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The Role of the Sunna


The Sunna has, besides being the unique way or example shown by God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, in practicing Islam perfectly, two main functions. Like the Qur’an, the Sunna is also a source of legislation; it enjoins and prohibits, it sets the principles to establish the religious obligations and necessities, and to determine what is lawful or unlawful. In addition to this function, the Sunna interprets the Qur’an, as will be explained below.


The Sunna interprets the Qur’an

We recite every day in our daily prescribed prayers: ‘Guide us to the Straight Path, to the path of those you have blessed, not of those who incurred (Your) wrath, nor of the misguided’ (al-Fatiha, 1.5–7).

The verses mention two groups of people but do not specify them. The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, interpreted those who incurred God’s wrath as the Jews and the misguided as the Christians.17

The Jews killed many of their Prophets and through their character and materialistic tendencies, have contributed much to moral corruption and social upheavals and seditions in the world. Although they had once themselves been in guidance, and guided others to the Straight Path in the times of the Prophets Moses, David and Solomon, upon them all be peace, they were readily misled and incurred both God’s wrath and public ignominy. Those who are of the same character, who follow their way without being Jews, are also included in the meaning of the phrase those who incurred (Your) wrath.

As for the Christians, they at first obeyed Jesus and followed his way despite persecutions of the severest kind. They heroically resisted both Jewish hypocrisy and Roman oppression. However, they fell over time, under the influence others who had already been deviated. By the time Christianity came to be accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, many Christians had long gone astray and been deprived of their original Scripture. It had lost its original identity. Except for a few who still remained devoted to the original creed of Jesus, upon him be peace, the Christians had for a long time imported foreign elements into their religion.

By interpreting the phrases, not of those who incurred (Your) wrath, nor of the misguided, the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, identified them and clarified in what way and by what beliefs and deeds a man incurs God’s wrath and goes astray. This is a warning for the Muslims not to follow in the footsteps of the Jews and Christians.

Out of many examples showing how the Sunna interprets the Qur’an, we can also cite the following two:

When the verse,

Those who believed and did not mix their belief with wrongdoing: for them is security and they are those who are truly guided. (al-An’am, 6.82)

was revealed, the Companions, well aware of the meaning of wrongdoing, came to God’s Messenger in fear and said: ‘Is there anybody among us who has never done wrong?’ The Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, explained:

It is not as you think. It is as Luqman said to his son: ‘Do not associate any partners with God; surely, associating partners with God is a grave wrongdoing’ (Luqman, 31.13).18

‘A’isha, Mother of Believers, and Ibn Mas‘ud are of the opinion that the mid-time prayer in the verse,

Attend the prayers without any omission and the mid-time prayer. (al-Baqara, 2.238)

is the afternoon prayer. Once ‘A’isha ordered her servant to write a copy of the Qur’an for herself and reminded her: ‘When you come to the verse, Attend the prayers without any omission, and the mid-time prayer, inform me.’ When this verse was to be copied out, ‘A’isha dictated to her servant:

Attend the prayers without any omission, and the mid-time prayer, the afternoon prayer,

and added: ‘

This is what I heard from God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings.’19 Although there are some other interpretations of the mid-time prayer, ‘A’isha and Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with them, were certain that it is the afternoon prayer.


The Sunna expands on what is brief in the Qur’an

In addition to interpreting the ambiguities of the Qur’an, the Sunna also expands on what is brief in it. To cite a few examples:

The Qur’an frequently orders: Perform the prayer accurately. However, it does not mention how and when to perform it. Although some leading interpreters of the Qur’an deduce the times of the prayer from some verses such as

Perform the prayer correctly at the two ends of the day and nigh of the night; surely the good deeds remove the evil deeds. (Hud, 11.114)

the exact time of each prayer was established by the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. He explains:

