The Sources of Islamic Law and Guidance

The Sources of Islamic Law and Guidance


The goal of Islam is for the human to become a true servant of Allah. Therefore, his source of guidance and the foundations for his actions must be rooted in the revelation from God. It is from this vantage point that the scholars speak about the sources of law in Islam. The two ultimate authorities in Islamic Law are the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet.


The Quran is the speech of Allah and a revelation that came directly to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) from Allah via the angel Gabriel.[1]The Quran was revealed piece by piece over a period of twenty-three years. It guided the early Muslim community along every step it took. It thus completely transformed that community into a pious generation. In the meantime, it set examples for all later Muslim communities who will face some of the same circumstances they faced. It transformed an Arab people who were on the margins of the civilized world at that time into the leaders of a great civilization, whose influence still continues today. When read, understood and applied properly today, it will also transform individuals or society and exalt them to new heights of piety and closeness to God.


Upon receiving the words of the Quran, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) would pass those words onto his followers. In addition, he would have his scribes record the newly revealed verses. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said about the Quran, “There was no Prophet among the Prophets but was given miracles because of which people had had belief, but what I have been given is the Divine Revelation which Allah has revealed to me. So I hope that my followers will be more than those of any other Prophet on the Day of Resurrection.”[2]In other words, the Prophet Muhammad’s great sign and miracle was the Quran.


Indeed, the Quran is miraculous in many ways. For example, the Arabs at the time of the Prophet excelled in language. However, even though they greatly opposed the Prophet for many years, they realized that they could not meet the literary eloquence of the Quran.[3]But the Quran is much more than simply a “literary miracle.” It is miraculous as well with respect to its fulfilled prophecies of future events, its internal consistency (although revealed over a period of twenty-three years), its scientific accuracy, its historical accuracy, its precise preservation, its magnanimous and wise laws, its affect that it had and still has in reforming and changing humans and so forth.


In addition to the Quran, there are the sayings and example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), known as the Sunnah. It is also a form of inspiration that was given by Allah to the Prophet. The Prophet said, “I have been given the Quran and something similar to it with it.”[4]


The authority of the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah is not because he is some kind of demigod. He was definitely only a human being, just like all of the other prophets. The prophet’s authority is related to the issue of submission to Allah: It is Allah in the Quran who establishes the authority of the Prophet. Hence, following the way of the Prophet is nothing but acting in obedience and submission to Allah. Allah has virtually said such when He said, “He who obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah, but he who turns away, then we have not sent you (O Muhammad) as a watcher over them” (4:80).


In the Quran, Allah makes it clear that if someone loves Allah and wishes that Allah should love him in return, the key is to follow the way of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Allah says, “Say (O Muhammad to humankind), ‘If you (truly) love Allah then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you of your sins. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful’” (3:31).


The Quran says about the Prophet, “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah you have an excellent example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much” (33:21). The Prophet was, in a way, a “living Quran.” When the Prophet’s wife Aishah was asked about his character and behavior, she replied, “His character was the Quran.”[5]


There is a very important relationship between the Quran and the Sunnah. The Sunnah demonstrates how the Quran is to be implemented. It is a practical explanation of what the Quran is teaching. It defines the morals, behaviors and laws of the Quran in such a way that its meaning becomes clear. This complete, human embodiment of the teachings of the Quran is a great blessing and mercy for Muslims. It makes the guidance from God more complete and accessible to all.

Thus, the Quran and the Sunnah form one united unit that offers all the principles of guidance that humankind will need until the Day of Judgment.


The Quran, of course, comprises one book that can be captured in some two hundred pages or so. The Sunnah, on the other hand, is quite different, covering all of the statements and actions of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). The Sunnah is captured in what is known as the hadith literature. A hadith is a report about what the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said or did.[6]


Muslim scholars recognized that the religion of Allah must be preserved properly. They also recognized that not everything attributed to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) may be correct as even honest people can make mistakes. Hence, they meticulously and methodically studied the various hadith and statements ascribed to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), sifting those that can be authenticated from those that cannot be authenticated. Thus, in Islamic law, not every hadith is considered an authority. Only those that can meet rigid standards of authenticity are considered authoritative. The scholars call these types of hadith sahih (authentic) or hasan (good). Unacceptable hadith are classified as daeef (weak), very weak or fabricated.


Although the original Arabic texts of both the Quran and the Prophet’s sayings are available, one has to resort to modest translations to convey their meanings to non-Arabic speakers. With respect to the Quran, two translations in particular can be recommended. They are The Noble Quran: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary, translated by al-Hilali and Khan[7], and The Quran: Arabic Text with Corresponding English Meaning, translated by “Saheeh International.”[8]These two are recommended due to their translations being based upon the understanding of the Quran as can be traced back to the Prophet himself and his closest Companions.


