being increasingly clad in the mantle of written-based predominantly
purely Prophetic Sunnah, and secondly in the development of more
stringent mechanisms in establishing the authenticity of written-based
Sunnah, especially in terms of the mode of its transmission, i.e. ʿulūm
al-isnād. The custom of reliance on regionally practice- based Sunnah was
increasingly becoming challenged by a growing corpus of written-based Sunnah as the by-product of ṭalab al-ʿilm.177 The objectives of this search
for knowledge/ʿilm were such as to collect as much information about
the Prophet as possible in all spheres of his life. No qualitative distinction
between the Prophet’s role as a Messenger, judge, ethico-moral reformer,
family man or statesman was made, and no careful consideration was given
to the fact that this could conceptually change the nature and the scope of
the concept of the Qurʾān and Sunnah and their interrelationship that
existed during the first three generations.
The “epistemological promise”, to use Prof. El-Fadl’s phrase, of having
access to the actual words of the Prophet himself in a documented form
was much more attractive and “logical” than the regional concept of
Sunnah. One could argue that it was considered superior to it for several
reasons by many of those who accepted its epistemologico-methodological
premises. Firstly, the oral and then written in nature of proliferating
‘Sunnah’ was more tangible than one based on a vague behaviourally practical
or abstract values- or objective-based concept. Secondly, written-based
Sunnah was more voluminous as it was collected across all regions of the
Muslim empire rather than being limited to just one area. Thirdly, it was
more specific and dealt with a broader subject matter than a practice-based
Sunnah, which was often based on the spirit of the Qurʾān and Sunnah
and was more difficult to verify. Fourthly, most of the reports were claimed
to be going back to the Prophet, while the immediate source of practicebased
Sunnah were the Successors and the practice of the community at
the time. Fifthly, the practice of the regional community as a source of
Sunnah was sometimes problematic because not all community practices
were Sunnah-based so that scepticism about all of the community practices
started slowly to creep in.178 Lastly, rather than relying on the general
practice of the entire community, many of whom were ignorant of the
complexities pertaining to the value and preservation of this newly formed
concept of written-dependent Sunnah, one was presented with a chain/
isnād of several transmitters, many of whom were held in high esteem and
were said to have had an unbroken ‘link’ to the Prophet himself and, as
such, qualified as Sunnah’s custodians.
Despite this paradigm shift in the way Sunnah was becoming to be
viewed, the broader view of Sunnah still existed throughout the second
century. When we examine the period of founders of the personal schools of thought179 such as Mālik (d. 179), Auzaʾī (d. 157), Abū Ḥanafa (d.150)
and his disciples Abū Yusuf (d. 182) and Shaibanī (d. 189) we notice that
a qualitative, conceptual distinction between Ḥadīth and Sunnah was still
being made”.180 In Abū Ḥanafa’s letter to Uthman al-Batti (d. 143) the
usage of the word Sunnah only makes sense as a concept referring to “normative
way of the early community as a whole”181 (rather than that of the
Prophet himself only in the form of Ḥadīth). According to Abd al-Rahman
b. al-Mahdi (d. 198) who, when talking about three well-established
authorities ( fuqahā) of Muslim community at that time namely, Al-Thawrī
(d. 161), Al-Auzaʾī (d. 157) and Mālik ibn Anas (d. 179) characterises the
second as imam fī l-sunnah wa laysa bi-imam fī l- ḥadīth (recognised authority
on questions pertaining to Sunnah but not Ḥadīth) in contradistinction
to the first who was authority on Ḥadīth but not on Sunnah and the
third as authority on both Sunnah and Ḥadīth (imām fihima jami‘ān).182
Abū Yusuf, a disciple of Abū Ḥanafa was also known as a ṣāhib ḥadīth wa
ṣāhib Sunnah183 (“custodian or disposer”, lit. owner/proprietor of Ḥadīth
and Sunnah). Ahmed Hasan in his The Early Development in Islamic Jurisprudence
notes a similar observation when he says:

. . . it is not necessary that Sunnah be always deduced and known from a Ḥadīth. Early
texts on law show that the term Sunnah 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
Sunnah sometimes contradicts Ḥadīth and sometimes Ḥadīth documents it.

Therefore, existence of Ḥadīth did not mean an a priori dispensing with
the earlier concept of Sunnah. Moreover, as we shall subsequently argue,
we can infer from Hasan’s above-cited statement that the practice-based
Sunnah was used as a criterion for distilling Sunnah congruent from Sunnah
non-congruent Ḥadīth.

