For most Muslims, there exists an understanding that the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet (s) run in parallel. Nevertheless, within some contemporary Muslim communities, divergent beliefs are challenging this perspective.
The argument presented, on their part, is primarily split into two correlating factions. First, the role of the Prophet is no more than that of a mailman; his job is to receive the revelation of Allah and deliver it to an audience. The Quran is the Book, Allah is the author, the Prophet (s) is the receiver, and we, the people, are the audience.
Following the first, the second faction of their argument posits that the Quran is a self-guiding scripture, intently designed by Allah in a manner that is easy to understand. The Quran itself emphasizes its clarity on multiple occasions. Consider verse 7 of Surah Ale ‘Imran:
هُوَ الَّذي أَنزَلَ عَلَيكَ الكِتابَ مِنهُ آياتٌ مُحكَماتٌ
He is the One Who revealed to you the Book of it are Verses absolutely clear
And verse 185 of Surah Al-Baqarah:
شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ ٱلْقُرْءَانُ هُدًۭى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَـٰتٍۢ مِّنَ ٱلْهُدَىٰ وَٱلْفُرْقَانِ
The month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for mankind and clear proofs of Guidance and the Criterion
Hence, their argument concludes that the Prophet’s mission was to deliver the Divine Word, and given the Quran’s user-friendly nature, one can easily understand the path of Allah through the application of one’s intellect (aql).
Historical Background Of This Issue
If one examines the books of hadith, one realizes that the claim of the Quran proving weighty against the Prophet’s (s) sunnah is not newfound; rather, it emerged in the Prophet’s lifetime.
Ubaidullah bin ‘Abdullah narrates in Sahih Bukhari (4432):
عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ قَالَ لَمَّا حُضِرَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَفِي الْبَيْتِ رِجَالٌ، فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ” هَلُمُّوا أَكْتُبْ لَكُمْ كِتَابًا لاَ تَضِلُّوا بَعْدَهُ ”. فَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ إِنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَدْ غَلَبَهُ الْوَجَعُ وَعِنْدَكُمُ الْقُرْآنُ، حَسْبُنَا كِتَابُ اللَّهِ.
Ibn ‘Abbas said, ‘When Allah’s Messenger (saws) was on his deathbed and there were some men in the house, he said, ‘Come near, I will write for you something after which you will not go astray.’ Some of them (i.e. his companions) said, ‘Allah’s Messenger (saws) is seriously ill and you have the Quran. Allah’s Book is sufficient for us.’
Another narration in Sahih Muslim (1637/21) mentions that Ibn ‘Abbas, referring to this event, used to say:
عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ، أَنَّهُ قَالَ: يَوْمُ الْخَمِيسِ وَمَا يَوْمُ الْخَمِيسِ . ثُمَّ جَعَلَ تَسِيلُ دُمُوعُهُ حَتَّى رَاَيْتُ عَلَى خَدَّيْهِ
Thursday! And what a tragic Thursday it was!’ Then Ibn ‘Abbas cried severely so that his tears flowed to his cheeks.
In what has come to be known as the ‘Calamity of Thursday’, it is evident that today, those who claim the Quran to be the sole source of guidance draw inspiration from this event.
Does The Quran Agree With This Claim?
To assess this claim, we must examine the Holy Quran’s position on this matter. Does the Quran consider itself as a lone source of guidance?
In Surah Al-Qiyamah verses 17 and 19, respectively, Allah says:
إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا جَمْعَهُۥ وَقُرْءَانَهُۥ
Indeed, it is up to us to put it together and to recite it
ثُمَّ إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا بَيَانَهُۥ
Then, its exposition indeed (also) lies with Us.
Allah discusses the physical Quran as a distinct entity, and He similarly refers to the exposition (bayan) as a separate entity essential for Muslims.
While we undoubtedly possess the physical Quran today, verse 19 prompts us to ponder: what, or instead, who is the Quran’s exposition (bayan)?
Here, it’s crucial to grasp that the Quran encapsulates the essence of Allah’s Message in a concise form, whereas the Hadith expands upon that Message. This highlights the Prophet’s role as the bayan in elucidating Allah’s message to humankind.
Does The Quran Have It All?
The next question that arises is that if the Quran alone is sufficient, does it contain the required details of the Islamic teachings? Can a Muslim extract all the commandments of Allah from the Quran alone?