On two occasions, the Archangel Gabriel (upon him be peace) led me in the five daily prayers at the Ka’ba. On the first, he performed the noon prayer at noon when the shadow of a thing was only as long as the base of it. When the shadow was as long as the thing itself, he performed the afternoon prayer. He performed the evening prayer at the time a fasting person breaks his fast, the late evening or night prayer when the dusk disappeared and the dawn prayer when it is no longer permissible for a fasting one to eat and drink. On the second occasion, he performed the noon prayer when the shadow was as long as the thing and the afternoon prayer when it was twice as long as the thing itself. He performed the evening prayer at the time he had performed it on the first occasion, the night prayer when it was one third of the night, and the dawn prayer when it was lighter but before sunrise. Then he turned to me and said: ‘O Muhammad, each of the five daily prayers should be performed between these two ends of its times as the Prophets before you did it.’20

In addition to the times of the daily prayers, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, taught his Umma also the conditions of the prayer and the obligatory, necessary and commendable acts validating and ennobling it, as well as the acts invalidating and damaging it. Whether in words or through actions, he passed on to his Umma all the details of the acts of worship – prayer, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage and so on and, as he told them Perform the prayer the way you see me praying, he also said to them. Learn from me the rites and ceremonies of pilgrimage,21 after he actually performed it in the company of his Companions. If the Qur’an had elaborated the whole of the religious rites or the acts of worship down to their smallest details, the Book would have been many times its present size.


The Sunna restricts general laws and ommands in the Qur’an

The Qur’an lays down the general principles of inheritance, without excluding anyone from it. But, when Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, went to Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, to transfer to her the heritage of her father, the latter replied: ‘I heard God’s Messenger say:

We, the community of the Prophets, do not leave anything to be inherited. What we leave is for charity.’22 This hadith excludes the Prophets and their children from the law of inheritance.

Likewise, God’s Messenger, upon him peace and blessings, decreed that the killer (of his testator) would be disinherited.23 That is, if somebody kills his parents, he cannot inherit from them; or if he kills his brother or uncle, he cannot inherit from them. This is another restriction put by the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, on the general commandments of the Qur’an concerning inheritance.


The Sunna specifies or particularizes what is general in the Qur’an

The Qur’an commands:

And the thief, male and female, cut off the hands of both, as a recompense for what they have earned, and a punishment exemplary from God; God is All-Mighty, All-Wise. (al-Ma’ida, 5.38)

It is not clear in the command for what value of stolen goods the hand of a thief should be cut off. Also, in the verse,

O believers, when you stand up to pray wash your faces, and your hands up to elbows... (al-Ma’ida, 5.6)

the part of the arm up to the elbows is included in the meaning of the hand. So, the Qur’an does not mention specifically what part of the ‘hand’ of a thief should be cut off. In addition, in what circumstances should this punishment be applied? For example, ‘Umar, the second Caliph, did not apply it in time of famine. All such important details were established by the Sunna.

The Qur’an decreed:

O you who believe! Consume not your goods among yourselves in vanity [through theft, usury, bribery, hoarding and so on], except it be trade by mutual agreement between you. (al-Nisa, 4.29)

Islam encourages trade as a way of making one’s living, as long as it is carried out in accordance with the conditions of Islamic law. One of these conditions is, as stated in the verse, mutual agreement. However, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, decreed:

Do not sell fruits until their amount is definite in the tree [to determine what amount of them will be given as alms].24 He also decreed: Do not go to meet peasants outside the market to buy the goods they will sell [Let them earn the market prices of their goods].25

In sum: God established general principles in the Qur’an and left their exposition and application in different circumstances to God’s Messenger. He also authorized him to issue rulings, as necessary, and ordered the believers:

Whatever the Messenger brings you, adopt it, and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it. (al-Hashr, 59.7)


17. Tirmidhi, “Tafsir al-Qur’an,” 2; Tabari, “Tafsir,” 1.61, 64.

18. Bukhari, “Tafsir,” 31/1.

19. Tirmidhi, “Tafsir al-Qur’an,” 3.

20. Abu Dawud, “Salat,” 2; Tirmidhi, “Mawaqit,” 1.

21. Nasa’i, “Manasik,” 220; I. Hanbal, 3.366.

22. Bukhari, “I‘tisam,” 5, “Khums,” 1; Muslim, “Jihad,” 51; I. Hanbal, 2.463.

23. Tirmidhi, “Fara’id,” 17.

24. Bukhari, “Buyu‘,” 82; Muslim, “Buyu‘,” 51.

25. Muslim, “Buyu‘,” 5/14–7.


This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.