In the context of the definition of Sunnah during this time of personal
schools of thought, we need to remember that there now existed two
significant and accepted modes of its transmission, namely practical and
Ḥadīth-based. These two modes of transmission of Sunnah were based on
two different epistemologico-methodological foundations. The reasons for
this were the existing and acknowledged fabrications and contradictory
elements becoming evident during the process of formulation of writtenbased
Sunnah, and the possible contamination of practice-based Sunnah
with the general practice of community. Therefore “the concern of all
ancient [i.e. personal] schools of thought was thus to know what represented
the genuine, normative Sunnah of the Prophet and his Companions”.186
Both, according to this view, however, could embody Sunnah.
The Iraqis referred to the Sunnah which functioned as a “Sunnah filter”
as al-sunnah al-maḥfula al-maʿrufa, the well-established Sunnah,187 and it
was this Sunnah that was accepted as normative by the consensus of the
majority of ʿulama referred to as ijmāʿ ”.188 Mālik ibn Anas referred to it as
sunnah ʿindana or at times ʿamal and it acted as the final arbiter and ultimate
proof of the Prophetic practice.189 Some parts of this ʿamal was considered
to be Sunnah whilst others were not. Guraya who investigated
Mālik’s usage of the concept of Sunnah in his Muwaṭṭa has determined the
actual constituents of Sunnah according to Mālik as follows:
(i) the religious and ethical principles introduced by the Prophet which,
in due course of time, had acquired the status of recognised Islamic religious norms and the accepted standard of conduct [al-qawāʾid
(ii) sound reason and independent considered opinion (raʾy), and
(iii) legal and moral reasoning.190
Dutton defines this Sunnah as “a generally agreed core of experience which
constituted the community’s knowledge of what it meant to live as a
Muslim”.191 ‘Abd Ar-Rahman ibn Mahdi (d. 198) is also reported to have
not only made a distinction between Sunnah and Ḥadīth but was an advocate
of the superiority of Sunnah based on the ʿamal of Medina over that
of Ḥadīth-based Sunnah asserting that “A preceding Sunnah from the
Sunnah of the people of Madinah is better than Ḥadīth”.192 Similarly, the
Ḥanafī Judge Isa b. Aban (d. 221 AH) argued that the early Muslim community
had rejected ahad ḥadīth which contradicted the Qurʾān or established
Sunnah and used reason as the ultimate arbiter for judging the
veracity of a report and not the isnād.193
The regional Sunnah we described above was, according to Rahman,
constantly re-defined and re-crystallised based as it was on two methodological
tools: ijtihād-qiyās (personal opinion thought to be in accordance
with the broad, general concept of regional Sunnah termed al-sunnah
al-maʿrufa) and ijmā‘ whose ultimate anchoring point was the Prophet.194
The prevalence of this fundamentally same attitude to Sunnah at this time
period is demonstrated by the fact that the bulk of Al-Shaibanī’s (d. 189)
last work entitled Siyar al-Kābir consists of his own ijtihād. This was based
on his scrutiny of works of earlier generations rather than any literal adherence
to Ḥadīth.195
As far as the use of raʾy based on ʿaql during the second century AH is
concerned, a similar narrowing down of its legitimacy, scope and connotation
was starting to take place, but this process, just like in the case of Sunnah, was incomplete.196 Reinhart argues that throughout the Abbasid
era, which includes the period under question, the Islamic worldview:
. . . was complemented by religious ideology arguing that all human kind share[ed] a
kind of moral common sense, the ʿaql, which has always enabled humans to know the
good from detestable. In this process of trying to account for this universal knowledge,
scholars sought to locate acts, values in the act itself and the valuation of it in the
ʿaql . . . Muslim Revelation, consequently, was understood as a supplementary form of
knowledge, one that confirmed ʿaql . . .197
As we previously mentioned, for example, numerous fuqahāʾ, who died
during the second and the third decade of the second century, relied heavily
on exercising personal opinions based on reason/ ʿaql rather than being
involved in Ḥadīth transmission.198 This trend was evident also among
many second or even third century authorities who belonged to the Ahl
al-Sunnah (or were given the title of ṣāhib sunnah) but who were not necessarily
associated with proficiency and accuracy of Ḥadīth transmission.199

At the time of Ibn Al-Muqaffa (d. 140), the positive connotations of raʾy
were still in operation although they had started to develop a negative
connotation as well.200 As the Ḥadīth body of literature was gradually
expanding, views not based on these now entirely textual sources of Sunnah
increasingly started to denote ‘arbitrary opinion’ in the minds of those
engaged in the process of written documentation of Sunnah.201 This mixed
trend of good and bad ra’y was still evident at the time of Abū Yusuf
(d. 182) and Shaibanī (d. 189). However, since Sunnah was increasingly
associated with literal adherence to proliferating Ḥadīth, which were
thematically diverse and quite comprehensive, in contrast to being
interpreted against the background of ʿamal-based Sunnah or sunnah
al-maʿrufah, conceptually Sunnah’s nature was becoming more edified and
its scope was ever more narrowingly defined.

The growing insistence on a literal following (bi-lā kaifa) of ‘authentic
Ḥadīth’, as the only legitimate sources and perpetuators of Sunnah, its
superiority as a tool of Qurʾānic tafsīr (exegesis) at the cost of non-writtenbased
Sunnah, and reason-based opinion (raʾy) began to considerably
narrow down the epistemologico-methodological playfield of both the
Qurʾān and Sunnah and therefore the nature and the scope of the concept
of Shariʿah. This methodological concept of bi-lā kaifa (literally ‘without
asking how’) was based on the premise that whatever is written in the
Qurʾān as well as in ‘authentic Ḥadīth’ is not allowed to be contextualised,
interpreted in a metaphorical sense or based on certain non-textual
epistemological and methodological tools such as notion of ethical
objectivism, the use of reason or concept of the spirit and rationale (qasd )
of the Qurʾān and Sunnah which were, as we saw earlier, the foundation of
Qurʾānic and Sunnahic teachings as characterised by the Prophet’s
embodiment of the Qurʾānic message put into practice and perpetuated by
the first three generations of Muslims.
A significant impetus to this view of the epistemologico-methodological
superiority of Ḥadīth-based Sunnah to that of al-sunnah al-maʿrufah was
provided by Shāfiʿī who belonged to the fourth generation of Muslims.

Taken from this article ( free PDF).

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