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The Difference between the Sunnah and the Quran

The Quran is the foundation of Islamic Law.  It is themiraculous speech of God that was revealed to the Messenger, may the mercy andblessings of God be upon him, by way of the angel Gabriel.  It has beentransmitted to us with so many chains of authority that its historicalauthenticity is unquestionable.  It is written down in its own volume, and itsrecitation is a form of worship.

As for the Sunnah, it is everything besides the Quranthat came from God’s Messenger.  It explains and provides details for the lawsfound in the Quran.  It also provides examples of the practical application ofthese laws.  It is also either direct revelation from God, or decisions of theMessenger that were then confirmed by revelation.  Therefore, the source of allthe 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 innature, down to the last verse.  The Sunnah, however, is not necessarily theexact 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 Sunnahwere the only sources of Islamic Law.

The Quran provides the general injunctions that formedthe basis of the Law, without going into all the details and secondarylegislation, with the exception of a few injunctions that are established alongwith the general principles.  These injunctions are not subject to change overtime or with the changing circumstances of the people.  The Quran, likewise,comes with the tenets of belief, sets down acts of worship, mentions thestories 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 performedby the Messenger.  At other times, it is a statement that he made in responseto something.  Sometimes, it takes the form of a statement or action of one ofthe Companions that he neither prevented nor objected to.  On the contrary, heremained 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 arementioned in the Quran.  God commands the believers to pray without mentioningthe 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 theMuslims how to pray.  He said: “Pray as you have seen me praying.”

God makes the Hajj pilgrimage obligatory withoutexplaining 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 says

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 andmaking every child an inheritor of his or her parents.  The Sunnah makes thisruling more specific by excluding the children of Prophets. 

God’s Messenger said

We Prophets leave behind no inheritance.  Whatever we leave behind is charity

The Sunnah qualifies unqualified statements in the Quran. 

God says

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 theforearm.  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 Quranor providing secondary legislation for a law stated therein.  This includes allthe hadeeth that indicate that Prayer, the Zakah tax, fasting, and the Hajjpilgrimage are obligatory.

An example of where the Sunnah provides subsidiarylegislation for an injunction found in the Quran is the ruling found in theSunnah 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 inthe Quran and that do not come as clarifications for something mentioned in theQuran.  An example of this is the prohibition of eating donkey flesh and theflesh of predatory beasts.  Another example of this is the prohibition ofmarrying a woman and her aunt at the same time.  These and other rulingsprovided by the Sunnah must be adhered to.

The Obligation of Adhering to the Sunnah

A requirement of believing in prophethood is to acceptas true everything that God’s Messenger said.  God chose His Messengers fromamong His worshippers to convey His Law to humanity

God says

God knows best with whom to place His Message

Quran 6:124

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 hisactions.  God has protected his tongue from uttering anything but the truth.  Godhas protected his limbs from doing anything but what is right.

God has safeguarded him from showing approval foranything contrary to Islamic Law.  He is the most beautifully complete of God’sCreations. 

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 matterhow trying, could prevent the Prophet from speaking the truth.  Being angrynever 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 thathe sought was the pleasure of God Almighty.

Abdullah b. Amr b. al-Aas related that he used to writedown everything that God’s Messenger said.  Then the tribe of Quraish forbadehim from doing so, saying: “Do you write down everything that God’s Messengersays, and he is but a man who speaks in contentment and in anger?”

Abdullah b. Amr stopped writing and mentioned this toGod’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 juristsall point to the fact that obeying God’s Messenger is obligatory. 

God says in the Quran

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

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