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By by Noha El-Hennawy


Reformist thinker Gamal El-Banna re-ignites an age-old debate, contesting the role of Sunnah in modern-day Islam

DEBATING THE QUESTION “Is it Sunnah, or is it Qur’an?” is a near-daily occurrence for many Muslims, but few have done so with the frequency and fervor of the reformist thinker Gamal El-Banna and his critics at Al-Azhar University, the Cairo-based bastion of Sunni thought.

With a recent series of books and articles, El-Banna claims he’s merely out to kick-start a debate the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) would approve of. His detractors counter he is denying the Sunnah, the collect sayings of the Prophet and the de facto “second reference” in Islam, a move, they warn, that cuts dangerously close to apostasy.

El-Banna dismisses accusations that he is calling on the faithful to abandon the Sunnah, but insists that the orally transmitted traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) are less binding on Muslims than the Qur’an itself.

“We cannot deny the Sunnah, even though it has been proven that most of the sayings attributed to the Prophet (PBUH) have been made up, were narrated in other people’s words or were transmitted inaccurately. This does not mean that there are no true sayings that set many Islamic fundamental principles; what it does mean is that it’s high time to study the Sunnah in a different way,” El-Banna says.

“The Qur’an never goes into detail,” he continues. “It talks about prayers and almsgiving and pilgrimage, but without specifying details. Does this mean the Qur’an forgot to mention them? Of course not. Had the Qur’an mentioned these details, they would have been eternally binding, which would have prevented the text from being compatible with different ages. In the meantime, we needed to know how to obey God’s commandments.

“For example, when God commanded Muslims to pray, he let the Prophet (PBUH) show us how. The Sunnah, whether it refers to the Prophet’s deeds or saying, is thus binding as long as it is compatible with progress. If it happens to be incompatible with the demands of any age, we must refer back to the Qur’an.”

(The term Sunnah is commonly used to designate the sayings (hadith, plural: ahadith) and deeds of the Prophet (PBUH) as well as those of his companions that the Prophet himself hailed. The Sunnah were transmitted orally by the Prophet (PBUH)’s companions, the most significant of whom for the ahadith are Abu Hurayra (5374 ahadith), Abduallah Ibn Omar (2630), Anas Ibn Malik (2286) and the Prophet’s wife, Aisha (2210). All four of these companions spent long periods in the company of the Prophet.)

So why isn’t the Sunnah as binding as the Qur’an across the ages? El-Banna says, in effect, that while the Qur’an is the word of God as revealed through the Prophet (PBUH), Mohammed himself had prohibited the documentation of his ahadith.

The reformist thinker recounts the Prophet (PBUH)’s prohibition in al-Sunnah wa Dawriha fi al-Fiqh al-Jadid (The Role of the Sunnah in the New Jurispriduence), the second installment of his trilogy Nahw fiqh jadid (Toward New Islamic Jurisprudence). “Abu Huraira [one of the Prophet’s closest companions and a narrator of thousands of the Prophet’s traditions] is reported to have said, ‘The Prophet of God came out to us while we were writing his ahadith, and he said, ‘What is this that you are writing?’ And we said, ‘Ahadith which we hear from thee.’ And he responded: ‘A book other than the Book of God? Do you know that nothing but the writing of books other than the Book of God led astray the peoples who came before you?’ We asked, ‘Are we to relate your ahadith, O Prophet of God?’ And he replied: ‘Relate my ahadith; there is no objection. But he who intentionally speaks falsely claiming my authority will find a place in hell.’”

As El-Banna sees it, the incident proves the Prophet (PBUH) feared the “eternalization” of his ahadith in a form that would make them to Islam what the Talmud is to the Jewish faith, a book that would draw the Muslim faithful away from the Qur’an. The same factor prompted each of the four rightly guided caliphs (see sidebar) to focus not on the proper compilation of the ahadith, but rather the Qur’an, El-Banna claims.

But Abu Huraira’s is not the only tradition reported by the Prophet (PBUH)’s companions with regards to the writing down of the Sunnah: Another close companion is reported to have said, “We [companions] said, ‘O Prophet of God, we hear from you ahadith that we cannot remember. May we write them down?’ And he s ‘By all means, write them down.’”

