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Question of the Day
Did the Sunnah exist during the Prophet’s life time?
The prophet’s sunnah is a revelation just as the Quran which ceased after the Prophet’s death.
One of the strangest accusations that are leveled against the Prophet’s sunnah the grave claim that the Sunnah did not exist during the life time of the Prophet but rather was established centuries later. This kind of allegation has a serious flaw in its fundamental base and the presented argument has a poor logic because how can anyone entertain the idea that the Sunnah did not exist at the life time of the Prophet and then suddenly appears centuries later?
This grave claim has one of two meanings, the first meaning is that the Ummah invented the Sunnah and attributed it to the Prophet and the second meaning is that they claim that the Sunnah was not documented at the life time of the Prophet and were later collected and documented.
If they mean the first meaning, we have addressed this allegation extensively in our previous articles as we have proved the fallacy of this claim as we stated the Ummah’s meticulous efforts in filtering, preserving and documenting the prophet’s sunnah. As for their second claim about not documenting the Sunnah at the life time of the Prophet, this will be the subject of this article.
The life stories of the Prophet’s companions are a solid proof that their life revolved around acting upon the Prophet’s sunnah and tracing it in all their actions. For the companions, the sunnah was the practical application and the true embodiment of the teachings of religion since the time of the divine revelation. Therefore, the Prophet’s sunnah was subjected to meticulous scrutiny and scrupulous process of filtration along with a thorough study of its texts just like the Quran.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) continued to receive divine revelation for around 23 years so all his deeds, sayings, moves, states, approvals, characteristics, travels and conquests were under the companions’ meticulous observation and thorough memorization along with their literal application of the sunnah. In other words, the Prophet’s sunnah for the companions became a methodology for living. What actually helped the Prophet’s companions during their application process is their great love for the Prophet which was indescribable as they scarified their own lives for his. What is actually significant about the life of Prophet Muhammad is that his life is not surrounded with hidden sides or dark secrets which should be concealed. It was never reported that the Prophet ordered any of his companions or wives to refrain from narrating something they have heard or seen from him and for this reason we find that the most intricate and private details of the Prophet’s life are meticulously reported.
This great attention that the companions paid to the Prophet’s sunnah was not only because of their utter love for him and in response to th Quranic command of obeying the Prophet but also because the prophetic sunnah is a divine revelation just as that of the Quran. God says, “Nor does he speak from [his own] inclination.It is not but a revelation revealed” ( 53: 3-4)
The only difference between the two revelations is that the Quran is a recited revelation used for worship and it is not permissible to narrate it by its meaning as verbatim recitation is a requirement. The Quran is also miraculous both in its meaning and phrasing. As for the Sunnah, it is a non recited revelation and was revealed by meaning and not words as the formation of wording comes from the Prophet.
There are many examples in the life of the Prophet’s companions which proves their zeal to follow the Prophet’s sunnah and I am going to mention some of them.
As for the apparent evidence of the existence of the Sunnah of the Prophet during his lifetime, the examples are too numerous to be counted and some of the examples are:
The keenness of the Prophet’s companions to learn the teachings of the Prophet and apply it in their lives: the companions of the Prophet were learning the Quran from the Prophet and were grasping the verses gradually and understand its juristic rulings and deep meanings. Then they apply these verses and then they would learn another new set of verses. It was narrated through Abu ‘Abdelrahman al Sulammi that the Prophet’s companions used to say that they only learn from the Prophet ten verses and they wouldn’t start learning another ten until they grasp the first ten in theory and practice.
This means that the Prophet’s companions were adamant on receiving theoretical knowledge which is represented by the Quran and apply it practically through following the Prophetic example in both sayings and deeds. For them the Prophet’s application of the Quranic rulings was revelatory and therefore the companions were keen to trace the Prophetic example.
