The Sources of Islamic Law

- Stage One Module Four
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Previously we have seen that the entire life of a Muslim – his beliefs, his worship and his social and moral conduct – is structured on the basis of definite rules and regulations. Now we will briefly talk about the source of all these codes and directives.

Basically, there are three sources from which we obtain all our Islamic laws and principles:

The Holy Quran
The Tradition (Sunnah and Hadith of the Holy Prophet)
Ijtihad (exercise of judgement)

 

1. The Holy Quran

The Holy Qur’an is the real foundation on which the entire structure of Islam rests. The Holy Qur’an is the absolute and the final authority in any discussion related to Islamic principles or codes. One could even say that the Holy Qur’an is the only source and that the other two sources – Tradition and Ijtihad– are directly or indirectly derived from the Quranic teachings.

The Holy Qur’an, however, deals with the essentials. It leaves the details to the Tradition and Ijtihad. We have already covered some aspects relating to the Holy Qur’an and we will cover more later.

2. The Tradition

After the Holy Qur’an, the most important Islamic textual material is the Tradition, which includes the Sunnah and Hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. The Sunnah is the practice of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, while the Hadith is his sayings.

As the Holy Qur’an deals mainly with the broad principles of Islam, the details were frequently supplied by Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, by his actions and his sayings. Since written communication was not very common in those days, the transmission of the actions and sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, took place from one person to another by the word of mouth.

It was many years after the death of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, that a systematic compilation of his practices and sayings started to take place. Extreme care used to be taken in tracing a tradition back through various narrators and establishing its authenticity.

It was about two hundred years after the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, that the six most authentic compilations of the Tradition existing today were made. Together, these six compilations are known as the Siha-i Sitta meaning the Six Authentic Ones. The names of these books and their compilers are given below:

Sahih Bukhari by Imam Ismail Bukhari 194-256 AH
Sahih Muslim by Imam Muslim bin Hajjaj 204-261 AH
Jamia Tirmizi by Imam Abu Isa bin Tirmizi 209-279 AH
Sunan Abu Daud by Imam Abu Daud Sulaiman 202-275 AH
Sunan Nisai by Ahmad bin Shuaib al-Nisai 215-306 AH
Sunan Ibn Majah by Abu Abdullah bin Yazid ibn Majah 209-273 AH

These six books on Tradition, classified the sayings and actions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, under various subjects, and thereby made these compilations easy to use. These books are still available today and make extremely informative and interesting reading. Of the six collections mentioned above, Sahih Bukhari holds the first place in many respects, while Sahih Muslim is generally accorded second place.

Sahih Bukhari was not only one of the first such compilation of Tradition, but has also set the standard by which the others are judged.

The early scholars of Tradition developed sound principles in the light of which the authenticity of any given hadith could be verified. These principles related to the unbroken chain of transmission, the trustworthiness of the narrators and the apparent genuineness of the text itself.

It must be remembered that there is a clear distinction between the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith; The Holy Qur’an is the Word of God. Hadith, on the other hand, is the word of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, as narrated by various persons. Generally speaking, Muslims will follow the Hadith if it does not contradict the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. If there is an apparent contradiction between the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith, then the Hadith must be considered suspect. The Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is reported to have said, “If you find anything foolish ascribed to me, discard it. For it is not from me”. (Muslim)

3. Ijtihad or Exercise of Judgement

Ijtihad, or the exercise of judgement, is the third source of Islamic principles and codes. To enable you to understand the importance of Ijtihad, we will narrate an actual Hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him:

On being appointed Governor of Yemen, Mu’adh was asked by the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, as to which rule would he follow. Mu’adh replied, “The law of the Qur’an”. “But if you do not find any direction therein”, asked the Prophet. “Then I will act according to the Sunnah of the Prophet”, replied Mu’adh. “But if you do not find an direction therein”, he was asked again. “Then I will exercise my judgement (Ijtihad) and act on that”, said Mu’adh. The Holy Prophet approved of this and prayed for Mu’adh. This is the true example of how human judgement should be used in the matter of religion. Muslims believe that the most accurate and perfect form of knowledge is that which is given to man through the process of revelation. To properly understand God’s revelation, however, some human reasoning and judgement is always required. As long as the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, was alive himself, he provided this judgement and explained to the people many of the rules and regulations given in the Holy Qur’an. After his death, the people continued to carry out this threefold approach to the Islamic principles. Whenever a problem arose, the Muslims tried to find its solution in the Holy Qur’an. If it was not mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, they searched the Holy Prophet’s Sunnah and Hadith. Not finding the solution there either, they used their best judgement based on the general philosophy and principles of Islam. This process of using human judgement in elaborating Islamic principles or solving problems is called Ijtihad.

 
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