The divorce that made Muslim disunity possible

The noble jurist, Imam al-Shafi’i (767-819 AD) clearly regarded the Quran and Sunna as forms of prophetic revelation (wahy) in Islam. In al-Shafi’i’s legal magnum opus, Risala, the Quran is termed “revelation recited”, or wahy matlu, while the Sunna is termed “revelation not recited”, or wahy ghayr matlu. The distinguishing feature of wahy ghayr matlu is that it far outnumbers Quranic statements.

Al-Shafi’i’s view has far-reaching implications because enormous confusion and controversy were caused by individuals and groups who sought to tear the Sunna from the Quran; pitting one against the other and forcing the awkward question of which abrogates or prevails over the other1. To assert the duality of the Quran and Sunna, some Muslims invoke a Hadith that says2:

Whatever you hear related from me, compare it with the book of God. If it agrees with the book of God, I said it. If it does not agree with the book of God, I did not say it.

But Imam al-Shafi’i did not place either the Quran or the Sunna on uneven terms. One of his juristic legacies is putting the Quran and Sunna on par, insisting on taking both together so as to eliminate the destructive prospect of having one go up against the other. The Imam’s consequent denial that the Quran constitutes as a test of veracity for the Sunna is well-supported by the fact that most Hadith scholars classify the dualists’ Hadith as being weak and fabricated. Abdul Rahman ibn Mahdi explicitly accused the Zindiqs and Khawarij of having come up with it. Ibn Abd al-Barr argues even further 2:

The people of knowledge have dealt with this Hadith. They say they have compared it with the book of God before anything else, and they have relied upon the results of this comparison. They say that when they compared it they found it opposed to the book of God. They have said that they did not find in the book of God that a Hadith should only be accepted when it agrees with the book of God. Indeed they found in the book of God absolute in setting up the prophet as a model, in commanding obedience to him, and in warning against opposition to his commands. This is total and under every circumstance.

Imam al-Shafi’i held the position that only the Quran could abrogate the Quran and the Sunna abrogate the Sunna. The net result, according to S.M Yusuf, is the complete integration of both sources of law into a single unit. The Sunna thus complements the Quran, expanding and elaborating on Quranic laws. This legal paradigm is so entrenched that some scholars have been noted for making controversial statements as: “The Quran is more in need of the Sunna than the Sunna of the Book4.”

The discussion that has transpired has a direct bearing on the nature of sects within the Islamic community today. The structure of Islamic polity is such that each movement has to prove its “reason-for-being” by variations in religious belief and ideology. Such variation can only come about as a result of consciously or unconsciously setting up walls between Quran and Sunna, treating them as some kind of dualism. The isolation of one from the other can be said to be a pre-requisite of forcing one’s own arbitrary interpretation on others.

The earliest leaders of the Muslim community had clearly understood the roots of disunity that seemed to rear its ugly head time and again, in almost the same, repeatable pattern. It is related, for example that when Ali ibn Abi Talib (d.661), the fourth caliph of Islam, had sent ibn Abbas (d. 687 or 688) to debate with the Khawarij, he had been advised by Ali to avoid confining the argument with the Khawarij to the Quran alone inasmuch as the Quran was capable of various possible interpretations until reference was made to the Sunna, which would place them in a tight corner5.

Ali’s instructions proved to be prescient as many Khawarij followed ibn Abbas out of their self-imposed rebellion.

  1. S.M Yusuf, The Sunnah, Its Development and Revision, pg 105
  2. Ibn Abd al-Barr, Jami bayan al-ilm wa-fadlihi, ed Abdul Rahman Hasan Mahmud, pg 491-6
  3. Ibn Abd al-Barr, Jami bayan al-ilm wa-fadlihi, ed Abdul Rahman Hasan Mahmud, pg 491-6
  4. Isa ibn Yunus related from al-Awzai, from Makhul. Cited in Classical Islam- A Sourcebook of Religious Literature, pg 182
  5. Nahj al-Balaghah, vol II, pg 75, cited by Ignaz Goldziher