Offhanded Attitudes toward the Sunnah


Question: Some people in order to justify their personal wishes say, “If the Prophet were alive today, he would act in the same way.” And when they come up with some religious matter that they do not like, they make an offhanded remark with a similar claim saying, “My Prophet would not say so.” How do you evaluate such remarks? And if new interpretations can be made, what are the necessary qualifications for someone to be eligible to do that?

Answer: Such words can be evaluated differently with respect to the situation of the individuals and on which considerations they made such remarks. The noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, did not solely convey messages from God, but he was a mujtahid1 who clarified and established religious matters with his Sunnah (Tradition) through words, practices, or silent approval. We can consider his identity as a mujtahid and say, in the name of finding solutions to such and such problems, according to the changing conditions of the time that the Messenger of God would most probably act in this way with respect to this issue and fill this gap thus. This could be an agreeable approach, and it is possible to find a reasonable basis for it.

Time is an important interpreter. It serves like a pointer at making judgments about certain issues that depend on conditions and conjuncture. In other words, the Qur’an and the Sunnah leave certain issues to the requirements of changing conditions; to the “time” which can be regarded (and thus be referred to) as the mufti giving legal opinions and rulings on religious matters. However, the people qualified to make such interpretations and rulings according to the time and conditions must know whether there is a clear statement about the issue in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and they must make a thorough inquiry into it, as it is not acceptable to say anything contradicting the essentials in the Qur’an and the Practice of the Prophet. Similarly, if the great mujtahids, or expounders of the Islamic law (like the founders of the various Sunni schools of thought) who established matters with their verified evidences and agreed on a certain judgment, contradictory comments are unacceptable. Even though some refuse to take ijma (consensus of scholars) as substantiation, it is very sound substantiation in accordance with the statements of the Prophet: “My community does not agree upon misguidance;”2 “God’s support and power is with the collectivity;”3 and “I petitioned God so that my community would not agree upon deviation, and He accepted this petition.”4 As it is seen in these lustrous statements, ijma is rather sound substantiation. In addition, it is a very important proof for ijma being substantiated that people who are so pure with respect to their heart, soul, reason, conscience, and inward and outward senses agree on a certain issue with no dispute or ill will. Thus, as it is not possible to contradict the Qur’an and the Sunnah under the title of ijtihad, the same is true for ijma, which tells us how to understand the essentials in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and how to interpret them. For this reason, we need to make a distinction between these two conditions: making offhanded remarks out of one’s desires and fancies by ignoring the essential sources is one issue, but on the other hand, stating scholarly opinion on a certain matter, with reliable knowledge and insight about the subject in conformity with the essential sources and established judgments is a totally different issue. Therefore, when seeking solutions to familial, political, social, or economic problems, the established sources come first. If no clear solution is found in these, it is important to be careful so that the new ideas suggested in the name of filling a certain gap do not contradict the essential disciplines.

Hearts Must Shiver While Giving a Legal Opinion

It should be emphasized, however, that in order to arrive at reliable scholarly solutions for problems arising in different areas of life, the person giving legal opinions must be sensitive enough to fear saying something against the Divine will and must shiver with this concern. Otherwise, people who are lax in their religious practices, who continually make indulgent remarks about religion, and who seek recognition with sensational remarks can say, “The Prophet would also do the same in this issue,” or they can say with respect to matters that they feel lazy about, “The Prophet would not act this way.” Their asserting the name of the Prophet as so-called evidence is surely not an acceptable approach whatsoever. Indeed, when people make such remarks at issues that do not suit their fancies, they are making an imaginary Prophet speak in accordance with their personal desires and whims, causing him give rulings that suit their fancies. However, the matters that concern people’s happiness in both this world and the next have no tolerance for such offhandedness. The righteous scholars of the early period (Salaf as-Salihin) acted with great caution concerning matters of ijtihad, such that when they tried to find an answer to a particular question, they searched through the entire Qur’an, solely for an answer to that question. In addition, great figures such as Imam Azam Abu Hanifa would discuss a certain matter with their disciples for several days. But this scholarly discussion (munazara) should not be confused with today’s debates on TV programs. Such kind of scholarly discussion, or munazara, does not mean trying to refute one another’s opinions; rather, it means to discuss matters by comparing them with similar and established issues. That is, scholarly discussion on a religious issue aims to find a solution by making an evaluation according to the meanings of essential commandments and comparing it with similarly established issues. Sometimes, the disciples of Abu Hanifa would accept their teacher’s opinion on a certain issue, but that great Imam would ponder upon the essential commandments through the night, and in the morning he would say: “You accepted my view on that issue, but I failed to take certain commandments into consideration. Your opinion is better placed.” This was their degree of righteousness. Another example was the great imam Abu Hasan al-Ash’ari, who had a profound knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah, excellent command of language, and powerful oratory. For a while, he favored the rationalist approach of the people of i‘tizal, who accorded creative effect to human will and agency. Later, he suddenly—most probably on hearing compelling scholarly evidence from someone else—relinquished that view, which sees everybody as the creator of their own actions, as commonly asserted by many people today. As a great scholar who had gained a deserved fame with his peak scholarly level, Imam Ash’ari gathered everyone he could find and proclaimed his acceptance of the opinions of the majority of Muslims5 by declaring, “Whatever I said on this issue was wrong. And the correct opinion is thus…”