To truly appreciate the depths of the Quran, one should also read a commentary of the Quran. Unfortunately, there are not a large number of excellent commentaries available in English—although there is a plethora of them in many other languages.


One very important work available in English is the ten-volume Tafsir ibn Kathir (Abridged).[9]This is the translation of an abridgment of a classical work of Quranic commentary by ibn Kathir (1301-1372 C.E.) In his study of Quranic commentaries, Muhammad Hussein al‑Dhahabi calls this commentary one of the best of its kind.[10]In this work, ibn Kathir follows the principles of Quranic commentary as elucidated by his teacher, the well-known ibn Taimiyyah.[11]Perhaps the only drawback of this work is that it is a translation of a classic work and therefore was not written in a style that many today are most comfortable with.


Towards Understanding the Quran: English Version of Tafhim al-Quran[12] by Abul Ala Maudoodi is also one of the most complete and extensive works of Quranic commentary available in English. It was written by Abul Ala Maudoodi, who died in 1979. Maudoodi wrote numerous books and a large number of them have been translated into English.


The goal of the Tafhim al-Quran was to present the meaning of the Quran to the Urdu speaking populous of Pakistan/India in such a way that its meaning would be very clear to the masses. Although this work has been the target of various criticisms, some warranted[13]and some not so warranted, it remains as the most comprehensive and informative works on the entire Quran available in English.


Another work that the serious student should take note of is Tafsir Ishraq al-Ma’ani: Being a Quintessence of Quranic Commentaries by Syed Iqbal Zaheer. This work is written by a contemporary author and is quite comprehensive.


As for collections of hadith or the statements and actions of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), two important collections are available in complete form in English. They are known as Sahih al-Bukhari[14] and Sahih Muslim.[15]


As stated earlier, Islamic Law has to be flexible enough to meet the needs of all peoples until the Day of Judgment. Hence, not every detail of the law has been spelled out in the Quran and Sunnah. Allah has left some issues for the Muslims to discover on their own, thus forcing them to learn and study the Quran and Sunnah in great detail. The conclusions that are derived from the Quran and Sunnah, and not explicitly stated in the Quran or Sunnah, are known as “personal reasoning” or ijtihaad (which implies utmost striving to derive a conclusion).


This source of jurisprudence is obviously not infallible. In fact, it is possible for scholars to come to differing conclusions—although the truth with Allah will always be only one. Each scholar’s efforts, if they are sincere, will be appreciated by Allah, as the hadith states, “If a judge exerts himself and comes to a correct conclusion, he shall receive two rewards. If he exerts himself and comes to an errant conclusion, he shall receive one reward.”[16]


However, this does not mean that their conclusions become an ultimate authority. Personal judgments must be evaluated in the light of the Quran and Sunnah and whatever seems to be most proper according to the Quran and Sunnah should be adhered to. It is important for the Muslim to always remember that his ultimate goal is to follow the truth, which means that which is consistent with the Quran or Sunnah.[17]


A historical development occurred in which specific scholars worked diligently to codify the laws of the Quran and Sunnah as well as extend those laws through personal reasoning to situations not explicitly covered in those texts. The work of these scholars continued until “schools of law” developed based on their teachings. Although these different schools of law are definitely not sources of Islamic law nor are they considered infallible in any way, it is important that the new Muslim become familiar with them because he will most likely here reference often to them.


The most dominant of these schools of law are four, named after their founders as follows:


(1) Abu Haneefah (80-150 A.H.[18]) and the Hanafi School: Abu Haneefah was an early scholar who lived in Iraq. Today, his school is the most predominant in Turkey, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, the ex-Soviet Muslim states and parts of the Middle East.


(2) Maalik ibn Anas (95-179 A.H.) and the Maliki School: Maalik ibn Anas lived in Madinah, the city of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), throughout his life. Today, his school is the most popular in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. For centuries it was the predominant school of Andalusia or Muslim Spain.


(3) Muhammad ibn Idrees al-Shafi’ee (150-204 A.H.) and the Shafi’ee School: Al-Shafi’ee was from the Qurashi tribe, the same tribe as the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). He studied and lived in numerous places, finally settling in Egypt. Today, his school is most influential in Malaysia, Indonesia and some parts of the Middle East.


(4) Ahmad ibn Hanbal (164-241 A.H.) and the Hanbali School: Ahmad ibn Hanbal lived in Baghdad and was known to be a great scholar of hadith. Today, his school is the predominant school in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.


These great scholars and others sometimes came to differing conclusions. It is important to understand that there are many causes for differences of opinion among the jurists. There are also some important points to be kept in mind with respect to such differences of opinion among the scholars that one is bound to run into in Islam.


