The role of the Sunnah in Legislation

The role of the Sunnah in Legislation

The linguistic meaning of the word Sunnah is a path or a way of doing things, setting an example. The scholars of Hadeeth define Sunnah as everything that has been related from the Prophet Muhammad from his words, actions, tactic approvals and his description. The actions of the Prophet include all aspects including how he made ablution, how he prayed, how he fasted and how he performed jihad. The tacit approvals of the Prophet includes everything that his companions said or did and he did not object to. The statements and actions of the Prophet, as well as his tactic approvals all carry weight in legislation, they are evidences. Much of this is discussed in the program titled, ‘A Tafseer of Surah Al-Baqarah’ on Islamic Courses Online.

The two primary sources for Islamic Law are the Qur’an and the Sunnah. But the question many may ask, “is the Sunnah an independent source or a mere supplement to the Qur’an?” Let us take a look at this question in more depth in the following paragraphs, it can also be viewed on the course titled ‘Understanding rulings in the Qur’an, on Islamic Courses.

The Qur’an is the foundation of Islamic Law. It is the speech of Allah that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It has been transmitted to us with many chains of authority that its historical authenticity is unquestionable. It was written down in the time of the Prophet and formally compiled into a book form once in the time of Abu Bakr and then officially in the time of Uthman Ibn Affan.

When it comes to the Sunnah, it is all the revelation from Allah other than the Qur’an. They are the words of the Prophet but the meanings are inspired by Allah. The Sunnah was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet and much of it was later compiled into various books. The most authoritative compilation of Hadith is the Sahih of Imam Al Bukhari and the Sahih of Imam Muslim. The Quran explains that the exact role of the Sunnah with regards to the Quran is that it explains its verses.

The Holy Qur’an is considered nobler than the Sunnah in two ways. Firstly, we worship Allah through the recitation of the Qur’an unlike the Sunnah. The Qur’an is the speech of Allah whereas the Sunnah is words of the Prophet but the meanings are from Allah. From a legal perspective they are on the same level in terms of authority.

The Sunnah explains the Qur’an, it clarifies that which is unclear in the text, it provides further details for what is depicted in general terms, Allah commands the believers to pray but the details of how to pray is found in the Sunnah.

Establish the prayer….” [1]

And this verse is then explained by the Prophet where he says:

Pray as you have seen me praying….”[2]

We see many more similar examples like Hajj, its rights are explained in the sunnah, Zakaat it’s amount and other details are all mentioned in the Sunnah.

The Sunnah specifies what is general, and explains its injunctions and objectives. The Sunnah also comes with ahkam that are not provided by the Holy Quran, but these are always in harmony with its principles, and they always support the goals that are outlined in the Holy Quran. The Sunnah specifies general statements found in the Holy Quran.  Allah says:

Allah commands you regarding your children: the share of the male will be twice that of the female…”[3]

This wording is general, applying to every family and making every child an inheritor of his or her parents.  The Sunnah makes this ruling more specific by excluding the children of Prophets.  Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said:

We Prophets leave behind no inheritance.  Whatever we leave behind is charity.”[4]


The Sunnah qualifies unqualified statements in the Holy Quran.  Allah says:

“…and cannot find water, then purify yourselves with clean earth by wiping your faces and hands..”[5]

The verse does not mention the extent of the hand, leaving the question of whether one should rub the hands up to the wrist or the forearm.  The Sunnah makes this clear by showing that it is to the wrist, because this is what Allah’s Messenger did when he performed dry ablution.

The Sunnah also comes with rulings that are not mentioned in the Qur’an, new rulings. An example of that, is the prohibition of eating donkey meat and the flesh of predatory animals. These rules must be adhered to just as the rulings found in the Qur’an.

We come to learn that it is obligatory for us to follow the Sunnah based on what we have mentioned above and the explicit verses which order us to do so, such as:

Believe in Allah and His messengers, the unlettered Prophet who believes in Allah and His words. Follow him, perhaps you will be guided.”[6]

And we have sent down to you O Prophet the Reminder, so that you may explain to people what has been revealed for them…”[7]

In conclusion, the Sunnah is as important to legislation as is the Qur’an, both are primary sources of Islamic Law. One cannot be understand fully without the other. Those who claim the Qur’an is self-explanatory have not just fooled themselves but have actually gone against the fundamental teachings of the Qur’an.

[1] Al-Baqarah 2:43

[2] Sahih Al Bukhari

[3] An-Nisa 4:11

[4] Sahih al-Bukhari

[5] Al-Ma’idah 5:6

[6] Al-A’raf 7:157

[7] An-Nahl 16:44


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