Those Who Take Their Lusts and Fancies for Their Deity

Unfortunately, we witness today such offhanded approaches to religion that some try to deny obvious Divine commandments such as modest dress, which is an issue directly referred to in various verses of the Qur’an, and one explicitly established by the detailed clarifications and practices of the Companions of the Prophet and the great figures of the following period. Even if we have adopted a measured manner (without reacting in a counter-attitudinal way) about those who deny such explicit principles in religion, the ruling of the Islamic law about the people who deny their existence is crystal clear.

To reiterate, if a ruling (ijtihad) is to be made in the face of personal, familial, social, political, and administrational issues, first the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet must be known well and the judgments and considerations of the righteous scholars of the early period must be referred to. Then, possible equivalent matters in the essential sources must be searched for. After completing these, a solution to the problem in question must take into consideration the era and the present conditions. For example, the Qur’an advises to assign a person to mediate between a couple with bitter feelings toward one another and states that peaceful settlement is better (an-Nisa 4:28), thus presenting such a discipline to ponder over the issue. In the same way, the ninth verse of Surah al-Hujurat commands making peace between two parties fighting against one another. These essential principles can be generalized for matters between greater parties and can even be taken as basis for matters on an international scale. Given that peaceful settlement is better for a married couple, the smallest unit of the society, then peace between different sections, cultures, currencies, or nations will obviously be good. The significance of peace will increase directly proportional with the scale of the matter in question. When a married couple is at odds, the situation of their children will resemble orphans. When two societies clash, however, the consequent damage will be far greater if the issue is not settled by peaceful means. In this respect, the volunteering believers of our time must seek ways for peace in the name of solving social problems of any scale and by taking possible means and present needs into consideration. They must establish grounds for dialogue, form platforms of agreement, and even assemble mediatory councils, if necessary.

As a matter of fact, this point that we have tried to make can be seen from the perspective of the discipline of qiyas (logical deduction by analogy) in Islamic jurisprudence. In Islamic methodology, qiyas means giving a judgment on a certain issue by comparing it with similar ones. When done in the name of righteousness and faith, God Almighty will reward it even if the personal judgment is mistaken; those who give a correct judgment at ijtihad can gain, in accordance with their depth of intention and significance of the issue, from two to one hundred blessings, or even more. If they make a mistake, they will still be rewarded for the effort that they made. As for those who evaluate matters according to their own fancies, the Qur’an refers to them in the verse, as translated, “Do you ever consider him who has taken his lusts and fancies for his deity…” (al-Jathiyah 45:23).

To conclude, from believers’ perspective, in all of personal, familial, or social matters, God Almighty and then His Messenger have the final word. When they have made a clear judgment on something, what befalls on people is to keep silent. For this reason, if somebody asserts a personal wish against a clear commandment by God or His Messenger, they should know that they will be among those who have taken their desires and fancies as their deity.

1. A practitioner of ijtihad who is authorized to deduce new rules through juristic reasoning from original sources—the Qur’an and Sunnah—if these two sources present no decisive ruling on a particular matter. (Ed.)
2. Sunan ibn Majah, Fitan, 8
3. Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Fitan, 7
4. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Al-Musnad, 6/396
5. Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah, or those who follow one of the four Sunni schools of thought. (Ed.)

This text is the translation of “Sünnetin Arzu ve Heveslere Göre Yorumlanması

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