Authority and Revelation

Course: Essentials of Islam

Lecture: Authority and Revelation


The purpose of this lecture is to explore the whole nature of authority and revelation in Islam. Most Muslims regard the Qur’an as the highest social authority. It would be a mistake to think that the Qur’an is the only source of authority and even revelation for the Muslim community. In fact, there are several components which together make up revelation in Islam. At this point, we have only emphasized the role of the Qur’an, the Qur’an as the word of Allah. We have talked about how the Muslims have a very high and even rigid view of the inspiration of the Qur’an. They follow the dictation theory and they have based it on several texts in the Qur’an itself. Let me give you one text. This is found in surah 39:iah 28 where Allah says that “We are giving mankind in this Qur’an all manner of arguments, so they may take heed. We revealed it in the Arabic tongue, a Qur’an free from all faults, that they may guard themselves against evil.” Another text is surah 4, which even says that “It is a transcript of our eternal book, sublime and full of wisdom. “ The Qur’an is the most important and is the most historically based source of revelation for Islam.

However, anybody who has taken time to read the Qur’an will realize very quickly that the Qur’an does not address many issues that would come up in a new religious community. There are many ethical issues that are simply not addressed. There are many personal, commercial and social issues which simply are not addressed. There were needs that the community had which were simply not addressed in the Qur’an.

Over some time, there was the desire to meet this need by reflecting on things that Muhammad said or did, or behavior that was observed by others. This is very important because up to this point, we have Muhammad as essentially a passive recipient of revelation. He is regarded as being illiterate according to Muslim tradition. He is regarded as having no influence in the Qur’an, he is simply the passive recipient of revelation that is mediated through Gabriel from Allah.

This completely changes after Muhammad’s death and particularly in the period after 732 when the Islamic community is extremely diverse and has spread to so many different cultures. All kinds of questions arose and there began to be the desire to find out what Muhammad might have said. All of us have heard or seen the famous bracelets, “WWJD', 'What would Jesus do?” I think the comparable thing here would be “WDMD", "What did Muhammad do?” because this is the question that was asked. It was not put in bracelet form, but it was certainly asked by Muslims repeatedly, “What did Muhammad do?” or “What did Muhammad say?” or “What did we observe in Muhammad’s behavior that might give us some clue?” This is important from a revelation point of view because Muhammad now is moving from being simply the passive recipient of revelation, becoming the active source of revelation because his life now takes on revelatory significance.

I. Hadith as a Source of Islamic Revelation

A. Sunna

What happened was, an oral tradition developed where they would pass on things that Muhammad said and these are known as “the sunna.” The word “sunna” we know from the word “sunni” means “custom or normative practice.” This would be the custom of Muhammad, what Muhammad said about this or that and how he acted in this or that situation, how he ate, how he dressed. All kinds of things are addressed in this oral tradition.

B. Hadith

Eventually the sunna began to be written down in short narratives and this little narrative is known as the “hadith.” Hadith is simply a written narrative stating something that Muhammad said or did. Over time this became a source of revelation along with the Qur’an in both the Sunni community and the Shiite community, to accept because of the hadith. There are major traditions which developed in each of the traditions, Sunni and Shia, regarding collections of what they believe Muhammad said or did. Unfortunately, even the Muslims themselves admit that in the early period, people who had some religious need or an ethical question that was raised, solved it by inventing hadith and inventing sunna, which became written down as hadiths; which became essentially spurious inventions that would be put in the mouth of Muhammad.

Gradually a tradition evolved of authenticating which hadiths were accurate and which were not. This was done by a careful tracing of the source of the hadith from Muhammad, all of the way down to the present time. This is where Muslims engage in what we would call “textual criticism.” They don’t do it with the Qur’an, but they do it with the hadith, a very careful look at the character of the person who said they heard Muhammad say something and how close they were to Muhammad. If you have a hadith that is written down, where Muhammad’s wife said that Muhammad did this, it is a very, very sound hadith because it is someone who was married to the prophet and someone who is obviously very close to the prophet; and it was written down very soon. Some of these were very much more extensive, they were passed down through several transmitters, and they have to analyze this very carefully. That is part of what the Muslim scholarly community does. Then the hadith are divided into various sections: What Muhammad did, what he commanded, what he allowed, what is obligatory for all Muslims, what is simply informative. In many ways, this material is divided.