First, as stated earlier, the ultimate goal of the Muslim is “the truth.” Hence, he should exert himself to discover the truth and follow it in every circumstance. The manner in which the revelation has come offers the individual the ability to worship Allah by seeking the truth, via pondering over the revelation as found in the Quran and hadith. It also tries him by seeing if he does follow the truth and the strongest views when he finally comes upon them.


Second, these differences in interpretation are bound to occur. A person may sincerely be seeking to please Allah and yet come to a conclusion that another finds weak or unacceptable. As long as a person’s view does not clearly contradict the Quran or Sunnah and has some basis via some acceptable proof, he, as a person, should be respected. In fact, the mistaken individual will be rewarded by Allah for his efforts if he were sincere, as noted in a hadith quoted earlier. Thus, even though one may disagree with his view and one may even feel the need to refute his view, such acceptable differences may never be allowed to strike at the root of the brotherhood of Islam and enter into the hearts of the Muslims, thereby tearing them apart.

 Finally, it is important to note that the Quran, Sunnah and “personal reasoning” are not simply the sources of what is customarily considered “law” today. Instead, many other aspects, such as morality, ethics and behavior, must also be subjected to these same sources. In other words, in reality, these sources are not simply the sources of law but the sources of guidance for a Muslim’s actions encompassing every aspect of his life. Thus, for example, how to behave towards one’s parents, neighbors and others are also covered by the Quran and Sunnah, as shall be discussed later, although traditional “law” today would not be concerned with such issues. Hence, when Muslim scholars speak of the sources of “law” in Islam they actually mean the sources of complete guidance for human behavior in all aspects of life.

[1]A recommended work dispelling the claims that the Quran is not a revelation from God is: Hamza Mustafa Njozi, The Sources of the Quran: A Critical Review of the Authorship Theories (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: World Assembly of Muslim Youth, 1991).

[2] Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim. The Quran has also put out a challenge for anyone to produce anything similar to the Quran. For example, Allah says, “And if you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down [i.e., the Quran] to Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a chapter of the like thereof and call your supporters and helpers besides Allah, if you are truthful” (2:23). To this day, this challenge has not been successfully met.

[3]The best discussion in English of this aspect of the miraculous nature of the Quran is Muhammad Abdullah Draz, The Quran: An Eternal Challenge (Leicester, United Kingdom: The Islamic Foundation, 2001), pp. 65-179.

[4]Recorded by Abu Dawood. According to al-Albaani, it is authentic. See Muhammad Naasir al-Din al-Albaani, Saheeh al-Jaami al-Sagheer (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islaami, 1986), #2643.

[5]Recorded by Muslim.

[6] Actually, hadith may also describe the physical characteristics of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and other details of his life.

[7]Muhammad al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, trans., The Noble Quran: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary (Madinah, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran, n.d.). This translation has also been published by others and is easily available over the internet.

[8]Saheeh International, The Quran: Arabic Text with Corresponding English Meaning (London: AbulQasim Publishing House, 1997).

[9]Tafsir ibn Kathir (Abridged) (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2000).

[10] Muhammad Hussein al‑Dhahabi, al‑Tafseer wa al‑Mufasirun (Dar al‑Kutub al‑Haditha, 1976), vol. 1, p. 247.

[11]For more details on his principles of Quranic exegesis, see Roy Young Muhammad Curtis, “Authentic Interpretation of Classical Islamic Texts: An Analysis of the Introduction of Ibn Kathir’s ‘Tafseer al‑Quran al‑Azim,’” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1989), passim.

[12]Abul Ala Maudoodi, The Meaning of the Quran (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 1982).

[13]For example, Maududi stresses the importance of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in understanding the Quran, however, his commentary itself does not have a great reliance on hadith. The most common usage of hadith is when he discusses some of the fiqh rulings. Furthermore, sometimes the hadith he uses are not of acceptable quality. In addition, he also only occasionally quotes the explanations of the verses as given by the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Finally, he does have a tendency to reinterpret some of the attributes of Allah in ways that are not consistent, for example, with the understanding of the Companions and their followers.

[14]Muhammad Muhsin Khan, trans., Sahih al-Bukhari (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Darussalam Publishers and Distributors, 1997). Available via many sources on the Internet.

[15]Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, trans., Sahih Muslim (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers & Booksellers, n.d.). Also widely available.

[16]Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[17] Another important concept is that of ijmaa or consensus. The Prophet said, “Allah will not bring together My Nation upon an error.” (Recorded by al-Tirmidhi and considered authentic by al-Albaani.) Thus, if all the Muslim scholars should agree on an issue, the agreed upon point also becomes authoritative.

[18]“A.H.” stands for after the Hijrah or migration of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) from Makkah to Madinah. This event marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

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