Thank you very much for responding to my question. I think that the explanation of “Sunnah” you give is the most coherent one I have read. It seems to make more sense than the explanation that everything the Prophet (P) did (and usually that which is in the ahadeeth compilations) is Sunnah. My question came about due to a discussion with a brother regarding the nature of the ahadeeth compilations, and it was pointed out by him:
What was there to protect a Bid’ah entering the Sunnah? Your explanation states that the Community of Muslims passes down the Sunnah (as it does the Qur’an) from one generation to the next, and this we know can be traced back to the Companions (R). However, as we know practices do occur in places, which are innovations in Religion, but these too have been handed down from generation to generation. An example, which comes to mind, is that of a group dua’a (supplication) at the end of a congregational prayer. I used to participate in this, simply because it was part of the Community of Muslims who taught me the Qur’an, Salaat etc. The Qur’an tells me that God will protect His Book. Is there a same protection for the Sunnah? The brother with whom I was having this discussion gave another example. Having my roots from Pakistan, I was taught by my parents (and the local Madrasah) to say “Ameen” after Surat-ul-Fatihah in silence. However, we know that some Muslims say it loudly. Various ahadeeth point to the fact that it is a Sunnah of the Prophet (P) and his Companions (R) to say it loudly. Which would I take? How can we discern what is a Bid’ah from what is a genuine Sunnah. People from the Sub-Continent point to a narrative ascribed through a senior companion (Abu Bakr (R), I believe) which states that we should kiss our hands after the name of the Messenger of Allah (P) is said. The vast majority of the community practice it and pass it down to the next generation, and so on. However, some people oppose this, and state this is a Bid’ah. The list of examples, as you know, is endless.
In your explanation you also stated that the Sunnah passed through the consensus of the Muslims. I can see this in action; for example, we know that no Muslim will tell us there are five rakahs of Fajr Salaat. But how would one, who does not have access to a computer, the web, books etc. know what the consensus of the Ummah is? He/she will continue to practice what the Community of Muslims, he/she is brought up in, teaches.
Once again thank you for reading this letter. I am sincerely trying to search for Truth. So far your explanation seems the most plausible and correct, but as you can see some of my points (and that of my friends) are unanswered.
Jazakallah khayr. May God Bless you in this life and the Next.
My dear brother, if you have fully understood the concept of ‘Sunnah’ and the nature of its transmission from one generation to the other, it will, on its own, give you a complete answer to your question.
‘Sunnah’ constitutes those practical religious teachings of the Prophet (pbuh), on the religious status of which there has been a complete consensus of all Muslims at all times. From the negative perspective, this obviously implies that all the other actions, regarding which the Muslim community does not have a complete agreement as to whether they are a part of the practical religious teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) or not, are NOT a part of the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).
Besides the Sunnah – upon which there is complete consensus of the Muslims – there can broadly be two kinds of practices, which may be adhered to by a large number of Muslims (of a particular area, time or school of thought), yet not be a part of the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh):
Firstly, such can be the case of a practice, which was not very strictly fixed and defined by the Prophet (pbuh) and because of this element a practical variation may exist in it. This variation should not be seen with any degree of condemnation. Had this variety been incorrect, the Prophet (pbuh) would have strictly fixed and defined the action and, thereby, closed the doors for any degree of variation. In these cases some scholars may find (or interpret) a particular method (from among the variations) to be more suitable. Subsequently, as time goes by, the followers of these scholars may become overly strict in adhering to this practice, while the others may adhere to a slightly variant style.
Secondly, such can be the case with any uncertified additions and innovations to the corpus of Islam (Bid`ah). Such innovations may become a part of the practices among a group of people and later on may be transmitted to the following generations as an accepted norm, yet there has never been a consensus of even the Muslims living in that particular locality on such practices.
As stated earlier, the first of these two kinds of practices is not condemnable and should be seen as a part of the natural practical variations in religious practices. However, the second kind of practices is highly condemnable and every knowledgeable Muslim must refrain from adhering to them.
Thus, seen in the foregoing explanation, it should be clear that whether it be the case of pronouncing ‘Aameen’ loudly at the end of Surah Al-Faatihah or of joining a congregational supplication at the end of obligatory prayers or of organizing gatherings for the complete recital of the whole Qur’an etc., none of these practices enjoy a complete consensus of the Muslims and, from an overall perspective, have not been transmitted through consensus of the whole Muslim community. It would therefore follow that none of these practices are a part of the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).
My observation shows that even though there may be quite a few variations (of both categories) of practices among Muslims, yet there is a complete consensus, agreement and strict adherence of Muslims, all over the world, on all those things, which constitute a part of the Sunnah. The mere fact that a particular practice is not supported by the consensus and adherence of the whole Muslim community is a clear evidence of the fact that such a practice is not a part of the Sunnah. This implies that such a practice can either be one, in which a variation is not condemnable or it can be an uncertified addition made to the corpus of Islam (Bid`ah) at some point in time, which is extremely condemnable.
But how would one, who does not have access to a computer, the web, books etc. know what the consensus of the Ummah is? He/she will continue to practice what the Community of Muslims, he/she is brought up in, teaches.
I fully agree with you. Such a person would, indeed, continue to follow the practices, which are generally prevalent in his particular community. This would remain the case until the time that the individual is exposed to either the practices of a different group (which would make him practically aware of the differences that exist among the Muslims) or to any academic material (which would provide him the knowledge of these differences). In either case, until the time that the person is ignorant of these differences, he shall naturally follow and adhere to the practices that he has learnt from his people. Such adherence is neither condemnable nor punishable (even if such practices include Bid`ahs). Adherence to a ‘Bid`ah’ becomes condemnable (and the adherent, punishable) only when this adherence is accompanied by the knowledge that such action was not a part of the practical teachings given by the Prophet (pbuh). In other words, until the time that a person is ignorant of the condemnable status of any of his religious actions, he would have a genuine excuse for such adherence. Nevertheless, after becoming aware of this condemnable status of any of his actions, the individual shall have no excuse for his adherence to such actions.
I hope this helps.
May 11, 2001