The Difference between the Sunnah and the Quran
The Quran is the foundation of Islamic Law. It is the
miraculous speech of God that was revealed to the Messenger, may the mercy and
blessings of God be upon him, by way of the angel Gabriel. It has been
transmitted to us with so many chains of authority that its historical
authenticity is unquestionable. It is written down in its own volume, and its
recitation is a form of worship.
As for the Sunnah, it is everything besides the Quran
that came from God’s Messenger. It explains and provides details for the laws
found in the Quran. It also provides examples of the practical application of
these laws. It is also either direct revelation from God, or decisions of the
Messenger that were then confirmed by revelation. Therefore, the source of all
the Sunnah is revelation.
The Quran is the revelation that is formally recited as
an act of worship, and the Sunnah is revelation that is not formally recited. The
Sunnah, though, is just like the Quran in that it is revelation that must be
followed and adhered to.
The Quran takes precedence over the Sunnah in two ways.
For one thing, the Quran consists of the exact words of God, miraculous in
nature, down to the last verse. The Sunnah, however, is not necessarily the
exact words of God, but rather their meanings as explained by the Prophet.
The Position of the Sunnah in Islamic Law
During the Messenger’s lifetime the Quran and Sunnah
were the only sources of Islamic Law.
The Quran provides the general injunctions that formed
the basis of the Law, without going into all the details and secondary
legislation, with the exception of a few injunctions that are established along
with the general principles. These injunctions are not subject to change over
time or with the changing circumstances of the people. The Quran, likewise,
comes with the tenets of belief, sets down acts of worship, mentions the
stories of the nations of old, and provides moral guidelines.
The Sunnah comes in agreement with the Quran. It
explains the meanings of what is unclear in the text, provides details for what
is depicted in general terms, specifies what is general, and explains its
injunctions and objectives. The Sunnah also comes with injunctions that are
not provided by the Quran, but these are always in harmony with its principles,
and they always advance the objectives that are outlined in the Quran.
The Sunnah is a practical expression of what is in the Quran.
This expression takes many forms. Sometimes, it comes as an action performed
by the Messenger. At other times, it is a statement that he made in response
to something. Sometimes, it takes the form of a statement or action of one of
the Companions that he neither prevented nor objected to. On the contrary, he
remained silent about it or expressed his approval for it.
The Sunnah explains and clarifies the Quran in many ways.
It explains how to perform the acts of worship and carry out the laws that are
mentioned in the Quran. God commands the believers to pray without mentioning
the times that the prayers had to be performed or the manner of performing them.
The Messenger clarified this through his own prayers and by teaching the
Muslims how to pray. He said: “Pray as you have seen me praying.”
God makes the Hajj pilgrimage obligatory without
explaining its rites. God’s Messenger explains this by saying:
“Take the rites of Hajj from me.”
God makes the Zakah tax obligatory without mentioning
what types of wealth and produce it is to be levied against. God also does not
mention the minimum amount of wealth that makes the tax obligatory. The
Sunnah, though, makes all this clear.
The Sunnah specifies general statements found in the Quran.
“God commands you regarding your children: to the male, a
portion equal to that of two females…” (Quran 4:11)
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. God’s Messenger
“We Prophets leave behind no inheritance. Whatever
we leave behind is charity.”
The Sunnah qualifies unqualified statements in the Quran.
“…and you find no water, then perform tayammum (dry
ablution) with clean earth and rub therewith your faces and hands… (Quran 5:6)
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 God’s Messenger did when he performed dry ablution.
The Sunnah also comes emphasizing what is in the Quran
or providing secondary legislation for a law stated therein. This includes all
the hadeeth that indicate that Prayer, the Zakah tax, fasting, and the Hajj
pilgrimage are obligatory.
An example of where the Sunnah provides subsidiary
legislation for an injunction found in the Quran is the ruling found in the
Sunnah that it is forbidden to sell fruit before it begins to ripen. The basis
for this law is the statement of the Quran:
Do not consume your property amongst you unjustly, except it
be a trade among you by mutual consent.
The Sunnah contains rulings that are not mentioned in
the Quran and that do not come as clarifications for something mentioned in the
Quran. An example of this is the prohibition of eating donkey flesh and the
flesh of predatory beasts. Another example of this is the prohibition of
marrying a woman and her aunt at the same time. These and other rulings
provided by the Sunnah must be adhered to.
The Obligation of Adhering to the Sunnah
A requirement of believing in prophethood is to accept
as true everything that God’s Messenger said. God chose His Messengers from
among His worshippers to convey His Law to humanity. God says:
“…God knows best with whom to place His Message…” (Quran
God also says:
“…Are the Messengers charged with anything but to convey the
clear Message?” (Quran 16:35)
The Messenger is protected from error in all of his
actions. God has protected his tongue from uttering anything but the truth. God
has protected his limbs from doing anything but what is right.
God has safeguarded him from showing approval for
anything contrary to Islamic Law. He is the most beautifully complete of God’s
Creations. This is clear from how God describes him in the Quran:
“By the star when it sets. Your companion has neither gone
astray nor has he erred. Nor does he speak of his own desire. It is only
revelation that has been revealed.” (Quran 53:1-4)
We see in the hadeeth that no circumstances, no matter
how trying, could prevent the Prophet from speaking the truth. Being angry
never affected his speech. He never spoke falsehood even when he was jesting.
His own interests never swayed him from speaking the truth. The only goal that
he sought was the pleasure of God Almighty.
Abdullah b. Amr b. al-Aas related that he used to write
down everything that God’s Messenger said. Then the tribe of Quraish forbade
him from doing so, saying: “Do you write down everything that God’s Messenger
says, and he is but a man who speaks in contentment and in anger?”
Abdullah b. Amr stopped writing and mentioned this to
God’s Messenger who told him:
“Write, for by Him in Whose hand is my soul, only
truth comes forth from this.” …and pointed to his mouth.
The Quran, the Sunnah, and the consensus of the jurists
all point to the fact that obeying God’s Messenger is obligatory. God says in
“O you who believe, obey God and obey His Messenger and those
in authority among you. If you fall into dispute about a matter, refer it back
to God and His Messenger if you believe in God and the Last Day…” (Quran 4:59)