The companions’ methodology in seeking knowledge and its practical application stemmed from God’s command in which He says, “And it is not for the believers to go forth [to battle] all at once. For there should separate from every division of them a group [remaining] to obtain understanding in the religion and warn their people when they return to them that they might be cautious.” 9:122 And this means that if a group of Muslims went out for Jihad another group of Muslims should remain by the Prophet’s side to gain religious knowledge and teach it to those who were away. This means that learning from the Prophet in both his actions and deeds is mandatory and to transmit this prophetic knowledge to others is an obligation as well. God says in the Quran “Certainly did Allah confer [great] favor upon the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from themselves, reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom, although they had been before in manifest error.” 3:164
Travelling long distance to gain Prophetic knowledge: the Prophet’s companions used to spend their time with the Prophet to receive his teachings and then go back home to their families to teach them in turn what they have been taught by the Prophet. Malik ibn al Huwayreth said “we had come to the Prophet when we were youth and stayed over for twenty days and nights and the Prophet was merciful and gentle to us. When the Prophet felt that we missed our families he asked us who we have left behind and we told him so he said “go back to your families and stay among them and teach them what you have learned and pray in the same way you saw me praying and when the time of prayers come up, one of you call for prayers and let the senior among you lead the prayer”.
Taking turns and shifts in seeking knowledge and listening to Prophetic traditions: the Prophet’s companions like other people were busy with their businesses, commerce and professions to provide for their families yet they were so keen on attending the Prophet’s sessions to listen to the Prophetic traditions. In their zeal to attend the Prophet’s sessions, they would take turns in attending the Prophet’s session as one would go to attend and the other would go to work and then they would exchange turns and the one who attends fills in the one who did not to be updated with the latest teachings and put it immediately into practice.
‘Umar ibn al Khattab narrated saying “I was with a neighbor of mine from the Ansar in the tribe of Umayyah ibn Zayd and he was from the upper part of Medinah. We used to take turns to go down to the Prophet as each of us would go down one day and fill in the other with what he missed”. (Bukhari)
Bearing troubles and difficulties for the sake of listening to Prophetic traditions and collect them: the companions were so keen on gaining prophetic knowledge, studying, grasping its deep meanings and memorizing it. Lady ‘Aisha for example was keen on gaining Prophetic knowledge to the extent that she wouldn’t come across something she didn’t know except she asked about it and learned it.
The companion’s of the Prophet were not shy to ask the Prophet: the shyness of the companions did not prevent them from asking the Prophet about their private matters and most secretive as they were keen on gaining religious knowledge about these detailed matters. If it happens that one of the Prophet’s companions were shy about asking a certain question, he would ask another to pose the question for him to the Prophet. Women as well were keen on gaining religious knowledge and were not driven away from asking due to their shyness or the like.
Therefore the Prophet’s sunnah was the bases for the practical application of the Quran in the life of the companions of the Prophet as the Sunnah was acting either as an explanatory guideline for the text of the Quran or acting as an independent legislative source aside from the Quran.
As for the claim that the Prophet’s sunnah was collected after the Prophet’s death, even if we played a long and believed this erroneous assumption, it would not invalidate the fact that the Prophet’s sunnah existed at the time of the Prophet. It is rather a solid evidence on its existence as it was carved in the chests of the companions. The companions were applying them and studying them day and night. In addition, Arabs were known for their strong ability to memorize and their talent in knowing things by heart because most Arabs were illiterate and therefore their lack of writing sharpened their memory as it is the only way to keep record of matters which needs to be documented.
According to logic, preserving authenticity of any text depends on the righteousness of the carrier of the text and his ability to conserve it from alteration and change. It is also known that carrying a certain text is either through verbatim memorization or through writing it down or through grasping its meaning meticulously and express it with clear wording which bears no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.
Any of these three kinds are enough for preservation as long as the principle of righteousness is achieved and therefore if righteousness is gone, preservation follows suit. This means that documenting or writing down the Sunnah is not one of the requirements of its authenticity as the main target which we look for is the righteousness of the carrier of the Prophetic sunnah. Memorization for Arabs was a powerful tool for preservation more than writing as they were not familiar with it unlike other nations which were known for the spread of literacy and the ability to read and write. This writing ability weakens their memorization ability as they get subjected to forgetfulness and mistakes. For this reason we find that those who are blind have a better memory which records what they hear than those who are not blind because for the blind person all his concentration revolves around his ability to memorize unlike the one who is able to see and depends on the book which he can get back to whenever he needs it.
Therefore we say to those who deny the existence of the Prophet’s sunnah that even if we accepted the false argument that the Prophet’s sunnah was documented and written down after the Prophet’s death, the powerful tool of memorization which was accompanied with deep understanding and meticulous discernment along with continuously revising what they memorized to keep it in their memory is a solid proof of the preservation of the Prophet’s Sunnah.