According to Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a former dean of Al-Azhar’s School of the Fundamentals of Religion and member of the Fatwa Committee, El-Banna’s interpretation of the Prophet (PBUH)’s opposition to the documentation of the Sunnah is “invalid.”

“It is true that the Prophet (PBUH) forbade his companions from writing down his traditions,” Bayoumi says, “but that was during the first years of the revelation. Later on, he allowed them to write down his ahadith. The Prophet (PBUH)’s prohibition followed by his authorization does not mean that the Sunnah is unimportant, nor does it mean that it is not eternally binding. Rather, the Prophet (PBUH)’s prohibition was out of fear that Muslims might mix up the Qur’an with the Sunnah.

“When he was sure that the Qur’an was documented and well memorized, he allowed his companions to write down his ahadith,” Bayoumi asserts.

In fact, he continues, many of the primary collections of ahadith were written down while the Prophet (PBUH) was still alive.

“The Sunnah was not first written down during the Ummayad dynasty as many people claim that is a falsification of history. Ahadith were written down during the Prophet’s lifetime. The best proof of that is in Muslim scholars’ ability to distinguish authentic ahadith from false ones when the Sunnah was formally documented during the Abbassid dynasty.

“The rightly guided caliphs did not refuse to write down the Sunnah,” Bayoumi says. “Instead, the caliphs were preoccupied with the compilation of the Qur’an.”

Nasr Fareed Wassel, the former Mufti of Egypt, agrees with El-Banna that the Sunnah primarily serves as an explanatory text for the broad messages conveyed by the Qur’an. But that fact alone, Wassel says, makes the Sunnah as binding as the Qur’an.

“The Sunnah serves as a detailed memorandum on the Qur’an, meaning the Sunnah and the Qur’an are one entity. Anyone who believes in the Qur’an and denies the Sunnah is, in fact, denying the Qur’an,” Wassel notes. “The Qur’an itself states: ‘O Ye who believe! Obey Allah and obey the messenger [4:59].’”

“Both the Qur’an and the Sunnah are divine revelations. The Qur’an was revealed in God’s own words without modification to serve as the main constituent [of faith] for the human race in different times and places, while the Sunnah, which is also from God, is expressed in the Prophet (PBUH)’s own words,” Wassel adds.

Moreover, he notes, another Qur’anic verse “And whatsoever the messenger giveth you, take it. And whatsoever he forbiddeth, abstain [from it] [59:7]” proves that the commandments of the Prophet (PBUH) not mentioned in the Qur’an are as binding as the Holy Text.


After the death of Mohammed (PBUH), many of his companions settled in garrison towns as the Muslim world expanded. There, they attracted large numbers of converts who had never seen the Prophet and were eager to learn his traditions. These groups of disciples were identified as tabi’un or “successors of the companions.” They memorized the Prophet’s ahadith and transmitted them orally to the following generation of Muslims, referred to as atba ‘al-tabi’in (the successors of the successors) who are believed to have lived until the first quarter of the third century AH (After Hijra, the Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina).

Although most narrators of ahadith were zealous, some claim not all were intellectually or morally capable of transmitting the exact words of the Prophet (PBUH), a development that gave rise to both false ahadith and the science of analyzing and classifying them. Other scholars date the problems to an even earlier period, claiming that the “forgery” of ahadith began during the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)’s lifetime when his enemies attributed to him words and deeds designed to rouse Arab tribes to action against the Muslims.

Still other scholars claim the forgery began during the first Muslim century under the rule of Uthman ibn Affan, the third rightly guided caliph. During ibn Affan’s rule, the ummah was racked by political divisions. In the power struggle that followed, each group is believed to have falsified ahadith to give their claims stronger theological foundations.

“Due to the dissention that divided Muslims into groups such as the Shi’a and Kharijs (a group that turned against Ali) some people hypocrites and apostates started to make up false traditions, attributing them to the Prophet (PBUH). At the same time, the Prophet’s traditions were paraphrased, which gave rise to differences in the [content] of the ahadith. That’s why Muslims started to write down the ahadith and verify their authenticity,” Wassel explains.