The fact is, Islam is a religion of ibadah (worship). Without ibadah, Islam loses its concrete foundation. Among these acts of ibadah, salah (daily prayer) holds unparalleled significance, as is evident from the 33 times it is mentioned in the Quran. However, the Quran does not specify how and when to establish the daily prayer.
Similarly, when Allah fairly elaborates upon wudhu (ablution), the complementary act before salah, He does not explain, for example, the direction of washing our forearms.
Conversely, when compared with Salat-al-Khawf – a prayer observed during rare times; war or fear, the Quran goes into intricate detail and comprehensive guidance on its method.
Consider Surah Nisa verse 102:
وَإِذَا كُنتَ فِيهِمْ فَأَقَمْتَ لَهُمُ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ فَلْتَقُمْ طَآئِفَةٌۭ مِّنْهُم مَّعَكَ وَلْيَأْخُذُوٓا۟ أَسْلِحَتَهُمْ فَإِذَا سَجَدُوا۟ فَلْيَكُونُوا۟ مِن وَرَآئِكُمْ وَلْتَأْتِ طَآئِفَةٌ أُخْرَىٰ لَمْ يُصَلُّوا۟ فَلْيُصَلُّوا۟ مَعَكَ وَلْيَأْخُذُوا۟ حِذْرَهُمْ وَأَسْلِحَتَهُمْ ۗ وَدَّ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ لَوْ تَغْفُلُونَ عَنْ أَسْلِحَتِكُمْ وَأَمْتِعَتِكُمْ فَيَمِيلُونَ عَلَيْكُم مَّيْلَةًۭ وَٰحِدَةًۭ ۚ وَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْكُمْ إِن كَانَ بِكُمْ أَذًۭى مِّن مَّطَرٍ أَوْ كُنتُم مَّرْضَىٰٓ أَن تَضَعُوٓا۟ أَسْلِحَتَكُمْ ۖ وَخُذُوا۟ حِذْرَكُمْ ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ أَعَدَّ لِلْكَـٰفِرِينَ عَذَابًۭا مُّهِينًۭا
And when you are among them and you lead for them, let one group of them pray with you–while armed. When they prostate, let the other group stand guard behind them. Then the group that has not yet prayed will join you in prayer–and let them be vigilant and armed. The disbelievers would wish to see you neglect your weapons and belongings so they could launch a sweeping assault on you. But there is no blame if you lay aside your weapons when overcome by heavy rain or illness–but take precaution. Indeed, Allah has prepared a humiliating punishment for the disbelievers.
While an uncommon form of prayer (i.e. Salat-al-Khawf) is outlined with diligent detail, no comparable level of guidance is provided for daily salah. Muslims have no choice but to learn to establish Salah by observing the Prophet. As the Prophet famously said (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5662, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 674):
“Pray as you see me praying.”
Prophet Muhammad (sallalahu alaihe wa’alihi) knew how to pray daily salah despite it not being mentioned in the Quran. A mere mailman would not know what the Book doesn’t explain. The superior position of the Prophet (s) is evident because he has ilm of the unseen. In such circumstances, the Prophet’s (s) Sunnah proves vital, as he embodies the Divine Message.
The Quran Too Follows The Prophet (s)
The Quran not only deliberately maintains ambiguity in crucial aspects of the shariah, encouraging Muslims to turn towards the Prophet (s), but it also seems to be following the aspirations of the Prophet (s). A compelling illustration of this can be the changing of the Qiblah – found with meticulous details in the Holy Quran.
Consider verse 144 of Surah Al-Baqarah:
قَدْ نَرَىٰ تَقَلُّبَ وَجْهِكَ فِى ٱلسَّمَآءِ ۖ فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةًۭ تَرْضَىٰهَا ۚ فَوَلِّ وَجْهَكَ شَطْرَ ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْحَرَامِ ۚ وَحَيْثُ مَا كُنتُمْ فَوَلُّوا۟ وُجُوهَكُمْ شَطْرَهُۥ ۗ وَإِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا۟ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ لَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ ٱلْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ ۗ وَمَا ٱللَّهُ بِغَـٰفِلٍ عَمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ
Indeed, we see you turning your face towards heaven. So we will make you turn towards a direction that will please you.
Those who were given the Scripture certainly know this to be the truth from your Lord. And Allah is never unaware of what they do.
What is so significant in this event is that even in the face of mockery from the Jews who questioned Islam’s retention of their Qiblah, the Prophet neither demanded a change nor lodged complaints. He only looked up towards the sky at nightfall, prompting a swift revelation from Allah, announcing the change of the Qiblah.
