Sunnah: The Devil's In The Details

What is sunnah?

Despite the inordinate level of reverence Muslims treat the Quran with, they show an awful lack of faith in it. They seem to believe that the book of God alone is insufficient, and reliance on a secondary source is a must. That secondary source, known as sunnah, is a compilation of all the sayings and life stories of the Holy Prophet.

The most widely followed is the compendium by Bukhari. To give you a clue of how massive this source is, the compendium contains 7,275 ahadith divided among nine volumes. Sahih al-Bukhari is just one of the six canonical collections of ahadith, which make up a total of more than 20,000 ahadith. If combined, they would form a book about fourteen times the size of the Quran itself.

How authentic is Bukhari?

Bukhari, widely considered the most authentic of the six compendiums, was completed around 846 A.D. – about 200 years after the death of the Holy Prophet. So basically, Bukhari was collecting quotes from Muhammad, including those on personal matters at home, from people who had never seen or heard the Prophet directly. They people were narrating stories of events that had been passed down from generation to generation by their ancestors.

Muslims place a remarkable level of trust in Bukhari’s work, and for reasons I’ll never comprehend. Firstly, let it be known that even Muslims don’t consider Bukhari as some kind of a messenger who received revelations from Allah to help him with his work. He was an average human being, and like all humans, was perfectly prone to making mistakes, if not deliberately manipulating the ahadith. Same goes for the narrators. The recall bias involved in such an endeavor would have to be, quite conceivably, enormous.

There’s a popular experiment teachers make you perform to help you understand how information gets distorted as it’s passed along a chain of narrators. They whisper a certain sentence to one person in the group (for example, “Get your troops to sunset point in sixteen minutes”). Then the person is supposed to whisper the same sentence to his colleague, who then passes it onto the third colleague and so on. By the time the information reaches the last person in the group, it would’ve changed to something completely different and even nonsensical (“Sixty troops are waiting in sunrise valley”).

Muslims try to assure themselves of the compendium’s authenticity by considering the fact that the book contains a very small fraction of the original 300,000 ahadith that Bukhari collected, which were meticulously checked and only the most reliable ones selected.

But even that is not enough to guarantee word-to-word accuracy of what the Prophet actually said in his time. So basically, all those who blithely go around quoting Bukhari as actions and saying of Muhammad are really just quoting what other people claim to have been said or done by Muhammad.

Do Muslims need all this complexity anyway?

In my experience, sunnah is directly responsible for about 90% of the bickering that takes place among Muslims over Islamic edicts. Many of the ahadith collide head on with each other, causing the readers to go flitting off into different directions with regards to matters like beards, burkas, music, stoning, corporeal mortification, domestic violence and blasphemy.

My sincere advise to Muslims is that they stick to the basics. The Quran, in their own words, is the ultimate guidebook on how to get into heaven, so where does sunnah get into the picture? Or do you, as Muslims, believe that God wrote an incomplete and insufficient book that failed to provide all the information required for you to live a life acceptable to Him? So inefficient is the holy book that you must turn to a man-made source to compensate for His deficiencies?

Get back to the basics, and I bet my bottom rupee that a vast majority of the issues tearing the ummah asunder would disappear overnight.

  1. Its interesting to note that the prophet himself disapproved of the noting down of his words, and reportedly forbade the companions from doing so, one of the reasons why his quotes had to be compiled several years after his death. This was expressly to prevent his words from undermining or supplementing the Quran, or being considered at par with it. Indeed, the weightage the muslim ummah currently places on the Ahadith is ironic in the light of the Prophet’s express commands not to do so.

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