The first bid to compile the Sunnah began under the reign of the Ummayad Caliph Omar ibn Abdel Aziz, who ruled from 99-102 AH (717-719 AD). Known for his piety, Omar II feared that ahadith that were essential to the “moral regeneration” of the Muslim community would be lost if they were not codified. Despite the ruler’s attempt, the major books of ahadith were not written until the third Muslim century.

Scholars broadly accept six books of ahadith as Al-Kutub Al-Sihah or “authentic books” that have been elevated to canonical rank in the Muslim world: Sahih Al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Jam’ Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan bin Maja and Sunan Al-Nasai’i. All six of these scholars traveled to what were at the time the far-flung reaches of the Muslim world to meet with the custodians of ahadith and verify the authenticity of reported prophetic sayings and traditions.

The reliability of a specific hadith is largely based on the biography of its transmitter. For most scholars of ahadith, the transmitter must be known for his faith and the truthfulness of all that he reports. He must understand the content of the hadith and be fully aware that a change in expression can affect the meaning; he must also be able to narrate the hadith exactly as he heard it from his predecessor, not in his own words. His report should also correlate with those of other transmitters. (See box on classification of ahadith for more information.)

Muslim jurists regard the Sunnah as the second source of Shariah (Islamic law) after the Qur’an a fact that has led El-Banna to declare that the criteria scholars have set to verify the authenticity of reported prophetic traditions as insufficient.

“We should not deal with the Sunnah the way scholars perceived it because they relied heavily on the verification of the chain of transmitters, which is very subjective because it is based on the judgment of the narrators’ characters,” El-Banna says. “As a result, we find Muslim regarded certain traditions as authentic, while Bukhari rejects the same hadith because he judged the transmitters differently. It is the content of the ahadith that really counts.”

Too often, the reformist thinker says, Al-Azhar’s verification process focuses on chain of transmission at the expense of content.

But Bayoumi disagrees, explaining that Azharite scholars examine both the content of each hadith and the nature of the narrators in question. “All of the forged ahadith have been identified and many books have been written about these forgeries,” says the former Al-Azhar dean. “The problem is that people who make claims [like El-Banna’s] are not really acquainted with the Sunnah.”

While Wassel agrees that the body of Sunnah has been “well researched, documented and authenticated,” he doesn’t object to giving additional scrutiny to ahadith that may appear to contradict the Qur’an or conflict with modern societal norms. Take, for example, the prophetic tradition that has led many Muslim scholars to rule that women cannot serve as judges.

(It has been reported that when the Prophet knew that a woman was appointed to head the Persian empire, he said that a society which hands its affairs over to a woman will never progress [codified in al-Sahih al-Bukhari]. For some scholars, the prophet was referring to a specific situation, so the hadith cannot be considered as a foundation for the prohibition of Muslim women from assuming leading positions.)

Scholars were divided over the meaning of this “authentic” hadith, Wassel explains. “So when a text raises a debate that can affect people’s lives, we should verify its authenticity,” Wassel says.

As El-Banna sees it, that hadith is one of many the Arabs falsified as part of a greater bid to coerce women. Not only is the truthfulness of the narrator an open question, he says, but this tradition contradicts the text of the Qur’an itself, which praises the Queen Bilqis of Sheba.

“The Prophet (PBUH) was the first gentleman in history,” El-Banna describes. “He appreciated women; he was attached to women because his father died before his birth and he was raised by his mother and then by his nanny. He condoned women’s emancipation by allowing them to take part in battle against the pagans. The Prophet improved the status of women as much as he could given his cultural milieu. He also opened the door for further aspects of emancipation. However, Arab society was reluctant to tolerate this new reality, so many of them started to make up ahadith that would maintain the status quo.”

Similarly, El-Banna says, there is no religious foundation that prevents women running for any elected office, including the presidency.

“In the Prophet (PBUH)’s time, it was practically difficult for women to become caliphs or judges because of their ignorance, but if women are proven to be more competent than men, there is no religious justification for preventing them from reaching such positions,” El-Banna says.