The most famous and important of all of these is one by the name of Al Bukhari. Bukhari has the oldest and is widely regarded as the most important collection of hadith. It is divided into 97 books, over 3,000 chapters. He quotes 7,300 hadiths. Many of them are duplicates, so it ends up, the actual number is almost 3,000 different hadiths that he records in his collections. It is quite an extensive amount of material and it covers virtually every aspect of the prophet’s life.

It is important to recognize that Muslims regard the Qur’an and hadith as parallel ways that revelation can come. This hadith, once it is established as a sound hadith with an Isnad, called a chain from person to person, then it is Isnad. They call this the “chain of Isnad” where Muhammad told this person, who told this person that he said this or he did that. Once that is declared authentic, then that hadith can serve as a source of revelation along with the Qur’an. With both Sunni and Shiite communities, the Qur’an and the Hadith form the basis of revelation.

II. Sharia Structure in Sunni and Shia.

A. Sunni – Ijma

In addition to the Qur’an and hadith, the Sunni community had a concept known as “ijma,” that is, consensus. This is where the community as a whole can reach a new consensus on something that could not have possibly been addressed by Muhammad. This is based on a statement by Muhammad himself – it is in a hadith – which says Muhammad apparently said, “My community shall be in agreement.” The point being that if the community agrees on something, then that could be a source of guidance. If you followed yourself alone in the Muslim community, trying to abrogate this or that, then chances are, it cannot be of God. The idea is that if a Muslim community can agree together, then it is known as an “ijma” or consensus.

In the Sunni tradition, the Qur’an, the hadith and the ijma are all three considered to be sources of revelation. An ijma is actually a process. A Muslim cleric will make an ijma ruling and say, “I think this could be received as a consensus in the community.” It is examined by other Muslim leaders and if it is embraced by a vast majority of Muslims, it can reach the level of ijma.

B. Shia – Imam

The Shiite community does not have the idea of ijma because of their doctrine of the Imam. Because the doctrine of the imam is so important, the imam can act essentially independently of any kind of consensus from the Shiite community. Therefore, among the Shiites, the three components would be the Qur’an, the hadith and the imam because these imams can speak authoritatively and actually carry the mantle of Muhammad.

These three components: For the Sunni, it is the Qur’an, the hadith and the ijma. For the Shiites, it is the Qur’an, hadith and statements made by the imams, the seven or 12, depending on tradition.

Those three components in each of the positions together is the basis from which the sharia law is derived. You hear a lot in the news these days about the sharia law. The sharia law is simply the legal system by which Muslims govern their communities. The sharia law is derived from these three sources and is used in order to give direction and guidance to the Muslim community.

That is a brief summary of the whole concept of sharia law and how sharia law is made of these three sources of revelation: The Qur’an, the hadith and either ijma or the imam.

C. Lesser Components of Sharia

In addition to the revelation, there are other factors that play into sharia, just as they do in any law court in the West. For example, judges make rulings. They can issue legal rulings where they make a position on a certain legal perspective. This is called a “fatwa.” You have often heard about, for example, the Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, who wrote his controversial book, “The Satanic Verses.” This was a legal decision that was made; and because the Ayatollah Khomeini issued it, it carried virtual revelation because he was thought to be an imam by some. But even if he had not been an imam, the legal jurists in the Shiite community had issued a fatwa which said that, “Based on our understanding of how to deal with infidels, it is entirely appropriate to issue a statement saying that if any true Muslim finds Salman Rushdie, then you have the authority to put him to death.” That of course created a huge stir in the Western world because most had never heard of a fatwa; but these are legal rulings that arise out of sharia law.

You have the Qur’an, hadith and the ijma that are there. They have been codified and there are all kinds of legal material. Judges will make rulings based on it and one of these is a fatwa. The other is a thing called Qiya, which means “analogy.” They will say, “The courts ruled about ‘X’; in principle, it is similar to this new situation of ‘Y’. So, because they ruled ‘X,’ we are going to rule the same in that situation as in this situation.” Some of those schools of laws, as we looked at earlier, have more emphasis on qiya than others. This gives you some feel for how it actually works itself out in the modern-day Muslim community.