Thus, if the position of the Prophet were only that of a mailman, Allah would not have made a change so notable that even today, all Muslims must pray in the direction of the Kaaba.
Status Of The Prophet (s) In The Quran
While details of key ibadah like salah are absent from the Book, Allah has detailed how Muslims must interact with the Prophet, furthering the recognition of his elevated position.
Verse 53 of Surah Ahzab establishes
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا تَدْخُلُوا۟ بُيُوتَ ٱلنَّبِىِّ إِلَّآ أَن يُؤْذَنَ لَكُمْ إِلَىٰ طَعَامٍ غَيْرَ نَـٰظِرِينَ إِنَىٰهُ وَلَـٰكِنْ إِذَا دُعِيتُمْ فَٱدْخُلُوا۟ فَإِذَا طَعِمْتُمْ فَٱنتَشِرُوا۟ وَلَا مُسْتَـْٔنِسِينَ لِحَدِيثٍ ۚ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكُمْ كَانَ يُؤْذِى ٱلنَّبِىَّ فَيَسْتَحْىِۦ مِنكُمْ ۖ وَٱللَّهُ لَا يَسْتَحْىِۦ مِنَ ٱلْحَقِّ ۚ
O you who believe! Do not enter the house of the Prophet except when permission is given to you for a meal without awaiting its preparation. But when you are invited then enter and when you have eaten then disperse and not linger for conversation. Indeed that was troubling the Prophet and he is shy of dismissing you.
But Allah is not shy of the truth.
This verse is an excellent example of the majestic position of the Prophet in the eyes of Allah. Indeed, God would not have stressed Muslims to be considerate of someone, to such an extent, whose position was no more than a mailman.
In addition, Verses 1 and 2 of Surah Al-Hujurat stress:
يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا لا تُقَدِّموا بَينَ يَدَيِ اللَّهِ وَرَسولِهِ ۖ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَميعٌ عَليمٌ
O you who believe! Do not venture ahead of Allah and His Prophet and fear Allah! Indeed, Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing
يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا لا تَرفَعوا أَصواتَكُم فَوقَ صَوتِ النَّبِيِّ وَلا تَجهَروا لَهُ بِالقَولِ كَجَهرِ بَعضِكُم لِبَعضٍ أَن تَحبَطَ أَعمالُكُم وَأَنتُم لا تَشعُرونَ
O you who believe! Do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet, and do not speak aloud to him as you shout to one another, lest your works should fail without your being aware.
The verses of Surah Al-Hujurat are figurative because it is impossible to “walk ahead” of Allah. Hence, this indicates that the forbiddance of “venturing ahead” and “raising voice above the voice of the Prophet” is not in the literal sense alone.
In reality, the Quran warns Muslims not to disobey nor negate the commandments established by the Prophet but instead follow his lead. Otherwise, all their good deeds will be drained.
Dangers Of Relying On The Intellect Alone
Moreover, relying solely on one’s intellect to interpret the Holy Word becomes problematic when one reflects on the fact that it was intellect that led Shaytan to go against Allah’s command.
What is of further interest here is that the Shaytan, a jinn made of fire, refused to prostrate before Adam (as), a human made of clay, because he considered himself superior. Here, Shaytan’s argument proves logical.
However, after consulting the Hadiths from Ahlulbayt, we can deduce that Shaytan is judging Adam’s (as) position through his physicality while dismissing the fact that Allah had commanded His creations to prostrate Adam (as) after He had given His soul to his figurine. It was, in fact, the soul of Adam (as) that Allah had considered valuable over his physical aspect.
This proves that if one conforms to aql, for logic, one may follow false interpretations because one must appreciate that aql is open to corruption without the correct ilm.
Consequently, it is clear that the Quran becomes quiet (samit) without the Prophet’s guidance. It is through the Spokesman that the Holy Book finds its voice and can speak for itself. Without the Prophet, the Quran would be open to personal interpretations and corruption, like the books of the past, as people could twist the meanings of the verses to suit their needs.
Islam is, hence, a subtotal of the Quran as well as the Sunnah of the Prophet. The Imams of Ahlulbayt are the custodians of the Quran and the Sunnah for the people to learn from at all times.
Unlike other books, this Holy Word cannot be separated from its Spokesmen. The position of a book, where one requires a guide, is greater than a book one can dissect independently. Hence, the high status of the Quran comes by conforming to the Prophet and the Holy Household (peace of Allah upon them all).