At least one country appears to agree: Indonesia is ruled by Megawati Sokarnoputri, an elected president. Wassel, however, disagrees with both El-Banna and the Indonesian precedent, saying Islam does not permit women to become top political leaders.

“In order to lead Muslims in their worldly affairs, the ruler must be eligible to lead them in their prayers, and since by consensus of the Muslim community women never lead men in prayers, they cannot rule them,” Wassel explains.

Deeds, not words

If words are one thing, are deeds another? Some scholars claim all of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)’s deeds are to be emulated by all Muslims, while others, including El-Banna, draw a distinction between his actions as a prophet and those he made as an ordinary human being.

The dissenters base their view on the Prophet’s own words: “I am a human being. When I command you to do anything concerning your religion, then accept it; when I command you to do anything on account of my personal opinion, then you should know that I am also a human being.” (Sahih Muslim)

That hadith is why some scholars do not consider the Prophet (PBUH)’s means of dress, for example, to be eternally binding on the ummah.

Adding another dimension are scholars who divide any of the Prophet (PBUH)’s actions that carry religious significance into two distinct categories: traditions restricted to him as a prophet, such as extra prayers at night, and traditions that are applicable to the Muslim community as a whole.

On the veil, El-Banna states that neither the Qur’an nor authentic Sunnah demand it of women. “There is no specific verse that obliges women to wear headscarves, but you find verses setting the broad lines for [public modesty or decency].

“The Qur’an states: ‘And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent and to draw their veils over the bossoms [24:31].’

“If the Qur’an wanted to oblige women to cover their hair, it would have stated it very clearly. Why would the Qur’an resort to expressions that have a variety of interpretations? The fact is that the Qur’an can be understood directly without resorting to interpretation if it couldn’t, we would have clergy to lead us,” El-Banna opines.

In his book al-Hijab (The Veil), El-Banna declares the veil is not an Islamic tradition, but a pre-Islamic one according to research he has completed on the Arab world prior to the Prophet (PBUH)’s time. In those days, he says, Arab women covered their head and left the upper parts of their chest uncovered. He thus concludes that the verse commands women to cover their chests, not their heads.

“The Qur’anic sanctioning of the head-scarf does not mean it is an obligation, but it shows God approved of the costumes worn in Arab society at the time. So the Qur’an did not come up with the veil or oblige women to wear it,” El-Banna asserts.

He also questions the authenticity of the hadith that obliges women to cover all parts of their body except their hands and faces. The hadith is believed to have been reported by Aisha, but El-Banna claims that one of the narrators of the hadith was not a contemporary of the Prophet (PBUH)’s wife, so his report cannot be taken as authentic.

However, Wassel dismisses El-Banna’s claims affirming that the veil is a religious obligation on every Muslim woman once she attains puberty. His body of evidence? The same verse and the Prophet’s Sunnah. He insists that the hadith is authentic.

El-Banna rejects all traditions that deal with transcendental issues as “illogical”, he also believes that they contradict the Qur’an, which states that it is only God who knows the unseen world.

In his book on the Sunnah, El-Banna refers to several Qur’anic verses to substantiate his argument. “[He is] the Knower of the Unseen, and He revealeth unto none His secret [75:26].”

In the abridged Sahih Muslim, there are some 40 traditions that describe the apocalypse, heaven and hell.

“These ahadith are sanctified in our religious discourse and that is why we find now tons of books on punishment in tombs of those who violated God’s commandments. Ultimately, our religious discourse is now based on terrifying Muslims with God’s punishment in the afterlife and arousing their interest in divine reward,” opines El-Banna, who dismisses all traditions that illustrate different aspects of punishment and reward in the next life. “All these ahadith cannot be authentic, because there is no punishment without judgment and we all know that humans will be only judged on Judgment Day in the afterlife. Thus, all these ahadith scare people and sanctify a false understanding.”

He also refutes traditions stating that a Muslim who performs pilgrimage is granted divine remission of all his sins, accusing scholars of contributing to the backwardness of the Muslim community by having paid maximum attention to the Prophet (PBUH)’s rituals in worship and having ignored his actions.

“This attitude has made Muslims misunderstand their religion and care only about rituals. This understanding still affects our lives. For example, the Muslim prays, fasts, performs pilgrimage, but finds no shame in lying, abusing others ,” El-Banna says.

The rejection of traditions about the unseen world sounds too provocative to Bayoumi.

“We cannot say these traditions are illogical,” he asserts. “When the Prophet (PBUH) talks about transcendental issues and divine rewards in the afterlife, we cannot discuss whether what he says is logical or not. Logic dictates that since the Prophet’s truthfulness was proved to the ummah, whatever he offers must be true and accepted. Were these people who refute these authentic traditions told by another prophet that these traditions are incorrect?” he asks, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

For Wassel, this split behavior among many Muslims is not the fault of scholars, because all aspects of the Prophet’s Sunnah including sayings and deeds were well studied and well documented. Instead, he says, it is because religious education is increasingly marginalized in school.

“Our educational system is secular,” he says. “Students learn religion as an attempt to enhance their general knowledge. They do not learn the fundamentals of religion. This negligence of the true Islamic culture is the reason behind our plight and our political and economic weakness,” Wassel concludes.

Politics in Sunnah

The chapter on leadership in the abridged Sahih Muslim lists some 45 ahadith, many of which urge Muslims to obey their leaders so long as the leaders obey God’s commandments. Elsewhere, we find traditions warning Muslims not to fight their leaders even if they are proven to be unjust so long as the leaders perform their prayers.

As El-Banna sees it, many of these traditions have been falsified in a bid to breed political submissiveness in the Muslim populace. Many Islamic scholars, he says, have used these traditions to forbid revolts against unjust rulers, warning Muslims against fitna or dissent.

“This thinking allowed rulers to tighten their grips, which resulted in the weakness of Islamic states. The repercussions of this thinking are still felt in our societies. The best proof is the strong relationship between the religious establishment and the state. The highest [Sunni] religious authority [the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar] is simply an employee of the state. Both the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Mufti are hired by the state, meaning the state supports the religious establishment and in return the latter backs the former,” El-Banna claims.

If the Muslim world is to move forward, he continues, Islamic countries must abide the “democratic political guidelines” set by the Prophet (PBUH) and his rightly guided successors (except for the third caliph) in the Islamic state that was established in Medina during the first century AH. In his book on the Sunnah, El-Banna points to principles of justice, equality between rulers and subjects, accountability of caliphs and the rejection of hereditary rule. All these values were ignored once the Ummayads established their autocratic dynasty, El-Banna adds regretfully.

Once again, Wassel dissents but not completely. Referring to the verse: “O Ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those of you who are in authority [4:59].” He also mentions the Prophet’s hadith stating that religion is nasihah (advice) to God, to his book, to his messenger and to the leaders and to commonalty of the believers, (codified in Sahih Muslim).

In the old Islamic dynasties, he continues, the ruler was able to make decisions unilaterally because he was presumed to be a just faqih (lawmaker). Wassel does accept as legitimate some measure of verbal opposition to political leaders, but notes, “In undemocratic countries, people can call for direct elections with multiple candidates. But if the rulers do not heed these demands, the opposition must not rebel or turn against the ruler because this will lead to fitna. In that case, we have to choose between the lesser of two evils, and that means tolerating the shortcomings of the status quo instead of jeopardizing the unity of the ummah.

“This does not mean that we surrender,” Wassel continues, “but we should use legitimate channels such as the media and public lectures to give advice to the ruler. There is no objection to saying, ‘The political regime is undemocratic and the ruler must be changed,’ but this must be within the parameters of legitimate channels. We can organize peaceful demonstrations, but we must be sure that there is no involvement of foreign forces in these demonstrations and that the demonstrators are really seeking reform. Demonstrators should not shout, but remain silent, raising banners illustrating their demands, because when people shout, they may use provocative and hostile words,” Wassel adds.

Still El-Banna refuses to remain silent, openly taking on the current religious establishment in his eagerly awaited Tagdid al-Islam (The Renewal of Islam), which dismisses the four Islamic madhahib (schools of law), due out this month.

Only time will tell whether El-Banna’s attempt to lead a new debate will bear fruit.




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